Subject: ATS: "A Stitch In Time" Book 2 by Yahtzee and Rheanna (R) Date: Tuesday, February 04, 2003 9:36 PM
The characters herein are the property of Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt, Mutant Enemy, Fox, the WB and a whole assortment of others. They are used without permission, intent of infringement or expectation of profit. This story is the second part of "A Stitch in Time," and therefore a sequel to/continuation of "The Tenth of Never;" you really need to have read the first story to understand what's happening in this one.
Feedback of any constructive sort is gladly welcomed at Yahtzee63@aol.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. (Character-, relationship-, show- or season-bashing is not. Err on the side of caution. Say whatever you like about the story, but when it comes to the show, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. These measures have been adopted because Yahtzee is, by her own admission, feral.)
This episode takes place shortly after the ATS third-season episode "Double or Nothing" and contains spoilers through that point. All thanks to Corinna and everyone at the Angel Fanfic Workshop for their betaing and encouragement.
(**Rheanna has met her and can personally attest to this.)
A STITCH IN TIME
Book Two: The Eleventh Hour
by Yahtzee and Rheanna
"This isn't right."
Angel could hear his own words echo hollowly in the great hall of the museum. He could hear the quick, shallow breathing of Cordelia, Fred and Gunn, all standing appalled by his side. Beyond the museum's walls, he could still hear the screams.
"Boy howdy, it's not right!" Cordelia pressed her palms against the door, as though she were willing the outside to change into the world they'd left. "Oh, my God, what happened? Where are we? I mean -- when are we?"
"We must have overshot," Gunn said. His voice was toneless, dead with shock. "We've landed in the middle of World War III."
"We didn't change any of the settings on the time machine," Fred said. She was twisting her hair nervously, bouncing slightly on her heels. "Logically, it should have taken us back to when we left. Unless -- unless this is another dimension. A hell dimension, like that place where --" She looked at Angel and stopped.
Quartoth, Angel thought, and for an instant felt an insane kind of hope. He'd welcome a return to hell, if there was any chance he could find his son there. But even that flickering dream was swiftly crushed when he realized he'd recognized the one of the structures outside. "No. This isn't another dimension."
"Angel, I'm sorry, but that is NOT Los Angeles," Cordelia said.
"Not our neighborhood," Gunn said. "Compton, maybe."
"No," Angel said. "It's Rome."
By way of demonstration, he opened the door again. For a few moments, they all stared at the ruined city. In some places fires raged in the hollow shells of buildings, while in others flames dripped from low, sulfurous clouds. Everywhere he looked, Angel saw a devastation so total nothing had escaped it. But the city, although dead, wasn't deserted. The debris teemed with creatures that slithered and scuttled, pouncing on each other with cannibalistic glee. In the streets and on the corners lay the bodies of those who had tried to flee and failed. In the far distance was the unmistakable silhouette of the Colosseum.
Angel shut the door again. Fred said weakly, "Now, see, I was wondering when they built a football stadium downtown."
Cordelia whispered, "Angel -- we screwed it up." Her face was pale as she stepped closer to him. "Didn't we? When we were in the past, we did something wrong and -- and we -- oh, God. We did this."
"That servant girl!" Gunn's eyes were wide. "The one I kept from going into y'all's vamp hideout. She must've been supposed to die. Instead, I saved her, so she could live and give birth to the Antichrist."
"We don't know that," Fred said. She was trembling now, and her voice was slightly higher-pitched as she continued, "The ripple effect means that it could have been anything we did that was different to what was supposed to happen -- some tiny change we caused had unforeseen effects, which in turn had unforeseen effects, growing more and more cataclysmic as time went on, eventually rendering the reality we once knew null and void --" Suddenly she slapped herself across the face. As Angel and the others stared at her, Fred took a deep breath and said, "It could have been anything. I doubt we could ever figure out what we did wrong."
Angel considered what she'd said for a moment, then felt himself tense as the implications sank in. "If we don't know what we did wrong -- then we can't return to the past and fix it."
Fred nodded slowly. "We might even make it worse."
"Worse?" Cordelia gestured in the general direction of the door, and by extension, at the wrecked world beyond it. "How, exactly, could it get worse?"
"Nuclear fallout," Gunn said. "That's just off the top of my head, but I'm sure there's more where that came from."
"We still have to try," Angel said.
"Yeah, I know," Fred said. "I'm just saying -- we can't go back blind. First we have to find out what happened here and what led up to it. That's our only hope of undoing this."
Cordelia tried to smile. "So, I guess that's ixnay on just going back to 1960 to discover the Beatles."
It wasn't much of a joke, but Angel was grateful for it all the same. He quickly squeezed Cordelia's hand, borrowing courage as much as giving it. "All right. We have to figure out what happened. We might as well start here."
"Right," Fred said, brightening marginally. "Museums are usually about history, after all."
Angel breathed in deeply and concentrated, searching for the scent of smoke in the air. After a moment, he said, "This building's not on fire yet. We've got a little while, I think."
"This building is stone, right?" Cordelia said. "Looks like it, mostly. I mean, sure, lots of flammable stuff on the inside, but those stone walls ought to buy us some time."
Angel thought about what she'd said and felt his body tensing up yet again. "You're right. Trouble is, you're not going to be the only one to think of it."
"Meaning --" Cordelia's jaw dropped. "Something else could try and get in."
Fred hurriedly said, "Why don't we see if this museum has a weapons and armaments section?"
A rack of pamphlets and museum guides yielded a version in English, which informed them that they'd left the time machine in a sculpture hall ("I wasn't the only one who thought it was a statue," Cordelia said pointedly). Better yet, the guide pointed the way to an extensive exhibit of medieval weaponry, both European and Asian. They made their way there quickly, and Angel smashed through the cases without any thought to the alarm system. He doubted anyone remained to hear it.
He said nothing, and his friends said little. Fred was too busy studying the various museum guides for clues about the time they'd found and the history they'd changed; he, Gunn and Cordelia were testing their weapons. Cordelia seemed briefly interested in a scimitar, but Angel was relieved to see her choose a classic sword. No time for experimenting, he thought, casting an appraising glance at a mace. We need to carry what we're best at, no more.
Angel found he needed to concentrate on only the most immediate, pragmatic aspects of their situation. Sharpen Cordelia's sword. Check the grip on Gunn's axe. Lead everyone back toward the time machine; best to figure out their next move while simultaneously protecting their means of transport.
If he let himself think of anything else at all, then Angel found himself thinking about the history that hadn't happened in this world. He still didn't know exactly when they were or what had changed, but he knew this much -- thousands, maybe millions, of people had suffered horribly because they'd made a mistake. The further damage they'd wrought, they might not ever know.
And worst of all -- Angel was pretty sure that in this reality, Connor had never been born.
As they made their way through the darkened museum, headed toward the sculpture hall, Cordelia said, "That pamphlet telling you anything yet, Fred?"
Fred shook her head. "So far, it doesn't look like anything is different. I mean, this museum has a lot of antiquities -- things we wouldn't have changed anyway -- but they have some modern things too. Warhol still painted some soup cans. Picasso still had a blue period."
Gunn said, "Yeah, I'd hate to think we stopped some paintings from getting made on our way to destroying the world."
"Charles, it's as good a way as any to know a lot of things were still the same, at least until very recently."
"Then what happened?" Cordelia asked, directing the question at no one and everyone. "We changed God-knows-what in 1898, the whole twentieth century happened just fine and then -- kablooey! It all goes wrong a century later? It just doesn't tie up."
Angel stopped walking. The others froze immediately; when he half-turned around, they were staring back at him. Slowly, Angel lifted his finger to his mouth, warning them to silence. Fred clutched the pamphlet to her chest, and Cordelia adjusted her grip on her sword, bringing it to the ready.
The footsteps were ordinary -- human weight, regular walking speed, no special caution about noise. How many people? Angel thought. Maybe four --no, five. He held out his hand and unfolded his fingers deliberately, silently counting them off for the others.
Cordelia nodded. Gunn mouthed the word, "Where?"
Angel listened to them for another few moments. They were one level up, a few feet over -- he concentrated, then murmured, "Sculpture hall."
"The time machine!" Fred whispered.
Angel ran toward the hall, moving as quickly and quietly as he could, leaving his friends falling behind. That didn't matter. If someone or something --maybe the thing that was more directly responsible for the mayhem outside --was trying to get the time machine, then Angel had to stop them immediately or die trying.
He leapt up the stairs to the next level, where he could hear their voices --men, mostly, but one woman -- and charged through the doors. Amid the statues, Angel could see five people standing there. They looked like ordinary people in ordinary clothes, yet each was armed with a sword. A few of the intruders were in the shadows, but on the face of the man closest to him, Angel saw shock, recognition and disgust. "Angelus," he said, in a cool, clipped English accent. "We ought to have known."
"Known what?" Angel said, stalling for time. He was pretty sure he could defeat five humans, but with the stakes so high, "pretty sure" wasn't good enough. The others were on their way to improve the odds. "My name?"
"The entire world knows your name now," said the woman, stepping forward. She was sick with fear, so acute Angel could smell its intoxicating fragrance wafting from across the room. Yet she stood her ground. "As you intended they should."
The full meaning of her words hit Angel hard, making him weak, almost nauseated, in an instant. He rasped, "You mean -- the carnage outside --what's happening -- I did that."
"You've come here to brag?" said another of the men. He was the tallest, and probably the strongest of the group. There was a militaristic stiffness to his bearing. "No. We know what you're here for."
"The same thing you're here for!" Cordelia came striding through the door, Gunn and Fred close behind. Angel didn't turn to face them, but he could see the surprise on the English people's faces as, one by one, his friends flanked him. Cordelia continued, "You want to hijack our time machine? It's so not happening. Sorry about the sucky week you guys are having, but I'm afraid you're stuck with it."
"Until we change it!" Fred added helpfully.
Gunn brought his axe into position. "Until then, we suggest you step outside. Make yourselves comfortable in the rest of the museum. I understand there's a snack bar."
The fourth of the invaders, almost the furthest back, came forward into the dim emergency lighting. He was older than the others, with white hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. "We know what's at stake here," he began. "So do you. That's why you know we won't be stepping aside."
"They're human," whispered the woman to the white-haired man. "Basil, the three with Angelus -- they're not vampires. They're human beings."
The white-haired man hesitated for a moment, but then he stepped closer to Angel. "It doesn't matter what they are," he said. "It only matters what they want to do."
"How did they know about the time machine?" said the tall man. "That is among our most guarded secrets --"
"Hey, we're not DEAF," Cordelia said. "If you guys want a battle, you can have one." Her bravado was half bluster, Angel knew; Cordelia had become a fighter in the past year, but she wasn't yet hardened enough to easily face the prospect of hurting or killing human beings. "But we don't want to hurt you."
They all stared. Then they all started to laugh -- harsh, bitter laughter that Angel could tell unnerved the others. To Angel, the sound of it was like razor cuts; he knew the intruders were laughing because of the pure absurdity of the idea that Angelus didn't want to hurt anyone.
The gypsies cursed me, Angel thought. I remember it, and this time, I saw it, too. It happened. We stopped Dru. Cordy staked Dru. What went wrong?
As the intruders stopped laughing, the fifth and final member of the group stepped from the very back of the room into the light. "On behalf of the Council of Watchers," he said, "we decline your demand for surrender."
Angel stared at him, knew his friends were doing the same. As one, they each whispered, "Wesley?"
Wesley Wyndham-Pryce -- suit-clad, sword-wielding and somehow looking younger than Angel remembered -- stared back at them in shock, his earlier cool forgotten. "I beg your pardon?" he said, clearly astonished.
The other Watchers were staring at Wesley, who looked both bewildered and desperate to deny knowing Angelus or anyone who would consort with him.
Cordelia choked out, "Angel, they're people -- it's Wesley -- "
"They're not real," Angel said. He could only see Wesley, his white-linen suit seeming to glow in the dark. He looked like a boy. He looked the way he had the day Angel had offered him a job. "None of this is real. Tomorrow it won't exist. This reality doesn't matter." The sword was heavy in his hand, and he could anticipate the power of his blows. Angel's human mind, confused and overwhelmed, suddenly seemed to shut down; his vampiric mind took over, sizing up the situation and seizing the instant. "Nothing we do here matters."
Angel slammed the broad side of his sword into the head of the white-haired Watcher closest to him. The man fell, and the female Watcher screamed. Cordelia silenced her by leaping forward and punching her hard across the jaw.
"Take them!" yelled the tall man.
Angel could see the battle going on around him -- he knew that Basil was getting up from the floor, that Gunn was tackling another of the men, that Cordelia was wrestling with still another in earnest. He could smell the blood trickling from the woman's mouth, staining Fred's hand as she punched the female Watcher back down.
But only one figure in the room mattered. His prey.
Wesley was fumbling with a crossbow, trying to get it loaded. The Wesley that Angel remembered was good with a crossbow, but he'd only become so after he'd begun working with them in L.A. He'd needed so little practice to become good -- practice he hadn't gotten with the Watchers -- practice he didn't have in this reality.
Nothing we do here matters, Angel thought. His face shifted, and his fangs slid into his mouth, sharp and strong and familiar. He knocked one of the other Watchers into a Renaissance bronze, saw the man slump down, semiconscious. We can do anything here. Anything at all.
"Stop him!" It was Basil's voice. Angel whirled around, swinging his sword toward Basil's head with all his might. Something made him turn his wrist, made him use the broad side once again. Angel could do whatever he wanted. He didn't want to kill at random. That didn't mean he didn't want to kill.
Basil fell. The female Watcher moaned as she toppled to her knees. One of the men fell on the floor in front of Gunn, stunned or dead or unconscious. Wesley had the crossbow ready. He pointed it at Angel and fired --
("Sleep tight," Angel had said, and he kissed his son's face. Connor was cradled in Wesley's arms. It tore Angel's heart to think of Connor being gone for one whole night.)
Angel turned to the side, preternaturally fast, and the arrow whooshed by him to thud into the far wall. He leapt forward, relishing in the panic on Wesley's face as he scrambled to reload. Angel's sword swung upwards, its tip catching the crossbow and sending it flying.
"Angel!" Cordelia's voice. Not afraid. Not needing help. He could ignore it. Angel tackled Wesley; he felt the human's chest buckle, his balance shifting and falling. They tumbled to the ground, hard marble beneath them. Angel caught a glimpse of Wesley's ashen face and sent his fist smashing into it.
"Angel!" Not just Cordy now. Fred too. And Gunn. Still not important.
Wesley put his hands up, less in an attempt to attack than in a futile attempt to shield himself from the blows. Angel punched him, again and again and again, and every time his fist made contact with flesh, he said his son's name. Out loud, he realized, hearing the gasped words more consciously than he spoke them: "Connor -- Connor -- Connor --"
"Angel, please! Please stop! Just look at me, please -- Angel --" Cordelia was crying. Why was she crying? The danger was past. The other Watchers were all unconscious; Angel could tell without even looking.
Wesley shoved himself away from Angel, gaining no more than a few inches of space. Angel grabbed the sword he'd dropped and swung it toward Wesley's neck --
The point of the sword was at Wesley's throat. Wesley lay there, bleeding and terrified and helpless. The cries of the others seemed to be very far away. Nothing he did here mattered.
Wesley's face looked so young. The white-linen suit was just like the one Wesley had been wearing when Angel offered him a job.
Angel dropped the sword. He stared down at Wesley, who stared up at him.
"Why did you do it?" Angel said, knowing this Wesley couldn't answer. "Why couldn't you just tell me? I would have listened to you." His throat grew thick, but Angel kept on, the words spilling out of him, slurred by his fangs. "I trusted you. I trusted you more than you trusted me."
"Angel." Cordelia's voice was closer now, and when her hands touched his shoulder, the world shifted again. Angel felt his forehead smooth, and his fangs retracted. The haze of killer instinct faded from him, leaving only the smell of blood.
Wesley shook, apparently in a shock that was half terror and half relief. Angel said again, "I trusted you." He let his head fall backwards so that he could see Cordelia's face; she was looking at him through her own tears. "If he had told me --"
"I know," she whispered. "Come on. Let's step back for a minute, okay? We can -- we can check out the paintings in the hallway, huh?"
Gunn and Fred walked up, each with weapons at the ready. Angel knew they would watch Wesley. He got to his feet, but his body seemed too heavy for his muscles to support. He slumped against Cordelia, who slid her arm around his waist. "We'll be right back," she whispered. Fred nodded.
Wesley took a deep breath. "BytheauthorityoftheCouncilofWatchersIcommandyou --"
"Shut UP," Gunn said, poking his sword in Wesley's general vicinity. Wesley shut up.
Angel let Cordelia walk him to the hallway, but once the door swung shut behind them, he slid back onto the ground. Cordelia didn't slide with him, but she stroked his hair, guided him until he let his head rest against the side of her leg. "You stopped," she said quietly. "You didn't have to stop, and you did."
"I would have listened to him," Angel said. "If he had told me."
"It's all right," Cordelia said. "It's over. It's all over."
Angel thought of Connor, drowsy and small, cradled in Wesley's arms as they went out the door. "It's all over," he echoed.
"Are you gonna be okay?"
"Yeah," he said. He wrapped his arms around Cordelia's legs, not hugging her tightly, just leaning against her. "Give me a couple of minutes."
Cordelia laughed weakly, her voice hoarse from unshed tears. "Angel, for once it's true -- we have all the time in the world."
According to Cordelia's watch, the date was April 26, 2002, and the time was just after seven in the evening. She stared at the numbers, trying to make them mean something, but no matter how hard she tried, the winking display was irrelevant nonsense. She took the watch off and put it in her pocket.
The sound of footsteps approaching made her look up. Gunn and Fred were returning, their shoes echoing noisily on the stone floor. "All done?" she asked.
Gunn held up a large bunch of iron keys, and jangled them. "Locked 'em up separately in the Egyptian rooms. But it's gonna be a while before they start hollerin' to get out -- the other four are still out cold. They're sleeping like babies --"
He broke off, and visibly winced as he realized what he'd said. Cordelia cast an anxious glance in Angel's direction -- in the wake of their arrival in this apocalyptic future and the encounter with Wesley, her concern about his emotional state had ratcheted back up to DefCon Four. But Angel didn't seem to have heard; he was sitting by the small fire they'd started using Gunn's lighter and a collection of guidebooks, watching the fire's smoke twirl up to the high roof. He seemed calm, at least for the moment, and Cordelia was grateful for that much. The fire cast the shadows of both the time machine and Angel on to the wall, elongating and distorting them into monstrous shapes.
Suddenly, a noise that was half-howl and half-shriek pierced the silence. Cordelia didn't recognize it, but she was pretty sure it wasn't the kind of sound made by a fluffy, gentle-natured creature that just wanted to be friends.
Angel looked up. "That came from outside. They're not in the building yet."
"Ya had to go and finish with 'yet'," Gunn muttered.
"We're not going to be safe here for much longer," Fred said. "We have to figure out what's going on." She looked over at the obelisk in the far corner. "All of us."
"If you think -- for one instant -- that I would ever help you, you are mistaken," Wesley gasped, his voice thickened by his broken nose. His hands were tied around the back of the obelisk with Gunn's belt, immobilizing him. It also prevented him from wiping away the blood from a deep gash on his forehead, which was hardening in a sticky trail on his cheek.
The last time Cordelia had seen Wesley this badly beaten up had been after Faith had tortured him. Then, she'd wanted to scratch Faith's eyes out, to show her what happened to people who messed with Cordelia Chase's friends. But Angel had done this. Angel's grief and rage were written on Wesley's face, in blood and bruises, and was Wesley still her friend?
"My name is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce," he said. "I am here in the service of the Council of Watchers and the greater good. And that's all you're getting out of me."
Angel began, "We're not trying to --" He seemed to catch himself, and broke off abruptly. "Someone else had better talk to him." He got up and walked to the other end of the hall, his back to Wesley.
Cordelia realized instantly that, as untrustworthy as she and the others might appear in Wesley's eyes right now, they were probably going to stand a better chance of dealing with him than the Scourge of Europe, a.k.a. the guy who had just broken Wesley's nose. She glanced back at Wesley; he was trying to mask his fear, and with some success. Only someone who knew him as well as Cordelia did could have guessed at the depth of terror he was trying to hide. She walked over to the obelisk where Wesley was tied up. "We're not going to kill you."
Wesley looked -- justifiably, Cordelia had to admit -- skeptical. "Aha. And I suppose you've given my colleagues tea and crumpets and sent them on their merry way."
God, she'd forgotten how annoying he could be when he chose. "They're all tied up in the next room -- which is a pretty good deal for them, since it's a LOT safer in here than outside," Cordelia told him, putting her hands on her hips.
"You'll also notice that we haven't killed you yet, which is kind of a point in our favor," Fred said from where she stood beside Gunn. "Also, remember how we were yelling for Angel to stop hitting you? That's all non-murdery, right?" Cordelia shot her a look, and she shrugged apologetically. "Just tryin' to help. I'll hush up now."
Wesley tried to raise an eyebrow, before pain from his swollen, battered face prevented him. "You've undoubtedly kept me alive only so that I could --enjoy the pleasure of Angelus' company." At the other end of the hall, Angel glanced over his shoulder slightly, not quite enough for Cordelia to read the look in his eyes. Wesley looked at Cordelia curiously, then Fred and Gunn in turn. "None of you are vampires. What kind of deal have you made with him?"
"Things ain't the way they look to you," Gunn said. "And I know this is gonna sound crazy, but we're trying to fix whatever went wrong here."
The look on Wesley's bruised and swelling face in response to that was easy to read. He was clearly incredulous. "FIX it? Angelus -- trying to FIX this?"
"This isn't Angelus!" Cordelia said, increasingly disconcerted by Wesley's presence and the unnerving sounds from outside. "Wesley, that time machine --we came out of it. We know how it works because we used it. We're from --" She hesitated, unwilling to tell Wesley the whole story at once, "-- another time. A time when Angel has a soul."
"A soul?" Wesley repeated. Cordelia nodded and folded her arms across her chest. That would change things, make Wesley understand this was different.
Then Wesley started to laugh.
The sound of it echoed off the marble floors, the high ceilings, the statues that framed them. It wasn't a cruel sound; he wasn't mocking them. Cordelia almost wished he was. Wesley was laughing from sheer surprise and disbelief. She glanced over to see that the others were equally unsettled by his reaction. Gunn muttered, "I'm getting the feeling this is gonna be a hard sell."
"That's rich," Wesley said at last. "And, I must hand it to you, an ingenious attempt. You've obviously got sources deep within the Council. The level of betrayal --" He trailed off for a moment, then regained himself. "Honestly. You're all standing there in blue jeans and T-shirts, using modern slang, as American as Mickey Mouse. Did you really believe I'd think you'd come forward in time from 19th-century Romania?"
Cordelia's mouth fell open. "How did you know that?" Wesley looked away, unwilling to continue the conversation and obviously regretting his indiscretion. "How could you possibly know that?"
At the other end of the hall, Angel turned around and came back to join them, all reticence to speak to Wesley overcome by something more urgent. "I didn't have a soul in 19th-century Romania," he said as he came to stand beside Cordelia. "Not until the end --"
"Wait a second," Fred said. "What Wesley's saying is, in this reality, there was a time when Angel had a soul, but -- but he doesn't anymore, and hasn't for a while. Not since Romania? Wesley?" He shifted slightly; Cordelia realized that he looked uncomfortable, even aside from all the swelling and bleeding. The angle of his arms had to hurt, at least a little.
She went to the obelisk and loosened the belt the tiniest fraction. Wesley lunged forward, but the bonds didn't break; he could, however, stand a little more upright. As she'd hoped, the gesture got Wesley to make eye contact with her as she came around. "Just tell us about Angel having a soul," Cordelia said. "And how he lost it. That's all we want to know. That can't do any harm, can it? The world's ending. It's not like it's going to get any worse than that."
For a moment, Wesley hesitated, but then he said, "There's not much more to know. What your source told you is really all the information there is. Watcher legend has it that, in late 19th-century Romania, Angelus murdered a young gypsy girl. As revenge, the gypsies cursed him with a soul, so that he might know the horrors he had wrought. But Darla -- and don't pretend you don't know who she is --"
Wish I didn't, Cordelia thought.
"Darla somehow forced the gypsies to remove the curse and restore him to his former amorality. They did so -- and were promptly slaughtered for their pains." Wesley was clearly exhausted and, quite possibly, concussed; he leaned his head back against the obelisk. He glared unevenly at Angel, who stared back in mute horror. "The Watchers' records said that Angelus' memories of his conscience only spurred him to greater viciousness and brutality afterward. He began hunting down family members of his past victims. He'd apologize -- and then kill them, too."
"Darla did try to reverse the curse," Angel said. He closed his eyes for a moment, deep in thought. "Dammit, what did she say?"
"Angel?" Gunn said. "You know what he's talking about?
"My memory right at first -- right after the curse -- it's confused," Angel said. He began pacing, nervous energy evident in every step he took, every line of his body. "For a long time after it happened -- years -- I was barely sane. But once, when I was with her in China, Darla told me something... she told me she found the one who performed the curse. She was going to threaten to kill his family unless he reversed it."
"True love," Gunn noted dryly. "Why didn't it work?"
"Spike missed the 'threaten' part," Angel said. "He ate them."
"Something we did must have changed that," Fred said. "We have to think of everything we did in 1898 that could have changed that."
There was a silence as they all considered this. Cordelia guessed the others were thinking the same thing she was -- no matter how hard they had tried not to interfere with the past, once you started making a list, it was clear they'd changed a lot of things. She glanced over at Wesley to see how he was taking it, but he'd either passed out or gotten close to it.
"We went to the gypsies," Angel said at last. "They knew we were from the future."
"We talked to those English people on the road," Gunn added.
"I staked Drusilla," Cordy said.
"No, that one doesn't count," Fred said. "You staked our Drusilla, the one from the present."
Angel stopped pacing, froze and turned around. He stared at Fred, then Cordelia. "How do we know?"
Cordy looked at him. "Know what?"
"How do we know that the Drusilla you staked was the one from 2002?"
"Well --" Cordelia frowned. "She was wearing the same dress she had when we found her in the museum in L.A. You know, the red floaty one from Saks, with the layer hem and the little straps --"
Angel held up a hand, cutting Cordelia off in mid-flow. "But are you SURE it was the Dru from our time?"
"Of COURSE I'm sure," Cordelia said tartly. But, almost immediately, doubt crept into her mind. "I told you, she had on the dress from before, and it's not like they could have swapped dresses -- I mean, I guess they could have, but we don't know that." Then she hesitated. "And -- and -- well, she didn't recognize me. But that's hardly weird by Drusilla standards, right? It's not like we've spent a lot of quality time together, so she might not know my name --"
"She knows your name," Angel said. "Back in Sunnydale, when Xander did that spell, the one that made all the women in town fall for him --"
Oh, God, Cordelia thought. Xander's mojo spell, the one that made Willow run after us with an axe and Buffy's mom come on to him. It seemed like a memory from another life.
"-- Drusilla was infatuated with him, and she was furious at you for being the one he wanted." Angel hesitated. "I, uh, may have told her your name. And where you lived. And when cheerleader practice let out."
"Angel!" Cordelia smacked him hard on the arm. "You could have gotten me killed!"
"That was the idea." Angel looked thoroughly miserable. "Cordy, I'm sorry. Believe me, I've thought about it, and it makes me --" He stopped, looked away and, after a second, continued, "Her anger wore off with the spell. But Drusilla knew who you were. She wouldn't forget."
Fred said urgently, "Was there something, anything else she said that would identify her as our Dru? Or as not-our Dru? Anything at all?"
"She was really confused, no surprise there, and she didn't seem to realize I would know what she was or how to stop her..." Cordelia trailed off and swallowed. "She didn't know me. She asked me who I was. Uh, guys? I think I might have staked the wrong Dru."
Gunn swore under his breath. Then he said, "We left her there. We thought we'd won, so we came back home and left 2002 Dru in 1898."
It was all so obvious, now, that Cordelia couldn't believe they hadn't worked it out sooner. Angel said, "Drusilla never intended to stop the original curse. Her plan was to change what happened afterward. To make sure it was reversed. That was just as good for her purposes, and easier for her to pull off, because she knew exactly what had gone wrong. And we just came home and let her do it."
They remained silent for a few moments, taking that in. Gunn raised his hand like a student asking a difficult question in class. "Not to look inside the dark cloud and find an even darker lining, but -- are we sure that's all that changed?"
Cordelia wheeled around and smacked Wesley gently on the cheek with her palm. "Wakey-wakey, Wes. We gotta talk."
He half-opened his eyes and looked woozily at her. "Ah. You're not all dead yet. Shame."
Cordelia ignored that. "Would you mind clarifying, for those of us just tuning in, just how it is Angelus destroyed the world?"
"Not Angelus," Wesley said. He was slurring his words a little. "Not technically, I mean. The majority of the murdering and incineration is the work of the Judge. But Angelus helped Drusilla and Spike put the damned thing together, and he's the only one pure enough in his evil to command the Judge's allegiance." He laughed brokenly. "But why do you ask me things you already know?"
"The Judge," Cordelia's thoughts were spinning now. "Angel, that was that loser from the mall that time, wasn't it? The one Buffy took out with a rocket-launcher?"
Wesley's jaw dropped. "A rocket-launcher! Of COURSE! Not forged by the hand of man --"
Angel nodded. "That's the one. And what we saw outside -- he could do that. But the clues to finding the pieces of the Judge were discovered years ago --wait. Wesley, what year is this?"
Cordelia could see Wesley's hesitation, his reluctance to answer Angelus. But perhaps the sheer triviality of the question made him shrug and say, "It's 1998, of course."
"This is four years ago!" Cordelia said, indignantly. "Fred, I thought we were going to go back to where we came from! Or when!"
"We should have," Fred said. "I don't know exactly how the time machine works, but it doesn't make any sense for it to choose a new exit date at random --"
"No," Angel said suddenly. "Not at random." The others all looked at him. He said, "Don't you see? It brought us as far forward as it could. It couldn't go any farther than this."
Fred put her hand to her mouth, then nodded. "Because -- 1998 is where this reality ends."
Wesley's left eyelid -- the one that wasn't swollen out of recognition -- was fluttering open and closed. Cordelia shook him back to wakefulness. "Why didn't you use the time machine sooner? Why'd you let it go this far?"
"Too risky," Wesley mumbled. "Last resort. We knew about it for a long time... let it stay hidden, just another museum piece... For the best. Too tempting, too easy to change things..."
The killer part, Cordelia thought bleakly, was that he was right. Between Drusilla's interference and theirs, history had somehow been well and truly screwed.
"What were you going to do in the past?"
"The simplest, most obvious thing... We were going back to drive a stake through Angelus' heart. Stop him... before he had a chance to awaken the Judge to murder the world. But you've put paid to that, and I've failed. I've failed again." He looked up at Cordelia, and she saw a peculiar, desperate pleading in his face. "Kill him. If you have any shred of decency, of humanity, kill him. If the world can't be saved, at least let it be avenged."
His one open eye stared up at her, a bloodshot rim of white visible all around it. Cordelia could see her revulsion reflected in the dark circle of the pupil. Yet more vengeance.
Then Wesley's eye fluttered shut, and his head slumped sideways on to his shoulder.
Another memory popped into her head, one that was so vivid and real it made her eyes prick with tears. She remembered eating breakfast with Angel and Wesley, the three of them sitting around the table in the kitchen of Angel's apartment underneath the old office. Angel had made eggs, and Wesley had devoured them as if he hadn't had a proper meal in days. Cordelia had teased Wesley that someone so scrawny shouldn't be able to eat so much, and Angel had smiled for the first time since Doyle had died, and Cordelia had thought that maybe everything was going to work out okay, after all.
She looked again at the marks of fury Angel's fists had left on this Wesley's face, and she tried to feel some measure of sympathy for him. But all she could think of was Connor, tiny and helpless and gone for good.
This isn't the only future that got wrecked, she thought.
From somewhere else in the museum, there was a crash, followed by a pounding, drumming sound that swiftly became deafeningly loud. "They're in the building," Angel said.
Cordelia leapt up. "What are? No, wait, on second thoughts, I really don't want to know."
"The time machine," Angel said. They ran to it, the pounding, screeching sounds growing closer all the time. Beneath her feet, Cordelia could feel the ground shaking, as if something massive were trying to push its way up from below. "Fred, can you take us back to 1898? Right after we left?"
"I think so --"
At that moment, the museum floor split open, a jagged crack splitting the exhibition hall in two. Gunn and Fred were on one side, with the time machine; Cordelia and Angel were on the other. From deep below, the crevasse glowed red-hot, and Gunn and Fred appeared to waver through the heat-haze.
Angel looked at the widening gap, then at Cordelia. "We have to jump."
"I was SO hoping you weren't gonna say that," Cordelia said. Angel's face looked strange, and for a second she thought it was purely the effect of the ghastly red glow coming from the crevasse. Then she realized it was something else. He's scared, she thought. He's scared we're not gonna make it.
Angel took her hand, and together they backed up as far as they could. As they ran toward the gaping crack, Cordelia could feel the floor growing hotter with every step until, as she put her foot down at the edge of the chasm, she felt the soles of her shoes squelch slightly as they melted. She gripped Angel's hand as tightly as she could -- and they jumped.
For an instant, they were suspended in a blast of heat so intense it felt as if the air itself were on fire. Cordelia looked down and saw beneath them a shaft that seemed to sink endlessly, plunging through layers of red and white heat to a source that was blacker than any night. And she saw that the walls of the shaft were crawling with hordes of screaming, grasping demons, every one of them climbing toward the world above, ready to claim it as their own.
Then she landed on the far side of the chasm, losing her balance and tumbling awkwardly. Hands grabbed her and hauled her to safety. When she opened her eyes, she saw Gunn. "Angel --"
"It's okay. You made it. You both made it."
Gunn twisted Cordelia's head to one side. "It's okay. Look. You never even let go of each other."
Cordelia looked and saw her hand was still wrapped around Angel's. He was lying beside her, smiling unevenly. She tried to grin back. "I think we just won the Olympic gold for Hellmouth Leaping," she said hoarsely.
Fred was looking past all of them, to the silhouette of Wesley's body tied, unconscious and helpless, to the obelisk as the demons swarmed nearer. "You know what you're doing, leaving him there," she said, blinking hard. "You're killing him."
"No, I'm not," Angel said. Some of the shadow that had haunted his eyes since his attack on Wesley seemed to fall away from him. "I'm saving him."
He pulled the others to the time machine, leaving the dying world to burn behind them.
The servant girl had a black eye, Darla noticed. It was a minor detail, of no consequence, certainly not compared with what the girl was saying. "Yes, Lord Dalton's been very concerned. He very much wishes to see you."
Darla hesitated on the step. Not enough. "Are we invited in, then?" Despite her raging fury and grief, she forced herself to simper convincingly. "I -- I never thought to be invited in by a member of the nobility." Behind her, Spike gave a short cough intended to signal both his amusement and irritation at her game.
"Certainly, ma'am," the servant girl said. "You're very welcome to Lord Dalton's home."
She extended her arm and smiled encouragingly, no doubt expecting Darla and her companions to remain timid and unsure. Darla had no more patience for play-acting and swept inside, not even bothering to look back at Spike and Dru.
Play-acting, she thought, with a pang of something that might have been heartache in a mortal woman. If you hadn't had such a weakness for theatre, my darling boy, then you wouldn't be --
Darla closed her eyes tightly for a moment. She couldn't think of it now. First things first.
She pushed the manservant aside and threw open the doors. Seated at a small reading table was a man whose slight stature, bald head and tiny, wire-rimmed glasses made him look more like an academic than a nobleman. His dressing gown was silk -- Darla could always tell -- and so perfectly pleated and tucked that he might have been lounging about in the afternoon, rather than roused from his bed in the hours before dawn. He rose to his feet instantly, manners and practice overcoming his surprise. "Madam! I had expected you to be announced --"
"What did you do to my husband?" She used the title as a tactic; it would give her rights in this foolish man's eyes, make him speak. Yet the feel of the word on her tongue made her shiver for no reason she could name.
"You are -- Mr. Angelus' wife? I had no idea --" Lord Dalton looked embarrassed, then covered for his friend's lapse. "He was, of course, a very private man. I should not have presumed that he would introduce me to his family so soon."
"I know his habits far better than you, sir." Darla snapped.
"He eats up light," Drusilla sing-songed as she stepped up behind Darla. "He drinks tears."
Lord Dalton's gaze flickered over to Darla's companions, and she took a moment to despise the necessity of dragging them along with her. But how could she cast them aside now? Though she was loath to admit it, if she didn't have Spike and Drusilla, she would now have nothing. "Tell me what you did to my husband," she said. "The gypsies got to him. Did you tell them where he was? Lead them to him?"
"The gypsies!" Lord Dalton looked shocked -- and yet, Darla thought, not as astonished as he might have. "But of course! When my servant girl was on her way to your house last night, they waylaid her and treated her most brutally. Come, girl, show them your face."
The servant girl came into the room, her black eye now explained. So, Darla thought, the gypsies found us on their own. This foolish creature just got in the way. No answers to be found here. At least it serves my other purpose.
"Is Mr. Angelus hurt?" Lord Dalton said. "Is he missing?"
"Yes," Darla said. "As are you."
"I beg your pardon?"
She smiled, a tight, sarcastic little smile. "You came to Romania to find vampires, Lord Percy." Darla let her face shift into its demonic visage and reveled for a moment in his surprise and terror. "Well done, sir."
Darla grabbed his shoulders and bit into his neck savagely, with no thought for finesse or even for the stains on her gown. Lord Dalton's hands pawed weakly at her, scrambling to push himself away, to no avail. In the corner of her eye, she could see Spike making short work of the servant girl; behind her was some thumping and gurgling that probably signaled the manservant's death and Drusilla's lunch. Darla kept gulping down Lord Dalton's blood, needing the strength more than she could ever remember before.
As his heart began to flutter and fail, she let him flop back. His eyes were glassy, his skin waxen. Angelus' voice, so loud and distinct that it startled her, echoed, "I forbid you to turn him."
He had been speaking of a paramour that never existed, not this ludicrous creature, and yet Darla felt the old defiance blaze up inside her again. She brought her wrist to her mouth and bit in deeply; the pain seemed to belong to someone else. "Drink," she said. "Drink, and you'll know the truth to all the stories."
Lord Dalton drank. Then he died. His body collapsed to the floor, and Darla stared down at him until Spike and Dru came to her side.
"You turned THAT git?" Spike said. "Mark my words, he's not going to be any fun. Worse than that dolt Penn, more than likely."
"He won't be up for a while," Darla said. "A day, maybe two. I drank too much."
"Not like you, getting careless," Spike said. "Vamping some idiot who can't be of any use for a day or so, dragging us off from our perfectly good villa, running off from our perfectly good hotel rooms that were waiting later on --"
"He can't find us," Darla said quickly. "He mustn't find us."
"Who? Angelus?" Spike looked at her in disbelief, then cackled in glee. "Oh, this is brilliant. You're pretending to run off from Angelus again, just so he can chase you --"
Against her will -- against every instinct she had, vampiric and otherwise --Darla felt her eyes filling with tears. "Be silent," she hissed. "It's not yours to question what I do."
Drusilla's fingers stroked through Darla's hair, as slender and cool as the teeth of an ivory comb. "Drink up your tears, little baby grandmother," Dru said. "Spike doesn't mean to be unkind."
"Yes, I do," Spike said.
"They won't beat us," Darla said. She knew she was making less sense even than Dru; she didn't care. "I won't let them win."
Drusilla smiled. "Not this time."
Fred tried very hard to remember the last time she'd looked around to see where she was and been happy about the answer. It had been a disturbingly long time ago, and, to judge by where she thought Angel was leading them, it wasn't going to happen again anytime soon.
"Uh, Angel?" Cordelia said, breaking the shell-shocked silence that had lasted since they'd left the cave in the Romanian woods. Now they were winding their way through the pre-dawn streets of Sighisoara, and there was no longer any doubt about where they were going. "Is it my imagination, or are we headed in exactly the wrong direction?"
"We're going to the villa," Angel said. "Where Darla, Dru, Spike and I lived."
"Hence my use of the phrase, 'exactly the wrong direction,'" Cordelia said. "Angel, I know the whole apocalypse-timeshift-Wesley thing was stressful --it was for all of us --"
Charles cut in. "What she's asking is, are you insane?" Fred winced. After what she'd seen before -- the second crazed attack Angel had made on Wesley, or a version of Wesley, anyway, in two weeks -- that question seemed far too close to the bone.
But when Angel answered, he sounded calm. "Not yet," he said. "Believe me, I don't like this any better than you do. If there were anywhere else -- but there isn't. Darla will be trying to avoid me. That means she's going to be anywhere but the villa."
"She thinks you -- as in, past you -- might be coming back here?" Fred said. When Angel nodded, she said, "How do you know you won't?"
"I didn't before," Angel said. "I know that's no guarantee, but it's got to be a good sign. We can stay there today, bide our time, rest, get some supplies. Maybe some money."
"She won't have taken it all with her?" Cordelia said. "Shame to leave good money lying around."
"We took possessions we particularly liked," Angel said. They were getting close to the villa now, and Fred found herself thinking gratefully of whatever brief rest they might get. She'd had only one afternoon's nap since their first trip back in time yesterday -- two days ago? How long was it? She couldn't think of how to calculate it anymore. "But only our favorites. What we could carry easily, no more. You could always steal something newer or better the next day."
"So we can get clothes," Charles said. "Which would be good, seeing as how the gypsies aren't going to be loaning us new outfits again." Fred nodded; she felt ridiculous in her 21st-century gear, even though the streets were utterly deserted at this hour.
Cordelia said, "We SO do not need to visit the gypsies again. I mean, I see where they're coming from, but there are some serious hostility issues at work with those guys."
"But we have to see them!" Fred said, so surprised she stopped walking. The others halted as she said, "Spike and Darla are going to kill them. We know that."
Everyone was quiet for a moment. It was Charles who answered her, "Fred, we ain't here to see that they don't die. We're here to make sure they do."
Fred took a moment to consider it. "It's like the servant girl, isn't it?" she finally said. "Except this time we know. They have to die."
"Yeah," Angel said. "They do."
Cordelia quickly said, "Let's just get to this villa, okay? It's freezing out here, and if I'm going to have to fight for my life, I'd like to do it before I'm completely numb."
They came to the villa; Angel motioned for them to stand back, then went and tried the door. It was unlocked, apparently, as it swung open at his touch. For a few moments, she and Charles and Cordelia stood there, breathless and waiting. At last, a lamp came on inside, warming the windowpanes with its glow. Fred breathed a sigh of relief. "See?" Cordelia said. "Completely safe."
Charles rolled his eyes at Fred as they went inside, and she smiled. Then she got a look at the place, and froze on the spot. "Oh, my God."
The room had been ransacked. Everything breakable was broken; trunks lay in the hallway, open and obviously rifled-through. A few scraps of cloth --clothing or linens -- hung on chairs and banisters. Fred wondered if the dark stains in front of the fireplace were blood, then decided she didn't want to know.
Even Angel looked surprised. "It wasn't like this when I left," he said. "Darla must have -- she would have been angry. I mean, she was angry."
"When you left that night to meet Lord Dunstan or Dalton or whatever it was?" Cordelia said. "Not this time. You guys were way too cozy, and now you've reminded me." She began to peer into the trunks and sift through their contents, scowling all the while.
"No, not then," Angel said. "When she came back and found me later -- a few hours ago, I guess. When she realized I had a soul."
Cordelia's face brightened. "A-hah!" She held up a roll of something that was obviously money, even if Fred didn't recognize the currency. "Angel, is this a lot of money? Please say this is a lot of money. If we're gonna be stranded back in time, I would prefer to be stranded and rich." Something about what Cordelia said sent a shiver down Fred's back, and she gripped the side of the trunk.
Charles said, "How did you find that?"
"She can smell it," Angel said. He smiled at Cordelia then, a gentle, familiar smile that was more relaxed, more human, than any expression Fred had seen on Angel's face in weeks. "Remember when I used to hide a couple twenties around the old office?"
"My surprise bonuses," Cordy said, squeezing his arm. "So, have we won the nineteenth-century lotto? Or is this like Italian lira, where you need something like eighty thousand to buy a Coke?"
"It's substantial," Angel said. "We can't buy a house with it, but we can live well for a month or two. Buy what we don't find here."
"First off, we need clothes," Fred said. She was still cold; the house was almost chillier than outside. Maybe that was why she was shaking. She pulled a dove-gray dress from the trunk. "Angel, was this Darla's or Drusilla's? I think I could maybe wear something of Drusilla's --"
He looked at the dress, puzzled. "It's possible that I just don't remember, but I don't think that belonged to either of them. In fact, I don't remember these trunks at all."
Fred shrugged. "I guess we can check the closets, too."
"Try the trunks first," Angel said quickly. "It's just -- I just might not remember."
"Nothing to do but try some stuff on," Cordelia said. "I hope none of this is Darla's. I don't want anything that belonged to that skank."
Angel started to say something, then evidently changed his mind. "I'm going upstairs. Darla wouldn't have taken my things with her. So my own clothes should still be up there." He started to climb the stairs.
"Any guy clothes in that trunk?" Charles said.
"Wait," Fred said. She wasn't aware of having said it especially loudly or abruptly, but everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at her. They sensed it too, Fred realized; the same fear that was making her shiver was there inside all of them, but it had fallen to her to speak about it first. "Guys -- if we don't succeed -- not that we won't! But if we don't stop Dru from undoing Angel's curse, what are we gonna do?"
Quietly, Angel said, "Then we have to kill him."
"Angel, no!" Cordelia whirled around to face him. "Are you out of your undead mind? If we stake that Angel, then there's not gonna be this Angel -- you know, the YOU Angel." She turned back around to Fred. "Am I right? That's the way it works, right?"
"I don't know," Fred confessed. "The field of temporal dynamics is completely theoretical, or it WAS, before today, when we proved Delaney's hypothesis about -- oh, never mind." She sighed. "If we hadn't changed reality so dramatically, then yes, Angel would cease to exist after we staked -- well, let's keep calling him Angelus just to stay clear here. That might be instantaneous, or it might not happen until Angel attempted to leave this time for the restored future."
"See?" Cordelia said, folding her arms in front of her. "No staking."
"Wait," Charles said. "Cordy staked the Drusilla from 1898 -- but that didn't make 2002 Dru pop out like a light bulb. We know she stayed around and changed history and screwed up the future we saw in Rome. The same thing would have to apply to Angel, right? So we could stake Angelus, save the future and go home in time to get pizza." He was trying very hard to look hopeful, so hard it made Fred's eyes almost tear up. For all his anger, all his jaded posturing, Charles could work so hard at hope.
"Maybe," Fred said. "Nobody knows for certain. When the timeline diverges irrevocably, if we're still here, then Angel might no longer be the future version of this Angelus. Instead, we'd all be artifacts from an entirely separate reality, almost like another dimension. Changes we made here wouldn't affect us at all. The disconnect could be complete. In that case, Angel would survive our staking Angelus -- but none of us could ever go home again."
Charles groaned. "My head hurts. This is what I get for dropping outta tenth-grade physics to take shop."
"Maybe doesn't cut it," Cordelia said. "We can't stake Angelus and 'maybe' kill Angel too. We can't 'maybe' get stranded in ye olden days forever."
Angel said, "Cordelia, we have to." Before Cordelia could protest, he continued, "The alternative is letting reality become what we saw in Rome. We can't let that happen. Not if it kills me. Not if it kills all of us."
Everyone was quiet for a few moments. Cordelia ducked her head so that Fred couldn't see her face. Angel came down a couple of steps toward her, but she shook her head quickly. Charles rubbed Fred's back, a quick motion that somehow comforted her far more than it should have done.
"Okay," Cordelia finally said. "Okay, then. Let's just all -- get some sleep. We can think about this after we get some sleep."
Someone knocked hard on the door. Everyone jumped. Fred clapped her hands over her mouth to stop herself from screaming. Cordelia looked back over at Angel and whispered, "You said they wouldn't come back!"
"They wouldn't," Angel said. "They also wouldn't knock." He came back down the steps. As the heavy hand knocked on the door again, he called, "One moment!" then added a phrase that Fred suspected meant the same in Romanian.
"We gotta hide," Charles said, gesturing at their clothes. Angel pulled something from one of the trunks; Fred realized it was a cape. She went with Charles and Cordelia into the next room, where they flattened themselves against the wall behind the door, next to one of the abandoned trunks. They all tensed as they heard the door open.
A voice said, in heavily accented English, "Sir, here to move you into Hotel Lebada, yes?"
"The Hotel Lebada," Angel said. Fred thought his voice sounded as though he were remembering something. He was more certain as he answered, "Yes, of course."
"This is the hour requested," the caller's voice said. He did not sound very happy about this hour -- still well before dawn -- being the one requested. "All to be ready to move at this hour, it is said."
"I'm sorry for the confusion," Angel said. "As you can see, we were robbed. We're all very shocked."
As the caller, apparently an employee of a local hotel, expressed his horror and sympathy, Cordelia muttered, "As soon as Angel gets rid of this guy, we can crash. Well, bolt the doors shut, then crash."
"I need sleep worse than I ever have in my whole life," Fred said. "But I almost don't see how I can sleep until this is over. If we have to stake --"
"Don't say it," Cordelia said. When Charles looked at her, long and hard, she said, "If I have to do it, I'll do it. But don't expect me to deal with that idea one single second before I have to."
In the following silence, Fred heard Angel say, "We'll be ready to move in just a few minutes. Hold the carriage."
"Move?" Charles said. "Who said anything about moving?"
"Apparently," Fred said, "Angel just did." Cordelia looked indignant.
Angel poked his head into their room. "Change of plan."
"Yeah, thanks for consulting us," Cordelia said. "I thought this was the one place Darla and co weren't gonna be today. So why are we leaving?"
"We're going to the other place they won't be," Angel said. "There was somewhere else I could possibly have found Darla in the past. We'd arranged to move from this villa into some hotel rooms, in preparation for a ball that was being held -- I guess it's tonight."
"Anyplace the vampires aren't is okay by me," Fred said. "And you know I mean evil vampires, right? But still, Angel, why move? Seems like we could be more secure here -- you know, we can nail boards across the doors and windows without a bellhop asking us to quit. That kind of thing."
Angel shook his head quickly. "We want to get closer to that ball," he said. "We're going. Because I'd bet anything Darla's going."
"Usually I seize the few chances I get to combine our mission and formalwear," Cordelia said. "But get real, Angel. Look at this place. Darla's freaking out. Her whole world just got turned upside down. Why would she still go to a party?"
"You have to understand -- that's exactly why she WOULD go." He spoke quickly, clearly trying to organize complicated memories as he talked. "Darla -- she doesn't -- I mean, she didn't ever admit anything was wrong unless she had to. She never even explained my curse to Drusilla and Spike; they didn't know for sure what had happened to me until they got to Sunnydale. She always tried to pretend that things were the way she wanted them to be, until she could either make them that way or destroy them. As a philosophy, it worked pretty well for her. And she knows I might try to go to her at the hotel, but there's no way I could have pulled myself together enough to go to the ball."
Fred's memory of Darla was of a desperate pregnant woman who had said ugly things to them all, suffered terribly, then died at her own hand, all in the space of a few days. None of those experiences fitted with what Angel was saying. But she could see both Charles and Cordelia nodding slowly; their greater knowledge of Darla apparently matched up. It was Charles who said, "If Darla's coming to this throwdown, chances are she's gonna have Dru in tow, right?"
"Chances are," Angel said. "I don't know for certain. I don't know anything for certain. But it's a safe place to stay for the day, and it sets us up to have a chance at finding them tonight. Plus you guys can get something to eat."
Fred's stomach grumbled hopefully. Cordelia still looked skeptical. "We could just go to this ball tonight anyway, right?"
"I remember the Hotel Lebada was very luxurious, for this era," Angel said. "It might even have flush toilets."
"We're packin'," Cordelia said quickly. "Clothes. We need clothes!"
Angel smiled. "I'm going upstairs for my things. Get ready."
He went back out to the hallway as the others began rummaging quickly in the trunk. Fred tugged out a bonnet and put it over her head, then drew one of the capes around her. Cordelia found a hooded cape and draped it around her jeans. Charles, unfortunately, wasn't having much luck. "This is all girl stuff!" he said. "The guy stuff is all the trunks out front."
"You could get by the hotel staff in drag," Cordelia suggested. "It worked for Tom Hanks."
Charles shot her a dark look as he kept searching the trunk, increasingly desperate. Fred said soothingly, "It's all right, Charles. We'll come up with some story -- maybe sing the Gilligan's Island song again --"
"No, no and NO," Charles said, giving up on the trunk and beginning to search the rest of the room. "First of all, I ain't ever singing that song again in public, and probably not in private neither. Second --" He hesitated. Fred could hear the catch in his voice that meant he didn't want to say any more. She stepped closer to him, but he shook off the hesitation, kept looking under furniture, in an empty closet. "I don't want to be some kind of freak here. It didn't mean much when I thought it was just for a couple of days --but if it's forever -- let's face it, the only way I even get into this hotel is pretending to be your servant or something. And I can't do that. Even pretending. Even for a day."
Cordelia didn't look too sympathetic; then again, Fred thought, Cordelia seemed to enjoy pretending to be people she wasn't. It didn't affect her pride, because that was something that was as much a part of her as her blood. Charles' pride, on the other hand, was a fragile, difficult thing at times. Fred knew how it felt, the combination of panic and degradation that clawed and hurt. She'd known that feeling ever since the first time a Pylean called her "cow."
Respect, Fred thought. Her mind zigzagged from one possibility to another. Pretending to be someone else, she thought. Like in a play. Like the theatre -- that comedy last night, with the man in the vest and the turban --
Quickly, she tore down the curtains and draped a length of blue velvet over Charles, who for a second was too surprised to do anything except let her. He looked, Fred thought, like a statue about to be unveiled. "Very Siegfried and Roy," Cordelia commented. "And so not helping."
Fred tugged at the curtains, pulling them into a shape that bore a slight resemblance to a set of flowing robes. "Haven't either of you seen 'Gone With The Wind'? Curtains can be clothes! Work with me here!"
The door opened, and the hotel servants took two whole steps in before gaping at Charles. Angel, slightly behind them, gave them a glare that clearly meant, "You were supposed to be ready." Cordelia shrugged. Charles looked somewhere between frightened and angry.
Fred gave the fabric one last tug -- a mistake, as it caused one side of the curtain to slip off Charles' shoulder, revealing the T-shirt underneath. Too late to do anything about it now. Fred stepped back, presenting Charles with a flourish. "Where are your manners?" she cried, not knowing if the servants knew sufficient English to understand her. Her tone of voice should be enough. "You are supposed to bow when you enter the presence of the -- of the -- of the Caliph of Madagascar!"
One of the servants quickly bowed, towing the others down with him. Angel and Cordelia both looked too surprised to say anything. Charles stared at them for a moment, then swung the velvet curtain over his shoulder grandly. In a deep voice, he said, "You may rise."
"Begging pardon," said one of the servants. "This is not told to us."
"What?" Angel said, picking up Fred's outraged tone with a barely suppressed smile. "My instructions were specific."
"Please to forgive," the servant said. "We beg the pardon of the Caliph --?" His voice rose, making it a question.
Charles' expression flickered for only a moment. "My name is --" He smiled broadly and stood up even straighter. "Muhammad Ali."
Fred wanted desperately to see the looks on Angel and Cordelia's faces, but she didn't dare meet their eyes. Forcing herself to remain serious, she said, "You may carry out the Caliph's belongings. We're ready to leave now. Aren't we?"
"Yes," Angel said. "We are."
The servants stepped aside expectantly; Charles stared at them for a moment before catching the hint and walking imperiously out the door. Angel took Cordelia's arm to lead her behind him, and Fred took up the rear, followed only by the servants struggling with the trunk. As they went through the hallway, she noticed a half-open closet door. Huh, she thought. Somebody left a shoe in there.
Then she realized the shoe was actually still attached to the foot, and possibly more, of a person who was undoubtedly dead. And only then did Fred realize the last and unspoken reason Angel had wanted them to leave the villa for the hotel. She was glad he'd insisted.
There were three pairs of feet sticking out of the pantry door -- the maidservant's, the manservant's, and Lord Dalton's. The door wouldn't close, and when Spike tried to force it shut, there was an unpleasant crunching sound. "They won't all fit," he said.
"Crack, crack, crack of bones, music like a xylophone!" Drusilla sang to no particular tune. "Do it again!" She cupped her hands to her ears and started to dance around the kitchen, her elbows knocking pots and serving ladles off their hooks as she twirled manically. The sound of metal pans and cooking implements crashing on to the kitchen's stone floor brought Darla's already stretched patience to breaking point.
"Drusilla, stop it. Stop that NOW." Drusilla ignored her, and so the next time she danced within arm's length, Darla seized her arm and threw her down on to the floor. Dru fell heavily and sat for a second, her face as blank and stunned as a child's. Then, slowly, her lip began to tremble and a series of low sobs started to shake her frail body. Instantly, Darla regretted her actions -- not because she had made Drusilla cry, but because the sound of it was more grating than the crashing of a moment earlier.
"Oh, don't take on so, you're not hurt," she said roughly, but Drusilla only sobbed more loudly. Spike dropped to his knees beside her, comforting Dru while glaring up at Darla with greater defiance than he would have dared show in Angelus' presence. Dru wept on, her sobs all the more ugly to Darla because she knew a word from Angelus would have quieted her.
But Angelus was gone. The gypsies had taken away her magnificent creation, her darling boy, and replaced him with the sniveling, odious creature who'd whined about guilt and reeked with the fetid stench of a soul when he'd crawled back to her. His presence, his very existence, had been unbearable to her, and she'd thrown him into the street. He'd been crying -- actually crying -- as she slammed the door on him. Angelus had wept, and the noise had filled Darla with such a depth of loathing she'd almost reached for a stake to finish the gypsies' work for them.
She hadn't, and until now Darla hadn't known what had made her pause. But as she watched Spike cradle Dru on the kitchen's stone floor, she felt the beginnings of understanding.
"There's a knife in his chest," Drusilla whispered. "Metal, not wood, so the pain goes on and on and on. He feels it. He feels everything, now."
Darla stiffened. It was always a mistake to become too reflective around Drusilla -- her words had an unnerving habit of echoing other people's thoughts. If Drusilla knew about the curse the gypsies had put on Angelus --if her broken mind had somehow intuited the truth -- how long would it be before she told Spike? And when they both knew, the faade of normality Darla was straining to maintain would crumble away, and she would have to admit to herself that Angelus really was gone.
He was not gone. He could not be.
"Spike," Darla said sharply, "Go and check the rest of the house. I want to be certain no one else is here."
Spike was still holding Drusilla in his arms and didn't appear keen about ending that arrangement. "If there was anyone upstairs, the screaming will have chased them."
Furiously, Darla said, "I am TELLING you what you are to do --"
"Oh, you're telling me?" Spike repeated. "Then why don't you tell me some other things, while you're at it? Such as, what's happened to Angelus and why you're as ready to explode as a bitch in heat --"
"Spike," Drusilla crooned. She had stopped crying and was as calm as she had been inconsolable a few moments earlier. She lifted her hand and drew one fingernail along the side of his neck. "Spike, there's a chambermaid hiding in the bedrooms. Her heart beats, thumpetty thump. Make it stop, for me?"
Spike smiled, and leaned forward, so his forehead touched hers. "Anything you want, sweet."
He left the kitchen; Darla watched him go, the looked down at Drusilla, feeling a strange and completely novel sense of complicity with her. Slowly, she hunkered down on the cold kitchen floor next to her. "Drusilla," she said, "what do you know?"
Drusilla giggled. "Oh, many, many things!" She reached out one skeletal finger and prodded Darla in the stomach. "You're going to grow a little person."
That, Darla thought, was about as probable as Angelus taking vows and becoming a monk. Ignoring Dru's ramblings, she struggled to keep her temper. "What do you know about Angelus, Drusilla? What do you know about what's happened to him?"
Dru's expression became sad. "The knife. The knife in his chest hurts and hurts. I hear his screams echoing down the years. But he will come to love the blade that twists inside him." She glared at Darla. "He will love it as he never loved you."
Darla slapped her, hard. Drusilla wasn't fast enough to turn her head away, and the jewels in Darla's rings tore her cheek. Darla stared at her hand. She'd never professed love for Angelus, or expected to hear similar sentiments from him. All she'd asked was that he amuse her and indulge her, satisfy her whims and desires whenever they arose. Love was for humans; like them, it was weak and easily consumed.
But, a small voice in the back of her head reminded Darla, both she and Angelus had been human, once.
"What are we going to do?" Darla asked. She wasn't talking to Drusilla. She wasn't sure who she was talking to.
Drusilla got up and walked with serene calm to the rack where the kitchen knives hung. There were a dozen or more of them, hung in order of size, from an inch-long blade for paring vegetables to a meat cleaver. Drusilla chose a shining carving knife and held it up under the flickering light of a lamp.
Then she plunged it into her own chest.
She didn't stop until the blade was no longer visible, the knife's handle nestling in the hollow between her breasts. Drusilla gasped and tipped her head back, her face alight with a grotesque mixture of agony and pleasure. Tottering a little, she walked back across the kitchen.
Once they were facing each other, Drusilla lifted Darla's hands and placed them on the carving knife's ivory handle. "Take it out," Drusilla rasped. Her voice was rough, and there was an unpleasant bubbling sound somewhere at the back of her throat. "You have to take it out, before the flesh closes up around the wound. Quickly, now!"
Darla tightened her grip on the knife and pulled. Drusilla gasped as the blade slid out between her ribs, leaving a blotch of deep crimson on the bodice of her dress.
Take out the knife, before the wound seals up around it.
"We'll find them," she whispered. "We'll find the vermin Kalderash and make them undo it. We'll show them such terror as they've never known, and when Angelus is restored to us, he will finish our revenge. It will be perfect."
Drusilla laughed, a ghastly sound filled with gurgling from deep in her chest. Blood sprayed from her lips as she giggled, "Yes, yes, yes! That's how it should have been!" She seized Darla by the wrists and pulled her around the kitchen in a mad, spinning waltz; for once, Darla let her. They must look like two lunatics, not one, she thought, but she couldn't bring herself to care.
They didn't stop until Darla grew dizzy and Drusilla began coughing blood from her new wound. But as Darla put a hand to her head to steady herself, she felt a bony hand grip her wrist. Drusilla was staring intently at the strange but beautiful bracelet Angelus had given her. She twisted her head, looking at it from different angles, as fascinated by the shifting colors and shapes as Darla had been.
"They came back," Drusilla said. There was a strange look -- strange even for Drusilla -- on her face as she spoke. "They're here again, and they want to tell the bad story. Can they, when the pattern shifts and moves all the time? It looks solid but you can't touch it. You're just like me, pretty little hologram."
"Pretty little -- what?" Darla looked down at her bracelet. "It's not hollow." Drusilla laughed and laughed; Darla was not accustomed to being laughed at. "Why is that funny?"
"Hologram, hollow gram," Drusilla said, shuffling over to tap the blades of the hanging knives as though they were bells to ring.
Darla stared at Drusilla, sensing for the first time something awry. Drusilla was given to singing tuneless songs and making up nursery rhymes which invariably ended with throat-slitting, but Darla had never known her to invent nonsense words. And Drusilla had examined the bracelet with a kind of intensity that was almost lucid. Darla had the distinct impression that, while she had been preoccupied with keeping the truth about what had happened to Angelus from Drusilla and Spike, somehow she had failed to see that something was being kept from her. Right now, she couldn't begin to guess what it was -- but she was certain she could find out.
Darla looked around and saw Spike, standing in the kitchen door. There were flecks of blood around his mouth and his face was flushed from a recent feed. But Spike's attention was focused on the knife that lay on the floor between Darla and Drusilla's feet, the blade streaked with blood. He stared at Darla with open hostility. "If you've hurt her --"
"Lovely hurt," Drusilla interrupted. She lifted her hands, and showed him her fingers, the nails black with already-crusting blood. "I did it all myself, Spike."
"If I wanted either of you gone, I wouldn't choose a toy like this to do it," Darla said, nudging the carving knife with her toe. "I'd use a real weapon."
Spike sneered knowingly. "Is that what's happened to Angelus, then? Did one of your tiffs get out of hand and you dusted him?"
Darla didn't answer; instead she exchanged a look with Drusilla, one Spike was meant to see. Their shared secret was safe and, however curious he was, while Darla and Drusilla were in collusion, there was nothing he could do about it.
There was a hook behind the kitchen door, and a selection of servants' capes and cloaks hung on it. Darla selected the largest and threw it at Spike. He caught it, and looked at both the cape and Darla curiously. "What's this for?"
"You'll need it to keep the sun off you," Darla told him. "You're going out."
"What's so urgent it can't wait until dusk?"
"There are gypsies camped somewhere near the city. I want you to find them before they move on." Spike still looked doubtful, and something told Darla this was an occasion to use persuasion rather than brute force to make him do her bidding. Lowering her voice, she said, "I'm in the mood for slaughter. I'm tired of delicate killing, choosing society victims with care. Think of it -- fifty or a hundred mongrel gypsies who no one will miss."
Drusilla brought her hands to her lips and closed her eyes, her face alight with anticipation. "A bloodbath, a lovely bloodbath."
Spike grinned. "Now THIS is more like it. We ought to ditch Angelus more often, if this is the effect it has on you." He picked up the cape and turned to go.
"Spike," Drusilla called.
Spike stopped and looked back.
"Don't kill anyone without me," Dru said. "It's no fun unless we all do it together. No killing yet."
Spike shrugged. "No killing yet. Fine."
"No killing!" Drusilla repeated, more urgently.
"All right!" Spike said, pulling on the cape. Darla watched him walk away along the passage that led up to the main entrance hall, muttering all the time about people who didn't credit him with any self-control.
"It's all going to be different," Drusilla whispered. "Different and wonderful."
Darla laughed and took Drusilla by the arm. "For once, you're making perfect sense," she said. "Come upstairs. You and I have a ball to prepare for."
Drusilla spun around in a circle, letting the knife-blades tear at her fingertips as she whirled. "Second verse," she chanted. "Not the same as the first."
Angel buttoned up his waistcoat, carefully handling the whalebone buttons. Vampires' weight could fluctuate over the years, albeit within a narrow range, but he must have been at almost precisely the same build when he had been cursed as he was now. His old clothing fit him perfectly, and Angel was both startled and almost amused to realize that he remembered the cut of the vest, the weave of the shirt, better than he had the name of Lord Dalton, his intended victim of a night ago.
Then again, perhaps this was only because he was concentrating so hard on the clothing. Angel had other things on his mind -- his complicity in the destruction of a world, their failure to understand Drusilla's plan until it was too late, what it had felt like to attack Wesley again -- and he knew if he let himself dwell on any one of those topics, he wouldn't think about anything else any time soon. He needed to stay focused. Everyone's futures depended on that now.
"This is so wrong," Cordelia said. Angel turned around to see her standing in the doorway of their adjoining suites, wearing a camisole, pantalets and a corset that, to judge by the stiff way she was holding herself, wasn't very comfortable. "I mean, I thought DKNY bodyshapers were cruel and unusual punishment, but this is crazy!"
The camisole was as modest as a sleeveless T-shirt, and the pantalets were past Cordelia's knees. Angel had seen her in clothes that revealed far more. And yet, as she stood there, she seemed more naked to him than she ever had before, and he couldn't think of anything to say.
Of course, he realized. I think of these as clothes that a man only sees if he's about to make love to a woman. So it feels more revealing to me than it is -- than it should --
"Ground control to Colonel Angel," Cordelia said, tipping her head to one side. "You're the expert on torture devices, right? So you should understand this corset thing."
Her voice brought him back to the matter at hand with a jolt. "Let me see," he said, motioning for her to turn around. When she did, he chuckled. "No, you haven't done it right."
"I knew it," she said, tossing her short hair. "I knew it wasn't supposed to be this tight."
"No," he said. "It's supposed to be a lot tighter. You haven't even pulled the laces."
"Are you freaking kidding me?" Cordelia's mouth was open as she stared at him over her shoulder. "How did women back then -- now -- breathe?"
"They didn't breathe all that well," Angel said. "You always read about Victorian women swooning, right? Now you know why."
Cordelia inched away from him. "Maybe I should find a different look for this party thing," she said. "When did the muumuu first become stylish?"
"I think that was never," Angel said. "You know, you don't have to get ready just yet. Fred or Gunn either."
"You're getting dressed," Cordelia pointed out. "Either that, or pajamas in this era are way more formal than I ever guessed."
"I have to take care of some things with the hotel staff downstairs," Angel said. "After that, I'm going to try to sleep too. We should rest today if we can."
"I am going to sleep," she promised. "I just want to figure out what I'm wearing, is all." After a moment, she said, a little more quietly, "Out of everything we have to think about -- that's kinda the only fun thing, you know? Everything else is so --"
"I know," he said. He rested his hands on her shoulders for a moment and added, with far more conviction than he felt, "We'll figure it out, Cordy."
"You're a liar," she said gently. "And I love you for it."
Angel's stomach did a weird and not unwelcome flip-flop, but the moment was broken by Fred coming through the door in her own voluminous period underwear. The sight didn't have the same effect on Angel as seeing Cordelia had. "Corsets are supposed to be tight, aren't they?" Fred said, wrinkling her nose. "This thing is falling off me."
Angel said, "You're skinnier than most upper-class women of this era, Fred. You probably won't need a corset." He considered it for a moment. "You might actually want some padding. You should find something in those trunks."
"Padding?" Fred blushed a brilliant pink color.
"My girl don't need no padding," Gunn said, following Fred through the doorway and hugging her around the back. She smiled, reassured, and snuggled against him as he held up an arm encased in a wide sleeve. "What I want to know is, what are these baggy-ass shirts? You couldn't tuck these things in --"
"They're nightshirts," Angel said. "For sleeping."
"Oh," Gunn said, trying to drape his shirt around him a little more tightly. "Y'know, I'd sleep in boxers if it wasn't so damn cold in here."
Angel looked underneath the bed and lifted out a brass pan with a hinged lid. "You could use this."
Gunn looked at the object doubtfully. "For what?"
"It's a bed warmer," Angel said. He lifted the lid of the pan in demonstration. "You put hot ashes from the fire in there and then set it between the sheets."
Gunn considered the bed-warmer, then the nightshirt he wore. "So I get to burn to death in bed AND look stupid at the same time. Gee, I'm loving the nineteenth century more every minute."
Angel personally thought he'd take a nightshirt over Gunn's Dockers any day of the week, but he decided against mentioning it. Putting the bed warmer back where he had found it, he said, "I'll get one of the servants to bring up a tea tray and leave it at the door; I can bring it in when I get back upstairs."
"So what is it you're working out with the bellhops?" Cordelia said. "Continental breakfast? The hours for the sauna?"
"There are some things we'll need for tonight," Angel said. "You and Fred have ballgowns, but Gunn needs a suit and waistcoat if he's going to come across as the -- what is it again?"
"Caliph of Madagascar," Fred and Gunn said in unison, sharing another smile.
"I could order you what I'm wearing," Angel said to Gunn, "but I don't think you'd like it much."
"I can believe that, seeing how stupid these frock coats and cravats and what-all look?" Gunn said, shaking his head. "If that stuff is considered plain, I don't even want to know what counts as fancy."
"We'll still want to hire -- rent -- some jewelry for Fred and Cordy," Angel said. The jewelry, of course, had been missing from the villa; Darla would have taken that and left the rest. She'd always loved jewelry. "And Cordelia needs a wig."
"So glad someone said it," Gunn said. Then he caught sight of Cordelia's glare and pretended to be very interested in the fastenings of Fred's loose corset.
When Cordelia turned the glare on Angel, he said, "Your haircut's not contemporary. That's all there is to it."
"And yours is?" Cordelia gestured at his head.
"Once I brush it down, it won't attract notice," Angel said. "People will think it's odd that I don't have a mustache or beard, but it's not unheard of, and it's not like I can do anything about that in a couple of hours. But you can wear a wig."
For a second, he thought she was going to continue arguing with him, but exhaustion got the better of her and she yawned hugely. "Fine, then. Get them to send up dinner later, Angel. I'm sleepier than I am hungry. How about you guys?"
Fred nodded. "I'm too sleepy to be hungry at all."
"That's the first time this girl ain't been hungry in almost a year," Gunn said, hugging her again. "That's how you know it's serious."
"I'll have it sent up in a few hours," Angel said. "Okay, is there anything you girls need in your room?"
Gunn and Fred exchanged a look. "Um, Angel?" Fred said. "Charles and I were sort of hoping that, you know, we could, well, share."
Cordelia waved them off. "Go on, you two," she said breezily. "Angel and I will be fine. We've crashed out in the same bed before, right?"
"Right," Angel said faintly.
"See y'all in a few hours," Gunn said, drawing Fred back into what was now their room. As the door closed behind them, Angel heard him whisper, "Come with me to the casbah," and Fred's answering giggle.
Cordelia rolled her eyes, but she was grinning. "Young love. SO disgusting." Angel thought this was a little rich coming from somebody who called her current boyfriend "Grooie," but he let it pass. "I'm crashing, Angel. Be quiet on your way back in, all right?"
It would be far easier to deal with the prospect of getting into bed with Cordelia if she were already asleep, Angel thought; if she didn't notice him, then maybe he could pretend not to notice her. Or at least the poorness of his pretending wouldn't matter. "Stealthy, remember?" he said, and she smiled as she stretched back on the bed, her head falling against the pillows.
That particular mental image stayed with Angel as he went downstairs, negotiated with the hotel staff and described exactly what he wanted -- or, at least, came as close as he could with his rusty Romanian. When they asked him what dishes to send up, Angel was almost entirely at a loss; he had never been in the habit of eating human food as a vampire, and the names of the Romanian dishes meant little to him. He finally settled on what sounded most familiar and hoped it would be to the others' liking.
When he finally went upstairs, he opened the door to his -- their -- bedroom as quietly as he could. Cordelia was sprawled on her belly on the far side of the bed, tucked beneath thick covers. She didn't even stir in her sleep as he shut the door behind him. Relieved, Angel went into the small antechamber and undressed, peeling off his nineteenth-century clothing down to his twenty-first-century boxers, then tugged on a nightshirt. It felt odd -- he hadn't ever been much in the habit of wearing anything to sleep in -- but he didn't think Cordelia would be thrilled to find him sleeping nude next to her. Unfortunately.
He settled into the bed as gently as he could, trying to ignore the warmth created by Cordelia's nearby body. Just as he plumped the pillow to his liking and closed his eyes, her drowsy voice said, "Angel?"
"Just me," he said. "Go back to sleep."
'Mmmph." Cordelia turned onto her side to face him. "Angel, can I ask you something?"
Angel didn't know whether to feel dismayed or -- against all odds -- a little hopeful. "Anything."
Cordelia lay there, blinking sleepily, for long enough that Angel wondered if she was fully awake, or whether she would simply drift off again in another few moments. But at last she said, "I'm not even pretending to know how hard all this has been on you. I haven't been there. I couldn't know."
"I'm okay," Angel said, trying to soothe her back to sleep. "I promise you."
"I believe you," she replied. Her eyes were a little more alert now. "That's just it, Angel. When all this stuff with Drusilla started -- you were still on the verge. Don't even deny it."
"All that stuff you said, about how tired you were. How you didn't think you could stand to start it all again -- I hated hearing you talk like that, but I understood. I really did." Cordelia propped up on one arm. "Here's what I don't get. When we did start it all over, it made you better. I don't mean all better; I know it still hurts."
Angel had forgotten how soft her voice could sound when she wanted. "Of course," he said.
"But -- you are better, aren't you?" When he nodded, she said, "Why?"
He looked up at the ceiling -- pressed tin, covered in sky-blue paint that was probably pure lead. He weighed his answer carefully before he spoke. "Remember what I told you about the spell the old gypsy woman tried to cast on me?"
"You mean -- the one where she tried to take your memories? Yeah."
"Not all my memories," Angel said. "My memories of Connor. She was going to steal those from me, and when I realized that -- Cordy, I realized that's all I've got of him, now. Those memories are the only way I have left to be with him. And I knew I'd never want to lose them, no matter how much it hurts to remember. That's all I have." Cordelia's fingers brushed against his hand, and he looked back over at her. "Connor lost his life, I guess. I'll never know when or how. But he -- he had five months. Five months when he was taken care of and loved. It's not much, but it's what he had. My son deserves those five months. If every other damn thing that's happened to me happened so he could have those, then -- it's worth it. It's all worth it."
Cordelia squeezed his hand tightly. "We'll fix it, Angel," she said, her voice hoarse. "We'll stop Dru. We'll make it all happen again."
"We will," Angel said. He remembered Rome in ruins, fire leaping to the sky, the shattered wreck of Wesley Wyndham-Price's body. "We have to."
Otherwise, the cost of saving the world could be Angel's own life -- which he could give up -- and Connor's -- which would be so much harder --
He rolled on to his side, away from Cordelia, not rejecting her so much as turning into himself. She said nothing, but after a few moments he felt her fingers in his hair, gently soothing him to sleep.
It was a measure of his exhaustion that it worked.
Angelus hadn't slept in -- how long had it been? Weeks, months, years? He'd lost track of time. But the tiny part of his mind that was still clinging stubbornly to sanity insisted the sun had blazed through the single window of the barn twice since he'd stumbled into it, blindly seeking shelter from the dawn. Two sunrises, and the sun had not yet set a second time. Less than two days had passed. Two days that might as well have been an eternity.
("I would die now," the man whispered, his hand outstretched toward the body of his wife. "I would seek death, that she should not be alone a moment longer in heaven." Maggots crawled out from under the bridal veil; Angelus' merry joke had been to show young lovers how transient was the flesh. But the groom had continued to profess his love even when Angelus had made him watch his bride rot in front of him over the course of weeks, and now the joke was growing tiresome. He broke the groom's neck and closed the cellar door behind him as he left, but the man had been smiling as he died and Angelus had not until this moment understood why, or comprehended the extent of his defeat.)
("Show mercy, sir," the girl begged. She was fresh-faced and slight, and he pinned her down easily. "For the love of God, show mercy." He had replied he had no love for God, but he would show her love of a different kind, love that would make her bleed. Now he felt her under him again, yet somehow all memory of pleasure in the act was eclipsed by the look in her eyes as she pleaded for her dignity, her virtue and finally her life. He had not even paused.)
("You are not my son," his mother said. Her knuckles were white as she clutched the rosary; a useless gesture, no saints could save her now. He flinched from the sight of it, but it could not turn him back. "You are not my son," his mother had said with bright, sorrowful eyes, "for my son had a good soul." He had laughed in her face and drained her dry, but now her words were like hot needles under his skin: My son had a good soul.)
Angelus shuddered and clapped his hands over his ears in an attempt to shut out the clamor of voices that threatened to deafen him with their screams and pleas. They only grew louder. He closed his eyes, but the faces that floated in front of him simply became more vivid. He writhed and gasped on the floor of the barn like a drowning man, swallowed up by a rising tide of revulsion and guilt. Once, he regained his senses enough to see he had ripped open his shirt and was tearing at his face, his chest, his hands, his nails leaving deep scores in his skin, as if he could dig the soul out with his bare hands. He heard screaming, and it was only hours later that the raw pain in his throat finally made him realize the screams were his own.
And when his strength was spent and his voice reduced to a croak, the parade of horrors in his mind had still barely begun.
There had to be a way to make it stop.
Angelus looked up and saw the wide shaft of sunlight which slanted through the barn's single high window, and realized there was.
Slowly, deliberately, he began to move toward the light. He was weak, exhausted by the physical and mental tortures of the past days, and he didn't have the strength to stand. So he half-crawled, half-dragged himself toward the shaft of sunlight, feeling his skin prickle with every inch nearer he came to it.
At last, he lay beside the pool of sunlight. If he lay here long enough, the movement of the sun would claim him of its own accord. Or, if he chose, he could simply roll into it right now. He lay still as he contemplated both possibilities, feeling a kind of relief that the voices would soon fall silent. Above him, particles of dust from the hay glinted as they traced random paths lazily through the air. It was an ordinary sight which Angelus had never consciously noticed before, yet suddenly he found it extraordinarily beautiful.
("I'm an angel!" his sister laughed. She was dancing in the sunlight under the barn's window, while he lay on the soft, newly-cut hay and applauded her efforts. Her faith was the simple belief of a child; she'd thought that every sunbeam was a soul ascending to heaven, borne on angels' wings. She had loved him without reservation or condition, and the gift he had given her in return had been death.)
Every sunbeam a soul ascending --
The shaft of sunlight moved a fraction closer to him, and he felt his fingertips begin to burn. With the pain came an emotion Angelus had not known in over 150 years -- fear.
A creature with a soul was a creature that could be judged. And the burning that followed would not last for seconds, but for all eternity.
He snatched his hand back from the light and scrambled back into the shadows. As he cowered there, the full horror of his situation began to sink in. There was no choice he could make to end this torment, no possible release from his sentence. He would suffer forever.
Darla could rescue him. She had made him once; she could make him again, restore him, recreate him. And he would be grateful, so grateful, if only she would come and make this stop, make it all go away --
("They gave you a soul," Darla said. She laid her hand on his cheek, her fingertips gentle against his skin. Then her nails became talons as she scratched her contempt on to his face. "A filthy soul!" she spat. "You're disgusting!")
He lifted a hand to his cheek, and touched the healing but still fresh scratch. "Help me," he whispered. "Please help me."
At the door of the barn, something moved. Terror gripped him, and he pushed himself into the darkest corner, huddling like a frightened animal. A human shape approached him, but Angelus was half-blinded by the sunlight, and he couldn't see its face.
Terror became wild hope. Darla. It had to be Darla. She had come for him, and now everything would be all right again.
"I'm sorry," he said, holding out his arms to her. "I'm sorry. Forgive me. I'm sorry --"
In that instant, he saw that it wasn't Darla at all -- just a child, a peasant child, staring at him with dark, accusing eyes. Abruptly, the child turned and started to leave. Desperately, Angelus lurched forward, clutching at its feet, but he was weak and only succeeded in sprawling on to the floor. When he lifted his head, the barn door was swinging shut.
"Help me," he said again, but there was no one to hear him.
Charles grinned at Fred. "No matter what your dress is like, I don't think you're going to improve on the way you look right now."
Fred -- on the far side of their bedroom, pouring herself water from a pitcher -- blushed a little. Being naked in front of Charles was still a very new experience: a little embarrassing, but more enjoyable. Better yet was Charles being naked in front of her; he was sprawled out on the bed, more relaxed than she'd seen him since this time-travel craziness began. "Thanks," Fred said, ducking her head. "But I really don't think this is appropriate formalwear in 1898."
"You could probably get away with it at the MTV Video Awards," Gunn said. He folded his arms behind his head as she came back to sit on the foot of the bed. "Too bad. These old-timey guys don't know what they're missing."
"Nope," Fred said. Then she began turning the phrase over in her mind. "There's so much they don't know, so much they're about to figure out. The biggest revolutions in the study of physics -- they're only a few years away." Her lips began to tug into a smile. "Charles, Einstein's out there. He's alive, this very minute! He's not even that far away. He's -- oh, I don't know how old he is, but he's probably a disappointing student right now. Marie Curie. Niels Bohr. They're all out there, on the verge of so many amazing discoveries. And they don't even know it yet."
She wriggled happily and beamed at Charles. He didn't seem to share her enthusiasm; he was smiling at her, but a little sadly. "Is that what you're going to do?" Charles asked, his voice barely more than a whisper. "If we get stuck here? Go do Marie Curie one better?"
Fred shook her head. "Marie Curie's going to be working with radium. Thanks but no thanks." Then she registered what Gunn had said and how he had said it. "You're worried about us getting stuck here."
"Of course I am," Charles said. He shifted uneasily on the coverlets. "I know I bitch about the agency, and not having any money, and the Hyperion being a drafty ol' barn, but -- you know I love it there, right? That's the best I've ever had it my whole life, working with you guys. Being with you."
Gently, Fred brushed his cheek with her hand. "No matter what happens --you'll still have me."
The smile faded from Charles' face. "Where is that gonna be? Anyplace in 1898 that a girl who looks like you and a guy who looks like me can be together? I can't think of one."
Fred hesitated. She hadn't thought about that before.
Charles continued, "I'm having trouble even thinking of a place where I could work that wouldn't make me want to kill somebody, or myself. This Caliph gig is all right, but let's face it: We don't have the cash to keep that up for long. The career options for guys like me in this century? Sharecropping and being a Pullman porter. I guess I could give Africa a try, but that just means I'd have to live through a zillion civil wars. What's that you said? Thanks but no thanks."
"There's places in America that wouldn't be so bad," Fred protested. "There were people trying to make a difference. You could help. WE could help."
"What? Pal around with George Washington Carver? Help him figure out stuff you can make out of peanuts? I don't think I'd be real good at that, you know what I'm sayin'?" Charles thumped the headboard of the bed, his lips pressed together in a thin line.
They sat together in silence for a moment. Then Charles said, "Okay. Peanut butter. I could probably come up with that one."
Against her will, Fred smiled. Charles smiled back. Then both of them started laughing and couldn't stop. Fred was giggling helplessly as she burrowed deep into his arms. It was tragic and terrible, to be stuck in a time that wouldn't acknowledge who Charles was, everything he had to offer. But it was also just so incredibly -- stupid. So stupid you could even laugh at the idea.
It was stupid, but it was also real. And it was where they were, right now, with only an uncertain hope of getting back where they belonged anytime soon, or ever.
When they were both quiet, intertwined on the bed, she said, "We'll think of something. I don't know what, yet. But you're not going to be alone. We'll all be with you." She kissed him, just at his collarbone, before whispering, "I'll be with you."
"That means a lot," Charles said, stroking her hair. "But you know what would mean even more? Not getting stuck in the past in the first place."
"That's definitely Plan A," Fred agreed. But she could no longer avoid seeing their other futures, all tangled up in the past.
Cordelia realized, with a jolt, that synthetics hadn't yet been invented in the year 1898. Which meant that the hair in the wig she was currently adjusting on top of her head must once have belonged to someone else. Probably recently.
Whose hair was this? she thought. Did they, like, give it up willingly? Were there hair bandits? Has this been washed? This could be the hair of a nasty person.
She gazed at her reflection for a moment longer, then relaxed. Oh, well. Not gonna argue with results.
Instead of the short, blonde 'do she hadn't quite gotten accustomed to, Cordelia now had long, dark hair caught up in an elaborate upturn of curls. The style seemed really full on the top to her, but Angel had sworn this was the fashion. What were those old drawings? Gibson girls? She studied her face in the mirror and decided she enjoyed the effect. "I just realized I like big hair," she said to Fred, who sat beside her at the dressing table. "If I ever accept any other element of '80s retro, please shoot me."
"I kinda liked leg-warmers," Fred confessed. "And I used to think the colors back then were too bright, but right now they don't look so bad."
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "No lie." Fred's dress for the evening was a brilliant magenta, and her own was a color halfway between yellow and orange. Pitching her voice to carry into the next room, she called, "What is it with these people? Did the world just switch over from black-and-white, like, last year?"
Angel's voice floated back, "In a way, yes. They only just perfected aniline dyes. People are enjoying the new effect. Besides, lighting's usually not as bright as you're used to. Your dresses will look better in the ballroom."
"Do you promise?" Fred said. Cordelia heard Angel laugh.
"Y'all got a brooch or something?" Gunn said from his place in the corner. He had on a black evening suit, around which he'd pinned the blue-velvet drapery as a sort of toga-sash, in an attempt to look Eastern. At the moment, he was struggling, with limited success, to create something that might be a turban. "This thing ain't stayin' tucked."
"Let me work with it some," Fred said, getting up to help him. "You think we could pin a feather to the front?"
As Fred began to fuss with Gunn's improvised robes, Cordelia put on her earrings. She winced as she screwed them into place; they were heavy, and they weren't for pierced ears, which meant that they felt as though they were going to stretch her earlobes down to her knees before the night was over. They were pretty, though -- elaborate and glittery, WAY too much by her own standards, but obviously right for the wig and the dress.
She studied her reflection for a moment. The dress had a deeper neckline than she would have expected; weren't these people supposed to be prudes? The puffed sleeves were extremely -- extreme. But as extravagant as all of it was, Cordelia liked it. Style was a thing you could sense, at least if you grew up making spring shopping trips to Milan. Cuts and colors changed, but not that sense that everything just worked.
She glanced sideways and wrinkled her nose; you could also sense when things didn't work at all.
"I look like a curtain tassel," Fred complained. She pulled at the gold lace at her throat; her wide skirts and the ruffles around her neckline overwhelmed her tiny frame. At least her hair was pretty; they'd gotten it to look roughly like Cordelia's wig. "How come the skinny girl had to be the one with no taste?"
"It's not that bad," Cordelia lied. "You would -- um -- be very visible in the dark. Hey, the gold lace might work as a reflector or something. Like on a bike."
"We're a couple decades before headlights," Fred said glumly. She returned to work on Gunn's turban-in-progress.
"You're beautiful in anything, Fred. And, on the bright side -- at least you don't look like one of those mushrooms in Fantasia," Gunn said. "Hey, Angel! Get on out here in your fancy-schmancy outfit. I could use something to laugh at besides myself."
Angel stepped into the room, wearing his own evening clothes. Cordelia felt a wide grin spreading over her face. Gunn looked utterly indignant.
"It's the new American fashion," Angel explained. "They're calling it the tuxedo. I think it might catch on."
His face was serious, but there was humor in his eyes which Cordelia recognized and welcomed with relief. He hadn't just been trying to reassure her when he'd told her he had a reason to keep going; he'd been telling the truth. Angel really was going to be okay.
"You look great," she said. "Very debonair."
It was a simple enough compliment, but Angel seemed to like it. That man is such a fool about clothes, Cordelia thought. No wonder we get along. He straightened his bow tie, and she stood up and pirouetted for his inspection. When she met Angel's eyes again, he was smiling warmly at her. "This century suits you," he said softly.
"Kinda on the fence about the puffed sleeves," Cordelia said. "But I love the earrings. Very bling-bling." As she had expected, Angel's face clouded in confusion; Angel's world and the world of bling-bling did not mix.
"I coulda had a tux?" Gunn said. "Angel, you are in some deep trouble. Why didn't you tell me you were getting a tux?"
Angel frowned. "When we went to the ballet, you complained about your tuxedo all night. I figured you wouldn't want one."
Gunn held up the blue velvet. "You figured I'd rather wear curtains?" Angel shrugged.
Fred said soothingly, "Just think, Charles. You only have to wear the turban once, but you can tell the story forever."
"I'm not telling anybody about this," Gunn said, pinning a fairly competent turban in place at last. "And neither are y'all. Are we clear on that?"
"Let's just get a game plan together," Cordelia said. She took another sip of the sticky-sweet liqueur Angel had ordered, resolving never to drink plum brandy again. "First of all, let's go for the worst-case scenario. How long do we give your vampire family to show up? Ten minutes? Two hours?"
"More like two hours," Angel said, instantly businesslike again. "Not much more than that -- but after two hours, we should worry."
"Darla liked to be fashionably late?" Cordelia guessed.
He looked a little uncomfortable as he shook his head. "You just never knew when she'd decide to kill someone on the way."
"So, if they don't show, what do we do next?" Gunn said. "Start searching Sighisoara? You can maybe use your vamp radar --"
"That's going to be harder to do here," Angel said. "Romania is thick with vampires, particularly in this era. I'd still know if one of the vampires of my line were very close, but it's going to be more difficult to pick them out from this crowd."
Cordelia didn't like the sound of that, but then, it had been a while since she'd liked the sound of any of this. "That means -- you want us to go to the gypsies? That's not going to cut it, Angel. WE might have accepted that they've got to die for the greater good of the future, but I'm guessing they might not see it that way. Particularly coming from you."
"I realize that," Angel replied. "We'll just have to watch them. Wait for Darla and Spike and Dru to make their move. Then -- we'll have to take it from there."
Fred ducked her head. "You mean we might have to kill the gypsies ourselves?"
They were all quiet for a while. Angel finally said, "I don't know. The main thing is making sure they don't lift the curse. We might just be able to kill Drusilla and Spike."
Cordelia noticed that he didn't say Darla.
"Well, then, let's look on the bright side," Fred said resolutely. "If they do show up, we just stake Drusilla, right? Poof!"
"But that's gonna change the future too," Gunn protested. "I'm not saying Dru did the world a whole lotta good after this, but she did something. And we all know by now how easy it is to throw things outta whack."
Cordelia shook her head. "But the world didn't change all that much, really -- not counting what Angelus did with the Judge. That's a big 'not counting,' but seriously. Remember all that stuff Fred was saying in the museum, about Picasso and Warhol and all that? I mean, at this point, we're not going to get out without changing history. That's just -- done. We only get to pick the lesser of about ninety jillion evils, and killing Dru sounds like it."
Fred nodded. "The damage to the timeline is done, Charles. At this point, we can only minimize it."
"I just want to make sure the damage we do doesn't leave us stuck here," Gunn said.
"We don't kill Drusilla unless we have to," Angel said. "We don't do anything unless we have to." His voice was surprisingly hard, and Cordelia stared at him.
"Guess we'll see what happens when we get there," Gunn said. "Now all we gotta do is get through a couple hours of a 19th-century ball."
Fred said, "I'm guessing a ball means dancing. I know how to waltz, and a couple of reels -- I had to have a coming-out in high school. My grandmother insisted." When Gunn's eyes went wide, she added, "That means I was a debutante." He sighed in relief.
"I did the whole deb circuit too," Cordelia said. "So we're okay on dances, right?"
"Probably," Angel said. "But there's a lot you need to know -- for instance, you're all carrying yourselves wrong. You need to be a little less free with your body language. More controlled, more formal."
Cordelia stood a little straighter; sure enough, it made the corset's boning bite into her a little less uncomfortably. "More formal. Gotcha."
Fred said, "Is there going to be anything to eat? Not that those, uh, weird sausages weren't just great, but -- you know me and my stomach. Too much is never enough."
"Don't say that," Angel said. "Referring to any part of your body, except maybe your hand or your head -- that would be incredibly rude. There are going to be people downstairs who would be appalled that you said the word stomach in public."
"You have GOT to be kidding," Cordelia said. When Angel didn't crack a smile, she started to get even more worried. "So, swearing is totally out of the question --"
"Completely," Angel said. "Gunn or I might get away with it if we were speaking to another man. But not you or Fred. The two of you need to know how to hold your fans --"
"There's a wrong way to hold a fan?" Fred said.
"Holding them different ways means different things," Angel said. "You don't want to inadvertently offend or encourage the wrong people. Keep your gloves on at all times. And if anybody sends over a flower, let me see it. They all have meanings; it would be a message, not a gift."
They began their tutorial on the ways and manners of the late 19th century, and Cordelia listened carefully. But beneath her attention was a kind of wonder and unease. She was so accustomed to thinking of Angel as the one who was perpetually a little out of step; now that was her role. He'd had to show her how to turn on the lamps, what to use to brush her teeth, even how to wear her underwear.
She placed one hand across her abdomen, felt the confining corset beneath her ballgown. If they couldn't get back to their own future -- if they got stuck in this era, one way or another -- it was going to be like this forever. Always being a few steps behind, always relying on Angel to set them right. Unseen constraints holding them in a difficult place. Cordelia wasn't sure she could bear it. Does it feel like this for Angel? she wondered. Is the present as weird for him as the past is for us?
No, she decided. Nothing is as weird as this underwear.
Finally, as they got up to go, Gunn -- who had taken his place in front of them, befitting a foreign ruler, said, "What do you guys know about Madagascar?"
Cordelia looked at the others, who looked back somewhat blankly. Angel finally said, "Ah, it's an island off the east coast of Africa."
"Yeah, that much I knew," Gunn said. "I watched Carmen Sandiego same as anybody else. But I can't make two hours of small talk outta that. What else?"
"They have lemurs there," Fred said. "They're the smallest and most primitive primates."
"Lemurs. Got it." Gunn clapped his hands together. "What else?"
Everyone was quiet for another couple of moments. Cordelia thought back to a trip she'd taken to the San Diego Zoo. "Some lemurs have ringed tails?"
Gunn groaned. "This is gonna be a long night."
It was a good day to be alive. Or, in Spike's case, a good day to be dead.
Sure, the sun was high in the clear winter sky, which was hardly the ideal conditions for a vampire to take a walk, but any irritation Spike might have felt about the necessity of ducking between pools of shadow in the forest was more than offset by his good mood. Angelus was gone -- most likely because of some fight with Darla, given her reticence on the subject of his sudden departure. He'd probably be back soon -- those two enjoyed making up too much to stay apart long -- but in his absence Drusilla was devoting her undivided attention to Spike, and Darla had suddenly decided to let them have some fun for a change. As far as Spike was concerned, the longer Angelus sulked somewhere far away from the rest of them, the better.
If only the sun would hurry up and set, the day would be perfect. In other words, night.
Spike made his way through the forest, following a path that would have looked erratic to any observer, until they realized he was using shadows like stepping stones through pools of light. He was heading for a place between the forest and the main road to Sighisoara which his enquiries in the city had indicated was often used as a campsite by gypsies. 'Enquiries' wasn't exactly the right word for grabbing strangers off the street and terrifying them until they told him what he wanted to know, but Spike had never favored subtle methods. Besides, it had worked.
Suddenly he stopped, sinking into the shadows with practiced fluidity. Something was different in the air around him: almost imperceptibly, it hummed, set vibrating by a beating heart. A beating heart which was very close. Prey.
Spike grinned to himself. His good day had just gotten even better.
The sun was starting to set, filling the forest with an agreeable gloom that was more suited to Spike's senses and his purpose. He moved more quickly now, less inhibited by the shrinking patches of sunlight. The heartbeat was louder in his ears, now, but its pace was as regular as it had been when he first heard it. The stupid bugger had no idea he was being hunted.
It was more fun when they knew.
Deliberately, Spike stepped on a fallen branch, snapping it loudly in two.
The heartbeat suddenly began to race.
That was more like it.
Ahead of him, Spike saw a young man running through the forest, slowed by the low branches he couldn't see and Spike could. The trail he left was marked as clearly by the heady scent of fear as by disturbed vegetation.
Spike broke into a run, easily matching and then exceeding the pace of his quarry. The pounding heartbeat was a drum in his head, now, urging him on, filling him with a surge of strength that never failed to thrill or delight him.
A second later, it was over. The boy -- he was little more than a child --gasped as Spike threw him on to the ground, then tried ineffectually to fight off his attacker. Spike briefly considered letting him get away, then decided he was too hungry to waste time playing with his food. Time to eat.
He let out a snarl and lowered his fangs to the boy's neck.
"Demon!" the boy shrieked. Spike's ear was next to his mouth, and the noise made him recoil.
"Bloody hell, of course I'm a demon," he confirmed irritably. "When something leaps on you in the dark and grabs your throat, it's not usually an encyclopedia salesman. Now hold still while I kill you."
"Demon!" the boy shouted again. There was fear in his voice, but also anger and a measure of determination that would have made Spike feel just a little uneasy, if the situation had not been so wholly to his advantage. "You may take my life, but you will not undo our vengeance. He suffers; I have seen him."
Spike wasn't listening; he was concentrating on pinning down his victim and exposing his throat. There was the jugular, a rich, ripe well, begging to be tapped and drained.
Again, Spike made ready to bite.
He heard something whistle through the air, and felt a sharp pain between his shoulder blades.
With a roar, Spike got up and spun around, keeping hold of his victim with one hand while clutching at his back with the other. He had been hit by an arrow; when he pulled out the shaft, he saw it was a single piece of sharpened wood, making it look more like a stake than anything usually fired from a bow. He threw it down in disgust, and realized that he was rapidly being surrounded by a crowd of armed, torch-bearing men.
At least, he thought sourly, Darla would be pleased he'd found the gypsies.
There were at least thirty of them, and probably more coming. Spike relished a slaughter, but he relished his skin more, and those odds weren't exactly ideal.
He pushed his foot down on to the chest of his intended victim. At least a couple of ribs snapped under his heel, and the boy cried out in pain. "Your little friend here is still alive," Spike snarled at the gathering mob. "One step closer by any of you and he won't be."
The crowd now formed a circle around Spike, but it was no longer closing in on him. Spike kept his boot firmly in the middle of the man's chest while he considered what to do next.
One of the gypsies -- a gray-haired man who was thin to the point of gauntness -- stepped forward. Spike growled at him, and screwed his heel down until the boy on the ground gave a low, gurgling cry of pain. "I think I told you to stay back."
The thin man stopped. Then, raising one hand, he started to speak, murmuring words in a language Spike didn't know.
Gypsies and their superstitions. Spike laughed and called out mockingly, "Sticks and stones --"
He broke off abruptly. The ground under his feet was getting distinctly uncomfortable.
Slowly, the thin gypsy lowered his hand. He smiled. The soles of Spike's feet began to smoke.
Bloody hell, they'd only gone and consecrated the ground right under him.
Spike leapt back, overbalanced, and put his hand on to the ground to steady himself. His palm sizzled, and he yelped. Now he was hopping from foot to foot, like a man performing a bizarre and frenetic dance. A wooden arrow thudded into his chest, too close to his heart for comfort.
Spike staggered backward, and the gypsies surged forward to help their fellow. For a brief moment, they seemed more intent on helping Spike's intended victim to safety than on pursuing his attacker.
Spike fled, limping on blistered feet and cursing liberally. Behind him, he could hear the gypsies celebrating.
Not such a good day, after all.
The boy -- his name was Ernst -- was still trembling as he sat by the fire; the cup he was cradling shook so violently the old woman feared he would spill its contents and add to his already considerable pain by scalding himself. But his physical injuries would heal, given time. That his mind would heal was less certain, if the dull look of fear in his eyes was a fair measure.
"Tell me what you saw," she said.
The gathered crowd fell silent -- no small achievement, as every adult member of the clan had gathered around the open fire which had been lit in the centre of the camp as soon as dusk had fallen.
"Mother Yanna." It wasn't the boy who had answered her, but Gregor. A giant by Kalderash -- and most other -- measures, he stood almost a head taller than any of the other men in the clan, and was respected for more than just his physical strength. Mother Yanna had been pleased when her daughter Ilsa had chosen him over the rest of her suitors; she had felt the rightness of the match, had sensed that the children of the union would be strong and gifted. Gia had been both.
"Mother Yanna," Gregor repeated, "the boy has been through enough tonight. Can this not wait until the morning?"
"It cannot," Mother Yanna said sharply. Gregor had the luxury of considering the wellbeing of one person; the weight of the clan rested on her shoulders. "The boy almost died to bring us news. He should at least deliver it. Speak, boy."
The note of command in her voice had the desired effect. Ernst gripped his cup more tightly and, barely lifting his eyes, said, "The demon suffers. I saw it myself."
There was a murmur of approval from around the fire. "Tell us more," Mother Yanna said.
"I found it hiding from the day in a barn. It shuddered and twisted like a man in his death throes, and I heard it weep and moan. Then it saw me, but I didn't run." As he told his story, Ernst sat up a little straighter. "The demon cowered from me, and its eyes were wild, like a man in a fever. It spoke to me."
"What did it say?"
"It said it was sorry. It begged my forgiveness."
Mother Yanna felt a smile tug at her puckered lips. "How did you reply?"
Ernst said, "I kept silent, Mother Yanna."
"Then you gave it the only answer it will ever receive," she told him. "We have given birth to vengeance, and now it lives and grows. You did well, child."
At the other side of the fire, Gregor nodded in satisfaction. Beside him, Ilsa raised her head -- she had barely been capable of speech since the death of their daughter. Gregor took her frail hand in his powerful one and squeezed it tightly, as if he could transfer a measure of his strength to her. Then, looking around the assembled group, he said, "Tomorrow, if it pleases the clan, we will break camp. We will leave my daughter's ashes here, and take her memory with us."
All around the fire, there were nods of agreement. But Ernst had lowered his head again; there was something strange in the way his face was hidden, Mother Yanna thought. It was almost as if --
"There is something else you would tell us," she said, narrowing her eyes. "But you are afraid, because it is ill tidings."
Ernst nodded dumbly. Mother Yanna tottered around the fire until she was standing in front of him. She put her hand underneath his chin and made him raise his face so that she could meet his eyes. "I am old, child, and I have known more sorrow and grief than you. Do not spare me."
In a rush, Ernst said, "The other demon -- the one that came to us and claimed to be from the future -- it is still here."
From all around the campfire, Mother Yanna heard low gasps of anger.
"Are you certain of this?" Gregor asked the boy.
"When I left here before first light this morning, I went first to the house in the city where the demons had made their lair. I saw lights in the windows, and I thought Angelus had returned there, so I waited. Then a carriage came, and when those inside came out, Angelus was among them."
"What was his aspect?"
Ernst looked at her blankly. "Mother Yanna?"
Impatiently, she said, "Describe him."
"He walked tall," Ernst said. "He led the others to the carriage."
A suspicion had begun to form in the old woman's mind. "Where did they go?"
"To the Hotel Lebada, in the city. They have taken a suite of rooms there. I hid on the balcony and watched them through a crack in the shutters." With scorn that bordered on contempt, Ernst said, "Angelus was there, and the Moorish man and the two women. They were dressing themselves in finery. I saw Angelus smile and laugh. I could watch no more, and I left."
Mother Yanna nodded grimly as she began to piece together the sequence of events. "And it was as you returned to tell me this you happened on the barn, and found the demon we cursed hiding there."
"Yes, Mother Yanna." Ernst shook his head in confusion. "If I had not seen it myself, I would not believe it. The two were alike in every detail, but one was ashamed, and the other happy."
Yes, the old woman thought, the two demons were indeed alike. If the story the creature who had come into their camp had told them was not wholly a lie, the only thing that separated him from the vampire Ernst had found in the barn was a hundred years. In a hundred years, barely a ripple in history's wide ocean, the vengeance she had carefully crafted would be eroded completely, and the proof of it was currently staying in Bucharest's finest hotel and enjoying the society of the city.
Mother Yanna's hands began to tremble, but not with age. She was shaking with fury.
"The demon lied to us," Gregor said. "It said it would return to its own time as soon as our vengeance was assured."
"Indeed, the demon lied," Mother Yanna said bitterly. "What innocents we are, to have ever believed it could speak the truth."
Her voice shaking with emotion, Ilsa said, "Why can it not leave us to mourn in peace? What does it want?"
"It means to lift the curse," Mother Yanna spat. "To end its suffering. It seeks to undo our vengeance."
Gregor's face was grim as he said, "The demons have aligned themselves against us. They sent one of their number to kill Ernst before he could tell us this news."
Ilsa took her husband's arm, her face white. "Against a host of demons, what protection do we have? A few charms will not hold them at bay for long."
Another of the women nodded in agreement. "We have enough to mourn already, in the loss of Gia. We should flee, before all our children join her."
At once, a dozen or more voices started to argue and debate, and the crackling of the campfire was quickly drowned out by the clamor. Even Gregor was deep in debate with the two men sitting nearest to him. Turning away from Ernst, Mother Yanna walked into the circle of firelight, where everyone could see her. Then she simply waited until silence fell again, as she knew it would.
"Would you run?" she asked. "Very well. But how far? Show me a country where the sun never sets, where the demons cannot walk, and I will gladly follow there. Does any among you know of such a place?"
As she expected, no one spoke up. Mother Yanna nodded curtly. "We are Kalderash," she said. "We do not run."
"There are no cowards around this fire," Gregor said quietly. "But what if this demon from the future undoes our vengeance? What then?"
Mother Yanna reached into her cloak and held up a stake. Her arm, which was weak with age, ached with the effort, but she did not lower it.
"If we cannot have vengeance," she said, "then we will have justice instead."
"Presenting his Most Royal Majesty, the Caliph of Madagascar, Muhammad Ali!"
Gunn entered the room first, nodding slightly at the many finely dressed people who turned to stare. His turban was tucked, his velvet curtain draped and his demeanor exactly correct: formal, proud, even regal. Angel smiled. He never would have guessed Gunn had it in him.
"Presenting Mistress Winifred Burkle and Mistress Cordelia Chase of the United States of America."
Angel hung back for a moment, then followed the rest of his party. Gunn's entrance, unsurprisingly, had prompted a ripple of interested murmuring, and Angel was able to slip into the ballroom unobserved and, more importantly, unannounced. If Darla and Drusilla were already at the ball, Angel had decided he would prefer not to give away his presence too soon.
Fred sighed as she looked around. "This has got to be the most beautiful place I've ever been."
The ballroom's floors were cream-colored marble flecked with gold, the high ceilings carved and gilded and lit by elaborate chandeliers with crystal facets that sparkled. Oil panels illustrating each of the seven Muses decorated the walls, with nubile girls and fat cherubs in sky blue and rose pink. Candelabra on the tables provided a little more light, and the band was playing a simple tune, not intended for dancing. Women in satin gowns and men in black silk nodded and curtseyed and bowed -- mostly to Gunn, who didn't seem displeased with the attention. The jewels they wore glittered almost as much as the crystals overhead. Same old, same old, Angel thought. But before he could say that this was a fairly provincial affair, he saw the awe in Fred's eyes, and the delight in Cordelia's, and he kept silent.
"Okay," Cordelia said in a low voice, "I've panned-and-scanned the room twice now, and no Darla or Dru."
"No," Angel said. He tried to sense them, as best he could -- but in the first crush of the party, with more than a hundred human heartbeats pumping blood in rhythm around him, his senses weren't at their most acute. "Maybe they haven't arrived yet."
"So what do we do until they do?" Cordelia said. "Mingle? Because these guys look like a bunch of stiffs." She gave one of her best smiles to an older woman who passed near them.
The tension and uncertainty of the past weeks rose up inside Angel again --everything that had ever mattered to him depended on making the right decisions and taking the right actions in the next few hours. But giving into his fears wouldn't help either; he forced himself to relax, to focus, to find one element of this chaotic situation that he could happily concentrate on.
Cordelia's dress was the color of fireplace embers, fitted tightly around her waist and breasts, flaring into puffed sleeves that framed her face. Her white gloves called attention to her slim hands, and the earrings caught the shining light in her eyes. The band readied its sheet music and the crowd began reacting, getting into place for the first number of the evening. "Until then," Angel said, "we dance."
Cordelia raised an eyebrow. "You're gonna dance?"
"I'm not doing anything invented after 1910," Angel said.
"Guess that rules out that breakdancing contest for later," Gunn said. "Should I, like, try an accent?" Fred shook her head quickly.
"But before 1910 -- that's okay." Cordelia's smile was partly teasing, but partly happiness.
"Exactly." Angel took her hand and began leading her to the floor. "We'll have to make do with the waltz."
"Oh, I think I can handle that," Cordelia laughed.
Hearts like drumbeats, thump thump, thump thump. The drums were loud and fast, like in a nightclub. What was the nightclub Spike had liked so much, the one where she'd collected all those ears?
"See Bee Gee Bees," Dru sang happily.
"Very nice," Darla said absently as they walked closer to the ballroom. Grandmummy wasn't really listening, because she never did when it wasn't Daddy talking, or when it wasn't knives sticking out of people. The cut in Dru's chest still hurt, and she wondered if it would bleed as she danced, making a red rose in the middle of all her white ruffles.
"Roses are the reddest hearts of all," Dru said. "Spike shan't cut the flowers down, this time. They will grow without thorns, and Daddy won't have to bleed ever again."
Darla's eyes were sharp, cut glass, broken windows. "You almost made sense again."
"Sorry," Dru dropped her eyes. "I'm trying to cut back."
They went past a mirror in the entryway, and it was as naughty as all the other mirrors, and it would not show Dru how pretty she looked in her white satin dress. Spike and Angelus hadn't been there to tell her, and Darla only had eyes for her own frock, which was black as night. "You are the sky," Dru said. "I am the moon."
"We're about to be in public, Drusilla," Darla said sharply. "Save your poetry for those who appreciate it. Children and corpses and Spike."
The music had already begun, and the dancers whirled around the floor, confetti and coffee spoons. The man at the doorway was going to ask them for their names, and then he would say them very loudly. Dru did not like for just anyone to say her name. She looked into his eyes and beyond them, pulled up the damp rag inside him and wrung it out as she said, "We haven't any names. Not any at all."
"Not any at all," he repeated quietly, and he stepped aside to let them pass. Wring wring. Grandmummy was leading her into the room -- and then she stopped. Then Dru saw why.
Angelus was there. No, not Angelus -- Angel, awful Angel, Angel who set fires and dug up all the things that should be left buried. And the girl who saw things like she did, but differently than she did, and those others too.
"How -- how can this be?" Darla gasped. Her eyes were wide with shock, one hand to her throat. Around her wrist, her hologram bracelet glittered with all the little dancers.
Dru frowned, and all the lovely dancing lights in her head, the ones that had zoomed in when she read the book about the time machine, seemed to go out at once. "They came back," Dru said. "Didn't see that. Didn't see that page. Someone ripped it out, and tearing books is very naughty."
"Came back? They?" Darla repeated the words, but she only stared at Angel. "How can he be here? How can he be -- dancing?"
"Didn't see," Dru repeated. It was all wrong, all wrong, ink on the coverlet, screams near the policeman, holy water in Angel's eyes. She stamped her foot. "This is MY ending!" she insisted.
"Your ending? What do you mean?" Darla grabbed Dru's arm very, very hard. She stared at her with eyes that stabbed. The cut in Dru's chest hurt again.
"Blades," Dru whimpered. "Too many blades. The paper dolls are in little pieces. A hat, a foot, a head."
"Tell me about your dollies," Darla said, watching Angel glide across the floor with the girl in orange. "Tell me about the one with the dark hair."
"You won't listen," Dru insisted. "You've ribbons in your ears, Grandmummy."
"Try me," Darla said.
"The ladies do not wear turbans, of course," Charles said grandly to his small audience of rapt listeners. "They dress their hair in elaborate ways, with beads and braids, and wear fine cloaks of -- lemur fur."
The people around him looked suitably impressed. Fred tried very hard not to let her jaw drop. She'd known Charles for almost a year, during which she thought she'd seen just about every side of his personality: the angry side, the funny side, the gentle side, the ballet-crazy side. But she had never guessed that right down at the core, the guy was a complete ham.
"Your Majesty," one woman said breathlessly, "is the Caliph the ruler of all Madagascar?"
"Of course not, Bertha," her husband said with an apologetic smile in Charles' direction. "You should know what a caliph is. They are Islamic leaders, the direct descendants of the prophet Mahomet himself, and they are believed to be the divinely ordained speakers of God's will on earth. I had thought the caliphate was dismantled in the 13th century, but apparently it survives on in local custom, what?"
That's what a caliph is? Fred thought. I thought it was just a sheik or something. Charles looked similarly confused for a moment, but he just put one hand on his chest and smiled. "Yes. I'm -- one of them."
He glanced over at Fred, as if hoping that she would help him out. She smiled, hoping he'd see what she saw: Charles Gunn didn't need any help at all, not in this century or any other. Charles must have gotten the message, because he grinned in return.
A portly old man with a handlebar mustache boomed, "I say, is there much tribal warfare in Madagascar?"
Fred watched Charles consider being offended, then start being amused. "We have great and terrible wars," Charles said, in his best this-is-CNN voice. "Even now, my tribe -- the Lakers -- struggles to defeat our enemies, the Sacramento Kings."
"Ohh," the crowd said. Fred flipped her fan up in front of her face so she could grin unseen.
One-two-three, one-two-three --
Cordelia hadn't lied about the deb circuit; she'd had her white lace dresses and her pearls, the escorts who smelled like the beer they'd drunk in the parking lot. Her main memories of the balls were of having to juggle cheerleader practice around them. Certainly the dancing lessons she'd taken to get through had dropped off the radar screen, and now it took most of her energy to just remember what she was supposed to be doing.
Fortunately, Angel was a good lead, his hand strong against her back, guiding her gently around the floor. Cordelia had never seen Angel attempt club-style dancing, and she was pretty sure she didn't want to see him try, ever; however, when it came to this kind of dancing, it was clear he knew exactly what he was doing.
The chandeliers spun above their heads. Angel was smiling down at her. She was breathless from the corset, and from the dancing, and just from the strange joy of it. Weird but true, Cordelia thought: The deeper the trouble you're in, the more you want to enjoy what you've got.
"I don't believe it," she said. "You're a good dancer."
"I'm really not," Angel said. "I don't think I can stress that enough. But I know how to do this. It's not any different from swordfighting, really."
"Except for the swords. And the fighting."
He gave her that little half-smile. "Not like that. I meant -- you know how your body's supposed to move. You learn the motions and the timing through experience. Then, when you're in the moment, you can just -- go."
That sounds like something besides swordfighting, Cordelia thought. She was about to say as much when Angel's curse in all its permutations rose up in her mind, and she decided that was a mean thing to mention. She just smiled at Angel instead as they went through the last few steps, wondering why her spirits seemed so much lower all of a sudden.
By the time the dance ended, the corset was cutting into Cordelia and she had to gasp a little to catch her breath. As Angel led her back to where Gunn and Fred were waiting at the side of the ballroom, she stole a glance at the other female dancers, and noted with envy that none of them looked even slightly winded. There must be a knack to successful corset-wearing, she decided.
As they rejoined their friends, Gunn was looking unduly pleased with himself, and Fred was shaking her head. "Having fun?" Angel asked.
"Oh, sure," Fred said, quirking her mouth. "Nothing like hearing the Caliph here tell people they haven't lived until they've eaten lemur-kabobs."
"Lemur-kabobs?" Cordelia blinked, totally unable to get past the word.
"Pardon me," said a waiter -- no, Cordelia realized, not a waiter. But he was apparently part of the staff, and he was holding out a tiny branch bedecked in brilliant golden blossoms. "I was requested to bring this to you."
"Flowers," Gunn said, then started. "That's a message, right, Angel?" When Angel nodded, Gunn added, "Which one of the gi -- the ladies is this flower for?"
"For neither," the servant said, nodding in Angel's direction. "I was requested to bring it to this gentleman."
As the servant stepped away, Cordelia peered at the green-and-yellow branch in Angel's hand. "I don't know those flowers."
"They're -- acacia," Angel said haltingly, clearly recalling the information from a far-distant corner of his memory.
"So what message do acacia send?" Fred said.
"They symbolize secret love," Angel said. "That, or --" He was quiet for a few moments before he finished, "Or the immortality of the soul."
Cordelia turned even as Angel did. Darla stood several feet away, wearing black-satin and a dark-lipped smile. She spoke quietly, her voice barely carrying to them over the murmuring of the crowd. "Are you going to ask me to dance, Angelus? Or -- will I have to break protocol?"
Cordelia got the very distinct sense that when Darla said, "break protocol," she meant something a lot more obvious -- and dangerous -- than asking Angel to dance.
Angel's face was unreadable as he walked forward and offered his arm. "Please do me the favor," he said by rote. Darla took his arm and sailed off with him toward the dance floor.
Gunn spoke first. "How come Angel's dancing with her instead of wrestling her into a headlock?"
"Because the other vamps aren't here," Cordelia said, looking around. Spike and Drusilla were either not at the ball or not in her field of vision -- in other words, still unknown factors. "Taking out Darla doesn't do us much good if Spike and Dru are still on the loose."
"This is just -- not good," Fred said.
Cordelia threw all Angel's words about formality to the winds and folded her arms in front of her. "Ya think?"
"The mazurka is a fine dance, don't you agree?" Darla asked. She was positioned opposite Angel on the dance floor; he was lightly clasping her cool fingers as she executed the dance's slow, graceful steps in perfect time with the music the band was playing. "The waltz has passion, but the mazurka is refined. It is the dance of aristocrats."
Angel didn't reply. He was still concentrating on remembering a sequence of dance steps he hadn't used in more than a century, and concentrating even harder on Darla. Her gown was jet black, and that alone made her unique in a room filled with scarlets and blues and jades. If he knew Darla -- and he did, so very well -- it would amuse her to take traditional garb of demure mourning and turn it into something scandalous. If that had been her aim, she had succeeded: the sleeves of her gown were cut from muslin, leaving her arms outrageously exposed almost to the shoulder, and the gown's neckline plunged daringly low. Her lips were red and her hair was pinned into an elaborate cascade of tight curls.
She looked the way she had the very first night Angel had seen her in a tavern in Galway, a creature so exotically perfect she hardly seemed real.
"A pity you weren't alive when La Volta was the rage," she said. "Elegance and athleticism and scandal, all in one dance. It would have suited you admirably." Darla placed one foot behind the other and lowered herself into a curtsey. As she rose, Angel linked his arm with hers, and they circled each other.
"You dance well," Darla said. "I wonder if you remember who taught you how."
She was testing him, Angel realized. Still unsure exactly who he was, Darla had chosen to ask him something only he and she would know. "It was a Frenchwoman called Madame Voltaine," Angel said. "The year after we met. You arranged for private tuition because you said I should be able to pass for a gentleman." He took a step forward; Darla stepped back by the same distance.
Darla smiled. "And when you'd learnt what you needed to know, we made sure she never danced again. Those are such happy memories, aren't they?"
"Maybe for you," Angel said. "My perspective is different, now."
"Then the acacia was an appropriate token." Darla was no longer smiling, but beyond that, her face was unreadable.
"Yellow roses would have been even better."
Darla's expression was blank for a moment; then she gave an abrupt laugh. "To symbolize the death of our love? Oh, no, I don't think so. Yellow roses also stand for joy, and we had that in great measure. Or have you forgotten?"
Joy. She could look back on the things they'd done, the horrors they'd visited on the world, and she could call it joy. "I remember it better than you do. I've learned to see it in ways you can't."
"You learn what you're taught and no more," Darla said scornfully. "As you always were and will ever be. We're immortal, my darling. We don't change."
"I changed, Darla. You will, too."
Suddenly, he saw Darla not as she was but as she would be: lying on her back in an alleyway while the rain pelted down around them. Her face had been bare of makeup, contorted with pain from the contractions that wouldn't stop and wouldn't allow their son to be born. Her hair had been tangled and gray with filth washed into it by the water coursing along the gutter, and as she pushed the stake into her chest, Angel had seen in her eyes sorrow for what she was and love for their unborn son. That night, she hadn't been perfect. But she had been beautiful -- more beautiful than he had ever known her in all the centuries they'd spent together.
Angel realized -- of all the things Darla had been to him, and she had been so many -- only one mattered to him anymore. Darla was Connor's mother. She was the mother of his son. It outweighed everything: the murders, the sex, the torture, the betrayal, even his own death and damnation. It all had led to Connor's short life. His son had been in Darla's belly longer than in the rest of the world. Angel felt the quick, irrational urge to touch her there -- right beneath her navel, right where he'd felt Connor kick so long ago, where he would feel Connor kick in days yet to come. His hand was at her waist, so close --
Darla was looking at him intently, and he realized his face had revealed more than he'd intended. "There," she purred. "You still can't stop looking at me, can you? I see it in you. I'll believe many things, Angelus; I'll even believe in Drusilla's fantastical stories. But I'll never believe that our love could die."
Drusilla's fantastical stories --
Oh, God. Darla knew -- what did Darla know?
Her eyes glinted up at him, full of something that was half-mischief, half something far more dangerous.
Angel looked to the side of the ballroom, searching for Drusilla, but he couldn't find her. She must have wandered off while he'd been concentrating on Darla, he realized, and he hoped Cordelia and the others had been paying more attention to her movements than he had. But before she'd gone, Drusilla had managed to derail history again by telling Darla -- how much? He had no way of knowing. He would have to choose every word carefully, in case he inadvertently gave away some key piece of information.
The music shifted, the melody echoing itself and becoming more layered and complex. Around Angel and Darla, the other dancers paused for a single beat and then, in unison, slowly began to circle in the opposite direction. Darla dropped her left hand, made a half turn, and raised her right hand for Angel to take.
On her wrist, Cordelia's hologram bracelet -- the same one Groo had given her, the same one she had sold to the English tourists -- shone in the lamplight, scattering a myriad of tiny rainbows on to Darla's ivory skin. Angel blinked in surprise, then tried to hide his reaction. How the hell had Darla gotten that?
"Now," Darla said, "the dance becomes interesting."
Some things about the past, Drusilla decided regretfully, weren't as good as she remembered them. The dancing, for example.
From where she sat she could watch all the people, lined up in boring rows, repeating the same tiny movements over and over again like clockwork toys. Pull out the springs and they would all stop dancing. She wished they would stop. Dru thought about how people danced in the future, packed together in the dark and drowning in noise, a mass of bodies seething to the thudthudthud of music that wasn't. That kind of dancing had no rules, no discipline, and Drusilla loved to lose herself in its beautiful, blissful chaos. She'd forgotten that there had been a time when dancing had been all about rules. Drusilla hated rules.
She had tried to show some of the people moving in constricted little circles how dancing would be in the future, but the band wasn't playing the right kind of music at all and nobody seemed to want to join in with her. So now Drusilla was sitting by herself at the side of the dance floor, pouting and feeling bored.
Grandmummy had gone to dance with wrong, wrong Angel -- Dru could see them from where she sat, circling around each other like scorpions, freezing and scorching the air between them by turns. Grandmummy had gone to him even after Drusilla had told her who he was, and Dru didn't understand that at all.
At least Darla had someone to dance with her. Drusilla wanted Spike to come back. In the future, he would like the new way people danced. She was certain he would like it now, if she showed him how it was done.
Suddenly, Dru straightened up. Someone was watching her, someone's eyes and thoughts fluttering around the edges of her mind.
On the other side of the ballroom, a young man was standing apart from the crowd, holding a drink and watching Drusilla. He thought she hadn't noticed, silly-billy. His face was as blank as a tailor's dummy, but underneath Drusilla felt a brief, hot flash of lust, followed quickly by shame. Lovely thoughts, sweet like rotting fruit! Was his blood as sweet? Drusilla shivered in delight and anticipation. Flies were buzzing in her ears; they liked the fruit.
Lowering her fan, she smiled at the young man. His eyes darted from side to side, and when he realized there was no one else standing near him who she could be smiling at, he smiled back.
Still smiling, Drusilla held his gaze, and held it and held it and held it. Then, like a Venus flytrap closing around an insect, she caught his thoughts in hers and held him fast.
On the other side of the ballroom, the young man's hand dropped limply to his side, and his full glass crashed to the floor, shattering. As he began to cross the dance floor, walking in a straight line toward Drusilla, one of the servants moved in to mop up the spill.
"Little fishy on a hook," Drusilla said to herself. She held out her hands to him and he stumbled closer, brushing against couples as they whirled past, unheeding.
Angel and Darla wove in and out of the other couples, dancing together with enviable smoothness and grace. Of course, Cordelia thought sourly, if she'd had a couple of hundred years to practice, she'd be able to do the waltz or polka or whatever it was just as well. But what was bothering her most right now wasn't the way Angel was dancing with Darla but the way he was looking at her -- focused, intense, as if she were the only woman in the room. Just that look bothered Cordelia more than it should have.
Then again, Cordelia reminded herself, getting worried when Angel went anywhere near Darla was a rational response, given that she seemed to know exactly how to tie him up in knots without even trying. Maybe that was something else that came easily after several hundred years of practice.
"You watch the dancing with such attentiveness, it is truly an injustice you are not participating."
The voice speaking had an American accent, which in itself was enough to make Cordelia look around abruptly. The owner of the voice was a man about the same age as herself, although the formal evening he wore suit made him look older. "Huh?" she said, then remembered Angel's advice: Be controlled. Be formal. She raised her fan in what she hoped was a demure and ladylike manner. "I decided to sit this one out," she said.
The man smiled graciously. "It would not be healthy to over-exert yourself."
"Right," Cordelia agreed. "Plus, dancing in a corset isn't exactly easy."
The man paled in something akin to shock; his eyes went to the ceiling, then the floor, then back to the floor again. Ooops, Cordelia thought. Mentioning underwear obviously a major no-no. In an attempt to get the conversation back on track she said, "So, you're American, right?"
The man nodded and smiled, clearly relieved to have moved to a safer topic. "From New York, although I'm currently completing my studies in Paris." He bowed politely and, holding out his hand, said, "Barnaby Scott."
Cordelia took his hand and shook it -- probably, she thought afterward, a little too vigorously for a nineteenth-century lady. "Cordelia Chase. It's nice to hear a familiar accent." As soon as she said it, she realized how true it was. She hadn't realized until now how wearing it was, to be in a strange place, constantly surrounded by strange people speaking a strange language. "It really is."
Barnaby Scott nodded in agreement. "I have been fortunate to have the companionship of a fellow student during my time in Europe; however, one longs after a while to hear news from home."
News from home? Cordelia struggled to remember her high school history classes. "Well, it's been kind of busy what with, uh, Reconstruction and everything --" Out of the corner of her eye, Cordelia saw Fred hurrying toward them. Grabbing her by the arm, Cordelia pulled Fred into her conversation with Barnaby. "Fred -- uh, Winifred knows exactly what's happening back home in 1898, don't you?"
Fred looked a little flushed -- probably from the effort of carrying the weight of all that taffeta on her tiny frame -- and also distracted. Without really registering Barnaby, she said, "We annexed Hawaii and went to war with Spain over Cuba. And -- Cordy, I just saw Drusilla."
Barnaby's face registered confusion. "Hawaii? Do you refer to the Sandwich Islands?"
"What do sandwiches have to do with it?" Cordelia frowned as she squeezed Fred's arm. "Drusilla was here? You didn't tell me?"
"I saw her -- she was all in white, and I thought, that looks like Drusilla. And right as I was trying to figure out if it WAS Drusilla, she was gone." Fred shook her head. "I didn't see her leave. She was there, and then she wasn't. She's got that stealthy thing going on."
Barnaby said, "The war with Spain has far more complex causes than --"
"-- we don't need the geopolitics. Or the sandwiches," Cordelia said, waving a hand dismissively. "It's Drusilla we have to worry about."
"What is this word -- geopolitics?" Barnaby said, sounding increasingly bewildered. "And who is Drusilla?"
Cordelia said, "Drusilla is our -- friend. Sometimes she acts a little bit flaky, so we have to make sure she doesn't wander off alone."
"Maybe you saw her," Fred said hopefully. "She's got long, dark hair and she's wearing a cream gown with a red stole, and she's very pale. I mean, very, very pale."
Barnaby thought for a second. "Why, I saw Walter speak just a little while ago to a girl of that description."
"My traveling companion," Barnaby said. "We are both studying in Paris --"
"Right," Cordelia said, cutting him off. From the look on his face, interrupting men while they were talking was something else genteel young ladies didn't do. "And you saw Drusilla talking to him?"
"He looked quite rapt," Barnaby said.
"I just bet he did," Cordelia muttered under her breath. She glanced to where Gunn was still regaling a small crowd with increasingly outlandish tales of daily life in Madagascar, and realized there was no way she and Fred could extract him without attracting the attention of the whole ballroom. Fred had clearly reached the same conclusion.
"Come on," Cordelia said to Fred. "We're gonna stop Dru helping herself to snacks."
The band played faster, and the dancers steps quickened accordingly. When the dance required a full turn, Angel used the opportunity to scan the ballroom. There was Gunn, seated in the middle of a small knot of people who were listening to him in breathless wonder. Where Gunn was, Fred wasn't far away, and Angel spotted her at the side of his fanclub. Then he saw Cordelia, talking to a young, attractive man who was paying her more attention than he should --
"Jealous, my dear?" Darla asked. He looked at her, and saw her gaze had followed his own. "Don't be. She's only human, and a common, ill-bred human at that. She doesn't even know how to hold herself. But I know you, and I know why she fascinates you."
Tightly, Angel said, "You know much less about me than you think."
Darla smiled and executed a perfect turn. When she was facing Angel again, she said, "Really? I know she has the Sight. Isn't that what you found so delicious in Drusilla? Perhaps you're not so different as you would like to believe."
'I know she has the Sight.' Darla's words struck Angel with a deep, cold sense of dread. He put his arm around Darla's shoulders and they joined the other couples to form a long line of pairs. "What else has Drusilla told you?"
Darla laughed. "All kinds of secrets. Yours -- and theirs." She looked, deliberately, to Cordelia and Gunn and Fred, standing at the side of the dance floor. Her gaze lingered longest on Cordelia. "I don't pretend that it makes sense. I don't know what's the truth, and what's just Drusilla's gibberish. You were always her great interpreter, not I. But what I do know -- it's interesting, Angelus, what's become of you. What could become of them."
The line of couples broke apart, and Angel and Darla were dancing by themselves again. Darla raised her hand for the dance's final turn; Angel took it, but instead of holding her fingers lightly, he crushed her hand in his fist with all the strength he had. Darla stifled a gasp and instinctively tried to get free. Angel didn't let go.
In a low voice, he said, "Hurt her -- or any of them -- and you'll find out there are some ways I haven't changed at all."
She had to be in agony, but somehow Darla was still smiling. "That's what I'm hoping, my darling."
The band stopped, and the dancing couples broke apart and bowed politely to one another. Reluctantly, Angel released his grip on Darla's hand. Her fingers were clearly injured, and she quickly hid them in the folds of her dress.
"Until our next dance," she said as she walked away.
"I wish you would stop using crazy as a pejorative term," Fred said. "I'm not saying it's inaccurate; I'm just saying that mental illness can happen to anyone."
"What am I supposed to call her?" Cordelia muttered as they started to walk again. "Sanity-challenged? The girl's a loon. Tact won't change that." Fred noticed that Cordy seemed less nervous and more excited about their impending confrontation; after a long night of pretending to be demure and helpless, the urge to take action made sense.
At least, as much as confronting a craz -- a mentally unstable vampire in an alleyway ever made sense.
Fred pushed open the heavy door, allowing Cordelia to be the first to go outside and try to see Drusilla before Drusilla saw them. Although Fred didn't lack courage, one of the unwritten rules of Angel Investigations was that the people with superpowers should generally be the first into risky situations. When Cordelia motioned for her to follow, Fred went out into the alley herself; in an instant, her dress went from stiflingly warm to inadequate against the night chill.
Neither of them said anything as they began moving through the darkness, although they shared a glance as they realized how loud the rustling of their many petticoats could be in the silence. Fred fished in her tiny net-and-velvet evening bag and pulled out her stake. Cordelia would already have done the same.
Then she heard a man's voice, so slow and slurred that at first she thought he must be drunk: "You dance most beautifully."
"It's all jumping in the future." Fred had only heard her once before in her life, but there was no mistaking Drusilla's voice -- musical and broken and Cockney and ethereal all at once. "Jump and bounce and grind." The rustle of silk signaled how close she was -- just ahead, just around the corner where the alleyway met the street. Fred took a deep breath, but slowly, the better not to be heard. "I want to see you dance the way I dance. Then we'll eat. Can you jump for Mumsie?"
They paused in the last moment before they'd turn the corner. Cordelia gave her an encouraging glance, then counted silently with her fingers in the moonlight. Three, two, one --
Fred and Cordelia whirled around the corner as one. A man in an evening suit was doing a very, very poor imitation of 21st-century dancing. Drusilla's back was to them, but they could see her clapping. "So lovely, so lovely," she sing-songed. "Shake your groove thing."
In a very quiet voice, Cordelia said, "Apparently drinking her victims' blood isn't enough for Dru anymore. Now she's humiliating them to death." She pulled her stake back to strike. Fred held her breath. Could it be this easy?
Of course not. Drusilla spun about instantly, skipping back a step, neatly out of harm's way. Then, to Fred's astonishment, she beamed. "You're here!" Drusilla said. "Come and dance with me."
"We're not here to dance, Dru," Cordelia said.
Fred felt the back of her neck prickle, felt her every hair stand on end. "Um, Cordy?"
Through her teeth, Cordelia murmured, "Kinda busy here, Fred."
"I just have this funny feeling that Drusilla's not talking to us."
Fred and Cordelia each half-turned and saw him. He had a muddied overcoat, torn, with a few bloody fingerprints on one lapel. His eyebrows were raised, a sardonic half-smile on his face. Caramel-blond hair flopped over his forehead.
"Let me guess," Fred said. "This is Spike."
"My reputation precedes me," Spike said, swaggering toward them. "Brilliant. I'd ask your name now, except for the part where I don't care who you are so long as you die entertainingly."
"Spike, I hate to tell you this," Cordelia said, "but your hair's only going to get stupider as the years go by."
"What are you on about my hair?" Spike unconsciously reached up to touch his hair, which was when Cordelia punched him.
Drusilla screeched in anger, and Fred used one of those moves Gunn had taught her -- backwards hammer fist, and hard -- to whack her without even turning around. In the split second that both vampires were stunned, both she and Cordelia took off running. Almost as soon as they'd begun, Fred could hear Spike and Drusilla gaining on them, their original intended victim apparently forgotten.
"Gotta get -- to Angel -- " Cordelia gasped.
Fred nodded, trying to catch her breath and wondering how Cordelia could even move in a corset. "How did you know -- to insult -- his hair?"
They swung back through the door, their slippers sliding on the wood. The door slammed against the wall behind them -- the vampires were so close --
"Easy," Cordelia said. "You can always -- count on the vanity -- of a man who -- wears nail polish."
"I can hear you!" Spike yelled.
What would Drusilla have told her? There was no knowing, no guessing. Angel was sure of only one thing: Drusilla would have told Darla what she had to do with the gypsies to remove his soul -- or, at any rate, she would have tried. Did Darla understand her? If she didn't yet, she would eventually. Soon. It was only a matter of time before Darla came up with the answer and began the work of undoing his curse -- and all of history with it.
Darla was moving away from him through the crush of dancers, a lone storm cloud among the brilliant colors and laughter. She was cradling her crushed hand, and he felt a strange, terrible jab of guilt for hurting her. It was absurd -- beyond absurd -- to feel that way about a creature who had murdered thousands and would murder thousands more, among her victims his human self. But Angel could only remember that hand reaching for a stake, preparing to condemn herself to hell to give their son a chance to live.
That only happens if you stop her, Angel reminded himself. Quit brooding and move, dammit.
Angel quickly cut through the crowds to reach Gunn's side. He now had almost two dozen people circling him, enraptured. "Of course I keep a harem," Gunn was saying. "A man in my position has all the most beautiful women of the kingdom from which to choose. Women such as Naomi and Tyra and -- But perhaps I should say no more with ladies present."
"Oh, my," said an older woman, her cheeks quite pink. "It's all quite different if it's a matter of, ah, native custom --"
"Pardon me," Angel said as smoothly as he could. "I need to address the Caliph on a personal matter."
Gunn's eyes narrowed, but he was still calm and magisterial as he nodded to his listeners. "You will of course excuse us." Buzzing animatedly, the crowd dispersed and Gunn leaned closer. "What's up with your ex?"
"She knows a hell of a lot," Angel said. "Drusilla's told her about all of you, at least in part."
"How much can she possibly know about me and Fred?" Gunn said. "I got the impression that even Cordy hadn't seen too much of her."
"Drusilla knows -- more than she ought to," Angel said. "She sees the future, sometimes. She sees dreams. Sometimes she creates dreams. Don't underestimate her."
"After that whole world-on-fire business? No chance of that." Gunn scanned the room. "Speaking of Drusilla, I still haven't seen her. Or this Spike guy -- I mean, I wouldn't know him, but I figure the random bloodshed might give him away."
Angel realized who else was missing. "Did Cordelia and Fred -- have they gone back to the hotel, or --"
"No. And no. Damn," Gunn said. "We gotta find 'em."
"Angel!" Cordelia yelled. He turned to see Cordelia and Fred running into the room as fast as they could, all pretense to gentility gone. And behind them --
"What have we here?" Spike shouted jubilantly. "It's PARTY TIME!" He grabbed a violin from one of the musicians and brought it down, with a crack, on one of the dancers' heads. People began to scream.
"And that's Spike," Gunn said. Angel nodded.
"It's my party, and you'll die if I want to, die if I want to, die if I want to --" Drusilla crooned.
Cordelia's alive, Angel told himself. All three of the vampires I need to catch are here in this room, and we've got them outnumbered. Why doesn't this feel more encouraging?
"You heard the man," Gunn said, pushing up his sleeves as he and Angel began charging forward. "Let's party."
Fools. Worse than fools.
Humans were screaming and carrying on; at least four women had already swooned, and some of the men looked likely to follow. Darla stared at Spike and Drusilla in undisguised contempt. Her plan -- the one and only plan they had to save Angelus from a fate so much worse than death -- had in just moments gone from risky-but-likely to almost impossible. All so Spike and Dru could have a brawl.
"My God! That man -- he's not a man --" someone cried, pointing at Spike.
Darla savagely punched the man who'd shouted in the solar plexus. As he doubled over behind her, she muttered, "The sooner they have their fun, the sooner we can get out of here."
When it was all over, she'd tell Angelus how they'd nearly ruined everything. And then maybe they could finally rid themselves of Spike and Dru for once and for all.
In the meantime, she'd have her own fun getting rid of some of the obstacles to their plan, starting with the brunette in the orange dress.
Cordelia felt rather than saw Angel coming toward her; when Drusilla was jerked out of her line of sight, she knew it was Angel who had grabbed her. Knowing Angel was fighting near her was just about the only thing that made it possible to run forward toward Spike like it was no big deal. Just another vampire. No worries.
Spike was smashing his way through the bandstand, enjoying doing damage to the musical instruments more than the musicians, at least so far. He side-kicked a cello into pieces, strings popping everywhere. "Whoa! Flying wood," he laughed, ducking his own debris. "Very bad."
"Staking wood," Cordelia said, bringing up her stake as she got in front of him. "Even worse."
"You," Spike snarled. In an instant he was at her side, out of striking range. "First, what the hell is nail polish? Second, anyone wearing earrings like THOSE shouldn't be talking about vanity."
Cordelia whirled around again, keeping him facing her, keeping him engaged. Where were some demon powers when you really needed them? she thought frantically. The stupid Powers really could have left her an instruction manual or something. Demonic Powers for Dummies. As it was, she was probably only going to be able to stall him until Angel got there. Together, they could take him. "You'll find out about the nail polish," Cordelia said. "Unfortunately for us all."
"You're a rather confident young lady, aren't you?" Spike said. "Quick with the japes and the stakes. Are you one of those Slayers I hear tell about?"
"Me? A Slayer?" Cordelia started to laugh, genuinely surprised and a little flattered.
In the moment her eyes half-closed with laughter, Spike's hand clamped around her neck. 'Vanity, vanity," he whispered. "All is vanity."
Cordelia swung the stake backwards -- stubby end first -- into Spike's groin. Spike howled and loosened his grip for the one moment she needed to pull herself free --
Another hand grabbed her by the wrist. Cordelia's eyes went wide as she saw Darla smiling at her.
"You're a pretty thing," Darla said. "I'll admit that."
Then she jerked Cordelia's arm behind her savagely, spinning Cordelia around and sending shockwaves of pain through her whole body. The world went gray around the edges, and Cordelia felt herself reeling from agony and shock.
She gasped in a breath to scream, but instead cried out again, "Angel!"
Angel's arm was raised, poised to drive the stake he held into Drusilla's chest as she lay on the floor in front of him. He'd only have a second before she came out of her daze, but that was okay with Angel. This time he wasn't going to hesitate. No regrets, no split second indecision, nothing.
Cordy. She was in trouble.
Instead of staking Drusilla, Angel whirled around, leaving Drusilla on her knees on the dance floor, where he hoped Gunn would finish her off. Drusilla was a lot less important right now than Cordelia. Angel shoved his way through the still panicking crowd, so jammed together in the hall that they could barely flee. There she was, with Spike AND Darla on her, hanging awkwardly from the arm bent at an unnatural angle behind her. Darla was gripping Cordelia's arm savagely; she saw Angel and smiled brightly. She meant to kill Cordelia as he watched.
Darla reached down and buried her long, white fingers in Cordelia's dark hair. Her fingernails were just at the hairline, and Angel knew what she meant to do. He'd seen her do it often enough, a slash of the nails, a superhuman tug on the hair, and the scalp would peel off just like a -- wig.
"What?" He could hear Darla's amused bewilderment as she brought up only Cordelia's dark wig in her hand. Cordelia's head slumped forward slightly; she was clearly disoriented from the pain. Angel brutally shoved a few people out of his way, struggling to get closer before Darla stopped laughing. Even now she was focusing her attention on Cordelia again --
WHAM! A silver tray slammed into Darla's head. Angel blinked as he saw who had swung it: Fred, who looked both panicked and fairly pleased with herself. Darla lost her grip for a moment, and Cordelia fell to the floor.
Angel got to Spike first; he was doubled over and somewhat dazed. He looked up at Angel and said, "Oh, there you are. Where have you been?"
Angel punched Spike hard in the face. Spike staggered back, swearing in surprise and fury -- then suddenly jabbed out with something pointed and wooden. Angel felt a second of panic as he realized he wasn't going to be able to dodge the blow, which swiftly turned to relief when he saw Spike's improvised weapon pierce his stomach, not his chest. Finally pure, sharp pain washed away relief and, for a long moment, everything else.
Angel looked dully at the wood sticking out from his abdomen as blood began to pool on the front of his tuxedo shirt. Funny, he thought when he could think again. Who would've thought being run through with a violin bow would hurt so much --
And then he thought, Dammit, impaled AGAIN.
With his last of his strength, Angel lifted Spike up and threw him, as hard as he could, into Darla. Both vampires went sprawling onto the ground, and Angel staggered, trying to keep his footing despite the agony in his gut. Cordelia was on her knees beside him, holding her arm. "Angel -- my shoulder -- "
"Charles!" Fred cried. Drusilla had gotten her second wind. Angel saw Fred running to Gunn's aid, but he couldn't go to help them -- Spike and Darla were getting up, and Cordelia couldn't fight, so he would have to protect them both, somehow. His head reeled with the pain in his belly, and Angel forced himself to focus. He tried to ball his hands into fists -- he could if he had to.
"Drusilla!" Darla called. "Come here!"
"But I'm only getting started!" Drusilla whined. Spike sneered at Angel and started to throw himself forward, but Darla's hand shot out, holding him in place.
Darla said. "Both of you! We're leaving! Now!" She looked at Angel --bleeding, weak, and, he realized, obviously unable to follow her -- and smiled. "Forever," she said. "We promised each other forever. And I keep my promises."
Angel wanted to say something, but at that moment his legs gave out and he crumpled on his knees beside Cordelia. Spike started laughing as Drusilla ran to their side; Darla looked at Angel for one more lingering moment before pulling them both away.
"Angel? Cordy?" Gunn panted as he ran up to them, his turban now somewhat askew. "Y'all okay?"
Angel took hold of the violin bow with one hand, put his other hand in his mouth, then yanked out the bow. His teeth broke the skin of his palm, and the splash of his own blood on his tongue was enough to keep him from passing out. As soon as he could speak, he said, "Follow them."
"The vampires?" Fred said. "But -- if we're going to fight them -- we need you guys --"
"I can't fight right now," Cordelia said. She was slowly flexing the fingers of her injured arm. "It's not broken, but it's not good."
"Don't fight them," Angel said. "Try not to let them see you, if you can help it. If they're going after the gypsy camp tonight, we have to know it. Find out where they're headed, then come back for us. I'll be all right in a couple of hours, and Cordelia -- I'll take care of Cordelia."
"Follow the vamps," Gunn said. He glanced around the now-empty room, littered with fans, flowers, sheet music and canaps. "These Victorians sure know how to throw a party."
Darla lifted the skirts of her gown higher in a futile attempt to keep the mud off them. But the path they were following through the forest was barely a track, and her ballgown was ruined. Everything, she thought bitterly, was ruined.
"If you're not going to tell us what's going on, at least say where we're going," Spike said, holding his chest and grimacing a little as he tried to keep up with her.
Darla didn't answer Spike because, for once, she didn't have the answers. Confused and disconcerted, she was acting on little more than instinct, and her instincts told her that in desperate situations, the best response was to buy time to think, to hole up somewhere safe and dark. "We need a place to gather our strength," she said, explaining what Spike should have known long ago. "A place far away from the others."
"A cave!" Drusilla squealed joyfully. "A lovely cave, damp and cold, with spiders and little crawly things. I know a lovely cave for us to play in. So close, so close."
"The closest one will do," Darla said. Sure enough, they came upon one very soon, and despite Drusilla's protests, she was able to herd her unruly charges inside.
"I liked it better when we were planning on holing up in a luxury hotel suite," Spike said.
The cave's interior was indeed damp and cold. Darla sat down on a low outcrop of rock and rubbed the sides of her head with her fingertips, willing the last few hours to make some kind of sense. But it was impossible to concentrate, because Drusilla had started to spin around and around in the middle of the cave, her arms outstretched, tunelessly singing one of her made-up songs. "Blood on the dance floor, blood on the knife, Drusilla's got your number, Drusilla says it's right..."
Spike folded his arms resolutely across his chest. "I'm not moving until I get some ANSWERS."
Darla raised her head and looked at them, loathing for both Spike's tantrums and Drusilla's ravings welling up within her. They were like children, she thought with disgust. No, they were worse than children, because at least children eventually grew up. Spike and Drusilla were eternal infants, artlessly and clumsily savage, more often hindrances than helpmeets. Right now, Darla could imagine no greater pleasure than to rid herself of both of them, permanently. She imagined the grit of their dust beneath her fingernails with a kind of grim delight.
But she clenched her teeth and then balled her one uninjured hand into a fist. It was hard to admit, even to herself, but Darla needed them. Without Spike, she couldn't keep Drusilla. Without Drusilla, she couldn't get Angelus back again. And that was not a possibility Darla was prepared to consider. Just a few days more, and she could wash her hands of them. Just as soon as she had her darling boy back once more.
Maintaining a civil tone with difficulty, she said, "What answers do you require, Spike?"
For a second, Spike looked a little shocked that his outburst had produced a response -- usually, Darla simply ignored him. Then, recovering himself, he raised a hand and started to list points on his fingers. "Well, let's see. I want to know where those two stake-wielding harpies back there came from, for a start. I want to know why Angelus was siding with THEM against US. Above all, I want to know -- what the HELL is nail polish?"
Drusilla broke off singing and took Spike by the hands. "Pixies' paint pots, tiny little brushes for fingertips. I'll paint mine red like blood and you'll paint yours black like your black, black heart."
Spike laughed. "Damn. I was hoping it had something to do with nails of the metal variety. Preferably being hammered into people."
Drusilla shook her head at Spike, chastising him with a teasing grin and a waggling finger. Darla narrowed her eyes. There it was again -- that same strange lucidity Dru had been displaying lately. Darla had noticed it when Dru had called her bracelet 'hollow' back at the villa, and again when she saw Angelus at the ball. In fact, Darla thought suddenly, almost all Drusilla's instances of near-sanity seemed to relate to Angelus.
Spike stopped laughing and draped one arm casually over Drusilla's shoulder. "Pixie paint -- that's one question answered. How about the rest?"
"The women at the ball are of no consequence," Darla said, although as she said it she could not help but recall the girl in the orange gown and the way Angelus had looked at her. "They'll die soon enough. Angelus is -- not himself at the moment."
"Not himself," Drusilla repeated, and giggled. "Not himself, he's someone else. He's Angel."
In a second, Darla had covered the ground between them. She struck Drusilla so hard she flew backward, colliding with the cave wall with an audible crack then sliding down it until she was sitting on the cave floor. Darla leaned down so that she was nose to nose with Drusilla. "You will never, ever call him that. He is Angelus. He is Angelus, my Angelus. His name is feared on three continents, and it always will be, or I --" Darla broke off with a choke, abruptly aware that Drusilla's face was wavering before her through a haze of tears. She blinked them back before they could well over.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and Spike's strong grip spun her around so she was facing him. His face shifted, showing his demon's aspect, and he snarled, "Lay a finger on Drusilla like that again and I will rip out your throat -- and somehow I don't think Angelus or Angel or whatever he wants to call himself will show up to stop me."
"Spike..." Drusilla's voice was soft. "Don't be angry with Grandmummy. She's sad because he's gone away."
"My heart bleeds," Spike muttered, but he changed back to his human face and relaxed his grip on Darla's arm.
Darla cared nothing for Spike's bluster; typical, she thought, that he'd threaten her with something messy and showy that would actually harm her not at all. She was still looking at Drusilla. In a quiet voice, she said, "You know, don't you? These things you've been prattling about -- pixie paint and hollow bracelets -- they're not things you've seen in fugues and dreams, are they? You're describing things that are real. Everything you've said about Angelus, about those accursed gypsies --" Darla broke off, aware that Spike was listening intently. "Tell me, Drusilla, how do you know?"
"I came back," Drusilla said simply.
Darla felt anger mount into rage within her. The truth, she was certain, was locked up inside Drusilla's head, as jumbled and unintelligible as the rest of her thoughts. "You never went away, you stupid, demented idiot --"
"The future," Drusilla whispered. "It's all metal, you know. It was in the book, it was all in the book!"
"The book I found. The book I will find." Drusilla held her hands up as if in a shrug. "I was digging in the loveliest tomb. Faded flowers and dried skin like little sheets of paper. Gray as doves, and when I breathed on them, they rustled like silk." This was just the sort of thing that made Darla long to slap Drusilla's face, but she forced herself to listen in silence. "The hands held a book. I peeled back the fingers. Snap, snap. Then I had the book. That man who died had wanted to take the book with him. He didn't want anybody else to read it. Naughty man. He didn't want to share his time machine."
Spike groaned. "Oh, not THAT cheap penny dreadful."
Darla's head snapped up. "You know what she's talking about?"
Spike shrugged and looked just a little embarrassed. "I wouldn't even have started reading the bloody book except that the bloke I got it from was so engrossed by it he never even twitched until I had his throat out. I figured anything that absorbing had to be worth a couple of hours. Turned out to be rubbish, though."
Darla felt the faint, flickering hope she had been nurturing start to die. She had almost been prepared to give credence to Drusilla's stories -- but that was all they were: stories. And not even Drusilla's.
"What was this book?" she asked tiredly. "Who wrote it?"
"Some talentless penny-a-liner called Wells. It's called The Time Machine." Spike scowled. "If I had a time machine, I'd go back and stop him ever putting pen to paper."
"Is it true?" Darla asked Drusilla. "Is this all just a story?"
"A story," Drusilla said happily. "Not THAT story. A different one. But the same. The same and different too. Spike's story isn't supposed to be true, but it is. My story's supposed to be true, but it's not." Her face clouded a little. "Not yet. The pages are changing."
Darla turned around and started to walk away.
Behind her, Drusilla's voice softly added, "It's Angelus' story. I came back to change it, Grandmummy. We have to make my story true."
Darla stopped. She looked around.
A time machine, she thought. Then: Drusilla came back. She knows because she came back.
A time machine. It wasn't possible -- but it would explain so much. It would explain the Angelus with whom she'd danced at the ball, who had grown so used to the soul the gypsies had given him that he scorned Darla and lavished his affections on a human woman. Was that how Angelus' story ended?
But it could still be changed. Angelus could be restored. And once he was, with command over time itself -- what power they would wield together!
Trembling with excitement, Darla looked at Spike. "You know where the gypsy camp is, don't you?"
He brightened immediately. "Yeah, I found them. Are we going to do some real killing tonight?"
"Soon," Darla said. "Very soon. But there's one more element to put into place first. Go and find Angelus, Spike. Bring him here."
"Bloody hell!" Spike exploded. "Make up your mind! We just LEFT Angelus, or have you forgotten?"
How to explain it without giving too much away? For a second, Darla was at a loss, until Drusilla helpfully said, "That wasn't Angelus, silly."
"It bloody felt like Angelus' fist in my face," Spike said sourly.
"It wasn't," Darla said. "I spoke to that creature. It wasn't Angelus. It was some -- some wraith or phantom that merely looked like him."
"Well, if that wasn't Angelus, where is he? And how do you expect ME to find him?"
Losing her patience, Darla snapped, "With a divining rod, if you have to! You're of his line, Spike, you can find him. And when you do -- no matter how he behaves, what he says -- BRING HIM TO ME."
Darla shouted the last words with such vehemence that Spike actually took a step back. She smiled to herself, satisfied that she had reasserted her dominance. For now, at least.
"Don't get your knickers in a twist, I'm going." Spike leaned down and kissed Drusilla lightly on the crown of her head. "See you later, love."
"Bye-bye," Drusilla said. As Spike left, she lifted her hand and waggled her fingers, waving after him like a small child. She looked up at Darla and smiled. "The boys aren't here, and it's just us girls."
"That's right," Darla said. "And you can tell me stories to your heart's content."
"I have a ring," Drusilla said, holding up her hand. A golden band glinted on one finger. "Aren't I a pretty bride? We can go to my cave and see the fire on the ceiling. The fire's a door. Ding-dong! Avon calling. Doorbells ring. My ring."
Darla wanted to snatch the ring from Drusilla to make her concentrate -- but then she thought, could the ring play a part in this too? What did she mean by a ceiling of fire? Nothing Drusilla said, however bizarre, could be ruled out.
Hunkering down next to Drusilla, Darla repeated, "It's just us, and you're going to tell me everything you know about books and time machines and the future. And, believe me, this time I am listening to every word."
The night was cold, and Fred shivered as she crouched behind a fallen tree trunk, watching the entrance of the cave where they had seen the three vampires go in.
Charles looked at her in concern. "You cold? You want to borrow my turban?" He meant it sincerely, but there was something so funny about the idea of Charles Gunn offering to lend her a bright red turban made from strips of curtain to keep her head warm that Fred couldn't help but giggle. He smiled back at her. "Seriously. This thing's toasty. Add some earflaps, and you're talking about quality protection from the elements."
"It's okay. But thanks anyway." She looked at the cave entrance and became serious again. "I don't understand this. Why would they come all the way out into the forest to hide out in a cave?"
"It doesn't make sense," Charles agreed. "But as long as Darla and the rest of Angel's vampire relations are hiding in a cave and not doing any history-changing gypsy killing, I ain't gonna complain."
Fred looked at their surroundings, suddenly realizing the clearing where the cave entrance was located wasn't completely unfamiliar. "Yes, except that the portal that the time machine made -- the one that links 1898 to the future --isn't far from here."
"No way," Charles said. "That was, like, miles away. Ten miles or something."
"I keep telling you, it wasn't nearly that far. I can't tell exactly in the dark, but we're pretty close." An unpleasant thought struck her. "Charles, do you think that's why they came here? Maybe Drusilla told Darla about the time machine."
Charles' face was grim as he said, "I really hope not. The twenty-first century only just got rid of Darla; it doesn't need her back again. Besides, Darla knew there was a time machine around here, she wouldn't be near it --she'd be in it." He put his hand on Fred's arm. "Someone's coming out."
They tensed, and watched as a shadowy figure emerged from the cave entrance. Even in the darkness, it was possible to tell that the silhouette was distinctly male. "That's Spike," Fred whispered. "Should we follow him?"
Charles nodded. "Darla might be sending him to find the gypsies."
They crept forward, treading as lightly as possible on the soft earth. Following a person unseen was hard, Fred thought, but following a vampire with heightened senses of hearing and smell and perfect night vision was a different magnitude of difficulty again. To be certain of remaining undetected, they'd have to stay so far behind Spike they'd probably lose him before they knew where he was going --
"Bloody hell," Spike said and turned around.
Fred and Charles ducked behind a dense bush. Fred held her breath and put her hand over her chest, as if she could muffle the sound of her heart beating. Spike must have heard them, or somehow sensed them --
But Spike was looking back at the cave entrance, not Fred and Charles' hiding place.
"Should just go right back in there," he said in a low voice. "Tell the stupid bint she can't order me around." Raising his voice to a simpering falsetto, he said, "'You're of his line, Spike, you can find him.'" Then, in a more normal tone: "Even when he's gone it's Angelus this, Angelus that. You'd think the whole bloody world revolved around him. Well, fine. If she wants him, she can damn well have him. They can be happy making each other miserable, and Dru and I can have some fun."
Abruptly, Spike turned and set off back along the forest track at a brisk pace.
"She's sent him after Angel," Charles said.
"No..." Fred said slowly. "I think -- I think Darla's sent Spike after the other Angel, the one who's just been cursed. And there's only one reason she'd want him."
Charles looked at her. "She's gonna do it -- she's gonna make the gypsies lift the curse. Come on." He started to run -- but in the opposite direction to the one Spike had taken.
Fred hesitated, confused. "Aren't we going to follow Spike?"
Charles shook his head. "If we're going to stop this, we're gonna need supernatural help -- injured or not."
Too bad, Cordelia thought tiredly. I kinda liked that wig.
The image that faced her in the mirror now was a far cry from the glamour of a few hours ago. Instead of a crown of long, dark hair, she had her old Golden Shimmer crop, somewhat flattened by a night of wearing the wig. Instead of the correct, regal posture she'd had earlier, she was slumped over as far as the corset would allow. Her puffed sleeves had been mashed down in the melee and now reminded her vaguely of a collapsed souffl she'd seen once at a dinner party. Her gloves were bloodstained and crumpled on the floor. Only her earrings, still dazzling and bright, had the same glitter.
"You're sure nothing's broken?" Cordelia could hear the concern in Angel's voice, was aware of his physical presence next to her, but the mirror only showed one weary, slightly bruised face, and that was hers. For once, she envied Angel's lack of a reflection.
But when she turned to look at him, she saw his condition had already visibly improved in the hour since they'd stumbled up the hotel stairs to their suite. At first they'd been able to do no more than collapse (Angel on the floor, Cordelia in a nearby chair) and try to recover. But Angel's vampiric regeneration kicked in quickly. He was already moving more comfortably; the blood that soaked his tuxedo shirt might as well have been shed by someone else.
"All I need is some sleep," she said tiredly. "I need to get undressed, Angel. And I can't really do it myself." She half-lifted her injured arm --wincing as she did so -- by way of demonstration.
Angel looked completely flustered for a moment. Before Cordelia could even wonder why -- it wasn't like he hadn't seen her in her underwear before, for Pete's sake -- he had collected himself. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should have thought."
She turned away to give him better access to the back of her dress. She felt Angel begin unfastening the buttons that ran along her spine, surprisingly deftly for a man with such big hands, she thought. Then she half-smiled, realizing Angel had probably done this many, many times before.
His hands worked their way down to her painfully constricted waist. "You probably want to get rid of this corset, too," Angel said. She felt his fingertip catch in the ribbons that bound it so tightly closed.
"The word 'duh' is so appropriate, and yet it just doesn't say enough," Cordelia said. When Angel hesitated, she laughed a little. "That means yes. Take this evil, evil contraption from hell off my body."
Angel pulled her sleeves down her arms, going slowly, careful of her injured shoulder. Cordelia winced, and he hesitated. "I'm not hurting you?"
"A little," she admitted. "But not as badly as this corset. Keep going."
Angel slipped the dress down over her hips, and it billowed to the floor, a flash of color at her feet. Then he began unfastening the corset, loop by loop, and Cordelia felt her grateful ribs expand outward. She took in a deep breath that filled her lungs for the first time all night. The rush of oxygen hit her bloodstream, and the room wavered around her for a moment.
"Cordy?" Cordelia realized that she'd swayed on her feet; Angel had caught her around the waist, bracing her against him. She leaned against his chest gratefully; he seemed like the only still, solid thing in the room. "You're hurt worse than I thought --"
"No, really, I'm all right," Cordelia protested. She covered his arm with her own; the motion sent jabs of pain through her arm, but she forced herself not to groan. "It was just a whole lotta air all of a sudden. Felt nice. Hey, I guess I'm one of the natives now -- I swooned."
"I should have thought to lay in a supply of smelling salts." She could tell Angel was smiling as he said it. As she'd hoped, he stepped back a little, reassured, and finished loosening her corset. She thought he would remove it immediately, but instead he gently took off her earrings and dropped them on the bedside table, where they glinted in the faint light from the oil lamp. Then he ran both of his hands through her matted-down hair; it was surprising how refreshing that felt, to have her hair fluffed back up again. Finally, he pulled the corset away from her and tossed it aside. Cordelia would have thrown it very, very hard, but he had the basic idea. She took a few more deep breaths, relishing her body's relative freedom. But she could still feel bands of pain where the corset's boning had been.
She looked down in dismay to see that her camisole was stuck to her skin from sweat and pressure; the lines of the corset had dug into her flesh the way the seams did on too-tight jeans, only far more brutally. Carefully, she took the fabric in her uninjured hand and peeled it away from her sore skin. "Owww. And ow. Every crappy thing I ever said about feminism? I take it back. Any movement that got rid of these things is A-OK by me."
"You'll have marks for a while," Angel said. He paused for a moment, then said, "I can help a little. Lie down."
Cordelia sat gratefully on the bed and carefully worked her way into a reclining position. As Angel moved toward her, she grimaced. "Angel, you have got to take that off." She gestured at his shirt. "I think we have freaked out the hotel management enough without getting blood all over the bedspread."
"Oh. Right." He quickly stripped off the shirt; though she'd seen him without it countless times, Cordelia realized it had been a while since she'd been called on to bandage up his wounds, or chatted with him after he got out of the shower. She smiled a little as he half-turned to toss the ruined shirt on the floor and let her glimpse the gryphon tattoo for the first time in months. Angel moved as though he was going to sit beside her, saw her smile, then paused. "Cordy?"
Feather mattresses were beautiful things, Cordelia thought. Down pillows. The bed was so soft, so welcoming. "Yeah, Angel?"
"I've been thinking -- I mean, I was wondering --" He gave her a look that was far harder and more searching than she'd expected. "You haven't mentioned Groo at all. This whole time. I was just -- aren't you worried about him?"
Groo. Cordelia remembered his sweet grin in a flash of memory that was gone as soon as it came. Angel was right: Not only had she not mentioned Groo, he hadn't even entered her thoughts. Guilt stabbed at her briefly, but it faded in an instant. "If you were evil, I never ended up working with you in L.A.," she reasoned. "That means I didn't get sucked through to Pylea, so Grooie and I never even met. In the altered reality, he's in Pylea, being a champion and loving life. In other words, Groo's the lucky one."
"Yeah," Angel said, looking down at her. "I guess he is."
Something about the look on Angel's face made her feel suddenly embarrassed. What would Groo think if he could see her like this -- undressed on the bed, waiting for Angel --
Well, Groo couldn't see her. But Cordelia rolled over on her stomach, all the same.
She felt the mattress sink slightly as Angel sat next to her. He began rubbing her back, his fingertips massaging the angry lines where the corset had been. It hurt -- but in a good way. Cordelia could feel the indentations along her back begin to soften as he went. "How's that?" he said.
"Good. Better than good. Keep going." He did. The muscles of her back, strained from her injury and the fight, began to relax beneath his touch. "God, that's terrific. Where did you learn to give such a great massage?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
Cordelia smiled into the pillow. She'd have to beg or bribe that story from him sometime -- sometime when she didn't need him to keep going as much as she did right now. Then she reconsidered their situation, and the smile faded from her face. "I guess we kinda blew it tonight."
"It's not over yet," Angel said quickly. "They got away from us, yeah. That doesn't mean we're not going to catch up with them in time."
"But that was our best shot," Cordelia said slowly. "You said so yourself." Angel's hands were still for a moment, and she knew he was struggling to find a way to console her. When he said nothing, she felt fear settle over her, more overwhelmingly than at any other moment in their journey into the past -- because this was the moment when she finally had to face that they could be trapped forever. She'd avoided thinking about the worst-case scenario all this time, but she could avoid it no longer.
Quietly, she whispered, "You can't stake the past you, Angel. Even if they uncurse him. You can't."
"I'll have to."
"If you vanish -- Angel, if you die, if you're not in the world for the next 100 years, that could be as bad as Angelus being around. Maybe worse." It felt worse. Panic was flooding Cordelia's heart.
Angel, perhaps sensing her fear, began stroking her back again. "Shh. Cordelia, that won't happen. If I have to stake Angelus -- well, we know from Drusilla's example that I won't just vanish --"
"Unless you try to come back with us," Cordelia said. Then she glanced over her shoulder. "You mean -- you wouldn't come back with us?"
Angel shook his head, some of his old tiredness back in his face again. "I know what I did the past 104 years. What I didn't do. If the only way for me to protect the world is to do it all over again, then -- I guess I'll have to do it."
"All of it? Just repeat the last century?" Cordelia's mind was whirling at the very thought.
"It might not be that bad," Angel said, entirely unconvincingly. "Lots of great things in the 20th century. Jazz, and V-E Day, and, uh -- Jack Nicklaus' last Masters."
Cordelia sighed out heavily. "I can see right through you. Angel, you do NOT want to go through all that again. The Dust Bowl and Vietnam and, and -- " She half-turned onto her side, ignoring the cramp in her shoulder. "Angel, would you go find Buffy like you did the first time?"
"Of course," Angel said. "That would be part of making everything come out right again. A pretty big part." He gently guided her to where she was lying flat on her stomach again, then went back to work on her aching muscles. His strokes were strong, almost painful as they bore down upon her back, and yet her body went warm and liquid as he touched her.
She whispered, "Would you fall in love with Buffy again?"
Angel was quiet for a moment. He finally said only, "I don't know. I couldn't know. A hundred years from now -- it's a long time." Then he patted her back, almost playfully, and with forced cheer said, "Do you think you're going to avoid working for me in L.A.? You're not getting out of it that easily. I won't let you."
Cordelia smiled, snuggling down into the soft pillows and mattress. She could see Angel's silhouette on the far wall; the warm, golden light of the oil lamp traced around the shadow of his body, as well as hers, stretched on the bed beneath him. His chin was low, his eyes perhaps focusing on the small of her back. For some reason it was interesting, watching him watch her.
"Of course," she murmured, "we might have completely botched things up, and then we'd have to stay here with you." The prospect should have terrified her; it did quicken her heartbeat, make her fingers curl along the edge of the coverlet. But what she felt wasn't really terror at all. "Maybe we'll all be together."
"I want you guys to be able to go back," Angel said. "But -- Cordy -- I'd miss you. A lot."
"Of course you'd miss us," Cordelia said. "I'm just saying, you might not have to. We might be stuck here together." It was too much to be scary. She couldn't do anything but smile. "What kind of a suffragette do you think I'd make?"
Angel paused, but then she heard him laugh a little. "I think women might get the vote a lot sooner."
Cordelia made up her mind, with the firm resolution best brought about by fear, that being stuck in the past with Angel wouldn't be like being stuck at all. These corsets wouldn't be in style too much longer, and at least she'd have her friends with her. The mission -- well, there'd still be plenty of vampires and demons around to be stopped, right?
She relaxed further, letting go of the last vestiges of worry. The massage was definitely helping with that. God, Angel had great hands.
Then she remembered those same hands clasping Darla's as they'd circled one another on the dance floor.
"Angel?" she said. "Seeing Darla -- that must have been freaksome."
"In some ways," he answered. He continued working on her back, smoothing away the pain. "She's changed for me, because of Connor."
"She hasn't really changed," Cordelia warned. "You can't think of her as Lady Madonna. I did, and remember where it got me?"
"I understand that very well," Angel said, in a tone of voice that suggested he understood it a lot better than Cordelia did herself.
"It's not that I don't trust you to do what you have to do," Cordelia said. "I trust you more than anybody, Angel. But I don't want to see you get hurt any more. You've been hurt enough."
Angel was silent for a moment, and his hands stilled on her back. Cordelia wished she weren't on her stomach, so she could see his face; was he upset? Was he angry? Was he doing his stoic non-emotional thing?
Then he started laughing -- very softly, but laughing all the same. "Cordelia, you have to stop."
"Stop?" She turned her head so that she could see him; he was still sitting beside her, his hands on her back, a half-smile on his face. "Stop what?"
"Stop trying to take care of me all the time," Angel said. "You were just attacked by Spike and Darla, you hurt your arm badly, and the corset alone almost finished you off. And you're still worrying about me." He brought one hand up to her injured shoulder. "Speaking of which, let me look at this." He brushed the strap of her camisole down from her shoulder, baring some of her back to his cool fingertips.
Stop trying to take care of Angel? Cordelia wasn't sure how to take that at all, so she just lay there in silence, obeying Angel's requests for her to wiggle her fingers, make a fist, shrug, and so on. Finally, he said, "You were right earlier -- nothing's broken. You've probably got a sprain, but no worse."
"Okay," Cordelia said, still unable to think of what to say. Angel resumed his ministrations to her back, his touch cool through the thin cotton of her camisole, and they were quiet together until she blurted out, "Why don't you want me to take care of you?"
"Cordy -- no. It's not that. Roll over."
"Your stomach's got to be hurting too, right?" Angel helped her roll over onto her back. As his hands began massaging her belly, he said, "I'm glad I have you to take care of me. I need you."
"So true," Cordelia said. "Glad we're clear on that. But then why do you want me to stop?"
"I don't want you to stop. Not ever," Angel said. He was watching her in the faint light, his look softer, more open than she was used to seeing from him. She'd seen it before, but so rarely. Too rarely. She liked it. "But you don't have to do it all the time. I can take care of myself occasionally. And sometimes you need me to take care of you."
"Not hardly," Cordelia protested, then realized that she was splayed out in bed, letting Angel massage her skin back into inhabitability. "Well, okay, when I'm being attacked by vampires, you do kinda come in handy."
"Thanks," Angel said dryly. His palm brushed along the side of her waist. "But -- I don't just want to take turns between being your bodyguard and your therapy case. You're there for me a lot, Cordelia. I just want you to know I'm here for you too. You can let me take care of you, sometimes."
"Like now," Cordelia said. His hands felt so good, and she felt herself relaxing still more. She smiled. "I think I like you taking care of me. You know what? Being stuck in the past might not be so bad. I bet you know all the places to be and not to be. All the best stuff to do. We'll travel all over the place, and you can show me the sights. We'll have adventures. Have some fun for a change. You'll have to act like my husband, okay? I'm not having anybody write me off as a 21-year-old spinster."
Angel's voice was slightly uneven as he replied, "Your husband. Okay. I --okay."
"What?" she said, trying to make light of the sudden dismay on his face. "Are you embarrassed to be seen with me?"
"Never." His hands stilled on her belly, and she thought he would pull away. Instead, he slowly took one of her hands in his own. "I like taking care of you," he said quietly.
The intimacy of the moment struck her in a flash, and Cordelia awkwardly felt as though she ought to pull her hand away, or make a joke, or something. Something that would make it clear that this was just their same old thing, hugging and joking and talking and thinking nothing of it, Angel and Cordy, best friends 'til the end. Not make it clear to Angel, because he knew that, and not clear to her, because she knew that, but it seemed like it ought to be clear all the same.
Instead, she felt her fingers closing around his, as if of their own volition. Angel glanced down at their clasped hands for a moment, then looked down into her eyes. "Cordy?" he whispered.
"CORDY!" Gunn's voice rang out from the corridor. Cordelia and Angel both jumped, startled. "ANGEL!" Gunn was definitely running toward their door. Angel squeezed her hand quickly, then got up from the bed just as the door was flung open.
Gunn's turban was slightly askew. "We got serious trouble going down. Can you guys move?"
"I'm fine," Angel said. "Cordy?"
Cordelia sat up. Somehow, she felt a lot more undressed in front of Gunn than she had in front of Angel; she pulled one of the coverlets over her. "I can if I have to," she said. "Don't ask me to turn any cartwheels. What's going on? Where's Fred?"
"Fred is downstairs stealing us a horse and carriage," Gunn said, shaking his head in something that was both dismay and admiration. "That girl woulda done okay in my old gang. We gotta hope she gets away with it, because we have to get back out into the woods, and fast. Darla's sent Spike out to look for you, Angel -- not YOU you, but the old you. We figure she's going after the gypsies tonight."
Cordelia's heartbeat quickened, and the pain in her shoulder seemed to dim.
Angel began to go toward the next room where his clothes were, but stopped on the way to search through the trunk where they'd hidden their small cache of weapons. He pulled out a couple of hurriedly made stakes and a dagger Cordelia had lifted in the museum in Rome and somehow not lost in the race to get back to the time machine when that future self-destructed. Handing her the knife, Angel asked, "Cordy, can you get dressed?"
"I can put on my jeans and sweater," she replied. "It doesn't matter what I look like now. Either we're about to get back to the future or blow the past to smithereens."
Gunn growled, "Just HURRY."
"The future is made of boxes," Drusilla said. "So many boxes! They live in boxes stacked on top of one another, and sit in boxes that float on roads like rivers. And there are boxes for pictures and boxes that make music, and little boxes that hold a thousand voices and make a sound like --" She closed her eyes in concentration and made a noise that sounded, to Darla, very much like a frog being tortured: "Brrrp! Brrrp!"
"Very nice, Drusilla," Darla said impatiently. "Now tell me more about this time machine. What exactly does the ring do? Can you show me if we go there?"
"I'll take you to it, if you're a good Grandmummy and wait," Drusilla said, sternly wagging her finger. Was it her imagination, Darla wondered, or was Drusilla enjoying this sudden shift in the balance of power between them? "You're going to love it in the future. So many wonderful things! Arbeit macht frei, Agent Orange, final solution, ethnic cleansing, and best of all, they say the world will get hotter and hotter until we all melt," she finished with an air of authority.
"The end of the world," Darla said. How lovely, to boil away the mortal flesh of this world and leave only the blanched bones. She felt herself beginning to believe in Drusilla's dream-visions -- more than believe. She already knew they were true, but she was beginning to long to see them for herself. To take Angelus to them.
"And oh! Another secret, one that sparkles and bubbles and shines on every street." Drusilla leaned forward very close, so that their noses were almost touching, and whispered, "Coke is it."
"Hey! Anyone want to give me some help, here?"
Darla and Drusilla both looked around; Spike was standing at the cave entrance, supporting with difficulty some filthy, half-dead wretch. Darla felt a flash of anger: How dare he disobey her when she had told him to find Angelus and not to return without him --
The figure Spike was supporting raised its head, and looked at Darla through rat-tails of unkempt hair. It was Angelus. Spike had brought him, just as she had asked.
The night she had driven him from the villa, Darla had thought it wasn't possible for him to look more pathetic, more repulsive than he had as he had wept before her. Now she knew she'd been wrong -- he still looked just as pathetic, but now his clothes were filthy and torn, his face muddied, his hair matted. He must have been sleeping in ditches, she thought with disgust. And he was weak, leaning on Spike for support; he clearly hadn't fed since she'd thrown him out. He couldn't bring himself to kill, Darla realized, and felt renewed revulsion.
"Darla," Angelus said. His voice was hoarse, barely a whisper, but the note of entreaty in it was unmistakable. "Darla."
Darla said nothing. She didn't move.
"Found him cowering under a hedgerow. The devil only knows what's wrong with him," Spike said. His face twisted into something that was half-grin, half sneer of contempt. "He certainly smells like hell. You wanted him, so here he is." And with that, he roughly shoved Angelus toward her.
Darla stood, rooted to the spot, as Angelus stumbled toward her. His arms were held out to her, his gaze fixed on her. He didn't seem to be aware of Spike and Drusilla at all.
In a voice so low only Darla could hear her, Drusilla said, "Here he is, neither fish nor fowl. But foul! He could be one or both or something else again. Choose a door, Grandmummy, and take him through it."
Exhausted, Angelus sank to his knees in front of Darla, his arms still outstretched. "Darla. Darla, please. Please..."
He was begging her to help him, she thought with distaste.
And then: He was begging her. He needed her.
Darla remembered the Angelus she'd danced with earlier that night, the one whose attention had wandered from her and to the human woman in the orange dress. The one who'd walked away from Darla without looking back. Suddenly, in spite of his filth and degradation, there was something desirable about the man on his knees in front of her.
Darla sank slowly to the ground and, controlling her distaste, opened her arms. Angelus all but fell into her embrace, clinging to her like a frightened child seeking its mother. Which in a way, Darla thought, he was.
"Forgive me," he mumbled. "Forgive me, help me, please, I'm sorry, help me --"
Spike was right: Angelus did smell. Darla wrinkled her nose, but otherwise concealed her repugnance. After all, what must the Master have made of her when he found her? She'd been only a frail, enfeebled mortal, rotting from within. Sometimes greatness began with humble materials. And Angelus already had greatness within him; it was just shackled by his curse in chains she had the power to cast aside. She lifted one hand and gently caressed his hair, brushing it out of his eyes. "There, my sweet boy. Everything will be well again, soon. Soon you'll be restored to us."
Angelus looked up at her, his face feverish with gratitude. "You'll make this --stop? Make it go away?"
"I will, my love."
"Thank you," Angelus whispered. "Thank you, thank you, thank you..." He continued to mumble barely-coherent words of thanks as Darla rocked him, childlike, against her breast.
In the century and a half Darla had known Angelus, she had been in turns his teacher, his lover and -- as reluctant as she was to admit it -- sometimes his slave. Now, for the first time, she was his savior, and Darla found she was enjoying the role not simply because it was novel.
Drusilla clapped her hands together joyously. "See, we're a family again, all hugs and smiles!"
"Pardon me while I retch," Spike said.
The vampires were near, and the force of their proximity was almost overwhelming.
Angel closed his eyes, attempting to concentrate. Four vampires, so close, so familiar. Spike's energy was sharp and swift, a red-hot dart whirring through his consciousness. Drusilla's was diaphanous and unformed, a veil that clouded his thoughts. Most familiar of all was Darla's -- cold and hard and beautiful, cast-iron scrollwork that formed a cage.
And then the fourth -- alien and familiar at once, himself and yet not himself. Angel felt as though he ought to be able to read his former self better than any of the others, but the reverse was true; all he could sense was distant pain.
"Angel, this would be a bad time for a fugue state," Cordelia said.
"When would a good time be?" Fred said reasonably. She was unharnessing the horse from its carriage, so that it could run back to its stable and master. One way or another, they wouldn't need it again.
"I'm fine," Angel said. He peered through the night, hoping his other self would mask his proximity from the other vampires. "They're headed deeper into the forest. Come on."
"Not trying to be negative here," Gunn said as they began making their way through the forest, "but what exactly are we supposed to do when we catch up with them? We weren't doing so hot against just the first three back at the ballroom, and with one more -- that one being you -- it's gonna be tough."
They were so loud. So loud. Fred's footstep shattered a twig. Gunn's sleeve caught against the branches of a bush, sending rustling echoes throughout the woods. Cordelia stumbled on a tree foot, and it seemed as though the sound of it thundered. Angel knew his senses were at their most acute, ready for battle, but there was every chance the other vampires' were as well.
"Be quiet," he murmured. "We stop them however we can. But --" This was too important not to say out loud. "Nobody kills Darla. No matter what."
"Angel," Cordelia said. Her face was pale in the night, her voice low enough that even he wouldn't object. "If it comes down to it --"
"It won't," he whispered back. "I won't let it."
"I recognize this tree," Fred said. She stopped in her tracks. "Angel -- this is near the cave with the portal back to the time machine. Really near."
Cordelia's eyes went wide. "Please, for the love of God, tell me that the vampires aren't headed toward the time machine."
"I love God just fine," Fred said. "But that's where they're headed. Do you think Drusilla might have -- could have --"
"She's told them," Angel said. He had thought it impossible to be more desperate, but he had been wrong. He began running after the vampires, not caring about the noise. The others were right behind him, their weapons at the ready. As they made their way up a slight hill -- not far from the cave at all, Angel realized -- he was convinced that they'd finally reached the most desperate moment of this entire journey.
Then they got to the top of the hill, and he saw the torches.
"What the hell?" Gunn said. They were all frozen in place, staring at the lights coming toward them in the distant forest. Perhaps eight or nine torches -- the sound of footsteps so much louder now -- more than a dozen people -- Angel squinted, using his night vision to see just who was approaching.
"It's the gypsies," he said.
"I thought Darla was going after them!" Cordelia protested. "Since when do they come after Darla?"
"Since now," Fred said. "When we changed the time stream, let them know what happened -- they could have figured out more than they knew the first time around. So maybe they're attacking Darla before she can get to them."
The truth settled around him, heavy and dark. "That's one possibility," Angel said, though he couldn't bring himself to believe it was true. "But that's not necessarily what they're doing."
"What, you think they're out for a midnight stroll?" Gunn said.
"They might not be after Darla," Angel repeated. "They might be after us."
"I thought you said -- this plan made -- sense," Charles gasped.
"It does," Fred panted, hazarding a glance over her shoulder. What she saw wasn't reassuring -- the mob of angry gypsies was barely twenty yards behind them, their torches bobbing up and down as they chased Fred and Charles through the dark forest.
"Oh yeah?" Charles wheezed. He was using one hand to try to keep his turban on, with only limited success. It was beginning to unwind at the top. "Leaping out -- in front of the gypsies -- who want to kill us -- makes sense?"
"Sure," Fred said. Her chest was tight with the effort of taking in enough air to run and speak at the same time. "We make them chase us -- lead them right to Darla -- then the gypsies and vampires -- will fight each other."
"And this helps -- how?"
"Darla won't kill the gypsies -- 'cause Drusilla will have told her -- that's why Angel's curse wasn't lifted -- the first time."
Something which might have been an arrow whizzed so close to the side of Fred's head that she felt a cold breeze in her ear. She grabbed Charles' hand, and they started to weave and zig-zag between the trees, heading all the time back in the direction of the caves.
"So," Charles gasped, "Darla's tryin' not to kill the gypsies -- we're tryin' not to kill Darla -- so tell me -- who are the gypsies tryin' not to kill?"
Fred didn't answer, just kept running.
"I think I just found the flaw in your thinking," Charles said. "Go faster. Next time -- I come up -- with the plans."
Noises in the forest. Voices, feet pounding -- a mob, not even trying to conceal their approach.
The vampires all lifted their heads, turning as one toward the as-yet-unseen danger. Spike rubbed his hands together, his eyes glittering yellow and predatory in the darkness. "Looks like we're going to see some action after all."
"No, no," Drusilla moaned. She had raised her hands to her head and was dragging her fingers through her hair, ruining the carefully pinned and curled style. "This is wrong, all wrong. They're not supposed to be here!"
Next to her, Angelus shuddered. He could barely stand up, never mind fight.
"Get in the cave," Darla ordered. She pushed Angelus toward Spike. "Take him."
"I'm not missing out on a perfectly good riot to nurse Angelus' hangover," Spike said.
"Angel," Drusilla whispered. "Angel..."
"I TOLD you not to call him that!" Darla exploded.
"Actually," Angelus' voice said calmly, "I prefer it."
But Angelus had not spoken.
Darla spun around. Angelus -- the other Angelus, the one Drusilla insisted on calling Angel -- was standing behind her. Darla masked her fury with a smile. "I'm so pleased you could join us," she said. There was a woman with him, and it took Darla a second to place her; she looked very different without the wig and orange gown she'd been wearing at the ball. She, like Angel, wore strange clothing -- the woman looked brazen, even to Darla's jaded eyes, in trousers. "And you've brought your little whore, too. How nice."
"I'd think someone with your personal history would be a little less free with words like that," the girl said coolly. "My name is Cordelia, by the way. My friends call me Cordy but, hey, how about you don't."
Spike's mouth was hanging open. He looked at the Angelus who had slumped against a tree, blank-faced and trembling, and then at the Angelus standing in front of Darla. "That's no phantom. He's real. Damnation, would someone PLEASE just EXPLAIN to me what in HELL is going on here? Because NONE of this makes any SENSE to me!"
Drusilla patted him on the arm comfortingly. "Don't be vexed. You'll get used to it, just like me."
"Cordelia. Now I know what to tell them to put on your gravestone." Ignoring the girl, Darla directed her full attention to Angelus. He was standing only a few paces away from his other self, yet in every other sense they were worlds apart. "You had to follow me, didn't you? See, the flame still burns in you."
"Don't flatter yourself," Cordelia scoffed, but when Darla looked into the eyes of the other Angelus she saw a flicker of something that told her she wasn't so far from the truth.
"They're coming closer," Drusilla said. Her eyes were going golden now too, with the nearness of human rage and blood. "Very close now, Grandmummy. The gypsies didn't wait for us to find them. Everyone is spoiling the story now, and someone must pay. I want MY story, and I will write it in blood. The blood's beating closer now. Thump thump."
"We might want to concentrate on the rapidly approaching angry mob," Spike said. "Could be trouble. More trouble than these two, anyway -- the astonishingly unwanted extra Angelus and the girl with the bad dye job."
Cordelia scowled at him. "Irony is so gonna bite you in the ass on that one." But Darla noted that she, too, was glancing over her shoulder at the gypsies.
"Spike, Dru." She flicked her fingers toward the sound of the din. "See to the gypsies. Under no circumstances are you to kill them. Maim all you like."
"I haven't maimed in an age," Spike said, grinning in anticipation. He and Drusilla ran off into the night.
"Cordelia," Angel said. "Get him away from the gypsies. Keep him out of this if you can."
It took Darla a moment to realize what he meant. When she saw Cordelia moving toward Angelus -- wasn't one enough for this scavenging little wench? -- she wanted to scream. But the gypsies were coming ever closer, and all her hot words about preferring to see Angelus as dust had gone cold for her now.
"Angelus?" she said quietly. "Go with her into the cave. I'll come for you later."
"I don't want to leave you," Angelus said. He would not look away from Darla's face, and she had never found his gaze so welcome.
"You are some pathetic," Cordelia said. "But you're gonna be some pathetic for the next hundred years or so. I'm going to see to it." She grabbed Angelus' arm and began pulling him toward the cave, away from Darla. For one beautiful instant, Darla saw a flicker of her darling boy's old fury in his eyes -- but then it was gone, lost in the sickening mire of guilt and horror. He stumbled into the cave with Cordelia. At least he would still obey.
A few feet away, a crash in the underbrush was swiftly followed by screams and yells. The gypsies -- and, from the sound of it, some of Angel's human pets, too -- had found Spike and Drusilla. Darla and Angel looked toward the clamor; she could glimpse torchlight wavering through the branches, the too-quick silhouette of an upraised hand slashing downward. By the time she turned away, Angel was staring at her once more. They regarded each other for another moment of silence.
Finally he said, "It's my turn to ask you to dance."
Darla curtseyed. "Very well," she said. "Let's dance."
Branches swished as Drusilla ran through them, little lashes in the night. A forest of whips, how lovely. If only she could enjoy them.
The horrid gypsies were running at them, shouting, and it would be so sweet to snuff them out, wet fingertips to the flame. But that was not the end of the story.
"Look out!" shouted a voice in English. It was the man with no hair, ducking to one side, dragging the girl with long hair with him. The two of them liked Angel as he was. As they saw Drusilla and Spike, their eyes went even wider.
"Bloody hell, not this one again," Spike groaned as he saw the girl. "And who's the freak in the turban?"
"Oh, they're not gypsies," Drusilla said happily. "You can kill THEM."
Spike grinned. "About time something went my way tonight."
The man with no hair got between the girl and Spike. "See, this is another flaw in the plan," he muttered. "Two flaws and counting."
Then the gypsies burst through the undergrowth. Everyone stared at everyone else for a long moment. Too much thinking, Drusilla decided. Not enough bleeding.
Drusilla shrieked -- one long, high, wavering note, as much singing as screaming. All their minds went silver-white. She sought one fear that would hold them all, held it in her mind's eye, put it in their minds as well.
Through their eyes she saw the forest burst into flame.
The gypsies started to scream as they ducked and cowered. Unearthly orange light appeared to flicker through the trees, to drop like tears onto leaves that sent up sparks. The girl with long hair beat at her trousers; the man with no hair tried to help her. The gypsies were running in all directions, confused and unnerved. Spike shrank back too, but she took his hand in hers and quickly squeezed it twice -- their old signal for her best tricks and games.
"It's not real?" he whispered. When she shook her head and smiled, Spike began to laugh and laugh. "Oh, brilliant. Bloody brilliant. My perfect, vicious dove."
Her Spike, with her again. Her Spike, as romantic and deadly as ever.
"I shall see to the gypsies," she said primly. It was just like playing Wendy Houses. "You can kill the others."
"You think I don't know what you're up to?" Cordelia said.
Angelus looked up at her, bewildered, from the cave floor where he'd slumped in apparent exhaustion. She sighed. "Not YOU you. The other you. Angel. I know what you're -- what he's up to. 'Get him away from the gypsies.' He just wants me out of the battle. He's trained with me, like, ninety zillion times, and he still doesn't trust me in a fight. So, tell me, have you always been this absurdly overprotective?"
She shrugged as she said it, and the lancing pain in her shoulder reminded her that Angel might have had other, slightly-less-annoying reasons for getting her out of the fray. Angelus didn't answer; instead, he just lapsed back into his mute staring at the ground.
Cordelia was disappointed to feel her annoyance at Angel fading; it had been, by far, the easiest thing to think about. It was a lot less frightening than the prospect of Angel getting all sentimental about the ex-lover who was probably happy to kill him, now that she had a spare. It was a lot less uncertain than wondering what was happening to Fred and Gunn, caught between murderous gypsies and semi-murderous vampires. And it was far, far less painful than really looking at Angelus -- the Angel who had been.
This is Angel, she told herself. My Angel. It's easier to call him Angelus, but even if he hasn't changed the name yet, the rest is the same. He has his soul. He can love.
"Do you really want to be with Darla?" she asked him quietly.
Angelus didn't look at her, but after a few moments, he said, "She's my only hope."
"Hope? Hope of what? Being what you were before?"
He grimaced in such wrenching pain that Cordelia's first thought was that he was injured somehow, bleeding from a wound she hadn't seen. But he only said, "I don't want -- I can't -- but --" Angelus gripped his hair, pulling so hard Cordelia thought he might actually rip out hunks of it by the roots. "I want the pain to stop. I want it all to end. Darla can end it."
"By yanking out your soul like a bad tooth." Cordelia wanted to smack him. "News flash, buddy. If you do that, the pain doesn't stop. It just stops for you, and you throw it off on other people. The people who survive the ones you'll go on to kill." She suddenly remembered Giles' face as Jenny Calendar's casket was lowered into its grave. Cordelia hadn't allowed herself to remember that in years.
"Oh, God," Angelus said. He let himself fall back onto the stone wall of the cave. "You're right. You're right. It never ends. No matter what." Tears were in his eyes. Seeing him cry wasn't easier the second time.
Cordelia was startled at first -- she'd jibed at Angel a thousand times, in jest and in earnest, gently and brutally and every way in between. She knew his reactions in every shade and shape, could envision the looks that accompanied them all. Then she realized those reactions belonged to a century in the future; the man who wept before her now was still too raw, too anguished, for any blow to be less than devastating.
Stung by an entirely unfamiliar feeling of contrition, Cordelia knelt by his side. "I'm sorry. Okay? I didn't mean -- no, I meant it. But you should know it's not always going to be like this."
"No," Angelus said. "It's going to end."
His hand closed over hers, and she thought for one strange, confusing moment that he was making a pass at her. Then she realized that his fingers were wrapped around her stake.
"I won't be what I was before, and I can't be what I am now," Angelus said. "Soon I won't be at all."
"So this is your end," Darla said. "My majestic creature, reduced to this. Reduced to you."
Angel had considerable practice in ignoring Darla's taunts. He circled her silently in the night, focusing only on the nearby cries of the gypsies. And -- that sounded like Fred, in trouble --
Darla saw his hesitation, misinterpreted it and smiled. "You hate it, don't you?" she crooned. "Being so much less than you can be. What's become of you now? A quiet, mild-mannered sort of fellow, I'd expect. The sort of man humans might easily make a pet of, who tells himself he's happy with his obedient human lover."
Cordelia, obedient. Angel couldn't help it: He laughed.
"And you're so secure in your snug little existence that you can mock me," Darla said. Her dark lips twisted in a scowl that he knew was a poor mask for pain. He had hurt Darla thousands of times -- deliberately and accidentally, at her request and against her will and without even thinking about it. She'd done the same to him. It had never mattered much, one way or the other. Their spirits remained as unnaturally unscarred as their bodies.
But this was different. It hurt him now, to see that he had hurt her. Darla's pain had become real to him. Connor had made her real in a way he'd never known -- in a way she'd never known, until the very end.
"I'm not mocking you," he said quietly. "But you don't understand the future I know, Darla. You don't understand the man I've become."
"I will understand it," Darla said. She held up her hand. Cordy's hologram bracelet was still looped around her wrist, but his eyes were drawn away from it. To Angel's horror, the gold ring from the time machine glittered on one finger. "The one piece of jewelry you never gave me, my dearest -- a wedding ring. I had to find my own. Do you like it?"
"Darla," Angel said, not expecting her to listen, "If you understand what that does --"
"I do." He didn't doubt her.
"-- then you have to understand that you're not going to get to the future Drusilla knows. By leaving this time and taking me with you, you'll destroy that, forever."
"What do I care for your future?" Darla said. "I might not even go forward. I might go back -- teach you La Volta for real this time. Or farther, perhaps. You could learn about art from the Borgias, dip your fingers into those paints you're always trying to get me to admire. I can study the craft of poisons from the Claudians. Perhaps you and I will sail down the Nile on a barge, listening to Cleopatra tell us tales of the City of the Dead. We'll drink from the alabaster jars that they think hold immortality, and we'll tell them if it's true." Her voice changed from a dreamy softness to something far harder. "Or perhaps I'll drag you farther ahead. Centuries. Millennia. Who knows what we'll find then? It doesn't much matter. Wherever we go, we'll find blood, and you'll drink it with me, at my side."
"It's never going to happen," he said. Angel had no intention of staking Darla, but she didn't know that, and he didn't mean to let her guess. "I'm going to stop you."
Darla laughed. "As though you could." She slashed toward him, so fast he barely dodged it in time.
Two of the gypsies stumbled out of the forest, and both Angel and Darla tensed, preparing to defend themselves, and each other, from the intruders. But the gypsies were screaming, yelling, swatting at their clothes as though -- as though they were on fire. One of Drusilla's group hallucinations, then. Angel hoped the cry he'd heard from Fred was based on no more than fear of a vision.
But Spike and Dru were in those woods too --
Darla's fist slammed into his jaw, sending him spiraling off-balance. Even as she lunged toward him, he righted himself, blocked her blow and shoved her back into the dust. She scrambled to her feet, laughing bitterly as she pushed her blonde curls from her eyes.
Behind them, the gypsies, still in the grips of their delusion, began to stumble into the cave. Cordelia would have to handle them, injured arm or not.
"So this is all you want for me now," Darla said. "To end like this. Dust to dust."
"Your end is a finer thing than you know," Angel said.
"Hang on!" Charles shouted through the din. "I'm getting you out of here!"
Fred knew very well that Charles could no more see a way out of this conflagration than she could. He was only trying to comfort her in what were undoubtedly going to be their last moments of life.
Every tree was on fire, every branch, almost every leaf on the ground. The flames were orange and red, white and yellow, even blue. In a daze, Fred thought: so many different temperatures. She'd spent too much of her life with Bunsen burners not to know the various meanings of a flame's color. And it had caught fire so fast -- could Drusilla have used an accelerant? But what? And why lay a trap with something that could kill vampires too?
Before her stunned confusion could shift into anything that approximated thought, a figure appeared through the smoke and fire, apparently untroubled by the inferno.
"Well, well," Spike said. "What have we here? Not gypsies. Guess that means I can kill you." He smiled nastily. "Who wants to go first?"
Cordelia's first instinct, when Angelus grabbed the stake from her, was to grab it right back before he could do something stupid like plunge it into his heart. But his fist was closed, vise-tight, and Cordelia remembered a second too late that a even a weak, disoriented vampire was still far stronger than a human. Especially an injured human, she thought ruefully, as a bolt of pain shot down the length of her arm. For a second, she panicked --then she had an idea.
He'd taken the stake, but she still had her knife.
Using her uninjured arm, Cordelia reached to her belt. The dagger's hilt slipped easily into her hand, and she quickly looped her arm through Angelus'. Now they were crouching face to face on the cave floor, Angelus holding the stake to his chest, Cordelia holding the knife's point against hers.
"If you're gonna kill yourself," Cordelia said, "then I might as well die too."
Angelus stared at her in sheer incomprehension, probably trying to decide if her threat was serious. "Why?" he asked finally. "You don't -- you can't know how it feels. What it means."
There were dark circles under his eyes, cuts on his face where horror had made him use his own nails to tear and scratch at himself. "No," she said. "I don't guess I can."
"You would let me do it, if you knew," Angelus said. "You would not sentence me to this despair."
"But that's just what you'd sentence me to. Don't you see? If you die here, in this cave, then you take the future -- MY future, the one that has you in it -- away forever. Everything I care about won't just be destroyed, it'll never even happen. You're not the only one losing your whole world." Cordelia looked him in the eye, and tightened her grip on the handle of her dagger. "I've got plenty reason to despair. So, whaddya say? C'mon. I'm ready when you are."
Angelus' hand tightened around the stake, and for one sickening, gut-wrenching moment, Cordelia thought he was going to do it anyway. Then his grip slackened fractionally and he lowered his head. "Let go. Let go and let me end this."
"Please," Angelus said. It sounded more like a moan of pain than a word. "I can't do it if --"
Cordelia waited for him to finish the sentence, then realized he probably didn't have words for what he was feeling, so she said it for him. "You can't do it because you know it'll hurt someone else."
"I can't," Angelus whispered. She couldn't tell if he was agreeing with her or just repeating himself.
"Listen to me," Cordelia said. "You've already had lesson number one of soul-having: It makes you hurt for every bad thing you ever did. This is lesson number two: Having a soul means caring about other people. And that's not a curse." Softening her voice, she went on, "I know you don't get this now. You're not gonna get it for a long time. But one day you're going to be with people you care about. People who care about you. And then you'll understand."
Slowly, he raised his head again and met her gaze. "You don't know what I am."
"No," Cordelia said steadily, "but I know what you're going to be."
Angelus looked at her for a long time. Then he slowly relaxed his grip on the stake, and Cordelia let out a long, shaky breath. She took the stake from him and put it out of his reach. "Okay. That's good. Now we're gonna stay right here in this nice, safe cave, out of the way of the fight until --"
There was a crashing noise behind her, and Cordelia jerked her head around just as two gypsies stumbled into the cave.
"-- Until the fight comes to us," she finished, leaping to her feet and placing herself between the gypsies and Angelus.
The gypsies didn't see Cordelia and Angelus immediately -- they were occupied with beating their clothes as if trying to smother a fire, which was weird because Cordelia couldn't see any flames. No time to wonder about that now. The gypsies were incapacitated, and there were only two of them. With those factors in her favor, she was sure she could hold them off.
Then one of the gypsies stopped beating his clothes and shook his head as if to clear it. He looked at Cordelia and nudged his companion. Then he shouted something in Romanii to the mob outside the cave. Within seconds more gypsies were running through the cave entrance. Four -- seven -- when the odds got too desperate, Cordelia stopped counting.
Through the entrance of the cave, she could see movement outside. All over the forest clearing, people were jostling about, but in the darkness and confusion it was impossible to tell if Angel was one of them. If she could get a better vantage point, maybe she'd be able to see him, attract his attention --
She shouted his name, but the din of the battle outside almost drowned out her voice completely. "Angel!" she yelled again.
The gypsies were advancing on her and Angelus now. Cordelia briefly considered grabbing Angelus and making a break for the cave entrance, then rejected that idea as foolhardy. They'd never make it out.
If only she could see Angel -- get somewhere he could see her --
She looked down at the gypsies, and suddenly realized they were no longer closing in. In fact, they seemed to be frozen in place, staring at her in a mixture of awe and fear.
Wait a second. She was looking DOWN at the gypsies?
And why was it suddenly so much easier to see out the cave entrance?
Cordelia turned her head and bumped it against the cave's rocky ceiling. It hadn't suddenly gotten lower; she'd gotten higher. When she looked down, her legs and feet were simply dangling beneath her. She was floating several feet above the ground.
"Oh, no," she said. "Not AGAIN."
Fred and Charles stumbled backward as Spike advanced on them. It seemed to Fred that everything was burning now -- every leaf and twig and branch around them and above them and under their feet exploding with bright, ugly flames. A tiny voice in her mind tried to insist it wasn't possible for the conflagration to spread so quickly, but the crackling, roaring noise of the fire in her ears smothered rational thought.
"There's a way through," Charles said. The smoke was making him cough. "Behind you --"
Fred turned around and saw a passage out of the blaze, between two widely spaced trees which formed a gate of fire.
But before they could run to it, a figure appeared in front of them, blocking the way. It was Drusilla, her dress whiter than the hottest flames of all.
"Dru, pet," Spike said. "Come and join in the fun."
Reflections of the fire shone in Drusilla's golden eyes. "Thieves of books," she said to Fred and Charles. "Scarpers of stories. You'll see how the story should end. Its last line will be death. Yours."
Hemmed in by fire and the advancing vampires, Fred realized with horror there was nowhere left to go. And she didn't even have a weapon -- somehow, in the confusion, she'd lost her stake.
She looked around frantically for something else she could use to defend herself, and saw one of the torches the gypsies had been carrying, still smoldering where someone had dropped it. It was better than nothing, Fred decided, and reached out to pick it up.
The torch crackled as she lifted it, sending a shower of hot embers over her hands. Where they touched her, they burnt her skin, and Fred cried out in pain. For an instant, panic and terror emptied from her mind, driven out by the reality of physical pain.
And the forest changed.
Where there had been one forest, Fred now saw two, layered over each other like paintings on glass. In one, the fire raged out of control. The other forest was cool and dark and the only thing burning anywhere near them was the torch she was holding. All at once Fred knew which was real.
"Fragile mortal minds," Drusilla said as she drew nearer. "Like spun glass, so delicate. See them shatter!"
"Charles," Fred whispered urgently. "Charles, this is going to hurt. Just trust me."
She touched his arm with the torch.
Charles yelled and snatched his arm back. He blinked rapidly, and Fred saw his eyes clear, as if something blocking his sight had suddenly been lifted away.
"Give me that," he said in a low voice. Fred surrendered the torch to him.
"Because I'm feeling generous," Spike said, sauntering toward them, "I'll let you choose how you die. On tonight's menu we have broken necks, choking and blood loss. What's it going to be?"
"How about the special?" Charles said. He threw the torch. It sailed through the air, straight toward Spike, who made no attempt to dodge it. He thinks it's part of Drusilla's illusion, Fred realized. He can't tell the difference either.
Spike laughed. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but Drusilla's fire will never --" He caught the torch: " -- hurt me --"
As Spike's hand closed around the torch's glowing end, his face registered shock, then almost immediately contorted in agonizing pain. Flames shot up his arm, and it seemed to Fred it wasn't his clothes catching fire preternaturally fast, but his body itself. Of course, that was why fire was such an effective weapon against vampires -- why they feared it so much --
Spike was desperately trying to put out the fire before it spread further up his arm. "Dru!" he yelled. "Drusilla! Having a problem here!"
"Spike!" Drusilla's voice was high-pitched and wavering, like a child confronted with its worst nightmare.
Spike threw himself on to the ground in an effort to smother the flames. Drusilla screeched and ran past Fred and Charles, ignoring them in her desperation to get to Spike. But when she got to him, she didn't seem to know what to do, and could only stand over him, wailing and rocking wildly, as he flailed about.
"Make it stop!" she howled. "Not my story, not my story, not my story!"
The torch was lying on the ground where Spike had dropped it; it had landed on damp earth and gone out. Fred picked it up and, with all her strength, hit Drusilla squarely on the back of the head.
For another second, perhaps longer, Dru continued to wail. Then, very slowly, she toppled forward, landing on top of Spike.
All around Fred, the imaginary inferno Drusilla had created disappeared, as suddenly as if a switch had been flipped. The forest was simply the forest again.
Spike writhed about, either trying to extinguish the flames or simply in pain. Fred watched him for a moment, then began beating out the flames as best she could. Charles sighed heavily before joining in. In a few moments, the blaze was out, and Spike and Drusilla lay singed and unconscious on the forest floor. Charles looked down at the two vampires. They lay in an untidy heap on the forest floor, still smoldering a little. "That'll teach you to play with fire," he said.
Angel lunged at Darla, his stake missing her shoulder. She whirled about, laughing. Her boy had gotten careless in his later life. He couldn't even seem to aim directly for her heart.
"Very sloppy. Perhaps you're out of practice. Or perhaps you can't bear to kill me," she purred. His eyes flickered to look into hers, then away. Aha, she thought, it's true. He doesn't want me dead. He still wants me, down deep. He still wants to be what he once was.
Darla knew she could win this battle now; anyone who was willing to destroy his enemy would ultimately triumph over anyone who wasn't. But she didn't just want to stake this pathetic duplicate anymore. She wanted to hear him admit what he still really was inside, how wrong he'd been to ever think of leaving her side.
Angel swung toward her, feinting left at the last moment; his stake grazed her arm, slicing through the skin, and Darla winced as she stumbled back. She couldn't afford to get sloppy herself; Angel might not be the magnificent creature Angelus had been, but it would be easy to underestimate him.
She kicked out at him, expecting him to dodge the blow, just buying herself time to think. What if she could win him back, soul and all? Could she convince the gypsies to remove the curse on both Angeluses? Could that possibly work?
A brief vision of a night in bed swam up in her mind, and she smiled. Having two versions of Angelus might yet prove impossible, but it was well worth finding out. Nothing could ever stop them then.
"You've missed me," she said as they circled one another. "You've missed what we once were."
"At times I missed you," Angel said simply. "I even went back to you, twice. But I never wanted you badly enough to pay the price of staying."
The thought of that -- an Angel who could come back and simply choose to leave again, who could put a limit on how badly he wanted her -- outraged Darla. She cried, "And that's all you have for me? I created you! You don't think I'm worth the price?" Darla readied her own stake. Two Angeluses was a nice dream, but so was watching this one turn to dust. "You told me we would be together forever, Angelus. You made me a promise. A promise you couldn't keep."
He froze. Angel stood shock-still, staring at her, anguish written on his face. When he spoke, his voice was low and uncertain. "I made you a promise," he said. "I promised you I'd take care of him. And I didn't. I couldn't. I tried -- I tried so hard, Darla, and I failed. I failed him and I failed you."
Him? Take care of who? None of this made any sense. But Darla could tell that what Angel was saying now was vitally important, at least to him. She felt her curiosity begin to get the better of her anger. "What do you mean?"
"It's the only promise I ever made that really mattered," Angel said. He was shaking his head from side to side, the pain in his eyes and his voice deeper than she had ever seen in him. "I won't ever get another chance to tell you, Darla, so I'm telling you now. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Sorry for leaving her? Sorry for what had become of him? Hopeful despite herself, Darla stepped just a bit closer. "Angelus?"
She felt the blow before she even saw it -- his fist slamming into the side of her head, then her jaw, then again. The world went gray, then black, and she felt the ground swimming up to meet her.
"I'm sorry," she heard once more, and then she heard nothing else.
Darla lay crumpled upon the ground, the skirts of her ball gown collapsed around her. Angel stood still and kept watching her for a minute or more, in case she was faking unconsciousness. She wasn't.
Looking around, he saw a patch of shadow between two trees which was semi-concealed and out of the way of the fighting. Grasping Darla unceremoniously by the ankles, he dragged her limp body toward it.
When he got there, he found he wasn't the only one to have had that idea. Fred and Gunn were standing guard over the unconscious bodies of Drusilla and Spike.
"All RIGHT," Gunn said when he saw Angel. His ballroom finery was ripped and torn, the blue-velvet drapery long gone, and his turban had almost completely unraveled. "That's three for three."
Fred looked equally battered, the torn gold lace at her throat feebly reflecting the moonlight. "All those hard decisions we kept saying we'd think about when we got there? Well, we're there." She gestured tiredly at Spike and Drusilla. "Darla's got to keep existing, for Connor to be born," she said, in the voice of someone who would like to argue but wasn't going to. "But does the future get more warped with a Spike and Dru that know the future, or with no Spike and Dru at all?"
Angel looked down at the three insensible vampires lying on the forest floor. "Drusilla has to be around to sire Darla again. Spike has to be around to bring Drusilla to Sunnydale to get strong again. And there's a lot of things they did, or didn't do, that we can't even guess at. For better or worse --well, mostly worse -- they're part of the world we're trying to get back."
Fred was evidently thinking much the same thing. "We have to keep everything as close as we can to how we know it should be. That's our best shot at fixing the future."
"If we can't stake them, what are we gonna do with them when they wake up?" Gunn asked. His turban slipped down over one eye, and he quickly finished the job of unwinding it that the chase through the forest and the battle had started.
"I don't know," Fred said. She looked at the long strip of cloth Gunn was preparing to throw away. "Don't get rid of that."
Gunn looked at her. "I'm not putting that thing back on. No more Caliphing for me. As far as I'm concerned, Madagascar can be a democracy from now on."
Fred pointed at Spike and Drusilla. "I meant, we can use it to tie them up while we figure out what to do."
"Oh. Right." Gunn handed Fred a wad of the bandage-like cloth which had formerly been his turban, and together they started to secure the vampires.
Angel looked around the clearing, saw the mouth of the cave and felt his stomach drop. "Oh, God," he said. "Cordelia."
The forest clearing was almost empty now, and with a rising sense of fear Angel realized why -- nearly all the gypsies had gone into the caves, driven there by Drusilla's fire hallucination. He had thought he was making sure Cordelia was safe; in fact, he had sent her into a trap.
He charged into the cave, knocking people roughly out of the way as he struggled to break through the mob. He was so intent on getting to Cordelia that it was several seconds before he realized none of the gypsies were attacking him.
Angel crashed out of the crowd, almost stumbling as the resistance of bodies suddenly ceased. He was standing alone in an empty space near the back of the cave. Directly in front of him he saw Angelus, crouching against the cave's back wall, his hands over his face. The gypsies seemed to be afraid to go any closer to him, although Angel couldn't understand why; his former self was clearly incapable of defending himself.
Then he heard Cordelia's voice. "That's right, you'd better do some serious cowering. Because, as you can see, this is scary, high-level magic mojo I'm doing right now."
Angel turned around, expecting to see Cordy. Instead, he saw her feet, dangling in front of him at eye level. He craned his neck to look up at her: She was scowling, but Angel knew her well enough to recognize that what seemed to be irritation was more likely a mask for fear. She pointed down at the gypsies and said, "There's more where this came from, you guys. This completely intentional levitation is just the beginning. You'd better hope I don't REALLY get mad." Then she glanced down and saw Angel, and she gave him a nervous smile. "Hey there!"
"Are you okay?" he asked.
She was hanging in mid-air, drifting a little from side to side in the draft from the cave entrance. "Yes, except --"
Cordelia lowered her voice. "I think I might be glowing. Maybe. Am I glowing?"
There WAS more light at the back of the cave than there should have been. Although it wasn't possible to tell exactly where it was coming from, Angel thought he detected a faint lambency in the air around Cordy. "Uh, maybe just a little."
One of the gypsies took a step forward. Angel turned, but for once Cordelia was faster. Her foot shot out, and she kicked the man on the shoulder, making him stagger back.
"Back off, buddy! I'm from the future, and I can float and -- and -- you don't know what else I can do. Like -- I can leap tall buildings at a single bound -- except you people probably think three stories is tall for a building, and jumping three stories is impressive but maybe not terrifying --" She cast a look of desperation down at Angel and whispered, "Help me out here."
"She can shoot laser beams out of her eyes!" Gunn yelled. Angel half-turned to see that he and Fred were pushing their way through the crowd to join Angel at Cordelia's feet.
Fred said, "I don't think they know what laser beams are, Charles." The gypsies were starting to murmur among themselves, and some of them were edging closer.
They were in a standoff, Angel realized. The gypsies had the advantage of numbers, but they didn't know how to respond to Cordelia's supernatural power. Now neither side could risk attacking the other.
"Who's your leader?" he asked loudly.
"I am," said one of the gypsies, stepping forward. He was a tall man with a gray beard; Angel remembered him from the brief period they'd spent in the gypsy camp. This was Gia's father -- Mother Yanna had called him Gregor, Angel recalled. Gregor was holding his arm awkwardly and smelled strongly of fresh blood. "You said you would leave us, and you are still here. Your deceit breaks our truce, vampire. All your lives are forfeit."
"We never lied to you," Angel told him. "We promised we'd help you get your vengeance, and we have."
Gregor's mouth twisted in scorn. "Our vengeance demands suffering."
"Look at him!" Cordelia exclaimed, pointing to where Angelus was crouching behind her. "Isn't that enough suffering for you?"
Gregor glanced at Angelus, then shifted his gaze to Angel. "He may suffer now, but it will not always be so. This one is the proof of that."
"I have the soul you cursed me with," Angel said. "That's what you've wanted all along."
"No. We want you to know pain. Your soul is only the means to that end. If you have come to treasure your soul, it can only be because it has brought you comfort. We could have killed you the night we cursed you. We let you live only so you could suffer while generations of our clan rise from the earth and fall back into it. If there is a time when your soul no longer causes you to suffer, whether that is a hundred, a thousand or ten thousand years from now, then our vengeance is ended and you must die."
"Man," Gunn said in a low voice. "These folks really know how to hold a grudge, don't they?"
"Look at you," Gregor said. "Look at these others who surround you. Foolish people to be your friends, a foolish woman who loved you. You do not stand before us in shame. You act as though you have a right to make demands of us, a right to be whatever you wish. That is the right of anyone else with a soul, but not you, Angelus. Never you."
"I understand that," Angel said, feeling his hands clench into fists. "I understand that better than you could ever possibly imagine."
The gypsy laughed at him. "You stand here with your friends, and you want me to believe that you suffer? You want us to believe that you feel pain? You know nothing of it anymore."
The others in the attack party all shifted on their feet, began gripping their weapons more tightly. They were losing their awe of Cordelia and their terror of the fire, and their rage was beginning to well up within them again. In a few moments, Angel realized, the situation would escalate into battle. Could all four of them get out of this?
No, he thought. All five of us.
Angel looked back to where Angelus huddled at the back of the cave and suddenly experienced a stab of sympathy for him -- the first time he'd felt anything beyond contempt for his former self. In 1898 he'd already been older than the oldest human, had traveled continents and considered himself a man of wide experience. And yet he'd known nothing of what made human lives real -- not love or friendship or sorrow or grief. For the Angelus of 1898, all that still lay ahead; right now, his 150-year-old past self was like an infant whose life had only just begun. The future was before him, an unexplored country wide open with possibility.
At this moment, his past self had everything that Angel had wanted for Connor. Everything Connor would now never have.
Angel said, "I had a son, and he died."
The cave was quiet. Gregor stared at him -- no, Angel thought, Gia's father stared at him. He tried to imagine Gia as a little girl, swaddled up in this man's arms, then remembered her as the broken corpse that he had created and Darla had casually discarded. He wondered if Gregor was trying to imagine Connor, knew the man could never grasp the uniqueness and joy of his son --just as Angel would never truly know the woman he had destroyed.
Their eyes met. Gregor took a deep breath, and Angel realized -- one father knew another.
At last, Gregor said, "Then you will know enough suffering for our vengeance. And more even than that, vampire. You understand this?"
Angel nodded. Gregor lifted his hand, and the massed ranks behind him began to file out of the cave. Angel watched them go without really seeing them, knew Cordelia had placed her hand comfortingly on his shoulder without his really feeling it.
"I had a son," he said again. "I understand now."
"Vampires are barren," Mother Yanna insisted. "Everyone knows this."
From her elevated position, floating at the rear of the cave, Cordelia could easily look down on the old woman and the group of gypsies -- and one vampire -- standing around her. Mother Yanna had followed the attack party; now she was angrily demanding to know why neither version of Angel was dust yet. The other gypsies were explaining, with occasional comments from Angel. Mother Yanna might be old and frail, but it seemed like she could cause them serious trouble if she chose, and Cordelia was still a little concerned. But she was more concerned about how she was going to get down from the ceiling.
"I'm sure you stayed down longer last time," Fred said to Cordelia's knees. "Come on, let's give it one more shot."
"Okay. But this time, if I start to bob back up, just put rocks on my feet or something. It's boring up here." Fred tugged Cordelia's feet back down to the floor again, and for a few moments she felt as though she could go either way -- up or down. But then gravity settled in once more, and she breathed out heavily as she felt her feet firmly plant on the ground. "Sometime, I want these demon powers to actually be convenient," Cordelia said as she brushed herself off. "And understandable. And to come with an instruction manual."
Demon powers, Cordelia thought to herself for the thousandth time. What does that mean? Where is it going to lead me? Hovering wasn't so bad so far, but she still had no idea how to control it. The glowing thing -- if she really had been glowing, and it hadn't just been some weird light from the time-machine portal -- was new, and even if it was harmless, it was frightening.
Why didn't I ask Skip more questions? Why didn't I make him explain what he was doing before he did it? She knew the answer, of course; the sight of an anguished, insane and possibly dying Angel had frightened her past the point of rationality -- and the only other option had been her own death. She'd thought she'd get less freaked about becoming part demon as time went on, but the feeling of uncertainty was only becoming more acute with each change she saw in herself. If a new power had really appeared tonight, others would probably follow.
Cordelia sighed. She'd think about it some other time. Not now.
From the floor, Spike let out a low groan as he struggled toward consciousness. Gunn, who was standing guard, simply took up a rock and whacked him in the temple, hard. Spike slumped back on to the ground. Gunn shook his head. "We can't just keep knocking them out over and over again forever," he said. "I mean, sure, it'd be fun, but eventually, we gotta return to the future and leave them here knowing way the hell too much. What are we going to do?"
Cordelia stared down at the unconscious vampires, then glanced over at Angelus. He'd regained some measure of calm in the last several minutes, but he was still a hollow wreck of a man -- and still listening to every word. "It doesn't matter if they know about the time machine," she reasoned. "We take the ring with us and close the door --"
"-- And then they go find the time machine wherever it is in 1898," Fred pointed out. "Even if they couldn't find it, just this knowledge about the future is probably too much to preserve our timeline. That doesn't even start to touch on Drusilla; even if she is mentally unstable, she remembers a lot about the next 104 years. Who knows what she might decide to do, and when, and what effect it might have?"
Cordelia groaned. "This is just not good."
The gypsies fell silent as Mother Yanna raised her hand and stared coldly at Angel. She held up a small stick of something and snapped it, releasing a blue, fragrant cloud. Slate-colored trails snaked all around Angel, then turned white. Mother Yanna scowled, but she folded her arms in front of her and said, "He speaks truth. He may leave our time and take his human companions with them. But if you ever again return, vampire --"
"This is the end," Angel said. "It has to be."
"How can it be?" Cordelia said, gesturing at the vampires. "These guys know way too much about the time machine and the future. You, version 1.0, is probably too shell-shocked to do anything about it, but that doesn't apply to those three."
"We do not care for your troubles," Mother Yanna spat. "We care only that you leave and cease to remind us of our own."
Angel looked down at Darla's still face, and Cordelia couldn't help feeling a strange twinge of uncertainty as he knelt by Darla's side. His fingers brushed a lock of hair from Darla's cheek, so tenderly that he might have been lying beside her in bed, then took one of her hands in his. Oh, please, Cordelia thought, he's been doing great, don't let him go all soft now.
Then Angel stood up and came to Cordelia's side. She was confused when he took her hand, but only until she saw that he was slipping her hologram bracelet back on her wrist. Cordelia looked into his face and saw he was smiling a little. "Now you won't have to tell Groo you lost it."
"Thanks," she said, smiling back. "What's that?"
Angel held up something else he'd taken from Darla, a gold ring. Cordelia realized this second ring must be the one Drusilla had used to time-travel. "Here, Fred," Angel said, tossing it to her. "You're the one holding the keys."
"Well, that's one loose end taken care of," Fred said with a sigh as she pocketed the ring. "Now, if we can just think of a way to tie up the other hundred billion loose ends, we might just get to go home."
Gunn gestured at the unconscious vampires. "Think we could just politely ask 'em to forget about all this?"
Angel stared at Gunn for a moment, then said, "That's exactly what we're going to do." Cordelia frowned, but before she could ask Angel what he meant, he had turned back to Mother Yanna. The old woman peered at him, narrow-eyed, as he said, "You tried to steal my memories of my son, a few days ago."
"Was it your son you mourned?" Mother Yanna said. She smiled a cold smile that showed her yellowing, cracked teeth. "A pity I did not succeed."
Cordelia wanted to smack the old woman's few remaining teeth out of her head, but Angel's only reaction was an almost imperceptible hesitation before he spoke again. "You still have a chance to show your skill," he said, pointing at the other vampires. "Instead of stealing my memories, you're going to steal theirs."
Fred grimaced as she stumbled away from the gypsy wagon, dragging Drusilla roughly along the ground behind her. Fred was pulling Drusilla by her ankles, causing her arms and hair to fan out behind her on the damp earth. "Okay," she huffed, "I know she looks bony and all, but still, very heavy."
"Hang on," Angel said, dropping Spike on the ground. He helped Fred haul Drusilla underneath the small outcropping of stone they'd found at the edge of the forest. If the vampires were still unconscious at daybreak -- which Angel thought likely -- they'd be trapped in place for a little while, giving Angelus time to burrow deeper into the shaded depths of the woods. In order to recreate history, Angel said, it was important that Angelus not encounter the other vampires for a few years to come.
Charles settled Darla beneath the outcropping, handling her more carefully under Angel's watchful eye than Fred suspected he might have done otherwise. "That got us?"
Angel, instead of answering, turned back to Mother Yanna, who was descending carefully from the wagon. Cordelia sat in the back with Angelus; either of them might have helped the old woman, Fred thought, but it was highly unlikely she would have accepted aid even if it were offered. Angel said, "I know you can erase the last couple of days from Spike and Darla. But what about Drusilla? That's more than a century of memory."
"Do you doubt my abilities?" Mother Yanna said. "You of all creatures should not."
"Believe me, " Angel said, "I don't. But it's a hundred and four years, and not just the memory of one person or place."
Mother Yanna stared down at Drusilla's pale face for a moment, then shrugged. "I have never attempted such. Neither has any other. I believe it will be done as you seek. But perhaps there will be -- pictures. Moments. Pieces of her memory that will remain in her mind, but with no anchor to hold them fast."
Cordelia said, "So that means Drusilla's going to be perpetually confused, occasionally seeing glimpses of the future, and -- and exactly like she was before." Her face lit up. "Angel, do you think, just maybe -- the reason we remember Drusilla like she is that we remember her still screwed-up from this memory spell? If so, then, that means we've already pulled all this off, right?"
"No, Drusilla was confused for a long time before this, thanks to me," Angel said. "But you're right; the confusion won't mean as much to her or the others as it would with anyone else. It's still the best shot we've got at restoring history to the way we remember it."
"Then withdraw," Mother Yanna said, "and let me begin."
Charles clambered back into the wagon, and Fred made a move to follow. She hesitated as she saw Angel looking down at Darla -- for what was, she realized, the very last time. Darla's cheeks were smudged with dirt and blood, her dress rumpled around her. Even in sleep, her patrician features carried a hint of the cruel disdain Fred had seen so often on her face. Yet Angel looked at Darla gently, with an expression Fred recognized. She had seen it once before, as the three of them crouched in an alleyway and she and Angel tried to shelter Darla from the rain. "Goodbye," he said quietly.
Fred took Charles' hand as she climbed back into the wagon. Angel, however, walked a few steps away, not looking back at the vampires or his friends as Mother Yanna began to chant softly in a language which was neither Romanii nor English. Angelus hugged his coat around himself, looking from person to person uncertainly, but he said nothing.
Fred glanced at Cordelia and saw that she was watching Angel, a faint smile on her face. With a hint of pride in her voice, Cordelia said, "He's really been strong through all this, hasn't he? I kept thinking he was going to fall apart, but he didn't."
The battered and beaten alternate-future Wesley might disagree, Fred thought -- but even that Wesley had lived to tell the tale. Well, until his reality collapsed seconds later. "I guess if Angel made it through losing Connor, nothing else is going to knock him down ever again."
"Connor --" Angelus said. His voice startled everyone; next to her, Fred felt Charles go tense, and Cordelia whipped her head around to stare. Angelus actually flinched, but he said, "You said -- a son -- was Connor my son?"
Fred didn't answer him, and she thought nobody else would either. But then she saw Cordelia's face soften with compassion as she leaned toward Angelus. "Yeah," she said. "He was."
Charles opened his mouth to protest, but Fred took his hand and squeezed it. When he glared at her, she whispered, "The memory spell works or it doesn't. If it doesn't, the damage is already done. If it does -- then let him have a little comfort, okay? It's the last he's going to have for a really long time."
From the dubious expression on Charles' face, Fred could tell he didn't much care about Angelus' comfort. But he didn't interfere as Cordelia began speaking quietly to Angelus. Instead, he wrapped his arm around Fred and cuddled her close. "We've been on a hell of a ride," he said. "I don't think I'm gonna believe it until you and me are back at the hotel, wrapped up in our bed, same old drippy faucet keeping us awake, same old crappy reception of Telemundo on the TV set."
"I never thought I'd be grateful to see Telemundo again," Fred sighed. She thought back over the past few days, an almost-forgotten enthusiasm bubbling up inside her. "Do you realize how many principles of theoretical physics we've proved and disproved the last couple of days? I can't exactly share our time-traveling stories as empirical evidence, but I bet I'm going to get a couple of papers out of this. Winifred Burkle, published physicist." The old dream gleamed even a little brighter for having been set aside for so long.
"Sounds mighty nice," Charles said, snuggling against her. "You know what theory I think we proved?"
"That I should get to come up with the plans more often."
The wagon jolted as they went back toward the cave with the time machine, driven by Fred's increasingly sure hands. Next to her, Mother Yanna sat, shawl draped around her, stern face looking resolutely ahead. Gunn was stretched out in the hay, exercising his uncanny ability to catnap anywhere, at any time; Angel remembered him explaining that once you learned how to fall asleep in a juvenile detention hall, you could fall asleep anywhere. For his part, Angel sat next to Gunn, deliberately breathing in the lost scents of another century -- pine and straw and horses and leather -- and silently watching Cordelia and Angelus.
Angel wondered what he should say to his former self and came up with nothing. The other's presence was profoundly disquieting on both supernatural and psychological levels; more than that, in some ways he seemed more a stranger than anyone Angel had ever encountered. He remembered what it was like to be that man, how he had felt, what he had thought. All of that was preserved within himself, dried and pressed, fragile and faded but eternal. But Angel could not think of how to talk to that man -- the best of what he had to say would, he knew, be drowned out by pain. It would be like enunciating clearly for the benefit of a deaf man.
Cordelia had no such qualms.
"You're a good detective!" she was telling Angelus. "Well, an okay detective with a really good staff. And you help a lot of people who really need help, and we only charge the ones who can comfortably pay."
Her voice bubbled on and on as she marshaled evidence for something Angelus would be decades in learning to accept. For his part, Angelus huddled near her, listening in disbelief.
"You've saved my life -- how many times, Angel? -- he doesn't know. We don't keep track. You're my best friend. The best friend I've ever had. Ever will have, probably."
Angel smiled and spoke for the first time in a long while: "Thanks."
She glanced back at him, suddenly abashed; apparently it was easier to say some of what she'd been saying to an Angel who wouldn't respond. But she was smiling as she curled her knees up to her chest. "Almost over."
"Yeah," Angel said. "Hopefully. Are you feeling okay?"
"Just tired," Cordelia said. "Can't wait to go back to my apartment and get some sleep. Assuming, of course, that the future we're going back to has my apartment in it."
"We'll think about that when we get there," Angel said. "Don't worry about it now."
"Easier said than done," she said. Then she thumped Angelus on the arm. "See? This is just the kind of relaxed, friendly repartee you have to look forward to. Plus the invention of leather pants."
Angelus finally spoke. "We've had leather pants for centuries."
"Millennia," Angel added. "For as long as there've been cows."
Cordelia made a face. "Of COURSE this is what you can both talk about."
"We're there," Fred said, half-turning around as she slowed the wagon.
Angel peered around in the darkness; he had expected the gypsies to stay behind, awaiting Mother Yanna's return, but none of them had remained. Mother Yanna, unfazed, carefully lowered herself out of the wagon. Angel followed suit. Angelus hesitated for a moment, visibly uncertain, and Cordelia quickly hugged him. "You'll be okay," she said. "Not right away. But someday. And I'll be waiting."
Angel felt absurdly jealous for a moment. Then he realized: She's still taking care of me. He smiled at her as she, Fred and a drowsy Gunn headed into the cave, to the portal to the time machine.
As Mother Yanna walked down a different branch of the cave, Angel and Angelus walked side-by-side after her. Angelus kept glancing back at the way Cordelia had gone, then at Angel. At last he whispered, "What she said -- is any of what she said true?"
"It's all true," Angel said.
"Then -- then it must get better." Angelus looked at Angel, entreaty in his face. "Tell me it gets better."
For a second, the contempt Angel had felt for his past self returned, stronger than ever. He had caused so much suffering, committed so much evil -- and yet he still saw his punishment only in terms of his own pain. It would be almost a century, Angel knew, before he learned to see past self-pity and bitterness and despair, before he started making amends.
Angel remained silent. Beside him, the hope faded from Angelus' eyes, and he stumbled on, his body curled over in what looked like physical pain.
No, Angel remembered suddenly -- it was physical pain. In the hours and days immediately after the curse he had clawed and beaten and torn at himself, driven by desperation to try to drown out the mental and emotional anguish with physical pain. All he had succeeded in doing was breaking several ribs, splintering the bones so badly that even with a vampire's recuperative powers they had taken days to heal. In the meantime, his tense, exhausted muscles had cramped almost constantly, stabbing him somewhere deep inside with shards of bone, invisible knives buried in his chest.
The memory of that pain was suddenly more real, more vivid to Angel than it had been for years. Watching Angelus stumble next to him, he remembered how heavy his body had felt, as if waterlogged, sodden with guilt. He remembered the pain in his side, the bloody crescents his fingernails had made in his palms. More than anything, he remembered how it felt to be sure that eternity would hold nothing but pain.
In a few minutes, Angelus' memory would be wiped clean of the past couple of days, of every event since Darla discovered he had been cursed. Nothing Angel said or did right now would exist for Angelus after that.
But even this moment mattered.
Angel quietly said, "It will be better than this, someday. Not for a long time. But someday you're going to have a life worth having."
Angelus stared at him with wide, bewildered eyes. "How?" he whispered.
"You -- you're going to find people who believe in you," Angel said. "People willing to give you a chance. And you're going to try to deserve them. You won't always get it right, but you'll learn to keep trying. When that happens, everything you're going through now, everything you'll go through later -- you'll know it was worth it."
Angelus considered that for a moment; though the anguish did not leave his eyes, his posture almost imperceptibly straightened. His voice was steadier when he spoke again. "It would help, if it all meant something."
"It will," Angel said. "It always means something. It's always going to be worth it." Angelus nodded, for one instant allowing himself to believe.
When they reached the cave, Angelus sat on the ground as Mother Yanna instructed, calmly listening to her chant the spell that would remove his memories. He remained focused on Angel's face until the moment Mother Yanna was done, when he slumped, unconscious, onto the ground.
Mother Yanna sighed and began shuffling away. "It is done. He will awaken soon, and we must be gone from this place."
"We'll have gone through the time machine in a few minutes," Angel said. "And we won't come back. We've done all we could do to restore this timeline. I don't know what we'll find when we go ahead, but we'll have to accept what it is."
"See that you do," Mother Yanna said. "You suffer because your son is dead, vampire. And I am glad your son is dead, so that you can suffer. But it is not enough for me." Her glassy eyes narrowed. "You cannot suffer enough for me."
The words echoed in Angel's mind -- glad your son is dead, GLAD -- and for once the instincts of demon and father were in perfect accord. He felt hot rage flood his mind, and his hand curled into a fist. For a moment it was as if he had already done it, as if he'd heard her fragile old bones shattering beneath his blow. Only the sheer depth of his fury kept him from striking; it paralyzed him for a few seconds -- but not, he knew, for long.
Mother Yanna, perhaps oblivious to his rage, began hobbling toward the mouth of the cave. "Do not think you will find the others," she said. "They have gone to a place you do not know. We shall not meet again."
She was so certain, and so wrong. With a jolt, Angel remembered that in the history they had fought to restore, the gypsies would be found. Even without Drusilla's suggestion, Darla would eventually hit upon the idea of attacking the gypsies and ransoming his soul. Spike wouldn't have been properly warned. And so he would still kill them, and they would all -- even Mother Yanna --still die.
She was smiling at him cruelly. "You do not like what I say?"
Angel forced himself to relax. "I don't take pleasure in the thought that innocent people have to die," he said. "But you do. And no, I don't like that."
"So noble," Mother Yanna crooned. Then her face was more serious. "I know how wretched it is, this hate inside me. I know it for the wicked thing it is. But then what do we think of the one who put this hate there? Hmmm?"
Angel thought, all the evil that flows from Mother Yanna flows from what I did to her. Cycle after cycle.
"Evil never dies," Mother Yanna said. Then she turned and hobbled away, leaving Angel alone in the cave.
Cordelia stared up at the mouth of the time machine. "This looks less red to me. Like, way less red. Shifting to orange. Bordering on a kind of tangerine."
The pool of light overhead was dimmer and more sluggish, too; it had little of the eerie energy it had possessed before. Next to Cordelia, Fred was chewing on her fingernails. "The door's gotta still be open, though, right? Or else the phenomenon would be completely absent, instead of continuing to manifest."
"It ain't closed," Gunn said from his place nearby, with a confidence Cordelia was sure he didn't really feel. "It's just -- closing."
"That's so reassuring," Cordelia said, then yelled, "ANGEL!"
"I'm right here," Angel said. The moment after she heard him, she saw him, walking toward them in the gloom. His face was shadowed, somehow -- darker and more withdrawn than she'd seen him in the past few days.
Cordelia ignored the pain in her shoulder as she went to him and took his hand in hers. "Hey," she said. "You okay?"
"I'm good," he said flatly. "It's done."
So Connor would live again. They'd get the Hyperion back. All good things. So why was Angel back in despair mode? Cordelia chose her words carefully. "I thought that would make you happy."
"It does. It's just --" Angel turned his head from her, clearly searching for words. Although Gunn and Fred's impatience was visible -- and Cordelia's wasn't far behind -- they both remained silent, looking up at the orangey glow overhead. When Angel spoke again, he said, "I told Angelus it would all be worth it. And then I remembered how much evil I've done here, how far into the future the repercussions go. Evil never dies. It all goes so far past me, Cordy. I don't know that I have the right to say it's going to be worth it someday."
Cordelia brushed his cheek with her hand. "Maybe the evil you do never dies," she said. "But the good you do doesn't die either, does it? The repercussions of the good things you do keep going too." She cocked an eyebrow at him. "The ripple effect works both ways, you know."
Angel smiled at her, and the darkness had fallen from him again. He spoke --not to her, but to Fred and Gunn. "Let's go through this thing."
Gunn clapped his hands. "All right. Last one out's a rotten egg. Or something else skanky."
They all gathered around Fred, who pulled one of the rings out of her pocket. Immediately, the portal above them began to spark and shimmer anew, which Cordelia figured was very good news.
Fred didn't hold up the ring. They stood in silence.
Cordelia spoke first. "What if we didn't get it right? What if we show up back in Rome, with the world on fire?"
Angel said, "That's not going to happen. I think we've stopped that reality from coming to pass." Cordelia hoped he was as confident about that as he sounded.
"I'm on board with that," Gunn said. "Question is -- did we start our reality up again, or are we gonna find some other freaky-ass future waiting for us?"
"It's got to be better than the one with the world on fire," Cordelia reasoned. Everyone looked as though they agreed. But Fred still didn't hold the ring up, and nobody was rushing her.
At last Angel said, "No matter what -- we can't return here."
"The damage is done," Fred said. "We affected this timeline. We know that much. We won't find out just how until we go back. So -- I guess we should return and take it from there."
"Got it," Cordelia said.
"Agreed," Gunn said.
"Okay," Angel said.
They all paused for another moment, and Cordelia reached out and grabbed Angel's and Gunn's hands in her own. Both guys grabbed hers right back, and Gunn swung his free arm around Fred. "Let's see what kinda world we made," Gunn said.
Fred took a deep breath, straightened up and held the ring above her head. And then Cordelia was falling upwards, gravity in reverse, her friends around her as the world spun away.
Darla was spinning, clinging to a raft that twisted and pitched dizzyingly on a stormy sea. Her mind was a vision not her own -- painted by Gericault, voiced in screams. Phantoms rose up out of the spray around her, faces she recognized but couldn't name speaking fragments of sentences that seemed to be important but somehow slipped from her mind immediately. Only one apparition was more memorable than the others -- Angelus rose out of the turbulent waters, wearing a look of sadness unlike anything Darla had seen on his face before. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry." He started to sink back into the darkness, and Darla reached out a hand to grab him back --
- And cried out in pain.
Darla snatched her hand back and opened her eyes. Immediately the glare of hated sunlight bombarded her and the ugly smell of her own scorched flesh filled her nostrils. Now fully awake, she sat up, cradling her burnt hand to her chest.
She was sitting beneath an rocky outcrop, its shadow protecting her from the sun. She started to shuffle backward, as far into the shade as possible, and stopped when she bumped against another body. It was Spike, curled on his side, one arm slung protectively across an equally unconscious Drusilla.
Angelus, Darla thought. Where was Angelus?
His name triggered a flood of unpleasant memories -- the gypsy girl, the clan's revenge, the curse. Angelus, her glorious lover, her creation, turned into a sniveling and tearful wretch, a caricature of himself. She had thrown him out of the house. And after that --
After that, her memory was fragmented, unclear. Music, dancing, mayhem. The forest on fire and a flame-colored ballgown. But, as hard as she tried, Darla couldn't marshal the scattered impressions into something coherent, and she couldn't remember how she'd come to be laid out unconscious under a rock.
She put a hand to her head, and winced in pain. Her skin was unbroken, but her hair was matted with blood -- she'd suffered a bad wound which had healed while she'd slept. Spike and Drusilla bore the marks of similar injuries.
Spike groaned and rolled over on to his back. Immediately he winced and threw his arm over his eyes. "Too bright..."
"Wake up," Darla said. When that didn't work, she slapped him hard.
Spike groaned again and started to stretch his limbs; straight away he discovered, as Darla had, why that was a bad idea. He sat up, pulling his legs up to his chest and grimacing at the brightness around them. "I've been burned," he coughed. "Drusilla's been burned. What the hell happened?"
"I don't know," Darla said. She hated to say no more than that, but it was as much of an answer as she had.
"Well," Spike said at last, "I don't know how we got here, but it must have been one hell of a party. Wonder how long we've been out?"
"We've all been asleep for a hundred years," Drusilla's voice lilted. As she sat up, a faint flicker of confusion passed across her face. "Or -- we will sleep a hundred years. Like the princess in the story. I'm a princess, aren't I, Spike?"
Spike put his arm around Drusilla's waist, drawing him closer to her and kissing her languidly. "You're my dark princess. My wicked fairy."
The sun, Darla noted, was low in the sky. It wouldn't be long before dusk fell and their temporary prison dissolved into shadow around them. That was a source of relief -- the prospect of spending interminable hours cooped up with no escape from Spike's posturing and Drusilla's jabbering was wholly unpleasant. Already, Darla could feel her patience beginning to fray as Drusilla prattled on.
"I'll sleep a hundred years, while the tall buildings grow like grass and all the lovely wars are fought again," she said, her frown of confusion deepening. "Is this the end of the story, or the beginning? It's all a ring, a circle, a merry-go-round. We go round merrily, and round and round and round, back where we started." She tugged Spike's sleeve urgently. "I can't remember the story, Spike."
"There, love," Spike said soothingly. "If you've forgotten the story, we'll just make up a new one. Like this: Once upon a time, there were two vampires called Spike and Drusilla, and they killed everybody they met and lived happily ever after. The end."
"Happily ever after," Drusilla echoed softly and, perhaps, a little sadly.
Happily ever after, Darla thought sourly. For Spike and Drusilla, maybe. But not for Angelus. And not for her.
The sun dipped behind the tree-tops, and the pool of shadow widened into a black expanse. Darla got up and stretched her cramped limbs. The night settled around her, dark and refreshing.
Not far from the outcrop, she found a track, rutted by the recent passage of a cart. The cart had come from deep within the woods, stopped, then turned around and left at speed back the way it had come.
Darla was trying to make sense of this when the noise of someone approaching along the track made her look up. Spike and Drusilla had heard it too, and stopped exploring each others' throats with their tongues long enough to join her. A man was walking purposefully toward them, and for an instant Darla was certain she knew him.
"Beg pardon?" the man said in a pronounced English accent which was distorted somewhat by his fangs. Now that Darla could examine him more closely, she realized his accent was the only pronounced thing about him. He was short and unremarkable and wore glasses that sat awkwardly on his ridged nose, magnifying his yellow eyes so that they looked foolish instead of terrifying.
"You're a vampire," Darla said.
"Oh," the man said. He seemed pleased. "Is that what I am? How splendid!"
"Bloody hell," Spike said. "Whoever turned this idiot didn't make a good job of it."
"Actually," the vampire said with a polite cough, "that would be this lady." He nodded at Darla.
Darla stared at him. "I don't think so. I have better taste."
"I must beg to differ, ma'am." The vampire made a stiff little bow. "Allow me to introduce myself -- Percival, Lord Dalton, at your service. I woke up with a headache, a terrible thirst and a remarkably strong desire to find your good self. And, well --" He gave an apologetic shrug. "Here I am."
Had she actually turned this pathetic creature? Without any clear sense of memory for the past few days, Darla had to admit it was possible, if extremely unlikely. Perhaps they'd been drugged, or ensorcelled. That was no doubt it; the gypsies hadn't just punished Angelus, but devised some vile --though thankfully more temporary -- revenge on the rest of them.
"He smells like Grandmummy," Drusilla said, leaning close to Dalton and sniffing him. "Dead lilies and poison ivy. He's a little puppy. Can we keep him? He will amuse Daddy --" She broke off suddenly, her face clouding again. "Where is Daddy? Something happened, and I don't remember --"
"Angelus --" Darla began. "Angelus has --"
She had shared one hundred and fifty years with Angelus, had been there to welcome him as he clawed his way up through the cold Irish earth and into the waiting night. The pathetic, miserable cursed creature she had cast out was not the man who had enthralled, amused and delighted Darla with his inventive cruelty for more than a century. She could still bring back that man, and they would laugh together as they killed the gypsies, one by one.
Darla could not explain it, but she was filled with a sudden and absolute certainty that her history with Angelus had not ended. The future was a ripe fruit hanging heavy on the branch, theirs to claim. Darla intended to pluck it down and devour it.
"Angelus went to find us new sport," she lied. "He told me of a camp of gypsies, ripe for a slaughter."
"That's more like it. What are we waiting for? Let's get to the killing," Spike said. He threw a fraternal arm around Dalton's shoulder. "Dalton, my boy, you're going enjoy this..."
"Dalton, is it?" Darla said coolly, appraising the newcomer. He stared back raptly, with all the adoration of the newly-turned. Even in this ridiculous creature, it was vaguely gratifying. He'd be useful for running and fetching, she supposed, if nothing else. "Very, well, you'll come with us. And you'll obey our rules. Meaning that you'll obey me."
Spike added, "And when you're not obeying her, you'll obey me." Dalton nodded happily, accepting it all as gospel.
"Gypsies?" Drusilla repeated uncertainly. Then a slow smile spread across her face, overtaking her confusion. "Slaughter..." She followed Spike and Dalton.
Darla smiled. Then her lips curled into a sneer of hatred as she thought again of the gypsies, their peasant mobs, their cheap little magic tricks they substituted for strength.
She'd show them who could hate the most. She'd show them who could write in blood.
Angel felt the wall of the pyramid knock against his head a split second before he heard Cordelia yelp. "Owww! Ugh. Somebody's gotta find the brakes on this thing."
The others were all crowded up against him, confined by the narrow interior of the time machine. Gunn was groaning from the nauseating trip back through time, and Fred sounded a little queasy as she said, "Let's open the door. No matter what future we find out there, it's got to be a better place to barf than in here."
"Seconded," Cordelia said quickly.
Angel, closest to the door, pushed it open carefully. The faint lighting showed him a room lined with dark wood paneling, a floor covered in threadbare carpet. An old sewing machine stood in one corner, and next to them was an early X-ray machine. Barely daring to hope, he climbed out of the pyramid; as the others followed, he checked the sign above the door. It read "The Old Curiosity Shop: Victorian Inventions and Curios."
Just as it had before.
"This looks like the Museum of Victoriana," Fred said. "I mean, looks just like it --"
"Smells like it too," Angel said. He breathed in again, checking it: the same musty smell of old lace and older books, the stink of industrial cleaners, and still hovering in the air, just a little, the familiar scent of Drusilla. "This is it. This is where we left."
Gunn was the last to stumble from the pyramid. As he stretched his limbs, he said, "Sounding real good so far. Now, let's just hope we don't find out L.A.'s on fire too."
"Wait," Angel said, tensing. "Someone else is in the building." He said it the moment he sensed it, and he sensed it even before he heard it --footsteps coming down the hallway, directly toward them. The others heard the sound a few seconds later, and they all drew closer to one another, protecting each other's backs.
"Only bad thing about showing up in the museum we originally left?" Cordelia said. "Not so many weapons in the curio shop."
"I think I could do some damage with that X-ray machine if I have to," Gunn said grimly. "Show some monster just what bones I broke in his ass."
Angel motioned for quiet, and they all stood there in total silence until the through the doorway came --
"Groo?" Cordelia said, her face melting into a smile.
Groo grinned back. "Indeed, my princess. How goes your quest for the Drusilla beast?"
Angel looked at the others, then at Groo, then back at the others. Finally Fred said, "Groo -- just go with this for a second -- what do you remember about earlier today?"
The Groosalugg, ever eager to help, nodded and smiled. "Cordelia was helping Angel with -- was helping Angel." The pause was slight, just enough to tell Angel that Connor was still dead, that Cordelia had still been helping him box up Connor's things. He had been expecting it, but it stung nonetheless. "Then Angel realized the vampire Drusilla was near, and you all came here to seek her. Lorne and I went to the airport, where great metal birds go into the sky and a fine selection of perfumes can be purchased, and we killed a Velga demon that had gone into the baggage area and sent many people's luggage astray. We defeated this evil and reunited the travelers with their belongings. Then we came here; Lorne remains in the car, ready to speed us toward a quick getaway if one is necessary." Groo's pleasant face shifted into a worried frown. "Is such a getaway necessary?"
"No," Gunn said. Then he started laughing. "Hell, no. We are RIGHT where we want to be! Yes!" He grabbed Fred up in his arms and spun her around.
Cordelia was beaming, and Angel was sure she would run to Groo. Instead, she flung her arms around Angel, holding him close. "We made it," she whispered. "We gave Connor his five months."
Angel hugged her back, taking comfort from her words and her touch. Five months. He remembered holding Connor, and for the first time the memory brought him joy instead of anguish. The words he'd said to Angelus echoed inside him -- so much so that he wondered if the memory had always been within him. It was worth it. It will always be worth it.
At last, Cordelia let go of him. Groo seemed confused, perhaps dismayed, until she ran toward him and hugged him too. "This bracelet you gave me?" she said, holding out her wrist. "Best. Gift. Ever. You're not going to believe the story."
"Speaking of jewelry," Fred said, "we should probably get those rings out of the time machine."
Gunn stared at her. "What, one crazy, reality-bending trip through time wasn't enough for you? You want frequent-flyer miles with this thing?"
Angel understood her. "We have to deactivate the time machine," he said. "We've seen what can go wrong. If Dru was able to find out about it, then others might find out eventually, and then anything could happen."
"Grabbing the rings now," Gunn said, quickly ducking inside the time machine. Fred held out her hands to accept the handfuls of gold rings as Gunn shoveled them out.
"You have had some great and worthy adventure," Groo said. "I look forward to hearing your courageous exploits."
"We'll tell you all about it," Cordelia promised. "But first, we are going to enjoy some 21st-century luxuries, like warm showers and dry-cleaned clothing." Her voice was dreamy as she added, "Take-out pizza."
Angel accepted the last handful of rings from Gunn. Fred was peering down at them. "What should we do with these?" she said. "My first thought is to find the local equivalent of Mount Doom and toss them in."
"We should probably check and see if they're under a specific enchantment we could remove," Angel said, looking down at the rings. "If we can't, then we should destroy them. But we might be able to disenchant them."
Cordelia caught on first. "And if we can disenchant them, then we just came into a big chunk of gold that we are ethically obligated to steal. And sell. And make some money off of."
"Could fix up the Hyperion with that," Gunn said, lifting one of the rings. "I know this guy --"
"We could buy you another bracelet to match this one," Groo said to Cordelia.
Angel watched her face shift from dismay to a tact as she said, "I'd rather try some of those perfumes you found at the airport."
"They are duty-free," Groo reported solemnly.
Cordelia gave him a proud smile. "You're really growing as a shopper." Then she laughed and clapped her hands. "I can't believe it! We did it! We fixed time up like we never left!"
"Maybe," Fred said. She was staring down at the gold in her hands, a little sadly. "It's more likely that we did change reality. We must not have changed anything major, or else Groo wouldn't remember the same day we do. But somewhere, somehow -- things changed because Drusilla went into the past, and because we followed her."
Angel considered that for a moment. "The changes are going to be small things," he said. "At least, to us. Maybe not to the people who felt them. But we'll never know."
"Probably not," Fred said. "The differences will be -- in the details. On the margins. A few turning points where it just took one tiny sliver to make a difference, and we did."
"Guys, chill out," Cordelia said. "The world's the world we remember. Today's the day we remember. And if the world's a teeny bit different -- well, so what? We're not in Rome, the streets aren't on fire and, at least as far as we knew this morning, the world's not ending. Maybe we switched something here or something there. But we didn't have any choice. We did what we had to do, and I think we did it pretty damn well."
Fred sighed. "When you put it that way -- yeah. We did our best and, really, we did okay. If you leave out the wrong-Dru mixup and the stampede in the theatre and lemur-kabobs, I guess we were fine."
"What's wrong with lemur-kabobs?" Gunn protested. "I was winging it!"
"It's easy to say the changes don't matter now," Angel said. He could tell the others' spirits were lifting, but he couldn't quite feel the same. "We don't yet know what they are."
"We'll deal with the changes just like we deal with everything else," Cordelia said. "I only ask for a few constants in this universe. As long as the Nehru jacket is still out of style, Ben & Jerry still went into the ice-cream business and Al Gore's still president, everything's okay by me."
Everyone smiled, and Angel let himself relax. "Let's get back to the hotel," he said. "I think we could all stand to be home."
"Amen to that," Gunn said. He slid his arm around Fred's shoulders, and the two of them followed Cordelia and Groo out. Angel could hear Cordelia's merry voice, telling stories to Groo even as they started down the hall.
For one moment, he looked back at the time machine, black and solid and now forever still. He thought of Connor again, wondering for an instant -- for only one instant -- if he was a fool not to take even this desperate chance to get his son back.
But then he thought of a world on fire, and Wesley's crumpled body, and of what he had said to himself so long ago. The pain that had happened all served a purpose -- just because he didn't see it now didn't mean he never would.
Angel followed the others out through the museum, listening not to their words, but just to the happiness in their voices, the laughter that echoed from the walls. He felt himself begin to smile.
It was time to stop thinking about the past. Time to face the future.
They were laughing and laughing, and something was terribly funny, and Angel didn't think it was funny, but he was smiling too. It was all very strange, but then everything was very strange, and none of it mattered, so long as they came back inside when she needed them to.
Drusilla was pretty sure they'd come back inside if she started screaming.
It would be easy to start screaming -- she wanted to scream. Of course, she always wanted to scream, because it was fun, but now it would be easiest of all. Because now was when she was going to go back and write the story all over again. She would change the ending, and this time it would end well.
The story had ended very poorly this time, in Drusilla's opinion. Spike had gone away. They put metal in his mind, and now he couldn't drink. It poisoned him from the inside out. Then Darla had crumbled into dust. As far away as Drusilla had been she had still felt it -- Darla dying with remorse in her heart.
"And little feet in her hands and belly," Drusilla whispered. She knew the story. She had told it to herself many times before, hoping it wouldn't be so sad the next time. But this was the first time she knew she could change it. This time it would all come out right.
Drusilla was very certain about this -- more certain than she was about most things. She'd learned that it was very difficult to be sure about much of anything: which person was least likely to scream loudly, whether or not Spike truly loved her, if the tulips in the wallpaper were really speaking to her or just whispering among themselves. Thoughts got all tangled up sometimes -- tangled up like thread, if you weren't very careful with your stitches, and that kind old voice always told her to be careful with her stitches.
Now all the sewing was coming out straight. An even hem. When she'd found the book, she'd been able to understand it -- she'd understood so well! It was as if she'd read it all before, as though her clever plan was there in the pages too. Dru knew it backwards and forwards. Find the time machine. Trick Angel and his friends into coming after her, so they could kill the one she used to be. Then let them go home, all alone, wagging their tales behind them. That would leave her with Spike and Grandmummy, and they could make those nasty gypsies bring Daddy back the way he was supposed to be. Drusilla could see it all in her mind, out-of-focus, the sound all tinny, like a drive-in movie from the very back row. But she could see and hear it all the same.
It seemed like a story she had heard before, somehow. That made Drusilla happy, made her sure it would all come out just the way it did in her dreams.
All she had to do now was make sure the time machine would work -- it had to be exactly the way it was in the book. The story had to begin right for the ending to be right. If she found the time machine just as it should be, why then she would scream and scream, and the others would run back in, and wouldn't they be surprised when she rolled inside and went away?
Laughing to herself, Drusilla skipped to the time machine. It was big and black, just like the book said. Hieroglyphics danced across its surface. "And the Chinese know," she whispered. "They're walking like an Egyptian."
She pushed open the door, and there were all the lovely switches, and --
Drusilla's face fell. She stamped her foot. "Where are the rings?" she whimpered. "Can't go anyplace without the rings!"
But the rings weren't there. The nasty book had lied. All the visions had just been dreams, stories, like the ones on television. Dru had thought she could write it all over again, but she couldn't. She couldn't at all. The tulips probably weren't talking to her either.
She felt the tears running down her face as she slumped to the floor. The tears were cold. She remembered that they used to be hot, and she didn't know why that made her cry harder than ever. "It's ended all wrong," she sobbed into her hands. "All wrong, all wrong. I haven't any dollies at all."
Drusilla lifted her head, considering. It seemed as though, on her way in, she had seen some pretty dollies --
She tiptoed down the hallway until she found them. A very silly man had gotten himself killed, too long ago for her to enjoy the leftovers, but he had a nice bear tucked under his arm. Such a fluffy little bear. Just the sort of bear she would choose for herself.
Drusilla lifted the bear up and hugged it close. Then she chose a baby doll, and another, and then the prettiest doll of all, one with long black curls, like her own. "You can be my dollies," she said. "And YOU can be Miss Edith. Won't that be fun?"
They all thought it would be great fun indeed.
Dru laughed and laughed, spinning around the room with her new dollies in her arms. They could dance and sing, and then they could play hide-and-go-seek, and tell each other stories. She would always be able to find new stories to tell.
Please send feedback about the story -- and NOT about the show, please, for the love of Mike -- to email@example.com and Yahtzee63@aol.com. My fanfic archive: http://www.thechicagoloop.net/yahtzee Join the updates list at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/YahtzeeFicUpdates Read my ATS reviews at: http://www.zentertainment.com "Easy cynicism is no more truthful than easy optimism, though it seems to be so to the young." -- Philip Pullman
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