|Disclaimer: the author does
not claim ownership to the characters or plot development mentioned from
"Angel" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Fray". These properties expressly
belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Greenwolf Corporation, 20th Century
Fox Television, WB Network, the UPN Network, Dark Horse Comics, etc. Any
other characters contained in the original story are the author's.
Historical Note: Episode 9 and the finale of AI Week '01. The action in this story takes place after "There's No Place Like Pltrz Glrb".
Author's Note: I had hoped to upload this story during Labor Day, giving me a whole 3 week's rest until Season 3 began. Well, as is the case with best-made plans, that's not how it worked out. Instead, in less than 36 hours, Season 3 begins. Big, YAY! While this summer series wasn't as easily whipped out as last year's summer season, I think it was more cohesive storytelling-wise. I owe a lot to Wiseblood :) who helped a great deal -- both with writing and Beta-reading. Oh! And that encouragement stuff, too.
This last story for AI Week '01 is also one of the first I outlined. Wiseblood & me, we're dusting the characters off and putting 'em back inside canon. This story, as were the others, was written Spoiler-free. e.c. 15 Sept 01
fanfiction.net note: Some of this story refers to the canon set up in my S1 stories, "Starlet" and "On The Road to Discovery" and Wiseblood's Summer '01 story, "Dead Reckoning". But, you won't have a problem if you haven't read those 3 or the other 7 Summer '01 fics.
Tune of the week: "Deliciously
Down" by Cree Summer is wonderfully Cordeliaesque.
The more Cordelia fidgeted with the neckline of her tee shirt, the more the glitter from its screen-printed front sprinkled onto her lap. The butterfly had been shedding all day, chrome-like bits strewn behind like breadcrumbs wherever she had been. She took a deep breath, held it in courageously; her fingernails scraped the edge of the white paper layered atop the examination bed. Although her legs were completely rimmed in silver, there was nothing ornamental about her anxiety.
Dr. Minoway sat on a stainless steel stool next to a pair of retracted stirrups, one leg casually crossed over the other as she scrawled into the chart marked: Chase, Cordelia. "Physically, you're as healthy as any 20 year-old, Cordelia. All your tests are fine, everything looks great."
Cordy gnawed on her bottom lip through, "But?"
The doctor was methodical about flipping the chart closed before she raised her head to take in her patient. Then, very unprofessionally, she shrugged. "This exhaustion you're experiencing -- You don't look 20. Six months ago, you did. A year ago, you looked sixteen. I can give you all the tests in the world, but they can't tell me what's going on in your personal life. At least, not about what's causing you to deteriorate like this."
Cordy dropped her chin. She wanted to refute the doctor's insinuation, but decided that holding her dread at bay was a better use of her energy. "Maybe I can take stronger vitamins?" she choked, taking a mental inventory of her medicine cabinet already chock-full of homeopathic this-n-that's.
Dr. Minoway took her time getting up; she dropped the chart on the narrow counter. Allowing her patient a moment to collect herself, she spoke over her shoulder, "Whatever happened to put you in a coma a year ago, is having serious repercussions on your health today. Unless you've got a similar magic cure-all, I can't diagnose that you're going to improve by drinking more fluids, eating five a day or ingesting different vitamins."
The doctor turned around. Cordy nodded without looking up.
"Nope." Hopping forward, Cordy sparkled to her feet. She was careful to leave a hand on the bed; as it turned out, she needed its support.
"Some type of cultish activity? Spending time in clubs that are a little..." the doctor's blue eyes rolled to one side, returning to pierce, "...beyond the normal range of drinking and dancing?"
Cordy slipped her toes into the front of her mules and settled her heels into place. The shirt baptized her feet, flecking them with each nervous adjustment of her shoulder bag. "I've just been working too hard. That's all. I... I'm going to ask for some time off."
"You realize I'm unconvinced, don't you?" The slightly taller woman held the exam-room door open.
"In six months, you'll see," Cordy replied, beaming her most promising smile.
The doctor tipped her head
agreeably. If Cordelia could pretend as if she'd be greatly improved instead
of disabled -- or dead -- in less than a year, she could pretend to believe
The Host sailed across the Caritas main room and banged, head first, into the wall. Without taking the time to consider how much he despised being on the receiving end of a serious whupping, Lorne somersaulted towards the safety of the closest bar table. Mid-roll, he got picked up again to mop the floor with his chest before being thrown onstage.
The workers cowering behind the copper lamé drapes scattered like newly-birthed spiders from a sac.
Angel leapt across six tables. He straddled Lorne, hauling the outmatched demon up by both lapels, shearing one and sending The Host's left shoulder thudding into the unvarnished parquet floor. "TELL ME!" Angel ordered, vising The Host's collar. He kicked one booted foot back, destroying the karaoke machine mid-chorus of "Turn the Beat Around".
Lorne coughed while stealing a peek at what remained of his months-long efforts; the Grand Redecoration of Caritas had been laid to waste in a matter of minutes. "I can't, Angel. It would be like a padre or, worse, a cardinal committing the error!"
Angel glowered. "I don't see what baseball has to do with this."
The Host's face displayed scathing incredulity to Angel's bared teeth. "Oh! You pick *now* to demonstrate an acute grasp of cultural literacy? I've told you before, Bunnylamb, that I cannot -- no way, no how, no shape, no form -- divulge what I see when someone sings."
"But it's Cordelia. Her life depends on this!" Angel wailed. Although his grip on Lorne loosened, the hopelessness that had incited his brutality remained unrelenting.
The Host elbowed up and sighed. Ever since Angel's reentry into his human companions' lives, the vampire had been trying extra-hard to stay in Cordelia's good graces. That meant lavish gifts, attention to her needs, looking-out for her welfare. In actuality, Angel bribed her, catered to her every whim, and obsessed over her whereabouts. "You really shouldn't have followed her, Angel," Lorne chided. "Gargoyling outside her doctor's office window -- mucho unethicalo."
Palms strumming the front of his thighs strung tight with tension, Angel surrendered. "And what, exactly, is so ethical about what the PTB are doing to Cordy?"
"Lucid enough to touché. Bravissimo!" Lorne nudged his thin red lips the same direction his bright red eyes drifted off to. "I guess, after-the-event, it doesn't make any difference what I saw."
Angel's petitioning demeanor succumbed to abject distress. "Please, nooooooo," he mourned, his chest caving in underneath its gabardine coating.
Sliding from under his tormentor, Lorne sat back to face the vampire by looping one long gangster-striped leg over the other at the ankles. "Cordelia's Visions were to pass to the Grooselug," he stated matter-of-factly.
His posture mirroring Lorne's, Angel remained onstage -- another campfireless scout unfolding a grim tale. "But, she was destined to die," Angel hushed.
Lorne nodded. "That she would have, indeed -- in her very ripe, very old age." To Angel's bewilderment, he elaborated, "The fairy tale ending, Angel. Princess Cordy was to marry the bravest man in all the realm. He would have heaved the Visions, she would have papoosed his kiddies. And, throughout the kingdom, there would have been a general feeling of well-being and love, sweet love."
His right hand lifted off his knee and traversed his personal space while he sang, "It's the only thing that's there's just too little of --"
Angel gently, very gently, lowered the Host's wave. "But, I need my Messenger."
Moved by the chilling touch of the vampire's warm gesture, Lorne consoled, "Maybe at some point, the PTB would have provided you with another Messenger. Or... I don't know, Little Brown-Eyed Boychik. What I do know was that I was supposed to die on Pylea; Cordelia was supposed to stay. Four in, four out."
Angel shut his eyes. Pain sowed a rut between his expressive brows. "Cordy for Fred."
Somber, The Host patted Angel's knee and held still. "No... Me for Fred. Life for Cordelia."
Angel stalked the length of the colonnade in brisk, silent strides. An abrupt change of step brought him aggressively up to the brink of sunshine streaming into the Hyperion courtyard.
"Angel," Wesley soothed, timidly increasing proximity to the vampire. He raised his hand to shield the brilliant mid-day heat from his light eyes and untanned complexion, silently remarking that if he was uncomfortable wearing a short-sleeved shirt and summer-weight slacks, he couldn't begin to imagine the discomfiture Angel withstood in head-to-toe black -- the being's usual full-dress anathema.
"Just let him be," Fred recommended, pinching Wesley's sleeve. "Just let Angel get it all out of his system and he'll come back in and be calm."
Leaning in profile, Wesley one-eyed Fred's innocent conviction. "He's literally playing with fire, Fred. Do you understand that? On Pylea, he was completely safe. But here..." Wesley's nostril's flared.
Angel squinted up past the Spanish-tiled roof's peak. He bullied the air with a fist. "It's what they fucking DO! It's so easy to decimate the innocent when they don't have to live with them, look anyone in the EYE!"
Wesley took another step forward and only that one; he was pinned to his spot by the vengeful stare-down in front and Fred's warning hold from behind. "This isn't helping matters any, Angel," he repeated, undaunted. Pacing, raging, daring nature most certainly wasn't, not in the least. Wasn't making Angel feel any better and he was sure that if Anyone was hearing Angel's tirade, Cordelia was hearing it, too.
Fred maneuvered past Wesley and posed her question. "Why are you mad at the Powers That Be, Angel?"
Angel dropped back to arched safety. "It was never supposed to turn out this way. I just wanted to help. But Doyle..." he gasped, exhaling, "...now Cordelia."
Cupping his hands to the shady side of daylight, he siphoned another lungful of air. "I have to take her back," he said softly, dropping his arms to his side. He turned to Wesley. "Cordelia needs to go back to Pylea."
Wesley scrubbed his hairline. "There's no guarantee that we'll be able to repeat our previous -- " but Angel's fingertips hovering at Wesley's lips truncated the sentence.
"*I'm* taking her back, Wes."
Fred shook her head, brunette hair flipping out and curling up acrobatically. "You can't go back, Angel. Wesley, what if he -- " She clawed at the air in front of her face.
Using his reflection in Fred's dark-rimmed eyeglasses, Wesley took a moment to adjust his own. "But according to Lorne," he intimated, "Cordelia doesn't belong here."
"Please, Fred," Angel intoned. "You're the only one with the knowledge to get us back across the dimension. I'll make sure Cordelia's settled, and she's Vision-free happy."
"And after the transference does what it's supposed to, you'll both be back?" With his forearms crossed smartly in front of his chest, Wesley waited for Angel's unspoken agreement before addressing the physicist. "Then, it's settled. Do let me know whatever I can assist you with, Fred."
The sincere young woman massaged the tip of her nose with the flat of her palm. "What y'all are asking me to do is all good and fine and dandy; but has anyone bothered consulting Cordy?"
Cordelia had put on her long-storaged meany-tude. She fought her deepest urge to pick up the checkbook and chuck it at Angel. She wanted to be mad -- *really* mad, but the truth was that he'd worn her down months before and now his rolling eyes and naïve smile gave her the huger urge to pinch his cheek.
"Ohmigod, Angel. You've turned me into my Gramma!" she complained, hiding her face in her hands.
"I'm sorry for that, too," Angel replied, contritely plain-faced. He crossed her office in two steps, knelt at her desk. Tapping at her wrist caused her to uncover. Looking up, he empathized with the weariness dark-shadowing her hazel eyes. The Visions having dulled her glow, the translucent powder matting her flawless complexion failed miserably at creating a mask of youth.
"Stop being sorry. Nothing's your fault." Cordy rose, eking between him and the credenza behind her desk. She had hoped to sound less bitter, more forgiving, but she wasn't sure who she was more furious at -- Angel, for invading her privacy, or herself, for not doing a better job of concealing her condition.
"Let me take you back to Pylea. Please." Afraid to turn around, he didn't focus on any one particular thing while holding his non-breath and trying to come up with a good reason he didn't need.
Because Cordy said, "OK."
Several footprints had scuffed across the dusty, red-ribboned floor of the Helios Room. They stood there -- Gunn, Wesley and Fred, a triad about the claw-foot, cast-iron bathtub Angel had hauled down from one of the unrenovated rooms.
"I'm not sure this will work, you guys," Fred reiterated. Her hands repeatedly tumbled over each other, as if she could pre-wash away failure. "My calculations might not be exact enough to open a portal here. I still think we should try this at Caritas."
Facing Cordelia, Angel adjusted his position within the tub. "Whenever we need access to interdimensional travel, we should have our own reliable portal," he stated. "We're going to have to start testing that someday, so why not now?"
No matter how briskly she rubbed her sleeves, Cordy couldn't get her palms sweat-free. "We don't have to do this at all, Angel," she said, hoping that his super-vampy hearing couldn't hear her heart thumping, 'please-please, please-please'.
Wesley looked to each of his associates. "I'm more worried about them coming back."
At Fred's abrupt distancing from Wesley's comment, Gunn remembered the return instructions -- the ones that were still laying on Wesley's office desk where Angel had left them. "They're not -- " he started.
"Krld plrmt fzktd mphnd krld plrmt glrv -- "
But it was Wesley who finished the deduction as Fred summoned the portal pinpointing above the bathtub. "FRED!" he yelled above the enveloping roar, "YOU CAN'T LET THEM DO THIS!"
" -- rvdt dstdt PLDNKT!"
Gunn rushed the light stream too late and it blinked out at the periphery of his grasp. "For good?" he asked, turning around, shock and immediate loss vying for reign of his heart.
"It's what Angel and Cordy decided, you guys." Fred clapped her notebook shut, unapologetic. For more than a minute, she waited for the two men to be something other than stunned. Finally, worrying a nail, she took the initiative and broke the silence.
"Soooooo... What do y'all wanna do now?"
The portal closed above their heads as easily as it had opened. One blink, they were in Hollywood. One blink later, they were on Pylea. It was no faster than taking a breath Angel had noted on all three occasions; although, supernatural speed , not breathing, was natural to him.
Apprehensively captivated, he waited for Cordelia to come around. Eyes connecting, eager grins spread across their faces. She reached across and tugged Angel's hand to above her racing heart. "For both of us," she whispered, tears welling in her eyes. He scrambled onto his knees, hugged her, and smooched the top of her head.
Cordy squeezed him back. As enthusiastically, she squirmed away. "So, are we going to do tub-time all night? Or can we go find my man?" she asked, only half-serious because she was way nearing delirium.
Chuckling, Angel leapt out, lifted Cordy up and over the lip, and spun her before settling her down in the tumble of forest litter.
Cordy bounded out of his arms for the clearing where she gave into her best Sound-Of-Music twirl. "C'mon, Angel!" she shouted, her giggles segueing into --
Cordy dusted off the backs of Angel's hands, more frightened than revolted by the flaking flesh. She held her breath, unable to bear the luau scent of cooked earth. "Angel?"
Struggling with bewilderment, he peered under their canopy into the twilight sky. "Twin moons," he gaped.
Glancing over her shoulder and up, sure enough, set into the starry night sky were two pale yellow orbs. It was a reverse image of the daytime sky -- well, maybe not reverse because then the sky would be yellow and the moons would be black, or the suns would be black, or -- She smudged his nose with her thumb and tried to recall, "Isn't it the same as the last time?"
Angel shrugged. "I don't know. The last time I wasn't paying attention to night."
"But you went out after dark," Cordy said. "You challenge-matched Groo at night and you were fine." She pushed off of the bathtub's rim and stood. Hugging herself, her hazel eyes grew lunar-sized. "Ohmigod, Angel. What if the same thing happens at dawn?"
Angel, with downcast head, shuddered. "What if there is no dawn?"
Beyond the shade of leaves and branches, the field began to brighten. With Cordelia asleep against his silent chest, Angel stretched the small of his back along the bottom curve of the bathtub while watching the dual suns take their positions in the firmament. He inhaled sharply, stabbed by despair.
Cordelia, waking instantly, scrambled onto her feet. Standing at the clearing's delimitation, she offered her hand. "OK, Angel. Suns up, two to go!"
He focused beyond her. "What if?" he asked, unsure what exactly *what* was.
"There's no other way to test it," she coaxed, her smile effusing encouragement.
Angel pushed up awkwardly. Upon a tentative appropach, his index finger took aim and poked through the effulgent boundary. For one brief second, he was exultant -- then, smoldering, he abandoned Cordelia's side.
"Where are we, Angel?" Cordy asked, her voice couched with fear. "What if Fred smlgd frggd us to the wrong frkkn place?"
But Angel became too preoccupied to reply; his ears were pricked to an oncoming rumble. He instinctively turned towards the rapid advance, thrusting Cordelia behind him for her protection.
Daylight fired off the spirited chestnut stallion's chamfront before it had crested the hilltop. "HALT!" the rider shouted. A rapier, unsheathed from the soldier's baldric, gleamed with intent.
The remainder of the ten-man detachment surged forward, surrounding Cordelia and Angel. Stamping to full standstills, the horses snorted and nickered. Nine more blades -- swords, knives, axes -- were readily produced.
"Princess?" one of the soldiers questioned under his breath. "PRINCESS!" he proclaimed. Dismounting quickly, he fell to one knee, his forehead at the hilt of his blade.
The other men regarded one another as intensely as they took in the intruders. "That's not the Princess," one of them finally remarked. Another agreed, "She was blond." "And beautiful," was the opinion of a third. "And she dressed far better than that!" someone jibed.
"Hey!" After flouncing the peplum of her lacey, gathered blouse, Cordelia jutted her hands into the back pockets of her distinctively faded jeans. "There'll be big punishment for whoever just insulted the Princess' royal dress," she threatened from behind her Angelic shield.
The man sitting highest in his saddle laughed the loudest, "That's no dress!" He, himself, was one to ridicule, with his head half-wrapped in a raggedy bandage and his brigantine popping more than a few rivets.
Limping to the center was a man who'd been the most silent, discernment of the intruders coming from under an overgrowth of dark, curly hair. "Angel, The Drokken Slayer," he established, slowly smiling. "And Princess," he nodded reverently. "You've returned."
"Sasha." Angel barely recognized the former leader of the human rebels. As the entire contingent left their steeds, he took them all in. They wore their fatigue as poorly concealed as their battle wounds. These men, neither very young nor very old, were far worse for the wear than they'd been three months prior -- they were gaunter and more guarded, diffidently sporting a mismatch of battle wear.
Even with their caparisons filthy and tattered, the horses looked far better suited for service.
"It is the Princess, Cordelia!" Sasha decreed, joyful. "Bronto! Hurry to the castle; inform Prince Grooselug that his Princess has returned to him!" He inclined his head again, pleased. "And to us!"
Bronto remounted. Swatted upon the flank by longbow, the horse reared, then bolted away with the happy news.
Angel didn't have to force the smile on his face; Cordelia's explosion of excitement burst through to his core until he felt the tug of her emotions. "You go," he entreated, one half of his smile drooping. "It's what we came back for."
She crossed her arms, right over left. "Not without you, Angel," she replied, adamant.
The armed guards clashed mail chests and metal gauntlets, their jubilation incongruous with their recent scars, slings and splints. Sasha, gesturing as broadly as his limited range of movement would allow, asked, "What can we do for you first, Princess?"
Plan-struck, Cordy seized
Sasha's wrist. "Blankets for Angel!" she ordered, flourishing a hand at
the empty space where Angel had been.
Angel dashed through the forest, shattering tree limbs and mowing down bushes. "No bending the rules," he raged in cadence with his steps. "Our way or no way. You assholes!"
He could avoid the dapples of sunlight; however, at the next clearing he was impeded by the sunbelt. There was no where else to go and, obviously, never a right time to move. The veins on the back of his hands twitched, keeping pace with his clenching fingers. Protectively, his nails grew; without a conscious decision, his flesh began to crawl.
Watching the process, he was strangely detached, as if it were someone else turning into a monster. "IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?" he railed at the heavens. He stomped his feet. "ARE YOU LISTENING DOWN THERE?"
His demonic countenance fully erupted and Angel forged forward -- barbarically loping, inhumanly laughing. He taunted the daylight, victorious. These taloned hands took swipes at the vista; they pounded a savage breast. He palmed the horned and horrible head, kneaded the bulbous and beastly body.
Twin suns shone upon the browning farmland. The forest beyond rustled with the early morning breeze, misshapen treetops bare and in prayer against the unforgiving sky. Sprinting through the dell, Angel's vile screech impaled the false serenity of the landscape, announcing his return.
Ankle deep in a stream, he stumbled and splashed down, sullying the clear, dark water. Further distorting his rippling image, his hand permeated the swirling sediment he'd raised and grabbed the object that had offended his balance. Shot with sparkling, deep bluish-green bands, the iridescent rock was smooth as an egg, about the same size and shape. Wiping away a slimy residue revealed its transparent smoky-gray beauty; the pad of Angel's left thumb slipped easily into the dimple in its side.
A grunt, a roar. No reply. No frightened birdsong, not the scattering of wildlife. Black, lifeless, and heedless to his obstruction, the perishing stream continued its run.
Angel rose with one furious howl, blistering contempt at the undeniable unfairness of his predicament.
This time he was answered by a familiar reply; the distant hunting creature barked. It barked again, nearing.
Panicking, "Run, run, run,"
were the vampire's precognizant thoughts.
Angel reached Fred's former habitat out of breath. Confused, his hand blocked his mouth while demorphing; he couldn't stop panting. "You don't breathe," he muttered, but his body continued to react to the fear bouncing off the walls in the semi-darkness.
He substituted the stone for his trusty Zippo with hopes that it would function. It was just as smooth between his fingers, just as warm once it flared. Setting the flame to an oil lamp, the rancid animal fat caught fire and cast a comforting glow upon the familiar surroundings. Everything was exactly where Fred had left them -- the breakfast bowls were neatly stacked and her black cauldron slanted precariously above the charred remains of a fire. A layer of dust coated all the contents, the scent not unlike most of the unused rooms at the Hyperion.
Not so far outside the cave entrance, the yelping sounded closer. Angel wilted in front of the little pond of water. Fed from a spring trickling through a tumble of boulders, it was fresh and sweet on his tongue. "Everything's changed; nothing's different," he grieved, amazed how -- yet again -- he'd been duped by the singular constant of his existence, his best intentions having backfired so completely.
A single sliver of sunlight was consumed by the shadow of weapons. Angel's disturbed reflection was devoured from within.
Those fathomless blue eyes kept interrupting her flow of opinions, that god-like body and passionate voice...
"After the first harvest failed, the second one never broke ground. I fear a famine if the third harvest can't be raised." Groo closed his eyes. Against the fingers exploring his cheek, he cooed, "Everyone will starve."
"Starvation..." Cordelia inhaled a breath of him and swooned. His strong hands gathered her waist as he sowed kisses over the barren plains of her shoulders. She was starving, alright. "Nothing in storage?" she murmured into his silky, random braids.
"Nothing," he kissed. "Pre-freedom, The Trombli made sure that no one ever went hungry..." he foraged her ear, "... unless they were an enemy of the Trombli. Now the livestock aren't faring well; fisheries are -- "
" -- floundering?" she puckered at the tip of his nose.
He shook his head. She held it still. His palms smoothed down her thighs to her knees. "Majesty?" he asked.
"Hmmmm?" Cordelia purred. "And, not Majesty. Prinnnnnncesssssss."
"Princess," he repeated, fascinated by the dark hair he'd been unable to stop touching from the moment they'd first embraced. Rearranging the shiny strands from her neck, he replaced them with pearly nibbles. "I'm taking advantage and..."
"But, I want to be taken, Groo," she argued, brushing persuasive strokes against his throat with her forehead.
He reared away and grinned. "Now that you've truly returned forever, we can wait until the exact right time."
Falling back, she lounged into the floor cushions and took him in. He was the most honest man she'd ever met, sincerity oozed from his soul. She felt love -- from him, for him; they were blanketed by the stuff and it was warm and heavy and making her drowsy. Lids fluttering closed, Cordelia smiled fondly at her Prince. She'd already memorized his face from night-after-night dreaming their impossibility.
But, this was real; he was real. His yummy lips -- not imaginary back-of-the-hand ones -- lingered close; his loins -- HIS MASSIVE GROINY LOINS! -- nuzzled hers; his two super-bicepy arms snuggled her close to his majorly-developed chest.
"One thing you'll learn about me, Prince, is that I'm not one for mulling things over. I'm a do-now kinda girl," she confessed coyly.
"And this," he spoke against her mouth, "is yet another reason why you are so very much adored."
World. Hers. Nothing mattered. Splurging on the intimacy she'd only once-before dabbled with because this genuine love thing was enormously frightening. Groo kissed the tears from her eyes; he unlaced the bows of her blouse as if performing his most treasured responsibility. And she wondered if it were possible that she could ever feel as pretty as when he unveiled her breasts. His touch was so tender, she wasn't sure he knew what to do.
And then... And then he scooped her up so tightly, his flesh married hers and he gasped. "Cordelia, my Princess!"
Their Love became fevered, explosive.
"This ritual doesn't waste any time," Cordy murmured against the leather padding she struggled to wrench off his shoulders. She'd never guessed being with him would be sheer torture, but her discomfort was soothed by his warmth, his smell, his feel. "Mmmmmmmmmm," she hummed. It felt wonderful to be held by him again. Even if it hurt like holy heck.
"Princess." Groo set her back, skimmed the perspiration from her hairline with the sides of his fingers. "Are you alright?"
"Yes," she lied with a sniffle. A quasar later, she lost sight of his handsome face. There obviously wouldn't be any time to regret relinquishing the Visions since she'd actually begun having one. Infuriated, she ignored the mental images and kissed Groo. Hard.
"Com-shuk! NOW!" she groaned.
Groo dutifully complied while the images of a beastly Angel tore through Cordy's mind as violently as the true-vampire grappled with his prey. Groo's whiskers tickled her tummy; Angel bared fangs. She pulled Groo's face to her own but Angel's hideous visage haunted the physical connection.
Panting, Cordelia tumbled onto both knees, pressed her forehead to the cool, marble floor for relief. "YOU GUY'S COULDN'T HAVE WAITED UNTIL *AFTER* BREAKFAST?" she berated, her profile turned ceilingward.
An inexperienced Groo attended her. Unsure of where to place his hands for assistance, his voice wavered, "Perhaps this is a sign from the Powers That Be to take our time."
Cordy elbowed up, grabbed the front of Groo's hanging doublet, and hauled herself vertical. "It's nothing," she fumed, slamming her mouth into his. One blissful instant later she plummeted backward, writhing on the floor in mind-crushing pain.
The vampire Angel.
Strapped to a tree. Beaten and weak. A blade leveled at his neck.
Longing for death.
Shaken, she blinked. Groo steadied her onto her feet and she regarded her Prince, her charming Prince. "Rescue," she related, her voice husky. "NOW!"
"NUMFAR! The Dance of Conquest!"
Ecstatic, Landok applauded his cousin's dancing. "We can hold off on the kill until Numfar's done," he asided, the smile on his verdant face promoting one on ex-Constable Narwek's. "But, just wait until you see the Dance of Beheading."
As suggested, Narwek dipped the halberd's edge, then promptly rapped its pole up under the Van-tal's chin. He leered at the reticent creature. "It doesn't look as if the brute is enjoying the festivities," he teased. "Too bad. This Numfar certainly has a mastery of the dance."
The lithesome being shook out his legs, scurried on dainty toes, and looped huge circles with his arms. He traipsed over a boulder, rolled his head, and shimmied his hips. Several times in nimble succession, he hopped low to the ground. Popping up, his feet whipped back and forth, frothing the air.
Numfar clicked his heels performing The Dance of Conquest, audience-appreciation enflaming his Deathwok rump-beating heart.
"NUMFAR!" the warriors cheered.
In crouching formation, Sasha shook his head at the Grooselug. "No disrespect, Sir, but we just took a defeat from this band not three days ago. Do not think us cowards, but -- " he shifted his visibility away from the Princess' scrutiny, "they are especially resilient after this Numfar dances. Why risk your good men for a Van-tal?"
Groo set his palm on his best man's shoulder. "This is no ordinary Van-tal, Sasha. He's a friend of the Crown."
The Prince's personal complement regimentally disagreed. Groo glanced over his shoulder wearing regret -- one of the many faces he'd learned to wear since adopting leadership of Pylea. "They won't fight, Princess. And, I can't say that I blame them."
"FINE!" Cordy blurted. Indignant, she rose and rushed a palomino cribbing a fallen branch. As she gathered the reins, it fought against its bridle; but she expertly mounted the animal and kneed its obedience. She unfastened an axe hanging from the saddle horn but, still weak from her Vision, it slid from her grasp.
"Princess!" Before Groo could reach her, she'd already sped forth. He unleashed his steed and took off after Cordelia, staging his troop's reaction.
Cordy charged into the clearing. Prompted by "Numfar! Watch out!" the dancing fool tumbled out of harm's way.
Landok drew his broadsword so quickly its leather scabbard fell to the ground, split in two. He raised the blade to the onslaught, his sidearm low, at the ready. "ATTACK!" he bellowed.
Narwek aimed his weapon's spiked tip; the markings down the center of his face and across his cheeks reddened with bloodlust. Numfar skedaddled out of the way of the Deathwok Clan's offensive as all of them headed directly for the Grooselug.
"Lay down your weapons!" Cordy commanded, struggling to keep the horse from shying any more to the left. The unruly animal completed a circle and dunked its head, 'no'. "Yield to your Prince!" she cried, frustrated.
"We've lost half our property to the cows for reparations!" Landok shouted. "Our children are starving!" another screamed. "DEATH TO THE COW MONARCHY!" became the battle roar.
Landok latched onto Cordy's leg, pulling her cleanly from the horse. "Remember when we were friends!" she reminded him weakly, the traitorous equine having curbed her ability to sound any more convincing.
Landok fleered. "That was in another world."
Slumped in his bonds, Angel witnessed the fray -- deathwok against human, countrydemon against countryman. The humans were no match against their stronger, more fiercely exhilarated opponents and one, then two slumped to the ground, their blood clodding the dirt. Cordy was pitched against a stump and Groo taken captive.
His fault, Angel knew. Always his fault.
Eyes closed, he remembered the darkness before he'd reveled in light. Drifting inward, Angel blocked out the clash filling his ears; but, before total immersion, something vied for his attention. Not the lacerations across his back nor the bruises on his torso but... But, in the corner of his pocket... Where his Zippo should have been...
Weighting gently against the skin he was wearing.
Sunlight glinted in a Deathwok's shield, catching Angel's attention, mirroring his face. In that instant and with clarity, he saw the superficial creature that wasn't him. Like metal deflecting metal, the persona he wielded was for his own protection. This grotesque beast was but defensive armor.
"ANGEL!" Cordelia screamed.
"NARWEK! Kill it already!" Landok commanded, throwing the young woman at Angel's feet.
A snarl escaped Angel's throat and his mind roared her name. Embryonic concepts tumbled over and over one another -- egg-shaped and smooth, glistening and true. He was unique and he was special.
Growling, panting, he fought his restraints. The leather straps scalded his limbs. Red eyes flaring, Angel rumbled low and throaty. "Die, die, die," were the unspeakable thoughts.
Narwek's blade swooshed behind the brawny executioner's back. Inside a ring of Deathwoks, Groo fell to a pummeling. Injured or defeated -- one and the same, Cordy screeched and discarded all faith into the hems of Angel's ebony jeans.
Lashed into palce, Angel yowled, outraged. Watching the blade began its arc, his protest amplified, modulating...
The halberd sailed forward
and free of Narwek's hands, striking ground ten feet away. "Deities!" he
cursed, bailing onto his knees, bundling his head with his forearms.
"... WE DON'T NEED ANOTHER MOUNTAIN!" Cordy sang at the top of her lungs. "THERE ARE MOUNTAINS AND HILLSIDES ENOUGH TO CLIMB..."
"Silence them," Landok whimpered for the duration of the entire tenth chorus. But none of the Deathwok Clan responded except for Numfar. Flat on his back and twisting in agony, the dancer kicked at the sky while The Princess and the Van-tal serenaded brawny Prince Groo and his valiant men.
While watching the scars on his writst vanish before his eyes, Angel had to admit that he felt a whole lot better after the royal wash-down and fresh tailoring. Bruises? Gone. And, not that they ever would be, the whipping's stripes were all but forgotten. If it wasn't for the pesky detail that he would probably never be able to safely leave the castle during the course of his immortality, Pylea wouldn't be an entirely bad place in the world to live.
Simply put, it would be the worst. Even the few options he'd had back in Los Angeles were a multitude more than what his future held here.
Fireside, Cordy paced inside the castle's throne room. "These priests are such lame-asses!" she complained. "I know if they tried harder, they could figure out some options for you."
"Cordelia," Angel shushed, inviting her to take a seat next to him, "this was for you. For your life and your happiness. I've adapted before, I'll adapt again."
"As what, Angel?" She plunked down next to him. "The court pet?" She didn't need to see him to know her comment had staked his feelings; she felt the jab, as well. Expelling one long, unhappy breath, she admired her Prince who was standing across the room consulting with two Trombli priests. "I look at him and oh! I wanna do him sooo bad. I look at you..."
Angel raised one eyebrow at her consideration.
"Dipwad!" Cordy backhanded Angel's arm, none-too-playfully. "Gutter mind, much?"
"OK," Angel apologized, solemn.
Propping both elbows onto both knees, Cordy dropped her chin into her vee'd hands. "I know I told you I love you, Angel, and I promised I'd always be there. And I promised Gunn, too. And..." her eyes rolled downward and sank into her resigned expression, "...even though I've never actually said it to Wesley's face..."
After burrowing each fist into an armpit, Angel shrugged. "But, this is about you, Cordy. Not about the words you said -- or didn't -- to make us all feel better. I understand completely."
Gripping the edge of the fireside's stone ledge, Cordy pulled herself straight. "You're the Warrior Angel, emissary for The Powers That Be, The Dark Avenger." She grinned from ear to ear.
Angel's dourness softened at the tone of her, "And you're still my family so don't worry; I'm just not going to dump you." His eyes met hers.
"You know this is all Buffy's fault," she added, hiking a brow.
Caught off-guard, Angel laughed. 'Buffy' had become such a foreign-sounding name, one he'd successfully blocked from his thoughts for nearly two months.
Buffy. Buffy. Her decision. Buffy. Buffy. All Buffy's fault.
In one deep, cleansing burst, the emotional wall he'd built collapsed, liberating his emotions. The throne room and everything in it disappeared in a blur. Grief, his most intimate acquaintance, blossomed within and, wrenching yet tender, acceptance began filling the vacancy within his dormant heart.
Cordelia's arm, warm and consoling against his, offered no promise of eventual peace. "Yeah, let's blame this on Buffy," he sobbed.
Her good humor blessed his ear as she spoke. "Well, we certainly can't blame Wesley for stuff anymore. In case you haven't noticed, he's become incredibly competent.
Against all implausibility, Angel had to laugh. "That's even scarier, huh?"
She stroked the hair at his temples, picked out and flicked a burr from his scalp. She drew his face close to hers and kissed one salty, good tear from his cheek. "This was wrong, Angel. Trying to escape from who and what we are and our duties. But, they caught up with us anyway, didn't they?"
His brown eyes lolled up and met her playful sternness. "I got too freaked to stay home and deal with what a mess everything's become lately. I'm some demon, huh?" he self-deprecated, properly embarrassed.
Cordy dotted his nose with a fingertip. "The demoniest!"
The priests, "ahem'd". Groo looked on, uncertain.
Angel, his head bowed, wiped his face with the back of each hand while Cordy summoned all regal attention.
Groo sat next to her, lifted her wrist to his lips, and sighed. "It is an unfortunate time, my Princess, that you should return to me when all is falling to ruin. Caleb and Pavos have been describing Pylea's future as they've read it and it's bleak, very bleak."
"It seems that we have been remiss in our duties," Caleb began. A sharp nose and a chin pointing at the forefront of three neck rolls presented an illusion of his being less obese than he was however-much they failed at warding attention away from his edgy demeanor. "Distracted by Pylea's socio-politico uprising -- "
"We missed Prophecy's account concerning a certain celestial event," the second Priest continued, no less uneasy but more assured in his telling. "According to our texts, when the heavens recently burst -- "
Astonished by the Priest's recitation, Cordelia and Angel immediately faced one another.
"It *was* Buffy's fault!"
Groo followed the conversation as best as he could but it was obvious from the crimps across his forehead that the subject matter didn't make any sense. Cordy hugged his arm and offered a heartening grin. When she leaned under him and kissed up, his befuddlement toppled towards euphoria.
Caleb disagreed so vehemently, the hood of his carmine ecclesiastical robe fell off his head. "Without Silas to direct us, all of us were doomed to be vanquished by this divine rift."
Smacking the back of his hand into his open palm, Pavos refuted, "But, even Silas had been too absorbed with the cow -- I mean, human -- problem -- I mean -- um, er..." He clapped again, dismissing his tactlessness. "There was supposed to have been a Prism! The scriptures would not have been erroneous. One sacred object was to have arrived in time, one that would have completely prevented the event."
Shoving Caleb aside, Cordelia thwacked Pavos across a shoulder blade. "Hello? I did come! I was here!" To their mimed confusion, she prompted, "*I'm* the Prism?"
Groo frowned, uncomfortable to disagree. "But, Your Highness, you are The Princess."
Angel proudly sidled next to Cordy. "Depending on whose Prophecy you're interpreting wrong, Cordelia's also known as the Prism." He doubled over the impromptu dig at his waistline.
Caleb reshrouded. "Begging your pardon, Majesty, but according to Prophecy, if the Prism had already arrived, then all would have remained stable. Hence, none of this pestilence; all would still be as it was."
"Within reason, of course," Groo cut in. "You know, unless we were doomed forever to be a slave society?"
"Within reason. Of course," Pavos allowed, stiffly bowing.
"But, what if -- " Cordy gasped, "Oh God!"
Groo hastened to her rescue. "Princess?"
She dropped her head onto his chest. "Thank goodness you have no idea what I mean when I say 'I'm such a Xander!' but..." She drew a steady breath. "Angel, we're clueless about how long it took us all to get back home."
Crooking a forefinger under his chin, Angel replayed his thoughts before revealing them. "Because we don't know how long the days here last in relation to Earth days." He whipped around. "But Fred would be able to calculate the disparity."
"Except she's not here," Cordy said, melting between Groo's toasty arms.
With a furtive curve of his lips, Angel begged to differ. "She isn't?"
The priests stood with their mouths open, awestruck by the consonants covering the majority of the cave's walls. "The lost tome of Kaval. This is a holy place," they spoke in turns.
"Holy, schmoly. Now what does it mean?" Cordelia queried, impatient.
Caleb genuflected before stepping over the miniature freshet. Pavos followed his lead then each Trombli consulted a segment.
"Here," Pavos pointed, being careful not to touch, "is a direct reference to The Prism. ' ... as The Prism sojourns ...' "
As quickly as his reverent posture allowed him to waddle, Caleb joined the other priest, stepping around Angel who was crouched at the rim of a small inlet of sunshine showering in through the cave's ceiling. He read over his fellow layman's shoulder. " '... so shall its light shall restore all that is wanting ..."
Cordelia left Groo's protective embrace, magnetized to the foreign script. "Please don't tell me that's saying what I think you're saying it's saying," she sniffled, taking possession of Angel's hand before he'd finished advancing.
A whorl of smoke remained where Angel had tried tracing Fred's scrawl. "It's just like Lorne said, Cordelia: you never should have left."
Eyes rimmed with water, Cordy shook her head ruefully. "All that matters, Angel, is that I have to leave now."
Pavos gestured at an arm's-length paragraph. "The Princess -- if she is indeed this Prism -- can reverse the effects at any time -- "
"By reentering the threshold!" Caleb rejoiced. "Her departure will heal the land."
Cordy scrunched her lips to one side. "Way to make me feel extra-special, guys. The Princess'll just suck that nasty curse she didn't prevent right off the face of the planet and she better get a move on?"
"NO!" Groo shouted, clutching each priest by one shoulder, clunking them together. "Tell the Princess that she is mistaken!" Overcome by rage, the Grooselug flung the men aside in favor of the cauldron. "I will annihilate *this nonsense* and all will be restored!" But before he could use the cast-iron eraser to obliterate the text, Angel had herded him aside.
Cordelia encircled Groo's waist, tourniqueting his tirade. Although it proved a difficult thing to do, she shrugged; shoulders already metaphorically weighted with despair strained to lift the additional burden of active destiny.
Angel frowned. "But life for you, Cordelia, is here. And leaving -- "
Cordy didn't let him finish. Couldn't. "As sure as I am that I want to stay, Angel, I'm just as sure that I can't. *We* can't."
Groo's barely-audible "Please" could have been Angel's. The vampire retreated, only to wander directly into the sunbeam. He eased away from the searing temptation.
Undefeated as ever, Groo pointed out, "But you told me you'd planned this as a one-way trip, Princess. Without the original Trionic books, you have no way to return."
Taking the Prince's statement as their cue, the priests swept their arms at the surroundings. "All is here, Prince," they rejoined.
"Not quite," Angel said.
Groo waited until Angel had climbed inside the bathtub before assisting Cordelia. "This is a very strange means of transportation," he said, a guiding hand on the small of his Princess' back.
"But, put four low-profile tires and a double-valved hemi on this baby," Angel said, drumming the sides.
"Even if one knew what tires and a double-valved were, why would one do that?" Pavos asked, finishing his detailed sketch of the tub's ornate footings.
"No reason." Angel winked at Cordelia. "Forget I mentioned it."
Groo knelt tub-side. He nuzzled Cordy's hand, jawed the heel of her palm. Every emotion in his heart was apparent on his face. "One day I will have you in my arms again, Princess," he proposed.
"And that," Cordelia's lips parted from his, "will be the most peaceful day of my life." Hardly able to remain seated as Groo backed away, she already missed him muchly. They kept making goo-goo eyes until Groo, blushing, withdrew. "Angel," Cordy growled through her gritted teeth.
Her tub-mate accepted her scowl with complete impassivity. Suddenly his face went all twisty.
A thought burbled into Angel's thought stream. "Have you ever said it out loud? You know, Cordelia Grooselug?"
Cordy huffed, "Groo Chase, you mean."
"OK. Groo Chase. But, seriously..." Using his cheek as a lead-in, Angel inched ahead confidentially. "Groo? Groo, Junior? That would be an evil thing to do to a kid. What kind of name is Groo?"
In plain sight, Cordy licked an eyetooth. "Oh, you don't really want to go there, do you, Angel? And do you need me to come up with any other examples?"
"Krld," Pavos sounded, "plrmt fzktd --"
Angel threaded his fingers through hers in concession. "You win, Majesty," he bowed.
"Mphnd krld plrmt glrv -- " Caleb droned.
And the portal, which began
as a sovereign of light above Cordelia's head, shimmered Angel's Seer with
the essence of eternity.
" -- rvdt dstdt PLDNKT!" Fred declared, clapping the notebook shut determinedly. "See? I told y'all I don't know what I'm doing yet."
Wesley cleared the annoyance from his throat; his neck cracked as he double-took in the tub travelers. "Well, whatever you didn't do, it seems you've at least eliminated that dreadful blonde colouring from Cordelia's hair. Welcome back, young lady, and not a moment too soon."
"Wesley, since we got enough in the bank, why don't you up some petty cash so I can run out and gitchoo a clue? Cordy's hair's been dark for over a week." After helping Cordy clear the rim, Gunn turned to Angel and brushed at the vampire's collar. "But, it does look like Fred's got Angel's flesh free-fallin' off the bone."
Recoiling from Gunn's inspection, Angel smiled uneasily. "I better go loofah," he said, in a hurry to catch up with Cordelia on her way out of the Helios room. He gently restrained her progress by pinching her elbow. Looking deeply into her eyes, he detected --
Well-being. "You're OK," Angel assessed, relieved.
She dusted the front of his shirt. "For right now," she assured, yawning. "I guess a little R & R cuddling didn't hurt?"
Angel wrapped an arm around
her shoulder and directed her towards the lobby. "I guess everyone can
benefit from the experiences of a missing day or two."
Angel, tapping his pen against his temple, looked up from the book he'd been writing in. As he flipped it shut and set the pen down, he felt compelled to echo Fred's grin, especially since only her head had entered his doorway. He had barely waved her in before she was standing right next to him.
"It worked, didn't it?" she drawled, fidgeting with her glasses. Even with her voice low, her excitement level registered high.
Angel toed out an opposite chair and she plopped right down into it. Her hands, clasped together, bounced over the tabletop as if made of rubber. "I thought -- "
Fred shook her head. "Technically, because I don't remember it, it didn't work. But, quantum strings can be kind of finicky and, I figured -- " She gripped his forearm tightly. "It's mathematics, Angel. Not a leap of faith or a wish and a prayer. We opened a portal. We did it!" she giggled.
"And now I have something for you." Angel shook free of her custody and lowered his hand.
Fred scooted to the edge of her seat, expectant. Her brown eyes opened wider and sparkled -- greenish-blue bands reflecting in the lower halves of her irises. "Angel!" she gasped behind a screen of fingertips. "You found it!"
Angel rolled the stone between his thumb and forefinger. "I brought it back to say, 'Thanks'."
Fred poked at the precious little thing and balled his fist around it. "It's not mine anymore. Now it's yours."
He wanted to disagree, but she was already half-way to the door. "Maybe -- " he held his tongue and she turned around. "What if this could help you get a portal working right?"
Introspectively, she fingered her macramé bracelets. "What if this isn't about science at all, Angel?" she asked, brows wriggling with zeal. "Wouldn't that just be another brick for your loony bin?"