Disclaimer: Angel and all associated characters are the property of their owners. I'm just borrowing them. I make no profit from this.
Author's notes: After two and a half years, I have finally gotten around to picking this up, dusting it off and finishing it. This is all thanks to the prodding of Mysticwolf1, to whom I dedicate this final chapter. I apologise perfusely for my appauling update rate, hideously unbeta-ed chapters and rather abrupt ending. The plans I had for this story are now too moss-covered and crumbly for me to remember. Instead, I humbly offer it up for a sequel to anyone who fancies a go. Hope you enjoyed!
The middle of the Nevada desert was the last place Cordelia had expected them to end up, but as she stepped out into the dust, she had to conceed that it was indeed the perfect place.
The starlight shone brightly in defiance of the smothering L.A. pollution it had now escaped. The distant hills were just visible, but apart from the headlights of the still gathering vans, Cordelia could not make out another single speck of artificial light. This place was completely wild. Isolated, desolate and lonely. It was also very cold.
Cordelia shivered and pulled her too thin jacket more securely around her, immediately missing the warmth of the close quaters in the back of the van. Her muscles ached after hours of confined travel, and the fresh air was a welcome difference. A stiff breeze rustled through the crispy foliage of the sparse vegetation and ran cold fingers across her scalp. That was not so welcome.
Gunn and Wesley clambered from their seats after her, blinking in adjustment as they emerged into the open landscape. They too seemed surprised. Its resemblence to the surface of the moon was disconcerting.
Another vehicle pulled up close to them, sending a fine cloud of dirt and grit into the air as it stopped. They moved away as men began to pour out, glad for the chance to stretch their legs.
Cordelia watched as Jane and her father walked out into the night without so much as glance in their direction. They stepped a distance away, apparently discussing the finer details of the operation. Cordelia wasn't interested in what they were saying.
She had been watching Jane closely throughout the journey but had yet to see a sign of anything amiss. She had found herself becoming unaccountably infuriated by the woman's seeming lack of response when the children had once again made their apperance. Schooling her features to blank but clenching her fists at her sides, she'd waited for some indication that Jane had noticed the little legs swinging in and out of view on the front seat, or heard the faint crying in the background. Cordelia could not be sure to whom either belonged, and had focussed instead on Jane's expression. She was certain her theory was correct, and yet nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
"Man, this is getting old," Gunn muttered beside her. He also, she noticed, had his eye on the pair, and clearly disliked being left out of the loop. He rubbed the back of his head absently, and Cordelia felt her irritation ratchet up another notch.
Jane's father, having apparently given his orders, turned and walked off towards a group of his men, leaving Jane to carry out his instructions. Cordelia was surprised to find that she was not the only one feeling put out, and was beaten to a heartfelt speech.
"Excuse me," Wesley called loudly with his slightly scary don't-piss-me-about voice. Jane turned to look at him with a jolt that Cordelia had to admit she also felt. Jane's father ignored him pointedly and did not return, and Cordelia didn't miss the way his expression darkened dangerously. Gunn also took a step out of his way.
Jane approached rather nervously, anxious to prevent a confrontation, and began to placate Wesley with a fast explaination of what was going to happen next. He didn't appear terribly soothed.
"Where is Angel?" he demanded forcefully, interrupting the girl's hurried spiel. Cordelia silently egged him on.
Jane sighed and gave up her attempts, trying not to seem as apologetic as she clearly felt. Being in charge didn't seem to suit her, and Cordelia half suspected that she'd already made several requests to her father that had gone unheard.
"He should be in one of these," she said, gesturing to the steadily lessening stream of vans coming to a stop near them. Any excuses she'd wanted to make were quickly swallowed with one look from Wesley, and she didn't try to stop them as they moved off in search of their friend. Grimacing at their retreating backs and rolling her eyes to the heavens, she followed.
It didn't take long to work out which van Angel was being held in. There was a deep growl, followed by the swift exit of what Cordelia assumed to be medical personnel. One of the men smoothed down his white lab coat with an indignant air and a huff. Angel determinedly hauled himself out of the van, bandages now adorning his torso. He gave the men a threatening look and lowered himself to sit on the tail gate.
"Are you alright, Angel?" Wesley asked, coming to examine the work for himself.
"Peachy," Angel replied tightly, his glare not leaving the men.
"We should take a look at you too," one of them braved, another eyeing up the back of Gunn's head.
"No thank you," Wesley said tersely, and Gunn crossed his arms across his chest.
Jane stepped in and opened her mouth to speak.
"Don't you dare apologise to me," Gunn told her, and she shut her mouth again.
Cordelia let the brief arguement that ensued, hesitantly on the part of the doctors, wash over her cleanly. The feisty little boy and his sister peeked at her around the side of Angel's van, little frowns scrunching their noses. They watched the strange men a little fearfully, flinching back at the wild gesticulations and huddling closer together. The little girl's hand slipped into her brother's and she held on tightly.
Again searching her face, Cordelia found that Jane was only listening to the conversation, an annoyingly oblivious expression on her face. She couldn't wait any longer. She grasped Jane's arm firmly above the elbow and pulled her a short distance away from the others, ignoring her cry of surprise.
"You don't see them, do you?" Cordelia demanded with some force, her aggrivation getting the better of her at last.
Jane pulled her arm away roughly with a scowl that soon became a look of confusion. Cordelia made a strangled noise of frustration and thrust a finger towards the van. "The kids," she hissed in explaination.
Jane gave her a wary look that suggested she thought she was crazy and dangerous, turned slowly to look where indicated, then met Cordelia's eyes again. "No..." she agreed catiously, talking oh-so-slowly and carefully. Making nice with the nut-so. Cordelia wanted to give her a smack.
"I saw the creature bite you," Cordelia elaborated, raising her eyebrows meaningfully. "It bit me too."
Jane frowned at her momentarily, giving her head a little shake. "I don't... What's that got to do with anything? It's not poisonous."
Cordelia felt a sickening sinking feeling twisting her insides. "Well, it poisoned me! I just figured that's what it does."
Jane gave her a long, hard look, their squabble being rapidly forgotten. A thought seemed to occur to her, and her tone became serious.
"Do you know what it is you're seeing?" she asked, and nodded at Cordelia's meaningful silence. "The creature seems to have... transferred... its ability. Somehow. I don't know why. It's not supposed to happen." She glanced back towards the others and Cordelia gave her a sharp nudge to get her attention.
"If you say anything to them I'll --"
"I won't," Jane assured her solemnly.
"How do I make it stop?"
"I'm not sure that you can. I would hope that once the creature is returned to its hibernating state, its effects should wear off. Otherwise..."
"Well, let's go put it back in the ground, then," Cordelia said briskly, pushing past her to rejoin the others. Another man had joined them, apparently to take their details, and was patiently trying to persuade them to co-operate whilst deflecting their insistent questioning.
"Why can't we go into the chamber?" Wesley was asking, although Cordelia suspected his interest was more to do with being difficult than actually wanting to go. The man sighed in a way that suggested he'd already done it a few times, making the effort to look each of them in the eye.
"Because the location is a secret. And I'm sorry, but I just don't have the authority. Please, if you'll just give me a bit more information. We have someone on the Force but we can't fabricate a story if we don't have all the facts..."
Again, Cordelia tuned them out. She looked around to find Angel studying her closely and averted her gaze guiltily. Damn his vampire hearing.
A sharp yelp from across the way got everyone's attention, and they all turned to hear a high-pitched squealing from the same direction. Before the man could protest, Wesley had set off at a run and was soon followed by Cordelia and Gunn.
"I'll just wait here, then!" Angel called after them.
They rounded the corner of a large vehicle to find a group of men surrounding a box, one of which was standing back and cradling his hand. A very agitated creature, screeching for all it was worth, repeatedly rammed its little body against its cage, scrabbling to get out. A couple of the men made unsure soothing noises to try and calm it, the rest looking around at each other in concern.
"What are you doing?" Wesley asked accusingly, pushing those nearest to the side. Hearing his voice, the creature stopped its efforts and wailed at him, its arms outstretched in a desperate plea.
Without a second thought, Wesley plunged forward and wrestled with the release, throwing off the hands at his arms.
"Hey! You can't do that!" one man yelled, but he was ignored.
The men gasped collectively as the creature shot out of the box, clinging to Wesley's neck as though it had been burned. They took a step back as Wesley straightened and he rolled his eyes dramatically. "Oh, for heaven's sake," he muttered to himself.
The creature whimpered pathetically and buried its face against him. He brought his arms up to hold it in place and stroked it automatically.
"What's going on here!" Jane's father stormed as he marched towards the group, making his men flinch involuntarily. His stony face turned positively thunderous when he caught sight of Wesley, and the trembling creature gave an extra little shudder at his tone.
Cordelia expected Wesley to blanch at that, and wouldn't have thought any less of him. Instead, he turned squarely to face the man, his expression set. Gunn stepped up beside him and Cordelia found herself following suit.
"I'll be taking it down to the chamber," Wesley announced in a low tone, and Cordelia steeled herself for an explosive response.
The man simply looked Wesley in the eye for a moment, and a grim smile pulled unnaturally at his face. "Very well," he said eventually, moving aside to let Wesley pass. Cordelia and Gunn shared a look, both silently agreeing not to get onto Wesley's bad side.
Winding cave systems seemed to be the habitation of choice, and Cordelia had begrudgingly admitted that 'The Guardians' had hidden it well. The entrance had been sealed into the rock of a particularly non-descript outcropping, with not so much as a seam visible to the naked eye. After some extended chanting and, bizarrely, spitting, a small door had slid aside to admit them, behind which a small country's army was stationed. The area would remain under constant supervision, with patrols and a hi-tech surveillance system monitoring the outside world. Having insisted on accompanying him, Cordelia, Gunn and Angel had piled in after Wesley, and each eyed the set up with a certain amount of respectful awe. There was no doubt that the creature would be safe here.
The slience became almost oppressive the further and deeper they ventured. The going was slow with only the beams of flashlights to illuminate the way, and it seemed that the many twists and turns were intentional. The place wasn't just a well-hidden fortress. It was also a labyrinth. Cordelia idly fancied that they'd have to negotiate pitfalls and spring traps. She still had her eyes open for them.
Gunn was the first to break the quiet, making Cordelia start.
"So what happens now?" he asked without preamble, dodging around a low hanging rock.
"We return the creature to its place and keep it guarded. Then you go home and never speak of this again. We've left a cover story for the police, so you shouldn't have any trouble." He paused. "It's the least we could do."
Gunn looked hard at the back of Jane's father's head as though doing so would reveal more answers. He snorted. "So, you're not actually going to do anything about the apocolypse you promise us is coming. Just gonna sit around and let us deal with that?"
"Gunn..." Angel warned.
"That is not our purpose," Jane's father returned calmly. "We simply await the rising of The Three. And I can assure you, we have plenty enough to be doing until then."
"Huh. So what about Cordy?"
Cordelia inwardly winced.
"What about her?"
"Cordelia is a Seer," Angel interupted with purpose. "She's been affected by the creature, but I'm sure it'll pass once its gone. Right?"
Cordelia gave him a grateful smile that she hoped he could see and nodded emphatically. "Right."
Wesley turned and frowned at her slightly, and Gunn looked less than convinced, but they didn't push it any further. They turned back to concentrate on their precarious route, and Cordelia squeezed Angel's hand.
The chamber itself was not at all as Cordelia had expected it to be. It was not extravagant, plush or covered in runes. There were no melodramatic candles, no archaic painted symbols and no towering statues. Neither was there any computer equipment, light fixtures or armed guards. There was simply a small box set into the wall with what looked like straw lining the inside. It was slightly disappointing.
"Um, this is it?" Wesley asked, unsure.
Jane gave him a look. "You were expecting something else?"
He shrugged and approached the make-shift nest, the others crowding behind to get a closer look.
"Okay," he said to the creature, "Time to go back to sleep."
Taking hold and giving it a gentle tug, Wesley found that it wouldn't let go, but instead chirped and gripped on tighter. He reached for its arms and tried to peel each one off individually. "Come on, you have to let go."
After a few more complaints and some gentle coaxing, it eventually allowed itself to be lifted down and placed in the box, a pitiful look in its eyes.
"Don't look at me like that," Wesley admonished, arranging the straw around it.
Gunn peered at it from over Wesley's shoulder. "Poor thing, looks beat," he said, patting it tentatively on the head. It chirped at him.
"See ya, fur ball," Angel said, and it yawned in return.
Movement in the corner of her eye drew Cordelia's gaze, and she turned from the cluster around the creature to see the children chasing each other through the tunnels. She looked after them in stunned disbelief as they giggled, the little girl skipping happily after her older brother as he held his arms out to her. The boy with the bruise was now healed, and smiled playfully as he jumped out from behind a rock. The other two boys squealed delightedly and ran from him. He took off in pursuit, and they all disappeared into the dark.
She jerked round and wiped the goofy smile from her face, scrubbing quickly at her eyes. "Huh?" she said, aiming for innocent. The guys gave her an indulgent look and motioned silently towards the balled up curl of fur.
She made an 'oh' shape and sighed in relief. They all reflected her smile.
"Time to go home," she whispered.