Cordelia stood on the top stair, listening to the conversation below.
"I hope she didn't stake him or anything," Gunn said.
"Do you really think she would?" Wesley asked, sounding nervous.
Cordelia suppressed a grin, which broke free when Gunn replied, "I never saw her that mad before. She's one scary chick when she gets going."
"Quite a perplexing outburst. I don't think I'll ever understand that girl. Women are hard to read at the best of times. And Cordelia..." Wesley began.
"Should have come with instructions," Gunn finished the sentence.
Okay, she deserved that. You never heard good things about yourself when you eavesdropped. Besides, right now an instruction manual for her addled brain would come in real handy. To turn off unwanted feelings -- pull left earlobe...
She cleared her throat, making the rest of her descent as loud as possible. The voices came to an abrupt halt. Wesley and Gunn looked up at her, guilt written all over their faces.
"When people go quiet as you walk in the room, it's rarely a good sign." She narrowed her eyes at them, wanting to make them squirm.
"Angel okay? He looked pretty mad," Gunn asked, obviously trying to change the subject.
"We kissed and made up," she said lightly. Oh God, did we kiss... No! Bad thoughts.
"Oh, good, that's -- good." Wesley took off his glasses and began to polish them vigorously. "I was a bit worried about him. I know how hard things are for him right now."
"You have no idea," Cordelia deadpanned, shaking her head.
Gunn sat down on Angel's chair, crossing one ankle over the other. "So? Are we gonna go after Cara?"
"She could be on a bus out of town by now," Wesley said.
"I think we should find out as much as we can about that prophecy first. If Cara comes back, we need to know if we can fix things," she said. "If Angel has any hope of getting permanently souly, we have to figure out how he can 'do it' with her without a dinner bell going off in his head."
"But I thought you didn't like that idea," Wesley said, looking confused.
She frowned at him. "That is so not the issue right now. This is about what Angel wants, not what I think."
"Instructions." Gunn tried to disguise the word as a loud cough. Cordelia slapped him, hard.
There was a brief silence as they all racked their brains as to where to begin looking.
"Hey, what about the scroll of linoleum?" Cordelia said, remembering where the prophecy about Angel's Shanshu came from. Surely there was other stuff in that?
"You mean the scroll of Aberjian?" Wesley corrected, drawing out the word for her benefit. "Actually, you might have something there. I do recall mention of gypsies. I just assumed that referred to his past dealings with them, and paid little attention to it. I was so busy trying to work out the Shanshu part, I never went back to that section. I'll look into it immediately." He jumped up, excited, and scuttled into his office.
Cordelia noticed Angel coming down the stairs about ten minutes later. She could barely look at him without her cheeks feeling hot, and ducked her head back to the book she was trying to read.
The men hardly acknowledged his presence. They were deep in research mode -- books and musty old bits of paper strewn over every spare inch of desktop, and parts of the floor. Wesley had the scroll of Aberjian carefully weighted down at each corner, and was poring over it with a looking glass, muttering to himself. "Damn, I know it's here somewhere."
"Hey, man, grab a book," Gunn said, glancing up briefly.
Angel lifted a heavy volume and sat down beside Cordelia. "What are we looking for exactly?"
"We're trying to find a reference to the prophecy, or better still, a full version," Wesley said, not looking up from the ancient scroll.
"You still think Cara's is incomplete?" Angel looked hopeful at the prospect.
"Mmm, possibly," Wesley murmured, his attention still focussed on the parchment.
Cordelia watched Angel set his book on the desk, and begin turning pages. His concentration was obviously shot -- he kept glancing sideways at her, shifting in his seat, moving his feet restlessly. She could guess what he was thinking. She was thinking it too.
Her emotions were still in a mess. She wanted him -- she didn't want him. Everything sensible in her brain told her to forget the kiss, ignore his feelings for her, but now that it was out there, she couldn't stop thinking about it.
She pondered her track record in romance. Shouting at Xander one moment, kissing him passionately the next. Calling Doyle a weasel at breakfast time, accepting his dinner invitation the same evening. Sleeping with a man she barely knew... Was she doomed to follow the same pattern forever - lurching from indifference to infatuation at the drop of a hat? All it had gotten her so far was a broken heart, rebar through the torso, mind-shattering visions and a demon pregnancy.
Concentrate, Cordelia, there are more important things at stake. Regardless of what she did, or didn't feel for Angel, they needed to get this prophecy sorted out -- which they couldn't do unless they miraculously found Cara, and somehow fulfilled it without Angel turning into Cujo in the process.
They were playing with fire here, and Cara's life, for his benefit. No, not just his benefit -- for her own, too. The thought of what Angelus would do to her if he got free scared her more than anything else in the world. She knew it scared him just as much.
But that was only the start of it. Once Angelus was finished with her, countless others would follow. Wesley and Gunn certainly. Their friends in Sunnydale too. Buffy, Willow, and how many others? Hundreds? Thousands perhaps. This was so much bigger that she had ever considered. Shame washed over her as she thought about her selfish outburst. All she'd considered was how it affected her. That was supposed to be the old Cordy.
She glanced at Angel, her pensiveness turning to amusement. He was still away with the fairies, and despite her misgivings, she liked that it was because of her. It was a new and entirely pleasant feeling. The boys at school had only gone out with her because she was popular, and the Xander episode had been sorta twisted and gropey and apparently one-sided.
She'd never really had someone fall for her before, not the way Angel seemed to have. Maybe Doyle had started to, but he died before they ever got to work out their feelings. And until recently, she probably wasn't the sort of person anyone would have wanted to be with anyway.
Cordelia jumped as Angel's hand crept onto her thigh, under the desk, hidden from view. Neither of them was going to get any work done like this -- her fretting, and him copping a feel. Especially since, she noted, his book was upside-down. Reaching over, she turned it one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, so the text was readable. He looked at her sheepishly.
She needed to concentrate, sort this whole mess out in her head, and she couldn't do that with him in such close proximity. "I need more light," she announced, reaching under the desk for her purse.
Wesley and Gunn grunted in unison. Gathering up her cardigan, left behind by the fleeing Cara, Cordelia collected her books and rose from her chair, Angel's hand slipping off her leg. She strode towards the doors to the small courtyard.
"Cordelia, those books are very susceptible to UV light." Wesley was sufficiently distracted now to look up.
"So am I, and I'm gonna absorb as much of it as possible," she called over her shoulder.
She folded the cardigan into a cushion, and placed it on the wall of the dry fountain. Taking her sunglasses out of her bag, she settled down to read.
Sighing comfortably, she hitched her skirt up to reveal her legs, relishing the warmth as the sun tingled on her skin. She saw too little of her old friend these days. She realized that, more and more, she was choosing between it and Angel. Cordelia knew which one would win. She'd live her whole life in the dark to be with him. And there were always sunbeds. Perhaps he'd install one in the basement for her.
Angel watched her through the doors, sitting out in the daylight, where he couldn't follow. It felt wrong -- dangerous. He raised his head, listening, sniffing the air. Something was wrong. Something was -- outside. "Uh, guys, you might want to check out the front," he said uneasily, glancing towards the main entrance.
"You think there's somethin' out there?" Gunn said, rising, tensed for action. Angel nodded. "Back me up, bro." Gunn motioned to Wesley to follow, and they both made their way to the door, weapons in hand.
Angel stood, feeling useless, unable to return to his book. Getting more agitated, he strode towards the courtyard doors. Cordelia was still there, skirt hitched indecently high, thumbing through a musty old tome as if it were the latest Vogue. He smiled despite himself, struck by the bizarre juxtaposition of two disparate worlds, and amazed as always by the way she took life's oddities in hand. The benefit of a Sunnydale childhood, he figured.
A small movement caught his eye. The demon was crouched on the courtyard wall, so still it was almost invisible, its skin the color of sandstone. Long, lethal talons protruded from its fingertips, and it cocked its head, eyeing Cordelia as she sunbathed, oblivious to its presence. Angel's sensitive ears picked up the low clicking sound that emanated from its throat as it stalked its prey. The muscles in its hind legs tensed, ready to spring.
Angel saw everything in slow motion. The demon launched itself from the wall, landing beside Cordelia. She screamed, and to her eternal credit, kept her wits about her enough to bash it across the face with her book. A feral growl ripped from Angel's throat, his demon visage erupting as he flung himself through the doors and out into the blazing LA sunshine.
Cordelia wasn't sure what alarmed her more -- the sight of the huge talons lunging at her, or that of Angel, in full game face, billowing smoke as he slammed into the demon full-force. In a tangle of claws, fangs and limbs, the two combatants tumbled against the wall of the hotel, and mercifully into a sliver of shade.
The smell of burning flesh made her gag for a second. The demon extricated itself from the tackle, and crouched over Angel, who cowered against the wall, holding his burned hands protectively against his chest. Dammit, Angel, stay in the shade. It raised one claw high in the air for the blow that would surely sever Angel's head.
"Hey, Edward Scissorhands!" Cordelia screamed at it, her hand going into her bag. There was no way she was going to stand by and watch Angel be decapitated, whatever the danger to herself. She maneuvered closer. The demon paused, but did not turn around.
"I said, HEY!" She belted it across the back of the head with her handbag, her other hand gripping the small cylinder she had retrieved from its depths. An agitated clicking sound, rising to something akin to a two-stroke engine, reverberated from the animal. It sniffed, taking in her scent.
"Cordelia, run," Angel's voice cracked.
The demon swung around, evil eyes locking onto her. She seized the opportunity and discharged the full can of mace into its face. It began to squeal, the taloned hands flying up to protect its eyes. She jumped backwards just enough to avoid being slashed as they whizzed past her face.
There was a resonant 'thung', followed by a 'whoosh' as an arrow flew past her left shoulder and embedded between the demon's eyes. The two-stroke sound accelerated to a noise more like a chain saw, and the monster lurched around the courtyard, flailing wildly with the deadly blades.
Gunn and Wesley leapt into battle, Gunn's hubcap weapon and Wesley's Bavarian fighting axe clashing with talons and several other parts of the demon's body. Cordelia averted her eyes, but that didn't block out the horrible hacking noise, or the smell.
Finally, it crumpled into a bloody, oozing heap on the pavers. Wesley and Gunn stood over the corpse, breathing hard, and examining the small nicks and cuts that adorned both their bodies.
Now Cordelia could see Angel, huddled against the building, burns marring his face and hands. He shook, whimpering, recoiling from the daylight that illuminated the concrete just inches from his body.
"Oh, God, Angel," she stepped over the body of the demon, falling to her knees beside him.
He began to slump over, his voice barely audible. "Get me inside."
Angel lay, spread semi-naked on his bed. Over the scent of his own charred skin, he smelled his friends, gathered nearby. He could feel weeping blisters on his hands and face, and the sting of the lacerations that covered his body from his tumble with the demon.
"Thank the Lord he was wearing a long-sleeved skivvy," he heard; Wesley's voice, fuzzy, but growing closer. Something cold and wet pressed against his seared forehead. It was Cordelia, tending to him with a washcloth full of ice. He could feel her hand trembling as she moved the soothing coolness to his cheek.
"That feels nice," he whispered. A couple of gasps indicated his comment had startled the onlookers.
Forcing open his swollen eyelids, he squinted up at Cordelia. She looked really mad. He cringed -- it was never a good thing to raise her ire, and especially not when you felt like you'd just been attacked by a blow-torch wielding Cuisinart. He hoped she'd take it easy on him, considering his weakened state.
"That was stupid. What the hell were you doing?" she said angrily.
"It was going to kill you," he sighed. "I had to stop it."
"What were you planning to do, torch boy? Scare it off with fire? You almost ended up as the world's largest shish-kebab!" Her eyes flashed fury -- and pain.
Now he understood. She wasn't just angry -- she was scared. And she was trying valiantly to cover it up. "I had to protect you." He began to cough.
"I was doing fine by myself, what with the not being on fire and all," she said, her face softening, although her voice remained annoyed.
"Yeah, cos being whacked with a handbag is the number one cause of death among demons," Gunn said, dripping sarcasm.
"Actually," Angel rasped, "that bag's full of stuff. It must weigh a ton."
Her scowl returned. "You've been into my handbag?"
"Now you're really in trouble," Gunn laughed.
"You will be, too, if Angel doesn't get some rest. Shoo!" Cordelia flapped her hands at Gunn and Wesley. Angel closed his eyes again, knowing he was in good hands.
Angel stood on the first floor balcony. He'd slept right through sunset, and it was now sometime around midnight. His scarred and blotchy skin was already healing.
Wesley and Gunn were still awake below, in the lobby, looking like they'd cut themselves shaving -- all over. Dressings and bits of surgical tape created a patchwork effect on their arms and faces. They were having an animated discussion with Cordelia, who was surfing the net.
"Cordelia, you're making that up." Wesley's tone was scolding, as if she was a naughty child telling him a bare-faced fib.
"I'm not! Come and look for yourself. Ginsu. Gin-su. That's what it says. I was attacked by a Ginsu demon."
"Like the steak knives?" Gunn asked. Angel could tell he didn't believe her either.
"Yeah, like the steak knives. How do you think they got their name?" Her voice was thick with exasperation.
"I always suspected there was something evil about those infomercials," Wesley said, leaning over her shoulder to inspect the monitor.
Angel came down the stairs, and they only noticed him as he reached the lobby floor.
"The Ginsu, while possessing poor eyesight, have excellent hearing and an advanced sense of smell," Wesley read from the screen.
Angel leaned on the desk with his elbows, avoiding unnecessary pressure on his sore hands. "It was after Cara."
"So why did it attack me?" Cordelia said, indignant. "I don't look like her. My ass is way smaller."
"No, but you sat on the cardigan she wore. It made you smell like her," Angel said. "Not much, but enough to confuse it."
"Ugh, gross!" She shifted in her seat, trying to wipe her hands across her butt.
"You think there's more of those steak knife things out there?" Gunn poked a thumb in the direction of the courtyard, where the body of the slain demon had degenerated into an oily black slick on the concrete.
"Probably. You should wash and change, Cordy," Angel suggested, aware all she was doing was spreading the weak smell around. She'd stirred it up enough that Darla's pretty powdered face flashed though his mind again, and he shook himself mentally. Fight it. Don't let it get to you. Don't inhale.
"I think I may have made some small progress with our little problem," Wesley said, having absorbed all the information on their latest demon.
Cordelia feigned disappointment. "But you didn't say Eureka."
He ignored the remark, adjusting his glasses on his nose. "There is a section of the scroll of Aberjian that mentions the curse. It says the soul will be revoked by true happiness, until after Angel encounters 'the chosen daughter'."
"Cara?" Gunn said.
"One can only assume."
"So is the prophecy mentioned?" Angel leaned forward, his interest piqued.
"Not really. There is one other passage -- it's not a language I'm fluent in. I only recognise two or three words."
"Uh, there's 'curse', 'Gypsy' and, er -- I believe the last one translates as 'penetration'." Wesley's face went a vivid shade of pink.
"Jeez, obscure much?" Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Now we know where the guys who write instructions for assemble-it-yourself furniture descended from."
"Yeah, bro, why couldn't they just write it in plain English?" Gunn said.
"Well, I don't think English was invented when this was written," Wesley tried to explain, before turning back to Angel. "I have to know, has anything like this ever happened to you before? The hallucinations?"
"Uh, yeah, once." Angel didn't like the line of questioning. It forced him to remember things that were better left buried.
His face had obviously given away more than he intended, because Wesley came towards him and said, "If we're to help you, Angel, you must tell us everything."
"I had hallucinations when I was in Sunnydale. Waking dreams. But that was The First, trying to get me to kill Buffy," he said, trying to get away with as brief a description as possible. "This is different."
"And how did you deal with that?" Wesley asked.
Angel paused for a long time before answering. "I didn't."
"Angel." Wesley's voice held a tone of warning.
"I walked up on the ridge and waited for the sun."
"But you're still here, so something must've stopped you from burning up," Cordelia said.
"It snowed." Angel looked down at his burned hands. "If it hadn't..."
"That was all about you?" she gasped.
"I -- I guess so. I never really stopped to wonder..."
"Typical!" she snorted, banging her hand down on the keyboard. "Damn PTB! You, they give two inches of snow. Me, they give mind-melting, head-cracking, drool-o-vision. Speaking of which..."
Angel made it to her side and wound his arms around her, even before she rocked forward, crying out in agony.
"Cordy," he said, hating that he always felt so useless when this happened. She cannoned back against his chest, her fingers clawing at his forearms. Damn PTB was right. Why couldn't they transfer the visions to him?
Wesley grabbed up a pad and pen. "Cordelia, what can you see?"
"Ginsu," she coughed, struggling to force the word out. "Cara -- she's bleeding."
"It's okay." Angel held her firmly, ignoring his smarting palms.
"The Chinese Theater," she gasped, opening her eyes. Angel thought it was all over, but another lance of pain threw her forward, and he just managed to stop her hitting her head on the computer.
"Angel, no!" she cried, twisting in his grasp, pushing against his chest. Her face contorted in panic and revulsion.
"Cordy, it's okay. You're safe. I've got you," he said, trying to calm her frantic flailing, and wincing as her fingers raked and pummelled the partially healed cuts beneath his shirt. She opened her eyes and grew still, staring at him in horror. He could smell something new on her. Fear, raw and ugly. Fear of him.
"What did you see?" Wesley asked again, as Angel released Cordelia enough so she could sit straight.
"It's Cara -- those slice 'n' dice things are after her," she said, sucking in deep breaths. "She was on the grounds of some big old house, behind Mann's Chinese Theater."
"Yeah, that's a hostel. Maybe she's stayin' there," Gunn said, moving for his axe.
"That's not all. I saw you." She turned to Angel. "You -- you bit someone." Her voice was filled with disgust.
"Cara?" he asked, unnerved. Please, just for once, let Cordy's vision be wrong. Just when I have her back...
She nodded, her whole body straining to move away from him. "I think so."
"When, Cordelia?" Wesley looked grave.
"We have to leave now." She reached for her jacket, struggling to her feet.
"Hey, you should stay here -- rest," Angel said, fishing for his car keys in the pocket of his duster.
Cordelia avoided the hand he put out to restrain her. "I have to come. If you wig, I might be the only one who can bring you back."
She was right. It was her scent, her touch, that had grounded him at Caritas. He was going to need her with him when they found Cara. She had to stop him from killing, not just for Cara's sake, but for his own. She had to keep him away from the darkness.
He pocketed her painkillers, and grabbed her water bottle.
Continues in chapter six...