While Faith proceeded to pound the hell out of it, Angel held onto the old leather punch bag, his booted feet braced against the wooden floor to stop himself from being catapulted across the room.
He ignored the fact that it took every ounce of his considerable strength to hold the thing steady, knowing that the slayer probably needed this physical outlet for her confused feelings. His arms and legs did start to ache after a while however, his calf muscles threatening to cramp and seize up in painful spasm.
Noticing the faint grimace that crossed the vampire’s face as she let fly with another powerful right hook, the slayer paused to take a breather, lowering her fisted hands to her sides. Blowing a few loose strands of dark hair off her face, she rubbed the back of her hand over her sweaty forehead.
“I’m sorry,” she apologised. “I just needed to… you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” Angel replied, stretching out his legs to ease the throbbing ache in his muscles. “How about we move onto something else though?” he suggested.
Crossing the attic room in a few, short strides, the vampire tugged open the heavy lid of the weapons box that he had brought with him to Caritas, and bent over to rummage around inside. He pulled out two swords of similar design, and offered the slightly smaller one to Faith.
“What’s the matter?” he queried when she took it from him with a visible degree of hesitancy.
“Nothing. I just…” the slayer broke off and looked down at her feet, agitatedly twisting the hilt of the weapon between her hands.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, she lifted her head and looked him in the eye, her wide brown orbs rife with powerful emotion. “I wanted to kill you,” she told him with blunt directness.
“No, the Orb wanted to kill me,” Angel immediately responded, understanding at once why she was reluctant to spar with him.
“I guess so, but it felt like that desire came from me.”
“That’s because the Orb’s essence took over every bit of your consciousness. That’s what it does – it completely infiltrates its Host and subjugates the mind and body to its will. It is a testament to your strength of character that you were able to overcome that control, even if it was only for a brief moment. There are not many who could have done what you did, Faith.”
Swallowing the lump in her throat, the slayer nodded, although the feeling of unease remained. “I’m scared, Angel,” she confessed. “This potential for evil inside of me – its there now, in a way it never was before. What if I step over the line in the heat of a battle? What if I can’t control it?”
“The capacity for doing wrong exists in everyone, Faith. It’s our strength of conviction that keeps it at bay. Your experience with the Orb has unfortunately brought that potential closer to the surface, just like my years without a soul did with me. But, if I can keep it in check, you certainly can. A slayer is a true force for good, while a vampire is an inherently evil creature. I have to go against my nature, whereas all you need to do is trust in yours.”
“You make it sound so simple,” Faith replied.
“I don’t think it’s ever that, but it does get easier with time. Try to focus on what matters most to you in life; having something worth fighting for reduces the seductive power of your darker side, believe me. Five years ago, there were so many shades of grey to my existence, but falling in love with first Buffy, and then Cordelia, changed things in ways I never could have imagined. Nowadays, the thought of what my backsliding would do to Cordy keeps me on the straight and narrow. It’s so much simpler than it used to be.”
The vampire’s wise words made Faith feel somewhat better about herself, and the more playful side of her character emerged once more. “Okaay,” she drawled, her lips curling up into a quirky grin. “I think I’ve got that. Go out and get laid, check.”
Angel laughed. “That’s not what I meant!” he protested.
“I know,” the slayer replied with an impudent smile. “I was just joking around.”
She reached up and gave him a quick, affectionate hug. “Thanks,” she murmured as she stepped back.
“No problem – I’m here if you ever need to talk, okay?”
Taking a calming breath, Faith swallowed her apprehension and raised her sword, using a two handed grip to hold it out in front of her. “So are we going to do this?” she asked.
Angel nodded and took up a similar stance opposite her, touching his sword lightly to hers in a typical gesture of sportsmanship.
“Promise you’ll call me on it if you ever see me get too close to the edge,” the slayer demanded, totally serious now.
“I promise,” the vampire replied with conviction. “Just as long as you agree to return the favour.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal, vamp-man.”
“Glad to hear it, slayer-woman.”
The next few minutes passed without further discussion, as the two fenced with each other, their swords catching the light as they danced through the air with consummate skill. The slayer and vampire were evenly matched in most respects, but Faith’s lack of practise gave Angel a slight edge. Pressing his advantage, he brought his sword down on top of hers and disarmed her with a skilful flick of his wrist.
“You’re dropping your line on your right side,” he advised as the slayer’s sword went skittering across the floor.
“Guess I’m kind of rusty,” Faith said ruefully, exasperated with herself for letting him overcome her so easily.
“That’s understandable. I shouldn’t worry too much; you’ll be back on form in no time.”
“Yeah, and then you’re toast,” the slayer vowed as she bent to retrieve her weapon.
“Oh, is that right?”
“Count on it, soul-boy.”
“Care to put your money where your mouth is, Miss Seriously-Overconfident?”
Faith and Angel abruptly broke off their friendly bantering at the bright greeting. Turning towards the attic entrance, they saw Buffy standing framed in the doorway.
The blond slayer glanced about the room, taking in the weapons and training equipment scattered about. “I missed this,” she said wistfully. “Training together, I mean.”
“I tell you what, B, we’ll have a nostalgia fest before you go back to Sunnydale,” Faith said with a smile, despite knowing the comment wasn’t particularly aimed at her.
Realising this was the perfect opportunity to talk frankly with his ex; Angel shot the brunette slayer a pointed look, silently asking her to leave them alone. Taking the hint, Faith laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles, stretching out her arms above her head as she did so.
“I’m thinking that might be enough training for today,” she said with an exaggerated grimace. “Talk about being seriously out of shape – I swear I can feel muscles, I haven’t felt in years. I’ll leave you two to it, if you don’t mind. A long, hot soak in the tub sounds like pure heaven right about now.”
“Wesley sent me to fetch you both – well, just Angel really, I suppose.”
“Why?” the vampire demanded sharply.
“Cordelia…” Buffy started to explain, but had to direct the rest of her sentence at Angel’s back, because he raced from the room the moment his girlfriend’s name left her lips. “She had a vision,” she called after his retreating form.
“Was it bad?” Faith asked, as the two slayers followed at a slower pace. “Wes said they can be really painful.”
“It looked pretty bad,” Buffy admitted, reluctant to feel sympathy for her rival, but unable to deny the severity of the vision that she had just witnessed.
Never one to shy away from saying what needed to be said, Faith jumped in with both feet, getting straight to the point. “I don’t know what your game is, B, but if you do anything to hurt Angel and C, you’ll have me to answer to.”
Buffy started guiltily at that; deep inside, she knew she was over-stepping the line of right and wrong with her behaviour, but she had convinced herself that it was ultimately for the best. “Angel…”
“Loves C more than ever from what I can see,” Faith interrupted the blond slayer’s attempted rationalisation of her actions.
The mask of denial immediately settled back over Buffy’s features at this. “You’re wrong,” she began, but Faith interjected again.
“No, B, I’m not. I don’t get it; I thought you came to terms with the fact that you and Angel were over last year. What happened to change that?”
“I gave up too easily.”
“Sorry girl, so not buying it. I know there’s more to it than you’re letting on. You can be stubborn, but you’re not usually this blind to the realities of a situation.”
“I just know in my heart of hearts that Angel and I are meant to be together, all right? What’s wrong with fighting for that?”
“Hiding behind a fantasy won’t solve the real problem, B,” Faith advised, as they reached the bottom of the staircase. “Just think carefully about what you’re doing, okay? Take it from me – you’re only going to get hurt if you carry on like this.”
Downstairs at Caritas, a few minutes earlier…
The blue-painted door crashed in on its hinges as a frantic Angel burst into the room. He was by Cordelia’s side in an instant, taking her out of Wesley’s comforting embrace and into his own. The seer clung to him, her sobs heart-wrenchingly loud and filled with distress.
“Poor little baby, got to stop it, have to. Oh God! Oh please!”
Holding her close and stroking a soothing hand through her hair, Angel looked up at Wesley, a silent question in his worried gaze.
The ex-watcher shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “She had a vision, but I can’t get any sense out of her.”
The vampire detached himself from his girlfriend’s tight embrace and took her tear-stained face between his hands. “Talk to me, baby,” he urged, kissing her softly on the forehead.
“Oh God! I’m gonna be sick,” Cordelia suddenly gasped out, wrenching herself out of his grasp and bolting for the Ladies washroom.
Angel followed in her wake and knelt down beside her, solicitously holding her hair out of the way, as she emptied the contents of her stomach into the toilet bowl.
“Ssh baby, Ssh,” he whispered soothingly, not really knowing what else to do when she curled up into a ball, and began to cry again, her face buried in her shaking hands.
“Here.” Wesley’s quiet voice sounded from the cubicle doorway; he was holding out a damp cloth and a glass of water.
“Thanks,” the vampire took the items from his friend and gently pulled Cordelia’s hands away from her face. He tenderly wiped her mouth clean with the corner of the cloth, and handed her the glass of water to drink, his overwhelming concern palpable in the air between them.
The seer’s teeth chattered against the glass as she took small sips of the cool liquid, prompting Angel to re-fold the cloth and press it against her clammy forehead. Cordelia’s traumatised sobs finally faded to faint hiccups of distress, but her face was still deathly pale and she was visibly shaking with shock. The vampire scooped her up off the dusty floor into his arms, and went through into the bar area, cradling her trembling form protectively against his chest.
“She needs to lie down,” he informed the others, absently noting that Buffy and Faith had joined the small group congregated in the bar. “Can someone make her a hot drink? Maybe put a bit of brandy in it?”
“Umm, Angel?” Wesley diffidently interrupted, as the vampire strode towards the door that led to the private quarters.
“Can we talk for a moment?” he asked, when Angel irritably turned back to look at him.
“Can’t it wait?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Faith stepped forward and gently laid a warm hand on Cordelia’s bare arm. “I’ll keep an eye on her,” she assured the worried vampire. “And Lorne’ll get her that drink, won’t you?”
“Of course, anything for the princess,” the green-demon replied with sincerity.
Angel reluctantly set Cordelia down on one of the chairs, and hovered anxiously while Faith slipped into the seat next to her friend. In an attempt to raise the shivering seer’s body temperature back to normal, the slayer took hold of her ice-cold fingers and briskly began to rub them between her palms. Angel moved to the other side of the room to speak to Wesley.
“This better be good,” he said fiercely.
“I know you’re concerned, Angel, but we need to find out what she saw.”
The vampire shook his head. “No way! Look at the state she’s in, Wes. I don’t want to push it right now.”
“I’m sorry, but I think you’re going to have to.”
“I said no!” Angel grated from between clenched teeth, trying to keep his spiralling anger in check.
Squaring his shoulders, Wesley boldly stood his ground against the suddenly irate vampire, positive that he was doing the right thing in forcing the issue.
“You said it yourself, Angel, she doesn’t get any respite until the vision quest is over. Whatever she saw in her premonition was clearly horrific. How is she going to feel if we don’t prevent whatever it is from happening? You need to get her to talk before it’s too late for us to do that.”
Resisting the urge to take his impotent rage out on the objects around him, Angel closed his eyes and willed himself to calm down. As much as he hated to admit it, Wesley was right – it would be so much worse for Cordy if he didn’t stop her vision from becoming reality. Opening his eyes, he nodded at the ex-watcher, silently signalling his reluctant agreement.
“I’m sorry, Angel. No-one wants to see her suffer in this way, but…”
“It’s okay, Wes,” the vampire quietly interrupted, giving his friend’s shoulder an appeasing squeeze. “You’re right – I just wasn’t thinking straight.”
Returning to his girlfriend’s side, Angel sat down next to her, and pulled her chair around to face his. Closing his big hands around her smaller ones, he lifted them to his lips and kissed the ends of her fingers, before lowering them back into her lap. “Cordy, you need to tell us what you saw,” he told her softly.
The seer immediately tensed and raised her water-filled gaze to her boyfriend’s sympathetic one. “I… I can’t.”
“Yes, baby, you can. You want to stop whatever it is from happening, don’t you?”
Cordelia nodded miserably, a steady stream of tears leaking from the corners of her swollen eyes to run down her pasty cheeks.
“I know it’s difficult, but you have to try, okay?”
“Okay,” the seer agreed in a small voice. “C-Can you hold me?”
Responding to his girlfriend’s heart-rending plea, Angel drew her onto his lap and wrapped her in his solid embrace. Cordelia nestled close, resting her head against his chest, and curling her hands around one of the strong arms that enveloped her.
“I-It’s a-a girl,” she began hesitantly. “About my age I think, maybe a little older. She’s heavily pregnant, and i-it’s stalking her – oh god!”
“What’s stalking her?”
“I-I don’t know, some kind of demon, I think. I couldn’t see, it was too dark. It wants the baby – it’s been watching her for a long time, waiting for the right moment to… Oh God, Angel. There was so much blood, and she was alive and screaming and there was blood, lots and lots of blood. Poor little defenceless baby, can’t let it happen, can’t, all that blood, so much pain, can’t let it happen.”
“Cordelia!” Angel said sharply, using her full name to cut through the hysteria that was threatening to overwhelm her as she was drawn back down into the horror of her vision. “Try to focus on something other than the actual attack. Like where the girl was, or maybe her name? We need to know who she is, so we can help her.”
“You’ll stop it from taking the baby?” Cordelia snapped her head up to look into his face, and she inadvertently dug her fingernails into his forearm in the process.
“I’ll stop it, I promise, but I need your help to do that.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about that now,” the vampire soothed, pressing his cool lips to her temple and stroking the side of her face with the backs of his fingers. “Just try and figure out where she was.”
Cordelia nodded and closed her eyes, forcing herself to go back into her vision. “It’s some sort of warehouse, no, a packing plant. I think she works there. She’s walking back to her car, it’s dark and she’s carrying something – a baby bathtub with toys and baby clothes inside. It’s her last day, she’s going on maternity leave, and she’s happy and also a little scared. She’s worried about how she’s going to cope raising this baby alone. She hears something behind her and a shiver goes down her spine – something is watching her, she can feel it.”
“Cordy – this packing plant – where is it? What’s it called? Can you see a sign around anywhere?”
“Yes, on the wall, but half of it is in darkness.”
“That’s okay. Just tell us about what you can see.”
“A white background and blue lettering, inside a red diamond shape. It says… umm… Wright’s? Something I can’t read, and then underneath just one word, but I can’t make all of it out – C-O-N-F-E – is all I can see.”
“That’s good, baby. That gives us something to go on,” Angel murmured encouragingly, tightening his arms around her. Cordelia opened her eyes and looked up at him, a wane little smile on her face, and he bent to kiss her softly on the lips.
The emotionally exhausted seer turned to regard Wesley with glassy eyes, as he hesitantly spoke her name. “Yes?”
“This demon – you said it was after the child. Have you any idea why?”
“Not really, no.”
“Okay and how did it… umm… retrieve the baby from its mother?”
“I don’t think we need to go into that again,” Angel said, throwing a warning glance at the ex-watcher.
Wesley ignored him. “It might be pertinent,” he insisted. “It could help us identify the species – most demons of this type have very distinctive MO’s. I’m sorry, Cordelia, I know this is difficult, but it could be important.”
Cordelia nodded and shuddered, trying to shut out the terrible images in her brain and vocalise the gruesome method of attack.
“It just took it out,” she said, the stark simplicity of her words making the whole thing seem even more horrifying.
“Jesus Christ!” Faith exclaimed.
“Thank-you,” Wesley said to the pale-faced seer, reaching out and giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Okay, I think that gives us enough to go on.”
“I’ll set up my lap-top and look into that packing plant,” Willow offered immediately.
Wesley nodded gratefully at the redheaded witch, and then looked over at Lorne, who had just re-entered the room, with a steaming mug in one hand and a thick blanket tucked under his other arm.
“Where did you put the books we brought with us?” he asked.
In answer, the Host set aside the items he was carrying, and retrieved the box of books from where it was stored under the bar. He hefted it onto the counter-top, and Faith smoothly transferred it to the table that Wesley was sitting at.
While the ex-watcher commenced with his research, Lorne added a generous shot of brandy to the drink that he’d made, and crossed the room to hand it to Cordelia. “There you go, princess. It’ll make you feel better in no time.”
As the seer sipped at the hot, fiery liquid, Angel took the blanket from Lorne with a brief nod of thanks, and tucked it around the young woman in his lap. Hugging her close, he rocked her gently in his arms, a wave of relief running through him as he felt her slowly start to relax in his embrace.
Faith walked over to where Buffy stood observing the openly cuddling couple, her arms stiffly folded across her chest, and bent to murmur in her blond counterpart’s ear.
“So, tell me, B,” she said pointedly. “If that’s not love, then what is?”
“Angel’s like that with anyone in distress.” Buffy said in a sullen tone.
“That’s complete BS and you know it.”
“All right, so he genuinely cares about Cordelia,” the petite slayer was forced to admit. “But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t…”
“Yes *it* does, B. Come on.”
“It’s not fair!” Buffy burst out in frustration as she felt her safety net start to slip away from her, despite her desperate attempts to hold onto it. “I need him, Faith. Everything’s all wrong back home without him there.”
“Right, so what? Angel comes back to Sunnydale and suddenly everything’s miraculously okay again?”
“Because nothing in life is ever that simple. Stop focusing on Angel as the solution to all your problems, B; he isn’t, he never was.”
Seeing that beginning to penetrate the thick cloud of denial that hung over the blond slayer, Faith backed off and left her alone with her thoughts. Try as she might, Buffy couldn’t continue to reject what her own eyes were telling her, and she deliberately looked away, unable to tolerate seeing Angel’s overt tenderness towards Cordelia any longer.
Her troubled gaze fell on Riley as he descended the steps into the Club, and her stomach lurched with anxiety. Whatever happened with Angel, her relationship with her current boyfriend was over, meaning that she still had to get the unpleasant task of breaking up with him out of the way.
“What’s going on?” the soldier asked, as he joined her by the bar.
“Cordelia had one of her premonitions – some kind of demon is planning on attacking a pregnant woman to steal her baby. Wesley and Willow are looking into the clues that we gained from Cordelia’s vision, and then we are going to track this thing down and kill it before anything happens.”
“I guess that means we’re not going home today,” Riley correctly surmised.
“Doesn’t look like it,” the slayer concurred with his assessment.
Riley noticed her shiny eyes and unhappy countenance then. “Are you all right?” he queried with gentle concern.
“I… I’m fine,” Buffy lied.
She felt guilty about doing so, but knew that, given the circumstances, now was not the time to raise the delicate issue of their forthcoming break-up. She would just have to pretend that everything was fine and dandy for the time being – and hope that all hell didn’t break loose when she did eventually tell him the truth…