“It’s too small.”
The dreaded voice coming out of nowhere, Merle jumped, his momentum sending him on a collision course with his digging partner. Arms flailing, their loads of stone and mortar went flying, duel yelps echoing through the dank sewer tunnel.
“You did that on purpose, you…” Angel’s face expressionless except for an sinisterly arched brow, Merle bit into his tongue, effectively saving his neck in the nick of time.
Stepping over the debris scattered at his feet, Angel peered into the lopsided opening. “Make it bigger.” And satisfied neither lackey would risk disappointing him, dropped two crisp one hundred dollar bills as he made his way down the tunnel. “Don’t be here when I get back,” resonating behind him as his form faded into the emptiness.
“You can count on it, Oh Lord of the Dark.” Merle whispered a sarcastic comeback once certain the ornery vampire was beyond hearing range.
“Is that his name this week?” Bert asked as he hurriedly gathered the fallen rubble into a neat pile.
“Be quiet, the blood sucker has ears like a fox.”
“Wouldn’t he have ears like a bat? Hmmm… Do bat’s have ears?”
“Shut up Bert and get the hammer.”
The first stack of papers analyzed until nothing was left to pick apart, Wesley slid it to the side; a weary sigh escaping as he prepared to tackle the next. Page after page of evidence rehashed until crisp corners curled from the tight pinch of fingers and hushed conversation turned to agitated rebuttal.
“You’re wrong.” Cordelia quietly contradicted, rubbing the pads of her fingers down the paper’s side, as though its secret hid beneath the neatly typed ink. “I can’t explain it, but I know he didn’t do it.”
“You’re reacting to emotion, Cordelia. That’s a rather unscientific approach.”
“There’s a reason for that. I’m not a scientist.”
Cordelia took the top sheet from the messy pile, holding it up for Wesley’s perusal. “Detective Spade thinks the man is guilty just because he’s a demon. That’s not very detectivey.”
“Perhaps the good detective’s judgment is clouded by personal opinion, but his conclusion was drawn by facts. Mickey Kyle had the motive and the means.”
“Pffttt,” Cordelia offered Wesley’s know-it-all assumption. “Is that scientific enough for ya?”
“Yes, well, I doubt the police will remove Mickey Kyle from their suspect list because you have a feeling.”
Gunn’s whereabouts unknown, Angel listened for signs of his arrival as he watched the Cordelia and Wesley go about their work. Despite the current head butting, they had accomplished quite a bit in their investigation, tracking down leads and informants with very little to go on. His friends were managing better on their own than he’d expected; his pride colored only by his regret of not being a part of it.
Thoughts turned again to the third member of the group. Gunn was rarely around during his clandestine visits, making him wander if the young man had chosen returning to his roots over the day-to-day grunge work of a detective agency.
The fight he witnessed a few nights ago could have been a random attack rather than a vision, Wesley and Cordelia simply returning the favor by combining forces. Nevertheless, even with the added numbers, they suffered casualties. And determined that Cordelia would not be a victim because of his mistakes; Angel decided to act before she risked challenging his warning.
“Am I interrupting?”
Heads shooting up, their collective attention shot first to the door they assumed was locked then to their unexpected visitor.
“Angel.” Recalling another time the vampire had forced his way into their office, Wesley motioned for Cordelia to stay put before making his way to the front of the office. “Can I help you with something?”
“I want to make you an offer.”
“I want to handle the visions.”
“That’s very generous of you, but we have-”
“I think it’s a good idea.” Cordelia headed toward the two men, the rough edge of Angel’s recent warning spurring a faster pace.
Accepting Wesley’s surprised stare for all of fifteen seconds, her hands snapped to her hips, presenting a display of confidence and defiance she neither felt nor deserved.
“It makes sense when you think about it.”
Cordelia would have laughed at her flimsy defense if not for the absurdity of their situation. Angel’s offer was a politely delivered order, making it possible for her concession to merely appear as her own. And staring up at the unshakable resolve glaring down at her, she wasn’t foolish enough to believe compliance was an option.
At the moment, Angel’s motivation was the bigger mystery. Not that she’d ask, or expect an honest answer if she did. It was possible that his refusal to let go was nothing more than a bruised and swollen ego. Angel might leave, but no one leaves Angel. His promised shanshu was just as likely a plausible motive. Although, Cordelia reconsidered, whenever more intimate causes made saving the hopeless unimportant, the mission was forgotten and friendships became disposable.
With a little luck, the incentive behind Angel’s relentless pursuit soon wouldn’t matter. Despite their unexpected caseload, Wesley was making steady progress in figuring out how to contact the omnipotent beings currently controlling her fate. Admittedly, the ritual coerced from a reluctant Lorne was a scary proposition, but for Cordelia, well worth the risk. No visions meant Angel wouldn’t need her, which meant she could finally move on with her life.
“You now want us to work with Angel?” Wesley asked, confused by Cordelia’s sudden change of heart.
“I didn’t say that,” Cordelia hissed, “I’m just saying if Angel wants to fight demons let him.”
A long, hot summer came to mind. Not that LA had been unusually warm, or remotely resembled lazy. Lives had been turned inside out…again. Loyalties had shifted, and alliances once trusted, now faced off…again. No, Charles Gunn reconsidered, the cliché didn’t fit after all; and whistling his tune a little louder, began to slow his approach. Whatever lay around the corner had picked up his scent at least three blocks ago. It just didn’t know he was ready for an ambush.
The familiar tingle prickling up his spine, Gunn instinctively shifted his stance. Weapon aimed and ready, he stepped into the dimly lit alley, unprepared for the demon laying in wait.
Arms crossed and heads cocked, the two men sized each other up in a silent stand off.
“Angel,” and without skipping a beat addressed his troop, “Since when do we take prisoners?”
“Wasn’t sure if you wanted this one dust,” Rondell declared begrudgingly.
Gunn scanned the familiar faces. Boys forced into manhood before they were ready. Loyal friends he trusted with his life, waiting for him to lead, trusting him to make the right choices and keep his people safe.
“He’s a vamp; ain’t he?”
“Cordelia might disagree.” Gruff, almost devoid of emotion, Angel held his opponent’s stare, while inwardly grappling with the surge of doubts threatening to burn him from the inside out.
“Tell you what, if she has any free time in the next few weeks, I’ll ask her.”
Rondell’s sight never wavering from the cold, dead eyes staring back, his finger squeezed against the crossbow’s trigger.
“Is this where I tremble,” Angel scoffed, “Or laugh?”
“No,” Gunn countered moving a step closer, “this is where you regret a bad decision.”
The young man instinctively guarding his territory, had understandably designated himself alpha male. It was an attitude Angel admired, but one he would only tolerate to a degree. “I do regret leaving my friends…and the mission.”
“Actually, I was talking about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that too.”
Relieved the time-wasted conversation was drawing to an end, Rondell shifted, aligning the arrow’s path with the lifeless heart, only to be disappointed by another interruption.
“Save your arrow for the next one, the vamp’s with us.” With a dull glint of distrust and resentment at calling off his crew, Gun added a deliberate, “for now.”
Utter shock taking over, Rondell dropped his guard; George and the others flanking his sides to voice their protest. “You have got to be kidding me, man.”
With rumors of vampires setting up a new turf and the demon in Cordelia’s vision needing to be dealt with, Gunn held up his hand, effectively cutting off a debate he didn’t have time for.
“Rondell. George. You need to worry about the vamp nest in the old Clover warehouse.”
“And what will you be doing?” George challenged, stepping to the front of the group.
“Killing a Nequa’el demon. Now get movin’ and I’ll meet you back at camp.” Gunn tossed a look in Angel’s direction then back at his men, “Alone.”
One by one the men headed off, grumbles of dissension falling silent beneath the weight of responsibilities.
“So a Nequa’el.” Angel casually mentioned as he strolled past Gunn, making his way deeper into the alley.
“Yea, you know ‘em?”
Gunn caught up with Angel’s stride, and squaring his shoulders, locked his sight straight ahead.
“Why are you doing this?”
“How do you know it’s a Nequa’el?”
“English looked it up in one of his picture books.”
“I want to help.”
“So you’ve said.”
Regret, forgiveness, trust, just empty words unless promises were fulfilled. With nothing left to say, the two men continued in silence.
“Because I think I can help.”
“How do we know we can trust you?”
“I guess I’ll just have to earn that.”
Momentarily lost in memory, innate senses missed the abrupt change, exposing Angel to the blow coming from behind. Gunn automatically flanked right as Angel sprung to his feet, spinning around and blocking the second strike. Knees threatening to buckle under the massive weight, muscles intuitively tensed, a heavy grunt pushing its way past tight-pressed lips as he shoved the demon toward the readied axe.
Gunn, confident of a swift victory, swung around fast and hard, his axe slicing through the air and landing dead center of its target. He felt an unexpected jolt, the handle vibrating inside his grip; then stumbled back in disbelief when the fine-honed blade practically bounced off the demon’s thick, crusty hide.
“What the fu-what the hell is this thing; rock?”
The demon already turning for a counter attack, Angel lunged for its back, locking one arm around its neck in a tight vice. A larger, stronger claw closed around his hand, the pulverizing force threatening to crush bone. Snarling against the pain, human features shifted, teeth elongated into sharp-pointed weapons and sank into a semi-tender patch of flesh underneath the beast’s jaw.
“You shouldn’t be alone right now.”
“Maybe, but I need some time to myself.”
“When will you be back?”
Gunn brought the axe down again and again. Each strike, harder than the one before it, buried the blade deep into the softer underbelly. The whites of his eyes paled, blending into the dark around them. His heart raced, breaths became wheezing gasps for air, sweat coated his face.
Angel tore into the demon’s throat, his own feral growls blending with the agonizing howls of his prey.
“This isn’t a personal attack, Angel.”
“The visions, battling supernatural elements, requires stability.”
“And I’m not dependable.”
“No, I’m sorry to say, you’re not.”
The demon beaten down with their combined assault, Angel’s relentless attack continued, undeterred by the smell of impending death.
“Trust me Cordelia. Invite me in.”
Staggering back, Gunn gave into exhaustion, collapsing to the ground. Blood, thick and black as oil, oozed from the demon, smearing across Angel’s cheek.
“It’s dead, man. You can stop biting it now.”
Nothing… Angel poured his rage into the lifeless piece of flesh, heavy grunts disrupting the dark silence as teeth gnashed against the leather-tough hide.
“Don’t Cordelia. I don’t want to fight with you.”
Disgusted by the scene of bloody teeth and mangled flesh, Gunn struck his fist repeatedly against Angel’s shoulder. “Let it go man. It’s dead.”
Energy spent, rage temporarily appeased, Angel let go, slumping over the dead carcass.
“I don’t want to fight either. I just want this to be over with.”
“Giles? You told Giles?”
Cordelia looked at Wesley as though he’d grown a second head, although, considering her wide-eyed shock, he might have sprouted a third.
Yes, Cordelia. I called Giles. Is there a problem?”
“Of course there’s a problem. What if he tells someone-what if Angel finds out?”
Her arms flailed at the absurdity of the man she’d believed to be intelligent, her fingers pointing accusingly at the idiot that had proved her wrong.
“Giles was most helpful in translating the ritual; besides, who would he possibly tell that would have reason to speak with Angel?”
Okay, he had her there. No one in Sunnydale cared whether or not she had the visions. And no one in Sunnydale talked to Angel except Buffy and she was gone. Oh God. Buffy is dead and Angel is heart broken. No. No. No. Cordelia silently wailed. No more guilt. Angel didn’t need her then and he doesn’t need her now.
“You’re right. I overreacted. So what does this ritual include, a ceremonial hat, live chickens?”
“Good Lord, Cordelia, nothing as grotesque as animal sacrifices. Although, as the bearer of the visions your blood is required – a minimal donation, I assure you,” Wesley quickly added when confronted with her horrified expression.”
“Okay, a little blood; what else?”
“I need to procure the tail feather of a dodo bird, and of course, the dodo bird being extinct for more than three hundred years, plumage may prove difficult to come by.”
“Blood, tail feathers. What else?”
“The remaining ingredients can be readily found in LA, so as soon as I can track down an apothecary that deals in rare antiquities and a shaman, we should be ready to begin.”
Cordelia had to admit, hearing how close they were to actually performing the ritual, anticipation was definitely overshadowing Lorne’s caution of playing with fire. So what if she got a little burned, the doctor had already told her it was only a matter of time before the migraines became life-threatening.
“Great! All that stands between me and a normal life is a dodo. I’ll be free Wesley. Free of the visions. Free of Angel.”
I’ll be free… I’ll be free… I’ll be free…
Excitement waned with each resonation, Cordelia shivered from the cold, desolation crawled over her.
No more Angel…
“Where’s my money?” Merle risked a cheeky attitude. He’d labored all day. He deserved it.
Angel reached into the drawer, and with a flick of his wrist tossed a fifty across the desk.
“What do you have for me?”
“I followed a pretty girl all day man, whadda ya think I got? You know,” Merle looked around the messy state of their surroundings, “most people tidy up a little when company’s coming.”
Hands pressed together, his chin resting on the tips of his fingers, Angel leaned the chair back as far as it’s springs could tolerate and said nothing.
“Well excuse me. Forgot this was a working relationship.” Merl jerked his fingers in front of his face, snapping quotation marks around the phrase. “Last I saw her, your squeeze and the professor were talking about vision rituals and being free of you.”
Angel’s spine stiffened, the added clench of his jaw sounding an audible pop. Cordelia thought the visions kept her tied to him. It was time she discovered the ties that bind, and Wesley learned a lesson in boundaries.
“But it don’t sound like they’ll be doing it anytime soon. The professor said something about needing a dead bird and a shaman.”
“The sewer tunnel?” Angel asked, abruptly changing the subject.
“Man you just don’t let up.”