Cordelia hummed under her breath as she locked her car, twirling the keys around in her hand as she enjoyed yet another day without the incapacitating vision pain that had become her life.
The sun was shining, the birds were singing, it would have been a perfect day if it weren’t for the possible serial killer on the loose. Her steps stuttered to a stop as the awful images of Amy’s bloody and broken body skittered through her brain.
Not my fault, she told herself, but something inside her whispered that that wasn’t entirely true. If she’d just let Angel go on his own, if they hadn’t argued, if, if, if….
Shaking her head with a sigh, Cordelia strolled towards her apartment, forcing down the if’s to the same quiet place where she’d hidden the fact that she was dying. Hindsight may very well be 20/20, but it wasn’t going to help them catch Daniel.
And they would catch him, they had to, because if they didn’t….
She couldn’t even bare to finish that thought.
They’d catch Daniel and make him pay for the lives he’d torn apart. It was as simple as that.
But first, Cordelia needed a shower.
“Oh yeah, I’ve got my priorities straight,” the brunette murmured wryly as she walked through the small entryway to her apartment. Cordelia frowned when her apartment key refused to turn in the lock. She jiggled it, hoping some divine force would strike down from the heavens, magically triggering the mechanism into working.
It didn’t, of course.
“Dennis, it’s me,” Cordelia whispered, her ear pressed to the door to see if she could hear any signs of unlife. She was greeted with nothing but silence.
“Quit playing around, Dennis.”
She tried to turn the key again, and failed.
“Dennis, open the damn door!” Cordelia hammered her fist against the door, an even thump thump thump that echoed between the walls as her patience quickly snapped like an old pair of shoelaces.
Cordelia sighed and leant her forehead against the door, “is this because I didn’t came home last night?” she asked her ghostly protector quietly, “look, we talked about this-” The sentence skidded to a stop in Cordelia’s mouth as her foot brushed against something hidden in the deep shadow that cloaked the small entryway.
“What the…?” she squinted at the blur of colour she could faintly make out and bent down to pick whatever it was up.
Roses. Someone had left her roses.
The smile that had threatened to light up her face died as she saw the dried, crusting blood that marred the sunshine yellow petals.
“Ew!” Cordelia exclaimed with disgust, throwing the parody of affection to the floor and wiping her hands on her pants.
“What kind of sicko would….”
A chill raced up and down her back, prickling goose bumps across her skin and making her stomach flip with dreadful understanding .
….this guy knows you now, if things go wrong you’ll be the one he goes after, I’m not willing to take that risk….
“Dennis! Open the damn door!” Cordelia banged both fists against the door, panic washing over her in stifling waves.
The unmistakable scuff of footsteps sounded behind her, making Cordelia freeze like a deer caught in headlights.
She didn’t need to turn around to know who it was.
“Hello, Cordelia,” the slick, oily voice she recognised from the stake out in the club was enough to confirm Angel’s fears.
Angel had tried to be civil, he really had. It just took too damn long.
“OK, OK!” Merle finally relented, his feet dangling impotently above the ground as Angel held him against the wall by his throat, “I’ll tell ya what I know!”
The demon snitch didn’t even have time to blink before an enormous fist barrelled into his nose, forcing the back of his skull to collide painfully with the wall with a satisfying crack.
“I said I’d tell ya!” Merle groused, even more nasally than usual.
“Sorry, habit,” Angel shrugged a vague apology as he let Merle slip to the ground. He didn’t like Merle, there was just something about him that grated on the vampire’s nerves, and he sure as hell didn’t trust him. The only reason they came to Merle for information was because he was so low down on the food chain that he was able to crawl through life without being noticed.
If you’re plotting the end of the world, are you going to worry about the ugly green demon stinking of Old Spice at the next table?
“I think you broke my nose,” muttered Merle as he gingerly fingered the mangled mess that was his face. Angel winced guiltily as the wet crack of broken bones being irritated resounded in disturbingly tidy apartment. But the guilt dissipated as Angel’s gaze fixed on a row of jars that sat atop a television that looked almost new. Each jar was adorned with a little white label, telling the world its content in suspiciously neat cursive.
“Baby’s livers, Merle?” the vampire growled with disgust as he picked one of the jars up, the small organ sloshed around in the clear fluid that contained it.
“A guy’s gotta pay the rent,” Merle shrugged, wiping the back of his hand across his face defensively, “we can’t all be big gay crime fighting super heroes.”
“Baby’s livers?” said Angel, again, as though he couldn’t quite believe the snitch had sunk so low. “Tell me again why it is that I haven’t killed you?”
Merle took a nervous step back as Angel took a threatening step forward.
“’Cos of my sparkling personality and my infectious sense of humour?”
“Merle….” Angel continued to stalk towards him.
“How about because I know something you need to know?” Merle said as his back bumped into a wall, he has nowhere else to crawl, so he may as well tell the big mosquito what he knew.
“I don’t have all day, Merle,” growled Angel.
“Yeah, yeah,” the snitch muttered under his breath as he spat out a thick glob of blood, “so what am I gonna get in return with for tellin’ ya what I know?”
“How about, you tell me and I won’t push my fist through your brain?” Angel raised an eyebrow, crossed his arms over his chest and stared the other demon down.
“Sounds like a deal,” Merle nodded. He patted his pockets, digging out a crumpled pack of cigarettes, he offered one to Angel who declined with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
“You’re lookin’ for the guy that made chutney out of those three pretty little girls, huh?”
Angel’s only reply was a long, hard, silent stare. The one he used on Cordelia when she tried to make him eat her cooking.
Merle carried on regardless. “Rumour has it you were meant to be protecting the one that got her intestines wrapped around her neck last night.”
The vampire’s jaw twitched.
“Can’t save ’em all, huh?” Merle sneered gleefully.
“I’m gonna hang you by your own entrails, you pathetic excuse for a-”
“How’s that seer of yours?” he cut off Angel’s threats of evisceration with five simple words.
“What are you talking about?” Angel narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
“Pretty girl, that Cordelia. If ya like that kinda thing,” Merle sniffed, dragging his sleeve across his still bleeding nose, “this guy you’re looking for? Likes ’em pretty and young, doesn’t care is they’ve got family, ain’t scared of nothing. Don’t know what kinda demon he is, heard he’s more human than demon, anyway,” Merle rattled off what little information he had.
He sucked deeply on his cigarette, his cheeks hollowing dramatically around the thin white stick as peels of blue smoke danced around him.
“That all you got?” Angel asked, his words dripping with annoyance.
“Your girl’s real pretty,” Merle nodded absently, ignoring the vampire’s unwavering glare, waiting to see if the bloodsucker would ever put two and two together, “need to look after a tasty little treat like that, don’t know what might be in the lurking in the shadows, waitin’ to take a bite out of her….”
Merle didn’t see Angel move, but he must have because one moment he was a great hulking mass of undead and the next there was nothing but the sound of his heavy boots thundering down the apartment corridor.
“Damn vampires,” grumbled Merle as he slammed the door shut, triple bolting it, just in case.
I’m going to die, was the only thought that existed in Cordelia’s panic seized mind.
A cold sweat of dread blanketed her body, she would have shivered if she weren’t so terrified.
I. Am. Going. To. Die.
Blood beat loudly in her ears, drowning out the birds song and distant thrum of traffic.
“Where’ve you been? I was worried about you,” Daniel crooned softly as he brushed a few stray strands of hair behind Cordelia’s ear. The brunette flinched at the contact, like his touch alone might contaminate her. Maybe it would.
There was blood on his clothes, she noticed absently. Long splatters of red covered his pants like a macabre Jackson Pollock, crimson smears that stood out like a scream against the crisp cream chinos.
Oh, shit, Cordelia’s brain woke up at the same time her body remembered how to move. She jerked backwards, moving as far away from Daniel as she could, until her back was pressed desperately against her apartment door.
“What’s wrong, baby? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Daniel frowned, stepping back into her personal space, his fingers, cold and as red as his pants, trailed along her jaw, his thumb tracing the curve of her bottom lip.
Cordelia swallowed heavily, silently screaming at Dennis to open the door.
“You’re so beautiful, Cordelia. Like the first flower of spring,” he whispered wistfully, his breath, horrifyingly peppermint fresh, licked over her cheek.
Cordelia shuddered with revulsion.
“Where were you all night, Cordelia? Where were you? Tell me baby, we shouldn’t keep secrets,” Daniel pressed his clean shaven cheek against Cordelia’s, “why’s you’re heart beating so fast? What’s wrong, tell me,” he brushed the tip of his nose across the slope of her cheekbone, inhaling her scent.
Cordelia’s heart dropped to her stomach when she felt him stiffen with tension against her.
“You stink of another man,” Daniel snarled, tender words so quickly replaced with the back of a hand crashing across Cordelia’s face. Her head snapped to the side, pain lancing through her jaw as a supernova of lights burst behind her eyelids.
“Fucking whore,” her attacker grunted, shoving her roughly until Cordelia stumbled to the ground.
“-trusted you, all the same, spread your legs for anyone, you bitch, you fucking bitch, would have given you anything-” Cordelia watched the man that had torn Amy to pieces pace like a mad man in front of her. He looked no different from the night they’d met at the club, bland and uninteresting, the kind of man you’d pass in the street and wouldn’t look twice at. Short, cropped light brown hair. A beaky nose. Thin, uninteresting lips. Eyes…his eyes weren’t…right.
“-did you think I wouldn’t find out? Wouldn’t smell it on you, wouldn’t smell him on you? I’m gonna tear him apart-” Daniel continued to mutter and pace.
Slowly, so slowly that she wasn’t even sure she was moving, Cordelia edged up off the floor, the pebbly wall scraped against her shoulder-blades and gave her something to think about that wasn’t the maniac in front of her.
I am NOT going to die, her brain informed her forcefully.
Adrenaline coursed through her body like a wild fire, sparking movement into her nerves, the sharp crackle of determination that had kept her alive whilst growing up on the mouth of hell.
Get up, get up, get up! Cordelia’s body screamed, run, get to the car, just get to the damn car!
The only problem with her body’s plan was the killer in front of her. She needed a weapon, something big and fatal, like, say, a broad sword.
But Cordelia wasn’t in the habit of carrying a handy broad sword around with her everywhere she went. All she had were the keys in her hand and her purse.
Cordelia’s eyes widened. Of course! Her purse! And inside her purse was the thing that would get her out of this!
“Hey, psycho boy!” Cordelia shouted before she could think better of it, Daniel’s attention snapped to her like a bolt of lightening.
She watched, like an outsider to the scene, as he turned and began to stalk towards her, mouth twisted and ready to spit vitriol.
Cordelia stood up, shoulders straight, chin raised and plunged her hand into her purse.
She was Cordelia Chase, dammit, and she wasn’t going to die.
The atmosphere in the Hyperion lobby was quietly subdued, the only noise to be heard were the soft swish of pages being turned and the occasional whispered thought.
Wesley sat the counter, hands cradling his head as he poured over the large tome in front of him. His hair had the kind of messed up quality that came with a sleepless night and too much strong coffee, like he’d pulled his hand through it too many times. The way Gunn had once said he liked.
Lorne was stretched casually on one of the small red sofas while he read. At his feet sat Fred, glasses occasionally slipping down her nose as she devoured the world of words in her book.
While they looked like the very picture of single minded concentration, the truth was they were getting nowhere with the research.
And getting nowhere slowly.
The Physicist grunted with annoyance as she reread the same paragraph about the mucus and mating habits of Fyarl demons. She didn’t need to know this, so why was she reading it? Her neck was starting to cramp and her eyes were hurting, she also had the feeling that Wesley was just pretending to read and was actually asleep.
The tension, and slight paranoia, seeped out of her body as a familiar hand settled at the base of her neck. Long, elegantly masculine fingers kneaded the tight muscles until they were soft beneath his fingers. Fred tilted her head back and smiled her thanks to Lorne.
“You’re welcome,” he whispered, so as not to break the heavy silence, and leant forward to press a quick kiss on her forehead. Fred felt something warm and wonderful spread through her chest, making her want to jump up and dance like a fool.
It was a feeling she was becoming addicted to.
“You wanna rent movie tonight?” Lorne asked her, running a hand through the thick waves of Fred’s chestnut hair.
“Can we make popcorn and order pizza and-”
The basement door crashed open with a dangerous thud, making the inhabitants of the lobby jump in their seats.
“Where is she?!” Angel bellowed as he strode towards the office, cell phone pressed tightly to his ear.
“Er, who?” Wesley asked, unsure if it were he that Angel was shouting at or some unfortunate person on the other end of the phone.
“She’s not answering her phone, why isn’t she answering her phone?!”
“I don’t know who-”
“Cordelia!” Angel snapped his best friends name as though they should have known without having to ask. He cursed under his breath when Cordelia’s answer phone picked up once again, snapping the phone shut like it was responsible for all this.
“She went back to her apartment, remember?” Fred frowned.
“Angel, what’s going on?” Wesley joined the vampire, who’d thrown open that doors of the weapons cabinet like he was about to go to war.
“He’s gonna go after Cordelia,” Angel growled as he snatched an axe and a sword out of the cabinet.
“Who….Daniel?” Fred felt her stomach fall to her knees as she scramble from the floor.
“Oh, Christ,” the Englishman grunted, picking out his own weapon of choice.
“He’s not back from talking with his source yet.”
“Shit. Fred, bring the car round the front, park in the shade,” Angel threw the Plymouth’s keys at the Texan, who caught them with ease, “Lorne, keep trying Cordy’s number, maybe she’s in the shower and can’t hear the phone.”
Lorne nodded without comment, the vampire’s deep set scowl and twitching jaw spoke silent volumes about his state of mind. He wasn’t a demon to mess this at the best of times, but if Cordelia was in danger then it was best to duck and cover until enough blood had been shed to quell Angel’s anger.
“If he hurts her….” Angel let the sentence fall away through gritted teeth. They all knew what would happen if Cordelia was hurt.
Fred was the only one that noticed the front door swing open. Her shoulders sagged with a relief so palpable she could almost taste it.
“Guys!” Fred called over her shoulder.
One by one, Angel, Wesley and Lorne turned their attention to the fifth person in the room.
Cordelia stood, the sleeve of her blouse ripped, broken shoe in hand, purpling bruise marring the left side of her face.
She swatted her hair out of her face, like she was shooing away mosquitoes.
“We so have a problem.”
Cordelia stood up, shoulders straight, chin raised and plunged her hand into her purse.
She was Cordelia Chase, dammit, and she *wasn’t* going to die.
“I would have given you everything!” spat Daniel as he lurched ever closer.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Cordelia smiled her head cheerleader smile, then sprayed an entire can of mace into his eyes. Daniel roared with pain and dropped to his knees, thin, pianist fingers clawed at his eyes, trying to gouge out the irritant.
Faster than she realized she could ever move, Cordelia ran. Her heart was lodged firmly in her throat as she dashed out of the apartment block, keys clasped so firmly in her hand she was sure they would leave their mark on her.
*Run, run, run, don’t look back, just keep-*
Cordelia yelped as she was tugged backwards sharply by her hair, she stumbled, scrabbled to get away, but his grip was strong, too strong.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Daniel hissed into her ear. Cordelia tried to jerk out of his grip, but it only caused her sleeve to tear at the seems where his free hand held her.
“Oh, I really am,” Cordelia gritted her teeth against the stinging pain in her scalp.
“I don’t think so, baby.”
“Well, think again, *baby*,” in a move that no one had taught her but herself, Cordelia snapped her leg up behind her, firmly imbedding the heel of her shoe into Daniel’s groin….
“And then he dropped to the ground, wailing like a great big baby woman while I got in the car and broke every speed limit in the State,” Cordelia finished, slumped slightly on one of the lobby’s sofas.
“Are you OK?” asked Wesley as he handed Cordelia an ice pack for her face.
“Do I look OK?”
“No, not particularly.”
“There’s your answer, then,” she muttered, exhaustion bleeding through her body like a drug.
“This is bad,” Fred chewed her bottom lip, “this is really bad.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured that out when I was running for my life!” Cordelia snapped, causing the Texan to flinch like she’d been slapped.
A tense silence swept over the lobby like a poisoned gas.
“This isn’t Fred’s fault,” Angel murmured from where he was sitting next to Cordelia, holding the ice pack gently against her face.
They were the first words the vampire had spoken since Cordelia had stepped into the lobby.
It wasn’t Cordelia’s fault, none of this was.
It was Angel’s. He should never have agreed to use her as bait, he shouldn’t have let her come with him the night Amy died, he shouldn’t have-
“It’s not your fault either, Angel,” Cordelia said gently, reading the thoughts that were so clearly etched across his face. She laced her fingers through his, squeezing his hand tightly.
“He’ll pay for this,” Angel swore.
“I know,” she nodded, unable to hide the wince that contorted her face as the movement irritated her aching scalp.
Angel put the ice pack down and ran his fingers through Cordelia’s hair, checking her head for bumps and cuts. He found none, but continued to trail his hands through the messy brown locks.
Angel had to keep touching her, had to make sure she was really here and relatively unhurt. Cordelia let her eyes slip shut and leant her head back against the comfort her best friend gave, concentrating on his touch rather than the what ifs that demanded to run through her brain.
Angel was really good at this comfort thing….
“Well,” Wesley coughed, feeling as though he were intruding on an intimate moment, which he didn’t like, at all. Angel and Cordelia shifted away from each other as though they’d been caught doing something wrong, which made the Englishman feel slightly more at ease.
“Angel, I suggest you and I go to Cordelia’s apartment, he’s probably still in the area.”
“Right,” Angel nodded, “we can grab a few things for Cordy too.”
“Wait a minute-”
“But what if he turns up here when you and Wes are gone?” Fred unknowingly cut Cordelia’s protest off, “I mean, he could, right? He knew where she lived, he’s probably gonna know where she works.”
“Hey, what do you mean lived-”
“Kitten’s right,” Lorne backed up Fred, “not that I’m not up for protecting the women folk all by lonesome, but if Ted Bundy junior shows up all slash happy, I doubt my noodle arms are going to be of much help.”
“You don’t have noodle arms,” Fred frowned.
“Ah, but you’re biased,” he winked.
“I’ll page Gunn, and then he can stop here with the girls while Angel and I check out Cordy’s apartment.”
“Works for me, although I do take offence at being labelled as one of the girls,” Lorne sniffed theatrically.
“Hey!” Cordelia stood up, tired of being talked about as if she weren’t there. “Would someone like to tell me why I’m having a bag packed for me?”
“You’re not going back to your apartment,” Angel read her mind.
“And where else am I meant to live?”
“Here, of course.”
Cordelia blinked at Angel slowly.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” she shook her head.
“Why not?” Angel frowned, she couldn’t honestly think her apartment was safe, could she?
Cordelia sighed. “Angel, can I speak to you in private, please?” Before he could respond, Cordelia dragged him manually from the lobby and into the office, kicking the door shut behind them with a slam.
“This is the dumbest idea you have ever had.”
Angel blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Us living together is not part of the plan!” she hissed, flailing her arms around with every word. Angel shuffled away so as not to be hit.
“What are you talking about?”
“Our little…arrangement? Remember? Staying the night was bad enough, but actually living together? Nuh huh, I don’t think so. That way will only lead to badness.”
Angel watched Cordelia pace the short width of the office, she bobbed up and down without one of her shoes on, it would have been an amusing sight if Angel weren’t so angry.
Which he was.
“Cordelia, shut up and sit down.”
The brunette froze in her pacing, she whirled around, fully intending to let loose on the vampire for talking to her like that, but the look on Angel’s face made the retorts dry up and die in her mouth. She dropped down into one of the office seats like a sack of potatoes.
“This plan you keep talking about? It doesn’t exist,” Angel held up his hand to silence her when he saw Cordelia about to argue.
“And it also doesn’t matter. You’re not going back to your apartment, Cordy. Not until this guy is dead. It’s not like we’ll be sharing a room, there are dozens of bedrooms to choose from. Where else are you gonna go? Do you really want to bunk up with Gunn or Wes? Those two are imploding right now, I can smell the misery on them. Lorne? All that colour will give you a headache. No. You’re staying here. Deal with it.”
Angel crossed his arms over his chest. He would not be swayed.
Cordelia swallowed and, to the vampire’s horror, buried her face in her hands as she began to cry.
For a horrible second Angel didn’t know what to do. Cordelia never cried, she just…didn’t. She was the strong one, the one that kept them all together. She laughed and bitched and whined but she never cried. But, now, she was. Cordelia was crying, crumpled in on herself, sobbing into her hands like a lost child.
Snapping himself out of his shock, Angel was kneeling in front of Cordelia in a non-existent heartbeat.
“Cordy?” he whispered, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry, you don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to, we’ll figure something else out,” Angel desperately trying to stop her sobs.
“He was at my home,” Cordelia whispered hoarsely, letting her hands fall into her lap as the tears still streamed down her cheeks.
Her hands were shaking, Angel noticed. In fact, all of Cordelia was shaking, like she was cold. Or in shock.
Angel swallowed her small hands in one of his.
“How did he know where I lived? How did he know so quickly, Angel?”
“I don’t know,” the vampire answered quietly, cupping the side of Cordelia’s face with his free hand, careful not to irritate the angry bruise.
“I don’t understand any of this,” Cordelia shook her head, “why wouldn’t Dennis let me open the door? It doesn’t make sense. Daniel was waiting for me, at my home, my home, Angel. I don’t….” Angel listened as her words trailed off to nowhere. When her hazel eyes finally met his, the vampire decided he was going to cut Daniel to shreds before he killed him.
“He made me scared, really damn scared,” Cordelia admitted.
Angel didn’t care about plans or uncrossable lines. He didn’t care about what Wesley and the others might think. Angel didn’t care about anything else but the fear he saw in Cordelia’s eyes, and making sure that it would never have the chance to live there again.
Threading his hand through her hair, Angel pulled Cordelia to him, pressing a kiss that meant more than he realized against her forehead. He held Cordelia, her head tucked into the crook of his neck, her heart beating against his chest.
Slowly, Cordelia’s sobs eased to a shudder and then to a final, wet sniff. Angel crooked his fingers under her chin and wiped her tears away with the sleeve of his sweater.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to fall apart all over you,” Cordelia smiled weakly, embarrassment clouding her eyes as she struggled to regain her composure, searching desperately for her mask of Queen C just as she always did during times like this.
“S’OK, we all need to fall apart every now and then,” Angel shrugged.
“I guess,” Cordelia breathed deeply, fully intending on pulling out of Angel’s embrace but actually burrowing closer into the vampire’s side.
The office clock ticked the seconds away and Angel wanted to smash it beneath his boots just so the moment would never end.
“I broke my shoe,” the young woman sighed, her head resting on Angel’s shoulder as she dangled the strappy sandals from her index finger.
“I tripped up the steps in the courtyard,” Cordelia admitted with a self deprecating snort. Angel hid his smile in the crown of her hair, tightening his arms around her as though she were a precious jewel.
To hell with the damn plan.