Draining the last few drops of her therapeutic drink, Cordelia handed the empty cup to Angel, who placed it on a nearby table as she laid her head against his chest and closed her eyes. He began to stroke his fingers soothingly through her hair and she snuggled closer. There was something very calming about the light, rhythmical caress and it helped her find her way back to herself after the trauma of her shockingly violent vision.
As awareness of her surroundings slowly returned to her senses, the seer started to feel embarrassed about her hysterical reaction to the horrible images, which had flashed through her mind’s eye a short while earlier. Admittedly, this vision had been the worst yet, but she’d completely lost it in front of everyone and she was mortified.
“Where are you going?” Angel asked worriedly as she pulled out of his arms and got shakily to her feet.
“I need to clean up,” she said, turning towards the door that led to the private quarters.
“Wait!” Angel reached out and caught her hand. “I’ll come with you,” he said, rising to his feet as well.
“Angel, I’m fine!” Cordelia replied testily. “Stop fussing – I don’t need a nursemaid, okay?”
With that, she wrenched her hand out of his grasp and escaped upstairs to the sanctuary of their room. Pushing open the door of the adjoining bathroom, she flicked on the light and then immediately switched it off again as the fluorescent brightness exacerbated the painful throbbing in her head. A wave of nausea overcame her and she dropped to her knees and threw up in the toilet bowl, sobbing out her distress as she shuddered and wretched.
The visions were getting worse; there was no denying that. Today’s premonition had been far more painful than the one of a few days ago, and if how she was feeling right now was any indication, the aftermath was really going to take it out of her. Angel’s inability to deal with how the visions affected her, both physically and emotionally, kept her silent on the matter though. He would only go into overprotective mode and she couldn’t be doing with that right now. It made her feel incredibly claustrophobic when he insisted on wrapping her up in cotton wool.
Worried that someone would come to check on her and find her falling apart under the stress and pain of her vision, Cordelia reluctantly dragged herself to her feet, desperately trying to ignore the aching heaviness in her limbs. The zigzags of white light flashing before her eyes made it difficult to focus on the mirror in front of her, but her sight eventually cleared enough for her to take in her reflection.
She looked awful – her face was pale and drawn and there were dark circles under her eyes. It was hard to believe that just one vision could have such a drastic effect on her appearance. There had to be a reason for the increased level of pain. Maybe the Powers That Be were testing her in some way, it was the kind of lameass thing the higher-uppers would do, after all.
They were all for someone proving their worth to the cause. Why they couldn’t just accept that anyone who willingly chose to tread that path was probably crazy enough to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, Cordelia would never know. Anyone who couldn’t hack it would simply walk away, right? There was just no need for some melodramatic display of commitment therefore. It was given in smaller, more meaningful ways every single day.
Unaware of the figure hovering in the bathroom doorway, Cordelia splashed water on her face and washed away her tears, then opened the bathroom cabinet and took out a bottle of painkillers. She shook out double the recommended amount into her cupped palm, and then placed them on the countertop as she filled a glass with water from the faucet.
Faith watched her friend in growing alarm. If she needed to pop that many pills to take away the pain, then things were worse than she was letting on. Sensing that his overbearing concern would probably make things worse, the slayer had stopped Angel from following his fleeing girlfriend and offered to go herself instead.
She was only expecting to have to deal with the emotional fallout of the vision though; she had no idea that Cordelia’s physical health wasn’t what it should be. Knowing that her friend could be seriously stubborn when she put her mind to it, she decided to go for the blunt approach.
“Were you planning to tell anyone that they were getting worse? Or were you just going to wait until your head exploded or something?” she asked, startling Cordelia into dropping the half-empty glass of water into the sink.
The glass shattered as it hit the porcelain and Cordelia winced in pain as the sharp sound reverberated around her throbbing head. She immediately turned a sickly green colour and swayed dangerously on her feet.
“Geez C, why didn’t you say anything?” Faith exclaimed, rushing forward to steady her woozy friend.
Cordelia was too overwrought to deny the detrimental effect that the vision had had on her. “It’s never been this bad before,” she said tearfully as the concerned slayer steered her out of the bathroom and over towards the bed.
“But they’ve been getting worse, right?” Faith asked as Cordelia curled up on top of the quilt.
The seer just nodded, wearily closing her eyes as the slayer solicitously tucked a pillow under her head and gently covered her with the patterned throw from the sofa. “And you haven’t said anything to Angel about it?”
“No,he’d only worry unnecessarily and I can handle it.”
“You don’t look like you’re handling it to me.”
“I’ll be okay in a little while,” Cordelia replied. She opened her eyes and looking pleadingly at her friend. “You can’t tell Angel, Faith. You know what he’s like.”
Faith did, but the situation was way too serious to keep from the vampire. “C – I’m sorry but you have to tell him. If the visions are affecting you this badly, then he needs to know.”
“But it might just be a one-off,” Cordelia protested half-heartedly. “He’ll freak, you know he will. He’ll probably try and force the PTB’s to give the visions to someone else or something, and I need to do this, Faith.”
“What the hell for?”
“I need there to be more to my life than just being Angel’s girlfriend. I can’t explain it, but this – helping people in this way – it just feels so right inside. You can understand that, can’t you? It’s not like you would ever walk away from being a slayer, now is it?”
Faith got the point, but that didn’t mean she was comfortable with hiding things from Angel, so she tried a different tack. “Look, I don’t know all the ins and outs of what’s been going on between you and the vamp-man lately. But I get the impression that many of your problems could have been avoided if you’d just talked to each other. Do you really think keeping this from him is a good idea?”
Cordelia flushed guiltily as that struck home. She and Angel had promised to be honest with each other from now on, and here she was slipping back into the same pattern of behaviour that had caused them such heartache in the first place. If things carried on like this, she wouldn’t be able to hide the increasingly debilitating effects of the visions anyway. What was the point in prolonging the inevitable? She would have to tell him sooner or later.
“All right,” she whispered. “I’ll tell him – just not right now, okay?”
“He has to save that girl and her baby first, Faith. He has to. I’ll tell him as soon as they’re safe, I promise.I just don’t want anything to distract him from rescuing them.”
“All right,” Faith reluctantly agreed, getting up from where she was perched on the edge of the mattress. Cordelia pushed the throw aside and sat up, obviously planning to get up as well.
“C, I think you should rest.”
“I’m okay – the painkillers are starting to kick in now.”
“But no-one’s going to think anything of it if you lie down for a while. They all saw how traumatic your vision was.”
“Angel will,” Cordelia replied. “He’ll think it strange that I don’t want to help with the research. Besides, you think I’m going to leave him unattended when Buffy is trying to sink her claws into him again?”
“You know you don’t have anything to worry about on that score, C.”
“Maybe but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna let her get away with making moves on my man.”
“Oo – territorial, aren’t we?”
“Too right! Angel is mine, and once he’s told her to take a running jump, I’m going to make damn sure Little Miss Cuckoo-in-the-Nest knows it.”
Faith grinned wickedly. “Why wait?” she asked. She figured a short, sharp kick up the ass would knock some well-needed sense into her fellow slayer.
“Because I promised Angel,” Cordelia replied with a grimace. “Part of the peace negotiations after last night’s debacle,” she explained as she carefully re-applied her make-up, trying to make herself look marginally presentable.
Under her expert hand, the dark smudges ringing her eyes vanished and her pale face took on a deceptively healthy glow. She still felt like death warmed up, but at least she no longer looked like it. She brushed her hair and smoothed down her denim skirt, then purposely squared her shoulders, getting ready to face the world again.
Faith watched this little performance with a heavy heart. The huge amount of effort that her friend put into the illusion that everything was okay was extremely telling. A knotted ball of fear formed in the pit of the slayer’s stomach – something told her that things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better.
Downstairs, both Willow and Wesley were hard at work, the witch hunched over her laptop and the ex-watcher leafing through the books on the table in front of him. Buffy and Riley were sitting at a table nearby, talking quietly to each other, while Angel sat at the bar counter, his handsome face clouded with worry and concern. When the two women re-entered the bar area, he quickly crossed the room to join them.
“Are you okay?” he asked, rubbing his hand up and down Cordelia’s arm.
“I’m fine,” she reassured him, reaching up to touch his face. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. Seeing what that thing did to that girl and her baby… it just got to me, you know.”
Angel nodded and hooked his arm around her waist, pulling her close. He ducked his head and kissed her. “We’ll save them, I promise,” he vowed when they separated.
Cordelia nodded and snuggled closer to him as they sat down together on the edge of the stage. She was so tired; it was difficult to keep her eyes open. Secure in her boyfriend’s strong, loving embrace, she kept drifting off until eventually Angel insisted that she take a proper nap and carried her upstairs to their room. When she awoke a few hours later, she felt much better, despite her lingering headache and inexplicably aching limbs.
For the others though, the day was spent in fruitless research, until, just as darkness approached, they finally had the all-important breakthrough.
“I think I might have something,” Willow announced.
She showed Cordelia a web page for a company called ‘Wrights and Sons Confectionary,’ and pointed to the red, white and blue logo in the top right corner. “Is that it?” she asked. “It seems to fit everything you said.”
Cordelia bent to take a closer look and then nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s it.”
“It says that they have premises down at the Docks, near Pier Seven,” Willow told them and then looked over at Angel. “You know where that is?”
The vampire nodded and strode over to where Wesley was sitting poring over his books. Faith followed him, while Cordelia sank wearily into the chair next to Willow.
“Anything yet?” the vampire asked his friend.
The ex-watcher spread his hands and shrugged. “Nothing specific – unfortunately, foetal-snatchers appear to be rather prevalent in the demon world.”
“That is so disgusting,” Faith commented with a shudder.
“Yes but there is some, admittedly abhorrent, logic behind it. An unborn infant – especially a human child – is a symbol of pure innocence, you see. Along with virgins, they’re prime candidates for ritual sacrifice.”
Angel looked over at Cordelia, weighing up their options. Despite her insistence that she was fine, he could tell she was still pretty shaken up by her vision ordeal. “I don’t think we can afford to wait any longer,” he decided. “We need to go and check this place out, find that pregnant woman and get her to safety before anything untoward happens.”
Wesley nodded in agreement. “You’re probably safe enough with a standard ‘slice and dice’ battle plan for now anyway. I’ll call you if I find out anything more. I’d come with you but I’m not exactly battle-ready at the moment.”
“Were you ever?” Faith asked cheekily.
Wesley deliberately ignored her and continued imparting his quiet instructions to Angel. “Given the level of violence of the attack, I think you should take Faith and Buffy along with you though.”
Faith felt a sliver of apprehension at that. This would be the first real test of her willpower since she had been exorcised of the Orb’s influence. Would she be able to control her instincts? This demon was legitimate prey, but she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to stop at just the one kill.
“You’ll be fine,” Angel said, quickly sensing her misgiving. “All you have to do is trust in who you are.”
Faith nodded and deliberately squared her shoulders, shaking off her unease.“Okay I’m in,” she said. A beat then, “But only if I get first pick of the weapons.”
With a sudden burst of energy, she made a beeline for the huge oblong weapon’s box, which had been pushed away into one corner. Angel followed close on her heels, drawn into the competition despite himself. Noticing the activity, Buffy quickly moved over to join them, not wanting to be left out of any impending action.
“We checking out the place Willow found?” she asked.
“Yep,” Angel replied as he pulled out his favourite broadsword before Faith could get her hands on it. “Tell army boy to stay behind though. He’s a loose cannon and we can’t afford any mistakes.”
Buffy looked back over her shoulder at Riley, who stood watching them with polite interest. “He’s not gonna like it.”
“He doesn’t have to like it. He just has to do as he’s told and stay put.”
“Must be a male thing,” Faith said sardonically.
“The rampant need to demonstrate superiority at every available opportunity,” the slayer replied. “Publicly smacking the guy down is all very well and good, Angel, but it’ll only cause unnecessary trouble. Can I suggest a more subtle approach instead?”
“Tell him you need someone to stay behind to protect C.”
“Protect her from what?”
“The demon bounty hunters that are after her. There’s a huge reward for anyone who captures the vampire’s seer alive, you know.”
“What! Why haven’t you told me this before now?”
“You think his Mom dropped him on his head as a baby?” Faith said to Buffy with a roll of her eyes.
“Relax Angel – I made it all up. Riley doesn’t have to know that though, does he? Just tell him that we’re keeping it quiet because we don’t want to scare her. In my experience, all would-be heroes are complete suckers for a damsel in distress. I doubt Uncle Sam’s whipping boy over there is any different.”
Buffy knew she probably should be objecting to this blatant manipulation of her boyfriend, but the truth was she’d much rather Riley didn’t come along either. She’d made the decision to end their relationship, and yet here she was acting as if everything was fine just to avoid the inevitable scene breaking up with him would cause.
Being around her soon-to-be ex was growing increasingly awkward as a result, and a little bit of breathing space would be gratefully received. Therefore, she kept quiet as Angel paused to consider Faith’s suggestion. He eventually nodded his head, agreeing to the plan.
“Okay,” he said. “Have it your way – just don’t expect me to ask him.”
Faith humphed in disgust at the vampire’s pig-headed contrariness. “Geez! Talk about male pride.”
With a toss of her head, she strode over to speak to Riley, pulling him into a conspiratorial huddle for dramatic effect. Buffy looked up at Angel with an eager expression on her features.
“Is it crazy that I’m actually looking forward to this?” she asked. “There’s something so liberating about not having to deal with the situation all by myself.”
“Giles, Willow and Xander help you, don’t they?”
“Well yeah – but they can’t watch my back like you can.”
“I’m sure they manage just fine,” Angel said curtly. “After all, you’re not dead yet, are you?”
Buffy flushed, cut to the quick by his brusque censure. “That’s not what I meant,” she started to explain but the vampire immediately interrupted her.
“I know what you meant, Buffy,” he said sharply. “And to be perfectly honest, it’s starting to wear a bit thin. Excuse me – I need to speak to Cordy.” Humiliated, Buffy looked down at the floor as Angel brushed past her and crossed the room towards his girlfriend.
Hunkering down next to Cordelia’s chair, he leaned in close to speak to her, resting one arm along the chair back as he murmured quietly in her ear. The seer nodded a couple of times in response to what her boyfriend was saying, and then tilted her face upwards to accept his kiss as he bridged the small gap between them, and pressed his lips to hers.
Although relatively chaste, the kiss was lingering, their mouths coming together several times before they reluctantly drew apart. Angel straightened up and strode away to rejoin the two slayers on the other side of the room, while Cordelia watched him go, a wistful smile on her beautiful face. She was all too aware that, when he returned, she was going to have to approach the difficult subject of her declining health with him and she wasn’t exactly looking forward to the conversation.
“Told you he’d buy it,” Faith told Angel as Riley moved to take up guard duty over an oblivious Cordelia. “Am I good or what?”
“Hmm,” the vampire replied noncommittally.
“Now all we’ve got to do is get C to flutter her eyelashes at him a few times, and he’ll never know he’s been had,” Faith continued in a deliberately airy tone. “Shall I go and make sure she plays her part?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Angel answered, quickly catching her upper arm in an iron grip.
“Riley’s not the only one who’s a complete sucker,” Faith commented with a wide grin.
“You’re so not funny,” Angel said witheringly as he released her from his hold. Faith laughed as they turned and headed up the stairs – with Buffy trailing along behind them.
“So what’s the plan?” Faith asked, as the three of them emerged onto the dark street and made their way over to Angel’s Plymouth.
The vampire shrugged. “We’ve not got much to go on, so I guess we just play it by ear. Let’s concentrate on finding the girl and getting her and her baby to safety. We’ll worry about eliminating the demon later.”
As Faith agilely vaulted over the car door and into the backseat, a strangely silent Buffy ensconced herself in the passenger seat alongside Angel. As the car gathered speed, it didn’t take the brunette slayer long to notice the stretched-taut tension between her two companions in the front-seat, and she groaned inwardly.
Uh-oh! Here we go, she thought, closing her eyes in resignation.
Buffy sat primly in her seat, a lethal-looking crossbow resting in her lap and a picture of wounded innocence painted across her pretty face. Angel, meanwhile, was pointedly ignoring her, keeping his eyes firmly on the road as he carefully manoeuvred the Plymouth through the early evening traffic.
Faith could see the gathering storm rapidly approaching. Whether it would explode before, during, or after their mission of mercy though, was anyone’s guess.
“You need any help with that?” Laura Geddes asked her heavily pregnant work colleague.
Simone Fairfax adjusted the plastic baby-bath under her right arm and scooped up her bag with her left hand. “No, I think I’m right,” she said with a smile. “Thanks for everything, Laura. You’ve been great.”
Laura reached out and lightly embraced her friend. “You take care of yourself and the little one, okay? I know you – you’ll be rearranging the furniture tomorrow.”
Simone laughed. “As if,” she said, smoothing her hand over her extremely prominent bump. “I’ve not seen my feet for like months.”
“Make sure you call me if you need anything, all right?”
Simone nodded, touched by the older woman’s continuing kindness. Laura had been a tower of strength since she’d found herself pregnant and alone; she didn’t know what she’d have done without her support. Although she knew that they would stay in touch, she was really going to miss having Laura to talk to every day.
“Okay – time to go,” she said, suddenly filled with apprehension.
This was it – she was going on maternity leave, a few weeks and she’d be a mother. She alone would be responsible for the tiny, helpless creature currently using her bladder as a trampoline. It was exciting but also as scary as hell. Luckily for her, her small circle of friends had been nothing but supportive since Micheal had abandoned her, and her sister – god love her – had uprooted her whole life and moved to LA to help out.
“Hey,I’ve always wanted to live in LA,” Carla had insisted with her typical optimism, when she’d turned up unannounced on Simone’s doorstep a couple of months ago.
“Jesus girl! Check out those hormones,” she added as Simone immediately dissolved into floods of grateful tears.
She had to smile; Carla never let anything get her down. She was so laid-back, she was practically horizontal, and yet she had this quiet strength that made you feel like you could climb mountains. She was just what Simone needed at the moment. What’s more, she knew that once she’d adjusted to being a single mother, her sister would simply step back and let her get on with it.
That was Carla all over – she had the ability to organise and support without completely taking over, which was probably why she made such an excellent youth counsellor. She had quickly found a job at a nearby shelter for street-kids, run by a kindred spirit named Anne, and had settled into her new life in LA with consummate ease.
Suddenly bone-weary and desperate to put her feet up, Simone exited the building by the side entrance and walked – or rather waddled – in the direction of her car. As soon as she stepped away from the safety of her workplace though, she felt the now familiar chill run down her spine.
For weeks now, she’d been sure someone was watching her, but when she turned around no one was there. It was spooky and very unsettling. Out of habit, she checked behind her and sure enough, the parking lot was deserted. When she turned back around however, three strangers stood before her, seemingly having appeared out of nowhere. She nearly went into labour on the spot when she saw the wicked-looking weapons they were carrying.
“Don’t worry, we’re not going to hurt you,” the only male of the trio quietly assured her. His companions were two young women, one brunette, the other blonde, but both radiating the same strange unearthly power.
“Yeah right,” Simone replied, eyeing their weaponry apprehensively.
The man attempted to conceal his massive sword behind his back then, and Simone almost laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of the gesture.
“We just want to help you, I swear,” he said, his chocolate-brown eyes holding her captive.
There was something in his earnest manner that made her believe him and she relaxed.
“You’re being watched, aren’t you?” he continued, and she nodded. How the hell did he know that?
“We were sent here to protect you,” he replied, partly answering her silent question.
“Protect me from what?”
“Err – I think that,” the brunette woman suddenly said, pointing to something behind Simone as she swiftly raised her weapon.
Her heart in her throat, Simone looked over her shoulder – and screamed in terror…