The Las Cruces Layover

Two days past the dusky tomb of the Arizona desert, she started vomiting. For thirty miserable minutes, he awkwardly patted her shoulder and whispered soothing words. It's ok, he told her. I'm here, I'll take care of you, just tell me what to do…

When she finally stopped shaking and met his gaze, her eyes were cold with barely subdued panic. Wordlessly, he peeled off her clothes and checked the scratches for signs of infection.

***

He had been the one to get the vision this time. More like a dream, actually. A visitation. Five years since they had recruited him (for Buffy, he remembered with an odd lack of emotion. They recruited him for Buffy) and every five years…well, every five years they do a little reassessment: make sure his skills are up to par, make sure all of his connections---to them, to humanity---are being used, and properly…

Now here he was, driving through the unfortunate wilderness that separated Los Angeles from whatever lay beyond it. He had not been given a destination, only a heading: East. And they had been making decent time, to his surprise. She drove while he slept; he drove while she slept. And every few days she would start to look a little too pale and weary for his taste, and he would park the RV at whatever motel would have them and cough up the money for a proper room.

They had taken only one detour so far, for an agonizingly scary vision that parked them just outside Casa Grande, Arizona at the stroke of midnight on Friday the thirteenth. Bunch of stupid kids playing with magic they weren't ready for, and accidentally summoning an entire nest of slimy creatures with pincers and quills and tiny pointed claws. They ignored her, at first, as he was the one with weapons and swords. But as soon as she started to clear out the children…

She sacrificed her arms to keep her face from the mauling, and the defensive wounds were clipped and shallow. They were few enough, even when he counted the ones on her neck and shoulder, that the fact it might be serious didn't even cross his mind until she started retching.

***

He knocked softly, then peeked his head into the sleeping area to check on her. She was trembling only slightly, and with obvious effort, she kept her breathing slow and even. He knelt down beside her and she smiled weakly.

"Hey," she said quietly.

"Hey," he said. "How are…"

"Don't ask. I don't wanna talk about it."

"Ok." He awkwardly brushed a lock of sweaty hair out of her eyes. "I checked the map," he said after a moment. "There's a campground about 25 miles up the interstate where we could rest for awhile…"

She made a face, and he nodded. "I know, we need better this time. Restaurants. Air conditioning. Maybe a drugstore…"

She blinked. "What?"

"I talked to Wesley, while you were asleep. He doesn't think it's from the cuts, Cordelia. He said…he asked…"

His solemnity frightened her, but more importantly, it made her curious. She pushed herself up on her elbows. "What, Angel? What is it?"

"…have you been eating, have you been sleeping…"

She'd done as well as she could, under the circumstances. Bought yogurt and sandwiches when the truck stops had them, pretzels and chocolate milk when they didn't. Twice already, they'd taken the night off and checked into someplace civilized. But on a trip like this, there would be more fighting than resting when all was said and done…

"…and with the vision and the pincers and the tiny pointed claws on top of that…"

She regarded him quizzically. "So Wesley thinks this is just stress? That I'm…"

He opened a bottle of water and pressed it into her hands. "He thinks you're human. And sometimes, humans just get sick. Especially when they are under stress, and their immune systems… it's nothing supernatural, Cordelia. It's just…human."

"We think."

"So far. He's gonna keep looking, see if he can dig anything up on those things that scratched you…but in the meantime, he suggested we stop for flu medicine and antibiotic ointment, keep an eye on your arm just in case…"

She sank back into the pillows wearily. "I'm tired," she complained. "And hot."

He put his hand to her forehead and forced himself not to withdraw it from her flaming skin. "I know."

***

He started driving again as soon as the sun went down, and hours later, they crossed the New Mexico border. She was too edgy, too claustrophobic, too feverish to properly sleep, so he let her stay up front with him. The cool breeze from the open window kept her revived enough to stay reasonably upright, but her awkward fidgeting was distracting. He had to stop soon.

"So windy…" she mumbled.

"Hmmm?"

"The wind." She shivered. "So dark, so strong…"

He stared, suddenly terrified, and was rewarded with a weak glare. "No, stupid, I'm not going all Drusilla on you. Look…"

A storm. He saw it now, and it worried him that he had gotten too absorbed to notice the danger sooner. The wind had definitely picked up, and he could see the angry clouds reflecting in the moonlight. He began rolling up the windows, and he winced when he heard Cordelia groan softly as she was cut off from the cooling air. She slumped in the seat, coughing miserably.

He had to stop soon.

***

There was a motel, just past the turn-off for Las Cruces. Cruces meant crosses in Spanish, and that irony did not escape him. But he had to stop: the air around him was dense with blustery desert sand, and Cordelia was quaking with sweat and fever…

He had to half-carry her inside, but if anybody noticed, they seemed to attribute her unsteadiness to the quickening wind. He stumbled to the desk, depositing her carefully on the floor beside him.

"Only for a minute," he told her. "Just hang on…"

He rose, turning on his most confident smile for the benefit of the desk clerk, a nondescript young woman who bore the nametag "Rae."

"You've got rooms?"

She shrugged. "Rough night to be travelling. You folks okay?"

"Sure. You've got rooms?"

She eyed him dubiously. "We do. But we don't want funny stuff, you hear me? She sick?"

Angel smiled winsomely. "Nothing that a good night's sleep won't cure. We've been on the road for awhile."

The woman stepped out from behind the counter and kneeled, studying Cordelia intently. "All right," she decided after a moment. "You got bags?"

"Just this." He pointed to his knapsack, which he hadn't taken off.

"Room 12, down the hall, to the right. You want me to…"

"I can manage." He heaved Cordelia to her feet and stumbled down the hall without looking back.

***

He stripped off her sweaty t-shirt, then lay her gently on the bed. She was semi-conscious, eyes fluttering randomly open and closed, body occasionally twitching in nameless distress. He kept up a soothing stream of nonsense, it's all right, I'll take care of you, as the water spurted brown in the bathroom sink. He rooted in the knapsack for extra t-shirts, and when the water finally ran clear, he soaked two washcloths and returned to the bedroom. One on the forehead, there, that was better. She arched slightly as the cold water hit her, and clenched his hand. Now, on to the ankles, the neck, the…wrists…

The scratches were scabbed over by now. The skin was raised slightly around the shallow ridges, but it was not inflamed. He touched the wounds gently and Cordelia instinctively twisted away. When she finally started shivering, he dressed her in one of the clean t-shirts, then removed his own soggy shirt and shrugged into the second one. She was still too hot, too flushed, so he drew her gently into his arms, pressing her close enough to feel his cold vampire skin through the slightness of their clothing. At some point, they fell asleep and he started dreaming.

***



They spoke to him through the ghosts of his legacy.

"Are you seeing it yet?" said Spike. "Do you know why they've brought you here?"

"Here's just a place, like any other," he answered. "Fight there or fight here, they'll still have me fighting."

Spike shook his head. "You don't get it, mate. You're here---some plodding little spot in the middle of the desert…don't you know what happens in the desert? In the sand? In the vast, open expanses of nothingness?"

"It isn't nothingness," he protested. "There's something here. Life. People."

He snorted, pointing to the cross that hung solemnly above the bed. "People who would throw you on your ass if they knew what you were. Hell of a town to take a vampire in."

"I had to stop," he said.

"That's your problem," hissed a new, familiar voice. "That's always been your problem." His sneering sire, in full period costume, took a hateful step toward him. "You…stopped. You had such potential, dear boy. Such potential. Then you…stopped."

"That was different."

"Really? If those Powers you're so fond of trusted you so much, why would they stoop to arranging this test, or quest or whatever it is?"

He shrugged. "Not every town has a warrior," he told her. "And not every warrior has enough perspective. Pretty hard to save the world if you don't know what's in it, isn't it?"

"Save the world?" she sneered. "Is that what you're going to do?"

He shrugged again. "Wasn't my idea. They told me to go, I went. I didn't know this would happen."

"Which this do you mean?" Darla coldly regarded Cordelia's sleeping form. "If the battle were here, would you even be ready for it? Could you defend another while she lay crumpled at your feet, defenseless? You love her, don't you? With all your tattered little soul, you love her. But you loved me too, dear boy, and you left me. Sire, teacher, mother, lover…"

"Didn't matter, did it?" The voice was Drusilla now. "Love the lover less, betray the mother more…or love the lover more, it's all the same…and all to get to where you are right now, a little pawn in a giant chess game, and now the queen is open, and you're the only man who can protect her. Always had a thing for seers, didn't you?"

His chest was pricked with a sudden lancing bolt of soul-scratching pain. "Drusilla…"

She clapped her hands delightedly. "Oh Grandmum, he still doesn't see it! One step forward, two steps back…then one step forward again. Pawn to queen's knight, checkmate!"

She clapped again and skipped off with Darla, laughing. He struggled to his feet, Spike looming over him. "Spike? I…I don't know what it means. Does it mean…"

"It means something," agreed Spike. "Everything you've seen from the moment you left frickin Los Angeles means something. Dru may be crazy, but she's right, you know. It's all a game, and you, old man, have a turn coming up. Now, you know who's the queen, don't you? Question is…are you her pawn or her knight?"

He came to abruptly, gratified his trembling hadn't woken her.

***

It was day and then it was night again. He made her instant cup-a-soup and saltine crackers. He watched her sleep, watched her sweat, watched her toss and turn uncomfortably. He watched the wind grow as hot and restless as she was.

He might be in trouble. Before the storm got bad enough to kill the phones, he had gotten in one more call to Wesley. The pincers hadn't been enough to go on, but quills AND talons…well, that narrowed it down some, and most of those some were venomous. Even if he could get her to a hospital in weather like this, it's not like they would have an antidote…

He stepped away from the window for the hundredth time that night, and put his hand to her flushed cheek. Too hot, still far too hot. Perhaps he should…storm or not, perhaps he should open the window, let in some air? He took one step forward, then jumped two steps back as the window abruptly shattered. Oh hell…

He lunged for the bed, for Cordelia, and dimly, he could hear banging on the door. He glanced anxiously at Cordelia, briefly torn, then abandoned her just long enough to turn the knob. It was the desk clerk, and she exhaled with relief when she saw him.

"Thank god, I wasn't sure you'd heard me. They're saying this wind could go twister! We got to hit the storm shelters, you hear me?"

She saw him hesitate. "Look, it's not like we got any choice about it, you have to…"

He indicated Cordelia. "She isn't feeling well. We shouldn't…"

"Doesn't matter. She's dead if she stays in here, friend. You've got to come with me."

He tossed the desk clerk his knapsack, then slung Cordelia over his shoulder and followed her into the basement and through a narrow door. He nearly buckled under the force of the wind, blindly stumbling after her into the storm cellar. As soon as he was in, she struck a match and slammed the door behind them.

***

He landed against a smooth, damp wall. Cordelia had evidently inhaled some sand on the way in, and the resulting coughing fit had forced her awake. He slid onto the floor and she weakly folded onto his lap, rasping pitifully. Their hostess cleared her throat for attention.

"Well, that's everyone," she told them. "Now look, I done this before and I'm telling you, it's not productive to go panicking. I got supplies down here, enough of them, and matches, and blankets…with the wind this strong, we couldn't get that door open even if we wanted to, so we'll just have to sit tight until the storm clears up. Well, why don't we go 'round and do names or something?"

"Cripes, this ain't summer camp," snapped a pasty, dour-faced man from the opposite corner.

"My name is not woman," she huffed. "It's Rae. And you are…"

"Eddie," he said. He indicated a woman and boy, huddled together beside him. "And this here is Katie and little Ritchie."

She nodded, then addressed the next nearest person. "You?"

The left corner was occupied by the fattest woman Angel had ever seen, and she fidgeted with ill-disguised panic and tried to arrange her shiny folds of skin in the most comfortable position. "Jane. I…I'm not used to…"

Rae smiled kindly. "I know it feels confining. But believe it or not, we got the biggest shelter in the area, being a hotel and all. Best thing to do is keep our mind off things." She brightened. "We could sing! That always cheers me up." She bounced rhythmically in low, off-key alto: "All the leaves are brown, the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray, yes it's really gray…"

In Angel's lap, Cordelia squirmed and clapped her hands over her ears.

"…and I went for a walk, la la la la, on a winter's day…"

She stiffened, back arching. Impeccable timing, those PTB had. A vision now, here, and when she was already so…well, sick enough that she wouldn't have the strength to complain about this latest indignity. As he struggled to hold her still, her arms failed wildly, striking the rough-hewn basement wall with an audible smack. He smelled blood again, poor thing…Very gently, Angel put one hand to her forehead and with the other, rubbed her back in rhythmic circles.

"I'd be safe and warm," sang Rae with oblivious prescience, "If I was in L.A, if I was in el-ay-ay…"

She broke off, abruptly noticing the now-spent Cordelia. "Shit. You all right there, little lady?"

"She's going to die," said little Ritchie loudly. "We're all going to die."

"She's not," said Angel softly. "Nobody is. She's just a little hot right now, a little tired…I'm taking care of her, and she'll be all right."

"Didn't catch your name," said Rae gently. "And your friend…"

"Angel," he said. "I'm Angel. And she's Cordelia."

"You folks come a long way?"

He paused, eyes dark and solemn. "You know," he said thoughtfully. "I really hope so."

***



He instinctively hugged Cordelia as her breathing eased and the sobbing eased into pitiful sniffles. "It's ok," he soothed again. "It's ok…"

"Angel, I…outside, whole bunches of…so blurry, I…hurts…"

"I know," he said gently. "It's ok…" Not like he could take care of anything from here, he thought darkly. He wondered, not for the first time, how he had gotten here. The entire trip had been a daze. An insistent dream: go east, it told him. There's work to be done, and not just here …got to pitch in, they told him. Like everyone else, you've got to pitch in…

He gently brushed the tears off her cheek, and when he looked up again, that man Eddie was kneeling curiously beside him.

"Angel, is it?"

Angel nodded.

"Just thought I'd ask if there was anything I could do. See, it's not just Eddie, it's Doctor Eddie…"

He scooted closer, and Angel let him study Cordelia's face with the cold curiosity. After a moment, their new friend settled back onto his heels and transferred his attention to Angel. "She's asleep, thankfully. Now, why don't you tell me what's going on?"

***

Everything was blurry. Her brain felt water-logged, and her eyes…she rubbed her eyes, trying to sharpen her hazy vision. Angel…he was sitting on the cold, hard floor beside her, and he looked…he looked different. Blurry. Like…

"You're not really here, are you?" She raised her head, dizzily trying to focus.

The not-Angel shrugged. "Not in the way you mean. But then, you aren't really here either, are you?"

Her eyes followed his pointing finger to the far-away wall where the real Angel cuddled the real her as she slept.

"Bout time I got some rest," she grumbled. Then, realizing that if this was all in her head, she couldn't really be dizzy, she leapt competently to her feet and leveled a critical gaze at him. "So who are you, then? If I'm only dreaming…"

The not-Angel gave her an enigmatic smile. "It's not quite like that," he said gently. "I think you know that. And I think you know what I really am."

"Best guess? One of those higher-power-types who sponsored this little road trip in the first place, and got me into this icky mess. But why do you look like him? I mean, does that…"

He shrugged. "We have to look like something, don't we? We appeared to him as his demons. We appear to you as your muse."

She rolled her eyes. "Riddles, goody. Just for once, I wish you'd be straight with me."

"But we were. Is it our fault you were too out of it down there to see the vision clearly?"

"Probably."

He grinned. "Can't put anything over on you, can we? Here's the deal, sweetheart: everything happens for a reason, especially when you're on a quest like this. You might look like you're down for the count right now, but appearances can be deceiving. He may be the all-star, but you, sweetheart…you're the pinch hitter, and this will be one of the games you save."

***

"She gets migraines," explained Angel weakly.

Eddie shook his head. "That didn't look like a migraine, buddy. It looked like a problem. She looks like a girl with a lot of problems, doesn't she?"

Angel stifled a low, defensive growl. "Now, that's not…"

Eddie held up a hand. "Look, I don't mean to go judgmental on you, pal, but a doc's got to wonder. You come in here with this tiny little thing…who, in addition to looking like she's about to cough up her insides, also has some suspicious-looking bruises here and there, and some beautiful scratches on her arm, and pitching a fit like that besides…"

He regarded Angel thoughtfully. "And then, she's got this bruiser-type boyfriend who looks like he's got a few demons of his own…doc's got to wonder, you know?"

Long silence, then a soft, sweet voice. "It's not like that."

Both men swiveled their heads. Katie, companion to Eddie, smiled beatifically, still comfortably ensconced against the musty wall, with little Ritchie sleeping peacefully in her lap.

"You'll have to excuse my husband," she told Angel. "He's not just Doctor Eddie, he's Doctor Analytical. And he hasn't learned yet that sometimes instincts count for more."

Eddie flashed her a condescending smile. "You having an instinct about these two, muffin?"

She appraised him coldly, and regarded Cordelia's sleeping form with an oddly knowing expression. "Don't underestimate girls like us, Eddie. We may be smaller and weaker than you men, but we can still come in handy. Women…see things…"

"Crap," whined Eddie. "Can we skip the feminism lecture and get to the point?"

With a slender finger, she pointed to Cordelia. "She's giving you lots of clues, if you'd only stop to look for them. Do you see how she relaxes into him, even in sleep? How, even weak and vulnerable, she still clasps his hand? He protects her. And him …well, one hand is clasping hers, and the other…it's balled into a kinetic little fist that twitches nervously as he watches her breathe. He's worried. He's waiting. And he'll fight for her, Eddie, don't you worry about that."

She shrugged, then beamed an odd little smile at Angel. "Course not all problems can be solved by fighting, isn't that right, big guy?"

In his lap, Cordelia twitched, and Angel felt his dread mounting. Women. Problems. Why did he feel like he'd just been given a clue?

***

Blearily, she opened her eyes again, and blinked at the gauzy fog that enveloped her.

"Great," she muttered, snapping to alertness. "Still in vision-mode, aren't I?"

The not-Angel sat down gingerly beside her. "You have a few things to figure out before we send you back," he told her. "A few things to figure out for you, and a few things to figure out for him, too."

"Whoa, what's what supposed to mean?"

"Only that there are some kinds of figuring-out that people like you do better than people like him. Now, let's take this one step at a time. I think you've figured out that you and he were sent here for a reason."

She nodded. "Some kind of test…a fight, a challenge…"

He nodded approvingly. "Very good. But sweetheart, the fight is not the challenge."

She furrowed her brow in thought. "So the challenge is…is it us? Like fighting ourselves or something?"

He smiled gently. "Let's not complicate things. The fight will be your test. The challenge will be in handling it. He has his way of dealing with HIS problems. Fight, smash, kick, kill…but that might not be the best way to deal with YOUR problems."

"And what is my problem?"

He smiled. "Isn't it obvious? You had that little run-in with those pesky little critters in Casa Grande, and you haven't been the same since. Weak, sick, and you've had a vision on top of that. Do you remember?"

She groaned. "Oh god, pack of vamps, storm's brought them out and we're sitting ducks in the biggest storm shelter in town! They're gonna ambush, I…"

Not-Angel leaned forward eagerly. "Yes?"

"Well, I'm hardly in the best shape to fight them," she complained. "Angel's gonna have to…god, they're strong! He can't take them all."

Not-Angel smiled. "He won't have to. You can go back now, Cordelia." He snapped his fingers, and she winced as her entire being awoke to blistering agony.

***



In Angel's arms, Cordelia's body convulsed suddenly, and she came to with a pitiful gasp for air.

"It's ok," he soothed, smoothing back her hair. "Hey, it's ok…"

She shook her head, mute with misery and struggling to regain her composure. He carefully tried to keep her still, murmuring a continuous stream of calm reassurances.

"Deep breaths," he coached. "Breathe…come on, Cordy, you're ok now. Easy…"

Deep breaths, one, two… "Vision," she choked out after a moment. "Angel…"

He folded her into him as closely as possible, trying to prevent the others from hearing. "What is it?" he asked her.

"Vamps…pack of them, storm brought 'em out, and they're waiting…they know…there are people down here…"

Her eye fell on her still-damp arm. "I'm bleeding…god, Angel they can probably smell it, can't they? Oh god…"

"It's ok," he soothed again. "We'll handle it, Cordy. It's ok…"

She sniffled. "It's not. They said…they said you won't kill them all. Have to…use a different strategy…"

"Who said?" He asked her curiously. "Cordy…"

"Not you," she whispered. "They…it was a clue, Angel, they're testing us. They want us to learn…something…"

Still far too distraught, and still far too warm. The scratches on her arm had swollen ominously, and she fidgeted, unable to find a comfortable position. He shushed her with uncommon gentleness, listening to her breathing gradually settle. After a few moments, the blaring wind, audible even from within their almost-cave, began to settle too. Slow and easy, both of them settled, and he saw Rae eyeing the storm door attentively, waiting for it to stop shaking on its hinges, pressing at the latch to see if it would open. He tensed for the fight.

***

This was his test, he was sure of that now. But Cordelia…how could he, with her…

He blinked, and saw the little group clamber into the moonlight, the strangers retreating at the sight of the waiting pack. But Cordelia bravely followed him out. They would go after her, surely they would: fresh blood on her arm, and too weak to defend herself…he braced himself to lunge the one that eyed her greedily, when three more jumped out from behind a tree and went for the storm cellar door.

Time stood still for a moment, and he heard the echo of dream-Dru's voice in his head.

[a little pawn in a giant chess game, and now the queen is open, and you're the only man who can protect her…]

Cordelia…he took an unconscious step toward his seer, who lay huddled in the mud, half-heartedly kicking at the vampire who was trying to restrain her. Getting in a few digs, but too weak to hold him off for long…too out of it to fight them…

[Could you defend another while she lay crumpled at your feet, defenseless?]

Not all problems can be solved by fighting though. The woman, Katie, had told him that. Well, how could they be solved then? By submitting? Taking out the worst of them, and leaving Cordelia to…

He took a step toward her, then paused. There had to be something he wasn't seeing. There had to be more to it than this. There was a vision. This was a test, and he had a job to do. Two young women, and a mother, a father and a little boy down there…

[Always had a thing for seers, didn't you?]

He took another step toward her. He could take a moment to get her back into the shelter, at least. Be defending one target instead of two…but there wasn't time! Cordelia…

It hit him: Dream-Spike, coldly enigmatic, but coldly right.

[Now, you know who's the queen, don't you? Question is…are you her pawn or her knight?]

The knight defends the queen. But the pawn…well, the pawn leaves the queen open, and hopes he gets the king in time to save them both…

He lunged away from Cordelia, kicking wildly.

***

As one, her strength fell and her panic rose. He was trying to drink from her, and she couldn't hold him off anymore.

"Angel…"

Her head smacked to the ground as he tried to restrain her, and she felt a gush of pressure. She coughed weakly, choking on the mouthful of blood that trickled from her nose and snagged on the corners of her mouth. Wonderful: bleeding from more than one place now, with a hungry vamp on top of her, and Angel dispatching vamps one-two-three but no way would he get to her in time…

She kicked again, and for the briefest moment, time stopped. He can't take them all, she remembered. But he won't have to.

[You may look like you're down for the count, but appearances can be deceiving…]

Her body slackened as she mentally stopped fighting and submitted. She felt the bite. She felt him lapping up that first tiny spill of blood. She felt sick, and it took her a moment to realize that her attacker seemed to also…

When Angel finally cleared away enough of the lackeys to turn to her, he saw the lead vampire clasp his stomach, and with a roar of pain, explode in a shower of dust.

***

Back in Los Angeles, they finally figured things out. It hadn't taken Wesley long to identify the creatures from Casa Grande who attacked Cordelia.

"Their talons are poisonous," he explained. "There is an antidote, of course. But somehow…when that vampire bit you, he unwittingly sucked the toxins out."

"Hell of a cure," she grumbled.

He smiled. "You might be grateful when you hear the alternative," he told her. "The only other antidote I found involves bat droppings, the heart of a wildebeest, and a quart of raw sewage…"

She burst into a fit of awkward coughing. "Too much information!"

Wesley snapped the book shut with satisfaction. "Well, toxic is toxic, Cordelia. As soon as he tasted your blood, he was contaminated."

"Which explains his sudden dusting," said Angel, impressed. "I assumed Cordelia had impaled him with her high heels somehow."

She shook her head. "No chance, Angel. I was out of it, bad. One minute he was on me, next he was collapsing in a dusty heap."

"Amazing," muttered Wesley. "They planed it, all of it. The diversion to Casa Grande, which got Cordelia's blood contaminated…forcing the layover to Las Cruces after she became sick…all of it so you two would be there to face this little pack of vampires…and she would be there to secret weapon you both to victory…so perfectly organized, it HAD to be…well, was it successful, then? Did you learn…something?"

Cordelia nodded. "I need more practice with trusting my instincts," she told him. "I was trying so hard to be brave and stay in control that I didn't realize I could think much better when I let myself go. My brain kept working even when my body wasn't, and I woke up with this strong idea…that I could somehow handle things. Even when it looked like I couldn't."

"Sometimes instincts count for more," said Angel with an odd smile.

"Indeed," agreed Wesley. "And Angel…did you…"

"I had to learn to trust her," he said. "That's why they sent her with me. That's why they sent us there. I had to choose…protect her, or protect others. And I had to choose to let her take care of herself. I had to learn that she could do it…because I may worry about her, but I also have a job to do…"

Cordelia smiled. "True. But when you're on break, like you are now, you can absolutely take care of me."

"Massage?"

She relaxed in his arms.

the end