Cordelia Chase had never believed that she would one day grow accustomed to Caritas. From the day when Wesley had first led them all there, leading her to wonder how on earth he had found it in the first place - not to mention what sorts of things he had got up to there in the weeks before he had taken the rest of them along - she had classified the place very firmly under 'Weird'. Weird spelt, not just with a capital 'W', but with a capital 'eird' as well, and written in flashing neon pink and orange. Admittedly the sight of Angel growling his way through Barry Manilow songs was likely to prejudice any mind, but she didn't think that she would really have appreciated this most unique of night-clubs even if her boss hadn't felt obliged to perform excruciating karaoke.
Caritas was just plain weird. Period.
So why did she like it so much now? They'd known about it for only a couple of months, probably. Angel had been dropping by from time to time to pick up information, and she knew that Wesley had been treating it as his local, on and off, but she had always planned to steer well clear. The Host claimed that violence was impossible, but it still seemed pretty chancy to her, spending your evenings in a room packed full of countless species of demon; vampires included. After all, so what if they couldn't eat her on the premises? What was to stop them from hanging around outside, and taking a bite when she left? She had kept coming back though. On information gathering trips, for quiet drinks with the team after hours, for a quick celebration after a job well done. Always back to Caritas, to watch two ton tentacled demons covered with fur belt out Motown classics over the in-house speaker system. Angel seemed to find the place comforting, in an 'At least now I'm not the only freak' sort of way, and of course Wesley thought of it as a giant living research library. Cordelia didn't know what Gunn thought, but he looked pretty much okay about it all, at least so long as Angel wasn't singing. And so she had found herself giving it a chance too, and wandering in every so often. After all, she lived with a ghost and worked for a vampire, so she might as well go all the way and socialise with the mythical and legendary as well. Times had changed, she thought to herself, as she drank a particularly sparkling cocktail. Time was, back in the old days in Sunnydale, that nothing alive or dead could have dragged her into this place. Just one more reason to be glad she'd grown up a bit, she supposed.
"Cordelia!" One half geniality and the other half as formal and polite as though he barely knew her, Wesley stopped beside her table and smiled his familiar, slightly shy grin. "Hello."
"Hello Wesley." She nodded to one of the other chairs at the table. "Sit down."
"Thankyou." Despite having seemed so surprised to see her, he had brought her another drink. She wondered how much of that had been his idea, and how much had merely been down to Alfredo, the telepathic waiter. Given that it had taken Wesley ten days to notice her new hairstyle, she didn't think it likely that he would have noticed what she was drinking without at least a little prompting.
"Here for a reading?" he asked her, eager attention already on the milling crowds. She rolled her eyes.
"Get up on stage and croon my way through a selection of seventies ballads just so I can be told that my acting career is going nowhere? I don't think so, Wesley. How about you?"
"Um... well." He shook his head, blushing slightly. "I don't think so, no. I doubt that the rest of the clientele would appreciate it, and we don't want to be lynched when we leave."
"Always something to consider." Cordelia watched the Host reappear from his consultation with the last singer, gyrating across the room towards the stage as the next performer stepped up to take her place at the mike. At least Cordelia thought that it was a she. She looked like it, certainly, but with demons one could never be too sure. The pink glittery evening gown wasn't necessarily a clue either. "Have you spoken to the Host tonight?"
"Only when I first came in. If he's passing on information that he's picked up on the grapevine though, it can be a little hard to interpret underneath all that showman's patter."
Not to mention the incessant innuendo and flirtation, thought Cordy, though she didn't say it. The Host was one of a kind, sure enough. "Shame," she said in the end, although she didn't really mean it. It was nice to get the chance to relax every so often, after all, even if it did mean less money coming in. "Things have been slow lately."
"Yes. I was hoping to pick something up tonight." Wes caught her raised eyebrow and froze momentarily, like a slightly gawky rabbit caught in a car's headlights. "Information, I mean."
"I know." She had to smile. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce had come a long way since the uptight days at Sunnydale High, but there were times when he hardly seemed at have changed at all. He smiled at her, realising that she had been teasing him, appreciating the joke, and managing to be increasingly embarrassed by it, all at the same time.
"Night's young yet," he offered, with just a little too much enthusiasm. "Somebody somewhere might be being horribly massacred, and we'll have to dash to the rescue." Anticipation gleamed endearingly in his eyes. "No visions yet I suppose? No evidence of horrific wrong doings and terrible deeds that need avenging for the greater good of all mankind?"
"No Wes. Sadly nobody seems to have died horribly yet tonight."
"Shame." Again he caught her look, and again was immediately flustered. "That is to say... well..."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Up on the stage the Host had joined the glitteringly pink-clad demon, and the pair were greeting each other with elaborate, typically showbizzy air kisses. In his dazzlingly red and impeccably tailored suit the night-club's irrepressible founder should by rights never have been allowed near the female demon's outfit, but there was nothing that could keep him back when he was in the mood for singing. Cordelia couldn't help smiling at the sight of him, microphone in one hand, cocktail glass in the other, beginning to groove enthusiastically to the opening strains of It's Raining Men. It shouldn't have worked, really, but nobody could pull off a cover version of that song quite so well as a large, camp, green demon and his equally unlikely companion. By the time they had reached the second chorus half of the customers were swaying and clapping along, and an impromptu gang of backing vocalists, formed from a number of grotesque looking scaly creatures that Cordelia would have been quite happy never to have laid eyes upon, had jumped up to join in the show. It was rather like a large, Alice in Wonderland version of the old Conga lines, once a regular feature in night-clubs of the thirties - and it didn't come as much of a surprise to Cordelia when Angel managed to walk in during the middle of it. The Host's heavily made up, bright red eyes grew wide with delight, and he glided his way across the dance floor to where the vampire, now frozen in the glare of an unexpected spotlight, was hunting wildly for an avenue of escape. Cordelia sympathised. The Host's eccentric hospitality could be hard to take at the best of times, but when you were a notoriously reclusive introvert, being descended upon by the demonic equivalent of Liberace took on a whole new level of horror. Fortunately the irascible master of ceremonies knew Angel well enough by now to know how far to take the joke, and with much fluttering of his well-mascaraed eyebrows, he sashayed his way back to the stage for the big finale. Angel's relief was obvious, and as the spotlight departed for other parts of the room, he took advantage of his return to anonymity, and hurried over to join his friends.
"Hi." He slid into a vacant chair, looking rather as though he would like to vanish under the table. Cordelia sent a smile his way, slightly aloof in her greeting thanks to her continuing interest in the show. Angel scowled, mostly in jest.
"Does a guy have to be wearing eye shadow and gaudy clothes to get noticed around here?" he asked. That got their attention. Wesley turned slowly around to face him, with an expression of faintly fascinated horror making his eyes go wide. Cordelia just looked the vampire up and down, as though imagining him looking that way.
"Sorry Angel. I really don't think you could pull it off."
"Happily," added Wesley. Angel glared at him.
"Heard anything yet?" he asked, just to change the subject. Wesley shook his head.
"Not a dicky bird, no. If there's anything brutal and vicious going on in this city, it's clearly of a strictly unmystical nature. That doesn't necessarily take it out of our sphere of interest, I suppose, but it does make it rather harder for us to find out about it. I haven't been doing too well at setting up an information gathering network amongst the more human orientated section of the populace as yet."
"Which is mostly because none of them can understand what you're saying," Cordelia told him. He sighed.
"Be that as it may, we still find ourselves out of work. Has Gunn come up with anything?"
"Gunn's old crowd are a little tight-lipped since he took up with a vampire." The song came to an end, and a sort of post-party hush washed over the room. Angel's tone lowered accordingly. "The gang over at Wolfram and Hart are keeping pretty low key at the moment too, but that can't be expected to last."
"But in the meantime it might be nice to find some way of paying a few bills." Despite her earlier lethargy, Cordelia didn't fancy having either her home or office telephone cut off when her agent might be about to call at any moment with news of some great chance at fame. It might be nice to buy some more food some time as well.
"This is LA, Cordelia. I don't think we'll need to wait long before something happens." Angel's eyes strayed back to the Host, who was disappearing off-stage for a post-song pep talk with his erstwhile co-performer, whilst a disturbingly pale and toothy vampire took up the mike in his stead. The blaring intro promised a song even scarier than the creature about to sing it, and when at last he started his performance, doing a slightly off-key version of Xanadu, there was a general rush towards the bar. Cordelia winced.
"Are all vampires lousy singers?" she asked brightly. Angel glowered.
"Oh." Needless to say she wasn't at all abashed. "So what are we going to do? Take tomorrow off, or spend the day sitting around the office again? 'Cause I don't think we've got enough paper left to make any more of those little toy planes, and we can't buy any more until somebody pays us."
"What's this? Money worries in the good guy camp?" Striding over towards them, smiling all over his bright green face, the Host spread his arms wide in greeting. "If any of you has any bar experience, I can probably find you a little work around here. You'd look just peachy in a tux, Angel cakes. Or, may I suggest, out of one?"
"Your waiters don't wear tuxedoes," pointed out Angel, as ever oblivious to the blatant note of flirtation in the demon's voice. The Host shrugged.
"Well the offer still stands, Cream puff." He sat down at the table, still beaming happily. "So are any of you sweet kids singing tonight? I think we could probably squeeze you into the schedule, especially if you feel like doubling up."
"No." Wesley couldn't say it quickly enough. "We're just here to... to trawl. As it were. For information."
"And you're always welcome here. To trawl. For information." The Host favoured him with a particularly brilliant smile. "I don't know that I've got anything to tell you tonight though."
"You're not picking up anything we should know about from the creepy dead guy murdering Olivia Newton John?" Cordelia's eyes were drawn back to the vampire, paler than ever under the spotlight, trying to dance and failing completely. The Host shrugged.
"Him? All I'm picking up there is the usual. No offence to El Supremo here, but generally vampires don't have a great deal to give away. I read hunger pangs, see a few future kills, and that's about it. They're not big on the destiny, generally speaking. It's a testament to how well you're doing your jobs, I suppose, but local vamps don't tend to do the live long and prosper thing much around here."
"Which would be a good thing," Angel reminded him. The Host shrugged.
"Good, bad, who cares? It's not great for business, that's for sure. You've staked some of my best patrons in the last few weeks, and great singers don't grow on trees, you know."
"They're evil," Angel pointed out. The Host smiled sadly.
"They may do evil things, Muffin, but they sing like angels. Which is more than the guy with the angelic name does, if you get where I'm gesturing."
"I get it." Angel looked back to the gyrating vampire on stage, who seemed to be trying to recreate some long forgotten dance craze from a previous generation. "And I also get that you wouldn't tell us what you saw even if you were picking up something serious from this guy, right?"
"Now Angel, honey, don't let's get heavy on the accusations. You know my position, and I'm sticking to it. My clients need to know that they can trust me. If you're going to lay your soul bare to a complete stranger - even a complete stranger in the greatest outfit ever - you want to know that he's not going to blurt out your secrets to the first handsome stranger who tries it on." He smiled at Wesley. "Am I right or am I right?"
"I suppose you have a point, yes." Wesley had long ago given up trying to decide whether the Host even understood the basic principles of right and wrong the way that the rest of them did. It was as though he had his own private code of morals, tailored to fit the eclectic clientele of the club. "None of which helps us." He looked momentarily petulant. "I want a case!"
"Well maybe somebody will summon up something scary, Sugar." The Host rose to his feet again. "I have my own worries to deal with though, like a noisy vampire who wants me to tell him something to give his confidence a buzz. Honestly; dead, evil, insane - and still he keeps coming back here with his self-esteem issues. What am I? Some kind of agony uncle to the undead?"
"Hey, you counsel them, then we stake them!" Everybody looked at Cordelia, and she stared back at them, uncomprehending. "What?"
"Never mind." The Host blew a kiss at the threesome, then spun neatly on his heel, walking away. Over to his right the vampire was coming off stage, already being replaced by a human limbering up for his own performance. The music began to play, slowly at first, then gradually building in speed and volume. Cordelia recognised something from the eighties, and felt a momentary burst of annoyance at the current nostalgia craze. She saw the Host hesitate as the man began to sing, no doubt filling the room with vibes in the process, and wondered for the hundredth time how it must feel to sense futures and destinies in the notes of another person's voice. Always supposing it worked with the recorded voice, it would make listening to the radio a whole other experience, certainly. The man had a nice voice, she noticed, although for some reason her eyes were still drawn to the Host. Had he wobbled slightly, or had that just been her imagination? The man sang on, and she saw the vampire from before standing to one side of the room. He was gesticulating impatiently, wanting the Host to join him, and give him his reading - but the Host didn't seem to have seen him. Instead, eyes widening, he was turning to look at the man on the stage - and the man, voice raised, was staring straight back at him. Cordelia frowned.
"Erm..." she began, but Angel was already watching. Very slowly he began to rise to his feet.
"Angel?" Surprised, Wesley followed his employer's line of sight from the man on stage to the transfixed Host. "Oh."
"That guy knows he's giving off all kinds of heavy vibes," observed Cordelia, far from happy. Angel nodded.
"Get the Host," he said softly, turning his own attention back to the shady entertainer on stage. Wesley nodded.
"What are you going to do?"
"Turn off the machine." Uncomfortably aware that he could nothing to stop the actual singing, thanks to the non-violence coda of the club's manifesto, Angel nonetheless intended to do what he could to shut the singer up. It was a shame really - he genuinely sang well, and his choice of song wasn't that bad either - but fighting the good fight couldn't stop for musical interludes. Leaping up on the stage, he grabbed the first lead he saw and pulled hard. Somebody shouted at him, but he kept pulling anyway, caring only for his perceived need to end the song. In a shower of sparks from the electricity supply, the backing music came to a halt, and the man singing the song, momentarily taken aback, also fell silent. He glared at Angel.
"Hey!" Somebody in the club was annoyed by the sudden cessation of the singing .The cry of indignation rose about the room, echoed by all manner of voices, but Angel knew that he didn't have to fear any reprisals. Not until he left the club, anyway. Ignoring the angry clientele he headed towards the singer, intent on speaking to him, but with a rude, taunting gesture the human leapt from the stage onto the floor. Angel tried to give chase but, even though most people had resumed their seats since the end of the Host's earlier performance, there were enough people still moving around to block his way. One or two of them, still muttering in annoyance, were obviously doing so intentionally, clearly feeling that inconveniencing him was the best they could do as retribution in such necessarily pacific circumstances; and although he pushed his way through them eventually, the singer was gone. He growled incoherent unpleasantries at those who had impeded him, and headed back towards the stage. The Host was climbing onto it, waving his arms to quieten the crowds, calling out to them to calm down and listen. They did so eventually, though mutinously. Interrupting a singer was a cardinal sin in Caritas, where the rules of mutual respect had been hard learned.
"Everybody! Friends..." Waving his hands like a conductor leading his orchestra, the Host brought the mob increasingly back under control. "It's alright. No need for you to get your tentacles in a twist. The Dark Avenger here was just helping me out with a little hiccup is all." He smiled broadly, and gestured to one of his milling employees to sort out the karaoke equipment. "Now as I recall it, next up on the bill was our old friend Claude. Claude, mi amigo, are you out there?"
"Yeah." A little sullenly a short, broad demon came forward. He was blue, with stubby, curving horns, and was dressed like Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront.
"Well alright then!" Broad smile becoming an even broader grin, the Host waved the next performer onward. "Come on up. It's always a pleasure to listen to Claude, boys and girls, as I'm sure you'll all agree - so why don't we all go back to our seats, stop being rude to Mr Tall, Dark and Enthusiastic here, and listen to what's sure to be a great rendering of that old Faces classic Stay With Me." He clapped Claude on the shoulder as he ushered him towards the mike, and cranked up his smile a notch further. "And I'm sure that there'll be plenty of people wanting to Stay With You after hearing this song, Claude baby." He pushed Angel back down onto the dance-floor, following closely, then breathed a sigh of relief as the song began to play. "Boy, you like to shake things up, don't you Sugar."
"I was helping!" A little put out, Angel stabbed a pointing finger into the demon's broad and colourfully clad chest. "You were getting to be pretty out of it pretty damn quickly."
"Yeah." The Host led the way to an empty table, where Cordelia and Wesley soon joined them. "And thankyou. All three of you. If it hadn't been for Wes and the May Queen here, I'd have been fainting into sorry little puddles all over my extremely expensive floor."
"So what happened?" Angel's question went unanswered as some anonymous member of the club's staff materialised at his employer's shoulder, bearing a freshly mixed sea-breeze. The Host nodded his thanks, beaming away at the already vanishing barman.
"He tries, and I suppose he's getting better, but he's no Ramon." He smiled sadly at the glass, and took a tentative sip. "Still, at least he's learnt the benefits of fresh grapefruit."
"Never mind the drink," interjected Angel, well aware of the dangers of letting the demon's butterfly mind have full rein. "What was all that with the last song?"
"Ah." The Host took a longer drink, then set his glass aside. "Yes."
"Yes...?" encouraged Angel. There was a long pause, and Claude's rough-edged voice, a perfect stand-in for Rod Stewart, momentarily caught all their attentions. Finally the Host gave himself a little shake.
"I saw something," he said at last, though it was no great revelation. "When he started to sing... ick."
"You saw... icky things?" queried Wesley. The Host shook his head.
"Not in terms of blood, guts and gore, no. Well not compared to what I sometimes get with this crowd, anyway. No, this was more of an 'ick' in terms of what it was doing to me. That shapely little performer was sending me images of all kinds of everything, and baby did he know that he was doing it. It was a message, or I'm Andrew Lloyd Webber's biggest fan."
"What kind of a message?" Cutting through the Host's patter with his usual curt practicality, Angel did his best to restore his companion's mind to a more steady plane. Again there was an uncertain pause.
"Parchments," came the answer eventually. "There were lots of parchments. You have to understand that I don't see clear images necessarily, or definite scenes from definite futures. I see destinies, and that means ambiguities a lot of the time. This was clear though. Parchments covered in writing I couldn't read, and men in grey robes chanting Latin verses. You know the kind of thing. Smoke, bubbling cauldron, lots of people standing around looking way too earnest - magic without the necessary sprinkling of JK Rowling, if you get my drift."
"And that was why you went all intergalactic? Smoke and spooky cooking pots?" Cordelia didn't seem impressed. "Sounds like a scene from any old teen horror movie to me."
"That wasn't all of it. Of course not." The Host drained his glass, then looked around at the impatient threesome. "Chanting guys, mystical magical mojo and mayhem - it's all adding up to something, and I could see that in that guy's destiny, just as clearly as I'm seeing the chicken vindaloo old Claude's got warming on his stove back at his place. Monsters. Demons. Big, toothy things with horns and scales that make the likes of you and me look like sugar mice, Angel cakes."
"So that guy is trying to summon big nasty monsters?" Picking listlessly at a bowl of peanuts in the middle of the table, Cordelia thought about some of the demons she had seen in her visions, and wondered how this latest one matched up. The Host shrugged.
"All I can tell you is what I saw, mi chiquita - and that's chaos. We're not talking Christmas shopping in the mall on a Saturday, either. We're talking the whole, scary shebang. Humans screaming, blood washing these fine streets of ours clean of every living thing - and sometime in the next forty-eight hours. That man is part of something seriously bad, my little band of heroes. Heavy on the Doomsday vibe."
"But he wanted you to know about it." Angel wondered again who the man had been. "He maybe wanted to get something off his chest? Give us a chance to stop it?"
"No." The Host's red eyes were serious, for once free from humour, sparkle and flirtation. "Sorry Sweetie. This was none of your coming clean and free-me-from-my-sinful-ways. That little bundle of sunshine had only one reason for getting up there tonight. He wanted you guys to know what's coming." His eyes gleamed with real concern. "Because he's sure as can be that there's not a damn thing you can do to stop it."
The hotel that Angel had chosen, so abruptly, as his joint home and office, had very quickly taken on a feeling of homeliness. Not, as far as Cordelia and the others were concerned, in the sense that it actually was a home, for Angel's frugalities in terms of decorations and creature comforts were legendary - but in the way in which it had gradually come to resemble an active workplace. The telephones didn't exactly ring off the hook, but they added a note of legitimacy to the agency, and Wesley's invaluable book collection leant new gravitas to virtually every available square inch of shelving, not to mention various desks, a couple of chairs, and several square feet of floor space. Cordelia in particular liked the books. They reminded her of the library in Sunnydale High, and a time in her life when the scary part of the fight against evil could be left to Buffy to deal with, and Cordelia's own contribution had been comfortably limited. Sometimes it might be nice to go back to those days, she thought - a time when the regular exchange of insults with Xander had kept the darker thoughts and fears at bay; and childish faith in the simplicity of things had led her to rarely doubt that the heroes would prevail. Nothing was ever that simple in Los Angeles. It probably wasn't anywhere else, either, but somehow in LA the murky and ill-defined became ever more murkier still.
"So what are we talking about here?" Gunn, whose talent for cutting out all but the most basic practicalities rivalled Angel's own, was sitting on the reception desk with a big book in his hands. Wesley had thrust it at him moments earlier, with vague instructions to look up anything 'Doomsdayish'. That was vague even for Wesley, and so far Gunn hadn't even got around to opening the book up.
"We're looking for particularly powerful monsters," Wesley told him, already looking in a big book of his own. "Things that might be conjured through complicated spell castings - ancient ones if the parchment clue is anything to go by. Things that will cause great chaos and carnage, and - well. Other bad things."
"Okay, with you on why that would be bad." Gunn set the book down and jumped off the desk. "But I still don't get what we're doing. Some guy sings at Caritas, right, and the Host picks up images of something ugly. How do we know he's not just seeing some TV show the guy's gonna be watching tonight? I mean, the Host sees destinies, right? And there's gotta be a lot of stuff that comes under that heading."
"The Host has been doing this a long time now." Angel picked the book up off the reception desk and handed it back to Gunn. "He knows how to cut through the chaff. He says Doomsday might be coming, we have to take it seriously. Besides, the guy singing the song was about as smug as can be, and he couldn't get out of the club fast enough when I pulled the plug on his little performance. I think this is for real."
"Which is why it all seems a little crazy. I mean, why let us know what's coming?" Gunn flipped through the book, not one hundred percent certain how he was supposed to find Doomsday-like monsters that might be summoned by complicated old spells. It didn't sound like the kind of thing that could be looked up in an index.
"Taunting us?" Wesley glanced up long enough to make a brief contribution to the discussion, before returning once again to his books. Angel nodded.
"Maybe. We were there, and even if we weren't we've been going to Caritas long enough to be sure that the message would get to us in the end. Plenty of people know that we go there."
"So some guy goes to all the trouble of getting up on stage just to stick his tongue out at us? He's got to be pretty sure that there's nothing we can do about it." Gunn shook his head, unhappy with the way things were looking. "Isn't there some kind of all purpose spell we can use to put things right?"
"Unfortunately not." Wesley laid aside his book and stood up, looking somewhat like an awkward schoolboy called up to the front of the class. "Enchantments tend to be rather specific as a rule, except for one or two general protection spells. They'd be of no help to us now though. I think we can assume that any magic in use here will be extremely powerful and complex - far too much so for broad spectrum cure-alls."
"So what you're saying is, no shortcuts." Gunn scowled. "Not good."
"But we can find something, right?" Cordelia found it hard to believe that there would be nothing in all of their vast library that was of use. Angel shrugged, managing to be remarkably unreassuring.
"We don't know enough. Right now we're working blind, and that way's just too haphazard. By the time we find anything of any use, we might be too late." He looked over at Wesley, surrounded by his beloved books, and offered a faint smile of apology. "No offence, Wes, but we need something more to go on before we can make any headway with this."
"Something like the little singing nightingale himself?" suggested Cordelia. "If we could find him and make him talk, we might get somewhere."
"Exactly what I was thinking." Angel tapped restlessly on Wesley's book with a pen. "Of course it might help if we knew where he was."
"The Host doesn't know?" asked Gunn. Angel shook his head.
"He hadn't seen the guy before. A first timer. It's not a members only club, and they don't try to keep the place a secret even if it is a little... different. The people who work there don't think twice about strangers, until they start sending out weird vibes and scaring the proprietor. Nobody even heard his name."
"Which gives us a great starting point." Cordelia brightened as a thought struck her. "What about demon snitch guy? Merl?"
"Yeah." Angel had obviously considered that possibility. "Right now he could be the only hope we have." He winced. "Which is a lot of responsibility to put in the hands of a weird little guy like Merl."
"All the same, he does have access to a lot of information." Wesley gestured at his books. "And it might help if I had some idea where to start."
"Right." Decision clearly made, Angel made a beeline for his leather jacket. "Gunn? Come on. We're going to take a drive, put some feelers out. Maybe between us we can find somebody who knows something."
"Right." Ever the action man, Gunn was far happier with the idea of roaming the streets than sitting in the hotel lobby reading big old books. He handed his own allocated text to Cordelia, and smiled triumphantly. "Have fun."
"So we get to stay here and read?" Cordy stared down at the big book, not impressed. That had been another good thing about the Sunnydale days - nobody had ever seemed to expect her to do too much heavy research. They had had Giles for that, after all.
"I still need you to look through everything. We might not have much to go on yet, but these books are our first and best hope for any real answers." Angel gestured towards the computer. "Try that, too. Anything you can find might help to give us a head start."
"Right." Nodding earnestly, Wesley turned back his books. "We'll work at it."
"Yeah." Unable to sound at all enthusiastic, and not really bothering to try, Cordelia tried to flip through the heavy book in her arms, not finding it easy. The thick, hand cut pages caught against one another, and the heavy, uneven weight made the whole thing wobble awkwardly in her arms. "We'll read all these books. Even the ones in languages that Wes doesn't understand. And by this time next millennium, when we've finally got through it all, we might have found something helpful."
"Cordy..." Wes was trying to calm her obviously ruffled feathers, but she shot him a look that shut him up before he could really begin.
"Wesley, you know these books better than anyone. You've read most of them, you seem to know a whole bunch almost by heart - plus there's all the rest of the stuff you've got locked away in your brain. And do you have any idea where to start? Scary monsters causing chaos. Big blank canvas much?"
"We'll get there." Gesturing to Gunn, Angel began to stride towards the doors. "We'll be back by daylight... obviously. Keep at it until then, and we'll have a proper council of war when Gunn and I get back." He tried out one of his half smiles, obviously meant as encouragement. "And try not to get too disheartened."
"Yeah, 'cause we've got just bags of time." Cordelia waved her book in the air, obviously relenting. "Don't worry, we're on it. You two go do the legwork."
"Yeah." Angel pushed open the door. "See you soon."
"Mmm. Good luck." Already absorbed once again in his reading, Wes barely looked up. Angel hesitated only momentarily in the doorway before stepping out into the street. Gunn didn't hesitate at all.
"I hate this." Some hours later, bored by the passage of fruitless time, Cordelia played unenthusiastically with the pages of the book she had been allocated. "I really hate this."
"Reading?" asked Wesley, without raising his eyes from the page. Cordelia couldn't identify the language he was studying, which didn't make her feel any better. She sighed heavily.
"Forty-eight hours," she said, with emphasis. "At the most. That's two days. That's less than two days now."
"Yes." Wesley's tone suggested faint sarcasm. "I have mastered basic mathematics."
"I'm making points about how little time we have. Even if the Host sees things as clearly as I do - and believe me, my visions can be like watching TV with the aerial unplugged a lot of the time - 'forty-eight hours' and 'Doomsday' are both pretty basic concepts. Stuck together they spell 'big, scary problem' and 'we've got to hurry'."
"Then hurry," Wesley told her, still not looking up from his book. "Read something. Look something up. Do research."
"We've been doing research. For hours. There must be a quicker way." Cordelia read a few lines of her book, sighed, and gave up again. "Don't we have any clues?"
"We know that we're looking for things that need to be conjured," Wesley told her, a little impatiently. She nodded.
"And how much does that narrow things down?"
"Not a great deal. Almost anything that has the potential to lead to Doomsday is likely to involve some kind of magic and/or ritual. Still, it's a start." He glanced up at last. "Cordelia, I know that it can sometimes be frustrating to be left here with the books, and believe me I would much rather be out there on the streets myself, but sometimes we have parts to play that--"
"Parchments," interrupted Cordelia. Wesley looked taken aback.
"Parchments," she repeated, with growing confidence. "The Host saw parchments, with writing on. Can't that give us some clues?"
"If he could have understood what the writing said, I'm sure he would have told us." Wesley pushed his glasses up to rub at his eyes, looking at the book before him without the visual aid, then with them again, as though deciding whether or not the glasses made any difference.
"And he said he heard Latin chanting."
"Indistinct, and only in snatches. Besides, very often these rituals call for very similar passages. The same words might be used in any number of basic incantations. Knowing what the people were saying would very likely be of no real help." He glanced up. "But yes, if we knew what was written on the parchment it might well give us a huge boost. Even just knowing what language was being used would rule out any number of spells and rituals, and we might even be able to work out where to start looking. Certain spells call for specific conditions and placings, so we might be looking for people who are based in, in... gardens, or in sight of particular landmarks, or on roofs... Even ambient temperature can be important, so--"
"Come on then." Standing up, Cordelia shut her book with a snap. Wesley blinked up at her.
"Come on where?"
"Caritas." She was displaying a degree of resolution some stages higher than she actually felt, but was nonetheless still determined. "Between the two of you, you and the Host might be able to work out what's on that parchment. And you never know - I might get a vision."
"I wasn't aware that your gift was ever quite that timely." Wes smiled faintly. "But I suppose it pays to cling to optimism."
"Then are you coming?"
"We should continue researching the..." He trailed off, well aware that he was looking for something harder to find than any needle in any haystack. "Yes. Yes, I suppose you're right."
"Good." She crossed to the door. "Then let's go. Time's wasting."
"Hmm." Wesley followed her to the door, pulling on his jacket as he went. "Then let's hope that we're not wasting time."
It was growing close to dawn, but Caritas was still open. A Dorjzak demon, which Cordelia was fairly sure was usually a rabid killer - at least if the book she had just been attempting to read hadn't been mistaken - was crooning its way through Imagine, and the effect was strangely enjoyable. The weird and the aurally pleasing was an effect that was not entirely unfamiliar within the bounds of Caritas, but even in this haven of the unusual it seemed odd to see a demon trying to be John Lennon. Cordelia watched it click its way backwards and forwards along the front of the stage on its four, scorpion-like legs, and eyed its many jointed mouth parts wavering in the air as it sang, and she shivered. A green hand appeared over her shoulder, bearing a glass of fruit juices and vodka, and she took it with a wry smile.
"No problemo, Sugar. I needed much the same sort of pick-me-up when I first saw him sing." The Host wandered around to stand beside her, staring up at the almost impossibly hideous creature. "But you've got to hand it to him - he sings beautifully."
"True." Wesley raised an eyebrow, faintly amused. "Although I don't usually equate indescribably violent man-eaters with world famous songs of peace."
"Hey, takes all sort, right?" The Host folded his arms. "So what are you kids doing back here? I thought you'd be busy doing the research thing right now. End of the world no longer a problem?"
"It's a big problem, believe me." Cordelia tore her eyes away from the Dorjzak, making a vow never to come to the club this late again. "But we hit kind of a snag."
"Research not quite hitting the spot, huh." The Host directed them to a table, choosing one where there was less of a view of the stage. "So why come back here? Our guy isn't likely to."
"No, but we were hoping that there might be something you could help us with." Wesley had taken out a notepad and pen, and he pushed them across the table. "We need to know about the writing that you saw on those parchments."
"Hey, listen Hon - if I could be sure of what I saw I'd have told you already. I may like to keep readings private, but when they involve major destruction and worlds ending, I'm first to blab. But you've got to understand the way it works. It's not like watching the Sunday matinee in Technicolor."
"You can't remember anything?" Cordelia thought about some of the abstract concepts that appeared at times in her own visions, and had to sympathise. It was all but impossible to describe some of the things that she saw. The Host smiled sadly.
"I'm sorry. All I remember is parchment and squiggly things. Blood red ink, if that helps at all?"
"Not much." Wesley shook his head, sighing heavily. "We don't seem to be making much headway, do we."
"Not your fault." The Host waved a ringed hand in casual dismissal. "I'm sorry. Maybe if I'd been able to understand the language, I'd have remembered what was written, but I'm not the scholar you are, Flower."
"I thought you spoke all kinds of languages?" piped up Cordelia, sipping her drink and studiously avoiding her limited view of the still singing Dorjzak demon. "You don't seem to have any problems with this lot here."
"That's 'cause I read them, Sugar. Deepest thoughts are almost always in your native language, and I have to know what's there. Maybe I pick up the ability through the readings - hell, who am I trying to kid - maybe I'm just a genius. But either way, that's words - sounds - not writing. Alphabets come in all shapes and sizes, and each one is about as far from the last as you can imagine. Just ask Wes here. I speak the lingo, but I can't read it." He smiled. "Wouldn't want to, either. Demon literature isn't usually worth the human skin it's so often written on."
"Okay, images I can do without." Cordelia looked as though she would have liked to have been elsewhere during that last sentence. "And why human skin? Why can't they just use other species of demon?"
"Human skin is far more smooth and supple," supplied Wes, not picking up on the rhetorical nature of the question - and as usual providing rather more detail than Cordelia really appreciated. "Demons very often have hard or scaled skin, and it's not nearly so versatile. Plus of course there's the simple fact that demons prefer killing humans to killing each other. Many of them believe that they have more right to this world than we do, and they take pleasure in doing... well. Gruesome things."
"With notable exceptions," added the Host, with feeling. "The most gruesome thing that I do is make my customers listen to singers like Angel. And the skin thing? If a few other species used some decent moisturisers, they might find themselves a little less hard and scaly."
"Yes, well..." Slightly distracted by the idea of demons using moisturisers, Wesley took back the pad and the pen, tapping restlessly on the former with the latter. "I suppose I could write out a few possibilities - see if you recognise them? But even that could take days, and there are far too many languages that I don't know."
"Then it's back to the hotel I suppose." Cordelia thought about the less than thrilling prospect of spending possibly the last hours that were left to the world poring over musty books, looking for non-existent clues. "Maybe Angel and Gunn are having more luck."
"Looking for that man?" Wesley shook his head. "I wish that I could be more optimistic, but I can't see them finding anything. It's a big city, and we can't count on this fellow contacting any of the usual occult figures. He might be working alone, or with associates from any number of outside sources."
"Somebody told him to come here and sing to me, to get your collective knickers in a twist," pointed out the Host. "Angel's sure to suspect Wolfram and Hart of course, but I haven't read anything in any of the employees who come through here."
"Different departments," pointed out Cordelia. "Big firms have a lot of employees who don't all know what the others are doing." She smiled at some old memory. "My parents used to deal with a lot of lawyers - before and after they were arrested for that whole tax thing - and I've known the type all my life. A big law firm like Wolfram and Hart could easily have something like this going on, and have probably ninety percent of the staff completely in the dark."
"Probably preferable to letting them in on it," pointed out Wesley. "Most of the people who work there would be no more happy than we are to hear that the world was about to end. They may be evil, misguided, mad - but they're still human."
"True." The Host shrugged. "Well I don't know. I'm all out of ideas." He leaned back in his chair, watching the long-haired biker who had just taken the microphone - very gingerly - from the Dorjzak. "I've got to say though, Sugar--" he stood up, collecting Cordelia's empty glass-- "Wolfram and Hart are nothing like the lawyers that your parents used to mix with. Don't go confusing the two. What I saw in your head when you sang here last week were crooked lawyers wanting to get rich on the miseries of the Hellmouth. The people here? They'd eat small fry like that for breakfast. Some of them literally."
"You got all that from me singing Dancing Queen?" queried Cordelia, a little thrown. Wesley just blinked.
"You sang?" he asked finally. She glared at him.
"And you haven't?" she shot back, rather annoyed.. He opened his mouth to reply - undoubtedly in the negative - then caught the Host's raised eyebrow and relented.
"Perhaps," he said in the end, rather grudgingly. "But not Abba."
"Oh, don't squabble kiddies." The Host waggled the glass. "Refills? Or are you off into the night, back to Angelsville?"
"We should be getting back," Wesley said, without showing much sign of movement. "There still might be one or two avenues we could explore within the books."
"Oh joy." Cordelia pushed her chair away from the table, watching the Host glide back towards the bar. "Still, I suppose going back to the hotel is better than seeing out the world's last hours in this place."
"True. Especially if staying here means that you're likely to start singing Abba." Wesley also pushed back from the table, smirking at the piercing glare he was getting from his friend. "Why Dancing Queen?"
"I like it, and it's simple." She refrained from asking him what he had sung. "And what's with all that about my parents' lawyers, anyway? He's supposed to see the future, not the past."
"I'd imagine that he can see anything that happens to be in or near your thoughts when you sing. Sort of like a--" Wesley broke off, looking up as though suddenly in possession of a striking notion. "I wonder..."
"Hey, wonder on. It's not like there's anything more useful we can be doing right now." She stared after him as he dashed off in pursuit of the Host, then rolled her eyes. "Okay. We're going now then are we?"
"Wait!" At the bar, breathless from excitement rather than exertion, Wesley caught hold of one of the Host's immaculately clothed arms. Cordelia caught them up, anxious to find out what was going on.
"Why, hello there." Turning around to face them the Host smiled a welcome, although he made a show of straightening his sleeve once Wesley had let go. "I can't seem to get rid of you two tonight, can I. What can I do for you this time?"
"Lawyers," said Wesley, with real enthusiasm. The Host frowned.
"Well I'm hardly an expert, but I can probably recommend a good one. Being able to see inside people's heads is a great way of telling the crooks from the honest types."
"No... no I mean lawyers. Cordy's lawyers. Her parents' lawyers. You saw them, even though that's in the past. You don't just see destinies."
"No. I can sometimes see a person's present thoughts and emotions, one or two other things perhaps. Past things. Usually only if it's something that's really weighing on their minds, but I can pick it up." He smiled kindly at Cordelia. "It was your parents' Wedding Anniversary when you sung here that time, wasn't it Pumpkin. I was seeing whole chunks of your thoughts about them."
"Then if somebody is thinking really hard about something that's already happened, there's a chance you'll see it when they sing, even if you do usually tend to focus on destinies?" Wesley's excitement had grown to give his body an almost frantic rigidity, and his voice was strained with tension. The Host nodded.
"Sure. What's all this about, Wes?" The red eyes were earnest, the green forehead crinkled in gentle interrogation. The former Watcher smiled slightly, hopefully, eyes fiercely bright behind his glasses.
"What happens when you sing?" he asked, lowering his voice as though anxious that nobody else should overhear. "Can you read yourself?"
"Hey, I don't want to know my own destiny. All that fretting and worry over what's to come? No thanks." His expression cleared. "You think-?"
"That you could maybe see the parchments again and describe them to Wesley!" Practically bouncing up and down with excitement, her hands clapping loudly, Cordelia chirped out her realisation of Wesley's plan. The Host hushed her.
"Easy, Sugar. This place has got a lot of ears, and you never know how many of them can be trusted." He sighed, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to help clear his thoughts. "You're really grabbing at straws, aren't you. Things are really that desperate?"
"Yes." It was all that Wes could offer in answer, and the Host nodded, obviously a little unsure about the idea.
"Alright, we'll give it a go, but we'll have to find ourselves a little place where we can be alone. The next few singers are just here for the karaoke. They don't want readings, so we shouldn't have any interruptions." He looked briefly back to the biker, currently head-banging furiously to Deep Purple's Burn. "I try to schedule a few of them in a row, give myself a breather. Catch a little fresh air, maybe entertain a guest... Might raise a few eyebrows among the staff if I head off with the pair of you, but I like to leave people guessing."
"I'm not sure I want to leave them guessing that," muttered Cordelia, but she smiled to show her willing involvement. "So where shall we go?"
"I have some private rooms. I live here, just off the club, and there's a place where I warm up sometimes. Nice room, great acoustics." He hesitated. "You still have that notepad?"
"Naturally." Wesley was clearly eager for the off, and Cordelia might have smiled at his enthusiasm had they not had quite so much riding on all of this. "Shall we go?"
"I suppose we'd better." Leading the way across the floor, the Host headed for the doors that lay roughly opposite the club's main entrance. Beyond was a short corridor, plain and largely undecorated, with a number of doors leading off it. The Host pushed one of them wide, and stood aside to let the two humans go though first.
"Um... nice room." Cordelia was looking about with her natural eye for style and furnishing, rather disappointed with what she saw. Given the Host's usual approach to life she had expected something a little more lavish, but instead the place was mostly bare. Thick tiles covered the floor and walls, no doubt to enhance the acoustics, and although in one small part of the room they had been softened by a few rugs and some shelves, for the most part it was a strictly utilitarian space. A small fridge and adjacent cupboard promised supplies of the Host's beloved alcohol, and as Wesley wandered over to look at the shelves he saw a compact, obviously expensive sound system tucked into an alcove on one wall. Speakers peeped out from strategic positions all over the place, and the shelves proved to be filled with countless CDs. Otherwise the only other item in the room was a microphone, glittery and silver, and standing on a gleaming pink stand.
"You look nervous," observed Cordelia, surprised to find that the Host actually could look that way. He shrugged.
"I'm not one of you hero types, Sugar. I'm not used to saving the world. Suddenly finding out that what's in your head - and which you may or may not be able to get out - is the best hope for preventing mass destruction is a little more responsibility than I'm happy with."
"I know the feeling." Fetching the microphone from the side of the room, Cordelia set it down roughly in the centre of the floor. "What are you going to sing?"
"It's The End Of The World As We Know It?" He moved into the familiar position behind the microphone - the place from which he felt most ready to tackle the situation. "The shelf nearest to the fridge is full of karaoke CDs. Grab one and put it in the machine could you, Wes hon? Pick a random track and we'll see where we find ourselves. I could just hum a few bars of the national anthem, but if we do things properly it should help to focus my mind. Where's that notepad?"
"Here." Wesley handed it over, along with the pen. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be." The Host sighed dramatically, and turned his thoughts back to the reading from earlier. What had he seen on those infernal pieces of parchment? Around him the many speakers began to play the backing track that chance had chosen for him, and he tried to relax into the music. Tried to let his talents do the work. Tried to forget everything that might be riding on this. And slowly, without his really being aware of it, he began to move the pen across the paper.
Gunn leaned back in the front passenger seat of Angel's car, and rested his feet up on the dashboard. It was a comfortable car, and he liked to sit in it with the roof down, and fold his hands behind his head to look up at the sky. Not that he could see any stars of course - not in the middle of LA - but he was too much of a city boy to care about that. It was nice just to stare up at the flashing neon signs, all competing against each other, and the many lights in many different windows. Too bad that he was sitting here now unable to enjoy any of it.
He had drawn a blank with his old friends, the gang of mostly homeless kids who had helped him to wage war against the vampires of LA before Angel had come into his life. Nobody knew anything of a sorcerer who might be attempting old and dangerous feats of magic. None of the owners of the many shops selling occult goods had heard anything either - Gunn was good enough at coercion to be sure that they were telling him the truth. People didn't tend to hold back information once Gunn had threatened to use some of the many dirty tricks he had learnt on the streets, for he could be a cold and violent man when the moment demanded it. He was fairly certain that, if ever violence had been called for in order to gain information, it was necessary tonight, as the hours ticked constantly by. Armed with Angel's careful description of their quarry he had questioned, bullied and browbeaten a succession of magicians, fortune tellers, and street corner drunks - and all that he had heard was that nobody knew anything. He was looking for a man who didn't exist, in a city that didn't know or care how great its danger was. Whoever the man was, who had sung his plans to the Host a few hours before, the rest of Los Angeles seemed oblivious to him. It was easy enough to disappear in a big city of course, but amongst the magical fraternity somebody usually knew something. Just not tonight.
But there was still Merl. He had given them important information in the past, and Gunn remembered more than one occasion when the whining demon had come up trumps with some little snippet vital to their plans. He had been a snitch for so long that it seemed incredible he was still alive, for at some point he had betrayed practically everybody for a price - but he lived on, cowering in his sewer, jumping at every noise. Wesley had found him, on one of his periodic solo wanderings, and had used him as a source of information on various demons, before introducing him to Angel and changing the poor creature's life completely. No more polite discussions and pre-agreed pay-offs. With Angel it was all strictly talk or hurt. That was certainly Gunn's preferred method as well. Wes was a good enough guy in his opinion, but at times a little soft. Information was supposed to be gathered the way it had always been done on the streets - with fists and a lot of shouting. And besides, Merl was too annoying to be polite to.
"Gunn." Angel came from behind the car, landing with a jolt in the driving seat as though hoping that he would make his young associate jump. He didn't. Gunn sat up slowly, taking his feet off the dashboard and straightening the collar of his jacket. "Any luck?"
"No." The vampire was silent for a moment, then gunned the engine with obvious frustration. "I tried everybody."
"Yeah, me too. All my old haunts, old contacts, bunch of new ones. Nothing. Nobody's heard of this guy."
"I know." Angel pulled the car out onto the road, ignoring the honking horns when his haste made him careless about watching for other drivers. "Maybe we'll get lucky with Merl."
"Maybe we shoulda tried him first."
"No." Angel was used to Gunn's often confrontational attitude by now, and it didn't bother him that the young man could sometimes seem to be permanently angry. He was what he was, after all. Wasn't everybody? "No, it was better to check our friendly sources first. You can never be sure who Merl is working for. Sometimes I can't help thinking that he's only telling us what somebody else has paid him to say."
"Got us to the right place before though, hasn't he?"
"Yes." Angel thought about some of the times when he had been to Merl for information. "Although sometimes only just. I've had to come pretty close to breaking his skull more often that I'd like; and even when I've got him hanging over the storm drain by his ankles, he's still not telling me everything."
"You think he'll tell us something tonight?"
"Oh he'll tell us something." Angel turned the car down a side road, heading for the nearest easily accessible drainage tunnel. "We just have to worry about whether he's telling us the truth, some lie somebody's paid him to tell, or whether he's just saying the first thing that comes into his head to get us off his back."
"We'll get the truth out of him." As the car came to a halt, Gunn leaped out of it with ferocious energy. "I'll hold him down, you hit him till he cries."
"That could work." Angel joined him by the drain's heavy cover, and hauled it open with an unconscious display of superhuman strength. "Although Wesley's way always seems to work."
"Yeah, but I don't have any money with me, and you never carry cash," pointed out Gunn, then shrugged. "Besides, hitting Merl is more fun. Maybe you should hold him down so I can hit him."
"No. I prefer the original plan." Angel dropped down into the sewer, landing with a splash in half an inch of murky water. "Besides, I hit harder."
"True." Gunn swung down the last few rungs of the ladder, and landed beside the vampire. "Yuck. Why do demons always seem to live in revolting places?"
"Various reasons." Well aware that Gunn hadn't meant it as a genuine question, Angel gave him a genuine answer anyway. "Some like it, others don't have a choice." He moved out of the worst of the water, making for the edge of the tunnel, where the going was better. "And it's not all demons, anyway. Some live in nice places - like big, deserted hotels."
"Big, weird deserted hotels. And don't forget that there was a big snaky thing living there when you decided to move in." Gunn shook his head. "Except maybe for the Host, most demons have a strange attitude to housing." He frowned. "And given that he lives in the weirdest night-club I've ever been in - which is saying a lot in LA - the Host probably wasn't such a good example."
"Given that when we met you were living in the basement of a big empty warehouse in the middle of one of the city's biggest vampire hunting grounds, maybe you're not the best judge." Angel led the way down a small siding, where it was even more necessary to stick to the edges of the tunnel. Thick, foul smelling liquid, no longer merely water, flowed down the middle. It looked several feet deep at least, and Gunn scowled at it. Since falling in with Angel he seemed to have spent a lot of time in sewers. And what was with that, anyway? When did heroes in movies ever have to crawl around in sewers in order to save the world?
"What if he's not home?" he asked, as they ducked through a small access hole into another, adjacent tunnel. Angel pulled open a metal grate, and clambered into the old, disused tunnel beyond. Somebody really ought to map all these tunnels, thought Gunn. All these miles upon miles of used and unused sewers and drains. Maybe they already were mapped. Maybe somewhere in City Hall was a big guide to the sewers of LA, with favourite vampire access points marked, and Merl's home picked out in green; with black crosses to show where all the bodies had been found over the years, and red ones for scenes of ritualistic murders and sacrifices. He almost smiled at the thought.
"He'll be home." Angel was, as usual, making no noise as he walked, but his voice echoed about in the empty tunnel. Merl must have heard them coming by now, and could easily be making a run for it. Angel didn't hurry though. He knew Merl, and he knew Merl's type. The demon might whine and cower and claim that he wanted out of the informant business - but he needed it almost as much as his many, varied clients needed him. There was certainly nothing else that he could do to earn a living.
"And if he is in, I get to hit him, right? I've come all this way, wasted half the night, and I don't want to know what's splashed all over my boots, so I get to hit him, right?"
"Gunn..." Slowing abruptly, Angel smiled in an oddly false way. "Why on earth would anybody want to hit Merl?"
"Huh?" Gunn was taken aback - then noticed that Angel was listening to something. Some strange little sound that only he could hear. They had reached the entrance to the underground room that Merl called home, but Angel did not enter. Instead he stood to one side of the doorway, still smiling that tight, unemotional smile. Gunn recognised it. It was the same smile Angel often displayed, perhaps unconsciously, when fighting enemies that he knew he could easily defeat.
"Merl is our friend, Gunn. He helps us. Why would we want to hurt him?"
"Because he's an annoying little pain in the butt who'd sell his own grandmother if he liked the price." Gunn eyed Angel strangely. "I thought you'd noticed that?"
"Noticed it? I hadn't noticed anything of the kind. Merl's our friend, Gunn, which is why I want to know--" one of Angel's hands snaked around the edge of the wall, through the doorway, and emerged again holding something squirmy and green-- "why he's waiting to attack us when we come in." His right hand still clamped around his victim's throat, he used his left to take a small, snub-nosed revolver from the green hand gripping it so tightly. "Merl, come on. We both know this isn't going to do anything to me. Vampire, bullet - not part of the famous folklore, is it."
"I didn't know it was you." Merl was as whiny-voiced as ever, and just as always Angel didn't believe him. He let the demon go though, and watched dispassionately as the informant rubbed at his bruised neck. Angel and Gunn shared a look.
"Sure you didn't. The two us talking in loud voices was so inconclusive." Pushing past the demon, Angel stared about at the dwelling place beyond. Even by his minimalist standards it was pushing things to call it a home. The place was dark and running with moisture, and was decorated with little more than the flotsam and jetsam of life in the Los Angeles drainage system. Angel had no idea if Merl was one of the demons who preferred to live like this, or if he was one of the ones who simply didn't have any other choice; but either way it seemed a pretty grim way to live.
"Hey, that's my home!" Merl scuttled in after him, somehow managing to look house proud. "You'd better not break anything."
"I don't want to break anything." Angel smiled at the demon, eyes bright and hard. "So just tell me what I want to know, and I won't have to do something I don't want to do. 'Cause I get cranky, if I have to do things I don't want to do."
"What do you want?" Merl looked from Angel to Gunn, and tried to look tough. "And what'll you pay me?"
"How about we don't give you any money, but when we leave here you won't have any broken fingers?" Gunn was in no mood to play games tonight. "How does that sound?"
"Yeah. Yeah maybe that would be okay." Merl's eyes darted nervously about. "So what do you want to know?"
"There's a guy." Angel folded his arms, intentionally making himself more intimidating. "About my height, thin, fairly tough build, thinning hair. Pretty good singing voice."
"Well gee, that narrows it down some." Merl shook his head. "Sounds like half the city, apart from the singing voice. You should be talking to the Host at Caritas about that, or maybe some kind of showbiz agent. Not me. I don't do singing."
"Which is sure to be a relief to many." One of Angel's hands darted out, grabbing Merl's right hand, and threatening his fingers by mere implication. "This guy is a little different to some. He's planning on ending the world?"
"Him too, huh." Merl smiled nervously. "There's a real epidemic of that lately. Odd for a human to try it though."
"Exactly. So maybe he's working with somebody else? Maybe you know who it might be? Some demon or vampire with a Judgement Day complex. Wouldn't be the first."
"I don't know. I haven't heard anything." Merl's voice was more whiny than ever, which did little for Angel's rising temper. "Doomsday tends to be a fairly secret thing. Never know who's going to agree with you, do you." He scowled. "Personally I say bring it on. Whatever comes after can't be worse than here, can it?"
"Depends on what kind of a life you've lived." Angel gave the captured fingers a slight twist, just to be sure that his prisoner was paying proper attention. "Now think. A guy, middle-aged maybe, who's probably been buying up stocks of magical stuff from somewhere. Not in LA, nobody's heard of him here, but he'll have to be getting it from somewhere. He'd have ancient parchments - scrolls perhaps - with writing in a complex language. Probably a demon one, if the spell's really nasty. He'd be using the kind of magic that summons serious monsters."
"Hey, there's all kinds of spells, and all kinds of monsters." Merl broke off as Angel twisted his fingers again. "Hey! Man, why can't I just deal with the humans. At least they don't have super-strength."
"You might be surprised how strong a human can be." Gunn stepped forward, using his most intimidating body language. Merl blanched and flinched, hurting himself in the process as his fingers jerked in Angel's grasp.
"Come on Merl. A human. Magic. Monsters. Parchment. You must have heard something." Angel pulled the demon closer, debating whether or not to put on his fangs and threaten further violence. "You always hear something."
"Maybe." Merl's eyes narrowed. "But you didn't hear it from me, right?"
"Yeah. 'Cause we always go bragging that we got our big lead from the ugly green guy with bad personal hygiene." Gunn moved closer. "Look, I thought we were going to be doing some hitting? I'll hold him down, and--"
"No!" Merl tried to shrink back from them both, and once again hurt his pinned fingers. "Ow!"
"I like this new system, Merl. Did you think it up specially for us? We do nothing, and you beat a confession out of yourself." Angel let go of the hand, and switched his grip to the shivering green neck. "But we'll be more than happy to join in, any time."
"Hey, I said I'd help, didn't I?" Merl tried to swat Angel's hand away, but had to give up. "Okay, look. There's this guy. A human. Seems he likes dabbling in the dark arts. Creepy spells, demonic artefacts, you know the sort of thing. Anyway, he got into the whole scene. Did deals with all kinds of things and people. Bought some seriously bad stuff."
"Doesn't tally with what we've heard," accused Gunn. "Nobody here has heard of anybody buying stuff like that. Nobody by this guy's description, anyway."
"Yeah, I know. Mr Teeth already pointed that bit out, remember? And I didn't say your man was active in Los Angeles, did I. I just said he was buying stuff. I heard about it from a guy who was passing through town about a week ago. He said there was some would-be sorcerer half crazy with grief, wandering around New Orleans and threatening to raise the dead and curse the living, or something. Crazy type." The demon eyed his two interrogators. "This information is worth money, you know."
"Maybe. But you're not getting any." Angel made a move as though to hit the informant, but pulled aside at the last minute. "Now carry on. New Orleans?"
"Yeah. See, this guy was into the whole scene, like I said. Fell in love with a demon, didn't he. I don't know what type, but one of the nasty ones. You know how some are. Anyway, seems some guy calling himself a 'rogue demon hunter' took her out, more than a year ago, and this human guy who was her lover went over the edge. He was swearing revenge. Now listen. I don't know if this is the guy you're after, but I do know that he's serious about wanting to end things. You said you were after somebody who's in to bad magic in a big way, right, and if you ask me, this one's got a reason for coming to Los Angeles. Seems like I've heard of a 'rogue demon hunter' somewhere before. Kind of a scrawny British guy, want to be just like you?"
"Yeah." Angel caught Gunn's eye. "That'd be why he sang at Caritas, and wanted his plans passed on. The Host was right about that."
"I wonder why he didn't pick up on the rest?" wondered Gunn. Angel shook his head, indicating that he had no real idea.
"Maybe he did. He can be a bit odd about what he does and doesn't tell at times. Maybe he didn't see it. Maybe this guy made sure he wouldn't see. Probably didn't want us to know too much."
"Yeah. Advantages are so over-rated." Gunn sighed, not sure where to go from here. "So where next? Where is this guy?"
"I don't know." Merl was talking faster than ever. "I just know that he turned up in LA a few days ago, with bags full of some pretty scary stuff. He put the feelers out, looking for contacts, but nobody wanted anything to do with him. This guy is seriously bad, and that demon lover of his was even worse. Your friend did the right thing killing her, but I guess he wasn't up to taking human life as well."
"It's called morality. You should try it some time." Gunn looked over at Angel again. "We finished here?"
"Nearly." Angel let go of Merl and gave him a cursory dusting down, as though straightening him up again, and apologising for the earlier heavy-handedness. "One last question."
"Hey, if it'll get you outta here, man, ask away." Merl's voice, sounding higher and more wheedling all the time, was starting to grate on Angel's nerves.
"This man. You say you don't know who he is, but you know a lot else. How about a where?"
"I don't know that." Merl flinched as though expecting a blow, then looked relieved when none came. "Somewhere quiet and rundown, I'd guess, which doesn't narrow it down any. He'd want lots of privacy too. Other than that you're on your own."
"Yeah." Angel turned away. "Always boils down to that. Come on Gunn."
"No more questions?" Gunn was surprised. "But he could be lying."
"He isn't. Not this time. And he's not going to tell us anything else, either. We should get back to the others and see if Wes can add anything."
"Yeah. Bye then." Merl turned away from them, effectively shutting them out, and they left him in peace. It seemed a much longer walk back than it had been going the other way, but they arrived back at the car soon enough. It wasn't until they were climbing inside that either of them spoke again.
"You're pretty quiet," observed Angel. Gunn shrugged.
"So are you. You thinking about something?"
"What's coming. How we're supposed to stop it."
"And maybe why Wesley didn't say that he knew that guy back at the club?"
"Maybe." Angel shrugged. "But he's sensible enough, usually. I'd guess that he just didn't recognise him."
"I guess." Gunn flopped back in the seat. "So are we going straight back to the hotel, or do you want to check out a few likely hiding places first?"
"The hotel." Angel started up the engine, then thumped the steering wheel hard. "Time's wasting, and it'll be dawn soon. It's time for a proper council of war."
"Yeah." Gunn watched the neon lights speed by, and tried to let himself relax. It wasn't exactly easy to forget, though, that they had so little time. Less than forty-eight hours, the Host had said - and how much of that had already gone by? All that they could really hope now was that Wesley and Cordelia had made some kind of breakthrough, searching through the books back at the hotel. So many books - so many places in Los Angeles where their quarry could be hiding out. Even with their new information, in essence they were still fighting blind.
Under careful instruction Wesley fixed a sea-breeze for the Host, using vodka and a chilled glass from the little fridge near to the sound system. He had to squeeze a fresh grapefruit, taken from a store evidently kept for just that purpose, and suffered in silence during a ritual of selecting the most likely candidate for the squeezing. For someone who claimed to need to rest his voice after singing, the Host seemed remarkably chatty, talking endlessly about how to be sure of choosing the finest grapefruit, and how best to squeeze it without bruising the juice. Wesley almost gave up and told him to fix his own cocktail, but he stuck at it. Fortunately he didn't have to squeeze any cranberries. Apparently, however fresh the grapefruit had needed to be, it was okay to use cranberry juice from a carton. Possibly there was some complex chemical reason for that. Possibly not.
"So." Sitting down on the floor beside the Host, who was claiming weak knees from excessive singing, Cordelia looked through the notepad. "You've written a lot of stuff. Did it work?"
"Seemed to." Taking the glass from Wesley, the Host sipped at it tentatively, then smiled happily. "You have hidden talents, Wes. There a little barman in you?"
"I sincerely hope not." Wesley took the notebook from Cordelia. "Is this in order?"
"There wasn't really any order. I just wrote what I saw." The Host drained the glass, then leaned back against the wall. "I should be getting back. My clients will be wondering where I am."
"Don't they ever go home?" The lengthening night was making Cordelia sleepy, and she stifled a yawn. "It's practically morning."
"I don't close when the end of the world might be coming." The Host smiled at her in his usual, faintly flirtatious manner. "It's become sort of a tradition. Somebody tries to raise a big bad evil, I let my customers party on. Even evil demons don't always want to be alone when the end might be on its way."
"That might almost be cute, if the evil demons in question weren't so gross." Cordelia stood up, anxious to get moving again before she fell asleep. "Can you translate that stuff, Wes?"
"Yes, I believe so. It's an archaic form of one of the more common demonic languages. The basic root is Byzonese - one of the more illustrious races, a bit more intelligent than your average demon." He smiled at the Host. "Present company excepted, naturally."
"Thankyou." The Host handed over his empty glass with an obvious hint. "Although if I generalised about humans the way you lot generalise about demons, I can see some of you getting a little snippy real soon."
"Quite probably." Wesley took the glass, but didn't do anything with it. "We should be getting back to the hotel. I might need one or two books to complete the translation, and I should certainly refer to them when I've finished."
"Saving the world with a bit of light reading. You're a terrific advert for the written word, Wes." The Host stood up. "But I have a club to run. I've been singing my little heart out here for twenty minutes, and that's at least ten more than I'd planned. My head is drowning in parchment and inky symbols, and I'd like to get out there soon enough to wash it away in my friend Judith's Aretha medley. She should be up any minute."
"I'd rather you came back to the hotel with us. You might be able to help." Wes headed for the door, brisk and urgent. "Angel and Gunn might be back by now, and if they've found anything useful we could be in a position to actually do something."
"I have to go with you?" The Host shook his head, unhappy with the idea. "Wes, honey, much as I'd like to spend a little quality time with you all, the idea of poring over ancient manuscripts does about as much for me as an invitation to watch an amateur production of Evita."
"The book thing is pretty boring," agreed Cordelia. "On the upside, though, Angel often makes us hot chocolate when we work. Sometimes we even get little sandwiches."
"Ordinarily, 'chocolate' is a word guaranteed to work miracles, Sugar, and the main reason, along with music, why this world is so much better than another I could name - but you're still not selling this to me. Sorry."
"So am I." Holding the door open, Wesley hurried them both through it. "But you're coming. I might need you to double check what you've written, and it's easier to do that if you're with me."
"Oh lucky me." The Host rolled his eyes in as dramatic a fashion as he could manage. "Angel might not think much of the arrangement if I have to sing my way through my whole repertoire to help with your translations."
"He'll have to live with it." They had reached the main room of the club again, where a huge woman was just bursting into the Aretha Franklin standard Respect. Her black skin had paled to a tell-tale greyer tone, a clear indication of the death she had once suffered, and the streaks of white in her hair emphasised that unnatural pallor. Even without her game face on, she was clearly a vampire. A voluminous black cloak swirled about her shoulders, adding to the formidable image she had clearly chosen for herself - no doubt one that would have startled the real Aretha Franklin no end.
"She's good," commented Cordelia, for want of anything else to say. "Like most of your clients - scary, but good."
"Yeah." The Host smiled sadly. "Sings like a true diva, doesn't she. If only she could do something about her aura. Kinda spoils the effect, when we're up there together duetting on I Knew You Were Waiting - me doing my best George Michael, which is always a pleasure - and all the time I'm seeing her with her next meal." He over-emphasised a shudder. "Quite an advert for vegetarianism, I can tell you."
"This place is so weird." Cordelia headed towards the door, making a pointed issue of hurrying. Wesley smiled faintly at her retreating back.
"Come on." Following after her, he led the Host away from the throngs of friends, customers and karaoke volunteers, well aware than the demon would far rather be staying behind.
"I'm coming. You're a hard, hard man Wes." The Host grinned, vaguely pleased by the double entendre of that sentence. "Angel should watch his back, shouldn't he. Gonna be losing his authority to his big, bad deputy at this rate. Still, if he ever wants somewhere to slink away and lick his wounds, I'd be perfectly happy to--"
"We're in a hurry." Wesley pushed open the door and followed Cordelia out into the darkness beyond. It was always strange leaving a bright and noisy night-club, but tonight it seemed stranger still, the normalcy of the comparative silence in stark contrast to the urgency of the situation, as much as to the place they had just left. Cordelia was already in her car, sitting behind the wheel with a determined expression on her face.
"Penny for them, Hon?" Siding onto the back seat, the Host leaned forward and folded his arms on the head rest behind her. She glanced at him in the rear-view mirror.
"Oh, just the usual. World ending, general race against time to stop it." She summoned a smile. "I've got an audition on Monday, and if the world ends tomorrow I'll be really annoyed. It's a good commercial. Mainstream product. Plus the co-star is totally gorgeous. Besides, I just re-insured this car, and that's going to be a waste of money if I'm not going to be driving it again after tonight."
"Hey, I hear you Hon. As we speak three of the most talented tailors in the United States are hand-making me the best suit you ever saw. Indigo, made to measure, all natural material. If the world ends I'll never get to wear it. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it."
"Undoubtedly. What's two billion people dying when there's a made to measure indigo suit going to waste." Doing his best to study the writings in the notebook by the dreadful light inside the car, Wesley gestured to Cordelia to get going. She did so, pulling out onto the road and pointing the car in the direction of the hotel. A light rain was starting to fall, and she turned on her windscreen wipers, and stared out at the wet road before them.
"Any luck?" she asked Wesley. He nodded without looking up.
"It's fascinating. I believe it to be part of an ancient spell from another dimension. Part of the lost Dimedian scrolls if I'm not mistaken. Like I said the language is a form of Byzonese, and if it really is what I think it is, there's no question about whether or not it's capable of ending the world. Legend has it that the world on which the scrolls originated was destroyed aeons ago by a sort of mad high priest of magic, who flew into a terrible rage with the king of his people. He cast a powerful spell raising monsters who utterly laid waste to his world, and eventually caused it to collapse in upon itself, forming a gateway straight to hell. The whole dimension - countless worlds - were sucked into the gateway, and the reverberations were felt in all the realities. The spell wrote itself upon a series of scrolls, which somehow survived the tumult. I can't imagine how, but obviously the magicks involved were extraordinarily powerful. I shall have to take great pains to destroy these notes when I've finished studying them - and wherever those pieces of parchment are, they'll have to be destroyed as well. By magical means no doubt."
"You're a cheery guy to have around, Wes." The Host flopped back into his seat. "You couldn't just have said that it was a slightly unpleasant spell? I could happily have lived without the details."
"Me too." Cordelia smiled across at her earnest companion, still busy working on the writing. "So, do you know what to do?"
"I'll have to finish the translation before I can be entirely sure how to counteract the magic. There are a few clues here, and I have one or two ideas, but parts of the spell seem to be missing. Unless I can get hold of the original I'm going to have to have the Host sing a few more disco favourites to help fill in some gaps."
"Well that'll be fun. I'll sing a nice breezy power ballad so that you can complete your collection of the most dangerous spells ever written." The Host sighed. "Are you really sure this is necessary, Sugar?"
"Yes. I don't want to face something this dangerous without knowing what I'm up against. Reputedly the original parchments contained full details of the spell, and if there's a chance that you can sing that information out of your own memory, it could be everybody's best hope. What I have here leaves too many unanswered questions. Besides, I'm counting on it helping us discover where our enemy is hiding. At the moment from what I'm reading it looks like he needs running water, but I might be able to narrow it down once I know the rest of the requirements of the basic incantations." He pushed up his glasses to rub his eyes. "I'm a little slow with the translating though. I'm reasonably fluent with the language, but since this is an archaic form it complicates matters no end."
"You'll work it out." Cordelia looked across at him, and at the mass of hastily scribbled symbols on the paper before him. She could hardly see them, save for when they caught the headlights of an oncoming car, or momentarily flashed in the coloured blaze from some overhead neon sign. How Wesley could make anything of them was a wonder to her, but presumably these things were easier when you had spent your whole life training for them. Maybe. She tried to offer the anxious ex-Watcher a reassuring smile, but he wasn't looking, staring as he was at the pages of his notepad. The dim light made the symbols reflect in his glasses, shining in her eyes and disorientating her momentarily. It took a moment's concentration before she could look away.
"Cordelia!" The Host's voice distracted her, and she turned at first to face him, before realising that he had been warning her of something. She spun back to face the road. Standing before them, frozen in the headlights, was a child. It was about six or seven years old, pale and apparently confused, and it was clutching a teddy bear in one hand. Cordelia screamed.
"What the-?" Wesley looked up, seeing the child only as Cordelia slammed on the brakes and spun the wheel hard. Miraculously in that moment there were no cars going the other way, but such things were the least of her worries. She cared only about missing the child, and keeping control of her car. Fighting with the wheel, waiting for the sickening thud of metal against flesh that must now be inevitable, she closed her eyes. The car screeched to a halt.
"Did we miss him?" The Host was already opening his door. Wesley hesitated only a moment longer, checking the Cordelia was alright before he climbed out of the car himself. He couldn't see the child, and didn't like to look beneath the wheels to see if that was where it had ended up. Slowly, very slowly, Cordelia got out as well, and walked unsteadily over to the others. Wesley put an arm around her.
"Is- Did I-?" She was looking about for the child, to no avail. The Host shook his head.
"I can't see a thing, Sugar. He must have run off. Maybe the parents are around here somewhere. I--" He broke off, for something had caught his eye. "Um... Can I suggest that we get back in the car really quickly?
"What is it?" Wesley half turned, still keeping his arm around Cordelia's shoulders. There were shapes moving towards them, silhouettes against the glow of the street lamps. Big shadows, of four vampires with fangs ready bared.
"Damn." He fumbled in his jacket pocket with his free hand, coming up with a simple wooden cross. "Get back in the car. If we can get moving before they reach us we should be alright." His eyes scanned the street, looking for other possible avenues of escape, just in case. Where had the other cars gone? Why was the road so deserted? This had 'trap' written all over it.
"I wouldn't try to make for the car." Moving closer, one of the vampires held up the gun that it was cradling almost lovingly against its chest. "Just get over here."
"Moving towards vampires never struck me as a particularly sensible choice. Do you have any better ideas?" Voice showing signs of strain, the Host looked to Wesley for guidance. The former Watcher shook his head. They might make it to the car ahead of the vampires, but they couldn't hope to outrace bullets. It would be foolish to try.
"I wonder what they want." Cordelia was more than used to vampires. She had fought them and been chased by them on more occasions that she cared to remember; and there was always a certain pattern to such things. In Sunnydale or in Los Angeles, vampires were the same. They were violent, they were vicious - and they never carried guns. They had no use for them, in the ordinary way of things. Slowly Wesley took his arm away from her shoulders, and offered her a faint smile.
"I have no idea. But I'd suggest that, if we want to stay alive, we have little choice but to find out." And with a horrible sinking feeling inside him, he raised his hands in surrender.
The hotel was empty, and Angel knew it as soon as he pushed open the door. Maybe it was the sense of stillness and hush; maybe it was his overdeveloped sense of smell; but he didn't need to call and wait for even more silence to be sure that Wesley and Cordelia had gone. He crossed to the desk where Wesley's books lay, some open, scraps of paper marking pages, or bearing lines of Wesley's half-hurried, half-careful handwriting. The coat that had been hanging over the back of his chair had gone, and so had Cordelia's. Gunn looked about, unimpressed.
"Great. We go looking for information, and they sneak off." He sat down in Wesley's empty chair, and flicked listlessly through one of the books. Coloured plates depicting scenes of demonic ferocity stared back at him, gorgeous in their detail and artistry, but hideous in every other way. He smiled sardonically. "You know, Wes has got enough stuff here to put the whole damn horror movie industry out of business."
"Mediaeval," said Angel, with a quick glance at one of the pictures that had caught Gunn's attention. "All flare and imagination, and not a lot of hard fact." He closed the book with a snap. "Where are they? They were supposed to stay here and work on all this."
"Maybe there's a note around here somewhere." Gunn rifled through some of the scraps of paper, sending others to the floor. "They might have found something, and gone to check it out."
"Maybe." Angel wasn't sure that he liked the idea of his employees going in search of a potential world destroyer without his help - especially if the world destroyer in question had some kind of a grudge against Wesley. "I wonder what they found."
"Nothing." Gunn had spotted a small piece of paper, distinguishable from the others on the floor by the different hand that had written upon it. Cordelia, in her usual sprawling, hard to decipher tumble of inky words, had left them a simple note. No luck. Gone to Caritas to try the Host. Back soon. Angel scowled, and snatched the piece of paper away to read himself.
"Caritas? What did they want to go there for? We don't exactly have limitless time."
"Hey, I know that." Gunn stood up. "Should we go get them?"
"Yeah, I suppose. We're not going to do much good with these books, and Wesley might come up with something if we tell him who our guy is. It might give him a clue about where we should be going from here."
"I sure hope so." Gunn was already heading for the door. "The end of the world ain't something I'm specially eager for. Death and all, not a big attraction."
"I can certainly go a few more years without seeing the inside of hell again." Angel caught him up, overtaking and pushing open the main doors. "They better have found something. This is time we really can't afford to lose."
"Well don't tell me that. I'm the one that's been spending the past few hours telling all my old friends how much of a hurry we're in." Gunn looked up at the sky. "We'd better put the roof up, or you're not going to have to worry about waiting for the end of the world to see hell again."
"Yeah." Angel stared up at the sky. "Caritas is probably shut by now."
"Then where are Cordelia and Wesley? Maybe they're still there, hoping that the singing telegram of doom will go back for an encore."
"I suppose there are wilder odds to bet on." Hauling the roof of his car shut, Angel climbed inside. it was dark in there now, for the windows were carefully designed to let in as little light as possible. The sun was not yet risen, but there were some risks that it was just not sensible to take. He settled in the back of the car, where there was a blanket ready for him to use as extra cover.
"Caritas then." Gunn slid into the driving seat, secretly rather glad for dawn's nearing appearance. If it hadn't been for Angel's daylight aversion, Gunn would never get the chance to drive the sleek black convertible - and he liked to be behind the wheel. It had been a good career move, really, choosing a boss with an impressively cool car that he could only drive at night.
"And hurry," Angel told him, hoping to be sure that they would arrive in enough time for him to make it from the car to the club without having to take along his blanket. It damaged his ego as much as anything, having to carry it about.
"Hey, I always hurry." Gunn spun the wheel, listening to the engine purr and roar in almost equal measure. "I've been winning car races since I was twelve years old."
"Hey." Looking over the back of the driving seat, Angel reacted with obvious concern for the fate of his beloved car. "This isn't a race. Drive quickly, but don't... go fast."
"Right." Smiling, Gunn headed the car towards Caritas. "Do you think this guy we're after knows yet that we're on to him? I mean, he knew enough about us to pinpoint Caritas, so maybe he knows about other things as well. Merl, the hotel..."
"I know." Angel vanished once again into the back. "He could be following us, or he could have followed Wesley and Cordelia earlier. Still, he's not likely to try anything on his own. Not against the two of us."
"But maybe against a girl and a skinny, scrawny guy?" Gunn pushed down a little harder on the accelerator. "I sure hope they're at Caritas."
"They will be." Huddling back away from the windows, Angel tried to relax a little, but found it predictably impossible. There was too much to think about; too much to worry about - not least the whereabouts of his friends. "They better be."
But Caritas was free of all human life when they arrived there, the last few remaining employees and customers of that species having long ago departed to their homes, or in search of people with whom they would rather spend the last hours of their lives. Only the demons and the vampires remained now, listening to the Host's Aretha-loving friend Judith singing an earnest duet with a mellow-voiced fellow vampire. Angel didn't recognise the song, but Gunn apparently did, and clearly approved of the choice and the performance. Angel ignored the singers, looking instead for the Host. It wasn't often that he could enter the club without being descended upon by an annoyingly cheerful, jabbering green demon in loud clothing - and as much as that often exasperated him, he was rather disturbed by its failure to happen now. He headed for the bar with Gunn at his heels, and called out to the bartender, one of Ramon's many, decidedly less-loved, replacements.
"Blood?" The bartender had sized him up the way that bartenders the world over had been sizing up their customers since the beginning of time. Angel shook his head.
"I'm looking for some friends of mine. They probably came in to talk to the Host, maybe a few hours ago. You might have seen them in here with me before. Humans."
"Yeah, I know them." The bartender polished a glass, his third, extendible arm helping to add an extra shine. He displayed no particular interest in the conversation, and spoke in an almost studiously casual tone. "They came in, talked to the Host for a while, then all three of them went out back. While later they came out here again, and left pretty much straight away."
"Left?" Angel could have hit something, but settled on merely clenching his fists with bone-threatening force instead. "Where did they go? Did you hear anything?"
"Me?" The bartender was innocence itself, although Angel never credited anybody in that line of work with anything approaching true innocence. "What would I hear?"
"Probably all kinds of things, if we were offering to pay you." Gunn had come up behind Angel, and was leaning on the bar. "Why don't we skip the 'my friend is a vampire' bit, and the bit where we threaten you with all kinds of violence, and jump straight to the part where you just tell us what we want to know?"
"This is a safe haven," the bartender told him, unmoved. "No violence is allowed here."
"My friend is also a warlock," offered Gunn, completely unfazed by the response to his threat. "He can lift any spell protecting this place. So spill."
"They were talking about spells." The bartender seemed slightly shaken, if suspicious. Gunn rather got the impression that his threat had fallen upon sceptical ears, but that the bartender was too much of a coward to take the risk that it was all just a lie. "Magical parchments or something? I don't know. The guy with glasses said something about books... and maybe there was something about moisturisers, hell, I don't know. It's been crazy in here all night. Must have been up to something pretty urgent, though, for the Host to bail when one of his friends is up there singing. Usually he'd be on stage as well, even with the world supposedly ending some time soon. Tonight he didn't even stand and watch."
"But they definitely left together?" Angel scowled at the polished bar top, which of course refused to show him his reflection. The bartender nodded.
"Sure. Earlier they'd been saying something 'getting back'. Going back to the books? Anyway, the guy with glasses said something about being in a hurry, and they didn't hang around. Would have been about an hour ago, maybe less. I was expecting the Host to be back here by now, but I guess maybe sometimes he likes to disappear. Haven't really worked here long enough to know, have I."
"You think we should worry?" asked Gunn. Angel nodded.
"Yeah. If they talked about going back to the books, they should have been at the hotel. There's Wesley's apartment of course, there are books there too, but I don't think they'd go there."
"So they went back to the hotel, found something in one of the books, and then went off to investigate?" Gunn winced. "I know you've got a lot of faith in Wesley, but I don't know that I'd like to go off somewhere dangerous with the Host hanging over my shoulder. He's not exactly subtle."
"I don't think they've gone investigating anywhere. I don't think they went back to the hotel." Angel thought abut the note that Cordelia had left. Gone to Caritas, not Found something and gone to investigate. "Something must have happened before then. When they were on their way back."
"We can't waste time looking for them." Gunn's eyes narrowed. "Can we?"
"I don't know." Angel knew all too well that it might be a question of looking for three bodies, rather than three friends - and there was certainly no point in losing precious hours searching for dead people. On the other hand, if they were still alive, the chances were that Cordelia, Wesley and the Host were with the man that they were all looking for - either having seen and followed him, or having been taken along as his guests. Either way it would hardly be a waste of time looking for them if it brought their target closer. He frowned, his expression fierce as he pondered the question. He had to be ruthless, he knew that; but it wasn't easy to be that way when it was his team that he was thinking about - his friends that might be dead, or soon to be that way. The bartender wandered off, in search of customers who might actually be prepared to buy something, and Gunn shook Angel's arm.
"Angel? We could look for Cordelia's car. It wasn't outside the hotel, so they must have been using it."
"I couldn't see a lot on our way over here." Angel smiled, a little self-consciously. "Er... keeping back from the windows, you know. Did you see anything? If they were on their way back to the hotel and got waylaid--"
"There's more than one route back to the hotel from here. Cordy probably uses the other road, through the swankier part of town. You know what she's like." Gunn folded his arms, trying by mere body language to force Angel into making a decision. "They could be anywhere. Are we going to waste time looking?"
"Yes." Angel pushed away from the bar, heading for the door with his long black coat swirling about his ankles in its usual dramatic fashion. Few people knew better than he how necessary it could sometimes be to abandon personal loyalties and friendships, when there were bigger things at stake. Nobody knew better just how much he was risking by letting himself become distracted from the search for this latest foe. But these were his friends, and he had few enough of those. He had been dismissive of them all on occasions of late, since developing his recent obsession with Darla, but they were still his friends, and he couldn't turn his back on any of them. He avoided Gunn's eye on the way out of the club though, just in case his companion didn't share his sense of priorities. He noticed Gunn didn't protest though. If they were going to let the world end while they went off in search of their friends, apparently they would be doing it together.
The gun-toting vampires had loaded their three prisoners into the back of a heavily rusted van, steadfastly declining conversation all the way. The Host had tried suggesting a cheery sing-song, which predictably fell on deaf ears. Wesley and Cordelia both tried asking where they were going, but they received no more reaction than the Host. Whoever their captors were they clearly weren't the chatty type - which was true to form, more or less, since most vampires didn't tend to be great conversationalists. Eventually they all gave up, and lapsed into a tense sort of silence. Being kidnapped was never the most pleasurable of experiences, but somehow it seemed worse when there were vampires involved.
Fortunately - or unfortunately perhaps - the drive was not a long one; no more than fifteen or twenty minutes. They were unloaded without ceremony at one of the many large and draughty warehouses where so many evil creatures seemed to like to dwell. The inside was dark and empty, or so it seemed at first - a mass of gloomy shadows, unfathomable corners, stout pillars and dangling cobwebs. Nothing moved, save the cobwebs, blowing backwards and forwards in the stirring breeze. Cordelia shivered.
"Okay, this is officially my least favourite place in Los Angeles. Do evil people choose creepy hideouts on purpose, or do they just find these places by chance?"
"Oh you know evil things, Hon. They love drama." The Host was looking around with clear unease, unhappier than either of the others. He had become used to the company of vampires, but with the obvious exception of Angel, he liked to keep that company restricted solely to the hours of business within Caritas. Standing in an empty warehouse, held by a vampire and with his hands tied, was definitely not the kind of contact he appreciated - again, excepting perhaps for where Angel was concerned. He was by no means alone in his distress though. Cordelia's expression proved that much.
"Shut up." Speaking for the first time, one of the vampires displayed a deep voice with a Texan accent. He and his associates herded their prisoners towards the middle of the room, then backed off a little way. Wesley considered trying to speak to them again, now that some form of communication had been established, but he knew that there was no real point. He had no bargaining power, no way to open a meaningful line of communication, and besides, he didn't have much to say. Unless the vampires of LA were developing a bizarre new strategy in food gathering, the threesome had been brought to this place for only one reason that he could think of, and it made sense to wait and see what happened next. In the meantime he moved a little closer to Cordelia, conscious of the responsibilities now resting on his shoulders. In Angel's absence he considered himself to be in charge, and that meant protecting Cordelia as much as possible. If Wesley had learnt nothing else since being fired by the Council the year before, he had certainly learned how better to handle responsibility. Real responsibility, met in real situations in the field. He liked to think that he was up to the task now.
"This isn't the nicest place I've been invited to." The Host looked about, at the distant skylight in the middle of the high roof - at the tiny windows high up in the walls - at the large metal door, now closed behind them. Those seemed the only escape routes, and none of them was encouraging. Not unless he suddenly developed the ability to shrink and fly away. "Is there some International Heroes' Union I can write to and complain? I've got rust stains on my jacket, and I'm wearing at least one bracelet that does not appreciate being chafed by somebody's chunky ropes. Saving the world should come with an expenses account."
"I've been saying that for years." Cordelia glanced down at her now crumpled, though undoubtedly expensive blouse. "The first time I got kidnapped by a gang of vampires I had to throw the whole outfit away."
"I feel for you, Honey." The Host's sympathy was real. "And truly great clothes are not that easy to come by."
"It didn't matter so much, I was rich then." She frowned. "Well, technically it was my parents who were, and technically they weren't anyway, because they stole all their money from the IRS, but either way clothes were pretty much--" She broke off. "Did anybody else hear something just then?"
"Depends." The Host cocked his head on one side . "If it's a big, scary monster and we don't hear it, will it give up and go away?"
"It wasn't a big, scary monster." Wesley took a step forward. "Those were human footsteps - or vampire, perhaps, since naturally they have the same feet." He raised his voice. "Who's there?"
"Only us ghosts." The voice was heavily sardonic, and deeply unpleasant. "Except that I'm a little substantial to be a ghost, wouldn't you say, Mr Pryce?"
"Um..." Wesley squinted into the shadows, trying to see the speaker. "Perhaps. I certainly doubt that a ghost would have the physical capabilities to perform the rituals necessary for the spell you're planning."
"You've worked it out then?" The voice sounded pleased, and with a click of shoes on concrete, its owner appeared from the gloom. He was the singer from the club, as they had all expected; a man as nondescript and unimpressive as he had seemed to them when they had last seen him. He had changed into a ceremonial robe, grey in colour, which covered his more ordinary suit. There was a child with him too - a boy of about six or seven, recognisable as the child Cordelia had been so afraid she might have run over. At this distance it was possible to see the blue tint to his skin, and the small horns that were almost hidden by his thatch of dust-coloured hair. He growled at the threesome, showing short fangs and a forked tongue. Cordelia raised her eyebrows.
"I'm proud of him." The man put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "He's all I have left now, since his mother was taken away."
"Well she was as pretty as a picture, I'm guessing." The Host eyed the child, with its obvious demonic traits, and shrugged. "Not that I'm in much of a position to judge."
"He has a certain... familiarity." Wesley stared at the boy, running the fangs, horns and colour through his encyclopaedic brain. "His mother must have been of the Cerulis genus. The European strain, given the forked tongue. They don't usually cross breed, especially with humans, but I did hear of a case in the twenties." He frowned, and Cordelia saw a kind of understanding dawn upon his face. "And I once met a man who had a sort of common law marriage to a Cerulis. In--"
"New Orleans. How nice of you to remember." The man strode towards them, effectively shutting Wesley out of the conversation by stopping directly in front of Cordelia. "My name is James Brennan. I was once a happily married man, until your friend stopped by a year ago and cut off my wife's head. I found her a few hours later. Minus her head of course. He had already reduced that to ash."
"Um... friend of yours, Wesley?" Cordelia wanted to back away from the uncomfortably close Brennan, but the Host was behind her, and she couldn't. Wesley nodded.
"His wife was about to sacrifice three teenage girls as part of a ceremony to awaken Torula, a giant demon snake believed to be in an enchanted sleep far beneath the city of New Orleans. She had already killed at least two other girls for the same reason."
"Okay, firstly - giant demon snake." Cordelia shivered. "Can I just say, met one, hate them all. And secondly, sacrifices? Nearly been one, and not a fan. I'd say the big blue demon lady needed a good killing." The boy growled again, and Brennan's eyes flashed, and she smiled awkwardly. "Although I don't want to sound prejudiced, obviously..."
"She was my wife. The mother of my child." Brennan's pain was clear. "Yes she killed, but only in accordance with the proper ritual. The sacrifices were necessary."
"Which is sure to be a great comfort to the families of the girls." The Host, who could easily sense the anxiety Wesley felt, moved a little close to the restless Englishman. "Lose the sense of guilt, Wes. You did the right thing, I'm sure."
"Right or wrong has no bearing on any of this." Brennan stared back at Wesley, eyes cold now, and devoid of all emotion. "You didn't recognise me, did you. Without the beard. Without the long hair."
"Without the eccentric clothing and strange symbols painted in blood, no. Forgive me for the oversight." Wesley's eyes drifted to the boy. "You realise what will happen to the child if you go through with your plans? He'll die as well."
"So? Eventually somebody else will turn up, like you did, and kill him. This way we go together, and we'll be reunited with his mother sooner rather than later."
"And take the rest of the world with you," added Cordelia. "Nice plan. Kind of extravagant."
"But necessary. There are consequences, when people are killed. Other people have to suffer."
"Yeah, but ending the world? Kinda final." The Host eyed his former customer appraisingly. "Why not go for one little bit of it? I doubt anybody would miss Iowa. Or Idaho? Anywhere beginning with an 'I' is pretty much fair game."
"And besides, we're not just talking about the world." Wesley was keeping his voice level, but the tension in it displayed emotions that he would otherwise never have displayed. "If you go ahead with this, the whole of this reality could well be destroyed. There's no telling how many billions of lives would be lost. Your argument is with me, not with countless souls spread across countless worlds."
"My argument is with anybody who happens to be alive. Everybody who isn't dead like my wife." Brennan smiled a sudden, careless smile. "You're just a part of it. An integral part as it happens. I'm so pleased that you could come along and watch. My employees couldn't understand why they had to bring you here, instead of just killing you, but having you here means a lot to me. And you've brought along an extra special surprise." He reached out, stroking Cordelia's hair with a brief touch. "Very thoughtful."
"Hey, no stroking the prisoners." Cordelia looked across at Wesley. "Is he getting at something that we're supposed to understand?"
"Well? You've worked things out by now, if you know as much as you seem to. What do I need for my spell, Wesley?" Brennan's eyes snapped towards the former Watcher again, this time glittering with a cold and bitter sort of triumph. "Why am I so pleased to see such a beautiful girl as this here among us? Somebody that you'll so enjoy seeing become a part of my offering?"
"Well, er..." Wesley's mind drifted back over the text, still only half translated. "You need running water, an unobstructed view of the sky... mandrake root..."
"And blood, Wesley."
"Oh yes." He nodded. "The spell calls for the blood of a young virgin, but there are no virgins here." He caught Cordelia's outraged glare, and coloured slightly. "Um... that is..."
"Wesley, Wesley, Wesley. Your translation is off." Ignoring the stammering and glaring going on between his prisoners, Brennan pulled a pen from his pocket, along with a sheet of paper that looked like a shop's till receipt. He sketched a few symbols and held them up, tapping on them with the pen. "Not a virgin woman. Look at the shape of the second character. A pure woman. The spell calls for a pure-hearted woman, and your friend here, whether or not she's a virgin, is undoubtedly pure-hearted. She's so full of good intentions that it makes my heart bleed to think of them. Believe me, I know. My son inherited quite a few of the special talents that his mother's race possess."
"Amongst them being the ability to detect goodness or evil in others." Wesley shook his head. "Look, this is insane. You can't go through with this!"
"Go through with what exactly? 'Cause I am not buzzing with happy warm feelings about how all this sounds. Blood? Never nice in spells." Cordelia looked squarely at Wesley. "What's he planning to do with my blood?"
"Take it." The boy had come closer, and was standing now beside his father. He stared up at Cordelia, eyes wide and blue. "Drop by drop."
"Hard luck. I'm still using it." Cordelia's eyes flicked between Wesley and the boy. "Wes?"
"Part of the spell involves suspending a young woman above a vat of... various ingredients. An incision is made, clotting is prevented, the blood drips into the vat..." He shook his head. "Brennan, this is madness. You can't really hope to continue."
"Can, will, am." The angry sorcerer sounded almost like a petulant child. "You should have thought of the repercussions when you were killing my wife, Now you get to watch me killing your friend, and then stand by and watch the whole world die soon after. You can't murder somebody's wife and expect to get away with it."
"I didn't murder her! It's not like I can call in the police when I find a demon killing people. She had to be stopped. What she was planning to do to those girls was horrific - and in the event killing her was self defence anyway. She tried to bite my head off."
"She always was the excitable sort." For a second fondness replaced the ice in Brennan's eyes, but just as quickly it was gone again. "Whatever the circumstances, she's dead. We all deal with grief in our own ways, Wesley, and this is mine. Nobody gets out of this alive."
"So much for my hand-tailored indigo suit." The Host rolled his red eyes, and nudged Wesley. "Any bright ideas?"
"Short of praying that Angel will turn up soon, no." No matter how competent he sometimes felt, Wesley often found that the feeling didn't last. Nice though it might be to set out as a hero, it was nicer still to know that Angel was there to save the day. Brennan laughed.
"Angel. Your vampire friend. Funny that you'll work for him, and visit with your green friend here, but my wife gets beheaded for being what she was."
"A psychopathic killer? Not seeing the blame." Cordelia's eyes strayed to the door, also hoping for a the quick arrival of the vampire. "And since we're on the subject of killing, why is it me who has to be bled to death for this spell? It's not like my blood is special or anything, Except for the vision thing maybe."
"It's nothing personal." Brennan's tone was mocking, although there was no denying the very real emotion in his eyes. His grief was genuine, and so was his desire to see the rest of the world suffer for it.
"You leave her alone. One person's blood is as good as another's." Wesley tried to put himself between Brennan and Cordelia, but the sorcerer easily pushed him aside.
"The spell calls for a woman's blood, and that rules you out whatever the world might think of you. Now I intend to get my work underway. It's a long process, and there's a great deal to do." He gestured to his vampire guards, who came over in a tight knit group. By the look of them they were afraid of the growling little boy at Brennan's side, and they gave him a wide berth.
"Get her ready, and make sure that the others can't interfere." Brennan turned away, heading for a wooden packing crate that stood amongst the general debris lying about the large room. The lid was loose, and he lifted it off with the barest effort, producing a large copper bowl and a plastic bag. The bag was clearly filled with dried ingredients, and when he opened it a strong, sweet smell soon spread about the room. The scent seemed to galvanise the vampires, and one of them grabbed Cordelia, untying her hands as she struggled in his grip. Wesley moved forward, but a powerful set of arms caught hold of him and held him still. Brennan's son circled in front of him, growling and snarling, and baring his sharp little fangs.
"Um... Nice of you to untie me... but it gives me a horrible feeling that I'm going to wish you hadn't." Cordelia heard a rattling of metal, and glanced up. A long chain was coming down from the rafters, a set of manacles dangling from the end of it. "And it looks as though I was right. Look, chains really aren't my thing, and--" She broke off as the heavy rings were shut tight around her wrists. "Why can't you people chain and sacrifice somebody else for a change, huh? If it's not the mad college boys and their creepy reptile fraternity, it's the poster boy for grief counselling. As of right now I'm officially retiring from the sacrificial victim game. In fact maybe I'm going to start doing a bit of sacrificing of my own." A loud rattle stopped her in mid-spiel, as the chain began to vanish back up towards the roof. When her feet were some five feet above the ground, the chain stopped with a jerk and she struggled feebly. "Ow."
"Cordy!" Wesley tried to reach her, but could not break free from the grip of the vampire holding him. The Host struggled too, but despite his size he was no match for the super strength of his own guard. Dragged back against one of the many support pillars, he was bound to it before he had a chance to resist. A heavy length of chain around his chest fixed the demon to the pillar so securely that he couldn't help feeling only an earthquake was likely to release him. In barely a second Wesley was similarly restrained. He struggled on, but the chain was unrelenting.
"Er, guys? Help?" Hanging uncomfortably from the ceiling, Cordelia tried to kick out, but there was nobody within reach. Brennan knelt beneath her, tipping the contents of his bag into the copper bowl. One of his vampire friends hauled up a section of flooring, and the rushing sound of running water came up from below.
"It's all coming together, Wesley, you see?" Stirring the contents of the bowl with a short, broad-bladed knife, Brennan looked up at the former Watcher with excited eyes. "You know what comes next, or didn't you get that far with your translation?"
"The sky..." Despite the circumstances it was no hardship for Wesley to turn his mind to scholarly things, although his attention lay firmly with Cordelia. "You need a proper view of the sky."
"Precisely!" Brennan smiled almost politely at him, and directed one of his vampires accordingly. It slunk off, heading for some distant wall, and flicked a switch that looked jerry-rigged. It triggered a terrific noise, like a thousand elephants stampeding down stairs, and inch by inch the metal roof slid away. Now only the few metal rafters stood above them, doing nothing to hide the pre-dawn sky. "There now. Impressed? I've thought of everything, you know. And here we are, all and sundry arranged to perfection, and what do I see? Still no sign of the great hero I've been hearing so much about since I arrived in LA. And the really good thing? Even if he does find this place, before very much longer it'll be dawn. It'll be interesting to see what'll happen to a vampire in a room without a ceiling, when the sun's shining down on us all. Don't you think?"
"He'll come." The discomfort she was feeling made Cordelia's words more defiant than they might ordinarily have been. "He'll already be looking for us, and when he finds you he's going to do more than decapitate you and turn your head to ash."
"We'll see. And even so, with the spell already doing its work he's welcome to try what he likes." Brennan busies himself scattering a little of the contents of his bowl into the hole in the floor. The sound of the water roared a little louder, and a faint glow arose from the inside of the bowl. He stirred the ingredients again with his knife, then set it down squarely beneath Cordelia.
"We have to be ready," he said, and jerked his head at the leader of the vampires. "Get changed. You're no good to me if you start exploding when dawn gets here. And check with your friend at the hotel. I want to know where the great Angel is."
"Right." The vampire gathered his companions about him, and left quickly. The roofless warehouse seemed empty without them, although their presence had added little to the place. Wesley watched them until they were out of sight, then shared a look with the Host. He didn't need to see the unfamiliar look of real seriousness in the usually cheerful red eyes to know that his own worries were shared.
"You're still thinking of escape, aren't you." Brennan came closer, eyeing the pair with amusement. "You really think that there's still a chance? You can barely move, and even if you could break free, I've already started the ball rolling. The monsters are on their way. They lack direction, they'd probably only destroy this world, and there'd be no sucking of the whole dimension into hell - but everybody on this miserable planet would still die. Unless you can come up with the way to stop it all. Can you do that, Wes? With your half-remembered, unfinished translations? Admit it, you're defeated."
"Hey, these guys are never defeated." The Host sounded almost insulted, as though the suggestion that the Angel Investigations team were beaten hurt his ego almost as much as it might hurt theirs. "This boy's full of ideas, right Wes?"
"Um... right. Yes of course." He tried to remember what was on the pieces of paper, left in Cordelia's car somewhere in the city. There had to be some clue in their contents, surely? Brennan laughed.
"Well that sounded positive, Wesley. You really don't have a clue what to do, do you. I look forward to seeing your face when the monsters come. It may be the last sight I see on this Earth, but it'll be a good one."
"Smug sod." Hanging impotently above them, Cordelia glared down at their captor. He laughed again.
"Don't worry. You won't be here to see the monsters arrive. You'll never feel their claws, or their fiery breath. Not unless you can survive losing the last drops of your blood, anyway."
"I am so going to enjoy watching Angel batter you to a pulp." Cordelia looked towards the door, almost convinced that her friend was about to burst in. He had saved the day, often at the last minute, so many times before that she found it impossible to believe that he wouldn't do so now. All the same, the door stayed shut. There was no heroic vampire there, looking dramatic, ready with a typically defiant greeting for the evil sorcerer who had kidnapped his friends. Instead, one by one, Brennan's own vampires returned. They were dressed in grey robes, heavier than those worn by Brennan himself, with hoods as extra protection against the coming sun. One of them carried a sheaf of papers, clearly the parchments the Host had seen in Brennan's mind, and Wesley watched them hungrily. So long as those pieces of parchment were present, he wasn't so helpless to reverse the spells. If he could only get free, he could find something in the text to guide him. He was sure of it.
Except that there was little chance of getting free, not without somebody to release him. Even just the ropes at his wrists were obstacle enough, without the chain fixing him to the pillar. The Host was similarly indisposed, and Cordelia even more so. He watched the vampires coming closer, invisible now beneath their robes, and swore inside his head. Fate didn't make it easy to save the world.
"Ah!" Delighted to see his servants return, Brennan turned to them with a smile on his face. It was a smile that didn't reach his grief-haunted eyes, but it served to underline his confidence. "What news of Angel?"
"He's out and about." The vampire handed over the parchments. "He went back to the hotel, but then he left again. My man lost him at Caritas."
"Caritas, hey. Well now that is a shame, since the only person there who knows anything seems to be chained to one of my pillars." Brennan handed the parchments to his small son, then set to work cleaning his knife on a thick piece of material pulled from inside his robe. "Still, I'm sure the great Angel will be along eventually. Probably just in time to see the world go up in flames."
"Real life can be just like the movies, can't it." The Host had raised an eyebrow, expression showing bitter amusement. "The bad guys really do chatter the world to death before they do anything."
"Don't mock the man who controls the evil monsters." There was no real animosity in Brennan's voice, which in many ways made his attitude more disturbing. Wesley smiled, though very faintly.
"This is nothing. You should hear some of the terminal chatterers we've had to put up with in the past."
"Shut up, the pair of you." A flicker of anger showed in Brennan's eyes. "Anyway, I've got better things to do than talk now - to you, at any rate. It's time to move on to the fun bit."
"Er... why's he looking at me like that?" Seeing the wicked glimmer of amusement that had speedily wiped away the anger on Brennan's face, Cordelia tried to draw back from him, although the chains of course prevented her. She kicked out, but a vampire grabbed her feet and held them tightly. There was no way to break free.
"Hey! Those are Gucci shoes, buddy. Watch where you're putting those hands." She gave up the struggle, which was accomplishing nothing more than threatening to tear apart the bones in her wrists. The chains clanked and banged into one another, and she tried to steady herself. She had a fair idea what was coming next, and it made her cold inside. Angel had a time limit now, even above the threat of the world's approaching end; for if he didn't arrive soon he would have only Wesley and the Host to save. Her blood would be powering the tumult that was destined to tear everything apart, and she would already have been the first to die. So loud to her was the sound of her own heartbeat that Wesley's shouts of furious protest went almost unheard. She knew what he must be saying, but the words themselves were lost in the sudden acceleration of her fear. The broad-bladed knife touched her ankle. It was cold, and it slid upwards and downwards along her leg, searching for the right place to bite. The coldness spread, but she didn't feel the sharpness of the point when it stabbed at last. She felt the warmth afterward though. The trickle of blood that ran from the back of her ankle, tickling at first, then soaking into the ribbing around the top of her sock. The vampire holding her legs pulled off her shoe and the sock, and when she looked down she saw her foot, cold and bare, hanging beneath her. Blood dripped in a steady, slow rhythm from her left heel, landing with soft precision in the copper bowl of dried green leaves. Some of it splashed out or missed altogether, striking the floor instead, but the loss didn't seem to matter to Brennan. Apparently it was the blood-letting itself that mattered, and she gave up any thought of renewing her struggle. If it didn't matter where the blood fell, she reasoned, she might just as well conserve her strength. Perhaps then the blood would fall more slowly. Perhaps then it would take longer for the spell to work. Sensing her relaxation the vampire released her, backing off to join its fellows nearby.
"And now--" With a slight bow to Cordelia, the act of some out-dated gentleman displaying a strange kind of gratitude, Brennan turned to face his men. "For the sing-a-long."
"There's singing?" The Host wasn't sure that he liked the sound of that. At the moment he could hope that Angel was going to come through for them all, but if Brennan sang, and in some small way revealed the future, that last bit of hope might just be lost. Brennan smiled, rather unpleasantly.
"Not exactly. Nothing you should be able to read, anyway." He took the parchments from his son, raising them above his head. "These words were handed down to us by the very ether. Written countless aeons ago, performing their acts of power perhaps even before this world manifested itself out of the debris of space. The greatest spell that any creature in any reality has ever envisaged."
"He really does love the sound of his own voice, doesn't he." The Host couldn't resist the jibe, despite his usually more circumspect nature. There was no danger of a reprisal, though, for to Brennan the outsiders existed now merely as observers. He wanted Wesley to see all that happened - for the Host he did not even care that much.
"Form a circle." Focused only on what was happening, Brennan turned his back on his two male prisoners, gathering his vampires around the copper bowl, and around Cordelia's swaying form. If the sight of the dripping blood was a temptation for the vampires they gave no sign of it, but stood still and erect, hidden in their hoods and their robes. The water roared by beneath them; overhead hung the lightening sky. A few last, late stars stood out against the rapidly paling darkness, but the moon still glowed with most of its earlier strength. Wesley looked up at it, angry that it could still hang there, as blasť and indifferent as it had always been to what went on beneath it. It didn't care about Cordelia, slowly bleeding to death, or about the spell that her blood would feed. For a moment it reminded him, bizarrely, of Quentin Travers, self-satisfied and aloof spokesman for the Watchers' Council, epitome of all that made the Council so indifferent to the world, and the many dangers it faced. Quentin Travers, needless to say, would not have appreciated the comparison; neither did Wesley in that strained moment. He turned his thoughts back to Brennan, chanting his rhythmic passages from the parchments, his words repeated in faultless chorus by his gang of vampire underlings. The water seemed to race by with greater speed. Cordelia's blood dripped on. Sweat, or whatever the demon equivalent, had caused the Host's red eye shadow to run, and he looked more demonic than ever. It was a look that might have suited the situation, if it hadn't been for the essentially gentle eyes within the streaks of striking red. Red eyes, red makeup - red blood dripping relentlessly onto the spattered floor. The once green plants in the copper bowl were mostly red too now. Red like the ink on the parchments Brennan held tightly in his bloodless hands. Like the leather jacket Cordelia was wearing. Like the small sneakers on the feet of the little boy watching his father preparing to end the world. Deep down Wesley knew that this heightened awareness wasn't good. It probably meant shock, and shock never meant rational thought and a chance to find the means of escape. He couldn't drive it away though. All that he could do was struggle uselessly against chains that Angel himself would never have been able to break; or shout pointless demands that the foolishness stop. The Host struggled too, though with less vigour. He was new to all of this, or so Wesley could only assume, and was as bewildered as he was afraid. It was an education, perhaps - to witness something like this happening for real, after first seeing it hidden in the words of a song. He caught Wesley's eye, asking any number of questions in that one look; but Wesley couldn't answer any of them. He could only turn back to stare at Cordelia, and wonder if it was just his imagination that made the earth seem to shake under his feet.
Above him Cordelia didn't need to wonder at such things, for from her vantage point above all their heads she could see things that the others could not. She could see the racing water beneath the floor, churning itself up into a white froth as its speed grew. She could see the mist that was rising from within it, taking shape though not yet substance; forming images of beasts that made her heart threaten to stop beating. Faces of evil and bodies of sheer strength; long claws and barbed tails; twisted horns that were obviously lethal even if they were still little more than partially condensed water spray. She watched the forms writhe and mingle, small for now, but obviously ready to grow, and felt weaker even than the loss of blood would explain. The shackles burned her wrists, her head whirled, her pulse raced and slowed, erratic in tandem with her confused brain. She was weak and cold and tired, and frantic and hot and desperate - and just when she was feeling at her worst, a vision took her. Wesley watched her go rigid, and thrash momentarily against the shackles. He saw the greater pallor that washed across her already paling face. He knew what was happening, and wondered if she was seeing an advance image of the end of all of them. But she wasn't.
She saw people. Countless people, just like the people of Earth, although she knew that they were not humans. She saw the beasts of the water mists, solid now, and coloured in black and red. She saw sweeping fires and raging chaos, and blood that soaked the ground. Heard screams and cries and the roars of monsters unleashed upon a long ago world. A void was open, yawning wide, sucking everything into itself as the monsters destroyed the last of the world's grip on reality. She saw it tumble in upon itself; the whole of a reality shifted and torn and twisted, and sucked straight into hell. And she heard the tortured screams of the people who were still there now, perhaps billions of years later, still tortured and tormented in the depths of that hell. Her back arched and she rocked back against the chains, but they held her firm. Seconds later the vision had faded, and she could see the real world again. The shapes in the mist had grown, and the racing waters were rising. Overhead the sky was growing lighter, and the indifferent moon was slowly vanishing from sight. The chanting was still under way. The blood was still running from her ankle. The small boy was still watching all with an air of innocent rapture. A shiver ran through the frame of the building, and she felt it transmit itself through the rafters, through the chains, through her wrists. She couldn't feel much else, she realised. Her consciousness was beginning to dribble away with her blood.
"Wes?" His voice hoarse, the Host called out to the man chained up beside him. Wesley didn't turn his head, but he nodded to show that he had heard. "I'm picking up some extremely unpleasant vibes from this. There are big bad creatures not a million miles away, and I don't mean our overdressed vampire friends over there, or the little monster munchkin. If Angel is going to get here in time..."
"He'll get here." Wesley spoke through gritted teeth, eyes beginning to water from the strain of keeping focused on the parchments. He couldn't take his eyes off them now. Better to look at paper than at his friend, or her blood.
"Are you sure?" It wasn't a plaintive question, nor even a particularly anxious one. It was just a query; a wish to know whether there really was any hope left. Wesley nodded firmly. He had complete faith in Angel, and there was little that could shake that faith. The vampire would come. Angel was a hero. He didn't kill demons and leave their lovers free to wreak vengeance upon the world. He didn't lead his friends into traps on lonely roads. He didn't leave the safety of the hotel when his boss had told him to stay there and do necessary research. Angel was a hero. He'd be there. But the shapes in the mist were rising up to ground level now, and there was colour and texture showing through the spray. The blood-spattered contents of the copper bowl were glowing faintly green, and a purple sheen hovered, faint as fine mist, above the blood that lay all over the floor. Somewhere in the distance a car horn sounded, but Cordelia didn't hear it. She was drifting off to sleep. She didn't have long. From the look of the monsters, trying to breathe non-corporeal flame, the world didn't have long either.
Cordelia's car stood where she had left it, parked awkwardly at the side of the road. Skid marks showed where she had slammed on the brakes in her attempt to avoid hitting Brennan's son, and a large metal rubbish bin was crushed up against the right front wheel. Knowing how Cordelia was about dirt, Angel didn't believe that she would have left the bin there, had she had any opportunity to remove it. He was certain that she - and, presumably, her passengers - had been taken by force.
"Don't exactly look good, does it." Gunn stared at the car, thinking about potential clues, and wondering what they might look like. Angel shook his head.
"Engine's cold, or getting that way. I figure it's been sitting here like this for at least half an hour. Maybe more."
"It's unlocked." Gunn pulled open the driver's door. "We're damn lucky somebody didn't decide to take off in it, 'cause then we'd never know what happened to the others."
"I know." Angel stared into the car, looking, like Gunn, for clues. He saw the sheets of Wesley's notepad scattered on the floor. "What's that?"
"Paper." Gunn gathered them up, then handed them over. "Weird squiggly symbols."
"And not in Wesley's handwriting either." Angel flicked through the collection. "Something that they found out? Maybe that Cordy or the Host saw?"
"Maybe." Gunn couldn't make head or tail of the symbols, and looked away in disgust. "Anything you recognise?"
"A few symbols, not enough. I can't make out anything except for the heading. A name, I think."
"Hey, whatever it is, it's no good to us right now unless it's directions to where they got Cordelia and the others stashed." Gunn looked up at the sky. "Come on. We'd better forget about this car, and get you back into yours. You're going to attract some pretty heavy attention if you burst into flames out here in the street."
"Yeah, I suppose. Get Cordy's spare keys from the glove compartment though. Lock the car up. I don't want to leave it out here for somebody to steal."
"Yeah, 'cause locking your car always stops it getting stolen." Gunn did as he was asked, anyway. "Where now?"
"Like you said, back to the car." Angel went back, walking slowly despite the increasing proximity of the dawn. They were at that special time now, when at any moment a shaft of daylight might break out across the sky. "You see those other tyre marks?"
"Yeah. Could be anything though, couldn't it. All kinds of cars go through here. It ain't exactly a busy road, but it's not the quietest one in LA, either."
"True, but it looks to me like those markings were made by somebody in a hurry. Besides, I can smell..." Angel was silent for a moment, trying to decide on the origins of the mixed scents he was detecting. "Rancid sweat and stale human blood for one thing - and not Cordelia's or Wesley's. Something like that says 'vampire'. Somebody walking around with an old meal caught between their fangs."
"You can smell something somebody already ate?" Gunn looked faintly pained. "Man, I'm glad I don't have your nose. You're sure it's not Cordy or Wes?"
"Yeah." Angel smiled faintly. "I know what they smell like. Everybody has their own personal scent, and they're no different - besides, I've seen enough of their blood in the past to be pretty sure what it smells like, even caught between somebody teeth."
"Something tells me Cordelia wouldn't be very happy to hear you talking about her 'particular scent'. She'd be straight round the nearest perfume store before you could say 'body odour'."
"Probably." Angel dredged up a weak smile at the flat joke. "But right now that's the sort of clue that counts. If I could have got here earlier... Scents fade too fast, even when there isn't much breeze, but there was definitely fear inside that car. Fear and shock. That hadn't had a chance to dissipate."
"Okay, Sherlock. So we figure that Cordy and the others - we're assuming the Host is still with them, right? - were taken away by some vampires in the vehicle that made those other skid marks." Gunn started up the engine. "Why vampires? I thought we were dealing with some bad ass magician?"
"Maybe he wanted a little extra muscle. Vampires are always pretty hot on the idea of ending the world, like it's a way to get rid of... well, the human plague." Angel smiled a little awkwardly. "I tried to do it myself - when I was evil, obviously."
"You'd think vampires would want to keep the 'human plague' around. We may live in what they think is their world, but without us they'd be getting pretty damn hungry."
"Don't try to put logic in a vampire's mind." Angel was silent for a moment, perhaps mulling over the frequent mindlessness of his species, or perhaps thinking about his absent friends. "Either way, I think the others are safe for now. Ordinary vampires wouldn't have bothered kidnapping them. They'd have killed them on the scene. This has got to be something to do with our magician friend."
"Wesley's friend you mean." Gunn shrugged. "So you figure that this guy maybe wanted Wesley to see what he was doing?"
"Yeah. If this is part of some crazy plan to get even with the world over his wife's death, he might well want Wesley to witness it all. He probably holds him responsible." Angel peered through the darkened windows. "Are you still following those tyre tracks?"
"They ended almost as soon as they began." Gunn slowed the car, peering out at the road." Looks like similar marks at this junction though, and that heads onto a one way road. Might be them. Cuts down the number of possible directions they can have gone in if it is."
"Similar marks?" Angel couldn't help a wry smile. "Skid marks pretty much look the same, especially when you look at them from a couple of metres away, through tinted glass; and when you're probably doing forty kilometres an hour."
"Hey man, you tell the smells, I tell the tyres. I know cars." Gunn shrugged. "besides, we've got to take what clues we can, right?"
"I guess so." Angel turned his attention back to the window. "So if they came along here, where could they have gone?"
"It's mostly shops along here. I don't think some crazy guy is going to make his headquarters anywhere like this. Keep heading this way and there are warehouses, but that doesn't have to mean anything. We're still looking for a needle in a haystack, even with the clues we've got."
"Not necessarily." Angel flopped back into his seat, staring fixedly out of the windscreen. "We've got to figure they've had Cordy and the others for at least half an hour. If they haven't been taken too far away, that's long enough to get the spell started."
"So we look for shiny lights in the sky, or big bad scary monsters or something?"
"Maybe. Big spells usually mean that there's some kind of visuals. A lot of power in the air, earth shaking, windows breaking. Standard stuff."
"Great. And here's hoping that when we find the place there's no windows and plenty of cover. Sun's about up."
"I've got my blanket." The fierce determination in Angel's voice was familiar, and Gunn knew better than to suggest that it would foolish to risk going into battle wrapped in a blanket. They didn't have any time to waste; and even if the whole of the world hadn't been in danger, Angel wouldn't leave his friends in the hands of an enemy for any longer than was necessary. Personal risk was rarely a consideration for him. All the same, if he turned into ash he wasn't going to be much use saving anybody.
The road they had followed passed by a series of shops, all of decreasing cleanliness and condition. There were a few derelict buildings after that, looking like they might once have been newsagents or grocery stores, to judge by the fading signs painted in the windows. Some bore adverts announcing space for rent, but it didn't look as though anybody had made a going concern out of the area in some years. Litter lay around, filling up the gutters, and broken windows showed where bored locals had begun to take advantage of the desolation. It looked rather like the sort of place where Angel and Gunn had first met.
"What do we do when we reach a junction?" Slowing the car so that they could better look at the buildings around them, Gunn cast a brief look back at Angel. The vampire shrugged.
"Take a guess. Hope for the best. Working on the assumption that he's going to need space - remember he's conjuring up monsters; big monsters most likely; plus he's got three prisoners and a bunch of vampires - we should be looking for somewhere fairly big."
"So we stick to the main road then I guess." Gunn's eyes strayed over the old building; sheds now, rather than shops. Old warehouses, the sorts of places that the police were always staking out on TV shows. He was looking for signs of magic being performed, but he couldn't see anything yet. It was easier to see details now though. To see the layout of the street, now that the light was better. The last stars, which had remained just about visible in this less well lit part of town, were now gone completely, and the moon had sunk to near invisibility. The glow in the east suffused everything, adding a fuzzy yellow edge to many of the buildings, and threatening to do unpleasant things to the vampire seated in the back of the convertible. Gunn would have felt more optimistic if the night had still been with them, or if his companion had been of a less fatally combustible nature, but he wasn't going to suggest turning back now. That wasn't an option, even if it did have an obvious appeal.
"Over there." Angel was pointing at something, rather uselessly since Gunn was concentrating on the way ahead. "Parked at the side of the road."
"A van." Gunn slowed the car, but didn't stop it. "So?"
"So we're looking for a vehicle of some sort, right? One that's big enough for several vampires and their prisoners?"
"So we're not looking for a little car. Doesn't mean we're looking for a van. And besides, do you know how many vans there are in Los Angeles?"
"A lot." Angel's voice was soft, and gently insistent. "But how many vehicles of any sort have you seen along this road? The last ten minutes or so, I haven't seen a single one, have you?"
"No. Nobody comes around here. No people, no vehicles." Gunn brought the car to a halt. "I don't know though. The odds aren't great."
"The odds have been against us since we chose this direction out of hundreds after we left Cordelia's car. But we have to look somewhere." Angel pulled his blanket closely around him. "Get the car as close to the buildings as possible. I don't want to be too exposed. You either - we don't know who might be watching, and they might be armed."
"Or this place might be completely deserted. Or maybe we're about to bust in on some property developers' meeting." Gunn smiled. "But I guess it's got to be worth a try. There are a lot of buildings around here though, man. Even if that is their van, they could be in any one of these places."
"You're in a really optimistic mood today, aren't you." The car jolted up off the road, crossing the kerb and running down a tiny alley between low buildings. Gunn grinned at Angel in the rear-view mirror.
"Hey, I'm the cheeriest guy you're likely to meet in the next few minutes. You ready?"
"As I'll ever be. There's a lot of shade down here, but we're going to need to watch out for more than just bad guys. If I'm going to be any use later on, I need not to explode now."
"I'll second that. Last thing I wasn't is to have to do this one my own." Gunn slid out of the car, holding the back door open for Angel. "Watch where you walk. There's some daylight showing through at the ends of the alleyway."
"Don't worry. I've had a lot of years practice at this." Angel pulled the blanket close, not needing it within the alley, but not wanting to be without it all the same. It wasn't the greatest protection, but he knew from previous experience that it could do the job, for a while at least. Gunn look the lead, stake ready in one hand.
"I feel a little under prepared," he said softly, as they crept along the alley. "Stakes might take care of the vampires, but what about our friendly neighbourhood psycho magician?"
"A stake'll stop him - if you think you can use it on him." Angel sounded grim. "We don't have time for being nice, Gunn - and if we have to stop him the hard way, then maybe that's something we'll just have to deal with."
"I'd feel happier with a gun."
"I'd feel happier with several crossbows and a flame thrower." Angel smiled briefly. "But stakes have always done the trick in the past. Just bet on having surprise on our side, and hope for the best." He pressed on, sharp eyes scanning every which way, heightened vampiric senses on the alert. He thought that he could smell fresh blood, but against a backdrop of other scents - damp, old stone, rotting litter - it was hard to be too sure. Blood, yes, but whose? He was sure that it was human. Beyond that...
"This way." The alley had turned into a network of similar passages, leading between any number of decaying buildings. He chose a new direction seemingly at random, but guided by that distant scent of blood.
"That way, huh." Gunn followed him, moving ahead to take the lead when the sunlight began to seep in to light the alleyway around them. Angel pressed against the wall, walking sideways, expression about as harsh and determined as Gunn had ever seen it. It still seemed as though they were taking a lot on faith here - trusting in fate, perhaps, to lead them to where they wanted to go. For all they knew they weren't even on the right side of the city. As if to answer his doubts, the ground shook with sudden force, and a loud rumble echoed somewhere far beneath them. Gunn swallowed hard.
"Okay, that didn't feel like the usual kind of earthquake." He glanced up at the sky, almost expecting to see some giant, fire breathing monster already flying off to begin its violent work. Angel turned and turned about, trying to get his bearings.
"This way." He took off again, almost at a run, a plume of smoke rising from one hand when it fell momentarily into a patch of weak sunlight. Gunn had to hurry to catch him up.
"Did you see something?"
"I don't need to see. Not now." He could smell the blood more strongly now, and with it the unmistakable hint of fear. Something struck him, as the closer proximity of the source of the blood made the background odours fade away. "Cordelia."
"You can hear--" Gunn shook his head. "You can smell her? Cordy?"
"No." Anger flared in the usually gentle eyes. "I can smell her blood. Lots of it."
"Lots? What's lots? A nasty cut? Are we talking vampires feasting here, or what?"
"I don't know. I just know that I can smell a lot of blood - and I mean a lot." Angel sped up, racing ahead now with what seemed to be a complete lack of concern for the sun. "Look!"
"What do you--" Gunn broke off. Ahead of them was a warehouse, at first glance the same as all of the others, but with a difference that soon became apparent. A purple haze, faint but unmistakable, hung over the tops of the walls, and the scent of water greeted Angel through the smell of the blood. Lots of water. A necessary part of the spell, no doubt.
"We're almost back where we started," commented Gunn, seeing the van parked nearby. Angel nodded.
"Yeah, but did you fancy walking in through the front? They might already have seen us, but at least this way we've got a chance at getting in unseen."
"I don't see any back doors, and those windows look kind of small."
"I know. Angel stared up, seeing a rusted fire escape dangling high up on one of the adjacent buildings. "I'll give you a boost up there. See what you can see."
"Okay." Doubtful, but eager to be doing something at last, Gunn stepped into Angel's cupped hands. "I can't see you getting in this way though, man. There's enough sun up there to fricassee a whole army of vampires."
"Worry about that in a moment." Angel heaved him up. "Now what do you see?"
"Hang on." Gunn climbed higher up the fire escape, until he reached the height of the warehouse walls. From there he could see that the place was missing its roof, which posed all number of new problems for Angel. Sunlight flooded the space, highlighting the robed and chanting figures, and the weird, writhing shapes made of what seemed to be a white, watery mist. The shapes of monsters, clearly growing, clearly taking a firmer grip on reality. Gunn's eyes roamed further. There was a shape hanging from the rafters, and red splashes that seemed to shine wetly in the sun. His breath caught momentarily. It was blood, and the dangling shape, even though it was not recognisably human from the angle of his vision, had to be Cordelia. He could identify her jacket now, and her hair moving slightly in the breeze. Gunn slid back down on legs that were numb and lifeless.
"Well?" asked Angel. Gunn's expression spoke volumes, but not enough. The younger man took a deep breath, feeling rather more shaky than he really appreciated.
"It's bad, man. Cordy... I think her blood was a part of the spell. They might have opened a vein or something, and there's blood all over the place... I don't know. I think maybe it might be too late."
"No." Angel sounded fierce. "It can't be too late. What else did you see?"
"Um... people. Five of them, in a circle, chanting. And... things. Big things. Monsters, made out of mist. Becoming real, I guess."
"Wesley and the Host?"
"I didn't see them. I came back, soon as I saw Cordelia. If we're going to help her, we have to get in there now, man."
"Right." Angel pulled the blanket over his head. "Then that's what we'll have to do."
"That building's got no roof! You go in there you'll go up like dry leaves in a forest fire."
"And if I don't, the whole world will go up as well in a few hours." Angel bent his knees a couple of times. "Keep back."
"Keep back." With a mighty jump, Angel pulled himself up onto the fire escape next to Gunn, who looked impressed.
"You ought to enter the Olympics with a jump like that."
"If the world doesn't end some time today, maybe I will." Angel started up the ladder, movements slow to avoid unnecessary exposure to the sunlight. "So long as they agree to have all my events at night-time, anyway."
"I don't know. The smouldering hands could be a good signature gimmick." Gunn eyed the plumes of smoke drifting from under the blanket. This was not looking encouraging. Out of sight beneath the covering, Angel winced and set his teeth against the pain. He had to get inside that building. If he was going to combust then so be it; but he needed to make a difference first.
"That blanket isn't going to hold out indefinitely," Gunn muttered, mind following much the same track as Angel's. The vampire nodded, although as a visual gesture it was largely useless beneath the gently smoking material.
"It'll last, so long as the sun is still pale. When it gets a little stronger, that's when we need to worry."
"Maybe we'll get lucky, and your buddies The Powers That Be'll put dawn on hold."
"Yeah, and maybe I'll spend this afternoon sunbathing on the beach." Angel winced again, audibly this time, as a ray of sunlight pierced the blanket and burned the side of his neck. "Damn. I hope this doesn't damage my coat."
"Even the sun wouldn't dare do that." They reached a level with the top of the warehouse, and came to a halt. Angel didn't say anything when he saw the scene inside. He just stared, expression invisible beneath the blanket. "Now what do we do? We're a long way up."
"Shouldn't be hard to jump from this ladder onto that wall."
"Er... yeah." Gunn was still far from happy. "And then what? We're up, they're down. There's a big drop in between."
"It's not a big fall for me." Angel pointed to the metal rafters forming a sparse network, the bare bones of what had once been the roof. "Get onto them. You can climb down one of the support posts, or use the chains that they've got Cordelia hanging from. I shouldn't think she'll object."
"And that's the plan? Jump down there? I've heard better. Admittedly not often from you, but I have heard better."
"Well you won't today." Angel jumped neatly across onto the warehouse wall. It was thin but he balanced there anyway, like a smoking acrobat crouching on a tightrope - part of some mad expressionist theatre production. "Just get down there, Gunn. Find Wesley and the Host. We need to stop these robed guys, and knock the magic on the head."
"And we have to get Cordelia to a hospital."
"Yeah." Angel peered down, straight down, into the open watercourse. The writhing mist showed shapes filled with detail. He could see scales and horns and wicked eyes. The creatures were almost fully formed. Instinct told him that there was very little time left. Sucking in a deep, if unnecessary breath, he jumped down to the warehouse floor.
He struck hard, as he had known that he would, rolling once, twice, three times, into some temporary shade. Somebody shouted - one of the robed figures - but another roared back at him in rage. The one who had broken ranks to announce Angel's arrival turned back to the formation, and Angel smiled coldly. So the chanting was important, was it? Well then that was a good place to start. Regardless of his own safety he ran forward, the blanket streaming out behind him. One arm ignited, but rather than beat out the flames, he hurled himself at the nearest of the robed figures, dragging him to the ground. Voices rang in his ears, and he saw the flames leap from his own clothing to that of his victim. The loose material caught instantly, and in the sudden struggle that followed, the hood of the robe fell back. Angel looked down into wide yellow eyes and a jabbering, fanged mouth, and his own mouth twisted into a cruel grin. As his own features changed to match those of the vampire in his grip, he tore aside part of the burning robe, and watched in satisfaction as the sunlight sent the vampire back to hell. All at once the three other vampires were upon him.
Gunn's entrance on to the scene was less dramatic, and went without comment. Brennan saw him, but wasn't about to stop his chanting for anything. His three remaining underlings cared only for Angel, and their fight became a brutal, macabre dance - an avoidance of sunlight on Angel's part, as his blanket smouldered away into increasing uselessness; a mindless anger on the part of his opponents. Gunn thought about going to help even out the odds a little, but he remembered his instructions. Wesley and the Host. If there was magic to be reversed, chances were they would need their former Watcher to get it done. Chanting and growling filling his ears, he looked about. Cordelia he knew about, but she would have to wait. There was nothing that he could do for her right now.
He spotted Wesley and the Host just as a louder growl told him that one of the vampires had decided to leave Angel to its fellows and come after him. He ignored it, racing forward, attacking the chains around Wesley with a furious energy. Break the lock, his inner self told him. Ignore the vampire, break the lock. Pulling out his knife he drove the point into the padlock and forced it open. The vampire grabbed his arm, and Wesley, tumbling away from the pillar, tripping over the chains as they fell away from him, threw himself unsteadily at the pair. They collapsed into a heap, the vampire growling and kicking, lashing out with furious abandon, but in the process losing hold of Gunn. Wesley rolled away, knocked aside by one of the wild cascade of blows, and in the same second Gunn leaped back towards the creatures, stake in one hand, knife in the other. When he attacked he wasn't sure at first which he had used to stab downwards; whether he had used his right hand or his left. Only when the hot ash flew upwards, and the vampire dissolved away, could he be sure of his instincts. There wasn't time to be relieved.
"Quickly." Wesley was struggling to his feet. "Untie me. I have to... do something."
"Gee, that's comprehensive Wes. You do know how to stop your buddy over there, right?"
"My-? You know?" Wesley looked pale suddenly, and perhaps for the first time, Gunn saw the insecurities that lay beneath the intelligent eyes. He shrugged.
"Hey, what do I know?" He used his knife to cut the ropes. "But you've got an idea, right?"
"Perhaps." Wesley tried straightening his decidedly dishevelled clothing. "Free the Host."
"That's a plan I can certainly live with." Rather worried that he had been forgotten, the Host was leaning forwards now, anxious to be freed from his various bonds. Gunn nodded.
"Yeah, sure. Oh." He dug around inside his pockets and produced a sheaf of papers - the pages from Wesley's notebook, bearing the words of Brennan's spell. He thrust them into Wesley's hands. "Maybe these will help?"
"Maybe." He struck off across the floor, mind closed to Angel, in serious trouble fighting two enemies far better protected against the sun that was he. Gunn was aware of Angel's plight, and worked doubly fast to free the Host. When the last of the rope and the chains had fallen away, he spun on his heel and raced away, only slightly surprised to see that the Host was following him. They arrived just as one of the vampires got a firm hold on the all-important blanket, struggling to tug it away. Angel growled, but he knew that there was nothing he could do to stop the creature now. The blanket inched down, and his already damaged sleeve, once ignited, once beaten out, burst into flame once again. Pain flared up his arms - and the vampire holding his blanket burst into dust. Angel looked up, seeing Gunn grinning through a rain of fine ash; then strong arms were hauling him to his feet, smothering the flames with a very stylish looking tailored jacket.
"Angel, sugar, I always knew you were hot, but this is really no way to prove it." The Host settled the blanket better around the vampire's smoking shoulders, and Angel smiled lopsidedly.
"Wesley?" he asked, throat too hot and dry to make speech a pleasure. The Host nodded his still impeccably gelled head.
"Over there, my little fanged friend."
"Thanks." He raced off before looking to see what Wesley was up to, not bothering to check on Gunn's progress against the last vampire. There was rarely any need to check up on Gunn, even when he was doing his fighting with a large green demon getting in the way.
Wesley was a different matter, whatever his unquestionable abilities. On leaving Gunn to free the Host he had hurried over to Brennan, completely at a loss as to what to do, and focused only on stopping the chanting. With that in mind, unable to come up with a better plan, he simply hurled himself at the magician. They crashed to the ground together, rolling over and over before either of them was able to begin fighting back.
"So this time you want to kill me too?" Brennan's voice was filled with a bitter sarcasm. "And you think that'll help? Killing me won't end this."
"Shut up." Wesley managed to get on top of the struggling magician, and angled a punch straight down. It landed with a satisfying sound, but Brennan, either through rage or just through natural strength, seemed largely unaffected. He hit back, and the blow sent Wesley rolling across the floor, dangerously close to the yawning gap above the watercourse. He heard the rushing of the torrent suddenly closer than before, and stared up at the towering figure of one of the monsters, rising above him in a shower of fine spray. A foaming white eye stared balefully down at him, before Brennan's looming figure cut off the view. The magician's full weight landed on Wesley's chest, and powerful hands closed around his throat.
"Wesley!" Angel was racing towards the pair, heedless of everything else in the room. He wasn't expecting another attacker, and when a small form suddenly collided with his legs he tripped and almost fell. The blanket came partially away, and a beam of sunlight struck him full in the chest. The pain was intense, and he couldn't help but cry out, at the same time lashing out at his attacker. The blow didn't connect. Whoever had attacked him had moved already, and determined hands were tugging once again at the blanket. Angel spun about - and came face to face with a small boy. His human ancestry was obvious, but so was the demonic side of his family. Small and sweet he had the looks of any six year old child; the same gentle features, the same unruly hair; the same wide eyes. The only real difference was the hatred, the mad fury in those eyes. Angel's arm, upraised with stake ready to fall, froze in place. He was not going to kill a child, whatever its nature. Instead, grabbing the boy by the scruff of the neck, he pushed him out of the way, then turned back to help Wesley. It was a matter of moments to tug Brennan's wildly struggling form away from his friend, and send him tumbling after his son. Wesley stumbled upwards.
"The spell--" His eyes were watering, and one of the lenses in his glasses was cracked. "It's nearly complete."
"Then stop it." Angel turned back, ready for the next assault. "But be quick."
"I don't - I'm not sure--" He fumbled through the papers; through the ones written by the Host, and the others, dropped by Brennan during the fight. His mind stuck and rebelled, refusing at first to translate the words properly. He glanced up, seeing Angel smoking and smouldering, the monsters writhing in the air, and felt the earth shake violently. He stumbled and almost fell. Angel did the same, and in the moment of his distraction Brennan hurled himself forward, a mad mass of flailing limbs. Angel struggled against him, once again losing his grip on the blanket, and Wesley started forward.
"Brennan!" He held up the papers, a determined expression on his face. "Aren't you forgetting your spell?"
"What?" Brennan looked up, mind registering the fact that his precious parchments were now in his enemy's hands. Pushing past Angel he ran forward, stopping suddenly as a loud rattle of machinery rose above the roar of the nearby water. The roof was raising back into place. A grinning Host had found the controls, and was proudly cutting off the once necessary view of the sky. Brennan roared with rage, almost turning aside to race after the Host. Gunn blocked his path.
"Now this makes things a little easier." Throwing aside the now ruined blanket, Angel stepped forwards. He looked a mess and knew it, his long leather coat burned through in places, his trousers singed and holed, his hair smoking wildly. He was smiling though, fierce and intimidating. Brennan took a step back.
"Spell's nearly finished," he spat, eyes darting about. "You've still got to stop it. I can still complete it. The world's over. All of it. They'll all be dead soon."
"I don't think so." Angel cast a look over at Wesley, poring over the parchment with wild eyes. Brennan laughed.
"He'll never work it out. No human truly understands that text. You'd have to have spent your whole life studying this sort of stuff to have any idea even where to start."
"Never heard of the Watchers, have you." Angel moved towards him, attention now focused on Brennan alone. "Maybe you people should do your research before you try your nasty little spells." He shook his head, and his human face returned to him. "There are all kinds of people ready, willing - and able - to stop you. People like Wesley, who have been studying this sort of thing all their lives, and people like me and Gunn here, who just enjoy stopping people like you. So sorry, but the world won't be ending today."
"Or at least I hope not." Wesley grabbed the copper bowl, chanting a few words in a language that even he only half understood. He flung the blood-soaked mass into the racing water, and chanted breathlessly onwards. Brennan tried to go for him, but Angel caught him, twisting an arm behind his back. Black smoke began to rise from the hole in the floor.
"You know what you're doing, Wes? 'Cause this looks kind of like the bad magic going on the way it wants to." Gunn came closer, and Wesley shot him a tired look.
"I don't know. Maybe." He turned back, staring up at the still growing monsters, They were changing colour - white to grey to red to black. Malevolent eyes shone bright and yellow, and he began to mutter his words of - he hoped - cancellation once again. The earth began to shake again, and cracks broke up the concrete of the floor. Gunn stumbled, and Wesley pulled him back from the edge of the hole.
"You'll never do it! Not in time!" Brennan sounded as though his mind was cracking, but nobody present was sympathetic. Nobody except the small boy cowering in a corner, watching everything with bright, hot eyes. He made no move though. He was not fool enough to try.
"I don't honestly know if I'm doing any good." Staring up at the massive creatures, now banging against the roof, Wesley pulled off his glasses long enough to wipe the sweat from his eyes, then settled them back into place once again. The cracked lens hampered his vision somewhat, but he wore the things as much through habit as through necessity.
"Just keep at it." Angel was struggling with Brennan. He wanted to go to Cordelia and get her out of this place, but he knew that there was no doing that until all of this was sorted out.
"Yeah. Keep at it, man." Gunn was also staring up at the creatures, heart in his throat. Certainly it didn't look as if the Englishman's efforts were having any effect. Wesley nodded, and going to the edge of the hole, staring down at the racing water, he began to chant again. A wind from within the watercourse blew upwards, ruffling the papers in his hands, and mist from the roiling dragons rained down on him. Brennan was shouting and raging, a madman lost to despair and hatred. The water raced and roared and sprayed high into the air, and one of the monsters screamed. The ground shook violently once again, and an explosion, from somewhere beneath the earth, sent a ball of hot black smoke rising up through the hole. Wesley was knocked backwards into Gunn, and the second monster screamed an echo to the first. A plume of flame shot upwards, blood red and scented by the dried herbs that had been in the copper bowl, and in the same instant the monsters exploded. Water poured down, soaking Wesley and Gunn, and splashing Angel and Brennan. The flames rose upwards again, heedless of the torrent of water pouring down, and fingers of liquid fire spread out across the floor, chasing shadows up the walls. Gunn jumped backwards with a shout of surprise, but Wesley headed towards the chaos, the papers held out. He was chanting again, a different language this time, although only Brennan was really aware of that. The magician let out a thin howl, and with a sudden effort he pulled free of Angel and ran towards Wesley. Wesley dropped the papers, a mass of liquid flames sprayed upwards, Angel grabbed the struggling sorcerer - and as the human's snatching fingers reached out for the flapping parchments, Angel's vampiric strength caught him a powerful blow across the shoulders. It was largely unintentional, perhaps, but Brennan was sent flying forwards. The fire enveloped him, and with a wild shriek he fell with his parchments into oblivion. A rushing sound seemed to suck the air from the room, and the fire vanished. Gunn kicked the cover back into place over the drain. There was silence.
"Is that it?" He asked the question of both Angel and Wesley, and both answered at once, nodding in a shaky tandem. He smiled, just as shakily. "Good. 'Cause between you and me, I'm just about all in. Those vampires did not go easy."
"Yeah." Angel tugged off his ruined coat and threw it aside. "I'm glad I've got more than one of these things."
"So am I. You wouldn't be the same without your long swirly coattails, Angel cakes." The Host came over, straightening his frilled shirt. "I hate to break up the party, but there's a girl over there in serious need of some medical attention."
"Yeah. I know." Angel turned to Gunn. "Find something. Anything I can use as a cover to get out of here and back to the car."
"Right." Gunn took off. So did Angel, heading the other way. Wesley stared after him, wanting to follow him to Cordelia's aid, but not sure if he could move just yet. The Host smiled at him.
"You look a picture, Sweetie. That's going to be one impressive black eye in an hour or two, and that outfit is never going to be the same again."
"Yeah." Wesley took of his glasses, playing with them uncertainly. "Are you alright?"
"I think so. Not happy. Not wanting to do this for a living. But essentially alright."
"Good." Wesley turned away. There were other things of more immediate importance than idle chatter, and the Host understood that. He didn't follow. Instead he hung back and watched. Angel was working on the chains, doing something with them. A key? A knife? Simple brute strength? Either way he was removing them, gently so as not to jolt Cordelia's strained arms too suddenly. She didn't seem to be moving.
"Cordy?" The vampire knew that he sounded hoarse, not at all like usual, for his neck, like much of his skin, was scarred with burns of varying severity. His cares were not for himself though. Slowly he lowered Cordelia, and limply she fell into his arms. She was a dead weight, unable to support herself, although he thought that she was starting to regain consciousness.
"Angel?" she sounded surprised. He nodded, and she struggled weakly.
"No. The daylight. No roof."
"Just take it easy, Cordy. The roof is back on." He held her close, feeling so utterly useless in that moment that it took him some time to remember that he still had to save her.
"Angel?" Wesley's voice sounded faint and oddly subdued. Angel turned to him, the girl a strangely artistic sprawl of red leather in his arms. He nodded.
"I know. The hospital. You'll have to carry her. I - I can't be certain - the sunlight, you know?
"I know." Wesley was crouching down, using material torn from somewhere - his shirt? his jacket? Angel wasn't sure - in an attempt to staunch the flow of blood from Cordy's leg. "I think - I mean, Brennan was keeping it from clotting as part of the spell. That shouldn't be a problem now, but she's probably still losing blood. I don't know."
"Then we'll just have to be quick, won't we." Angel handed her across. "Come on."
"Yes. Yes of course." Wesley turned around, heading for the main door, the Host following along beside him. Gunn came over as they left, holding some old sacks and a piece of tarpaulin.
"These any good?" he asked. Angel nodded.
"Ought to get me to the car. Just have the door open."
"I will." Gunn took a last look about at the warehouse - the cracked floor, the scorched walls, and the great stain of blood. "Should we torch this place? I mean, is it safe now?"
"Yeah, it's safe." Angel didn't really know why he was so sure of that, but he was. Brennan was dead, the spell was over, the monsters returned to whichever ghastly dimension had spawned them - and this grim, horrible little warehouse, in this grim, horrible little part of LA, was as still and as empty as it had ever been. "Let's just get out of here."
"Sure." Gunn went quickly to the main doors, swinging them open and heading for the car. Wesley and the Host were in the van, the better vehicle for keeping Cordelia comfortable - and either they had found some keys or Wesley knew how to hot-wire it, for the engine roared satisfyingly to life. Gunn pulled open the back door of Angel's car.
"Come on, man!" He knew that Angel would want to get to the hospital as soon after his friends as possible, so it was not a surprise when the vampire came barrelling out of the warehouse before he had finished the call, old sacks hanging about his shoulders, the musty tarpaulin hanging over his head. Smoke rose from his shoes, but apparently that didn't hurt enough to slow him down. He dived into the car, shielding still intact, and Gunn slammed the door shut.
"Hurry up!" Angel was shouting to him even as he was climbing in behind the wheel. He smiled.
"I thought I wasn't supposed to drive fast in this car?"
"Forget that." Angel was leaning forward, risking filtered sun rays in his eagerness to be off. "Just hurry. I don't know how bad she is."
"Yeah, I know." Gunn thought about how dreadful she had looked, and revved up the engine. "Don't worry, man. We were on time."
"We'd better have been." Angel slumped back into his seat, thinking of the deathly pale face, and the weak, weak voice. He couldn't help but feel it was a damned shame that Brennan had had just the one death to give.
The hospital was the same as ever. The same as it had been when he had visited Cordelia there before, when her visions had driven her insane. The same as it had been when he had brought Wesley there, after Wolfram and Hart's bomb had ripped their old offices apart. Just the same, for that matter, as the hospital in Sunnydale, which he had once had cause to know quite well. Maybe all hospitals were the same - right now he cared only about this one. Only this one hospital, and only one of all the many patients inside it.
She was lying on a white bed, in a white room, a bright splash of red from the blood reservoir possibly the only colour besides the brown of her hair. She was asleep, or perhaps unconscious, and Angel knew that she was likely oblivious to his presence. He stood by the door, wondering why there were not nurses there too. Shouldn't somebody be watching her, checking the flow of blood, making sure that the machines and the wires and the rest of the equipment were all working the way they should? He wandered over to stand by the bed, then pulled up a chair and sat down. He wasn't in any particular hurry. Leaving the way he had come in - via a back door in a grimy, semi-shaded alley - had no especial appeal. He was happy enough to wait here until nightfall.
"I just spoke to one of the nurses. She said not to expect Cordy to wake up for a while." The voice, of course, was unmistakable, even more so than most other voices that Angel knew well. He looked up.
"Wesley." The smile he offered was a tired one, he knew - but he wasn't ready for warm grins and cheerful greetings just yet. "I wondered where you'd got to."
"Paperwork." He glanced back the way he had come, to the white corridors leading back to the front entrance. "Filling in forms."
"Right." It was easy to forget about things like that, when you crept in through back entrances, or drainage pipes, and spent the rest of your time being terribly heroic and dashing. Paperwork wasn't exactly a big part of Angel's life. "Gunn and the Host?"
"Gunn's getting himself something to eat. The Host ran into some friend of his when we were coming in. I think he got a lift back to Caritas." He smiled, rather lifelessly. "I think he was glad to get away. The last few hours haven't exactly been his sort of thing."
"He did look a rather paler shade of green than usual, last time I saw him." Angel turned back to stare once again at Cordelia. "Maybe we should send him some flowers. Say sorry."
"It's not you that needs to apologise, is it." Wesley's feet sounded softly scratching on the floor, as he came around to stand at the foot of Cordelia's bed. "She's going to need a lot of blood, and the bed's specially heated. They might have to use a second drip. Warm saline or something."
"Losing a lot of blood can bring your body temperature down a lot." Angel stared at the strangely small shape stretched out before him. Certainly he should know all about blood loss, and its effects. "Look, Wesley--"
"She was very brave." He still sounded subdued - horribly so. "She just hung there. I suppose I'd have been quite proud of her, if I hadn't had so much on my mind."
"Pretty crazy time, I know." It was hard to know exactly what to say, both because of their concern, and because of Wesley's obviously troubled state of mind. "Pull up a chair, Wes. She'll want to see you as well when she wakes up."
"I doubt that." His head was hanging now, and Angel could see that what was bothering him was obviously weighing heavily on his conscience. The vampire sighed.
"Wesley, what happened to Cordelia wasn't your fault. You've got an apology growing inside you, I can see it coming. There's no need for it."
"I wasn't going to apologise." Wesley looked up sharply, and Angel saw his eyes shine brightly behind his glasses. It was a surprising turn to the conversation, but Angel was learning never to be too surprised by Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. "I was going to offer my resignation. Perhaps you could say goodbye to Cordelia for me when she wakes? I... well I'm not sure that it's a good idea to wait around. Best to make a clean break, generally."
"Um... resignation?" The rest of Wesley's words were a bit of a blur, either through Angel's surprise, or just his exhaustion. "What resignation? I mean, why?"
"Angel..." Wesley searched around the room for something to look at besides his employer. "What happened today..."
"I've already told you, what happened to Cordelia wasn't your fault. You couldn't have stopped it. You were outnumbered."
"You think that I'm resigning because I couldn't escape from four vampires with guns?" Wesley's once familiar haughtiness, now seen a little less often, flared up again as his head lifted proudly. "I'm not ashamed of that, Angel. Trying anything would have been foolish, and almost certainly fatal. I'm - it's just that--" He sighed. "It's all my fault, that's why. All of it. Last night. This morning. The world nearly ending, Cordelia almost dying, you getting all burnt up. It's all because of me. When I killed that demon in New Orleans, I knew that she had a human lover. A man who was at least as bad as she was, who had almost certainly helped with the ritual killings, and all the other things that she was guilty of. I knew, but I didn't do anything about it."
"You're angry with yourself because you didn't kill a man?" Angel shook his head. "You do some odd things sometimes, Wes, and sometimes you can be an idiot - and yeah, I know I'm not making you feel any better by saying that - but don't go blaming yourself over this. That really would be stupid."
"No. Seriously, Not being able to kill that guy - Brennan - is nothing to be ashamed of."
"I killed his wife. I sliced her head off with a machete. If she deserved it, surely he did as well? But I didn't kill him, and because of it he came here, nearly killed one of the few people I've ever been close to, and damn nearly sent the whole of the world into hell. I think that's reason enough to blame myself - and certainly reason enough to resign. You don't need my kind of help. Not if you're going to make a difference in this world."
"That's your father talking." Angel's voice was harsh, and he saw Wesley's eyes snap up, hot and unexpectedly fierce. "Wesley... I'm not going to get into a debate on moral issues right now. Maybe Brennan's wife didn't deserve to die. Maybe nobody does. You killed her because it was the only way to stop her, and we all understand that. Me, Gunn, Cordelia... We also understand that it's not nearly so easy for you to kill a human as it is to kill a big, ugly, scaly demon. It's not weakness, and it's nothing to do with some kind of inter-species prejudice, whatever your conscience is telling you right now. It's just psychology, and it effects all of us in some way. I'd have been more surprised if you had killed him."
"I should have done." The anger and self-recrimination seemed to have faded somewhat, and Wesley just sounded crestfallen now. He was staring at the foot of Cordelia's bed again, eyes cast firmly downward.
"Maybe. As if turned out, it didn't matter. The world didn't end. Cordelia didn't die. Maybe if you meet a situation like that again you'll handle it differently. Maybe not. But never be ashamed of yourself for not wanting to kill somebody. It's called having a soul, Wes - and I should know."
"Hmm. Maybe." Very, very slowly, Wesley pulled up a chair and sat down. "I still feel that I should be doing a lot of atoning."
"That's something else I know a lot about." For a moment they shared a brief smile, both with their own troubled thoughts to keep real humour to a minimum. "I won't accept your resignation, Wesley. Just in case you hadn't got that already."
"Thankyou." Wesley was silent for a moment longer, then looked up abruptly. "Coffee?"
"I don't usually. But yeah. Yeah, that'd be good." Angel frowned, thinking. "And, I don't know. Maybe - chocolate?"
"Yes. Yes, I think so." Again they shared a small smile, this one perhaps a little stronger. Wesley stood up. "Angel?"
"Yeah, I know. You're sorry. Go get the coffee, Wes."
"Yes. Er... right." He looked a little flustered, once his almost permanent appearance. "Back in a tick."
"Okay." Angel watched him leave, glad at the lightening of the weight on his friend's shoulders. Sometimes it was good to have nearly two hundred and fifty years of experience to share with people. To play the counsellor, the advisor, even the mother hen. Other times it was good to be left alone, for a moment. To sit in silence and think about somebody that he hadn't wanted to kill. Somebody that he had allowed to go on living because, just as Wesley had been unable to kill a fellow human, there was a line somewhere that even a vampire had to draw. And maybe that act, one day, would have its own repercussions. He reached out, taking Cordelia's small, pale hand, and told himself not to worry about the future. He had the present to take care of first.
And far away across the city, a small demon child walked disconsolately through a shadowy alley, thinking of the death of his father. Of the death of his mother. Of the hatred he felt for their killers.
And fury and vengeance burned deep in his tiny heart.