Disclaimer :: The characters herein are the property of their creators. I make no profit from their use.


:: Queen of the Night ::

written by Starlet2367 { e-mail // livejournal }


"Hey, Dennis, I'm home," Cordelia called as she closed the apartment door behind her. "How was your day?" She wandered into the living room, sorting through her mail as she went. It was mostly bills and flyers although there was also a green envelope, addressed in Willow's handwriting.

She ran her finger under the flap and found a Solstice card with a note that said, "Wishing you light and peace." Nothing from Tara, though. She thought back to the funeral and the sweet girl who had been so obviously in love with her friend.

"Hope everything's okay," she said, dropping the letters onto the end table. Dennis rearranged them into a tidy pile. "Thanks," she murmured.

She walked toward the bedroom, shedding clothes as she went. Her blazer came off, exposing a navy, scoop-necked t-shirt streaked with dried formula, remnants of her afternoon feeding session. Connor might still be a tiny baby but, she thought with a smile, he'd certainly inherited his father's perfect aim.

She pulled the shirt over her head, a dreamy look coming over her face as her fingers brushed the formula. Cordy had never considered herself a kid person, but Connor was changing her mind with his intelligent gaze and cherub's mouth. And that brow--just like Angel's.

The t-shirt went into the hamper and the blazer on the pile of dry-cleaning on the bedroom chair. She shucked off her jeans and put them in the drawer, pulling out her oldest sweats. It had been a long week after an incredibly long couple of months, and all she wanted to do was sit down and relax. Maybe watch a movie with her ghost.

She padded barefoot into the kitchen and poured a glass of wine. The Chardonnay, pale and golden, filled the wineglass like sunlight.

"Hey, Dennis, how about a Friday-night movie marathon? I was thinking we could watch...watch...." Her face contorted with agony. "Oh, God! Vision!"

Light struck the back of her eyelids like a boxer's fist. Sound thrashed in her ears. There was panicked breathing, then a scream. The glass slipped unnoticed from her fingers, shattering on the floor and spraying wine in a sticky arc.

She cried out as she saw, through Seer's eyes, the dead-end of an alley. Two vamps, then a third, dropped onto the pavement from somewhere above, grinning like hyenas going in for a kill.

Cordy screamed as the next flash threw her backwards, sending her sprawling on the floor. The girl in the vision struggled frantically, unable to free herself from the unrelenting grip of her captor.

Harsh laughter echoed. The girl whimpered, her muscles going slack with fear as clammy lips pressed into the curve between her neck and shoulder.

Cordy screamed again, her body convulsing as the vision exploded in a blast of light.

She lay on the floor panting, barely conscious of the wine seeping into her clothes and the shards of glass cutting into her skin.

Please, she thought. Someone help me. But it was no use.

Because as soon as that vision ended, another began.


Across town, a phone rang once and stopped. After a moment, it rang again. The machine on the hotel's reception desk picked up, only to record silence.


Wesley locked the door behind him and glanced at his watch. Good God, he was late. Traffic on the freeway had been one long, angry snarl all the way from the Hyperion. He'd only had time to dash upstairs and change his clothes. Now the cab he'd called earlier sat at the curb, its driver honking rudely.

He was due to meet Gunn at the pub in 20 minutes, barely enough time to get there on a normal night, and laughably impossible with traffic like tonight's. If only he'd dodged instead of parrying, he thought with a wry smile. He might not have ended up with a snootful of demon slime.

He dashed out the lobby door, reviewing his mental checklist: Glasses, keys, watch, billfold. Yes, yes, yes.... He felt the breast pocket of his blazer. No. Suddenly he remembered that, in his rush, he'd left the blasted thing on his dresser.

He threw open the cab door. "Could you wait just a moment, sir? I seem to have left my wallet in the flat."

The cab driver snarled. "I ain't got all night."

"No, no, perfectly understandable." Wes agreed, trying to hold his temper in check. "I'll just be a moment."

He opened the security door, ran through the lobby and shoved the key in the lock. Just as he entered the apartment, the phone rang.

Whoever it was could bloody well leave a message, he thought, scooping up his billfold and shoving it into his jacket. The ringing stopped.

"Fine," he muttered locking the door behind him. "Don't leave a message."

The phone rang again, one time. He stood very still, a tingling awareness spreading over him. Wasn't that Dennis's emergency code?

His heart, already beating quickly, seemed to leap into the back of his mouth. He fumbled the keys, dropped them.

"Blast," he muttered, grabbing them off the hallway floor with trembling fingers and finally, finally undoing the latch. The door slammed against the wall in his hurry to get across the room to the now silent phone.

"Please, please, don't be Dennis," he prayed, hitting the callback button as he shoved his glasses up his sweaty nose. The phone rang once, twice, and again. A machine picked up.

"Hi, this is Cordelia. You know what to do."

Wes's forehead creased with worry. "Cordelia, are you there? Cordelia! Dennis, it's Wesley. I got your message. I'll get help!"

Outside, the cabbie honked impatiently. Ignoring him, Wes hit a speed dial button.

"C'mon, c'mon, somebody be there." He could imagine the phone on the hotel desk, knew in his gut it was ringing to an empty room.

"Hi, you've reached Angel Investi..."

He hung up before the message could complete itself and hit another speed dial button. If Angel didn't have that cell phone turned on, Wesley would kill him with his bare hands.

Ringing, ringing, still ringing. Finally, on the other end, "Yeah."

"Angel?" Wesley squeaked.

"Wes?" Angel's voice tensed with worry. "What is it?"

"I got a call from Dennis. The emergency code. No answer at Cordy's. How far are you?"

There was a tiny pause, then Angel's voice, edgy with panic. "I'm close. Fifteen minutes."

"Go. I'll call Gunn," Wes said. "Where's Fred?"

"At the hotel with the baby."

"I'll call her on the way."

He slammed the phone back in its cradle then picked up his cell phone and dialed Gunn as he ran out the door.


"Gunn, it's Wes."

"Where are ya, man? I been waitin'."

"Gunn. Something's wrong with Cordy. Dennis just called me. Angel and I are going straight over."

"I'm right behind y..." Gunn said, disconnecting mid-sentence.

Wes jumped into the back seat. "Silverdale," he told the cab driver breathlessly. The driver grunted, threw the car into gear, and pulled away from the curb.

Wes pulled a bill from his wallet and, with a trembling hand, slapped it through the safety cage between the seats. "Quickly. A friend's life may depend on it."

The driver looked into the rearview mirror. Whatever he saw on Wes's face had him hitting the gas.


Angel rammed the car into low gear and the engine whined through the acceleration. He'd been patrolling, though admittedly without much interest or luck. It was a damp, chilly Friday night, and anyone with sense--human or otherwise--was heading for home.

Of course, it made traffic a bitch. He wove in and out of the lanes, dodging slower cars and running yellow lights. Other drivers honked rudely, though he hardly noticed. All he could think about was Cordy.

Whatever was happening was bad enough that she couldn't get to the phone. Which meant she was injured. Or that she was in the process of being injured.

His hands clenched on the steering wheel. He didn't know yet what was happening to her, but he did know one thing. Whoever or whatever was hurting her would die by his hand, if he had to hunt them to hell and back.

He wheeled the car around a corner, going so fast the suspension creaked. His watch ticked away the minutes as he sped through the city: five, then ten. But he was almost there. Yeah, he could see her apartment building ahead.

The possibilities were endless: demons, vamps, human predators. There were so many horrific things you could do to a woman's body, so many layers and levels of pain.

He knew them all.

Torture and death had been his art for over a hundred years. But that was then. Now, he had sins to atone for, family to take care of. And Cordy was family, even though they weren't related by blood or marriage. She was his Seer and she was his best friend.

The tires squealed on the asphalt as he yanked the car into a parking space. At this time on a Friday night the apartment's lot was nearly empty.

Angel vaulted the car door, his black duster flying behind him in the chilly breeze. He felt the hard slap of concrete under his boots and the sing of blood in his veins as he pumped his arms. Faster, faster.

He didn't bother with the elevator. The stairs were a blur beneath him, each footfall echoing the mantra in his head: Let. Her. Be. Safe.

He burst through the stairwell door and ran headlong into a couple waiting in the hallway. They looked at him in surprise, and then horror. The woman screamed.

What? Oh. Game face. "Sorry, sorry," he mumbled as he blew past, shaking his head to get rid of the ridges and fangs. He heard the panicked shuffle of feet behind him and a door slamming, but didn't care because he was finally at Cordy's apartment.

No time for keys, just a quick kick. Cheap locks. How many times had he told her to change them? The door ricocheted against the wall, then stood open as he advanced into the room, prepared for anything.

"Cordy!" he yelled. "CORDELIA!"

He could hear her heartbeat, too fast, and her breathing, too shallow. And blood--he could smell it. He hurtled into the kitchen, skidding to a halt when he saw her sprawled on the floor.

"Cordy," he said, falling to his knees next to her. " I'm here."

He let his predator's senses take over, his highly developed hearing and smell scanning the apartment for other beings. Every sound was normal, every scent as it should be. No one was here now, and no one out of the ordinary had been here for some time.

He brought his full attention to Cordy, running his hands gently over her arms and legs, checking for wounds. She was splattered with wine and surrounded by shattered glass. There were several small cuts on her arms and hands, but as far as he could see, that was the worst of it.

The relief that washed over him was palpable.

Until he got a good look at her face.

Her eyes were open but unfocused, her lips moving as if she were speaking to someone only she could see.

"Oh, God, no!"

A wave of queasy terror washed over him as he checked the backs of her hands for Vocah's mark. "Please, not again." He found nothing but smooth, pale skin.

A chill climbed up his spine.

"Cordy? Baby, wake up. It was just a vision." He brushed the hair off her face with trembling fingers. "Come on, it's me. It's Angel. Please, Cordy."

She moaned.

"That's right. Come back to me." He drew her hand to his face, pressing her palm to his cheek. "I'm right here."

She blinked once, twice. Then her eyes focused with a sudden, eerie intensity. "Angel," she said.

"Yeah." His voice cracked. "What happened?"

"Visions. Like before." She grabbed his shoulder. "Can't...stop...them," she whispered, her eyes slipping shut. "So much pain."

And then her body began to thrash.

"NO!" Angel roared. "Oh, God, this can't be happening," he prayed, sliding down next to her and draping his big body over her tiny frame. Beneath him she bucked, her eyes open in pain and terror, her lips moving silently as the visions overtook her mind.


Angel rarely noticed the passage of time. There was only sunrise and sunset in an endless chain.

But as he waited for Wes and Gunn, it was all he could think about. The minutes ticked by, reminding him of their ephemeral nature. Reminding him that with each second he was one beat closer to losing the people he loved.

To losing Cordy.

She had struggled for nearly half an hour before she exhausted herself, and now she lay cradled in his lap, her head on his shoulder. It had started raining again, and the soft, silvery sound wrapped itself around them in the dark kitchen.

He hadn't bothered to turn on the lights. He hardly needed them, and he was worried they would hurt her eyes. At the thought, he glanced down. They were still open, still unfocused. Not lifeless and empty, but the opposite. Too full of other peoples' misery, of their pain, of their fear.

He leaned his head back against the cabinet. Had it only been a few hours ago that she'd been with him at the hotel?

She'd had a vision earlier that afternoon that had sent them running after a Brazilos demon. They left her on the lobby couch, clutching her head in agony and because of that, his mind had only been half on the fight. Luckily, though, Wes and Gunn had been focused, and things had ended badly for the Brazilos.

As usual, things ended just as badly for their clothes. When he returned to the hotel, he was relieved to find the lobby and office empty, because that meant Cordy had gone home to lie down. He wanted to change clothes, then call and check on her, so he dashed upstairs. He stopped short, just as he came through his door, surprise rippling through him.

Cordy sat on the couch feeding Connor. She had taken off her jacket, and the deep blue of her t-shirt was strikingly dark against Connor's newborn skin. They baby lay on her lap, cradled against her breast, and when she turned, it looked almost as if she were nursing him.

Angel drew a breath, awestruck by their timeless beauty.

"That's my sweet boy," Cordy had cooed, drawing her fingertips down his chubby cheek. "You were hungry, weren't you? My goodness, doesn't your daddy ever feed you?" The baby suckled loudly, his tiny fingers fluttering on the bottle. "And look how smart you are, holding the bottle. Your Uncle Gunn will be teaching you to use a battle axe before you know it."

She laughed as the baby reached uncoordinatedly for her hair. "You like that? You like Mama's hair? Just stay away from the earrings, and it's all good," she crooned. She rubbed her hand over his peach-fuzzed head, and her voice descended to a whisper.

"Mama," Angel whispered, the rest of the world forgotten.

Cordy pulled the bottle out of Connor's mouth with a loud pop. "Come on, sweetie," she said, setting the bottle on the couch next to her. "Time to burp you." But before she could raise him to her shoulder, he emitted a loud belch and spat formula all over her chest. "Ewwww, Connor!"

Her exclamation startled Angel from his reverie. "Here, wait!" He stepped into the room, looking around for a towel.

"Oh, hey, Angel. I didn't see you there. It's okay. I've got it." She smiled up at him, young and vibrant, practically radiating light. All the ravages of the vision were gone.

"Just like a guy," she said with a laugh, pulling the cloth diaper from her shoulder and wiping at her shirt. "Went straight for the boobs."

"At least we know he's not gay," Angel deadpanned, leaning over to take Connor from her, letting himself get lost in the scent of baby and woman. Their hands brushed as they made the transfer, and he felt Cordy give his a little squeeze.

"But it'd be okay if he was, wouldn't it, Conner?" she said, pushing to her feet and draping the damp diaper over Angel's shoulder. She patted the baby's bottom. "Whoever you are, is perfect."

Angel looked down at her, awestruck by her spirit and her beauty. The moment spun out, clear and chiming, and etched itself in his memory. "I love you, Cordy," he said, stunned by the revelation.

Her eyes widened. "No way," she teased. "Connor, did your daddy just say what I think he did?" She stretched on her tiptoes and kissed the baby on the cheek. "I love you guys, too," she said. "Hey, listen, I'm heading out. I'll see you tomorrow?"

Angel nodded. "Count on it." He stared at the door for a long time after she left.


"Oh, my God. Angel." Wes rushed into the kitchen, Gunn on his heels.

Gunn reached out for the lightswitch.

"Don't!" Angel said, but the lights flickered on. In his arms, Cordy began moving her head from side to side.

"No, no, no, no," she chanted under her breath.

"Turn them off!" Angel growled, clutching her to him.

"Sorry, sorry. I didn't know," Gunn said, hitting the switch and dropping the room into darkness.

Wes knelt beside them, his hand reaching out to touch Cordy's cheek. The light from the kitchen window was enough that he could see her face. He gasped, his gaze flying up to meet Angel's. "Vocah," he breathed.

Angel shook his head. "No marks. I checked."

Gunn crouched next to Wes. "What's happening?"

"Visions," Wes replied. He looked at Angel, fear, anxiety and concern written on his face. "Did you...were you able to...?"

"Yeah, for a second. She came to right after I got here, told me she was having nonstop visions, like before. Then she went back under." He laid his face against the crown of her head. "She seized for about 30 minutes, then stopped."


"Not this time," Angel said. "She's been quiet, but her lips are moving, like she's trying to talk."

Wes nodded. "I think we should take her to the hospital."

"Do you?" Angel asked, despair thick in his voice. "Why? So they can tell us she's dying? We already know that."

Wes put his hand on Angel's shoulder. "Maybe they can do something to help her. If nothing else, they can do some scans, make sure it's really the visions."

"Man, she told him that's what it was," Gunn said, squinting at Wes in the gloom.

"I still think we should, just to be safe."

Angel looked at Wes, his face set in a tight mask. After a moment he nodded. "Help me get her to the car," he said.

Wes and Gunn stood. "I called Fred," Wes commented.

"Are they okay?"

"Yes. They're going to stay at the hotel. Lorne's there with them. They were telling Pylean jokes when I called," Wes finished with a wan attempt at a smile.

Angel nodded curtly. "As long as they're okay," he said. He looked at Gunn. "I'm going to hand her to you. When I'm up, give her back to me."

Gunn nodded and slipped his arms under Cordy's prone body. "Got her," he said, pulling her out of the way so Angel could stand. Immediately Angel leaned down and scooped her up. The transfer took less than 30 seconds.

"Let's go," Angel said. "The keys are in my left coat pocket."

Wes nodded and fished them out. "Got them."

"Good. Now let's get out of here."


He sat quietly in the dark hospital room, watching Cordy sleep. The sound of her breath whispered around him, both comforting and terrifying.

"Sir? Are you still here?" The nurse stood in the doorway, silhouetted in the light from the hall.

"Yeah," Angel replied.

"I need to check her again," she said.

Angel nodded. "Fine."

The nurse entered the room, snapping on the bedside lamp. Cordy lay in a blue hospital gown, the covers drawn to her shoulders. An IV dripped into the back of her hand, supplying nutrients, liquid and a mild sedative.

Luckily, mild was all she needed right now. Though that could change at any time.

"Ma'am," the nurse said kindly, "can you hear me?" There was no response. She turned to Angel. "She's been the same?" she asked.

He was sitting in a chair right next to the bed, one leg crossed over the other, his fingers steepled against his lips. He shook his head. "No change."

"And you say she's had this kind of experience before?"

Angel nodded. "Yes. About a year-and-a-half ago."

"The doctors couldn't find any reason for it then, either?" she asked.

"No. No reason, but also no damage. Though today's doctor said he could see a lot of neural activity. Like she has a firestorm in her brain." He thought that was, perhaps, the most accurate definition of a vision he'd heard.

He wondered if Cordy would agree.

The nurse nodded. "That's what it seems. Well, we've done all we can. Now we just have to wait and see."

"Yeah," Angel said, watching as the woman turned off the light and left the room. He got up and stood beside the bed.

"Cordy," he whispered. "I know you're in there." He sat down next to her, drawing her hand into his lap. "I promise we're going to figure this out." Her fingers were long and tapered, the nails short but well-tended. Practical and feminine, he thought. Just like her.

He reached up with his other hand and ran his shaking fingers through her dark, silky hair. "I can't lose you again, Cordelia. I need you." He cupped her hand in his and pulled it to his lips. "I need you," he repeated, kissing her fingers gently.

"Angel?" Her voice was soft and slightly slurred.

"Cordy?" He looked up to find her awake, blinking blearily. "Hi," he said, his voice breaking.

She twined her fingers with his and looked around the room. "Where am I?"

"Hospital. Visions."

A line appeared between her eyebrows. "Oh, yeah." She put her hand up, as if to lay it on her forehead, and winced. "IV?" She looked at her arm. "How long have I been here?" Her voice was rusty, reminding him of the visions just weeks before that had brought boils and burns to her fragile body.

"About six hours."

She nodded, her gaze going soft again.

"Cordy!" he said. "No!"

She blinked. "What?"

He slumped, overcome by hours of worry. "Last time you came to, but then went right back under. I thought...."

"Oh," she said, nodding. "No, just tired. Where's Connor?"

"He's at the hotel. They sent everyone home but me."

She smiled. "Bet they tried to send you home, too."

He still held her hand, and he pressed it to his chest. "They tried. I won."

She chuckled, then coughed. "Thirsty," she said.

He grabbed the glass of water off the tray. "Here, sit up." He slid an arm around her shoulders and guided her up, pressing the cup to her lips.

She drank, then pulled back to catch her breath. "Thanks. Better."

He returned the cup to the tray. "I need to call the nurse," he said. "Let them know you're awake."

Cordy grabbed his hand. "No. Wait." Her eyes were dark and too-large in her pale face.


"I don't know how long I have."

Fear trailed its icy fingers down his spine. "Cordy," he began.

"No. Angel," she said, her gaze intense. "Listen to me. We both know I'm dying."

He clenched his teeth. "No, you're not," he gritted.

"Angel. Stop." She linked her fingers with his. "You're my best friend. I need you to stay honest." She watched him, unflinching.

He thought of a warrior, facing her death fearlessly in battle.

"These visions, they're gone for now. But we all know they're coming back."

He nodded. If she could face it, so could he.

"I don't want to die, Angel. I'm not even 22 years old. I want to be with you guys. I want to watch Connor grow up and...." Her eyes watered and she looked down at their entwined fingers.

He reached up with his free hand and tilted her chin so she met him again, face-to-face. "We're not letting you go without a fight."

She smiled wistfully. "That's what we do best, isn't it?"

If she could face it, so could he. But they would fight it together.

"Yeah. And I promise, Cordy, with everything I have. You'll be around to fight for a long, long time."

She leaned her head against his chest. "Just don't leave me, Angel."

His arms went around her shoulders. "Never."


"Would you please stop fussing? Jeez, I'm fine. How many times do I have to say it?"

Wes set the half-eaten bowl of chicken noodle soup on the bedside table and patted Cordy's thigh. "Scoot over. Let me look at your head."

She scowled, but scooted. "I *said* I'm fine," she huffed.

"I want to see for myself." Wes turned her so he could examine the bump she got when she hit the floor.

Cordy flinched slightly when his fingers brushed the sore spot. When she spoke, though, her voice was laced with exasperation and humor. "I'm not pulling a Scully. If I say I'm fine, I mean it."

Wes rolled his eyes. "That actually looks pretty good. Not nearly as swollen." He grinned at her when she turned to face him. "And if ever there were a Scully at Angel Investigations, it would be you."

"Nuh uh. Fred would be Scully 'cause she's the scientist. Angel, make him leave me alone," Cordy whined as Angel walked into the room.

Wes stood and turned to face the other man. "Head's looking better and she's complaining a lot more."

Angel smiled. "That's a good sign. No one complains like our Cordy."

Cordelia crossed her arms over her chest. "Do not," she pouted. "He won't leave me alone."

"Cordy, eat your soup," Angel remarked mildly. "Wes, come with me."

"Hey! Where are you going?"

Wes reached back and handed the bowl of soup to Cordelia.

"I just need his help with something," Angel said. "No big deal."

The walked down the hall into the living room. "Test results came back from the hospital today. They couldn't find anything."

"It was worth a shot," Wes said, shoving his hands into his pockets. "What now?"

Angel began to prowl, dodging the coffee table that was littered with research books and crossword puzzles. "I don't know," he said frustratedly. "Anything. Everything." He stopped in front of the mantel and looked at the pictures that Cordy had arranged so artfully.

One of them was of the Scooby Gang. A candid shot in the library, most likely taken by one of the high school yearbook photographers. Off to the side sat Cordy, not quite in the group, but not quite out, either. So different from now, when she was the center of their universe.

He put his hands in his pockets, unconsciously mirroring Wes's stance. "So what's the plan?"

"Angel! I'm done with the soup!" Cordy called from the bedroom.

"Be right there," he called, pinning Wes with his gaze.

"We had some luck with Lorne before. Maybe he can help us again."

"And if he can't?"


"Research. We've never done that for her." His eyes were dark with guilt. "Why have we never done that for her?"

Wes sighed. "I don't know, actually. We should have been doing it all along."

"Yeah. And now it might be too late."

Wes sighed. "You're right. We need help." He looked out the window, thinking. "Giles," he finally said. "He's light years ahead of me in knowledge and experience. If he doesn't have what we need, he'll know where to find it."

"Do it," Angel said. "I'll talk to Lorne."

"I'll call Giles now." He glanced at his watch. "He should be closing the shop."

"Angel!" Cordy called from the bedroom.

A smile whispered over Angel's face. "Gotta go play nursemaid."

Wes smiled, though it didn't erase the worry from his eyes. "I'm glad she's feeling better."

"Yeah. Me too." He disappeared down the hall, leaving Wes standing in the living room, staring blankly at the wall.


Wes had made the mistake of turning the TV on, and was mesmerized by a B-grade horror film when the phone rang. "Hello," he said with some relief.

"Wesley? Is that you? It's Buffy." Her voice came across the line, clear and a little bit breathless.

"Buffy? I wasn't expecting to hear from you."

"I know. You thought I'd be Giles."

"Yes...I.... Is everything all right?" he asked, concern creeping into his voice.

"All is fine. You probably didn't know that Giles went back to England," she said. Her voice was a little too bright.

Wes winced. "No, I didn't. Why, if you don't mind my asking?"

"No, perfectly okay. He went back after the last time I died. I think he realized that he actually had a life there."

Wes could hear the stark pain she was trying to cover. "I'm sorry, Buffy," he said. He pushed his glasses on top of his head and rubbed his eyes. "But how did you know I called?"

"The Magic Box is still open. Anya's running it and she passed your message on to me. So what's up? You need help?"

"I was actually hoping for Giles. We've got a research issue."

The line was silent for a moment. "Yeah, we've been having some difficulty in the research department, ourselves. But we've been doing a ton of reading, so maybe we could help, anyway. Two heads are better and yada yada."

Wes chuckled, though he was unsure whether Angel would want Buffy pulled into the situation. The history between them might make it more difficult than it already was. But Angel had an equally disturbing history with Giles, and he'd been okay with Wes calling him, so.... He made an executive decision. "It's Cordelia."

"Is she okay?"

"No, Buffy, she's not. She's dying."

"What? How?" He knew Buffy and Cordy had never been the best of friends, but in Buffy's voice he could hear real concern. It gave him hope that, if nothing else, Cordy would be supported from all sides as she faced this challenge.

"The visions. They're not made to work in a human body. It's too much for her system to handle."

"Oh, God. What can we do?"

"I was hoping Giles might have some books, or know someone who could help us."

Again, Buffy was silent. "Nothing is ringing any bells in the research department." Wes's spirits sank. "I've got an idea, though. Hang on a minute."

He heard her hand cover the mouthpiece, then her muffled voice calling for Willow. There was a clatter of feet, then voices. The phone changed hands.

"Hello? Wes?" Willow asked, her voice the same, girlish lilt it had always been.

"Yes. Hi," he replied.

"How are you?" she inquired.

"I'm fine, thanks. You?"

"Been better, but thanks for asking. Buffy tells me Cordy needs help." They were so quick to rally around each other in times of need. He'd always admired that about them.

"Yes, that's right." He briefly explained the situation.

"That's awful," Willow said. "I'm so sorry. Tell Cordy I said so, okay?"

Wes nodded. "Any ideas?"

"Yes, actually. But I'll need to call you back."

"All right." His heart started to pound. What if this were a genuine lead? "Shall I wait up?"

"I just need to make a quick phone call."

"Great. Ring me back at Cordy's."

"All right. Hang on. Buffy wants to say goodbye."

The phone changed hands again, and then Buffy's voice returned. "Willow's got some good contacts," she said. "Maybe it'll pan out. How's everyone else? Okay?"

He knew she was asking about Angel. "Just fine," he said. He didn't feel it was his place to bring up Connor, so he didn't elaborate.

"Good. Tell them I said hi."

"Will do. Talk to you guys in a bit?"

"Yeah. Bye."

He thumbed the off button and laid the phone on the end table. Then he picked up a book and started to read, though his mind was nowhere near the page in front of him.


About 30 minutes later, the phone rang. The bad movie was still playing, and Wes was, again, mesmerized. "Hello." He closed the Grimoire he'd been ignoring and set it on the couch next to him.

"Wes, it's Willow."

"Great. Now tell me what you've got," he said, pulling a pad and pencil off the coffee table and settling on the sofa.

"Okay, you know the apothecary where I get my herbs, right?"

On TV, the ubiquitous blond girl was just about to meet a nasty end. He rolled his eyes. There was no way an intelligent female would run *away* from the parking lot and into the woods. And that wasn't at all what happened to the blood when one's throat was slashed.

"Yes, I remember the place," he said, turning the TV off with a decisive click.

"Well, the woman who owns it sells to lots of people. Witches, acupuncturists, shamans, that sort of thing."

"One stop shopping, I suppose," Wes commented, hoping she'd hurry up and get to the point.

"Yeah, kind of. So, I called and gave her a rundown on Cordy's deal, you know, with the visions."

"Uh huh," Wes said, doodling little shapes on the pad.

"And she said there's the old guy who comes in there sometimes. A Chinese guy who specializes in the sort of thing Cordy's going through."

Wes stopped doodling. "What exactly do you mean?"

"Evidently it's pretty common for the etheric body to wig out. People get all sorts of weird things happening. Can't eat, can't sleep, mudras, which are like involuntary spasms. Sometimes you can even go crazy."

"Oh, I understand. Yes, yes, of course." Wesley nodded and wrote "etheric" and "mudra" on the first line of the note pad.

"So this guy, um, hold on, I've got his name somewhere...."

"Wait, Willow, I don't think you could exactly say that Cordelia is experiencing a spiritual awakening, which is what you're speaking of. Her problem stems directly from the visions."

Wes heard a rustling sound on the other end of the line, then Willow came back on. "Here! I got it! Martin Zhou."

Wes obligingly wrote "Martin Zhou" on the line under "etheric" and "mudra."

"But, Willow..." he began.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Not a spiritual awakening. That's what I said, too. But evidently, Marcia, that's my lady at the herb shop, says that's okay. 'Cuz it all comes from the same place. And she thinks this Mr. Zhou guy might be just what Cordy needs."

Wes thought through what Willow had said, his mind piecing together the information like he might fit together a puzzle. "All right, Willow, that's good information," he said, finally. "How might we contact this Mr. Zhou?"

Willow sighed. "Well, that's the thing. You can't. I mean, he doesn't have a phone, and he lives in the mountains somewhere. The only time Marcia sees him is when he comes in town for herbs."

Wes leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "That's not good news at all."

"Well that part isn't. But the part where he's coming into town on Monday for his regular pick-up, that's good news, right?"

Wesley grinned and sat up straight. "That's excellent news."

Willow laughed. "Yeah, I thought so, too. Marcia says she's only seen him take clients a couple of times, and that we shouldn't get our hopes up because he usually turns people away. But she thought, since Cordy's a special case, he might be willing to talk with her at least. So Marcia says for you guys to drive down, and to have Cordy at the shop early on Monday morning."

"Absolutely. First thing," Wes replied.

"Well, hey, why not come down tomorrow and spend the night? Everyone else does and Buffy says it'd be fine. Besides, we haven't seen you since we...since her...."

Wes heard her swallow. Something, maybe pity for the poor girl, drove him to agree. "I think that would be a splendid idea. We'll drive down tomorrow evening. Does that suit?"

"Yeah, yeah, that's perfect," Willow said happily. "I'll tell Buff."

"Thank you. I know it's been an incredibly difficult few months for all of us, but for you especially."

Just the thought of losing Cordy almost doubled him over with grief at times. He couldn't imagine a world without her in it, and he didn't envy what Willow had experienced when Buffy died. Or when she'd been reborn. He'd heard stories of the magic it took to bring someone back from the dead.

Willow said, with a catch in her voice, "Thanks, Wes. That means a lot."

"We'll call you tomorrow and let you know when to expect us. Sleep well."

Willow snorted. "Ha! Sleep? We're just getting up. It's time to go kick some demon booty."

"Well, that can certainly be a satisfying way to spend an evening. Be careful, though, won't you?"

"Oh, we're always careful. Much more careful than, you know, before."

"Yes, us too. Right, see you Monday."

"Cheerio," Willow giggled.

The line went silent then the dial tone engaged. Wes sat looking at the phone for a moment before he hung it up.

Then he walked back to Cordy's room, pushed open the door, and slipped inside. Next to the bed was a chair, with a footrest in front of it. He sat down, propped his feet up, and watched Cordelia breathe evenly in her sleep.


"Sunnydale? Why Sunnydale?" Cordelia asked. She'd just gotten out of bed and was standing on her toes, pulling a coffee mug out of the cabinet. The blinds were closed, blocking out the creeping sunlight, and allowing Angel to sit in the kitchen with her while they waited for the coffee to brew.

The long-sleeved t-shirt she had slept in crept off one shoulder, exposing her collarbone; the plaid boxers were several sizes too big, and hitched up at the waist. She was barefoot, and despite the chill, Angel hadn't been able to talk her into wearing any socks.

"Because Willow...."

Cordy turned. "Willow? Why Willow?" She sat down at the kitchen table, crossing her legs, the mug still clenched in her hand. "What have you guys been up to?" she asked suspiciously.

"Maybe we should wait for Wes," Angel said, trying to ignore the way her bare foot brushed his leg with every swing.

"Maybe you should just tell me now," she said, irritation creeping into her voice.

Wes and Gunn had gone to get take-out from the diner down the street, and everyone else was meeting them at Cordy's in half an hour for breakfast. He'd really hoped to wait for Wes, but then Cordy had mentioned a client meeting which was scheduled for Monday morning, and he knew he had to tell her what was going on.

"Okay, here's the deal," he said quietly, folding his hands on the table. "I was worried about you, and I didn't know what else to do, so don't get mad at me."

Her eyebrows disappeared under her bangs. "You think that pathetic opening is gonna keep me from getting mad?"

"It was worth a try," he said. "Look." He leaned forward, edging into her space. "We got the test results back from the lab yesterday. They didn't turn up anything out of the ordinary."

"And you didn't tell me this because...."

"Because you were hurting, Cordy."

"I still have a monster headache," she said warningly. "And you're only making it worse by keeping stuff from me."

"Okay, fine. Because we wanted a chance to figure out what to do first."

She snorted. "Typical."

"Cordy," he said menacingly.

The coffee maker stopped hissing and she stepped around him to pour her first cup of the day. "If you wanted nice, you should have waited until after I had my coffee."

She slapped a full mug down in front of him and sat, pulling her knees up and taking a sip. "So, go on, you big, undead meddler," she said grouchily. "Tell me what you have planned for me,
'cause, God knows, the little woman can't figure it out for herself."

Angel took a deep breath, his patience obviously nearing its limit. "The plan was to do whatever it took to keep you alive," he said.

Cordy looked at him sharply.

"I was going to talk to Lorne, see if his connection to the Powers could help us. Wes was going to call Giles."

"Giles?" she huffed. She took another sip of her coffee and blinked, as if the room was finally coming into focus.

"Yeah. He's got the books and the knowledge. But, unfortunately, he's not there."

"Where is he?"

"England. He decided Buffy didn't need him anymore."

"That's not like Giles. He'd do anything for Buffy," Cordy said.

Angel nodded. "I know. The point is, Wesley left a message at the shop, which got passed on to Buffy, which eventually made it to Willow. Willow contacted someone she knew, who recommended Mr. Zhou."

"Clear as mud," Cordy replied. She set her cup on her raised knees and rested her forehead against its warmth.

"You okay?" Angel asked, running his finger quickly across the back of her hand.

She looked up at him. "It's just.... Last time you helped me, it unleashed the wonder that was Billy onto the world. I don't want anyone to get hurt for me ever again."

Angel took the mug away from her and set it on the table, then linked his fingers with hers. "I don't think that will happen this time, Cordy. This all seems very straightforward."

Cordy sighed, the last of the tension leaving her shoulders. "Okay," she said quietly. "Anything's gotta be better than tripping over the light fantastic."

Angel gave a relieved smile and squeezed her hand gently.

Gunn and Wes burst through the door, arms full of bags. "Yo, you two gonna stop with the make-out session and get some grub?" Gunn demanded.

Cordy snorted. "Make out session? With *Angel*?" She pushed herself up and went to the cabinet for more mugs.

"Hey," Angel huffed, his eyes following her every move. "What's that supposed to mean?"


Coming back always gave Cordy a touch of the wiggins. It was just too weird, seeing the familiar neighborhoods and shops and knowing that she didn't fit in there anymore. Not that she ever really felt like she did, all appearances to the contrary.

As they passed their old haunts, Wes and Angel grew quiet, too, and by the time they pulled into the Summers's driveway, only the wind and the chime of the radio kept them company.

"Why are we coming here?" Cordy asked.

Angel vaulted over the door and went to the trunk to get their overnight bags.

"It's cheaper than a hotel," Wes said.

"Oh," Cordy replied, exiting the car in a more conventional fashion. "This is one of those times I think we could have managed $19.95 for a Motel 6," she grumbled.

She met Angel and Wes at the trunk. They stood silently for a moment looking at the Slayer's house, each lost in their own memories.

Angel sighed and it startled Cordy into action. "So," she said, running her hands up and down her arms. "Let's go on in."

Wes shouldered Cordy's bag and hefted his own, leaving Angel to bring his small pack. As they walked up the sidewalk the door opened.

And there stood Buffy.

Cordy stopped dead in her tracks, causing Wes and Angel to run right into her.

"Oh, God," she breathed. Behind her she heard a couple of muttered curses and felt a hand, probably Angel's, clamp her arm.

"It's weird, isn't it?" he asked, his fingers clenching her flesh, then dropping away as if he realized what he was doing.

"Yeah. Last time I saw her, she was...."

"In her casket," Wes murmured.

"Are you guys gonna come in?" Buffy asked. "Or are you just gonna stand around talking about the dead girl all night?"

Cordy laughed, then dashed up the porch steps. "Hey." She hit Buffy on the shoulder. "You look pretty good for a dead girl."

Buffy snorted. "Thanks. I think." Then her gaze shifted, and landed on Angel. "Hi," she said. She stuck her hands in the pockets of her black leather pants.

Cordy cleared her throat. "Well, I'll just go on inside now and leave you two alone. Wes? Wanna join me?"

"Sure," he said. He nodded to Buffy, then stepped inside and dropped the bags on the landing.

"Fine. Great, whatever," Buffy said, her attention obviously not on them.

Cordy glanced over her shoulder as they walked into the kitchen. "Think it's safe to leave them alone?"

"I think Angel can handle himself."

"Cordy!" Willow cried. "You're here!" She pulled Cordy into an enthusiastic hug.

"Yeah," she said, patting Willow's shoulder awkwardly. "You okay?" She pulled back and looked into Willow's eyes.

What she saw there unnerved her. They were empty, sad--nearly barren. But more than that, they were shadowed with a dark kind of power Cordy had rarely seen.

"Just happy to see you," Willow said desperately.

Wes stepped forward and put his left hand on Cordy's shoulder, obviously sensing her discomfort. "Hello," he said, sticking out his other hand.

Willow took it, and Wes's easy gesture seemed to ground her. "Hi, Wes. I'm glad you could make it," she said. Her face relaxed, the line between her eyebrows disappearing. "I've got a bed made for you on the couch. Cordy, you're going to sleep in Dawn's room."

"Where's Dawn sleeping?" Cordy asked.

Willow's face clouded. "With Buffy."

"How is Dawn, anyway?" Wes asked cordially. But he kept his hand on Cordy's shoulder.

She looked up at him, and could see, behind his glasses, that his eyes looked wary. Between the Angel-n-Buffy drama going on out front and whatever was happening with Willow, the night was shaping up to be pretty uncomfortable so far. Sheesh, this was exactly the kind of thing that happened when you let the men handle the logistics.

Willow started pulling mugs out of the cabinet. "Oh, she's fine," she said brightly. "Anyone want tea? I've got herbal. Good for sleeping." She turned, the mugs clutched to her chest. "No magic, just tea, I promise."

Cordy thought she saw her eyes darken, and she shivered. "Tea would be great," she said. "Wes, why don't you help Willow, while I go check on...things...at the hotel?" She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and ducked out the back door before Wes could respond.

She sat on the steps and took a deep breath. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea. They could have driven down in the morning, even if it did mean getting up before she usually went to bed.

Too late now, though, she thought pragmatically. She'd just have to make the best of it.

The cell phone was cool in her hand, and it reminded her that she had other connections to tend to.

Fred picked up on the second ring. "Hey, it's Cordy!" she said to someone in the background. "How are ya? We're all fine. Connor's sleeping like a baby." She giggled. "Well, of course, he is a baby. How was your trip? Did ya have a good time?"

Cordy smiled. "The trip was fine. We're all here, safe and sound." A tree branch snapped in the woods and Cordy got quickly to her feet. "Yeah, safe and sound." She took a step toward the door. "So, Connor's fine? He took his bottle?"

"Oh, yeah. Ate like a little pig," Fred said happily. "Gunn 'n I are watchin' Pay-Per-View," she continued. "There's a fight on. Those guys can really punch! I'm learning some stuff, just by watchin'." She giggled. "Gunn says I've already got a pretty good right hook."

"Where's Lorne?" Cordy asked. Suddenly she missed them so much her chest ached.

"Oh, he's downstairs somewhere. I think I heard him singin' earlier."

"That's nice," Cordy said as another twig snapped. A chill walked up her spine and her imagination went wild. "I just wanted to check in. We'll call you later, okay?" She started looking around for a weapon.

"Sure thing. Y'all take care," Fred said.

Cordy hung up and slid the phone in her pocket. "Who's there?" she asked in her sternest voice.

Spike materialized from the shadows. "Evenin', cheerleader. Who's Connor?"

Cordy put her hand on her chest to calm her breathing. "None of your business. What are you doing sneaking up on me, anyway?"

"I'm a vampire, luv. That's what we do, is sneak." He strolled up the steps, twirled the stake in his hand. "Came out to take the Slayer for a spin." His grin was lascivious. "Think she's about?"

"She's out front." Cordy waited a beat for dramatic effect. "With Angel."

Spike's grin melted, leaving behind something that looked a whole lot like pain. "Oh." He put the stake in his coat pocket and sat down on the step. "Why d'you suppose she does this to me?" he asked, running his hands through his hair.

"What do you mean?" Cordy asked, being careful to stand a few steps away from him. She watched as he lit a cigarette and stared off into the back yard.

"Torture me like this." He whipped up and pinned Cordy to the porch rail, his game face glowing in the streetlight. "God knows, I could torture her if I had a mind," he said, sniffing Cordy's neck like a wolf. "I'm bad, maybe the baddest of them all." He let go of her shirt and sat back down, his black leather duster settling around him like a cape. He flicked an ash off the end of the cigarette.

"I'm just guessing here, but maybe it's your social skills," Cordy said, collapsing next to him in a weak-kneed heap.

"Scared you, din't I?" he asked, his smile back in place. "Gave you a right good old scare. Oh, don't bother denyin' it, I can 'ear your 'eart beatin' from here, luv."

"I'm not denying it, Spike, you scared me." Cordy kicked her feet out in front of her in an attempt to appear casual. "And you could do it again, but then, that would probably piss off Buffy."

His face fell. "You've got a point." He looked so forlorn, Cordy had to stop herself from comforting him.

"Spike, I told you to stay the hell away from my house!" Buffy shouted, coming through the back door at full throttle.

Angel was on her heels. "Cordy! Are you all right?" He yanked Spike up by the collar, had him dangling six inches off the floor. "If you hurt her," h e gritted, giving Spike a shake.

Spike laughed. "Oh, so now he comes at me with the fists and the fangs. About 100 years late, ya great poof." He took a drag off his cigarette and blew smoke at Angel.

Only Spike could look cool hanging by the scruff of his neck, Cordy thought.

"Put him down, Angel," Buffy said quietly. "That's enough."

Spike hit the porch like a cat on its seventh life. "Nice to see you too. Been awhile." His eyes darted between Angel and Buffy. "I see you two are up to your old tricks."

Cordy could hear the jealousy in his voice. Vampires in love, she thought. Spare me. But her heart twisted in her chest. "God, I hope not. I've had enough of the R&J vibe to last me a lifetime." She stood and pushed Spike out of the way. "I'm going in for tea. See you all later."

Angel grabbed her hand as she walked by. "Hey, you all right?"

Her insides were a jumbled mess. "Just tired. Tea, then bed. See you in the morning?"

He nodded and dropped her hand. Over his shoulder, Cordy saw a look pass between Spike and Buffy that could melt glass. She wondered if Angel realized that Buffy's body, if not her heart, was in another's hands.

I so did not need this, she thought, walking into the brightly-lit kitchen. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found it empty. A mug sat on the cabinet, with tea bags arranged next to it. She unwrapped a chamomile, dropped it in the cup, and poured hot water out of the pot.

As she made her way up to Dawn's room, she heard voices in the living room. Ignoring them, she picked up her bag and shuffled into the bathroom to get ready for bed.



She looked up to find herself face-to-face with a stranger.

"Yes," she replied, her eyebrow arching in inquiry.

"I have a message for Angel." He took a step forward.

"Yes?" Cordelia repeated.

He was practically on top of her now. "The Elders are coming for him."

The hair on the back of her neck stood straight up. "You want me to deliver this message to Angel?"

"Well, actually," the man said, vamping out, "I think your dead body will get the message across nicely."

Cordelia woke with a jerk, her heart thundering in her chest.

"Oh, God," she panted. Her eyes darted frantically around the room. "Where am I?"

The door opened. She reacted instinctively, grabbing whatever was on the nightstand and scrambling to her knees.

A hulking shadow slipped in and stopped menacingly at the foot of the bed. Her hand tightened on the weapon. "Don't come any closer," she rasped. "I have a...a...." She looked down at her weapon. Prickles of fear-sweat broke out on her temples.

"Cordy? You okay?"

Through the blood pounding in her ears, the voice sounded tinny. And familiar. "A-Angel?"

"Hey." He sat down on the bed and pulled the bottle of water from her hand. "What happened?"

Her trembling legs gave way. "Some guy." She clutched his shoulders for support. "He said he had a message for you."

"There was someone here?" His voice was flat, deadly. His looked around the room, searching for anyone stupid enough to have entered.

"Yeah. I mean, no. It was a dream."

Angel relaxed visibly. "Sounds like a bad one." He guided her into the bed, pulling the sheets over her shoulders. "Think you can go back to sleep?" His hands felt cool and soothing on her skin.

"I...." She was so tired all of a sudden. Maybe if she just closed her eyes....

"That's right," Angel whispered. He stroked her hair off her forehead, his touch gentle and reassuring. "I'm here. Just go back to sleep."

She felt like she was floating in warm water. "Angel?"


"Who're the Elders?" she slurred.

His body stiffened. "What did you say?"

She could barely keep her eyes open. "The Elders. That was the message. The Elders are coming for you."

He was still as stone. "It's nothing, Cordy. Don't worry about it."

"You sound funny," she said with a blurry giggle.

"You're just tired," he said. "Now, go to sleep."

She snuggled closer, pressing her hip against his leg. "'m glad you're here." She sighed, long and deep. "Elders, schmelders," she mumbled, slipping finally into unconsciousness.

Angel stared at her, his hand frozen against her forehead.


All I want is to see this Fu Man Chu guy and go home, Cordy thought grumpily as she dressed the next morning. The brocade-print Cavelli jeans, usually guaranteed to lift her spirits, weren't working their magic. She brushed her hair, eyes watering when she jerked too hard. Breathe, she reminded herself. It'll all be over soon. One way or the other. She slipped on her spikey, sling-back pumps, then opened the bathroom door.

"How'd you sleep?" Buffy stood in the hall in a pair of black-and-white, cow-print pajamas.

"Um, pretty well, thanks," she lied. This was just too weird, coming face-to-face with Angel's one-true-love after going to sleep with him sitting on her bed last night. "How about you?"

Buffy shrugged. "All right." She looked down at her feet. "Angel and I patrolled. I thought...I hoped he might come back here."

"He did come back here." Great. Mouth, meet foot.

Buffy blinked, obviously surprised and not doing a good job of hiding it. "He told me about Connor."

Perfect, Cordy thought. Just what we needed. A cranky Slayer and a guilty Angel. But she nodded in understanding. "Bet that was a shocker."

Buffy made a valiant attempt at a smile. "You could say that." She fumbled with the button on her pajamas, twisting the little cow back and forth. When she dropped it, it was hanging by a thread. "You're so lucky."

"Well, now there's a term I apply to myself often," Cordy answered dryly.

"You get to see him every day. He obviously...cares about you. I don't even know if he thinks about me anymore."

Cordy found herself in the awkward situation of consoling Angel's lover. Again. "You know that's not true, Buffy. You're the only person he's ever really loved."

"Right." Buffy's eyes were old and tired. She wasn't the innocent girl with bad fashion sense that Cordy once knew. "Haven't you noticed the way he looks at you?"

Cordy snorted. "We're friends, Buffy. That's all we've ever been. That's all we can ever be." But she couldn't get rid of the memory of Angel's hand, soothing her to sleep.

"If two people love each other, there'll be a way. I have to believe that," Buffy said, her voice catching oddly. "Or I'd never take another step."

"Ah, good, I see you've made yourself presentable," Wes said, coming up the stairs with his bag slung over his shoulder. As always, he was the most organized of the group, already packed and ready to go.

"As presentable as I get these days," Cordy answered, grateful for the interruption. "You ready?"

"Mmm hmm. Did you get something to eat?"

"There's fruit and stuff," Buffy said in a close-to-normal tone, as if discussing matters of the heart with Cordy was an every-day occurrence.

"Not really hungry. Thanks, though."

"Willow tells me that Mr. Zhou comes around first thing," Wes said. "Angel's going to meet us there."

The thought of seeing him lifted her spirits in ways the Cavellis hadn't. "By way of the sewers, I presume?"

Wes nodded. "He still knows the system rather well, I take it."

"Well, there's also Spike," Buffy said.

Cordy watched her carefully, noticing the way the color rose in her cheeks at the mention of his name. "Spike's taking Angel to the herb shop? That's priceless." What she wouldn't give to overhear *that* conversation.

Wes smiled. "Just like old times."

"Or not," Buffy said, gazing out the window.

"So, you ever been in the apothecary before?" Cordy asked as they pulled into a parking space right out front. You had to love small towns and their always-available parking.

"Yes, though it has been a few years. Before my rogue demon hunter phase," he said with wink.

Cordy hopped out of the car and slammed the door. "You know, I could never figure out if you were supposed to be the rogue, or if it was the demons who were. 'Cause, you know, all those dangling modifiers."

Wes looked miffed. "Well, obviously, I was the rogue. For heaven's sake, Cordelia, why would a demon be a rogue?" He swung the door open for her and she sailed into the shop.

"I'm just sayin'," she replied, as her eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room.

It was small, about 15 by 20, and covered, head-to-toe with shelves. Behind the counter was an Asian woman of indeterminate age.

She couldn't help but think of the old Chinese couple she'd seen weeks before in her vision, the night Angel freed Billy. Those two people were dead because of her.

"Marcia?" Wes asked, startling Cordy out of her reverie. The woman nodded and Wes stepped forward and extended his hand. "Ni hao ma?" he said in flawless Mandarin.

Marcia threw Wesley a reassessing glance then took his hand in hers and replied, also in Mandarin.

Cordy wandered while they talked in the language's singsong tones, letting the guilt dissipate. She couldn't do anything about it now except live with it.

And make sure it didn't happen again.

On the shelf in front of her was a large jar. She picked it up and stared. That wasn't...ewww, it was. Dead snakes coiled in some kind of gold fluid. She smacked the jar back on the shelf.

"Cordelia," Wesley said.

She turned, linking her fingers behind her back. "Yes?"

"This is Marcia, the proprietor of the shop. She tells me that Mr. Zhou is expected this morning, and that we are to make ourselves at home." He motioned to a door Cordy hadn't noticed before.

"Thank you," Cordelia replied. She stepped into a short hallway. On the right was a door, ajar. Cordy pushed it open and walked through to an efficiency apartment about the same size as the shop. A two-person table was wedged between the kitchen alcove and a window.

Cordy's gaze finally landed on Angel, who was seated in an ancient recliner, his big body so still she thought he was asleep. Then he opened his eyes and smiled.

"Hey," he said.

She went to him and poked him on the shoulder. "Hey," she replied.

He grabbed her hand and squeezed it. She smiled, feeling warm and safe. It was a dangerous and stupid thing to need a vampire. She prided herself on not being stupid.

But she didn't let go of his hand.

"Mr. Wesley?" Marcia called.

Wes went to the door. "Yes, we're here."

He stepped back so Marcia could enter the room with a man even smaller than she was. He had a strong, upright bearing, however, and a headful of silver hair. He wore all black and carried a silver-tipped cane, which he rested in the umbrella stand just inside the door.

"This is Mr. Zhou. He has agreed to speak with you."

Mr. Zhou turned to Marcia and Wes. "Leave us now," he commanded.

Marcia backed respectfully out of the room and disappeared into the shop. Wes arched an eyebrow. "Right," he said, looking from Angel to Cordy. "I'll be at the Magic Box. Call me when you need me." He glanced over his shoulder at them before closing the door with a quiet click.

Mr. Zhou inclined his head and looked at each of them, his gaze intense, direct. His eyes were dark and endless as outer space. When they landed on Cordy, she trembled, feeling raw. Exposed.

The seconds ticked by and the silence grew taut.

The old man finally spoke. "You are the Seer," he said to her. He stepped forward and held out his hand.

She let go of Angel and clasped Zhou's palm. At the contact, every cell in her body filled with red heat and pulsing light.

Visions slammed through her like a wrecking ball. Faces contorted with agony and terror. Knives, guns, bombs. War. They flickered like flames, scorching her soul with their heat.

She couldn't contain it, couldn't stop it. She could only stand helplessly as her world melted away and they took over.

She was a bomb waiting to explode.

But then something shifted. The energy cooled. The faces, once sharp, became blurry and faded away. Around her, the room came back into focus. It looked different somehow, like a net of light had dropped over it. Gossamer strands pulsed with life, connecting everyone and everything like a soft, spidery web.

"Yes," she breathed. He dropped her hand. The ground undulated as the room whooshed back to normal, and she grabbed the back of Angel's chair.

"And this is your warrior."

Angel did not stand to greet him. Instead, he stayed in the recliner, still as a snake waiting to strike.

Mr. Zhou walked slowly across the room and settled into one of the kitchen chairs. He waved his hand again, directing Cordelia to sit.

A wave of anger rose up in her. She forgot that he might very well be the one person who could save her life. She forgot everything except her need to maintain some sense of control.

Angel stared at Zhou like a tiger squaring off over turf. "Please sit down, Cordy," he said quietly. "Cordelia, please," he repeated, when she didn't immediately move.

She finally sat. But she didn't relax.

"So, a vampire and a human," Mr. Zhou said. "It's an interesting combination. Not unheard of, certainly, but rare," he commented, rubbing his chin. His shiny black eyes flicked over Cordelia as if she were a piece of art in a hotel room, decorative, and designed stay in the background.

"How long have you been linked?" he asked, his gaze landing on Angel.

"Linked?" Cordy asked coolly. She despised the feeling of being overlooked.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Angel shake his head as if telling her to back off. It was the only movement he made, not even the rise and fall of his chest, which he usually allowed.

The only time he got that still was when he was pissed. Or threatened. Fear dragged its icy fingers up Cordy's back.

"Yes, my dear," Zhou said disdainfully. "As Seer and Warrior."

"More than two years," Angel replied for her. His voice was placid, controlled, the way it got right before he went into battle.

"And you have fought many battles from her visions, yes?" Mr. Zhou asked.

Angel nodded, his eyes unblinking, his stare as direct, as intense as the Chinese man's.

"How old are you?" Mr. Zhou, his voice soft but very clear.

"Nearly two-hundred-and-fifty," Angel replied. Cordy shifted in her chair. He looked over at her, his eyes sharp and predatory.

"And you have never felt as helpless as you are feeling now," Mr. Zhou stated.

His head whipped around. "What?"

"You are solitary, more by necessity than desire, I see." Suddenly Mr. Zhou smiled. "It must drive you crazy sometimes being hooked up with this one."

"Hey!" The comment snapped her attention back to the old man.

Angel didn't even look at her this time. He simply grabbed her hand and forced her to stay still. He was cool and hard against her skin. Not remotely human.

"She's a pistol, all right," Mr. Zhou said solemnly, as if she wasn't even in the room.

"No one's got quite the firepower that Cordy does, that's true," Angel said, squeezing her fingers tightly.

"Stop it," she growled, jerking her hand free. She looked at Mr. Zhou. "If you want to talk to me, talk to *me*. And Angel, stop with the threatening vamp act. I don't need your protection."

Mr. Zhou laughed out loud. "Well, her mouth is certainly big."

Cordy's anger exploded like a firecracker. "All right. That's *it*," she said, jumping to her feet and heading for the door.

"But her heart is bigger," Mr. Zhou concluded.

The comment stopped Cordy mid-stride.

"A sharp tongue is nothing to be ashamed of, my dear," Mr. Zhou said over his shoulder. "The gods did not give us weapons they did not intend us to use. You have done an excellent job defending your heart up until now. But you must change your methods, or the visions will drop you like a stone."


Angel sat up, his feet landing flat on the floor. "What did you say?"

Cordy turned to look at the old man, her anger popping like an overblown bubble. It left behind a residue of irritation and the frustrating knowledge that she'd just been expertly manipulated.

Zhou motioned for her to sit, and this time she did, though not without a huff. Then he answered Angel's question.

"They will kill her, as surely as she is now breathing," Mr. Zhou said, his voice calm and certain. "I have heard of it before. The visions are given to one with the spiritual heart to do the job, but not the physical capacity."

Cordy's blood pounded in her ears. She knew Angel could hear it, which only made her feel more exposed.

"Will you help us?" Angel pleaded in a tone Cordy had never heard him use.

"You have been through a lot this year," Mr. Zhou replied. "You wonder if you will survive another blow."

He'd lost so much: his faith, Buffy, even Darla. And if she died, whatever happened to him would be her fault. Like the old couple in the apothecary. Cordy made a strangled sound in the back of her throat. "Please," she whispered.

"Two-hundred-and-fifty years it has taken you to love," he said to Angel. "It is your heart that is as much at stake here as hers is, if you'll pardon the pun." Mr. Zhou slapped his leg and laughed heartily.

"What do we need to do?" Cordy asked in a small voice, so unlike her usual confident tone that she almost didn't recognize it.

"You do nothing. I will return to my home, where I will spend time in meditation. This will allow me to determine if we are to work together."

"But...." Cordy interjected.

"You have to do something," Angel said.

"Did you think that I would just take you on without first divining our purpose together?" he asked Angel.

He looked at Cordy, and his gaze sent her spinning again, like a blow to the head. "My dear," he said firmly. "I am not one of your MD's who believes he can heal anyone who walks in the door. These treatments are delicate work. They require a soul-level connection that cannot be determined on sight, but must be considered over time."

"But, the visions." She could feel them like ghosts hovering over her shoulder.

"You haven't seen her after the visions," Angel explained desperately. "She can't go on like this."

"And neither can you, evidently."

Angel stared at the man for a moment, then dropped his gaze. He took a shuddering breath and looked at Cordy. The struggle between fear and hope showed in his eyes. "At least he's not turning us away. Let's give it a chance."

"Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said, drawing her attention to him. "I will give you a remedy which will blunt the pain of the visions. In regard to the other, you must trust whatever gods you believe in to lead you to the right place."

Cordy swallowed. "I guess I don't have any choice."

He stood. "My dear, our lives are ruled by choice."

Cordy looked up at him in confusion. "That's it?"

"Yes, we're finished. For now."

Angel slid off the recliner and held out his hand. "Thanks."

"I will be in touch," Mr. Zhou said, dropping Angel's hand and turning to Cordelia. "I will write down a list of formulas for you, young lady. Get them from Marcia and take them just as she says. You will feel better soon. And after a while we will know if we are destined to work together."

"How long?" she asked. "I mean, what if...?"

"You are very strong." He took her hands in his.

This time when they touched, Cordelia felt the pulse of energy, but her feet stayed firmly on the ground and her head remained clear. "But how long?" she asked desperately.

"One week. Two at the most." His hands were like smooth leather. "Cordelia, do not lose hope. The path you seek, seeks you as well."

"All right," she replied, her spirits sinking. "Two weeks."

"No more." He released her hands. "Angel." He nodded toward the other man. Then he picked up his cane and walked out the door, closing it softly behind him.

Cordy collapsed on her chair. "I thought that was supposed to make me feel better."

Angel watched the door close behind Mr. Zhou. He was silent for a moment. "Typical shaman."

"They have those in China?"

"Uh huh."

"Oh. When I touched him, I saw...things."

Angel nodded. "He was testing your strength. And mine." He rested his hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"

She looked up at him. "Yeah. Thanks for last night."

Angel nodded then dropped his hand, suddenly looking awkward.

Cordy cleared her throat, at a loss for what to say next. There was a pause and from out front the muffled sounds of commerce. "What now?"

"Let's go back to Buffy's and get your things. Then we'll head back to LA. I need to see Connor."

That silly grin came over her face, the one she always got when she thought of the baby. "God, I miss him."

Angel smiled back, all traces of awkwardness gone. "You're so good with him."

"Hard not to fall head-over-heels for your best friend's kid," she admitted. "He's got me totally wrapped."

"I know the feeling. Now, go call Wes. I'll meet you back at the house. The sooner we get back, the sooner we can see Connor." He made his way toward the door. As he opened it, he looked back at her. "Cordy," he said.

She looked up from collecting her bag. "Yeah?"


"Uh, you're welcome?" she said, unsure of what he was thanking her for.

"You came back. You were there for me. You stand by me, even when I don't deserve it."

She blinked. What in the world was he talking about? "That's what best friends do."


"Girlfriend, you been brewin' that stinky tea again," Gunn said. He strolled down the lobby stairs and leaned his hubcap axe against a chair.

Cordy glanced up from the computer, pulled her mouth into a smile she didn't feel. "Yeah, it smells pretty rank, doesn't it?"

Wes came wandering out of the office, an open book under his nose. "Ah, Cordy, I think I found that demon we were looking for," he said. He glanced up, saw Gunn standing by the hotel's reception desk. "Gunn, hello. I didn't hear you come in."

"Just about to head home after a hard night of vampire slayin,'. What's up with y'all?"

"Research, research and more research," Cordy said, too brightly. "Oh, and did I say, research?" Gunn's upper lip curled, but the careful way he watched Cordelia told her she wasn't faking him out.

"Sounds dee-lightful," he replied. "Me, I'm lucky. Y'all gotta find it. All I gotta do is track it down and kill it." He looked around the room. "Where are the others?"

"Lorne's been over at the club trying to decide whether he's gonna clean it up again or sell it. Fred's taking the first shift with Connor. Angel's downstairs doing God knows what." Cordy picked up a large mug of brownish-red brew. She took a gulp, grimaced. "Gag, that stuff is *awful*."

Wes wrinkled his nose. "If it tastes anything like it smells, I can well imagine."

"At least it's helping the headaches," Cordy said, trying for an optimistic outlook. Must have worked because Wes nodded, his eyes hopeful.

"Yes, that is good news," he replied.

The silence stretched, one beat, two. Wes and Gunn watched her, waiting for her to speak. She rubbed her temple. "Hey, listen, I need a break. You guys want anything from the bakery?"

Wes looked concerned. "I'll be glad to take you."

Cordelia set the mug down with a smack.

"Or, uh, I could just stay here and research," Wes fumbled. "A carrot-raisin muffin and an espresso. That would be wonderful, thank you."

Gunn worked up a sneer. "Carrot-raisin? That's for girly-men. Get me a couple of them chocolate chip muffins and the biggest coffee they got. And don't let 'em skimp, neither. None of that room-for-cream crap," he said, darting looks at Cordelia as she gathered up her purse.

He walked around the desk, making a big show of peering over Wes's shoulder. "So, what evil nasty we lookin' at today?"

"Oh, this? It's a...."

Their voices faded as Cordy walked out the front doors and onto the sidewalk. She slapped on her sunglasses. At the curb was Angel's car, top still down from the night before. She hopped in, started it up, and pulled out into traffic.

Somebody, either Angel or Wes, had left it on KCSN. Classical music poured out the speakers, dark and moody. She reached down to change the station then stopped, as she realized the music suited her disposition just fine.

It had been nearly two weeks since her meeting with Martin Zhou. The medicine dialed down the headaches from migraine to splitting.

But the visions came almost every day.

Every one left her shaken to the bone, stomach roiling with queasy terror, sweaty hair plastered to clammy skin. Because any one of them could be the last.

The music swelled and receded, the wind whipped past her face, and she maneuvered the car deftly through traffic. She knew she was gambling. One vision, one jerk of the wheel, one time through a red light, and she, or someone else would pay for it.

They all knew it, and still, they let her go. Because the alternative was unthinkable. Hole up in her apartment or move into the hotel. Make the team keep watch 24/7. Just in case.

And after that? All those people in her head. Nonstop. Again.

She wouldn't survive it this time.

That was her future. You didn't have to be a Seer to know it.

"Hey, guys, I'm back," Cordy called. Her mood wasn't any better, but at least now they all had something to eat. When all else failed, go for food.

Wes looked up from his book. "Oh, wonderful. I was wondering where you'd got to," he said, taking a bag from her hands.

"I stopped off and got Angel's breakfast, too. Wasn't sure when I'd get back out," she said. "Gunn!" she yelled. "Breakfast!"

"Cordelia, must you do that?" Wes asked, pinching the bridge of his nose.

She shrugged irritatedly. "He's gotta be close. I have his muffins," she set the remaining bag on the desk.

Sure enough, Gunn loped into the reception area. "Finally," he said. "I thought you were gonna be gone all day."

"Nah," she said sarcastically. "Just half of it. I had to stop by the butcher shop."

"Oh," said Gunn, ignoring the sarcasm in favor of a muffin, which he stuffed in his mouth. "Gah, ah luf dese."

"Gunn, must you..."

"...speak with your mouth full?" Cordy mimicked, her tone sharp. "God, Wes, who cast you as Mommy Dearest?"

"Well, someone has to be," he said, priggishly.

Cordy's black cloud threatened to burst. "I'll be back," she said tightly, picking up Angel's blood and stomping upstairs.

One good thing about vampires. They kept their rooms dark and quiet. Maybe she'd just hang out up here, where the doom-and-gloom atmosphere matched her pissy mood. And where she wouldn't risk killing Wes or Gunn.

She knocked on the door, hoping Angel wasn't still awake. There was no answer, so she tiptoed in. The living room was dark, and the French doors to Angel's bedroom door were partially closed. Thank God.

She was setting the container of blood in the mini-fridge when the phone rang. She ignored it, hoping someone downstairs would get it. But the ringing didn't stop.

"Dammit, Wes. Can't you pick up the phone for once?" she whispered, hurrying across the room to pick it up before it woke Angel.

"Angel Investigations," she hissed.

"Miss Chase?" a man's voice asked.

Cordy's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Uh, yeah?"

"This is Martin Zhou, how are you?"

The tension that had coiled mercilessly in her chest for the last two weeks snapped like an overstretched rubber band, leaving her feeling limp and about as useful. She collapsed into the nearest chair. "Um, hi. I'm fine, thanks, how are you?"

There was a rustle behind her, and she turned. Angel stepped out of the bedroom and rubbed his eyes sleepily. "Who is it?" he asked.

"It's Mr. Zhou," Cordelia rasped.

Angel came and stood beside her, his hastily-pulled-on pants still unbuttoned and his chest bare.

"Oh, good, you're both there," Mr. Zhou said.

Cordy nervously jerked one of the roses from the vase on the end table. "Yes, Angel just came in," she replied, not at all comforted by the chill of his presence beside her. She pulled a petal off the rose and dropped it onto the table top. Another followed.

"Good, good. Well, I'm sure you are wondering about my decision," he said.

Cordelia began tapping the flower restlessly. "Getting straight to the point. I like that," she tried to joke, which was difficult to do, considering the situation.

Angel leaned over her, his body brushing hers as he took the rose and set it aside. She could smell smoke and sweat on him, as if he hadn't showered before he went to bed.

Mr. Zhou laughed. "I thought you might. The answer is yes, Cordelia. With several stipulations."

"Oh, my God," she said on a shuddering breath. Relief flooded her system. She glanced up and Angel was watching her intently. She nodded.

A smile bloomed over his face.

"As I said," Mr. Zhou continued, pulling her focus back to the conversation, "there are several stipulations. The first is cost."

Cordy blanched, feeling the tension spiral again. She reached for the rose, but Angel's cool hand covered hers before she could touch it.

"Cost?" It hadn't occurred to her that there would be a charge for the service, though of course, that was stupid. Why wouldn't there be? "Of course," she said, as calmly as she could, feeling Angel's skin warm as it picked up her body heat. "How much?" They barely had the money to pay the bills now.

Mr. Zhou named a figure. Cordy gasped, stunned.

"What?" Angel whispered, squatting beside her. A line appeared between his eyebrows.

Cordelia motioned for a pen and paper.

Angel opened the end table drawer. "Here."

She took them from him and hastily wrote down the figure.

Angel looked at it for a moment then nodded his head.

She gaped, even as Mr. Zhou continued. "The next thing is that you must agree to spend six weeks at my retreat in the mountains. There will be no physical contact with family or friends, and phone calls only to give information about the visions."

"Six *weeks*?" Cordy asked. "No contact?"

"It's not nearly enough time, but I understand that you cannot be pulled away from your family for longer than that."

"A month-and-a-half," Cordy repeated, letting her head flop against the back of the chair.

"And you must agree, for the period that you are in my care, to forego all alcohol and drugs, and to eat only what I prescribe."

"Well, God, what are you going to prescribe?" Cordy asked, remembering the jar in the apothecary.

Mr. Zhou laughed. "Mostly just rice and vegetables, and some herbs. We must cleanse your system."

"Cleanse my system," she repeated numbly, staring off into space.

"I'm sure it's a bit out of the ordinary, my dear. Not what you were expecting. Would you like some time to discuss it?"

"Yes, I think we...." she said dazedly.

Angel took the phone from her and sat down on the couch.

"Hey! We weren't done," Cordy said.


Angel ignored her. "Mr. Zhou? It's Angel. I'll take care of the financial end of things. The rest is up to Cordelia."

"You'll...but..." Cordy spluttered. "Angel," she hissed. "You don't have that kind of money."

Angel, still involved in the conversation with Zhou, picked up the pen and wrote something on the pad. He turned it to Cordelia. "Yes, I do," it said in his elegant scrawl.

"No, you don't," Cordelia muttered, poking her fingertips into her temples and rubbing in tight circles.

Angel stopped talking and handed the phone back to her.

She glared at him, despite the fact that her head was still reeling. "Mr. Zhou, I need to talk to Angel about this."

Angel looked back at her, his face drawn and tired, but more at peace than it had been since their trip to Sunnydale.

Oh, sure, it was easy for him to be all peaceful. He had $250,000 stashed away in some...some *vampire* account. An account he'd never told her about. She knew he didn't tell her everything, but still. A quarter of a million dollars?

"I understand. I will give you this number. It belongs to a neighbor, who can contact me when necessary. If you do decide to accept my invitation, we will make arrangements for your trip when we speak next."

"Thank you, Mr. Zhou," Cordy said between clenched teeth as she wrote down the number he gave her. She didn't recognize the area code, she realized through the red haze. She'd have to look it up on the map.

After she peeled several long strips off of Angel's hide.

"I'll be in touch with you very soon." She disconnected furiously and slapped the phone onto the table. "What are you *thinking*?" she gritted, standing up so she could lean into Angel's space. They were almost nose-to-nose, and if she weren't spoiling for a fight she would have noticed that the peace had drained away, leaving behind a serious lack of tether.

Angel scrubbed his hands over his face and pushed himself to his feet. "Look, Cordy, this has been a long two weeks, and on top of it I had a crappy night. I don't want to fight about this. The money's there. Just take it, okay?"

"No, it is *not* okay! I've seen your bank statements. I know how much money you have, and it's not anywhere near what Mr. Zhou requested."

Angel winced, watching as she paced to the other side of the room.

"You can't do this!" She banged a hand on top of the small fridge with an echoing metal clang. "You can't...just..." she took three quick steps, waved a hand in the air. "You can't just offer me a quarter of a million like it's nothing!" Her voice escalated until it bounced off the low ceiling.

Angel grabbed Cordy by the arms, his face inches from hers. "Cordelia," he said, his voice as cool and firm as his fingers.

Good, she thought. She'd pissed him off. The jerk.

"I have the money. Just take it." He let go of her and walked toward the bedroom.

Her flesh tingled where his fingers had clamped. "That's more than I can make in ten years working for you. Besides, I don't want to take your money!" Which was total BS, and they both knew it.

But dammit, he had God knew how much blood money in some hidden account somewhere...and...and that wasn't even the point. The point was, if he gave it to her, she'd have to go. Away from him and Connor and everyone else for longer than she'd ever been separated from them.

And she didn't know if she would make it back alive.

Angel changed directions suddenly, and was standing in front of Cordelia before she realized he'd even moved.

She gasped, slamming her open hand against his bare chest. "Don't *do* that!"

"Cordelia," Angel rasped, leaning into her hand menacingly. "I was the heir to my father's estate. How much do you think it's grown in 250 years?" His face was a stone mask, his eyes dark and cold as obsidian.

Oh, she'd gotten him, all right. Really, really gotten him. The only other time she'd heard that tone was when he'd said, "Don't make me move you."

"Angel, you died before your father did," she said, knowing he could hear her rabbiting heart and trembling voice.

"You're so *naive*" he said, throwing his hands in the air and backing away from her, as if he had suddenly realized what he was doing. "And really, it's none of your business how I spend my money. You need this. And I need you." He turned, glared at her. "It's a fair arrangement."

"Well, but...but...if you do have that much money, it should go to Connor."

"Connor has plenty of money. You don't need to worry about him."

"Then why didn't you use that money when we started Angel Investigations?" She was having trouble letting it go.

"Because, Cordelia, starting this company was never about money," he said primly.

Oh, she bet he loved that. Angel loved being a martyr more than almost anything. "Excuse me, but there were months we practically *starved*," she retorted.

Angel nodded, crossing his arms over his chest, looking impatient. "Yes, there were. But we didn't, so I don't see what the problem is."

"Why now?" she wailed, finally reaching the end of her rope. Her anger was rapidly dissipating, leaving behind an upset stomach and the dawning realization that she'd just taken out two weeks of frustration on him.

Angel stalked over to her and grabbed her shoulders, shaking her roughly. "Because it's family money, Cordelia. And you're family." His eyes were black, his face clenched. "Are we done here?" Angel asked, his voice low, even.

She nodded, silenced, finally, by shame.

"Good." He let her go and she slumped into the chair. "All I want to do is get some sleep. Call Zhou from upstairs. And thanks for the breakfast," he said, glancing at the fridge.

"You're welcome," Cordy whispered, picking up the number and clenching it in her hand.

Angel shut the door behind him and the suite was silent and dark again.


"Do you have everything you need?" Fred asked.

Cordy nodded. "Yeah. I guess." She'd packed and repacked six times already. Last night, she found herself staring listlessly at the black dress she'd pulled out the closet, wondering if she should take it, too. After all, it was the perfect thing to be buried in. And with the visions the way they'd been lately....

How did you pack for eternity?

She shifted Connor in her arms. He blinked up at her, his still-blue eyes as wise as an old man's. Six weeks--maybe forever--without him. She pressed her lips to his silky forehead. "Sweet baby. Don't grow up too fast."

Gunn picked up Cordelia's suitcase and they started down the hall. "C'mon, Barbie," he said gently. He put his hand in the small of her back. "Angel's downstairs waiting."

She glanced at him. "Thanks."

Fred grabbed her overnight bag and her purse, and followed them into the hall.

"Bye, Dennis!" Cordy said. The wind ruffled her hair, and then the apartment door closed slowly. "Thanks for everything," she whispered.

Wes opened the stairwell door and stepped into the hall. "Ready?"

Usually his habit of taking the stairs for health drove her nuts. But today, as she looked up at his familiar face, she realized that little habits like that were what made Wes who he was. And they only made her love him more. "This is freaking me out."

He patted her shoulder. "I know, my dear. It must be a little intimidating."

"What, going off to spend six weeks in the wilderness with Bruce Lee's grandfather?" Fred and Gunn crowded in around them, loaded with Cordy's bags.

Wes chuckled. "Maybe you'll learn some kung fu," he said, punching the elevator button.

"I can kick your butt already," she said, in an attempt a humor. "What would be the point?"

Gunn snickered. "What?" he said at the dark look Wes gave him. "You know it's true."

The elevator dinged.

"True, but I can out-scream you, any day," Wes said. He ushered them all in ahead of him.

Fred hit the button for the ground floor and they started their descent.

"Don't know if I'd be admitting that in public," Cordy said, pressing her cheek to Connor's. "What do you think, baby? You think Uncle Wes should be proclaiming to the world that he screams like a girl?" The baby drooled on her shoulder in response.

"He might scream like a girl," Fred said. "But he's heck on wheels with that flame thrower. Those things aren't a picnic to operate, you know."

Wes smiled at her over Cordy's head. "Thanks, Fred. Everybody's got to have something they're good at." The doors opened and they walked through the courtyard and into the parking lot. "Ah, here's the car," he remarked, popping the trunk so Gunn could stow the suitcase. "Give me her other bag," he said to Fred.

Cordy walked to the passenger's side and looked in the open door. Lorne sat in the seat talking to Angel in a low voice.

"There she is, now," he said, turning his brilliant smile her way. "And look who she's got with her." He reached out and chucked Connor's chin. "Mon petit prince." He slid out of the car. "Hand him over. Uncle Lorne hasn't given him his RDA of Motown yet."

Cordy hugged Connor to her, then nuzzled his neck, breathing his scent deeply. "Take care of your daddy," she whispered. "He needs you more than you know." She looked up at Lorne with tears in her eyes and handed him the baby.

Lorne took Connor then hugged Cordy. The baby was pressed between them and it gave her another second to run her hand over his tiny hands and perfect feet. Another moment to press her fingers to his beating heart and commit his bones to memory.

"I love you," she whispered. She pulled back.

"We love you too, babe," Lorne said. He blinked against the sunset's rays. "Now, get out of here. You're making my mascara run."

Cordy hugged Fred. "Bye. You guys have a good Christmas," she said.

"We won't open gifts till you get back," Fred replied with a watery smile.

"Yeah, dollface, six weeks ain't forever. Heck, that's barely a blink in the cosmic calendar," Gunn said encouragingly. His body was hard and warm, and she pressed her nose into his sweatshirt.

"Keep them safe," she said.

"Always do," he promised.

Cordy settled into the seat, and clicked her seatbelt in place. Wes closed the door behind her with a quiet "thunk," his hands resting in the space left by the open window.

"Hey, Angel," Cordy said, glancing at the shadow behind the wheel.

"Hey. Ready?" he asked, his voice soft.

Cordy nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be."

Wes patted the car door. "You two be careful."

Cordy looked over at him and smiled. "Thanks, Wes. Take lots of pictures. I don't want to miss anything."

Wes grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Just what we need. Another excuse to photograph that baby."

Cordy beamed at him. "We're worse than grandparents."

"That's because we're parents."

Angel cleared his throat.

Wes leaned in and hugged Cordy. "Bye," he whispered, kissing her on the temple.

"Bye," she said.

Wes stepped away from the car. "See you soon."

Cordy nodded and Angel started the car and pulled into traffic.

"According to the directions, we take the 10 toward San Bernadino. You do have the directions, Cordelia?"

Cordy pulled a sheet from her purse and waved it at him. "Right here."


Mr. Zhou lived on private land inside the San Bernadino National Forest above Big Bear Lake. Getting to Fawnskin, the closest town, was easy. Getting to Zhou's house was harder.

Cordy shivered as they passed the one residence, a ranch, within five miles of his driveway. She wondered if it was the neighbor whose phone he'd used to call her.

How did the man survive with no phone? He probably lived in a fricking yurt. She wrapped her arms around her waist trying to quell the creeping sense of unease that had grown ever since her conversation with him two days before.

"You okay?" Angel asked. The inside of the car had taken on the peculiar softness of a night-time drive, and his voice sounded muffled by the darkness.

Cordy could see only the sketchiest outline of his features in the light from the dashboard, and suddenly, she was terrified that he would vanish, leaving her out in the woods all by herself. Her hand darted out and clutched his upper arm. "No," she whispered.

Angel stopped the car and put it in park. He turned in the seat, covering her hand with his. "You don't have to do this, Cordelia."

Cordy took a breath, trying to slow her pounding heart. "I do. You know I do," she said. "It's just so...dark," she murmured, looking out the window. She couldn't remember ever feeling so alone in her life.

Angel sat quietly for a moment. "Cordy, get out of the car," he finally said, unlatching his seatbelt and opening the door. The bell chimed, then stopped when Angel killed the ignition. He climbed out, closing the door softly behind him.

Cordy sat for a moment, staring at his shadow, then unlatched her seatbelt. Prickles of fear darted over her shoulders leaving behind a chill that unnerved her to the bone. Yet because it was Angel waiting for her, she pushed the door open and climbed out, just as he reached through the open window and flipped off the headlights.

"Angel!" Cordy shrieked.

He laughed, but not mockingly. "Come here," he said, walking around the car and resting on the hood.

Cordy looked around her and could see nothing but a darkness so deep it pressed against her eyes like a black cloth. Her teeth chattered as the silence overtook her and she realized how far away from civilization they were. No cars, no TVs, no buses, no people....

She rounded the hood carefully and hopped up next to him, her denim-clad butt sliding easily along the black paint. Angel put his arm around her trembling shoulder and set his feet on the bumper. He pushed them along the hood until their backs rested against the windshield.

Cordy shuddered again as her back made contact with the glass.

"You cold?" Angel asked.

"No, not really."

"Scared, then."

"Well, yeah," she replied, wrapping her arms around her waist.

"Lots of stars out tonight," Angel commented, pulling Cordy tighter against him. She could feel the press of his body against her, big and strangely cool. It was as if there was nothing living beneath his clothes, but she knew that wasn't true. She'd never met anyone more alive.

"Yeah," she said. Her heart began to slow its gallop.

"It used to be this way all the time," he remarked, crossing one booted foot over another.

Cordy slid her legs over so they rested right against his. Her feet barely reached his calves. "What do you mean?" she asked, blowing out a breath and releasing more tension.

"All the lights, they're a pretty new thing. Up until about 75 years ago, you didn't see them so much. Just in the big cities."

"So it was dark like this every night?" Cordy shivered again. She felt Angel shake gently against her as he laughed.

"Yep. Every night. I miss it."

There was a longing in his voice that startled her. It reminded her that Angel had lived lifetimes she knew nothing about. Lifetimes she didn't want to know anything about. She turned to look at him, but could only sense his presence in the inky darkness. He was starting to get warm, though, from
her and from the residual heat of the engine.

"Why?" she asked. "It's so lonely."

Angel turned his head. Their noses bumped. "Is that what you're afraid of, Cordelia? Being alone?"

She nodded, felt the soft slip of his skin against hers. "What's worse?" she asked.

He kissed the tip of her nose. "Not much." He turned his face back to the sky. "When I was a kid, I used to lie in the fields and look at the stars. I dreamed about becoming a sailor so I could follow them. It sounds corny now, but back then, it was the only way a man of my station could see the world." He shrugged. "I guess I did follow them, just not in the way I expected."

Cordy's heart twisted for the boy he must have been and for the hard hand death had dealt him. Off in the woods a bird hooted and another answered. Cordy noticed for the first time the sound of a creek gurgling nearby and the soft soughing of the wind.

"It's not really all that quiet," she said.

Angel shook his head. "No. Some things live their entire lives at night," he said softly.

Cordy reached up and squeezed his hand.

Angel laced their fingers together. "Zhou was right, you know," he said.

"In what way?" Cordy asked.

"I never really loved anyone until I met Buffy."

"Angel..." Cordy started.

"No, let me finish. After I got my soul, I lived on the streets, fed off rats. I was in New York City when Whistler found me and took me to her. I felt like my long, useless life suddenly had a purpose."

Cordy turned over on her side, curling her legs up and over his and slipping her hand across his belly. His arm slid around her back, pulling her closer until her head rested on his chest. The buttons from his shirt pressed into her cheek and she listened hard for a heartbeat that wasn't there.

"When I left Sunnydale and came to L.A., it was because of Buffy.

"We couldn't be together. We knew that. But she was still my reason for being, Cordelia. She was still the reason I didn't just get up one morning and go for a walk in the sunlight."

"Angel," Cordy breathed.

Angel stroked his hand down Cordy's back, his fingers leaving tingling, heat-like imprints. "Then you and Doyle came along. I found, over time, that while I still loved Buffy desperately, and wanted her beyond reason, she wasn't everything anymore." He sighed and Cordy felt the rise and fall of his chest.

"She was still the first thing I thought of when I woke up in the evening. But after I was up, you guys were what kept me going. You and the people we helped."

He stopped, was silent for several long heartbeats. "When Buffy died, I thought I would die too. I know you know that," he said, squeezing her to him. "But when I didn't, I realized then that I'd finally moved on. Not in big steps, but in increments. It happened so gradually, I almost didn't see it."

"And you were there the whole time. Guiding me through it. Being my friend. I need you, Cordy. For the way you get in my face, for the way you keep me from brooding too much, for the way you smooth out the rough edges of my life.

"I know what it's like to be alone. And for what it's worth, you're not."

Cordy hugged him tightly. The creek gurgled and the bushes rustled. She listened for a moment before she spoke. "We have a strange life," she finally said.

Angel chuckled. "Yeah, tell me about it."

Cordy sat up and waited for Angel to do the same. She leaned over and kissed him, her lips resting softly against his cheek. "Thank you. I don't feel so scared, anymore."

"Well, good. That was kind of the point," Angel laughed. He reached up and skimmed her face with his hand, cupping it around her jaw. "You've told me several times that, as long as you're alive, I'll never be alone. I want you to know that works both ways."

"Even if I get married and have 10 kids?" she asked, laughing, leaning her face into his palm.

She felt Angel's grin more than she saw it. "Even then. Though I can't promise to look after the husband. The kids, now...." He said, hopping off the car. He held his hand out and Cordy took it and slid off the hood. Her feet met solid ground and when she hugged him, the feeling of safety extended to her entire body.

"I love you, Angel," she said, pressing her cheek to his chest.

He squeezed her tightly to him, their bodies blending into one, long shadow. "I love you, too, Cordelia," he answered gruffly. "You ready to go?"

Cordy nodded and pulled away. "Yeah. Let's do this thing."

Angel started the car and flipped on the headlights. The darkness jumped away from the knife points of glare.

"Should be the next driveway," she said.

Angel grunted as the car hit a rut. "Next time, I'm renting a four-wheeler," he said.

Cordy laughed. "Just think, I'm going to be stuck up here in four-wheel country for six whole weeks. What the *heck* am I gonna do?"


"Ah, you made it," Mr. Zhou said as they climbed out of the car. He stood in the doorway, haloed in the light from the house.

"Hello," Angel said, extending his hand as the old man came out to meet them.

"It's good to see you," Mr. Zhou said. He shook Angel's hand and turned to Cordy. "And it's wonderful to see you, my dear. Are you ready for a little adventure?"

Despite her lingering discomfort, Cordy smiled. "My entire life is an adventure. What's one more?"

The old man laughed. "Just so," he said. "Angel, if you will bring in the bags, I will show both of you to Cordelia's room."

Angel pulled Cordy's bags from the trunk, shouldering the overnight case and hefting the other. "Thank goodness for vampire strength," he teased. "I don't know how Gunn got this thing downstairs."

"Yeah, well you try packing for a month-and-a-half," Cordy retorted.

The house was a large, rambling rancher that opened into a soaring foyer and smelled vaguely of incense. The floor was made of pale, shimmering stone, and to one side a small fountain cascaded into a pond filled with koi.

"Wow," Cordy breathed.

"Yeah," Angel replied.

As they stepped into the common area, Cordy saw two long, low sofas, covered with pillows, and several tall-backed wooden armchairs. A pair of narrow scroll paintings hung on either side of the stone fireplace, long stripes of calligraphy, the ink startlingly black against the white paper. The walls seemed to be mostly window, but because of the darkness, Cordy couldn't see the view.

There was a simple dining table made of dark wood on the far right side of the room, with 12 chairs around it. That's a lot of chairs, Cordy mused, for a mountain retreat.

Her thoughts were interrupted when Mr. Zhou called to them. "This way," he said, and she turned to follow his voice to the hallway on the left. The hall snaked back, jogging around a sleek black bathroom and opening into a sitting area. Off of the sitting area were several doors. Mr. Zhou was in the first room they came to, a large, airy one painted the palest blue.

Cordy caught her breath at the sight of the bed. The intricately carved wood extended up in four posters, and flared out into a wooden roof that gave the effect of a sleeping chamber.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Mr. Zhou asked.

Angel slipped in behind Cordy and set her suitcase and overnight bag on the floor. "A Chinese puzzle bed," he said. "I haven't seen one of those since the Boxer Rebellion."

Cordy turned to look at him. "Geez, Angel, historic much?"

Mr. Zhou laughed. "This one is very old, but very sturdy. Most of my furniture is antique, brought over from China many years ago. But you needn't worry about hurting it; it is virtually indestructible. Much like your friend, here," he said, waving his hand at Angel.

Angel inclined his head.

"Young lady," Mr. Zhou said, claiming Cordelia's attention. "Your closet is here," he pointed to a door behind her. "And your bath is through here." He stepped forward, opening a door to a bathroom with marble floors and a sunken tub.

"It gets chilly at night, but you still might like to sleep with the doors open," he said, gesturing to a set of French doors on the opposite end of the room. "If that is so, you may drop the mosquito netting around the bed.

"Once you are settled in, come to the kitchen, both of you, for some tea. Angel, will you be staying, or do you plan to return to the city?"

Angel glanced at Cordy. "I'm going right back," he said. "I have some work to do."

"Yes, well, that is probably for the best. Cordelia and I have much to accomplish in a short amount of time." He stepped into the hall. "I will see you in the kitchen. Just follow the hall back to the foyer, and you will find the door off the dining area."

"Thank you," Cordelia said, as the old man disappeared. She turned to Angel. "Can you believe this place?"

He arched his eyebrow. "Not so worried about roughing it now, huh?"

"It takes the edge off, that's for sure," she said, opening the closet door and hoisting her suitcase inside. She set the overnight bag on the bed with her purse. "Boxer Rebellion?" she asked.

Angel grimaced. "You don't want to know. Let's just say it wasn't a high point of my long and not-so-illustrious life."

"Ooo-kay," she said. "Sometimes the stuff you know freaks me out," she said.

"You're not the only one," he replied. "Let's go get some tea. I need to get back on the road pretty soon."

"You going patrolling when you get back?" They walked through the sitting room and started down the hall to the kitchen.

"If there's time. Wes and Gunn were going out tonight, so I'm not too worried."

"We never really talked about how we're handling the visions," Cordelia said.

"I figured when you had one, you'd call. I'll keep the cell phone on all the time."

Cordy snorted.

"No, I'm serious. I'll leave it on, and when I'm sleeping I'll give it to Wes. Use that number, or call the hotel. One of us will be there to get the call."

"Well, I guess that about covers it," Cordy said, a hint of sadness coming into her voice.

They stopped at the kitchen door. Cordy could hear water running and the "chink" of pottery hitting the countertop.

Angel put his hand on her shoulder. "It's going to be hard on all of us, being separated this way."

Cordy stared at her feet, unable to face him. "What if this is the last time I see you?"


She kept her head down.

"Cordy, look at me." He slipped his fingers under her chin and turned her face toward him. "If I thought that every time I walked away from you, I'd never leave."

She smiled wistfully. "So, don't go."

"You don't know how much I want to stay. But they're testing me, too. They're seeing if I can let you fight your own fight."

She nodded resignedly. "I might have to make up some visions so we can talk, though."

Angel laughed. "I think Mr. Zhou's a little too smart for that."

Cordy smiled again. "Probably. But what am I gonna do without you guys for six weeks?"

Angel pulled her to him. "I think the question is, what are we going to do without you?"

Cordy felt the tears well up that she'd been holding back all day. "Oh, crap. Not now."

"It's okay," Angel said, resting his chin on her head.

Cordy took a couple of shuddering breaths and pulled away, wiping her face with the backs of her hands. "I'm such a crybaby," she said.

Angel cupped her cheek in his hand and rubbed a thumb under her eye. "That's not a bad thing."

"Maybe not to you," she said, trying for levity. "You don't have to live with the red nose." She turned and pushed open the swinging door. Angel followed her into the kitchen.

"There you are," Mr. Zhou remarked. "The tea is nearly ready." He gestured to barstools sitting around the white-tiled island in the middle of the kitchen. "Please, have a seat."

Cordy pulled a stool out and sat, watching while Angel did the same. He'd left his duster in the car, and wore a long-sleeved charcoal sweater and his black cargo pants. He was a shadow against the tiles, his hands pale smudges at the ends of his sleeves.

"Green tea is okay?" Mr. Zhou asked, pouring a golden-green stream into handleless cups.

"Yes," Cordy replied.

Angel nodded. "Genmaicha?"

Mr. Zhou smiled. "You know your tea, young man."

Angel arched an eyebrow. "I grew up in Ireland."

"And traveled the world, I suspect," Mr. Zhou said. He settled onto a stool and nodded to the mugs. "Help yourself." He pulled a steaming cup into his hands.

"Traveled it more than once," Angel replied, taking his own mug of tea and sipping.

"Yes, me too. But I find California is home now."

Angel nodded and looked at Cordy, who smiled at him. "I know what you mean."

The next morning, Cordy woke at dawn. She wasn't sure what had opened her eyes at such an ungodly hour, but after lying in bed for a moment, she knew she couldn't go back to sleep. She rolled off the mattress and padded to the bathroom to shower.

Pulling on a pair of jeans and a rose-colored lycra turtleneck she hadn't worn since her last skiing trip to Aspen, Cordy walked down the hall to the kitchen. She pressed her hand to her stomach, trying to soothe the butterflies that she couldn't seem to get rid of.

Mr. Zhou looked up from his book and smiled. "So, sleeping beauty awakes."

He looked so normal and unthreatening that Cordy beamed. "Compliments. Now that's a great way to start the day."

"Would you like some breakfast?" He poured her a cup of tea from the iron pot at his elbow.

"Yes, please."

He set the tea in front of her and then turned to pull a bowl from the cabinet. He filled it with rice porridge and laid it at her place with a spoon.

She looked at it in horror. "I can't eat that."

Mr. Zhou smiled. "You promised to eat what I gave you, remember?"

Cordy grimaced. "Well, that was stupid of me," she muttered, taking a tiny bite and chewing quickly. A look of surprise crossed her face. "Hey, that's good," she said. "You wouldn't think something this gloppy would be good."

Mr. Zhou laughed. "You have such a way with words."

"What you see is what you get," she shrugged, grinning. "So what's on the agenda today?"

"I thought we'd try some t'ai chi."

Cordy looked up from her bowl. "T'ai chi?" she asked. "Angel does t'ai chi."

"Ah," said Mr. Zhou smiled. "Your Angel is a wise man."

Cordy snorted. "Usually, he's more of a dork," she replied, not unkindly.

Mr. Zhou laughed. "Perhaps, but he did not live to his age without being flexible. One must be willing to change in order to survive. Your warrior has had to change many, many times."

Cordy took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. "I guess I never thought of it that way. He's always just been Angel to me. Unless he's Angelus, of course, but let's not go there." She waved her spoon dismissively.

Mr. Zhou inclined his head. "Of course I have heard of Angelus. Who in our line of work hasn't? But Angel seems to have found a successful way to control his demon. Something more humans could stand to learn," he said wryly.

"Tell me about it." She placed the now empty bowl in Mr. Zhou's outstretched hand. "Thanks."

Mr. Zhou rinsed the bowl and spoon and put them in the dishwasher.

"We will hold our practice outside," he said, picking up the thick wool sweater on the back of his stool and slipping it over his head. "You will want something more substantial than that," he said, nodding to Cordy's shirt. "Why don't you find something suitable and meet me on the deck." He pointed toward the back of the house.

"Great." She walked back to her room and found a white fleece pullover, then pushed her feet into her hiking boots. The French doors opened onto the deck, and she walked outside to join Mr. Zhou.

Her breath caught in her lungs. She'd expected a great view, but not this miracle of nature.

The area Mr. Zhou lived in was forested mainly by pines, but down a little farther, and stretching out for miles, there were lacy live oaks and the red-trunked manzanitas that glowed richly in the sun's bright morning rays.

She glimpsed a blue shimmer that must have been Big Bear lake in the distance. As far as she could see there was nothing but trees, water and sky. Even though the month had been warmer and dryer than usual, there was a definite bite to the breeze, and when she breathed, the air was as crisp and pure as a just-picked apple.

Mr. Zhou stood on the lawn below the deck. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

Cordy nodded. "It's very different in the daylight."

"Yes," he commented. "We think, because we can see them, that only the creatures who move in the day exist." Overhead a bird soared, its call floating on the breeze. Mr. Zhou pointed at it. "That, for example."

Cordy looked up. "What is it?"

"A red-shoulder hawk." He stood silently for a moment tracing the bird's movement with his hands, as if he were dancing with it. Instead of looking foolish, he appeared graceful and fey, otherworldly.

"Its brother is the owl," he said, dropping his hands and plucking his cane from its resting place against the deck. He motioned with his head for her to join him, and she walked down the steps and onto the lawn.

"Both are hunters, both share the same ground. But one works days and the other nights," he said. "You would be familiar with this, being a day-walker who works so closely with a vampire."

Cordy nodded.

"Nature creates a balance," Mr. Zhou continued. "Destroy one, and both die. It is the same with you and your warrior. When one is weak, the other cannot thrive."

"That's why I'm here." Cordy fell into step beside him as they started down a wide path. The forest smelled fresh and piney in the chilly morning air, and their feet left long tracks in the dust.

"You have some things to balance, yes, but Angel does, too. I was not joking when I said that his heart is as much at stake as yours is," he said, planting his silver-headed cane in the ground with each step.

Cordy nodded and stuck her hands in her pockets. "So what do we do?"

"I'm developing a plan. But first, you must build your chi, your energy. You must also learn to work with, not against, the power that is behind your visions. It hammers on your door now because it knows no other way to get in. But leave the door cracked, and its visits will be gentler."

Cordy nodded. "That makes sense. But what about Angel?"

"As I said, Angel is a wise man, one who has endured centuries of change. But his habit is to hole up and think too deeply about things. He believes he protects those he loves by remaining unattached."

"Well, in a way he's right. It was becoming too attached to Buffy that unleashed Angelus. He killed our teacher and stalked Buffy and our friends for months until she sent him to Hell," Cordy said, distinctly uncomfortable.

"If Angel experiences pure happiness, he loses his soul, it's true," Zhou replied. "But there are many shades of happiness one may experience before achieving the kind of bliss it takes for Angel's soul to go free. He must learn how far he can go before he loses it all, or else he will never experience true human connection. And without that connection, he cannot shanshu."

Cordy stopped, gaping at him.

He shrugged. "Like I said, people in our line of work know things."

Cordy puffed out a breath. "Well," she said. "Skipping over the part where you're Miss Cleo's Chinese brother, if Angel's not here, how can he learn what his limits are?"

"You will teach him." The trail passed through a densely wooded area then opened into a clearing.

"*I* will teach him," Cordy said. "You've got to be kidding. I can't teach Angel anything." She followed Mr. Zhou into the clearing.

Mr. Zhou stopped. "My dear, you underestimate your gifts. You think, without your visions, you are worth nothing. But Angel needs you as much as you need him. You are his link to life. You, like his son, are his link to the future."

He rested his cane against a tree trunk and turned to look at her, his black eyes reproachful. "You place too much stock in things that fade. Visions will pass, my dear. But love is eternal."

Cordy realized there was nothing she could say to that. "So my gift is to help Angel become human. How?"

Mr. Zhou laughed. "You are looking for hard answers to a soft question. When the time for things is upon us, we instinctively know what to do." He assumed the first posture of the t'ai chi long form.

"You and Angel. Always with the cryptic," she said, arranging her body in a mimic of his.

Mr. Zhou laughed. "I am an old man. Please allow me my small pleasures."


Wes sat in the office three nights after Cordy's departure. Books lay open all around him, some stacked four or six high. Yellow legal pads were scattered about, half-hidden by books, several with the nubs of pencils still resting where he'd dropped them mid-thought.

It was late--or early for certain types--and the hotel was dark and a little spooky. Even though it looked like Cordy's problems might be solved by this shaman, Wes wasn't going to stop researching.

Not only did he want a back-up plan, he also found the reading fascinating. Unfortunately, it also made him the man who knew too much.

"Hey, Wes." Angel appeared in the doorway, lurking as usual.

Wes started. "Didn't hear you there," he said. He closed the book he'd been reading, marking the page with his finger.

"Kind of late for you, isn't it?" Angel sat down across the desk, being careful not to disturb any of the books.

Wes shrugged. "I'm about done for the night. It's just that I found this passage and I wanted to finish it."

"Anything interesting?"

"Oh," Wes replied as casually as possible. "Just a history book on Seers."

Angel grimaced. "We had that? Here? The whole time?"

"No. Got it at the Magic Box."

Angel's shoulders relaxed. "Whew. I was worried there for a minute. So? What does it say?"

Wes wondered whether there was a graceful way to change the subject. "Angel, I really would prefer.... That is, you see, I would rather not...."


Apparently not. He cleared his throat. "Yes. Right. Well, you see, what I've found is that, um, er...."

"Just spit it out," Angel said mildly. "It can't be...."

"The last human girl who had the visions? Her head exploded."

"...that bad," Angel finished.

"So you see, Angel, what we've got here is a difficult situation," Wes rushed on.

"Difficult," Angel repeated. He stood slowly, like an old man. "What do we do?"

"I...we.... Keep researching. I'm sure there's something in here...." Wes looked at all the books, and suddenly he felt wrung out. Hopeless. "I have no idea," he whispered.

Angel shuffled to the door. "Get some rest, Wesley. Take one of the rooms upstairs. I don't want you driving."

Wes nodded. "Yes. Right. I'll just go on up. Angel?"

He turned back, his face shadowed and stark. "Hmmm?"

"I'm sorry."

Angel disappeared soundlessly, leaving Wes alone in the shadowed room.


Cordy and Mr. Zhou practiced t'ai chi, this time in the sitting room. The sun was setting over the mountains, highlighting the storm clouds that gathered darkly on the horizon. The furniture had been pushed to the sides of the room, leaving a large open space in the middle.

"Grasp sparrow's tail to the left; grasp sparrow's tail to the right; push hands," Mr. Zhou said.

Cordy had been practicing tai chi with him for nearly a week. By now, she followed his instructions carefully, trying to remember to keep her hands relaxed, to feel her feet against the earth, and to breathe properly with each pose.

"Very good," he said. "Again."

Cordy groaned.

Mr. Zhou ignored her, used to her complaints. "Ready?" he asked. When she didn't respond, he glanced at her. "Cordelia?"

Cordy groaned again and grabbed her head. "Vision," she rasped, her body jerking forward violently.

This was her first since coming to his retreat. Something about the mountains, or being with him--who knew what the reason was?--had slowed them down. She was grateful for the respite, but each day that passed without a vision only increased her anxiety.

He ran to her side and eased her to the floor, anchoring her legs with his, and cradling her head on his arm.

She writhed beneath him, her breath coming in short bursts, her hands clutching her temples.

"Poor little thing," he crooned, absorbing the aftershocks with his body.

Cordy moaned, terror and pain slicing through her like a scalpel. "Angel." She reached out blindly with one hand.

Mr. Zhou slipped off of Cordy and knelt beside her. He put his fingertips on her temples and rubbed, gently chanting under his breath.

"Angel?" She opened her eyes, startled to find Mr. Zhou. "Oh, it's you."

"Shhh," Mr. Zhou whispered, then went back to his chanting. His eyes flashed silver.

Cordelia cried out, then lay quietly.

"There," said Mr. Zhou. "Is that better?"

Cordy reached a hand to her head. "Sort of," she said, wincing. She sat up. Relief, then realization washed through her. "I have to find a phone," she gasped.

Mr. Zhou put his hands on Cordelia's shoulders. "Wait."

She shoved his hands aside and stood up, listing dizzily. "Are you crazy? She's in danger!"

"Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said, his voice sharp. "Stop."

A week was hardly long enough to trust someone, especially a man as powerful as Zhou. But the command in his tone was enough to at least slow her down.

"Why? I told you, that girl is in danger!"

His eyes flashed. "Do not contradict me!"

Cordy's patience snapped. "Look!" she said, her voice rising in frustration. "I've got a job to do and you're keeping me from doing it!"

Mr. Zhou took a deep breath. "You try my patience."

Cordy stared him down, her body humming with leftover adrenaline.

"If you don't learn to manage these visions, they will kill you. It's entirely possible, that if you *do* learn to manage them, they will still kill you. But if you don't even try, if you just keep on as you are, there is one-hundred percent certainty that you will not survive to see the summer."

Her breath left her body in a whoosh. It took her a moment to catch it. "All right," she said quietly, when she was able to talk. "What do you want me to do?"

"You will need my help," Mr. Zhou responded.


"Give me your hands."

Cordy sat, then reached out her hands. The moment their palms touched, she felt a jolt of power that rocked her like a boat on stormy water.

"That's good," Mr. Zhou soothed. "Now, tell me what you see."

Cordy closed her eyes, fighting the nausea that pounded through her. The vision flashed again.

"I see, um, a girl, about my age. Short hair, red. She's going into a bar. Can't see which one."

"Yes, you can. Look more closely," Mr. Zhou prompted and squeezed her hands.

Cordy felt another jolt, like a stream of pure electricity. "Uh, the Underground," she said around chattering teeth. "On Fairfax. And, oh, God, there's the demon," Cordy cried, yanking her hands from Mr. Zhou's and shaking her head. "I can't stand it," she said, her voice quavering. "It's too much. It's too much."

"Cordelia, give me your hands," Mr. Zhou said calmly. "You can do this. I will show you how."

Cordy shuddered out a breath, looking at him through tear-filled eyes. "Just make it stop hurting," she said.

"Give me your hands," he repeated. "Now breathe deeply and imagine that the jolt you have been feeling is, instead, a river. It will take you where you want to go."

Cordy closed her eyes and placed her hands in his. She felt the surge, but then it smoothed out, becoming something sinuous. It flowed up her arms and pooled in her armpits, then rushed down her torso and out her feet and head.

"That's good. Now tell me what you see."

"The demon is a...I don't know its name. But it's tall and scaly. Long tail, almost looks like a lizard but it stands on two legs. It's gray with glowing yellow eyes and God, look at those teeth. Oh, God, Mr. Zhou, she's so scared, I can feel her heart pounding." She clenched his hands.

"Cordelia, feel what you need to and let go of the rest. You are getting stuck in her pain."

"But that's what I feel the strongest!"

"Of course it is. And you do not need to stop feeling with her, but you must only feel it when it happens. Then you must let it roll away from you. Like this."

Cordy felt the girl's fear like a punch to her gut, and then it was gone, and all that was left was the vision. The demon grabbed her arm with a scaly paw and Cordy felt the rip in her flesh. She grunted at the impact, but the pain did not linger. Instead, she felt strangely clean, as if she'd been washed through with pure light.

"You see?" Mr. Zhou said. "You cannot control the fate of those whom you witness simply by holding on to their pain. They will live or die according to their own destiny. Now, how do you feel?"

Cordy rubbed her arms. "Still got the post-vision hangover. But not as bad as usual."

"Good, good. Now we can go call Angel."


"How'd she sound?" Angel asked as he swung his sword at the Methros demon.

"Fine. She sounded great," Gunn grunted.

The big, gray tail whipped out and knocked him off his feet. He ate alley dirt, spat once, then rolled as the thing swung its tail again. At least this one didn't shoot fire out its butt. Yet.

They'd lured the demon out behind the bar and a crowd of horrified and fascinated onlookers watched from the open door. He wasn't used to working with an audience and it had him off his rhythm. Or could be, it was Angel's constant chatter. He rolled to his feet, his axe still clutched in his hand.

Angel jumped, bending his knees and hurdling the tail like a track star. "I can't believe I missed her call. Of all times to be out...." He twirled toward the demon, his sword coming within inches of its nose. "....getting blood," he finished.

The demon roared and his breath smelled like rotten eggs. "Man, you seriously need a breath mint," Gunn called, distracting the thing long enough for Angel to get in close.

Except Angel didn't move. He just stood there, swinging the sword absentmindedly. "She was okay, though, right? I mean, she didn't fall or anything. And he has those painkillers she likes, the ibuprofen?"

"Angel, man," Gunn panted. He dodged as the Methros came for him, its short arms making a grab for his head. "She was fine. Could you help...." He pivoted and brought his foot up against the lizard's rib. "...Me...." The demon wobbled but didn't fall, like a dang Weebol. "...Out here?"

"Oh, yeah, sure," Angel said, coming up behind the thing and lopping its head off in a graceful arc. Demon goo spurted and the crowd roared. Angel brandished his sword toward them as the demon stumbled in slo-mo and finally fell.

Those things never seemed to just give in gracefully, Gunn thought, wiping ichor out of his eyes. "Thanks," he said.

"So, she was okay?"

Gunn groaned in exasperation. He leaned his axe against the demon's body and went to stand in front of the other man. "How many times I gotta tell ya?" he asked, taking Angel by the shoulders. "She's fine. She was sorry she missed you. She'll have another vision real soon, and you can talk to her then, okay?"

He knew this was hard for Angel. It was hard on all of them. But, dang, the dude had taken it to the limit already. He should just confess his love for the girl. Get it out in the open.

Angel sighed forlornly. He kicked the sword with the toe of his scuffed boot. "It's just.... It was the first time she called since she left, and...." He sighed again.

Gunn bent to pick up his axe. "Look, man, she'll call again. I guarantee it. Until then, we got stuff to do. Like show Connor the new 'Swordfighter' magazine. I saw it came in the mail today."

Angel perked up at that. "Okay," he said. He swung his sword over his shoulder like a farmer with a pitchfork.

"Uh, Angel?" Gunn said, wrapping his axe in its cover. "You might want to sheathe that. Don't wanna alarm the locals."

Angel looked at Gunn, then at his sword. "Oh, yeah. Right." He stuck it in his coat and drew the fabric close. "Thanks."

"Anytime," Gunn said. They turned toward the car and Gunn heard the bar door slam behind them.

One demon down, a million more to go.


"Dreams. They're as important as the visions. You must learn to interpret them properly so you can put them to their best use."

Mr. Zhou sat at the white tiled island in the kitchen, his hands wrapped around a mug of tea. The day was gray and heavy with clouds, and the wind blew through the tops of the trees.

But it wasn't the winter wind that gave her a chill. "How do I know which dreams to pay attention to?" She remembered the one she had the night before she met Zhou. And how she'd woken up, shaking and terrified, and full of the knowledge that she'd just been warned.

Something--or someone--was coming for Angel.

"There are many forms of dreams. There are those that are simply the chatter of the subconscious, letting go of the day. There are waking dreams, or conscious dreams. These are usually communications from your guides. In them, you can interact consciously with the other beings who appear."

"Can I learn to do that?"

"Of course. I will teach you. After that, there are the visions, themselves."

Cordy shuddered.

"If the theory I am working on is correct, you will be able to access visions any time, anywhere, without pain. As you begin to understand them, you will see that they always exist, right beneath the surface of your conscious mind. Even in sleep."

She had a sudden thought. "Before, at the apothecary, I saw something."

Zhou nodded. "Yes. You saw the visions."

"But I saw something else, too. Just before you let go of my hand, I saw a net thingy, covering everything. Like light or something." She was having a hard time describing it.

Despite that, Zhou nodded again. "You have studied physics, I'm sure."

She snorted. "Get real."

"You should read about modern physics. It confirms what we students of the Mysteries have always known. There is only one energy field connecting everything. What we see with human eyes is like the tip of an iceberg. Most of our reality is contained below the water."

"That's what being a Seer is?"

"Yes. Being a Seer is rather like using the connection as a phone line. It enables you to see beyond the surface, into what's happening anywhere, at any time."

"And your theory?"

"It's coming. Slowly but surely."

"Right. Just make sure you get it done before my head pops off."

"That's the first time you've joked about your plight, my dear. It's a good sign."

"Humor's a great way to deflect," she countered. "Maybe I was just deflecting."

"Or possibly you were making the best of a bad situation. I admire that trait in you. It's one of your real strengths."

"Thanks. And you know what else?" Her smile was warm and friendly. "Before, I didn't trust you at all. But now? I almost do."

Zhou laughed. "And it only took a week and a half. I must be slipping."


Wes rapped his knuckles against the door.

"Hey," he said, when Angel opened it. He held up a six pack. "Guinness and a couple of cigars. You up for it?"

Angel stepped back, holding the door open. "Sounds good."

Wes ignored the almost pathetic look of relief on Angel's face and followed him into the apartment. "You've been cleaning," he commented, gazing at the polished surfaces. The smell of lemon oil and beeswax filled the air, an odor Wes remembered from his childhood.

"Things got dirty," Angel shrugged, following Wes's glance with his own. The entire suite sparkled. He'd even gotten rid of the cobwebs in the corners.

"Beats nightclubbing," Wes remarked. "Which is what Cordy would have us out doing, if she were here."

"God, yes," Angel said as he trailed Wes to the living area. "Can you imagine? All that noise, all that heat, all those people." His voice trailed off and his eyes glazed over.

Wes cleared his throat. "Yes, exactly," he said, setting the beer on the coffee table and pulling a couple of tall glasses out of the cabinet next to the refrigerator. He began building the Guinness into a chocolate-brown column.

Angel set a heavy, crystal ashtray and a pack of matches on the table then held his hand out for the cigars, which Wes pulled from his shirt pocket.

"Smuggling, now?" Angel asked, eyebrows raised.

Wes shrugged. He began pouring the second beer. "One of Gunn's friends brought them up from Mexico."

"Nothing like a good Cuban," Angel said. "Cigar, Cuban cigar," he added quickly.

Wes glanced over at him. "I thought nothing other," he replied, without a trace of irony.

Angel pulled out a pocketknife, clipped the butts on both cigars then lit one, drawing steadily until the tip glowed red.

"Mmmm," he said. "That's good." He took a beer from Wes and handed him the unlit cigar and the matches in exchange.

"So," Wes said, lighting up and puffing out smoke.

Angel sat down and rocked his chair back on its hind legs. "Kinda quiet," he mused, looking around the apartment. His eyes returned to Wes. "Just the way I like it."

Wes nodded, briskly. "Yes," he said, sipping the Guinness. He wiped his foam off his mouth with the back of his hand. "Quiet. Perfect for research. Just think how much we've accomplished in the last two weeks. Why, I found information I never knew existed on the Quyuaa demon."

"Exactly. And that's the kind of thing that'll come in handy someday when we find one, even though they don't often leave, uh, Fiji. But you never know," Angel agreed emphatically. "They could catch a boat or something. Hey, you know what else? The other day I got in the car, and the radio was still on the classical station. No Kenny Kravitz, no..."

"Lenny," Wes said. He pushed his glasses up his nose.


"Lenny, not Kenny."

Angel waved his hand. "Whatever. No more of that tuneless crap she calls music. No smelly nail polish. No, 'Angel, you're brooding again, Angel you're not eating enough, Angel, did you remember to cut the paychecks,'" he said in a pretty good Cordy-voice.

"Precisely." Wes nodded fiercely and sipped his stout. "Ah, now that's beer."

"Yeah, a man's beer. What do you call that crap she drinks?"

"Rolling Rock," Wes shuddered. "Horse piss."

"Exactly my point," Angel said. He puffed a couple more times. The room was starting to fog with blue haze.

"Hey, where's Gunn?" Wes asked. "He should be down here with us."

"He and Fred are upstairs watching Evita with Lorne." He shrugged. "Connor and I decided we'd rather hang out down here and do manly things. Unfortunately, for Connor that means sleeping."

"Ah. I'd say he's a bit young for a pint, anyway."

Angel nodded. "Give him a few months. We'll wean 'im on stout," he said, his old accent slipping through.

"You're a walking history text, Angel," Wes said dryly.

Angel grunted. "I've heard that somewhere before." He tapped the cigar against the ash tray. "You think Gunn's doing okay since that thing went down with his gang?"

"As well as could be expected. I haven't spoken with him about it. After Billy...." He cleared his throat.

"Yeah." The room was silent for a moment. "Hey, maybe Cordy can talk with him. They have a thing, a connection," he said with a slight frown.

"That's a good idea. She does tend to worry about his safety," Wes replied innocently.

"Uh huh, that's Cordy, always worrying about something," he said, dropping his chair to the floor with a thunk. "Hey, how about some music? I picked up a new CD the other day."

"Sure," Wes shrugged.

Angel went to the stereo and dropped a disk into the CD player. David Gray's "Babylon" wafted through the air.

"Say," Wes said. "That's pretty good. What is it?"

"Some Welshman. Cordy thought I'd like him." He brought the disk cover over, flipped it to Wes.

"Not bad," he mused, studying the cover for a moment, then laying it back down on the table. "So," he said. He took a swallow of beer, tapped his ashes into the glass dish.

"Uh huh," said Angel.

"Well," Wes said. "This is nice."

Angel's face fell into the familiar lines of a brood.

The CD was halfway through the fourth song before Wes finally spoke. "Oh, bugger it," he said.

Angel glanced up at him. "What?"

Wes sighed and took a puff. "I miss her terribly."

There was a beat of silence. "Yeah. Me too," Angel finally admitted. "It's too quiet. No phone calls, no nagging, no stupid Cosmo quizzes. I even miss the nail polish," he said in a pained voice.

"Exactly," Wes sighed again. "It's 11:00 on a Friday night. We could at least be out patrolling. But here we sit, like a couple of lugs. What wankers," he said.

"Yeah. Hey, I've got an idea!"

Wes looked at him curiously.

"How about a drink?" He got up and pulled a bottle of very old Scotch from under the sink.

"But we *are* having a...." Wes got a good look at the bottle. "Oh," he said, mouth watering in anticipation. "But what about Connor?"

"He's asleep. Besides, we can hold our liquor." He set a couple of squat glasses on the table.

"Angel, you have glassware for every purpose," Wes noted with admiration.

"You live long enough, you collect stuff," he said, pouring two fingers in each glass. He sat down, clinked his glass against Wes's. "To uh, what?" he asked, his brow wrinkling.

"To Cordy coming home and relieving us of our miserably boring existences," Wes said. He sipped the Scotch and moaned as it slid down his throat. "Godalmighty," he said reverently.

"Pinched it from Spike," Angel said with an impish smile. "When we were in Sunnydale. One thing you can say about my childe, he knows his drink," he said, nodding. He poured another finger for each of them.

"Ah, Spike. I kind of feel sorry for the guy," Wes said. "Neutered like a puppy."

"Yeah," Angel nodded. "I'd rather have a soul than a chip, any day. But you gotta admit," he said grudgingly, "he does take good care of Dawn."

Wes grimaced. "Never thought I'd see that happen. He must feel something very strong for Buffy to tie himself to a child that way."

Angel's mouth pulled into a flat line. "Spike and Buffy. Now there's a joke. That poor bastard." He paused. "Spike likes to think he knows what love is. He's just a romantic boy," he said, finishing his Scotch and chasing it with beer.

"Now I, on the other hand, know what it means to love. It means giving up the person you love most in the world because you want them to be happy. It means sacrifice," he said, slamming his fist on the table.

Wes jumped. "Sacrifice," he repeated.

Angel opened two more cans of Guinness and began pouring them into the empty glasses.

"I thought I knew everything there was to know about love. I was with Darla for centuries," Angel continued, crumpling the cans and pitching them toward the garbage can. "Of course, that all changed, when Wolfram & Hart brought her back," he grimaced, taking a large swallow of beer. "I'll be forever grateful to her for bearing Connor. But I can't say I miss her. If she were still alive, I'd probably be making it my life's work to stake her."

A slightly tipsy grin crossed Wes's features. "Stake her, as in, with a stake, or stake her as in..."

Angel snorted. "Oh, please. Even if I wanted to, which I don't, Cordy would kill me."

"Seriously, Angel, why did you do it?" Wes leaned forward on the table, balancing his forearms on his knees.

"What, exactly, are you asking?" Angel said cautiously, glancing up at Wes.

"C'mon, Angel." Wes narrowed his eyes. "You can't tell me you didn't make love with Darla. The proof is in your bedroom asleep."

Angel sat quietly, fiddling with his Scotch glass. "That's not really what I'd call it," he admitted.

"What, then?" The furrow in his brow grew deeper.

"I'd actually call it an act of desperation, myself," Angel continued. "The good thing is, it kicked me in the butt. Got me to realize how stupid I was being. You could say that screwing Darla was what started my epiphany." He looked up at Wes. "Imagining what my life would be like if all of you were dead? That's what really made me see the light."

Wes frowned, gulped his beer. "I have to admit, I'm a little pissed right now."

"Pissed, as in drunk, or pissed as in mad?"

"Both, actually," Wes said, anger flaring. This conversation had been a long time in coming. The uproar created by Connor's birth had simply postponed it. "Did you not realize that banging your Sire could very well unleash Angelus?"

Angel scrubbed his hand over his face. "Oh, I knew. I just didn't care."

Wes gasped. "But, but.... *Angel*, if you'd... if he'd..." he spluttered. "How could you compromise us that way?"

Angel barked out a laugh. "Honestly, Wes, my life was so bad at that point that I didn't care. I just wanted to feel...something. I was so cold," he said, shivering at the memory.

"Well, next time you're cold, get a blanket!" Wes yelled, leaping from the couch and pacing agitatedly.

Angel watched him, a sad look on his face. "You think I don't know how lucky I got?"

Wes glared.

"Boy, did that come out wrong," Angel apologized. "Look, Wes, I did a stupid thing. I can't lie to you. There was a moment when I really hoped I was going to change," he said quietly. "Because then I would have felt...something. But it didn't happen, and I realized that it wasn't going to. Let's just say that profound gratitude doesn't even begin to describe it."

Wes's mouth opened and closed a couple of times. Then he picked up his glass, splashed more Scotch into it with a shaking hand, and downed it in one gulp. "Your decision-making skills leave a lot to be desired," he snapped. "You *bastard*. When I think about what could have happened to any one of us...."

Angel nodded, looking dejectedly into his glass. "I know. It was stupid," he repeated.

Wes rubbed his hand across his face and slumped back onto the couch. "Well, I for one am pathetically grateful that we didn't have to face your alter ego."

Angel looked up from his glass. "Kill him," he said. "Shanshu, or no shanshu. Kill him. Because if he comes back, he'll go straight for the baby. Or one of you." His jaw clenched.

Wes nodded. "We know that, Angel. And we're prepared to do whatever we have to do. But killing will always be a last resort."

"Make it your first," he said.

"But what about Cordy? The research seems to indicate that if one of you dies, the other will have real difficulty surviving."

Angel stared into the shadows. "We'll just have to make sure it never happens, then, won't we?"


Meditating. Ugh. She hated sitting still and couldn't slow down her mind, no matter how hard she tried.

"Stop trying so hard," Mr. Zhou said, sitting next to her with his eyes closed.

He didn't seem to have any trouble with it, she thought, aggravated. "I can't," she complained.

"Try a mantra," he replied, exhaling deeply.

"I'm not repeating any stupid phrases," she muttered, closing her eyes tighter.

Mr. Zhou chuckled softly. "Well, pick something that's not stupid. Pick something you like."

Cordy opened one eye and looked at him. He was the picture of relaxation. She wrinkled her nose. "I don't know anything."

"What about the 23rd Psalm?" he asked, his voice dreamy. "If not that, something else. You know something positive, surely?"

"The only thing positive I know is shopping. Hey! How about 'Dolce and Gabbana'? I could just repeat that over and over."

"Whatever works, Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said. "Now, be quiet. I'm meditating, even if you're not."

"Sure, rub it in," Cordy said. She gave up and flopped back on the grass so she could look up at the sky. Between storms, clouds floated, high and light, and a few birds glided overhead. If she turned her head slightly to the left she could see the tops of the pine trees. They tiptoed softly in the chilly breeze, and as she watched, she felt her breathing slow and her mind empty out. Open up.

"No. Oh, no," she said, her eyes going wide.


"Vision," she cursed, her body stiffening. She grabbed her forehead as the flashes exploded through her skull.

It was bad. Really bad. More vamps. Only this time they hit the 5:30 a.m. drop-off at a daycare in Silverdale, a couple of miles from her apartment.

>From outside the flashes she could hear Mr. Zhou whispering to her. "Cordelia, the river," he suggested, his voice a hypnotic murmur. "Remember to float, to ride the current."

Even as she thrashed with the agony of the vision, Cordy felt the energy change. The pummeling force went from battering ram to tidal wave, from tidal wave to riptide. The seizures became undulations, her body riding the waves like a boat on the sea.

"Yes," he said, stroking her hair off her face. "Let it take you."

The strangely erotic punch of the power hit her full force then, and she moaned as it pounded through her. Her body arched as the energy took off, rocket fast, shooting from toes to hips to scalp. Her fingers clawed the earth, her head turning side-to-side as a white-hot sun built itself within her. She moaned, long and low, the current rippling through every muscle and cell, lighting her up like a klieg light.

Then the vision ended, and Cordy's body went limp. She lay panting, her clenched hands releasing the dirt she'd palmed. She moved her legs, trying to find a more comfortable position. The pleasure arced through her, dimmer than before, but still present. Her eyes opened, blinking against the bright winter sunlight.

"Much better, Cordelia," Mr. Zhou said. "Now take a deep breath."

She pulled in air, long and slow, and the heat dispersed, a fire dampened but not extinguished. She took a few more breaths, and, remarkably, her system leveled. After a moment, she rolled to her side and pushed herself into a sitting position.

"How is your head?" he asked, helping her find her balance.

Cordy frowned and pressed her dirty fingertips to her temples. "Better," she said, looking at him warily. "What was that? The Powers' version of the Playboy Channel?"

He laughed. "As I said, it can be very erotic. As well it should be. After all, you are dancing with power from which all life sprang." He stood, brushed off his pants. "Now, let's go call your warrior."

Mr. Zhou urged her to her feet and she leaned heavily on him as she waited for her head to stop spinning.

"Okay, I've got it now," she said, steadying her legs beneath her. The movement sent hot spear of pain lancing through her chest. Cordy winced and pressed her hand between her breasts. "Ow," she said, looking at Mr. Zhou in confusion. Her features twisted into a grimace. "What was that?"

Mr. Zhou watched her closely as he guided her toward the house. "It is the connection making itself known."

Cordy limped beside him. The ache throbbed angrily, like a toothache or a sprain. "What?" she asked, breathing shallowly against it. "You mean my link with Angel?

Mr. Zhou nodded, helping her slowly down the path. "Part of what causes you pain is the link, itself. As you are learning to channel the visions, so we must also find a way for you to channel the link."

"It didn't seem to bother Doyle." With each minute, the pain in her chest intensified, spreading maliciously to her throat, her belly. Sweat broke out on her forehead even as she tried desperately to concentrate on what Mr. Zhou was saying.

"He was part demon. His body was strong enough to contain the connection. But I'm sure he had difficulty with it as well."

They stopped at the steps leading up to the deck. "Why does it have to hurt so much?" Cordy gasped, bending over and resting her hands on her knees. Her breaths came in shallow pants, and sweat pooled at her hairline. A clammy wave split over her and her mouth watered, the metallic taste nearly overwhelming.

"Oh, no. Gonna be..." she groaned. She fell to her knees and vomited, her dinner coming up in a violent burst. She whimpered, heaved again. Sweat trickled down her temples.

Mr. Zhou knelt next to her, his hand cool and soothing on the back of her neck. "Poor dear," he said, his voice soothing. "I know this must be uncomfortable for you."

Cordy groaned. "Uncomfortable times a hundred," she panted. "Try that and you're getting close."

Mr. Zhou patted her back comfortingly. "This is all very normal, especially for a link as strong as yours. Every day I am getting closer to a way of allowing you to live with this. Until then, simply understanding it will make it easier on you."

"It has to," she whimpered, sitting back on her heels and wrapping her arms around her waist. She leaned her head against the stair rail.

"Are you feeling better?"

She breathed carefully as the nausea subsided, leaving behind a dull throbbing bruise in the center of her chest. The ache pulsed with each beat of her heart.

"Angel," she whispered. "I have to call him," she said, pushing her hair off her sweaty cheeks. "I wish I had my cell phone."

"There's no coverage up here in any case, my dear." He helped her to her feet and through the house.

"Land lines seem to work just fine at your neighbor's, though," she muttered.

"Yes," he agreed. Mr. Zhou opened the Blazer's door and helped her in. He closed the door behind her, then rounded the hood and settled himself behind the steering wheel. Cordy's head lolled against the headrest.

She was silent as he pulled out of the garage, then eased the car down the dirt path and turned onto the gravel road. As her stomach settled, she felt slightly more capable of conversation. "Why *don't* you have a phone, anyway? You obviously don't mind technology," she said, remembering the titanium laptop on the kitchen desk.

"No, I just like my peace and quiet."

They hit a bump and Cordy rubbed her chest and winced. "Don't you ever get lonely? Don't you ever just wanna...reach out and touch someone?"

He glanced at her before returning his attention to the twisting road. "Of course. But it passes. Besides, we're never really alone, you know."

Cordy squinted out the window at the tree trunks, the dark, chilly shadows of the forest undergrowth. "I feel really alone, a lot," she said.

"As you begin to understand the nature of your link, you will see that all is connected. Nothing can exist by itself. We are interdependent creatures, all of us."

"Can't exactly go out for pizza with a pine tree, though," she replied, touching her fingertips to the thin pane of glass separating her from the forest.

"No, but you don't have to drown your loneliness in television or meaningless relationships, either."

Cordy huffed and looked at him. "I like being alone. Just not all the time."

"Of course not," Mr. Zhou scoffed. "Why would you? You think, because I live alone, no phone, no TV, that I am a hermit? Hardly. Why do you think I have a house so big, a table that seats twelve?"

"I wondered about that."

"Besides clients, many people come and stay with me, often for months at a time. I go to Sunnydale monthly to see Marcia. I grocery shop in Fawnskin. I am isolated by choice, Cordelia. And my isolation feeds me, fuels me to do my work. Work like I am doing with you takes an enormous amount of energy, you know."

Cordelia blinked. "So this is your work? Like your job?"

Mr. Zhou nodded. "As you are a Seer, I am what you would call a shaman. Since a child, I have walked between worlds."

"That must be freaky."

"Yes, to some. To others, it is a lifeline. A bridge between life and death."

"But...but...if it's a lifeline, how can you charge for it? I mean, that just feels..." she waved her hand. "I don't know. We charge for what we do, but still. Two-hundred-fifty-thousand dollars?"

He nodded. "I understand. It appears unseemly that I would place so high price on my abilities."

"Unseemly," Cordy repeated. "That's a good word."

"There's a reason I charge the fee I do. Part is self-preservation. I only have a few clients in a decade. But also because asking a fee like mine makes the relationship clean. Any shaman who doesn't ask for money is charging you in some other way. And it is equally costly, and usually not as pleasant."

"What do you mean, not as pleasant? I can think of far more pleasant ways to spend a quarter-mil. If I'd known Angel had that much money, we'd've been racking up points at Chanel months ago."

Mr. Zhou laughed as he steered the car carefully around a rut. "I once met a man whose aura had been, as your computer people would say, hacked into. He had entrusted himself to a shaman with less than honorable methods, and the shaman was extracting his payment by draining the man of energy. The shaman grew more powerful, and the man grew weaker. He was on the verge of death when I met him."

"Oh, my God," Cordelia gasped. "Did you save him?"

"Yes, of course. The shaman was very angry, though," he laughed. "He didn't get his payment in full."

Cordy grinned. "I hate when that happens."

"Who wouldn't?"

"Is that creep still out there?" She could sic Angel on him, teach the man a real lesson.

"Oh, yes. I run into him at certain functions. We talk shop, compare notes." He shrugged. "Evil is unavoidable. It's how you respond to it that makes living with it possible."

"Angel said the same thing after his epiphany."

"Your Angel keeps getting smarter."

"Yeah, well, he'd better be home. I'd like him to get smart on those vamps."

They turned into the neighbor's driveway and Mr. Zhou tooted the horn.

The door opened and Sally, the rancher's wife, stuck her head out the door. "Oh, Martin, Cordelia. Another vision? My dear, you must come and use the phone," she said, stepping back to let them in.

Sally invited Mr. Zhou in for a drink after directing Cordy to the office for privacy. The late afternoon sunlight slanted through the half-open blinds, striping the large oak desk. Cordy leaned against the edge and reached for the phone, the ache in her chest turning hot.

She had to talk to him. Now.

She dialed the hotel, then fiddled with the fountain pens in the penholder as the phone rang. It was answered quickly.


"Gunn?" Cordy asked, surprised.

"Cordy? Hey, y'all, it's Cordy!" At Gunn's words, she heard Wes call her name in greeting as well, his voice warm and familiar. A smile spread across her face. Oh, God, she missed them.

"What's up?" Gunn asked. Before she could answer, she heard a scuffle and Gunn's voice, abruptly muffled. "No, wait, Angel, give the phone back," Gunn demanded. "We weren't through talkin'."

"Tough," Angel responded. Then, "Cordelia," he said, his voice as clear as if she were sitting right next to him.

"Yeah, hey."

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Just another vision."

"You're okay, though?" he asked.

His concern made her feel warm, safe. "Yeah. I'm fine. You, however, have a job to do. There's a nasty situation developing out near my apartment," she reported. "Vamp nest. Going after the early morning daycare drop-off tomorrow."

"Thanks for the heads-up," said Angel.

In the background, Cordelia could hear Wes and Gunn talking, the clank of metal on metal. She wished she were there with them, steeped in their presence as they readied for patrol.

"Yeah, if you guys don't get there, it'll be bad. And you need to be extra careful. It'll be close to sunrise," she said. "I don't want to have to worry about you becoming a crispy critter."

"Don't worry about me, Cordelia. Just take care of yourself." There was a pause, more noise in the background, then silence, as if Gunn and Wes had left the room.

"How's Connor?"

She could almost hear Angel's smile. "He's great. He slept through the night for the first time."

"Good for him! I'll bet that was strange for you, though."

"Yeah. He's definitely his own little person."

"I miss him," Cordy said wistfully.

"Yeah," Angel said.

There was a moment of humming silence. "Well, I should go," Cordy said, feeling like a high school girl who didn't want to hang up on her boyfriend. She rolled her eyes at her goofiness, but the feeling didn't go away.

"Yeah, me too," Angel replied, his voice soft and even.

Cordy twisted the cord around her finger, confused by the rush of need that flooded her. "Okay, well," she said. "Be careful."

"Cordy," Angel said, his voice nothing more than a whisper.

"Yeah?" she breathed.

There was a beat of silence. Two. "I miss you," he sighed.

Cordy felt a laugh, hot and joyful bubble up from her throat. "Oh, God, Angel, I miss you too. I thought it was just me."

"No, I mean, we all miss you. But, I don't know, I just..." he trailed off.

Cordy sighed, the golden bubble of joy bursting and leaving behind a soft, happy glow. "I know."

The line went silent again. "Be safe," Angel finally said.

"You too," Cordy replied, the words feeling inadequate. "Talk to you soon?"

"You'd better," Angel declared.

Cordy's smile felt like the sunrise. She hung up the phone and stood, staring across the desk, her eyes unfocused, her body soft.

"Just four more weeks," she whispered.

on to part two