Release

AUTHOR: starlet2367@gmail.com
RATING: PG-13
CATEGORY: Casefile
PAIRING: Genfic with a side of C/A
SUMMARY: Angel's past comes back to haunt him…literally.
DISCLAIMER: These characters don't belong to me, nor am I making any profit by writing about them here.
NOTES: This falls somewhere (in an AU-ish way) between Billy and Offspring.
THANKS: For damnskippy, who spearheaded this ficathon and gave all the C/A writers a chance to party. For littleheaven70 who beta'd and for landrews who listened. But mostly for samsmom, my friendly neighborhood stalker, whose challenge (and sexy dance) I just couldn't refuse. (Challenge listed at the end to avoid spoilers.)

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Thanks to damnskippytoo and samsom for organizing the Halloween Ficathon 2007 at Stranger Things and giving all us C/A fans a chance to party. :) This is my contribution and you can read the rest of the stories here.

Happy Halloween flist! :throws candy:

**

Halloween Night, 2001

Cordelia parked her Jeep at the loading dock behind the Hyperion, climbed out and reached into the back seat to grab her bustle and headpiece. As she walked up the back stairs she snapped the yellow ostrich-feather bustle to the bikini bottom of her showgirl costume.

She opened the door and went into the office, laying the headdress on the desk. The lobby was empty and quiet.

"Fred! Wesley!" No answer.

She opened her desk drawer and dropped her purse in, then dug through her wallet for her ID and ATM card. She was tucking them into her bra top when she heard a noise.

She turned and saw Angel. "Oh, it's you. Where's Fred?"

Angel squinted like he had the sun in his eyes. "Uh—"

Cordy put her headpiece on and said, "Cool, huh?"

Fred came skidding around the corner, breathless. "I ran down as fast as I could."

Cordy eyeballed her. "Nice."

Fred looked down at her costume, a black leotard over black tights, tucked into ballet flats. A long fluffy tail trailed the floor. She had a headband holding her hair off her face; it had pointy felt cat ears glued to it. "Thanks. Angel helped me with it."

Cordy's brows rose. She looked at Angel.

He put his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "I just glued on the whiskers."

Which really looked like cat whiskers. She held up her hand. "I don't even want to know."

Fred's head tilted. She studied Cordy like she was a Rubik's Cube, puzzling it out until the colors lined up. Then she snapped her fingers. "Lola!"

Cordy blinked. "Huh?"

"Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl?"

"With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to –" Angel cleared his throat and looked at the ceiling.

She smoothed the fountaining feathers of her headdress. "Um, no. I'd never fall for a dude named Rico, no matter how big his diamond was."

The door slammed. "I say. Hello?" Wes's accent was more exaggerated than usual.

"In here, Wes," Fred yelled.

Cordy pulled her lipstick out of her purse and started painting her lips by feel.

Wes came in, his long wool coat and deerstalker hat proclaiming him Sherlock Holmes. He looked Cordelia over from head to toe. "Quite authentic."

"The expert in show girls, are you?"

He raised a brow. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

Cordy stuck the tube of lipstick in other bra cup then felt both cups to make sure everything was secure. "We ready?"

Wes nodded. "Gunn called. We're meeting him there."

Fred said to Angel, "Are you sure you don't want to go?"

Angel shook his head. "I'm staying here and enjoying the peace and quiet."

"Spoken like a true old man." Cordelia took off her headdress in preparation for the ride to the party. "Who's driving?"

"You, I think. I brought my bike."

Cordy put her hand on Angel's arm. "Not that anything's going to happen on Halloween, but we all have our cells." She looked down at her cleavage. "Uh, not that mine will actually be on[ me."

The corner of his mouth quirked. "I'll call if I get scared."

"Right," she said, with an edge of sarcasm. "Let's rock and roll."

***

She lucked up and found a parking spot in the lot behind Biblio. The ground floor was all brick, so she couldn't see in, but the windows on the second floor flickered, like someone had left on a TV in the dark.

Wes climbed out of the back seat and they walked around to the front doors. There were about twenty people waiting in line. "It's a little smaller than last year," he said.

"Nine-eleven taking a toll?" asked Cordy.

"Maybe they heard that the eyeballs in the Room of Doom are real," Fred said.

Wes, teeth clamped around his pipe, said, "Real yes, human no. Or so scuttlebutt says."

"I'm not sure which is more disturbing, the eyeballs or the fact that you said scuttlebutt," said Cordy. "Look, there's Gunn." He was rounding the corner from the lot. "Or should I say, Green Lantern. Nice tights!"

He was close enough to flick her headpiece.

"Hey! Watch the feathers." She straightened it out. "Where've you been?"

"Checking the gang. They're all kicked back watching Friday the 13th."

"Everyone's enjoying the night off," said Wes.

Five or six more people got in line behind them, including a ninja, a giant hamburger and an old-fashioned ghost under a white sheet.

"I love Halloween," said Fred, running her tail through her hands. "We finally get to see everybody's real personality come through."

"Excuse me," said the hamburger behind them, in a deep voice. "I'm more than just a piece of meat."

Fred giggled.

Gun stepped between her and the hamburger, crossing his arms over his green-lanterned chest. "What's the holdup?"

"Must just be a big crowd." Fred looked over her shoulder and smiled at the hamburger.

"Looks like we're moving now." They got to the door and Cordy dug in her bra for some cash. "How much?"

Elvira, who was working the door, said, "Ten bucks."

Cordy paid her cover and went into the bookstore. "Ghostbusters" bounced out of the speakers. There were fake spider webs hanging from the cash register, windows and doorframes, and each book alcove had a different theme, like a haunted house or a graveyard. One section had disturbingly real looking snakes slithering over the shelves and seating area.

When the others finally made it past Elvira, Cordy said, "I hear the bar calling my name."

Wes waved at someone he recognized. "I'm going to go talk to Jill. From Magic Supplies and More? I'll be there in a minute."

Fred and Gunn looked at each other.

"Room of Doom?" Fred asked.

Gunn nodded. "Let's go check out those eyeballs."

Cordy turned sideways so her bustle wouldn't get crushed as she wove through the crowd, brushing past two Captain Jacks, a Dracula and three Harry Potters on her way to the bar.

She spotted a few demons in the crowd, some in costume, but most wore regular clothes. The few who did dress up were partnered with a human, since dressing up on Halloween was mainly a human ritual.

Nate had set up the drink station in the alcove where the books on herbs lived. He manned the bar, dressed just like a bartender from Cocktail, in a black shirt and jeans – except that his skin was lavender and he had three ears, one top of his head.

There was a line, which she got in, watching as Nate mixed rum and Coke with one hand and, with the other, poured a glass of red wine.

When she got to the bar, she said "Hey, Nate. Vodka and Red Bull."

"Cordelia. You're looking even more comely than usual." He pulled a plastic cup from the sleeve and popped open a Red Bull.

"And, as usual, everything you say sounds like a line from a porn flick." She was mostly teasing him. Nate was sweet; he took care of most of their book orders and gave them a hefty discount.

She put her elbows on the bar. "So, how's this party compare to last year?"

He glanced up, taking in the full house. "I don't think people let the terrorists scare them away." He grinned proudly, showing a row of pointy teeth.

Wes politely cut line and bellied up next to Cordy. "Must be a hundred people in here."

"Wesley." Nate nodded. "That book on demon dimensions work for you?"

"It was very helpful, thanks." Wes cut his eyes at Cordy.

After last week, and the whole Billy thing, the last topic on her "to discuss" list was demon dimensions. She took the drink from Nate. "Thanks.”

He made change for her then watched while she put it back in her bra. "What else do you keep in there?"

She rolled her eyes and backed away, drink in hand. "Down, boy."

Wes and Nate moved into a business discussion, so Cordy started up the open wooden stairs, holding the metal rail to keep her balance on the glittery yellow platform pumps. Upstairs was a lounge area with several couches and a coffee shop. Maybe there was some hot guy worth talking to up there.

She sipped as she walked, the buzz of excitement she'd felt all day building in her stomach. It was Halloween and all the demons were off, which meant that for 24 hours, she could live like a normal person.

No visions. No demons to break out of hell dimensions. No slime on her Boraccis.

"Ghostbusters" mashed with "Every Day is Halloween" as she walked up the stairs. The DJ in the corner worked a small soundboard next to a portable dance floor.

The upstairs area was dressed like a club, with a bunch of round tables, set with LED candles that gave off that flickering blue glow she'd seen from outside. Fabric was suspended from the ceiling by the children's section, making a soft-walled room. Last year, that had been the Doom Room, so she steered clear.

Instead, she wandered over to the dance floor, ready to be amused by the sight of Darth Vader trying to dance with a naughty nurse.

"Cordy!" Fred came to stand next to her. "Thank goodness I found you. I was beginning to think I'd have to talk to somebody, or something."

"Where are the guys?"

"Wes and Nate are yakking. Gunn's still in the Room of Doom."

"I thought that was Room of Doom." Cordy pointed her glass at the black drapes in the corner.

"No, that's the fortuneteller." She grabbed Cordy's arm. "I'm dying to go, but there's no way I'm going alone. You have to go with me."

Cordy spotted a hot Superman and gave him her best Lois Lane smile. "Is this a real fortuneteller?" Superman smiled back and raised his beer to her.

"As real as the eyeballs, I reckon."

She frowned at Fred. "Um, let's see," she said, holding up her hands and pretending to weigh options, "supernatural or Superman?"

Fred looked over at Superman and said, her whiskers quivering. "He's cute, all right. But I think he's, um…."

When Cordy looked back Superman was hugging an equally hot guy, dressed like Lance Armstrong.

"Why are all the cute ones demons or gay?"

"I'm not gay," said Wes, sneaking up on them.

She huffed. "You're my friend. You don't count."

"Gee, thanks."

"Now, don't fight, y'all." Fred stepped between them and took their hands. She pulled them both toward the black curtain. "Come on, let's go while there's no line."

Cordy groaned. "I'm trying to get away from this stuff tonight."

Fred tugged her hand. "Aw, please, Cordy. It'll be fun."

She let Fred drag her through the heavy velvet drapes. Two people sat at a table; one was the fortuneteller and the other was a man with his back to them. A fake oil lamp hung above the table, lighting the table, but leaving the rest of the room dark.

As they moved around the table, Wes said, "Gunn?"

"Hey! Good timing."

"I thought you were still in the eyeball room," said Fred.

"I was, but then I decided to try my fate up here with Magda the Magnificent."

Upon closer inspection, Cordelia could see that Magda was probably more like Maggie, a 20-something bottle blond dressed like Mata Hari, down to the jeweled turban.

"Please join us," she said, in a fake Transylvanian accent.

Wes sat on the fortuneteller's right, across from Gunn. Fred settled next to him.

Cordy sat next to Fred, threading her bustle through the back of the chair so she wouldn't squish it. She put her drink on the table. "What are we doing, exactly?"

The fortuneteller gave her a "duh" look. "Contacting spirits from the other plane."

Cordy thought about Billy. She leaned over to Fred and whispered, "I thought we just did that last week."

"Cordy!" whispered Fred.

"Okay, if everyone's ready, hold hands and close your eyes."

Cordelia joined hands with Gunn and Fred. She really hadn't had enough to drink for this. She opened one eye and looked at her cup, wondering if she could bend her head down and get a drink without knocking off her headpiece.

While she was eyeballing her glass, the pointer on the board moved.

"Spirits of the great beyond! We beseech thee –" started the soothsayer.

The pointer jerked again, starting to spin slowly. Cordy narrowed her eyes at the board, looking for strings or some other trick.

"On this, the night when veils are thinnest – "

Everyone else's eyes were closed, even Gunn's, who barely even closed his eyes to sleep.

The pointer twitched hard and the lights flickered. "Someone is here. They want to speak to us!" The woman's voice was an excited whisper.

Cordelia rolled her eyes and wondered who Nate had paid to wiggle the lamp's cord.
Fred's hand tightened convulsively on Cordy's. Through the curtain she could hear the last measures of "Every Day is Halloween" blending into the next song.

"Speak to us, spirits!"

As if on cue, Fred, Wes and Gunn opened their eyes. The pointer spun, moving faster then stopping abruptly, landing on K.

The ricocheting rim shots of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" filtered into the room.

The pointer kept spelling, letter after letter, moving in frantic jerks: K – U – C – I – M – A – T – A.

"Okay," Cordy said, "that's freaky."

Fred looked at Cordy, eyes wide. "What's it mean?' she whispered.

There was a whooshing sound and the walls pulled in, like lungs sucking in air. Cordelia's stomach fluttered, the way it did when Dennis snuck up on her.

When the fortuneteller opened her eyes, they were covered with a white film. "Chavaia, chavaia!" She squirmed in her chair, like she was fighting something, "Chavaia!"

Cordelia felt the warning tickle the base of her skull. The vision ripped through her, taking the constant ache behind her eyes and turning it into unspeakable pain.

The pain faded into a series of flashes, like still photos in quick succession: Darla, smiling her wicked-witch smile and holding out her cold white hand.

A girl, maybe 15 or 16, with soft brown hair and olive skin, putting her hand in Darla's. Cordelia understood hunger and greed enough to recognize them in the girl's eyes.

Darla yanking a white gag tight and pushing the girl to the floor, where she fell against the hearth, stunned.

She came to with a bang, opening her eyes to find herself a hand-width from the table.

"Hey, girl. You okay?" Gunn's voice was close to her ear. He leaned over her from behind her chair, one hand under her forehead. Gently, he pulled her up.

She rested the back of her head against his chest. There were sparkles at the edge of her vision and her head felt hot with pain.

Gunn sneezed. "Sorry – feathers." He eased into the chair beside her. "You okay?" he repeated.

She nodded, and everything in her periphery seemed to nod with her.

Wes and Fred flanked the fortuneteller, who was slumped in her chair, her skin the color of cold ashes.

"They both need some air." Wes helped the fortuneteller to her feet. "Gunn, can you help Cordelia?"

She had to tell them about Darla and the girl, but Cordelia was still in 360-degree focus. Narrowing back into this reality enough to string thoughts together and form sentences was like walking neck-deep in water.

The music thumped like a pile driver; she couldn't hear the tune any more, but the bass felt like it was coming from inside her own body.

They pushed past the line waiting outside for the next session and into the party. Wes and the fortuneteller headed toward the back stairs and Cordy and Gunn followed, with Fred so close behind that Cordy could sense her body heat.

At the bottom of the stairs, they waited while Wes helped the woman sit and got her some water from the cooler near the restrooms. In a moment, he returned. "I'm going to stay with her and find out what she experienced. It could be linked to your vision."

"I'll make sure they get home," said Gunn. He turned to Cordy. "Give him your keys. He'll bring your Jeep back."

She pulled them out of her bikini top and handed them to him.

Gunn hustled them past the smokers hanging by the back door. He opened the passenger door to the truck and helped Fred in first, then waited while Cordelia took off her headdress.

Fred pulled the feathers across her lap so Cordy could close the door and buckle in. The truck's engine growled and they pulled out of the parking lot and drove toward the 5.

Cordelia closed her eyes and leaned against the window. The cool pressure of the glass felt good against her face. The pain faded a little. Along with the pain, the extra-sensory perception faded, too, and the sounds and smells became single instead of double: the engine shifting, the smell of vinyl and oil, Fred's shoulder solid flesh instead of a wall of heat.

She lost track of time, though at some point, she heard Fred say, "We're almost there, Cordy."

Cordelia opened her eyes and recognized their coffee shop. She could see the hotel ahead and was relieved.

But when she looked straight ahead, her whole body clenched. There was a woman standing in the middle of the road, twenty feet from the bumper. The lights captured her: dark hair curling around her shoulders, a black embroidered vest over a white dress.

Cordy screamed.

Gunn said, "Crap," and hit the brakes. The truck fishtailed and screeched to a dead stop. The traffic behind them honked and two cars swerved into the right lane to miss the truck.

Cordelia popped her seatbelt and jumped out. She met Gunn in the headlights.

There was nothing in front of them except the empty street.

Fred yelled out the window, "Where is she? Is she okay?"

Gunn said. "Come on. Let's get the truck out of the road."

Fred's eyes were big and round. "Y'all did see her, right?" she asked, as Cordy and Gunn slammed their doors.

Cordy, totally creeped, locked hers for good measure. "I think it was the girl from my vision."

Gunn looked at her. "You saw her in your vision? The one you just had?"

She nodded.

Fred looked around. "Are we all in your vision? Is this a vision?"

"I don't think so." She looked at the hotel, just a block away. "We really need to get to Angel."

Gunn cranked the engine. It spun but didn't catch. He turned off the key then tried it again. "Oh, come on, baby. Don't do this to me."

The engine finally flared and he smiled. "Good girl." He put the truck in gear and they rolled a few feet. Then it sputtered and died.

Gunn sighed and hit the emergency blinkers. "I think she's had too much excitement tonight." He looked at Fred and Cordelia. "We're gonna have to push her the rest of the way."

"That's all right," said Fred. "I used to help my momma push-start her car all the time."

"I'll steer, then," Cordy said, trying to ignore the headache throbbing behind her eyes. She slid behind the wheel, rolled down the window and put the truck in neutral. "Okay, I'm ready."

The truck moved slowly toward the hotel. Cordy steered it into the right lane and aimed for the driveway, which sloped down to the parking pad near the loading dock.

As they got closer, though, instead of speeding up, the truck slowed down. "You guys doing okay back there?"

"We're still pushing!" Fred sounded breathless.

Gunn grunted. "Is your foot on the brake, or something?"

She looked down. "No." The truck rolled to a stop. "Why'd you stop? We're almost there." They were just a few feet from the driveway.

"We didn't," said Gunn. "It just won't move."

"Hang on, I'll call Angel." She went for her cell and realized she'd left it in the Jeep. "Crap. Gunn? Can you call him? My cell's in the Jeep."

While Gunn made the call, Cordelia got out of the truck. "What do you think happened?"

Fred shook her head. "It was like it just didn't want to get any closer."

Angel must have done his vampire speed sprint because he was suddenly standing next to them. "What happened?"

"Truck just stopped," Gunn said.

"Oh," Angel looked relieved. "I can fix that." He looked at Gunn. "Where are your keys?"

"In the ignition."

Angel nodded. He got in the truck and turned the key. The truck didn't even click. "Dead battery?"

"Probably locked up," said Fred. "We hit the brakes pretty hard."

Angel's eyebrows rose.

"Long story," said Cordy.

"Okay, then," said Angel. "Fred, let's get you out of the road. Why don't you go stand on the sidewalk? Cordy, you steer. Gunn and I will push." He helped Cordy into the vehicle and said, "Put it in neutral. Steer for the driveway. Leave the door open; that way if I need to take the wheel, I can."

Relief washed over her when she felt the truck move. She turned the wheel and pointed the truck toward the driveway.

They started gaining speed and the nose of the truck dipped. Praise the Powers, the distance between her and maximum-ultra-gigantic-strength painkillers was diminishing by the second.

"Hit the brakes, Cordy," called Angel.

She tapped the brakes. Nothing happened so she tapped them again

With a bear-like growl, the engine revved. The dash lit up and the radio blasted. Under her foot, the gas pedal depressed.

The truck burned rubber and shot her down the driveway. The loading dock was right in her headlights.

Cordy screamed. Like a split screen on TV, her thoughts divided. One side of her mind thought, "I didn't put on my seat belt." The other side thought about her mom and dad, Wes and Angel.

She closed her eyes and waited for impact

Then she felt gravity release and she was flying. It seemed to last forever, until she landed, with a bone-jarring snap. Time sped up as she rolled and rolled, losing all sense of direction.

When she opened her eyes there was nothing but black. She blinked several times before she realized that she was looking at Angel's shirt. Then her breath whooshed back into her body and she was sucking down air.

"Angel! Cordelia!" Fred skidded to a halt next to them and dropped to her knees. "Oh, my God. Are you okay?" Her voice was about two octaves higher than usual. "Can you hear me?"

Angel moaned, on the edge of consciousness. Blood covered one side of his face and his shirt was torn off his shoulder.

Cordelia's senses reengaged and it hit her then that he had pulled her out of the truck.

Fred yelled, "Gunn! Call 911!"

"No, don't," she wheezed. "I'm okay."

Gunn sprinted up with the phone to his ear.

"Please. I'm fine." The last thing she wanted was another trip to the hospital. She'd seen enough doctors in the last few months.

He closed the phone. "You sure?"

"Just give me a minute."

"Cordy?" Angel breathed her name.

"Yeah. Here." She hugged him. "What were you thinking?"

He gasped. "Wasn't," he said.

She rolled gently onto her back and looked up at the sky. Only a few stars showed through the light haze but it was enough to let her know that she really was alive.

She stayed there for a few minutes, eyes closed, until she steadied. Then she let Gunn help her sit up.

Gunn's poor truck was crushed against the loading dock. Steam spewed from under the hood, the tendrils eerie in the glare of the hotel safety lights. Her headdress hung out the driver's side window; its feathers were broken and limp.

She took in the rest of the scene: her glittery yellow platform pumps lay several yards apart on their sides; one heel was broken off completely. Her ATM card lay face up on the pavement; her lipstick and driver's license were MIA.

Angel tried to sit up then fell back against the pavement, gritting his teeth, his hand on his right shoulder.

She could see now that it was dislocated. "Oh, no, Angel. I'm sorry."

"Not your fault. I didn't have time to control the fall."

"What is it?" asked Fred.

"Shoulder's out," said Gunn.

"Go get me a towel," said Cordy. "From the basement."

"Cordy, you can't—"

"Fred, please."

"I could do it," said Gunn.

"I know." She swallowed hard. "But he just – " With one hand, she motioned toward the truck.

He glanced at his truck, a look of shocked pain on his face. "That was too close."

Fred came out with a towel. "Here." She squatted next to them again. "What can I do?"

"You and Gunn can go inside." She looked at both of them. "Please. Call Wesley and then go in my fridge. In the back behind the Diet Coke is a box from the blood bank. After you call Wes, bring me a bag of blood out of that box."

"Come on, Fred." Gunn helped her stand.

Cordy could feel the adrenaline leaving her system. In a few minutes, she wouldn't be able to do this so she quickly rolled up the towel and knelt by Angel's shoulder. "You ready?"

He didn't even open his eyes.

She slid the towel between his arm and chest. Then she sat down and gently put his arm on her lap. With the towel as a cushion, she put her bare foot into his armpit.

Cordy shook out her hands then gently started pulling his arm toward her, applying pressure with her foot against the towel. Time slowed. She waited for the muscle spasms to stop before she pulled again. Ripples of pain crossed his face.

Finally she felt the ball pop back in. Angel gave a muffled cry then lay there, completely still.

Cordy slid the towel out and put it under his head.

His nostrils flared. "You're bleeding."

Cordelia licked her lip and tasted blood. "It's nothing."

He opened his eyes and they were black. "It's not nothing." He lisped slightly.

She said, "Hang on. Fred's coming back with something for you." She took his hand.

He shook his hand loose. "Not now, Cordy."

The basement door slammed open. Fred jumped off the loading dock, her tail flying up behind her. "Here."

Cordy took the bag. "Thanks." She helped Angel sit. "Here. Drink this."

He looked over at Fred, then at Cordelia.

"Fred, go back in, okay? We'll be right there."

It took her a second to register. "I don't mind if he eats in front of me. Angel's a good vampire. He wouldn't –"

"It's okay, Fred. We'll be right there," said Angel.

Cordy could hear the strain in his voice.

Fred climbed the dock and went back inside.

Angel turned away from her, then bit the bag and started drinking. Cordelia waited, listening for him to slow down. When he was finished, she took the bag and set it on the ground beside them to clean up later.

"You look better," she said, after a few minutes.

"Getting there." He sounded stronger and his color was returning. "What happened?"

"I don't know." She was starting to feel the effects of the accident now, her body trembling. "One second it was coasting; the next the car just…started. It was like someone turned the key and hit the gas."

Angel looked at her. "On its own." It wasn't a question.

"I'm not crazy." Her voice rose.

He frowned. "You need help."

"I'm not cra–"

"Medical help, Cordy?" He slowly stood, catching one hand on the loading dock for balance. After a few seconds, he reached out his hand to help her up.

Cordelia took it. "Thanks for saving me."

He wore his Worry Face. "I almost didn't."

"In this case, almost is good enough."

***

"I feel like a walking migraine," she said, as they entered the lobby. "Oh, my God!" She slapped her forehead. "The vision!"

Angel frowned. "You had a vision?"

"Earlier. I saw Darla. And a girl."

Gunn came out of the office. "Same girl we saw in front of the truck."

Angel's frown deepened. "What happened to her?"

"Don't know." Gunn looked Cordy over from head to toe. His eyebrows drew into a V. "Is this one of those hurry-up-quick visions?"

Cordy turned her thoughts inward, checking her urgency meter, which registered somewhere around two. "I don't think so."

"Good, 'cause you need some attention."

Angel nodded. "You really should go to the hospital."

"I just need a bath and some clothes." She looked down at her costume and caught sight of her arm and leg in the light. The concrete had burned all the way down her right side and blood oozed from the wounds. As soon as she noticed it, it started stinging.

The trip up the stairs was slow and she knew she was frowning with pain. Halfway up, she said, "Stop for a sec." She had to catch her breath.

"That's it. You're done." Angel swung her up and carried her the rest of the way.

"I just fixed your shoulder. Don't pop it back out!"

He set her down on the bed. "Sit. I'll run a bath."

In a few minutes, she was in the bathroom alone, with the door closed behind her. She went to the medicine cabinet for antiseptic oil but the mirror stopped her.

She looked like a gothic showgirl, her mascara in circles under her eyes, a swollen lip and her hair limp against pale skin. A bruise had bloomed on her jaw, blue in the middle and white around the edges.

Two weeks in a row, she'd nearly died. Did the Powers have it in for her, or something?

Cordelia got into the tub. The water hit her scraped leg, making her suck in her breath. It stung for a few seconds after she was submersed then dialed back to a low-level throb. The smell of the antiseptic oil filled the air and she closed her eyes and breathed it in.

She should wash the grit out of the scrapes, but for a minute, couldn't she just lie still?

There was a knock on the door. Cordy jerked. "Who is it?"

"It's me, Cordy," said Angel. "Fred's here. I'm sending her in with some clothes."

"'kay." Cordelia covered her chest with her hands and watched the door open.

Fred, still in her costume, skittered around the door. She held Cordy's extra workout clothes and the first aid kit. "Wow. You look worse than you did before."

"Gee, thanks."

"Are you okay?" Angel called around the open door.

"I'm fine. I'll be out in a minute."

Angel closed the door.

She pushed herself up and put one hand on the wall to keep her balance.

Fred blushed and looked away. "Here. I'll get you a towel." She pulled a clean one off the towel rack and held it out to her.

Cordelia wrapped herself in it. "It's okay, you can look now."

"I didn't mean to stare or anything." She put the first aid kit on the sink and popped the lid. "Got some gauze and some cream in here. I'll clean those scrapes out for you and get them bandaged. Then you can get dressed and lie down."

Cordelia sat on the toilet lid.

Fred took a breath. "I'm sorry I'm babbling. I'm nervous and freaked. I never thought I'd see you almost get killed. And Gunn's truck –"

Her head snapped up. "I didn't total it! It totaled itself."

"Okay, that's good to know. I always figured machines had a mind of their own." Fred put a washcloth under the water then started dabbing Cordelia's arm.

She jerked. "Painkillers first."

"Uh, right. Sorry." She dug into the kit and came up with a brown bottle. "Here. These are yours."

Cordy shook out four of her prescription meds and downed them dry. "Okay, let's get this over with."

Fred handled the procedure gently and quietly. She finished by taping gauze over the worst places and said, "The rest should be fine. They probably need to dry out anyway."

"Thanks Fred. Wanna hand me my clothes?"

"Sure, here you go." She put them on the sink on top of the first aid kit. "Do you need help getting into them, too?"

"No, thanks. I can take it from here." Bandaging was one thing, but she'd have to be dead before she'd let Fred dress her.

Fred closed the door behind her. Cordelia pulled on the loose gray sweat pants and the red t-shirt. She didn't have a bra, so she'd have to borrow a shirt from Angel to wear over her workout clothes.

She opened the door and peeked around it. Fred sat on the foot of Angel's bed, wiping off her make-up with a tissue. "Uh, Fred? Could you go get me one of Angel's button-up shirts to put on over this?"

Fred squeaked. "You want me to go in his closet?'

"Yeah, he won't mind."

She hopped off the bed and opened the closet door. "Uh, he's got about umpteen black ones, a gray one, a –

"Fred! Just bring me a shirt."

"Did I say I was nervous? Angel's closet is like his inner sanctum. You don't want to just go in there uninvited." She came over with a black shirt.

"Thanks." Cordy slid it on and rolled up the sleeves. It smelled like Angel, a mix of musk and incense. "Where are the guys?'

"Downstairs talking to Wes."

Cordelia nodded. "Let's go get this figured out."

***

Cordelia sat on the round couch, nursing a cup of tea. Wesley had brewed it strong and added milk and sugar, which was helping keep her awake.

Through the open office door, she watched Gunn, Wes and Angel talk. Every once in awhile, one of them would look out at her then quickly look away. Fred stood at the counter like she wasn't quite sure which side she belonged on.

Finally, Cordy's irritation overrode her exhaustion and she got up and walked to the office. "Got it figured out yet?"

All three men looked at her guiltily. "We just thought –" Wes said.

She cut him off. "I know what you thought. You thought this was another Vocah thing, or another Billy thing. If you'd asked me, I'd have told you it's not either, but you didn't, so I won't."

Angel cut his eyes at Wes. Then he took Cordy by the arm and hustled her around the desk. "You should really be sitting," he said, dropping her into Wes's chair.

"Fine, I'll sit. Maybe now that I'm in the boss's chair, you'll treat me like an adult." She raised an eyebrow.

Gunn said, "Tell us what happened."

"It started with that stupid Ouija board."

Fred, who'd followed her into the room, said, "Oh, God! This was all my fault?"

Cordelia sighed. "No, Fred. If everyone will just shut up and listen –"

"Okay, we're listening," said Wes. He sat on the edge of the desk.

"When the ghost, or whatever it was, took over the fortuneteller, I had a vision of Darla and a teenage girl."

"Who was it?" asked Fred.

Cordy shook her head. "I don't know. All I know is that she's scared." She stood up and looked for a dust cloth, needing something to do. "As we were driving down Wilshire and getting ready to turn into the hotel, I saw her again. One minute I was resting and the next, bam."

"Bam?" asked Angel.

"Right in front of the truck. On the road. I think I screamed. Gunn slammed the brakes –"

"I thought it was someone dressed up, you know, in costume," Gunn said.

"You saw her, too?" Wes asked.

"All three of us did," said Fred.

Cordy moved Angel out of the way and got the dust cloth and the Pledge out of the filing cabinet. She sprayed some on top of the cabinet and started scrubbing. "We got out of the car and went around to look for her, but she was gone."

Angel put his hands gently on her shoulders and turned her to face him. "Cordelia. Give me the cleaning supplies."

She sucked in a breath. "Angel – I –"

"I know." He put out his hands. "Give them to me."

With a shudder, she handed them over. In return, Angel helped her back to the chair.

Wes knelt in front of her. "And then…?"

"Angel and Gunn were pushing me down the driveway and I was steering –" She gulped. "Then the truck just…turned on. And the gas pedal hit the floor all by itself. I thought, 'Oh, my God, I don't have on my seatbelt.' And then I thought about my parents, and all of you guys and –"

Wes took her hands. "I'm sorry that happened to you. It must have been frightening, especially after last week."

She looked down at their hands, entwined. "I'm starting to think the Powers have it in for me."

Wes became brisk. "Now, Cordelia. You know that's not true." He stood and glanced at Angel, then Gunn. "What we must do, is find her before Darla does."

Angel's eyes widened, like it was just dawning on him. "Darla's here? In LA?"

"I don't think so. This was more like flashes of old pictures. I saw Darla smiling at this teenage girl, like she was beckoning her. Then I saw Darla, um, gagging her and throwing her on the ground." She winced.

"What did the girl look like?" Wes asked.

"Brown hair, brown eyes," said Gunn.

Fred said, "Young and scared."

"That was one of Darla's favorite games. To find a street kid, lure him or her in and then spend days playing with them."

"Nice," said Gunn.

Cordelia picked up her tea and sipped again. "Wes, did you get anything off the fortuneteller?"

He shook his head. "She couldn't remember anything."

"Does anyone remember that word? That the Ouija board spelled?" asked Cordy.

"Yeah, what was it? Calamata?" asked Fred. She'd changed into her street clothes, but there was still a smudge of black grease paint where she'd painted on the cat's nose.

"No, it was…." Wes closed his eyes and his lips moved as he sounded out syllables.

"K-U-C-I-M-A-T-A," spelled Gunn.

Angel had gone very still. "Did you say kućimata?" The word sounded both gutteral and fluid.

"What's it mean?"

"It's a cry for help. In Romani."

Wes snapped his fingers. "It's the language spoken by gypsies." He looked horrified. "I should have known – I must have been so taken aback –"

"Well, that's great," said Cordy. "Because we all know how well Angel and gypsies get along."

"I don't like this," said Angel. "This can't be good."

Wes turned to Angel. "Do you want to excuse yourself? No one would think less of you."

He considered it. "If this thing hadn't gone after Cordelia, I'd say yes. But as it is, it nearly killed her." He looked at her.

She couldn't remember him pulling her from the Jeep. But she did remember what it felt like to open her eyes and find him wrapped around her, like her personal bulletproof vest. "You're not going anywhere," she said.

"Do you think you could all describe her enough for Angel to draw her?" asked Wes. He handed the pad to Angel. "Maybe we could use that as a starting point."

"Are we sure we're not talking about the gypsy that got you into this mess in the first place? I mean, how many of them did Darla go after, anyway?" Gunn asked.

Angel looked down. "We lived there a long time."

Gunn's mouth flattened. "You two had way too much time on your hands."

Cordy closed her eyes to try to get a better focus. The only thing she could see was the girl, pleading for help. Then the muffled screams started again in her head. Her eyes popped open.

"Okay, who wants to start?" Angel asked.

"I will." Cordelia took a breath and closed her eyes again. The voice was back, louder this time. "She's young, um, 15 or 16?"

"That's good." Angel's voice was soft.

"Her hair was brown," said Gunn. "Just plain brown, not really dark and not really blond. Maybe shoulder length, but it was hard to tell."

"Darla had on a hat and a pink dress. The girl wore a black embroidered vest over a white gown," said Cordy.

Fred said, "I thought it was an old-fashioned nightgown."

Angel let out a little sound.

"Angel?" Fred leaned forward.

Cordelia noticed something on the pad. He must have been drawing as she talked because when she turned the pad, there was the girl, just like she'd seen her. "That's her!"

He dropped the pad.

"Oh, my God," said Cordy, when she saw Angel's face. "It is your gypsy. Gunn was right!"

Angel's color had faded. "If that girl's ghost is back, it's because they sent her. They're doing something else to me, punishing me for what I did to her –"

"What else can they do to you, Angel?" asked Cordy. "They cursed you with a soul and when you lost it, Buffy sent you to hell. Then, to top it off, you had to sing Barry Manilow in public."

"You all have to go." He looked fierce. "I'm not getting you killed over something I did."

Cordelia shook her head. "We have to stay." She put her hand on his arm. "You went to hell for me, just last week. This week? It's my turn to help you."

"Yeah, we're not budging," said Fred.

"Last thing we need is another Beige Angel." Gunn shook his head. "We'll just have to figure out what she wants."

"And get rid of her," said Cordy.

His eyes narrowed. "She's already tried to hurt you. I can't let that happen again."

"Nothing's going to happen to any of us. We're going to get through this, Angel. I promise." She looked at Wes. "What do we need to do to make her leave?"

"We could do a cleansing, like you did with Dennis's mother." Wes was already digging through the pile of books on his desk.

"Good! Let's do that." She looked at Angel

He winced. "I wish I could bring her back and give her the life I stole from her."

"Maybe just letting her rest is enough," said Gunn.

Wes opened a book and scanned through until he found what he was looking for. "This should be pretty straightforward. It looks like we have all the supplies we need here."

***

Wes compiled the ingredients list and Cordelia and Fred went to the closet to gather them. Angel and Gunn talked in the corner, their voices quiet.

"What do you suppose they're talking about?" Fred asked.

"Angel's telling him to stake him if things get out of hand." Cordy pulled down a jar and read the label. "Do you think we can substitute dried sheep's blood for dried goat's blood?"

"Doesn't seem like it'd make that much difference." Fred looked down into the cardboard box at the ingredients they'd already gathered. "Plus, we don't really have time to run out to the store."

"Good point." She dropped the Ziploc bag of dried blood into the box on top of the salt.

"Would Gunn do that? Stake him, I mean? Angel's his friend –"

"Are you kidding? They're not friends." She reached for the lungwort. "Gunn could never be friends with a vampire." Her head was starting to throb again. "Can you take this into the office and give it to Wes? I need to run to the bathroom."

"Sure thing."

Cordelia closed the bathroom door behind her and opened the medicine cabinet. She took four more painkillers and sat on the toilet lid.

Angel's gypsy was back. What if they did this spell and something went wrong and he lost his curse and turned into Angelus again? Gunn was fast, but he'd never seen Angelus in action.

There was a tap at the door. "Cordy? You okay?"

"Fine, Angel. Be right out." She felt shaky and exhausted. Not the best time to do a spell, but like Fred said they didn't have a choice.

The door opened and he peeked in.

"Hey. What if I'd been peeing, or something?"

Angel came in and shut the door behind him. "I want you to leave. Before we do this."

She sighed. "For the ten thousandth time, no."

"Cordelia, if anything happens to me –"

"I'll stake you dead."

He leaned against the door and closed his eyes.

"This really sucks. On so many levels." She stood. "But if you can pull me from a moving vehicle, I think we can handle a little spell."

After a minute he looked at her. "You feeling okay?"

"Not really." She smiled. "But don't tell them that."

"Cordy –"

"Hey, you’re the one with broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder."

He winced. "I never said anything about the ribs."

"Didn't have to." She dropped her head against his chest. His arm came around her. "Look, let's just get this over with so I can go home to my nice, normal, safe ghost."

Wes tapped on the door. "Cordelia, Angel we're ready."

"So much for privacy," Angel said.

She stepped back. "Let's go." She put her hand on the knob.

Angel stopped her. "Promise me—"

She met his eyes. "I promise."

***

Wes drew a circle on the lobby floor with salt then put the jar of bile in the center. At the reception counter, Fred mixed the lungwort, dried sheep's blood and hawthorn berries in Wes's worn mortar and pestle. Gunn stood next to her reading the spell, which Wesley had printed off for them.

Cordelia and Angel sat on the round couch, shoulder to shoulder. "This could get ugly," he said. "Remember Maude?"

"How could I forget her? Bitch tried to chap me to death."

He cracked a smile.

"Okay, I think we're ready," Wes said. He motioned to Gunn and Fred. "Who's reading?"

"I will," said Fred, handing Gunn the charred bowl of powdered herbs. "I know Latin."

"Great. I'll be stinky herb guy," Gunn said. He took a lighter from his pocket and held it sideways over the bowl. "Just say when."

Wes took a breath. "Angel?"

Angel nodded. "I'll stay over here, out of the way. Just in case."

"And I'm staying with him," Cordy said.

Wes looked at Gunn, who put the flame to the herbs. "Fire in the hole," he said. A tendril of smoke curled upward and filled the air with an acrid smell.

Cordy shivered at the memories the smell evoked: The floating bed. The flying knives. The noose tightening around her neck.

Fred stood in the center of the circle and started reading the spell in clearly enunciated Latin. The lights flickered. Fred paused and looked up, waiting to see if they stayed on.

Wes pulled a Mag-Lite out of his pants pocket and passed it to her. She took it and started reading again.

Pylea must have been quite the training ground, Cordy thought. Not many people she knew could read a cleansing spell without so much as a trembling hand.

Gunn stepped over the salt line, put the bowl of smoking herbs into the circle and stepped back out to stand next to Wes.

Cordelia could feel her own tension rising. Next to her, Angel's body tightened the way it did before a fight. He was braced, ready for anything.

Wes and Gunn shifted so they stood back to back, like warriors watching for danger.

The smoke in the bowl turned to flame and flared up, waist-high.

"Fred! Watch out!" Wes yelled.

She danced out of the way, catching herself just short of the line of salt.

When she started reading again, a breeze ripped the air. As she chanted, the wind picked up until it tore her hair back from her face and sent the magazines on the reception desk scattering like leaves.

Cordelia grabbed Angel's hand and they watched as the wind formed a tornado in the middle of the lobby. The funnel grew, picking up the fallen magazines, a stack of mail and a bunch of dust. It darkened to the color of storm clouds.

Fred yelled the spell, her mouth wide open and her eyes squinted nearly shut. The wind blew so hard that it knocked her sideways. Gunn leapt the circle and grabbed her from behind, anchoring her like a bottlebrush tree during the Santa Anas.

Then a face formed in the funnel.

"Oh, crap! It's her!" Cordy pointed. "It's the gypsy girl!"

Angel looked up.

The girl saw him and screamed, the sound so loud that Cordelia had to cover her ears. The weapons cabinet cracked open and the tallest axe flew out, aiming straight for Angel.

He pushed Cordy out of the line of fire. The gypsy girl screamed again and the axe drew back over Angel's head, ready to strike.

The lobby door opened and the fortuneteller walked in, still in costume.

Spell broken, the tornado exploded, littering the floor with a burst of dust and paper. The axe hit the tile with a clatter.

Fred looked up from her paper. "Well, what'd you go and do that for?"

Her eyes widened. "Um – I –" She homed in on Wes. "You told me to come by --? If I remembered anything?"

Wes looked at Angel, at the axe on the floor then back at the girl. "Um, yes, thank you for coming. Do come in. We were just –"

Before she could take a step, the girl jerked like a puppet whose strings had been yanked. Her eyes filmed over and she sprinted across the room, scooped up the axe and swung it toward Angel.

He did one of his magic vampire moves and sent the axe spinning across the room, where it embedded in the wall next to the stairs and stuck, bouncing like a plucked string.

Cordy, still on the floor, crawled out of the way while Angel dodged the girl's flying fists. She didn't have to speak Romani to know that the girl was spitting obscenities at him.

By the time Wes and Gunn reacted, Angel had shut the girl down by pinning her arms at her side. She still struggled and got a good head to the chin, which made Angel grunt.

Then Cordy realized that the girl wasn't just mad, she was terrified. "Angel." When he didn't respond, she yelled, "Angel!"

"Little busy here, Cordy!"

"She's scared. Let her go." Cordy stood and came forward slowly, like she was approaching a wild animal. "Who here speaks Romani?" she asked calmly. "Besides Angel!"

Wes said, sheepishly, "I do. A little."

Angel dropped his hands and stepped away.

The girl ran for the door, but Gunn stepped in front of it. She skidded to a halt.

"Tell her you know she's scared," said Cordelia.

Wes relayed the message in a soothing voice, his hands in the air like a man at gunpoint.

The girl was shivering, eyes ticking from Angel to Wes to Gunn, looking for a break.

"You know she wants to run," said Fred. "Tell her I know how she feels."

Wes repeated the words in halting Romani, sounding things out carefully.

That got the girl's attention and she focused on Fred. "I know you want to run, but you can't anymore. There's nowhere else to go."

Emotions ran over the girl's face, fear and vulnerability and a soul-deep weariness.

"You're tired. You can't keep running," said Fred, moving a step closer. "You need to stop now and rest."

A shudder ran through the girl's body and she spoke, her voice breaking. Tears slid down her face.

Angel swallowed.

"Oh, God," said Wes.

"What?" Cordy asked.

"She's looking for her lover," Angel said. "She's been looking for him since the night she died."

"Why can't she find him?" Cordy asked. "Why is she still here?"

Wes asked the girl the questions. "She's lost," he said. "Doors keep opening and she keeps going through, but none of them are the right one."

Now the girl was talking so fast that Wes had to hold up his hand and ask her to slow down. He nodded, taking it in. "She just wants to go home. And then she came through the door tonight – I think she must mean the Ouija board – and felt Angel's connection to you." He looked at Cordy.

The gypsy turned to Angel and spoke.

He answered in a voice that cracked. His shoulders slumped like he carried her actual weight on them.

As they spoke, the air in the room slowly eased, the crackling energy smoothing out and becoming calmer. Still, the hair on Cordelia's arms prickled.

The girl was crying hard now, the tears turning back to anger. In a jerky move, she put out her hand. The axe pulled itself free from the wall and flew to her.

"No!" Cordy yelled, running toward her. She got two steps before she was stopped by what felt like an invisible brick wall.

Angel said, "Don't try to stop her. I deserve this." He knelt in front of the girl and looked up at her. His face was lit from within, like he'd breathed pure light.

There was nothing Cordelia could do except watch as the gypsy raised the axe. Tears fell down her face as she thought about her own near death earlier that night. How her last thought had been of Angel.

Angel, I can't lose you. I can't –

But just as she was about to drop the axe, the girl stopped, like someone had called her name. She looked up toward the ceiling, her eyes going wide. She cried out, first a question and then in wonder.

Then, like a mist in the breeze, she was gone.

The fortuneteller collapsed to the floor. Again, the axe landed with a clatter. The invisible walls came down and Cordelia's momentum carried her forward, where she fell at Angel's side.

While Wes and Gunn rushed to care for the fortuneteller, Cordelia and Fred flanked Angel.

"Are you okay?' Fred asked. "I was so worried!"

He raised his head and looked toward the ceiling. Then he nodded. "I think, for the first time in 200 years, I'm really fine."

"Is it because she forgave you, in the end?" asked Fred.

He shook his head. "She just saw something she wanted more than killing me."

Wes and Gunn had helped the fortuneteller to the couch. Wes came over and said, under his breath, "Poor girl. That's twice in one night. I think we're going to see her home."

"Probably a good idea," Angel said.

"I'll help," said Fred. She hopped up and ran to Wes' side.

Cordelia and Angel were left alone in the storm-blown lobby. He picked up the axe, took it to the weapons cabinet and secured it.

"But if she didn't forgive you," Cordelia asked, "what happened?"

He smiled. "I forgave myself."

Suddenly the night caught up with her. Cordy slid to the couch, her body one big throb.

"Let me take you home." Angel was already looking for his keys.

"I don't think I can make it. I'll just take your couch. Or whatever."

He shook his head. "Last time you said that, it lead to peanut butter on my sheets." He sighed and held out his hand. "Come on, then."

Cordelia let him pull her up. "Do you think this means your soul is anchored?"

His head cocked. "Why would it be?"

"Because you were – I don't know, willing to go all sacrifice-y for her."

"There's only one way to find out." He shook his head. "And that's a risk I'm not willing to take."

"Even though Buffy's back?" And living just a couple of hours away?

"Buffy's…changed. And so have I. If I wanted to test your theory, I'm not sure she'd be the one I'd do it with anymore." He looked down at her and smiled.

"You were the last person I thought of, when I thought I was going to die," she blurted. Where had that come from?

Angel put his arm around her. "I'm glad you're safe. If I'd lost you –"

She put her head on his shoulder as they climbed the stairs. "Like you can ever get rid of me."

He laughed. "Like I'd ever want to."

END

Challenge by samsmom:

Fred brings an Ouija Board into the Hyperion and unwittingly draws down the spirit of the gypsy girl Angel was cursed for killing. She’s angry, and wants to take what Angel values most, the heart of AI - Cordelia. Angel and the rest of AI must save Cordelia from Angel’s past, and perhaps lift the curse once and for all.

This fic hared off, all Mulder-like, in a direction all its own. LOL Samsmom, I hope you're okay with the results anyway!

 


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