Flashy and shiny, the lights of the three cop cars outside of the building were too much for Cordelia’s head. The vision still flashed every time she closed her eyes, it was as if her eyelids were a movie screen and it was always horror. Either during or after. This was both and it gripped it hard from the inside, the taste of blood and the twin feelings of the vampire and his shocked victim playing out through her.
And it hurt, hard stabs of pain that burned and pulled throughout her head but it hurt to open her eyes as well – there was no rest. Not with red and blue lights flashing irritatingly all around her, she’d tried to find a place where she could look away, but the lights shined off the windows of other buildings and off the cars. So she forced her eyes to stay open, her eyes hurt, it added to the constant ache behind her eyes, but at least she didn’t feel like both a vampire and his victim.
A shiver rolled up her spine as she remembered how they’d found Ariel inside her apartment. Used by someone she’d trusted and then just tossed aside and onto the floor – pure evil. And Cordelia couldn’t help thinking a man didn’t have to be a soulless demon to treat a woman that way. She sighed, reminded herself that there was good in people, she saw it everyday and she’d seen it win out in Angel. Doubt flickered through her mind but she pushed it away. A chance, she reminded herself harshly. One he had so far proven he deserved which made her question why she was afraid that things would once again fall apart?
As Cordelia stepped closer to Angel and Kate she began to hear their conversation about what had happened inside of the apartment. Kate’s cynically edged voice adding to the constant ache at her temples.
“It was a vampire, Kate.”
“So, you two just figured you’d walk all over the crime scene, and do as you pleased. There are rules, regulations. How can I keep you two out of this, keep you two not suspects.”
“Look, Kate. It’s a vampire, Cordy had a vision, we had to come. We had to walk in there. It’s our problem. We called you for the victim.”
“Doesn’t change the fact…”
“Kate, will you just keep me updated on the investigation from your end?”
“You should let me do my job, Angel. Whatever it is that happens to Cordelia, call me.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Kate.”
“I need some damn rules that still make sense. I believe, I…”
“Kate. I know that your involvement in…this isn’t what you ever wanted. I’m sorry that things are still hard but I can’t play by your rules.”
“Do you even have any rules, Angel?”
“Right now? The rule I live by is doing what’s best by the helpless I’m sent to or that walk in the door to the agency.”
A quirk of a smile hit Cordelia and she let it bloom fully, stepping into the sphere of space Angel and Kate were. “It’s our mission, Kate.”
Kate turned and looked at her. “Your finger prints are all over my crime scene.”
Cordelia sighed. “Then treat me as a suspect if you have too, Kate. Or get over it. I don’t care. All I care about is that we, including you, do everything we can to find the bloodsucker who used Ariel for his plaything.”
“Are we sure it’s a male vampire.”
“It’s what the vision said,” Cordelia said, wincing as the full sense memory of the vision invaded her for a split second. It was more than enough though and her face fell with disgust at the act she’d had to live through and had killed Ariel. “Ew,” she whispered.
“Anything new?” Angel asked and she realized he moved behind her, his hands were on her shoulders and he was applying gentle pressure to her muscles.
Letting herself shift slightly into his touch, Cordelia murmured no and fought the urge to close her eyes. She didn’t want another reply, more stabs to the pain constantly nagging throughout her entire brain. “I just want to find this guy and this done.”
“Are you okay?” Kate asked, her voice for the first time since Cordelia had met her – if you didn’t count the time she stunk from talking stick whammy – losing it’s bitter edge. In fact for the first time Cordelia heard real concern, and she found herself wondering again what had happened between Kate and Angel the night of his epiphany. He had just said they’d come to a new understanding.
“I’m fine but I’ll be better once we get the vampire,” she said, downplaying her pain.
“We will take care of it,” Angel said, his voice tight. “For Ariel and you.”
Kate’s eyes snapped up over her head to Angel’s eyes, Cordelia guessed, and she swore under her breathe a bit at the protective statement Angel had made about her. Ever since she hadn’t been able to hide the pain after the vision of the guy who stabbed his stabbed himself in the eye, all the guys had been overly protective of her, but especially Angel. Stupid guilt-addicted vampire.
“Vision pain, it’s a bitch.” Cordelia moved away from Angel’s touch, miffed but not really angry and walked away. “Can we head back now? Or does cop lady here want to yell at us more about finger prints.”
Cordelia inwardly winced at herself, why had she done gone into Queen C mode on Kate, that had been unfair. Forcing herself to meet Kate’s surprised eyes she held it for a moment and swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
“Not a problem,” Kate said, an underlying warmth but her usual cynical edge back in full force.
“Let’s go,” Angel said, his hand hitting Cordelia’s lower back.
Cordelia let him lead her to his car, ignoring the forever growing urge to whine about her head. She refused to become a whiney crybaby just because the visions hurt. It was worth it, considering all they did and she always felt so free and wonderful once the evil they’d been pointed too had been killed. Especially, in doing so they’d made the victim stronger. This time it’d be more bittersweet because Ariel was dead, but it would still be worth it. A headache, it wasn’t all that much to put up with. Even if all the headlights on the other side of the road as Angel drove toward her apartment felt like they lasers boring into her retinas.
She sighed at the uncertainty in his voice, he could be such a dork sometimes. It really made her wonder at the difference a soul made in a person. Had he been this dorky when he was human? “Yeah.”
“What can I do?”
“Do?” she asked, worried suddenly at what he was getting at.
“To make…I mean…the visions. They are my fault.”
Oh. Guilt. His favorite emotion.
“No they aren’t.”
“What? Yes they are.”
“Full of yourself much, Angel.” She laughed at him, glancing over at him and shaking her head and her finger at him. “It’s the PTB’s fault if it’s anyone’s fault. And even then, it’s for a great reason. That Good Fight, the things that matter. Helping people who aren’t as lucky as us.”
“To know about demons. Know how to kill them, or well know people who know about demons and know how to kill them. Who have a family they can rely on… who aren’t aware of all the things out there that can hurt them. Who don’t know that daily there are people fighting to keep the this world safe in ways they can’t imagine. Or just need someone to help them remember they matter.”
He dragged the Plymouth to a stop at a light and looked over at her, his head shaking at her and his eyes full of emotions and thoughts she couldn’t decipher. Sometimes she really wished she could read his mind as well as she pretended too. Maybe then she could have stopped…no she wasn’t going the What If root again for what had happened with Darla.
“What? And the lights green,” she finally said.
He turned back to the road and took one of the many unneeded breaths he was always taking around her, vaguely she wondered if he knew she knew about it. “It’s just, Cordy, you…amaze me.”
Her heart floated to her throat and then plummeted to her toes, the telltale sign of a rush of pure glee and happiness. She amazed Angel. She did? Cordelia knew she was grinning, all because of that one word that came out of his mouth in regards to her. She wanted to berate herself for needing him to compliment her like that, for it giving her such a feeling of fulfillment and glee. But the truth was the truth and she couldn’t deny it. “Thanks.”
He glanced her and his own face widened into a grin at the sight of hers, a grin that was rarely seen on his face. The one that made her want to think of ways to get it present itself at the least once a day, but if she was honest she knew her real goal was as many times as possible per every 24 hour period.
“No. Thank you,” was Angel’s answer.
The next afternoon Cordelia found herself, yanking Angel inside a building, patting her hands on his hair and his shoulders. “Are you sure, it was only the blanket,” she murmured still doubtful even though her hands were hitting room temperature vamp and not anything of the fire or ash variety since tossing the blanket off of him and stomping the mini flames with the soles of her boots.
“Cordy, I’m fine. Just the blanket got a little singed.”
“It was flaming.”
“A few little flames. You’re overreacting.”
Cordelia breathed in deeply, meeting his dark eyes and realizing that they were full of amusement at her. She was overreacting and acting like some panicked little girl. God. What was wrong with her? She decided to blame the still constant ache in her head. “Let’s do our job. Wesley, knows everything?” she asked him, having not even gone into the office yet getting a message from Wesley to just sleep in and then meet Angel at the talent agency Ariel was a client at.
“Every detail. He decided we can handle this case on our own, and just call him and Gunn in if we need more muscle.”
She nodded, and pushed her hair behind her ears. “How do I look?”
“Fine,” Angel said, looking at her curiously. “Why?”
“I thought maybe I’d pose as a possible client.”
“We are going to be direct and just ask questions.”
“Wesley. He and I agreed.”
She eyed him. “Did he really?”
“Cordelia.” Angel eyes were hard, determined and he looked more than a bit annoyed. “That’s the plan.”
“Pftt. Fine.” She turned on her heel a bit miffed he pulled out the hard glare. It did nothing but annoy her, but it told her what she wanted to know. It was Wesley’s plan, his plan, and it was probably the best plan. She’d just wanted to play a bit, the facts were her acting career was probably over – and she wasn’t all that convinced she was upset about it. Even though she kept trying to tell herself she was by calling her own agent and going out the auditions she could manage to fit in between visions.
His hand pushed gently against her lower back, guiding her toward the left where the office door to the Elias Talent Agency. “Let’s find the demon.”
She smiled. “Let’s.”
Walking into the room, she glanced around the reception area and noted that none of the girls sitting in chairs outside the main office could possibly over 24. She was in the same age group, yet she found herself feeling older than the young faces she glanced at as she searched out for the feeling she got when she saw someone possibly lost and in need. Yet, she was also glancing at them as a young woman, who wanted – or had wanted, why couldn’t she decide – the same career. Who in this room could be rivals?
Her eyes landed on one girl. Long legs, long dark hair, perfect tan and wide blue eyes. Rival, one side of her brain whispered, while the other locked into the girls face and expression. It was a façade, much like the one Cordelia wore when at her own talent agents or on auditions and underneath it Cordelia saw fear and sadness. She felt pulled toward her but she didn’t know why. Turning to Angel, she reached out to tug his arm, have him look at her but he was already at the receptionist desk. A smile on his face he rarely used, unless he was trying to charm information out of a woman. It was a cross between a leer and a smirk that made Cordelia want to retch yet it never failed to work on the common woman of the world.
“Well, Angel,” the blonde with seriously dark roots at the desk purred. “How may I help you.”
“I have some questions about a client of this agency,” he pulled out a picture of Ariel they’d found in her apartment. “Ariel Daniel.”
The woman smiled. “She’s one of clients yes, may I ask just what it is you would like to know? Is this about a photo shoot or an acting job?”
Angel shook his head and Cordelia watched in interest as he changed his expression to one of a concern but not overtly. He lowered his voice and leaned closer to the woman. “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but Ariel has died.”
The girl Cordelia’s instincts had honed into was the one to gasp, and blanched. The receptionist looked upset and had covered her mouth in surprise but it was the young girl with the blue eyes that made both Angel and Cordelia turn.
She saw them look at her and immediately stood up. “W-what happened to Ari?”
She and Angel exchanged a look and he nodded to her to handle it, nodding subtle toward the receptionist. “I need to ask about her last appointments, last time she was here, where she was sent…we were hired by her family to look into her death,” he explained to the receptionist, as Cordelia stepped closer to the upset young woman now standing in front of her.
“What happened to Ari?” she repeated, tears filling her eyes but she was fighting them to try to find answers, Cordelia realized.
“I’m so sorry,” Cordelia said. “I’m afraid she was murdered.”
“M-murdered!” the girl paled further and Cordelia grabbed her shoulders, helping back to her seat before she fell to the ground. Kneeling on the floor beside her, she looked up with concerned.
“I’m so sorry you had to find out this way. Were you two close?”
“We, we were friendly. Friends I guess, as much as you can be with a…she was nicer than most.”
Cordelia nodded, knowing what the woman in front of her meant. “I’m Cordelia Chase. I’m from Angel Investigations, we were hired to find out what happened to her. Maybe you could help? What’s your name?”
“Laura Hayden. I-I haven’t seen her in awhile, but I…we met here.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“I-I…” Laura inhaled. “I don’t think I can do this right now, Ms. Chase.”
“Cordy, just call me Cordy,” Cordelia smiled.
“Sure, of course. You’ve been blindsided. I understand,” Cordelia started to dig in her purse and pulled out her card. “This is my card, call that number and I, or one of the other associates will answer and we can set up a meeting.”
Laura took the card her eyes landing on the angel. “Pretty angel,” she whispered, standing up. “I’ll call soon.”
Cordelia nodded, watching the young woman walk out of the office with concern. The sadness she’d spotted under the façade was in full view now and there was so much more vulnerability than she’d realized. Her heart hurt, this girl wasn’t happy and it reminded her of herself. Lost and alone in Los Angeles, and now Laura had found out one of the few nice faces was gone.
Hands fell on her shoulders and squeezed, gently massaging. “She have anything useful?”
“She wasn’t ready to talk.”
“Receptionist is flirting with me, yet still giving me the runaround on anything about Ariel or meeting with her boss. Got her to call him though.”
Cordelia leaned unconsciously into his touch. “Laura will call us, she just needs some time.”
Angel stared at the woman in front of him the vague fleeting thought about shaking her taking on more concrete form. She was standing in front of him, her hands on her hips, an eyebrow lifted, her eyes narrowed and looking like pure royalty. Royalty that wasn’t about to have her command ignored, but there was no way he was about to do what she asked. It was crazy, she was grasping at straws – wasn’t she?
“Do it, Angel.”
“No, I’m not breaking into the apartment.”
“Laura knows something.”
“Cordy, damn it. She was just upset to find out a friend died, she probably doesn’t know a thing.”
“Kate’s files showed that all the girls killed in the last five months were connected to the agency.”
“Loosely connected. Some had stopped using it years ago, and gone onto other agencies, others had just joined. Others had been with them for years – and Wesley and I talked to the owner and he’s clean.”
“Angel breakdown the door. I’m telling you Laura knows something, and I’m going to snoop and find out.”
“Since when are you all moralistic about breaking and entering?” Cordy snapped.
Angel growled, fighting the urge to shake her and wishing they were not having this conversation. Things like this couldn’t be helping him get through that tiny wall she still had between them, and her hazel eyes were getting darker and darker the more he said no. “No,” he said and winced inwardly, that hadn’t been what he’d meant to say. He’d meant to be rational and talk her out of this craziness. “Cordelia, Lana…”
“Whatever. She is just an actress, her friend died, she’d have called if she knew something.”
“Oh, I’ll pfft.”
“Cordelia. If she knew something she’d have come by, or called you.”
“No. She’s scared.”
“Angel, she was more than upset at the death, she looked scared… there was fear. I know fear it was in her eyes. She was afraid. I really think she knew something and she wanted to talk, but something stopped her. For all we know she could be the next victim. We could go in there and find her dead! And no one would know – we need to go in there. Do you want another dead girl on your conscience!”
“If pushing the guilt button works,” Cordelia smiled.
“Damn it. If we get arrested, I’m telling Wesley it was all your fault.”
“And yet, he’ll still blame you.”
“Favorite,” Angel said with a smirk, as he used his vampire strength to force the door open, and then rested his hand against the barrier keeping him out. “Oh, look. She’s still alive. Let’s just close the door and leave.”
“No. Maybe I can find something.”
“Cordelia!” But he was too late, she was inside and he couldn’t get to her. The irony hit him, he felt like there was still a barrier between their friendship and now there was a very real one keeping him from her — while she was being incredibly stupid. “Get out.”
She just waved her hand at him, without turning around as she took in the apartment. “This place is…”
Angel took his eyes off of her back and looked around the small apartment. One room, bad paint job on the walls, he spotted a few roaches and frowned. It wasn’t a place a young woman should live, it was like the hellhole Cordelia had been in when he’d first met up with her. He hadn’t even thought to get her out of it, until she’d descended on him talking about roaches… and then he’d let Doyle handle it to get her constant yapping and snooping out of his hair. Angel let the guilt and the hindsight wash over him – now he’d do anything to be in there snooping with her and listen to her nonsensical babble. Just because, he wanted her back in his sphere fully.
“Okay, checking the fridge first.”
“Notes on it – standard place when you don’t want to forget something. Always going to it.”
“Do you think she has anything in it?”
Cordelia’s step faltered and she looked back at him. “Oh. I never did when I lived like this. Good point. But it can’t hurt right?”
Leaning against the barrier, Angel shrugged. “Suppose not.”
“Hey, I charmed this address out of a female secretary, I can find a good clue here.”
Angel sighed. “We are going to get arrested.”
“Just hurry will you.”
“Why? Afraid Wesley will dock your pay if I get in trouble?”
He rolled his eyes but inwardly grinned, damn he had missed her.
“Who the hell are you?” Angel jumped and saw himself face to face with a young woman, too thin and with sad eyes. Laura obviously he realized. “I’m Angel. From Angel Investigations. You met my associate…”
Laura walked past him and shouted at Cordelia. “What you doing? How dare you break into my home! Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Cordelia Chase, the woman who wants to make someone pay for killing Ariel.”
Laura paled and looked back at Angel and then at Cordelia. “I, I, don’t know anything…”
Angel could smell fear, and he could see it, and saw her eyes fall to the floor. Cordelia had been right, she knew something… “Laura, we can protect you. But you have to tell us what you know.”
“Please, Laura, talk to us?” Cordelia asked.
“Okay, you both can stay…”
“Does that mean Angel can come in?” Cordelia asked.
“Yes, he can come in. I can’t believe you broke in here, I mean…”
“Rude I know,” Cordelia said. “But Ariel’s killer needs to be stopped and I felt that you know something that can help us.”
Angel stepped around and in front of Laura. “Laura, you can tell us anything, as bizarre or surreal as it sounds and know that I will keep you safe. You don’t have to fear anything.”
“I…I need to sit.”
“Do you have tea or something, I’ll make you some,” Cordelia said, and Angel looked at her and saw in her eyes she was handing everything over to him now. She’d step in if he freaked out the young woman, but now it was time for him to be a Champion. She trusted him to do this right, and that was something – maybe soon she’d stop stepping backward from him and tensing up when she remembered about the months he’d been on the wrong path.
Going through Laura’s bare cupboards, Cordelia listened to the young girl babble about her life. About how she thought because she could leave her small town and come out to Los Angeles and become a star. It made Cordelia’s stomach uneasy, as the memory of her naïve confidence that she could make herself rich again by becoming an actress. She’d had the same bare cupboards, the same crappy roach-filled apartment.
“Laura, if you want to go home, we can help you,” Angel said, his voice full of sincerity that Cordelia knew would be lost on Laura, but that the young girl would believe him anyway.
The girl’s voice went from hopeful to fear-filled in seconds. She’d been lied too one too many times, but she still wanted to believe. Cordelia sighed, wondering what would have happened to her if she hadn’t run into Angel? She sighed, she’d be dead, Russell Winters would have killed her because she’d been desperate enough to meet him in the middle of the night. She’d known it wasn’t some innocent rendezvous, granted she hadn’t expected vampire, but that was actually better than what she had expected in some weird way. She swallowed and pulled the tea out of the drawer she finally found the tea bags in.
“We would like to keep you safe. Not let anything happen to you?”
“You think someone, that guy who killed…”
Cordelia turned from where she stood filling the girl’s kettle at the sink. At least her water wasn’t brown, she thought vaguely as she lifted an eyebrow at Angel to tell him to push.
“You know? You know who killed her?”
Laura tensed up on her couch, growing small like she was trying to shrink. “I, I, it’s just that…I’m not sure.”
“You can tell me, Laura. Whatever it is,” Angel said holding her gaze. “We’ll keep you save.”
“What, what do you expect from me?”
“Nothing,” Angel said quickly.
“The truth, Laura. That’s all. We want to find who killed Ariel, and we will help you go home if you want us too,” Cordelia added from the kitchen as she put the kettle onto the stove.
Laura looked over at her and Cordelia was stunned again by the sadness in the young girl’s eyes, and couldn’t help but wonder if that would have been her in a couple of years if she hadn’t turned into a secretary/seer. She barely went on auditions anymore? She suddenly realized, she hadn’t wanted too? She pushed the thoughts about herself away and kept her gaze on Laura. “Just tell us what you think you know.”
Laura closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she looked back at Angel, “it’s this guy, he’s creepy – but other girls they don’t think so. They let him date them, all of them, all trying to be the one who will keep him. Ariel was one of them…but then she got angry with his lies. I saw them arguing at the party – he’s a chauffeur. You know, for the agency, he takes us to parties and premieres. Ariel told me she was going to give him a piece of her mind about what he does, that I’d been right to keep away from him and his lies… They were fighting and his…his face changed. Ariel didn’t see it, but I did. When his face changed back, and Ariel was looking at him again, he started to apologize, he started this song and dance, and she fell for it. She just wanted someone to love her… you know? It was only a few days later you,” Laura looked at Cordelia. “You told me she was dead.”
“When his face changed, how did it change?” Angel asked, wanting to be sure.
“It deformed, I think his teeth got longer – I mean, was it even real?”
Angel nodded and glanced at Cordelia. “Why didn’t you come to us?”
“I was going too, I was, but I ran into him. Or rather he picked me up for another party. I, he told me he knew I saw him, that he’d heard about people asking about Ariel. He wasn’t overt, but he scared me… he tried to get me invite him inside when he drove me home. I didn’t. He scared me though.”
“Angel,” Cordelia said her worry keeping her from holding her tongue. “We need to bring her to the hotel.”
Angel nodded. “Laura, what’s his name?”
“Michael, I don’t know his last name. He works for the agency.”
“Cordy, take her to the hotel.”
Cordelia nodded, turned off the kettle and walked over to the couch. “I’ll help you pack a bag.”
“Am I really in danger.”
“Not with us watching you.”
“He did kill her didn’t he?”
“Can he stop him?”
Cordelia smiled looking toward the door Angel had breezed out of already intent on tracking down the vampire. “He’ll do more than that, he’ll get Ariel justice,” and all the other girls this guy took advantage of. “It’s what he does, he saves people. He’ll save you like he once saved me.”