Angel leaned on the balcony railing, looking down into the lobby of the Hyperion Hotel. It had been a quiet night. Come to think of it, it had been a quiet week. Blowing up Wolfram & Hart's 'spare limbs' facility seemed to have initiated a state of limbo in the City of Angels.
He rolled his soccer ball around under his foot, and looked at the people below -- people he was afraid he'd lost for good. Cordelia sat at her desk, casually flicking through a copy of Cosmopolitan. Gunn tapped his pen on the table, staring into the dim recesses of the room. Wesley, as usual, was catching up on his research.
The little sounds they made -- breathing, turning pages, the odd cough -- barely dented the thick silence. The whole hotel seemed to be holding its breath; waiting. Angel often got that impression in this most haunted of places. Maybe that's why he liked it. A building that brooded as much as he did.
"Eeewwwwww!" Cordelia's voice drifted up the stairs, as she wrinkled her pretty nose.
"What?" asked Wesley, looking up from The Compendium of Exoskeletal Demons.
"You wouldn't believe what they suggest doing with a banana! Messy." She shuddered.
"Bananas can actually be used in many different recipes," Wesley began to say, before his eyes flicked towards the cover of the magazine, and an expression of horror washed over his face. "Oh my, good grief." He sank down into his chair and hid behind his book.
Angel's soccer ball sprang over Cordelia's desk, making her jump and sending her pencil pot flying. "Sorry," he said as he ran past, catching the ball on his toe and dribbling it around the couches.
She stared at him. "Since when were you keen on soccer, David Beckham?" Her voice oozed suspicion, and she shot him a few more questioning glances as she knelt to retrieve her pencils and pens from the floor.
"It's the most popular sport in the world," he said, as if that satisfactorily explained everything. It came out sounding less than convincing. Idiot. He stared at the high ceiling. Now she thinks you're even weirder than before.
He looked back, watching her place the resurrected pencils on her desk. She slipped back into her chair, crossing her legs slowly. Did she know how sexy that was? The way she moved drew him in, sucking all his focus to the point in the room where she sat. Was she thinking about him? Did she care that he was trying so hard to make things better? Did she realize that if she moved slightly, he could see her underwear? Just a little to the left, Cordelia...
"Hello, Earth to Angel?" Her voice cut into his trance a second before the eraser she threw bounced off his forehead. He opened his mouth, and shut it again, embarrassed. How long had he been staring at her?
"Good shot, Cordelia." Wesley sounded impressed.
"So much for the super-vamp reactions," Gunn snorted.
"Care to take them on? A little 'match of the day' perhaps?" Angel said, his manhood affronted, and desperate to distract his colleagues from what they must have been thinking.
"Yeah, it's a while since I opened up a can of whoopass," Gunn said, rubbing his hands together. "How d'you play soccer, anyway?"
"Gunn, really. It's football. Take your foot -- kick the ball. It's not rocket science." Wesley rolled his eyes.
"Cordelia?" Angel looked over to her, trying not to sound pathetically hopeful.
"No thanks, whooping ass sounds like sweaty work, and besides -- heels?" She raised her foot, letting the impractical, strappy sandal dangle provocatively from one toe, to illustrate her point.
Okay, now he could see her underwear, a little triangle of white silk peeking out from beneath the hem of her short denim skirt. Angel blinked twice, ripped his gaze away and swallowed hard. Ever since he'd returned from the dark chasm that Darla had dragged him into -- and ultimately released him from -- everything Cordelia did drove him just a little crazy.
He risked another glance at the sandal. Make that a lot crazy.
One moment she was Cordelia, best friend and Seer, the next she was Cordelia, center of his universe, sexy goddess. What should have been a rogue thought, slouching around in the shadows of his mind, had escaped. It was on the loose, running rampant through his head, an out-of-control beast that no amount of willpower could cage. His epiphany had contained more than a few surprise discoveries, and this one had totally thrown him.
Play some soccer. Burn it off. "Whoopass -- right. Wesley?"
"Well, if you think you could use me." Wesley put his book down.
"You're English. Aren't you all good at soccer?" Gunn said, poker-faced.
"I could've been an international football player, actually." Wesley drew himself up proudly, with a glint of mischief in his eye. "But I wasn't a good enough kisser."
"Huh?" Gunn looked alarmed.
"I don't get it," Angel said.
"You haven't had to kiss him," Cordelia sighed. "He's not lying."
"Yes, thank you, Cordelia." Wesley glared at her. He retrieved the ball and began toeing it around the lobby, before passing it back to Angel.
"Humans versus Vampires?" Gunn winked at Angel, who was about to protest at the inequity of two against one. "Seein' as you're stronger than the average bear an' all."
They dragged the furniture around to form two goals, opposite each other. Angel noticed Cordelia lay down her magazine to watch them play. Now was no time to suffer from performance anxiety.
He dribbled right, then left, scooting around Gunn. This was gonna be so easy. Wesley leapt in to tackle him.
"Angel, be gentle, Wesley's stomach!" Cordelia cried, wincing as the two went down in a heap.
"He tackled me," Angel said, trying to prove his innocence from his prone position. Upside-down, Cordelia frowned back, apparently unimpressed.
"Ow." Wesley put a hand to the spot where he'd been shot, grimacing.
"Wes, I'm sorry," Angel gasped, trying to help him sit up.
"I am the man! I am -- aren't I?" Gunn shouted, pointing to the ball, which now sat in Angel's goal.
Wesley leapt up, apparently miraculously feeling better, and rushed at Gunn. He leapt into the bald man's arms, planting a big, wet kiss on his forehead. Gunn's expression turned from delight to panic.
"Hey!" Angel protested, realising he'd been scammed.
Gunn shoved Wesley away, wiping his face in disgust. "Dude! Gross!"
"That's what you do when you score a goal. Honestly," Wesley said, looking embarrassed.
Now that Angel understood the joke, he was even more disappointed that Cordelia wasn't playing.
"Damn, no wonder the sport never caught on here. I ain't playin', if that's the rules," Gunn huffed.
"You're safe Gunn. It's not like you're gonna score another goal." Angel scowled, annoyed at being made to look silly in front of Cordy. Like he wasn't doing a good enough job of that by himself... He launched himself at the ball with renewed vigour.
"Guys..." Cordelia's tone was reproachful. The ball was bouncing all over the lobby. Angel and Gunn were vaulting couches. "You're gonna break something -- or someone." She shook her head in resignation.
There was a loud crash of wood on wall as the doors of the Hyperion flew open. A girl came running in, bloody and crying, staggering to her knees. She looked as if hell itself had opened up behind her. Gasping for air, she clutched at her chest, unable to speak. The men immediately abandoned their game, the ball rolling away, forgotten, as they all spun towards the entrance.
The girl struggled upright, lurched forward, and lost her footing again. She sprawled down the stairs to the lobby floor, where it appeared she just gave up the will to run any further, and lay sobbing. For a second everyone stared at her, startled. Cordelia rose up out of her chair.
Angel felt it again, the sense of waiting. He cocked his head to one side, let his senses sum up the situation. There was something familiar about the girl's smell, her dark hair, the fear that radiated off her in waves. DÈj‡ vu.
For a split-second he thought vividly of Darla, wondering why she had suddenly filled his mind, all lace and silk and immaculate blonde curls.
Gunn and Wesley both took a couple of steps towards the crumpled form on the floor, not sure whether to touch her.
There was another crash as the doors burst open a second time. A large grey scaly demon, with spikes down the sides of its face and green eyes, sprang forward, scanning the room. It located the girl in an instant, and launched itself at her, a cruel, jagged blade glinting in its fist.
Angel moved, his reactions lightning fast, blocking the blow as the demon lunged at the girl's trembling body. "Didn't your mother tell you it was rude not to knock?" he said. It turned to him, venom and malice burning in its eyes.
Angel could see Gunn and Wesley behind it, slowly moving for weapons. He punched the monster in the face, making it reel backwards. It regathered its balance, and swiped at Angel's midriff with the knife. Angel shimmied away, the razor-edge swishing through his shirt.
"Aw, now look what you've done," he chastised the beast, as the slashed fabric gaped open. Dammit, he liked that shirt. More importantly, Cordy liked him in that shirt. A low growl rumbled through his chest.
The demon raised its arm again, preparing for another blow. There was a slight 'squelch' as Wesley's throwing axe landed in the back of the creature's skull. For a moment it looked so surprised that Angel nearly laughed. Then the face began to crumple, and the whole monster collapsed in on itself. There was a small puff of acrid smoke as it imploded, and the axe clattered to the floor.
"My man!" Gunn exclaimed, giving Wesley the special 'high five' they'd developed post-gunshot-wound.
"Hey, a demon body that cleans itself up, I like that. Last thing we need in here is more dust," Cordelia said, stepping out from behind her desk, fanning the smell away with her Cosmo.
The whole incident had taken little more than a minute. The girl still lay on the floor, crying. Wesley knelt beside her and touched her arm. She jolted away as if his touch was electric, and heaved herself into a sitting position, pushing backwards and away with her heels. She looked wildly around the room. Her eyes conveyed absolute raw terror.
"It's okay, you're safe here. We won't hurt you," Wesley said in his soft English tone.
"Are you Angel?" she gasped.
"I am." Angel held out a hand to assist her to her feet. She looked so familiar. Deja vu again -- Darla, powdered face and lots of cleavage.
After a few protracted seconds, the girl reached out to accept his help. As their palms touched, a wave of dizziness washed through him. The lobby shimmered, transforming, the walls shrinking and closing in. The room became intensely familiar, and at the same time frightening.
Darla stood before him, a vision in silk and pearls. Her hair was tied on top of her head, small ringlets falling free and bobbing below her ears. This couldn't be happening again. He was awake, he was sure of it.
"Happy Birthday Angelus." Her little-girl voice made him tremble. He looked away, and as he cast his eyes around the room, fear gave way to delight. A girl lay bound and gagged on the hearth. His present. He remembered well.
"She is a gypsy." His voice sounded strange in his ears.
"I looked everywhere." Darla smiled, a smug smirk that meant she was pleased.
"What would I do without you?" He pulled her close, marvelling at how solid she felt in his arms. This couldn't be real...
"Wither and die," she said, kissing him wickedly. "She's not just for you -- I get to watch".
Angel felt the girl rip her hand from his, and as he gasped, the hotel lobby resurrected itself around him. She was on her feet, her eyes huge and wild, flicking between her palm and his face.
"Who are you?" He backed away, aware the rest of them were staring at him.
"I'm Cara." She was trembling, the words gushing out in a panicked rush. "I was sent to you. Something to do with a prophecy -- I don't understand any of it. I just want it over, and my mother said you could help. Please, make it stop!"
The tears spilling onto her cheeks made tracks through the dirt, and dripped onto her soiled clothing.
"We'll help you," Cordelia said reassuringly, raising her eyebrows at Angel. "Why don't we get you cleaned up, and then you can tell us all about it."
Cara cowered from her touch.
"It's all right, really. We won't let anything bad happen to you." Wesley held out his hands, palms up. His body language was a picture of sincerity.
The girl took a few deep breaths, nodded, and let Cordelia take her arm.
Cordy was trying to give Angel some space, and he was grateful. She read him well. "Take her to a guest room," he said. She nodded, and led the bedraggled girl up the stairs.
Gunn turned to Angel as soon as they were out of earshot. "What's going on, man?"
"Huh?" Angel barely glanced at him, his attention still focused on the empty staircase.
"Something's freakin' you."
"That girl -- she looks like... " Angel abandoned his sentence, shaking his head. It was impossible.
"Like what, Angel?" Wesley prodded.
"Like the gypsy girl Darla gave me for my birthday." Angel faced them. "The one whose family cursed me. That girl looks just like her -- she smells just like her." He shot another nervous glance back over his shoulder. "It kinda threw me for a second."
"Understandable," Wesley said, perching on the back of a couch.
An uneasy silence fell over the room, and the three men all looked up the stairs again momentarily, before quietly going back to their stations, deep in thought.
Half an hour later Cordelia returned, feeling like she had started a shelter for waifs and strays. Cara followed at a nervous distance. At least she was clean, her cuts dressed, and now that she was wearing some of Cordelia's spare clothes, she didn't smell quite so funky. In her right hand she carried a small pouch.
Cara seemed to be a quiet girl -- softly spoken, based on their stilted small-talk while she got changed -- but not shy. She was obviously not used to dealing with the kind of trauma that had befallen her tonight, however. Her face bore the same expression Cordelia had seen on most of their human clients -- that of someone who had discovered that everything they'd been told didn't exist, actually was lurking under their bed at night.
As they arrived in the lobby, her eyes were still a little wild with fright, but she looked much calmer than before.
Angel looked up from his makeshift desk. "Better?" He eyed her cautiously.
"Much, thanks. And thanks for before, for fighting that -- thing." Cara's attempt at a smile came out rather crooked. Angel looked uncomfortable, and responded only with a small nod.
Wesley hurried out of his office. "Shall we take a seat?" he said, motioning to the couches, which were now back in their correct positions. They all settled into the plush velvet cushions, Cordelia placing herself protectively between Cara and Angel. By the look on his face, Mt Everest would have created a more adequate barrier.
"Now, you'd better explain what's going on," Wesley said, rather gravely.
"I don't really know." Cara shrugged. "Up until a week ago I was leading a normal life. Then I turned twenty-one and everything went crazy."
"You mentioned a prophecy?" Wesley prompted.
"Yes, something to do with my family history."
"You're a gypsy," Angel said.
Cara gave him a sharp look. "Gypsy's kind of a derogatory term."
"Sorry, go on," he said, leaning back with a small sigh.
She took a deep breath. "I don't know much about my culture. Mom never told me. It was as if she was scared of telling me too much." She shrugged. "I didn't press her either -- I mean what teenage kid wants to be different from her school friends?" Cara looked around the group for a response. Cordelia nodded, remembering only too well how the desire to fit in had made her treat certain people in the past.
Cara continued, sounding a little more confident now. "On the morning of my twenty-first birthday, my mother came into my room and asked to see my legs. That's when we discovered this," she said, pulling up her cotton skirt, revealing her inner thigh. Two red marks adorned the skin -- a birthmark that looked exactly like a vampire bite.
Angel sprang to his feet, almost going over the back of the couch as he recoiled. The look on his face was a portrait of horror. His mouth dropped half open. His expression froze all the blood in Cordelia's veins. She knew that look. She hated that look.
"Oh God," he croaked. Cara stared at him, oozing fear and bewilderment.
"Angel?" Wesley reached up to put a steadying hand on the vampire's arm, but stopped short of actually making contact. Everything about Angel's stance screamed 'leave me alone'.
"What do you want from me?" Angel's eyes flashed amber as he raised his voice at the cowering girl.
"I don't know. I don't know what this means!" Her voice began to rise in pitch as she stabbed her finger repeatedly into the red blemish.
"Damn, Angel," Gunn said under his breath. "It's just a blotchy leg."
"Angel, calm down. Let her finish," Cordelia said evenly, trying to control the thumping of her heart. She wondered if he could hear it quickening -- sense that her calm tone was just a faÁade.
"My mother freaked too," Cara continued, the words tumbling out. "She started telling me I had to leave, that my life was in danger. She kept babbling about the mark; about the prophecy."
"What do you know of the prophecy Cara?" Wesley asked in a low voice.
"Very little. Mom didn't know the full details. Apparently years and years ago, my ancestors placed a curse on a vampire. At the time, they discovered some ancient prophecy. It said that a Romani girl would inherit his mark, and that she would be somehow significant to him. The ancestors were so vehement that this prophecy not be fulfilled, they decreed that if anyone's daughter developed the mark, she was to be killed," she said bitterly. "It all sounded so bogus. I mean, do vampires really exist?"
"Uh-oh, this is gonna be interesting," Gunn muttered, looking backwards and forwards between Angel and Cara. Cordelia elbowed him in the ribs.
"I -- I'm a vampire," Angel said, sinking back into his seat, his face several shades paler than normal. "I'm that vampire."
"Oh God, so it's all really true." Fresh floods of tears coursed down Cara's cheeks. For a moment Cordelia thought the girl was going to run, her body tensing as she stared at Angel. He stared back.
Wesley fished in his shirt pocket and produced a clean handkerchief. He always reminded Cordelia of a magician doing a trick -- there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply. Maybe it was an English thing.
Cara took the soft cotton square gratefully, wiping her face, the action seeming to calm her a little. "Mom said that the Elders would come, to check me for the mark. She said the only way for me to survive was to fulfill the prophecy, so there would be no point in anyone killing me. I thought she'd lost her marbles, but she seemed so sure of herself. She did a lot of research, and yesterday she found you." She cast another glance at Angel.
"I left straight away, but her questions must have tipped someone off. That thing came after me. I guess I didn't really believe, even then, that any of this was real." Her breath began to hitch again. "But it is. Oh, God, I need you to protect me, and to work out what I have to do," she begged. "I just want to get it over with, and go back to my life."
"Don't worry, we'll work it out," Wesley assured her. "And in the meantime, you'll be safe here."
"Yeah, we won't let nothin' hurt you," Gunn chimed in.
Cara rummaged in her little silk pouch, and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. "I almost forgot -- this might help you."
Wesley took it from her carefully. There was silence for a few moments, broken only by Cara's sniffles, as he studied the meager scrap.
"It's written in some ancient Romani dialect." He peered through his glasses with interest. "It may take some time to translate."
"Meantime, how about you get some rest," Cordelia said.
"That would be great." Cara nodded, pale and tearstained.
Angel sat in his suite, in the dark, slumped in his favourite chair. Why, just when everything seemed like it was coming back together, did he feel like he was about to fall apart again? He could sense the blackness, threatening to pull him under, back to that horrible dark place from which he'd recently returned. He didn't want to go there again. It was lonely, and really, really cold.
She was nearby, just down the hall. Her smell hung thick in the corridor, seeping in under his door. Sweet, strong, exotic -- the same smell as the terrified girl 100 years ago. She was one of them, just like -- Jenny Calendar. Guilt speared upwards through his gut, making his throat constrict painfully.
His chest began to churn, an unwelcome sensation that took him by surprise. Small beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He gripped the arms of the chair harder, forcing the blood from his fingers, turning them completely white.
He was losing his mind. And next it would be his friends -- Cordy -- for good this time.
He didn't need to, but did it anyway, because at least it was something to concentrate on, other than the whirlpool of fear trying to suck him down. He closed his eyes, trying to meditate.
"Can I take off this blindfold yet?"
The sound of his own voice startled him, like it had no business being in his head.
"Can I take off something else?"
"After I give you your present."
"Happy Birthday Angelus."
Cordelia. Her scent pervaded the room, driving away his darkness. It was like inhaling sunshine, scorching his chest with her warmth. He opened his eyes.
She stood beside him. He wanted to pull her close and never let go; to use her like a shield against the blackness that came to swallow him.
"You okay?" She kneeled on the floor beside him, close enough to lie a comforting hand on his knee. He relished her touch, as she stroked her thumb across his thigh.
No, I'm not.
"Yeah. I just wish I knew what it all meant." He leaned forward and rubbed his face with his hands.
She tipped her head to the side, frowning. "Well, if the whole clan wants to kill her, I'd say whatever she's supposed to do is a good thing, from our point of view. Surely, if she was supposed to harm you, they'd send a cheerleading squad?"
He shook his head, shrugging weary shoulders.
"Ooohh, maybe she's here to shanshu you!" She smiled, looking genuinely excited at the sudden thought.
"I don't know. I've got a really bad feeling about this."
"Of course you do. Gypsy girl turns up with your fang marks on her leg -- it's bound to wig you out." Her blunt statement almost made him smile, despite himself. She always cut through the crap and said it how it was, however inappropriate her choice of words.
Angel jerked upright in his seat. "Caritas."
"Oh, Angel, no. Not with the singing again." Cordelia looked at him in undisguised panic.
"Cordelia." He rolled his eyes. That joke was getting tiresome. "I'm not going to sing, Cara is."
"Thank God -- I mean -- great," she said, perking up immediately.
"I'm not really that bad -- am I?" Angel asked, his nerves beginning to settle as a grin quirked at the edges of Cordelia's mouth.
She patted his knee. "Whatever you need to tell yourself. I'll see you tomorrow".
He grabbed her hand as she stood up. "Cordy?"
"Yeah?" She looked at him, one well-groomed eyebrow arching inquisitively.
"Sure." Her fingers disentangled from his and she gave his shoulder a small encouraging squeeze, before slipping out into the hallway.
Cordelia leaned against the wall of the corridor and took a deep, shaky breath. She recognized that look on his face, the slightly unhinged glint in his eyes. It was there the day he fired them. And now it was back.
She couldn't take it again, that betrayal. She'd given him all she had, and he had still turned her out as if she meant nothing to him. It hurt worse than she wanted to admit, even to Wesley and Gunn.
More than that, she couldn't bear to lose him again. It would break her heart. He was all she had left in the world -- well, there were the guys too, but for some reason, mostly there was Angel.
Squaring her shoulders, she admonished herself for having so little faith in him. He'd promised things would be different, and he was different. He was trying really hard to be a good friend, something he never seemed to do before. That could only be a positive thing.
And he fell all over himself -- around her, mostly -- in an attempt to say or do the right thing. Cool-dark-and-brooding-guy was gone. So now he was -- what? Unable-to-form-a-complete-sentence-guy best summed him up.
At first she'd thought it was just the guilt, but Angel had been coping with guilt for the last hundred years of his existence, and she'd never seen the Keystone Cops version of him before.
Yet, somehow, it was an improvement. She swallowed hard, pushed the worry to the back of her brain, and headed for home.
Continues in chapter two...