FACE YOUR DEMONS
"Four plus six is ten, carry the one, nine and six is fifteen plus one is sixteen . . . one thousand six hundred and seventy two minus two thousand one hundred and ninety seven is a really big negative number . . ." Cordelia sighed, the sound deep and long and inconsolable, and laid her head down on the desk. "This is not good. This is just the depths of no-goodness."
Fred looked up from where she sat on the other side of the office, thumbing through a file folder of closed cases. "What's the matter?"
Cordelia sat back up. "We haven't gotten a case in three weeks and we have bills to pay and no money to pay them with. The usual."
Fred rose and walked over to the desk, peering over Cordelia's shoulders to look at the spreadsheet on the computer screen. "We've had cases. There was that demon nest, and the talking barbecue pit--"
"Paying cases." Cordelia waved another manila folder. "I have six unpaid invoices here."
"The barbecue pit people paid," Fred protested.
"Unfortunately the phone company won't barter for knucklebones." Cordelia rubbed her face with her hands. It was like this every month, it seemed. Once again she would have to decide whether to pay the phone company or the electric company. Angel was no help with the decisions, either. He seemed incapable of getting his head around practical matters. Maybe Wesley could help--but Wes was out of town, hunting up some kind of mystical something-or-other in Utah.
"Those were Karvothian demon parts." Cordelia looked up to see Angel at the office door. He was impeccably dressed as usual, but something about him looked rumpled, as if he'd just rolled out of bed. Since it was five o'clock at night, he probably had. "Testicles, I think," he went on.
Cordelia made a face. "Just when I thought things couldn't get any grosser." Angel walked back out toward the space behind the reception counter and Cordelia pushed to her feet to follow. "We need to talk about this, Angel."
Angel went to the fridge and opened it, pulled out his jug of blood and filled a glass from it. "I found a guy who wants them," he assured her. "I'm negotiating a trade." He carefully topped off his breakfast while Cordelia regarded him stoically. The blood didn't even bother her anymore--in fact, she wasn't certain it ever had.
Now, the cash flow situation, that bothered her. "Is there any money involved in this trade?"
He regarded her shiftily over the rim of his glass. "Not yet, but I'm working on it."
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "'Working on it,' don't pay the bills, buster."
He shrugged and took a drink from the glass. Instantly, he made a face, and swallowed with an effort. "Gyaah! What is this?"
"Um . . . blood?" Cordelia ventured.
Angel looked like he wanted to scrape his tongue off with something. "Pig's blood?"
Cordelia shrugged. "I guess."
"You guess?" Now he looked pissed as well as disgusted. "From the same butcher?"
She straightened, ready to defend herself, because she knew what was coming. "I tried a new one. They were cheaper."
He stared at her in disbelief, lowering the glass to the counter. "Cordy . . . Have you ever heard that saying, 'You get what you pay for?'"
This was ridiculous. She'd been eating Ramen noodles all week, and he was getting picky about his stupid blood? It was a disgusting thing to eat, anyway, although not quite as disgusting as Ramen noodles. "It's blood. What, you don't like the bouquet?"
Angel was by now well on his way to a good snit. "Which butcher?"
"The one on Matthews."
"Cordelia, they process game there. God only knows what this came out of."
She threw up her hands. "Jeez, I'm sorry. I didn't know blood came in different octanes. Buy it yourself next time."
"Believe me, I will." He took another swig, forcing it down. "I'm gonna get mad cow disease."
"Would we notice?" She looked at Fred. "He's gonna be a bitch all night about this, isn't he?"
Fred shrugged. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day." She frowned. "Or night, I guess."
The lobby doors opened just then, stopping what looked to be the makings of another rant from Angel. He turned his back to the doors, setting his glass down out of sight, while Cordelia walked up to the reception desk. A man had come into the lobby, carrying a large, ornate box.
"Is this Angel Investigations?" he asked.
"Yes, it is," Cordelia said.
"That would be me." Angel joined Cordelia at the counter, having dealt with his incriminating glass of breakfast elk-juice, or whatever it turned out to be.
The man looked at him, then back at Cordelia, then shrugged and laid the box on the counter. It was about twelve inches in each dimension, carved with arcane symbols and decorated here and there with sparkly gems. It was pretty, but creepy at the same time. Hey, like Angel, Cordelia thought, still feeling uncharitable.
"My name's Gordon," their potential client said, and waved toward the creepy-pretty box. "I understand you guys know stuff about the freaky and weird--you know--mystical woo-woo stuff?"
Cordelia nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, we know all about that. The creepier the better. Cash only."
Angel gave her a sidelong look. What was it with him and asking for money? She had a sudden urge to swat him, but refrained. "What can we do for you?" he asked Gordon.
"My ex-wife sent me this box yesterday for my birthday."
"Happy birthday," Cordelia offered.
"Thanks. Anyway, I don't trust it. I want it checked out."
Angel looked at the box, peering at the rows of unreadable symbols. "You think it's--mystical woo-woo?"
Gordon nodded. "I got my suspicions. My ex-wife--well, I wouldn't put it past her to send me some kinda demon-in-a-box. She's quite the witch."
Nodding with commiseration, Cordelia said, "Bad divorce, huh?"
Gordon shook his head. "No, I mean she's an actual witch. She turned my cousin Eddie into a cockroach."
"He kinda deserved it, but still. Anyway, can you guys help me out?"
Cordelia nodded, talking fast to interfere with anything Angel might be thinking about saying. "Yes, but we need two hundred dollars up front. Sort of a security deposit."
Gordon looked surprised, or possibly offended. Cordelia wasn't sure. "I ain't got that on me."
"What do you have?" She was surprised, but also relieved, that Angel hadn't nixed this line of conversation already.
Gordon pulled out his wallet and thumbed through the contents. "I can give you a hundred cash and a check for the rest."
"We don't take personal checks," said Cordelia, but then Angel suddenly returned to consciousness to say, "Yes, we do," and take the cash from Gordon's hand. "Cordelia here'll take your check. I'll be back in a bit."
He headed for the door. So that was the deal. He could start to care about money if it affected him personally. Maybe she should throw out all those nice silk shirts of his. Then maybe he'd start caring about the balancing of the books.
"Angel!" she called after him. "If you're going to deal with the--beverage--situation, at least try to get a refund."
He didn't even slow down. "You deal with the refund. I'm going to the regular place to get something that doesn't make me sick."
"Angel, no. Take the bad stuff back and get good stuff. We can't afford to throw money around just because you're picky."
He stopped and turned, and she gave him a pointed look. "Cordelia . . ." he started, then sighed. "Fine."
He came back to the fridge and took out the jug of blood. As he walked back across the lobby, Gordon eyed the jug skeptically. Cordelia had to admit it did look very much like a jug full of blood.
"Hawaiian Punch," Angel said over his shoulder, and pushed through the lobby doors. Gordon looked back toward Cordelia.
With all the enthusiasm she could muster, Cordelia smiled. "We'll take your case."
Gordon left the box behind, leaving Fred and Cordelia to get the work underway, since Angel had decided to run off for snacks.
"Where should we start?" Cordelia asked Fred.
"Well, I'd say start with asking Wes to check the books, but since he's gone I guess I'll have to do that." She headed into the office, Cordelia trailing behind. She thought maybe she should have brought the box with her, but somehow she really didn't want to touch it. So she helped Fred drag out a pile of books, which they stacked on the reception desk next to the mysterious box. Apparently Fred didn't want to touch it, either.
Gunn had appeared in the lobby, and was perusing the box curiously. "What is it?"
"Our new case," said Cordelia. "We're supposed to figure it out."
Fred opened the first book. "This probably isn't the best place to start. This is mostly about coprophagic demons."
"Copro-who?" asked Cordelia.
"Demons that eat excrement," Fred explained, and pushed the book aside while Cordelia made a face. That was definitely more disgusting than Ramen noodles. Fred picked up another book. "Oh, this looks better."
"It's pretty," Cordelia offered, aware it wasn't the most useful of contributions. "Nice workmanship."
"Nice," said Gunn. "The uggity buggity's got a nice place to live."
"We don't even know if there is an uggity buggity." Though Cordelia would bet money there was. There was just something about that creepy little cube, something about the markings on it, or the color, or just its general demony aura, that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Maybe that was why Angel's hair stood up, she thought absently. Because he was around creepy things so much. Except it had migrated from the back of his neck to the top of his head--
Suddenly Fred jumped up and down, pointing at the pages of her book. "Oooh! Oooh!"
Cordelia put a hand against her chest to keep her suddenly violently pounding heart from flying out of her body. "What?"
But Fred had deflated. "Oh, no. Nothing." Sober, she continued to turn pages.
"Y'know, I think I got a key to Wes' place here somewhere," Gunn said, poking through a drawer behind the counter. "You want me to go look for books there?"
"He'd be more likely to have what we need," said Fred.
"Okay." He pulled out a ring of keys. "I'll be back in a bit, then."
Cordelia looked back toward the box. It looked different. "Hey, what's that?" she said.
"What's what?" asked Fred.
"The box. It was, like, glowing or something." It had seemed to luminesce from inside, the edges of the carvings lighting up. But it was gone now.
"I don't see anything," said Fred.
"Huh." Cordelia shrugged. "Just my imagination, I guess."
Gunn rattled his ring of keys. "I'll be back."
Fred watched him go. Cordelia looked at the book she'd been perusing and pointed at a picture. "This looks kind of like it."
Fred dragged her eyes away from Gunn's retreating back. "No, the pattern's different. See? Here . . . and here."
Fred sighed. "I'm going to get some more books. I wish I knew where to look."
"There's not a book called, Freaky Boxes and What They Do?"
"If there is, I haven't found it. I just wish Wes were here. I'm not very good at this."
"Sure you are. Go, Fred, go. Yay team."
Fred smiled. "Thanks." She headed back into the office.
The lobby doors swung open again, this time admitting Angel. He carried a new jug of blood, already about a third empty. "I'm back," he announced, as if they couldn't see his large self walking in the door. "Sorry about the bitch earlier. Long day yesterday. I was really hungry."
Well, if he was going to apologize, then Cordelia could afford to be charitable. "I'm sorry, too. I didn't know it made that much difference."
Angel walked back behind the counter, toward the fridge. "Very sensitive taste buds, when it comes to blood. I could lick you and tell you your blood type."
Cordelia made a face. "Sounds like a fun party game."
He set the fresh jug in the fridge. "Pork tastes more like people."
"Okay, enough sharing."
Smirking a little, as if pleased he'd stretched the limits of good conversational taste, Angel came to lean against the counter. "Any progress?" He indicated the box.
Fred came back out of the office with yet another pile of books. "Only that we've eliminated several possibilities." She dropped the books on the counter. "And here's a chance to eliminate several more."
Angel hunched down next to the counter to peer at the box.
"Have you ever seen anything like it before?" Fred asked him.
"Not that I recall." He straightened. "I've got some books upstairs that might be useful. Keep plugging--I'll be back."
Angel brought down another pile of books and settled in to page through them himself. Cordelia had already looked at so many books her eyes were starting to cross, and when Gunn came back with six volumes from Wesley's place, she threw up her hands.
"You know, some of us try to keep daytime hours so this office can at least look normal. I'm exhausted. I'm going home."
Angel looked up. He was sketching something out of one of his books. Cordelia wasn't sure why--maybe he found it easier to think that way. "Why don't you just grab an empty room? It'll save you the drive home, if you're really tired."
She had to admit it was a good idea. There were at least three rooms upstairs clean enough to sleep in, and she'd actually stowed some supplies in one of them a few weeks ago, just in case. "Okay. Good luck."
She trudged up the stairs, barely able to keep her eyes open. The room where she'd put her pj's and a toothbrush was two doors down from Angel's and nearly as big. She figured even on an occasional overnight stay she deserved the best she could get. Particularly since she wouldn't have Phantom Dennis around to help with the loofah.
She managed to get into her pajamas and brush her teeth, then crawled into the bed. The sheets were stiff and smelled starchy, like hotel sheets, surprise, surprise, even though she'd washed them herself. But she didn't have long to think about it before sleep crept over her and she drifted off, the patterns of the box leaving an imprint on the backs of her eyelids.
She didn't know what woke her, but when she opened her eyes she was certain she was not alone. Slowly, she sat up. "Hello?"
A shadow shifted next to the bed, then weight settled into the mattress, but in spite of the sense of bulk and the nearness she still couldn't quite see who was there. But she knew, knew the smell, the sense, the aura.
He leaned forward until she could see his face, barely, in the vague light coming in through the window. "Hey, sleepyhead."
She sat up, moving back from him a little. Why was he here? He leaned toward her, a soft smile curving his mouth. He was so close.
"Do you want me to?" he whispered.
The answer came out of her mouth before she could think about it. "Yes."
He leaned forward. She held still, her breath coming suddenly fast and shallow, as he closed the distance between them. His lips brushed hers, cool and soft. She didn't want this. Did she? He pressed nearer, one hand folding around her arm. She closed her eyes, beginning to lose herself in the gentle movement of his mouth.
Then he leaned back, and suddenly his head whipped forward.
She understood a split second before his teeth sank into her throat. She tried to scream but nothing came out. The fangs were like blades going into her skin, tearing deeply, and suddenly she could feel her own pulse being devoured by his mouth. She stiffened, pushed at him--
And suddenly he jerked away, spitting. He looked at her with disgust on his distorted, vampire face, and his lips and his fangs were smeared with green.
Her blood. Thick and green.
"Freak!" he said, his vampire-lispy voice accusatory, disgusted. "You're a freak."
And he bolted to his feet and ran from the room.
Cordelia jolted awake. She blinked into the darkness, breathing hard in fear, then in relief. It hadn't happened. Hadn't been real. It had only been a dream. Thank God. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath to calm herself.
Her neck hurt. Why did her neck hurt? Gingerly, afraid of what she might find, she lifted her hand to her throat. Sticky blood met her touch. She drew her fingers away and looked at them.
The blood was green.
What the hell was going on? Her heart beating hard again in the back of her throat, she grabbed a wooden cross from the nightstand by the bed and headed downstairs, clutching the wound on her neck with one hand.
Fred and Gunn had left the lobby, but Angel still sat in his chair behind the reception desk, looking at a book and sketching. He seemed absorbed, muttering from time to time to himself. She could see no smears of green on his mouth or on his clothes. Slowly, carefully, she approached him. He didn't even look up. Fat lot of good your vampire hearing does you, she thought, when you don't bother to pay attention.
She was close enough now to see what he was drawing. Symbols, both from the box and from the book, at different angles. He was trying to decipher them, apparently.
"Angel," she said. He looked up, and she shoved the cross right into his face.
He jerked back, tipping the chair, and barely managed to keep from going over with it. "Hey, woah! What's going on?"
Still pressing her fingers against her torn neck, she pushed the cross toward him again. Her hand was shaking. Her voice shook, too, when she spoke. "Did you come up to my room?"
He stared at her. She had him backed against the wall now, the cross inches from his face. "No. I've been down here the whole time."
The cross practically vibrated, her hand was shaking so much. Angel's startled expression changed to concern. "Cordy, what's wrong?"
"You bit me," she said, tears in her voice.
He looked more than concerned now; he looked hurt. "I didn't."
"I thought it was a dream at first but--" She lowered her hand, showing him the bite mark. Angel peered at it, curiosity mixing now with the concern.
"Why are you bleeding green?"
Cordelia choked back tears. "That is not the point! The point is, you bit me! You kissed me and you bit me and you called me a freak."
The cross had sagged in her hand and he moved forward a little. "I didn't." His voice was so gentle she wanted to believe him, right there, with no question. Maybe it was a vampire whammy. Didn't vampires do whammies? She'd never seen Angel do anything like that, as far as she remembered. But, just in case, she jerked the cross back up into his face. He took a step away and bumped back into the wall behind him.
"Cordy, let me look." Gingerly, he reached out toward her, wary eyes fixed on the cross. She didn't blame him--it was a big cross and would leave quite a mark if she shoved it right into his pretty face. "I won't touch. I promise."
She wavered. It wasn't a vampire whammy, she decided. It was just an Angel whammy, administered with gentle sincerity.
"Okay?" he said, and finally, slowly, she lowered the cross.
"Don't touch me."
Slowly, Angel stepped closer to her. He watched her face for a moment, as if judging her reaction, then his gaze went to the bite on her neck. "I didn't do that."
"So you said." Her voice was brittle, but not as brittle as she'd intended.
"It's too small."
"How do you--"
"Cordy, I've bitten a lot of people." Oh, that was comforting. "I know what my bite marks look like. That one's too small."
Or maybe it was comforting, after all. At least he was starting to make a little sense, which, frankly, was more than she could say for herself. She took a careful breath, trying to calm down.
"See for yourself," he added.
He set his thumb and forefinger at the corners of his mouth, then held them out toward her, showing her the span. Presumably this would be wider than the mark at her throat, but she didn't want him to touch her. Not yet.
Batting his hand aside, she put her own fingers to his mouth, measuring it herself. Touching him, she remembered the dream for a moment--if it had been a dream--the brush of his lips against hers. Then the wound at her throat throbbed harshly. She couldn't see it, but she could tell by touch that the mark was, indeed, significantly smaller than the width of Angel's mouth.
Relief flooded her. She folded her arms around herself, resisting the urge to fall against Angel, to let him hold her. The memory was too new, the sensation of his teeth piercing her skin.
Then the questions came, pushing the relief aside. "So who bit me? And why the hell is my blood green?"
He just looked at her, lifting his hands in a half-shrug, obviously no closer to answers than she was. "Maybe it's the box. Maybe Fred's figured something out."
"Maybe we should find out."
He nodded. "She went upstairs. She might be asleep."
"I'll go, then."
She looked at him again, at the sincerity on his face, then pressed her fingers against her throat. It still hurt, a dull, sickening ache that throbbed with her pulse. Resolutely, she went up the stairs.
Her soft knock on Fred's door was answered by an immediate, "Come in." Cordelia pushed the door open to find Fred sitting at a table, writing furiously in a notebook.
"I've almost got it," Fred said. "Just give me a minute."
Cordelia took a few steps closer, looking down at Fred's notebook pages. She was drawing the symbols from the box, over and over again, at different angles and in different combinations. The pictures were similar to Angel's sketches, but seemed more organized, as if she'd taken a mathematical approach rather than an artistic one. Fred scribbled frantically, then suddenly sat back with a look of surprised satisfaction. "There," she said. "That's it."
"What is it?" Cordelia asked.
"I figured out what the box says."
"Really?" Cordelia leaned over the notebook, but nothing on the pages even approximated English.
Fred looked more than a little smug. "Well, it was very complicated. It's a demon language. I remembered seeing a reference to it in a book when I was trying to find something about the box. It's almost more like math than language, and the cryptography used on the box involves decoding the formula in order to determine the correct order of the symbols, and then you have to--"
"Fred," Cordelia broke in. "What does it say?"
Fred's triumph faded into sheepishness. "Oh. It says, 'Face your demons.'"
"So what the hell does it mean?"
Angel laid Fred's notebook down on the reception counter. "I'm not sure, Cordy."
"Well, we'd better figure it out, because obviously it's doing something to me."
Fred seemed much less confident than she had a few minutes ago. The triumph of decoding the markings had faded in the frustration of their vagueness.
"Maybe it's a metaphor," she suggested. "Like your inner demons or something."
"This bite on my neck is not metaphorical."
Gunn, who had wandered back downstairs a few minutes earlier, rubbed the back of his neck. He still didn't look quite awake. "So this box has some kind of mojo that makes us face our inner demons?"
Angel, frowning, got up and walked back toward the table where he'd been sketching. He picked up his own notebook and perused the pictures.
Fred, looking at the box and adding symbols to her notebook, looked up. "Oh, dear."
"'Oh, dear,' what?" Cordelia demanded. "I don't want to hear, 'Oh, dear.'"
"There's more than just the one phrase on the box," Fred elaborated. "There's some explanatory text on the reverse face."
"And what does it say?" Cordelia prodded.
"It says it has to do with actual demons. Like if you're possessed, or part demon, or . . . maybe if you're a vampire. I haven't gotten to the why yet, but it draws the demonic elements out, makes them more prevalent--" She peered again at the symbols on the box. "Here--something about integration and dealing with the dichotomy of demon/ human combinations." She shook her head. "I'll have to translate the entire text. All six sides."
Gunn leaned into the reception desk, peering at the box but obviously not interested in getting too close to it. "This is too freaky for words."
"What should we do?" Fred asked.
Cordelia absently touched her neck. It was hard for her to think past the throbbing. "I don't know. You and Gunn shouldn't be affected at all, and since the Powers gave me my demon DNA I doubt it'll manifest as anything dangerous, but--" She broke off, not completely willing to voice the thought.
Gunn had no such compunctions. "But if this thing puts a whammy on Angel, we might all just end up on his menu."
Cordelia nodded. "Yeah." She picked up Fred's notebook and turned toward the table at the back of the reception area, but Angel had gone into the office and was sitting in front of the desk, his back to her, apparently doing nothing of any use whatsoever. "Angel?" she said, more than a little annoyed. "You want to contribute something, here?"
He didn't answer. He was hunched a little over the desk, she noticed, and very still. She took a step toward him. "Hello? Earth to Angel?"
He lifted his head and turned around. Cordelia stopped walking. He had gone vamp, and there was a strange, befuddled, not at all vampiric expression in his yellow eyes.
"I'm sorry," she said, still more irritated than frightened, in spite of Gunn's succinct summation of the threat. Angel just looked too perplexed to seem dangerous, in spite of the pointy teeth protruding between his lips. "Did we say something to upset you?"
He shook his head vaguely. "No, it's not that. I can't change back. I'm stuck."
He turned away from her, resuming his pointless perusal of the empty desk. She planted her hands on her hips and took another step forward, looming over him. "You can't just hide in here. We need your help."
He put his face in his hands, covering his forehead and his eyes, hiding from her. "I hate this."
This was ridiculous. "C'mon. It's nothing we haven't all seen before. Some of us even find it sexy--" Oh, Jeez, where had that come from? "I mean, in a perverse kind of way. And I don't mean me."
Her backpedaling had been unnecessary, though, as Angel seemed not to have heard her at all. "I'm no help this way. I can't concentrate."
"Why not?" This had better be good.
He shook his head, lowered his hands. Still no scary vampire there, as far as she was concerned--just a yellow-eyed guy with a bumpy forehead and a mouth full of teeth, having trouble dealing with himself. "I can hear all your heartbeats. I can hear your blood moving. This is feed-mode, Cordy."
She shuddered a little, then found herself wondering what he could smell. She probably didn't want to know. "Okay . . . too much information. So you can't think about the task at hand because all of a sudden we're like a bunch of walking Ho Ho's to you, is that it?
He hunched forward in his chair. "Something like that."
"Then why don't you get over yourself for a minute and ponder the implications of this." She shoved Fred's notebook into his face. His eyes flashed as he growled and grabbed it from her. Maybe shoving things in his face wasn't the best idea right now. "And don't you growl at me like that. I swear, I'll hit you with a rolled-up newspaper."
He glared at her, and she tapped the notebook. "Read it, Angel."
The glare faded from his eyes as he made a visible effort to collect himself. He looked down at the notebook and read. "This is bad."
"Yeah. Are you getting the idea now?"
He rubbed his forehead, as if trying to massage away the extra layer of eyebrow ridge. "Let me think about this. I'll need some time. Oh, and you'd better leave."
He peered at her apologetically. "Because you smell really good."
Cordelia threw up her hands. "Jeez, you wait and wait to hear a man say that, and when one finally does, it's because he sees you as snack food. My life sucks."
She headed back to the reception area, where Fred and Gunn met her with expectant looks. "We're going to have to do without Angel for a bit," she told them.
Fred looked concerned. "Is he okay?"
"He's fine. He's just . . . being a vampire." She leaned against the reception counter, staring at the box, then shifted a little farther away from it. "Look, Angel and I are the only ones in real danger here. Maybe you two should skedaddle before things get ugly."
"No," said Gunn, his tone firm.
"Charles is right," Fred put in. "We can't just desert you."
Gunn nodded. "That, too. But if things go really haywire, I figure somebody's gotta hang around to clean up the mess. Kill Angel, if it comes to that."
Cordelia eyed him closely. He seemed just a little too eager. "Do you think you could handle that?"
"I've killed plenty of demons. I think I can kill another one, regardless of whose face it's wearing." He looked away, and Cordelia remembered then that he'd killed his own sister when she'd been changed. If he could do that, he could certainly take out Angelus if it became necessary.
"You'd better hope you can."
Angel's voice came from the office door, and Cordelia wheeled to look at him. His human face had returned--but not quite. She recognized that smirk, the cold look in his eyes. The only thing missing was the leather pants.
"Oh, my God," she breathed.
He smiled, and it made her skin crawl. "That's right," he said. "I'm back."
Cordelia stared at him a moment, then threw up her hands. "Oh, this is just perfect. If I ever meet that guy's witchy wife, I am so going to rip her lungs out."
Angelus took a few steps forward, his eyes fixed on her. The way he was looking at her made her want to scrub her skin off. "Sounds fun," he said. "Can I help?"
Fred had gone wide-eyed. "What's going on?"
"Angel's facing his demon," Cordelia offered. Gunn had retrieved a stake from a drawer behind the counter almost as if he thought no one could see him doing it. But Cordelia had, and she had no doubt Angelus had seen the movement, as well, in spite of his uncomfortable fixation on her.
Fred was still confused. "I thought his demon was that beast-thing we saw in Pylea."
Cordelia nodded. "Frankly, I'd rather deal with that version."
Angelus took another step closer to her. He was doing more than undressing her with his eyes--that look was undressing her, touching her, and putting fingers in inappropriate places. "I thought you liked bad boys."
She forced herself to meet his invasive, violating gaze. "Bad, not evil, sadistic and creepy."
He advanced again, forcing her against the counter. Gunn readied the stake, no longer concerned about hiding it, as Angelus loomed over Cordelia. He had her pinned against the counter now, pressing up against her.
"You know you want me," he whispered, his face far too close to hers. God, he even smelled different. More acrid, almost sulfurous, more like a vampire. "You've wanted me for years."
She stiffened against him, not quite brave enough to shove him off her. "Back off, Angelus."
His hands clamped around her arms. "Or what? You'll hurt me? Maybe I'd like that." His hips moved against her, rotating. He was aroused and wanted to be sure she knew it. "Or maybe you'd like it if I hurt you."
He kissed her, hard, bruising, nothing like the soft brush of Angel's lips, though the shape was the same, the movement similar but fiercer, with no affection in it. She pressed her own lips together firmly, refusing to respond even though some part of her wanted to just because it felt a little like Angel. She held herself stiff, neither helping nor hindering him.
"Cordy--" Gunn's voice came vaguely in the background but she was too busy concentrating on her own moment. Something was building inside her, something large and powerful--
Angelus jerked back, eyes flashing with anger. His fingers dug hard into her arms as he shook her. "Listen to me, bitch--"
The power came to her in a rush. She could see her reflection in Angelus' pupils, and her eyes were glowing green. Her own demon, rising to the surface. Time to party.
She clubbed Angelus across the face and he staggered back, blood flying from his mouth. Cordelia looked down at her hands. They were glowing, too, a green light outlining each finger. "No," she said. "I think you're going to listen to me." She slugged him again, gratified to see his head snap back. "Bitch," she added, and grabbed his shoulders, jerked him to her, and shoved her knee hard into his groin.
He sagged to the floor, moaning in pain, while Cordelia watched in perverse satisfaction. This was like Slayer strength she was wielding, here. A girl could get used to this.
Angelus whimpered and cupped himself, as if trying to reassemble all his broken manly bits. Cordelia wondered if she'd ruptured something down there, and almost wished she had. There was no time to think about it, though, and she could apologize to Angel when they got him back. If they got him back. She couldn't bear to consider it right now. She grabbed Angelus by the head, putting him in a solid headlock, and dragged him toward the box. It was glowing, the gold-green light pulsing a little.
"Okay, demon-man," she told him. The others had backed off, even Gunn seemingly unwilling to interfere. "You're going to do what I tell you, or you're going to die."
"Go ahead and break my neck," Angelus snarled. "It won't kill me."
Brave words, Cordelia thought, for a man who'd just had his balls pancaked. "The way I feel right now, I'll do more than break your neck. I'll twist your head right off."
Angelus sounded a little less confident. "You wouldn't do that to him."
"No, but I'd damn well do it to you. And he would want me to." She tightened the pressure on his neck. She couldn't choke him, but she could tweak his spine hard enough to hurt. He made another gratifying sound of pain. "Do we understand each other?"
"Yes," he managed.
"Then let's go." Cordelia slapped her hand down on the box. There was a flash of light, then nothing.
A moment later, they were in a large, empty room. Cordelia, not relinquishing her grip on Angelus' neck, looked around. The room was bright, glowing a green so pale it was nearly white.
"I'm gonna let you go now," she told Angelus. "You try anything--"
He nodded. His voice came choked--she had him so tight around the throat he had to strain to draw air to speak. "Yeah. Okay."
She let him go. He straightened, rubbing his neck and glaring at her sidelong under beetled brows.
Suddenly, across the room, there was a flash of light. Cordelia jumped. A large chair, almost a throne, appeared as the light faded. On it sat a man dressed in white. He appeared normal, human, except for the odd, ghostly blue color of his eyes.
"This has been incredibly interesting," he said.
Cordelia took a step forward. "Who the hell are you?"
The man, demon, whatever he was, smiled. "I am the Demon of the Box. The Box Demon. Demonicus Boxiosis."
"You don't look like a demon," said Angelus. He, too, stepped forward, eyeing the demon warily.
The demon smiled at him. "Neither do you." Then his attention turned to Cordelia. "She does, though."
"Bite me," said Cordelia reflexively, then turned to meet Angelus' smirk. "Not you!"
The demon watched the exchange with amusement. "The box was intended for therapeutic use by humans with some demon blood. The way it has manifested with you two--very intriguing."
Things were starting to make a kind of irritating sense. "It was meant to help with assimilation in cases of partial demon presence, or superficial possession. It wasn't meant to handle infusions of demon DNA, or complete possession, like a vampire."
"So how do we reverse the effects?"
"What if the effects don't want to be reversed?" Angelus put in.
Cordelia wheeled on him. "You shut up."
Angelus sneered. "You used to be a lot nicer."
"So did you."
"You can't," said the demon, and Cordelia gaped at him.
"There has to be a way."
The demon shrugged. "I can stop it, if I want to."
Cordelia was starting to panic. There had to be some way to fix this, to get Angel back, to send them both home. "Then do."
But the demon only smiled. "I don't want to."
"Then our business is done here," said Angelus briskly. "Time to go back."
She looked at his smug face, at the equally smug face of the white-clad demon. "No! Dammit, this isn't right!"
She charged the demon, feeling the power surge again. Her hands glowed white/green and she lifted them toward him. She could expel this at him if she wanted to, blast him in the chest with full-force demon power. "Fix it!"
The demon regarded her placidly. "Can you kill me in cold blood? I don't think so."
Cordelia lowered her hands, suddenly not at all certain she could kill anyone at all, for any reason. "You bastard."
The demon tilted his head. "Why are you here, Cordelia? You seem to be coping quite handily with your transformation. A bit more time and I'm certain you would even learn to control it. So why are you here? What needs to be fixed?"
"Angel," she said, desperate. "I want Angel back."
"Angel doesn't appear to want to be back."
To her mortification, a sob worked its way up out of her throat. "It's the demon. It's that bastard Angelus. He won't let him go."
Suddenly she was crying, and couldn't stop it. She could feel Angelus watching her and looked toward him, angry and humiliated and wanting more than anything to beat him out of Angel's body. Angel had gotten her through so much of the last three years--she didn't think she could face her increasingly crazy life without him.
The demon spoke again, his voice gentle but far from comforting. "You want him back but you can't get him to come back. How many times did you swear to him you'd kill him if this ever happened to him again?"
She stared at Angelus, suddenly seeing Angel in him again. Surely whatever magic lay in the box wouldn't force her to--
"I knew you didn't have the balls, Cordy," said Angelus, or was it Angel? It was hard to tell, now. "You can't do it. Buffy did it, but I guess that was because she loved me."
"Oh, my God," Cordelia breathed. This was the point, then--was she capable of using her demon power, to counter his?
"Yes, Cordelia," said the demon. "This is not just Angel's demon. It's yours."
"But--I brought him with me," she protested. "He's real."
"It doesn't matter. You promised him."
The tears lay hot on her face. "Angel--"
Angelus only stared at her, and it was impossible to tell who he was. If she killed him, who would she kill?
"You promised him," the demon said.
The glow began to fade from Cordelia's hands. She walked toward Angelus, barely able to see through her tears. "Angel?"
He only stood, waiting, as she walked to him. Then, as she came closer, he held out his arms. She walked into his embrace, set her hands on either side of his face. So familiar, that face, yet she had no idea who she was looking at, whose eyes held hers as he bent toward her, until his lips nearly brushed hers.
And then he spoke. "You disgust me. You self-centered, cowardly, lying little bi--"
He never had a chance to finish the word. Her hands lit up, she clenched her fingers on his temples and with a horrible, wrenching jerk, she twisted his head off.
His body fell to ashes at her feet, and then the head, the familiar face empty now, the dark eyes cold.
Cordelia sobbed, staring at her empty hands. "Angel."
The demon, sitting calmly in his chair, smiled at her, and there was a flash of light--
She was in the hotel lobby again, curled on the floor in a fetal position, sobs wracking her body. Gunn and Fred ran to her, Gunn sliding to the floor beside her to lift her in his arms.
"Angel," she wept, the empty pain just beginning, burning in her chest.
"Where is he?" Fred asked.
Cordelia looked up into the other woman's face. "I killed him." She dissolved into weeping, and Gunn rolled her against his chest, cradling her.
Suddenly, behind them, there was a percussive sound, then a hiss and a whoosh like air filling a large, suddenly empty space. Cordelia looked up to see the box imploding. Light flashed, blinding her for a moment, and when it faded, there was Angel, standing on the other side of the reception counter. He looked at them, dazed, then his eyes rolled up and he crashed to the floor.
Some time later, she sat at the desk in the office, staring dazedly at Angel, who sat across from her, just as dazed, and with a bag of ice in his lap. Fred had brought them both tea, thinking it might help, but neither of them had so much as looked at it.
"Sorry about--" Cordelia finally ventured, but wasn't sure how to finish the sentence. "You know. The knee--to the . . . the groinal area."
He grimaced. "It'll heal. Not that I need it for much of anything."
She looked away, and the silence settled again. Angel touched his teacup, turning it in a circle by the handle. "I didn't think you'd do it," he said abruptly. "Kill me, I mean."
Cordelia swallowed. "I always told you I would if I had to."
"I don't think I ever really believed you."
She gave a wry, not-quite grin. "I don't think I ever really believed me, either."
He reached across the desk, holding his hand out to her. She took it, let him curl his fingers around hers.
"Thank you," he said.
She laughed a little. "For using my funky demon power to twist your head off?"
"You are a very, very strange man."
He laughed then, and the sound was so unexpected that she couldn't help but echo it. His hand tightened on hers, and soft affection rose into his eyes. His laugh subsided into a smile, and she returned it, because she couldn't not, because it was Angel.