"Now that she's back from that soul vacation
Tracing her way through the constellation,
She checks out Mozart while she does tae-bo
Reminds me that there's room to grow..."

It was a two-hour drive from Los Angeles to Sunnydale; theoretically, they should have gotten there by about 2:30 in the morning. But Angel's driving was way more sedate than usual -- he took the relatively clear freeways like a little old lady. Wesley hadn't been much help either, since he'd taken forever to gather up his books and dither over which notes to take, in Cordelia's apartment and in his. Cordelia refused to take responsibility for anything other than the four bathroom breaks, all of which had absolutely been necessary.

They really had to lay off the coffee.

So there they were, parked outside Giles' condo with about twenty minutes to go until sunrise, staring silently at the courtyard. Nobody made a move to get out of the car, nobody said anything. Cordelia was fairly sure Angel hadn't even blinked in ten minutes.

"This is pathetic." Wesley and Angel both jolted as Cordelia's voice cut through the early-morning silence.

"Excuse me?" Wesley blinked nervously.

"Us. We're pathetic. Sitting out here because we're all too afraid to go up and knock on the door and say, 'Hi, Giles, we're back.' Behold the patheticness that is us."

"I don't see you getting out," Angel said testily.

Cordelia shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I'm going to. In just a second." She kept up the determined expression for a little longer, then sighed and let her forehead fall against the top of the door. "Or I might just hide in here with you guys because I'm part of the us that's pathetic."

Wesley reached forward from the back seat and patted her on the shoulder; it would have been more soothing if she couldn't see that 'I'm resigned to my impending doom' expression on his face in the windshield. "We really should get inside," he offered uncertainly. "The sun will be up shortly and we are in a convertible."

"Yeah," Angel agreed, his voice studiously blank, and Cordelia nodded against the door.

No one moved.

It wasn't that they were really scared, Cordelia told herself. Angel Investigations faced down demons, vampires and lawyers -- she flinched away from that thought -- on a daily basis. Hack, slash, kill, go home and wait for the next one. They laughed in the face of danger, or at least made lots of witty comments before they attacked or ran away, so it wasn't like they were cowards or anything.


So if they could face the denizens of the underworld, then taking on the Scooby Gang, who probably weren't going to try to kill them, should be a snap.


She moaned softly and bounced her head gently against the door frame.

"Okay, that's it." Angel lifted himself out of the car without bothering to open the door, and came around to Cordelia's side to open hers. She looked up at him miserably as he offered her his hand to help her out.

"We can do this," he assured her, looking over her shoulder at Wesley as she got out. "We just have to stick together."

"Yes," Wesley nodded, taking a deep breath before climbing out of the backseat. "We'll watch each other's backs, as always."

"The first person who says 'All for one' gets kicked," Cordelia muttered. Her lips curved up in spite of herself as the guys chuckled; she straightened her shoulders and set her chin in her best Queen C attitude. "Okay, let's do this."

By unanimous, if unspoken, consent, they left the books and duffel bags for someone else (read: Riley and Xander) to carry in, and walked down the steps and across the courtyard to Giles' door. As her shoes tapped against the flagstones, Cordelia fought back a flood of memories: a few of them happy ("Fair's fair. I read your book, Giles, now you have to watch my movie."), lots of them frantic ("Could we get moving if we're going to go kill things! I have cheerleading practice in an hour!"), most of them too painful to look at directly ("Oh my god. Ms Calendar...").

Angel's hand touched her elbow lightly and she looked up to see the same kind of emotions flickering through his eyes. "When we're done here, we should go to the Bronze," she told him quietly. "Really relive the old days."

He chuckled again and almost sounded like he meant it. "Yeah. We will."

Cordelia leaned her head against his shoulder and offered her other hand to Wesley. He took it for a moment, holding it like a lifeline, then let it drop as they came up to Giles' door. They braced themselves and Cordelia knocked.

Giles opened the door, holding his glasses and a book in one hand, and for a second it really was like old times. He blinked at them, then smiled wearily. "At last. We were expecting you hours ago."

Cordelia made a face and decided not to try to explain. "Traffic," she offered like a good little Californian, and Giles nodded.

"Well, come in," he said, carefully not looking at Angel at he stood aside to make room.

They filed past him into the living room, which was lit only by a few lamps and the pale early morning light. Cordelia had expected to find the place swarming with Slayerettes, but it was empty, stacks of books and empty popcorn bags the only sign that a herd of teenagers had been there recently.

She gave Giles a quizzical look, where he stood leaning against the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room, and he shrugged lightly. "I thought it best to keep your, ah, welcoming committee to a minimum."

Cordelia looked at Giles, then at the empty room. Then she wrapped her arms around his waist. "You rock, Giles," she told him. "Thank you."

"Yes, well..." He returned her hug sincerely, if awkwardly; she had to fight an unexpected, and slightly weird, urge to snuggle in against his sweatshirt. It wasn't tweed, but it still felt strangely like home. "I'm just grateful you chose to come. All of you," Giles added, forcing himself to look at Angel and Wesley as Cordelia forced herself to let go of him.

Angel looked away, but Wesley cleared his throat and took a step forward. "Yes, well..." he echoed. "Anything we can do to help." He and Giles shook hands and it was a beautiful moment, in a reserved-English-guys kind of way.

"So," Giles said after a moment, "it's quite late -- or early, rather -- and I'm sure all of you must be tired. Cordelia, you're welcome to use my room if you'd like a nap; I'm afraid Wesley and, ah, Angel will have to fight it out for the couch."

"Oh, I managed to catch a bit of sleep in the car," Wesley lied. "I'd really like to take a look at the prophecy you discovered. Did you check--"

"Yes, Giles, I'd love to take a nap," Cordelia inserted firmly, before Geek Boy could really get rolling. "Angel, don't forget to bring the cooler in from the car before the blood gets icky, because I'm not cleaning it up. Wesley, don't think I'm not going to make you get some sleep when I wake up. Giles, please make sure both of them eat, they tend to skip the food thing if you don't watch them every second."

Angel rolled his eyes, Wesley stuttered, and Giles blinked a few times before putting his glasses back on and crossing his arms. "I believe Xander was going to stop for doughnuts on his way over," he said mildly, a very amused gleam in his eyes. "Will that be acceptable?"

Cordelia nodded. "It'll do. Wake me up when everyone gets here, guys."


They didn't, of course. Cordelia made several mental death threats towards her co-workers as she rolled over and looked at Giles' clock radio, which clearly showed that she'd been asleep for almost five hours. She'd wanted to be there for the first confrontations -- Buffy and Angel meetings were always ugly, and she didn't trust the Scoobies not to be mean to Wesley.

Giles' bathroom was actually in pretty good shape for a guy, she discovered. It was clean anyway, even if he was in dire need of new towels, but every guy she'd ever known was in dire need of new towels. She giggled for a moment at the mousse hidden in the medicine cabinet (duh, of course she looked), then settled herself to the serious business of making herself look perfect. There was a certain amount of security in knowing Angel and Wesley were downstairs, but still, no way she was taking on the old crowd without perfect makeup and hair. She had a reputation to maintain, after all.

And when she couldn't think of any more little grooming tasks, she sucked in a deep breath and forced herself to head down the stairs towards the voices.

"Good morning, Cordelia," Angel greeted her first, since he was sitting closest to the stairs. He was wearing his 'I'm just going to stay here and brood all casual-like' expression; that his chair also happened as far away from Buffy that he could manage to be without leaving the room was probably his major motivation for taking it. Since Buffy was sitting next to a big, cute-in-a-Ken-doll-kind-of-way guy who had to be Riley, Cordelia really couldn't blame Angel for making that call.

Cordelia hugged him on her way past -- just to offer support, not for the satisfaction of seeing Buffy's eyes narrow. Well, mostly.

"Morning, Angel. Hi, everyone." She waved breezily at the rest of the room, who echoed the greeting with varying levels of enthusiasm, and headed towards the open doughnut box as if she didn't have another care in the world. She carefully chose the last remaining chocolate glazed, then leaned back against the counter, took a bite, and surveyed the room. "Any luck on the research front?"

"Um, a little," Willow offered, from where she was sitting on the couch, snuggled up with a kind of attractive blonde girl, who had better be Tara or Willow had some serious explaining to do. Actually, Willow had some serious explaining to do, period. "We, um, found some supporting evidence for the prophecy--"

"Good to know." Cordelia cut her off without blinking, and strolled over to the couch. "You must be Tara," she said, extending her hand to the other girl. "I'm Cordelia. Don't believe anything they told you, unless it was about my amazing fashion sense."

Tara blushed and stammered. "I'm... p-pleased to meet you," she managed finally. Her handshake wasn't exactly strong, but it wasn't wussy, either, and she had kind of a nice smile. Pretty much what Cordelia would have expected from Willow's girlfriend, if she'd ever expected Willow to have a girlfriend.

Xander was sprawled out in the battered armchair he'd always claimed when research parties wound up at Giles', Anya curled up on his lap. He looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to stand up and be polite, or maybe even attempt a hug; Anya looked determined, like there was no way in hell she was moving. Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Hello, Xander."

"Hi, Cordy," he returned carefully. "Um, you remember Anya."

"Oh, yeah." She smiled tightly at her own personal vengeance demon, who smiled back with equal insincerity. Giles intervened before blood could be spilled.

"And this, of course, is Riley Finn," he said, gesturing towards the Ken doll, who'd had gotten to his feet when she came in, and who shook her hand over the back of the couch.

"Pleased to meet you," he offered with a polite smile, and one wary eye on Angel.

"Oh, the pleasure's mine," Cordelia assured him with great insincerity. She leaned against the back of the couch behind Wesley, seated on the other end from the Gay Pride members, and looked over his shoulder at the book he was reading. "Earth to Wes -- are we awake down there?"

He gave her a pained look, brushing away the crumbs she'd dropped on the pages. "Yes, Cordelia, we are."

She grinned and took another bite, scattering more crumbs. "Find anything?"

He finally closed the book on one finger and gave her his best 'pained yet terribly resigned' look. "Are you going to help, or merely be irritating?"

She pretended to think about it. "Well, you know, I do irritating really, really well, and I don't want to get out of practice--"

"Not much chance of that," Angel muttered behind her. She glared over her shoulder and he tried to look innocent. He failed, but it was a good try.

"--but I suppose I could contribute some help on the research front." She settled on the couch between Wesley and Tara, which forced her to sit much closer to Wesley than she normally would have. It was worth it for both the comfort factor and the glances the Scooby Gang exchanged.

Wesley gave her an extremely knowing sideways look, but he didn't try to make her move, just passed over a book. She took it, asking, "So, what are we looking for?"

"We already did the briefing," Anya informed her cheerfully. "You weren't awake."

"Because someone didn't wake me up," Cordelia returned, with another glare at Angel. "So, give me the highlights, please. Giles," she added fast when Wesley started to answer. He looked hurt, but deferred to the other former Watcher, and she patted his arm. She loved Wes and all, but Giles would get to the point. Eventually.

Giles didn't stutter like he would have even a year ago; he just pushed his glasses up and leaned against the wall beside the bookcase. "Well, I've been under a certain amount of, ah, pressure to attempt to discover prophecies affecting the Slayer and the Hellmouth a bit further in advance of the events they predict--"

"Yeah, to give us 24 hours notice instead of 24 seconds," Xander heckled from the other side of the room.

"We need a little Daytimer," Willow agreed cheerfully. "Apocalypse next Thursday. Bring stakes and doughnuts."

"--and we may actually have had a bit of success in doing so," Giles talked firmly over his peanut gallery. "It was located in a... Well, actually, the cover is blank and the title page, if there ever was one, is long missing, but I've found other useful information in the volume before, so I have no reason to doubt its veracity."

"I meant to ask, do you have any idea where the book came from? Who it was written by? What--" Cordelia glared at Wesley, and he cleared his throat. "That is, he found a glancing reference to a prophecy -- in verse, no less."

"Prophecies in poetry," Cordelia grimaced. "Always so much fun."

"Yes, well... Substandard prophets do tend to try to disguise their lack of knowledge with pretty rhymes, while above-standard seers aren't above using them to be purposefully obfuscatory, thus raising the question of why they bothered to write them down in the first place--" Buffy cleared her throat meaningfully and Giles stopped short; Cordelia caught herself throwing Buffy a commiserating glance and stopped. "Ah. Yes. Be that as it may, the rough translation for what I found is, ah..."

He scrounged for and located a battered notebook, reading aloud, "In sun's valley shall vice bind/Knowledge, strength and soul-trapped night/Life and death twist intertwined/'Til dark shall cover all the light."

"Very good, you kept the rhyme scheme," Wesley commented absently, twisting around to look at Angel. "'Soul-trapped night'.... You still believe that refers to Angel? Rather tenuous, I would say."

"Um, yeah," Cordelia agreed. "For this we drove all night?"

"It wouldn't have been all night," Angel pointed out, "if someone hadn't stopped five times to--"

"It was four times." Cordelia corrected him haughtily, ruining the effect by wrinkling her nose. He smiled slightly, shaking his head.

"If I may?" Giles interrupted the byplay with awful dignity. His glasses gave a faint 'clink' as he laid them on the bookcase. "Yes, it is a bit vague. However, the time referents in the section place the prophecy sometime very soon -- conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, and a few other..." Cordelia's eyes began to glaze over and he stopped himself again. "At any rate, given that fact, and that 'sun's valley' almost certainly translates to Sunnydale--"

"It's a reasonable assumption that it's speaking of Angel. Yes. Strength referring to Buffy?" Wesley suggested. Angel's expression was suddenly intense, his muscles tight. He jumped to his feet and started prowling the edges of the room, forgetting to keep his distance from Riley and Buffy, Cordelia noticed. Riley noticed too, judging from how tense he'd suddenly gotten.

"That would be my assumption," Giles agreed. "However, assumption--"

"--Is the mother of mistakes, yes," Wesley completed -- some old Watcher mantra probably -- as he reopened the book he'd set aside. "Wait a moment, I'd just found... Yes. In his Librus, Matellus refers to a binding, creating a circle of... Here it is, 'a circle of magic and blood' to call upon... Well, it's not precisely clear what is being called, but certainly something quite powerful. And, again, the other referents seem to point to something quite soon -- we were actually researching this very thing when you called last night."

Giles wandered over to read over Wesley's shoulder; Cordelia tried to do the same, but sat back again when she saw the Latin. Why did prophecies always have to be in totally dead languages? Wasn't anyone thinking about the future when they wrote the things?

"Yes, I see what you mean," Giles said finally.

"The language is quite clear." Wesley reached over and took the book Cordelia was still holding, over her half-hearted protests. "I've another here that also made a rather vague reference..."

His voice trailed off as he flipped through the pages. Giles said, "Yes and there may be more. We could check--"

Cordelia watched them with resignation, then leaned over to whisper to Tara, "Can't you just feel the brain waves zinging back and forth between these two? I bet the TV explodes."

Surprisingly, Tara giggled. "I th-think the computer might go first. It's closer."

"Or maybe the phone," Willow agreed, and the three women grinned at each other.

Wesley ignored them all. "Perhaps our arrival in Sunnydale was not the best of ideas," he was saying to Giles.

"If the prophecy truly does involve Angel, I'm sure it would have found a way to bring him there regardless," Giles pointed out. "It will probably be easier to combine forces from the beginning."

"Cool." Buffy bounced to her feet, her patience with the Watcherspeak obviously gone. Cordelia was right there with her, but tried to look mature and interested anyway. "So where do we start? And do I get to pummel anyone?"

"Somehow, I don't think it'll be that simple," Angel observed wryly.

"Like it ever is," Cordelia sighed. "But I seriously don't think you can pummel anything until we, like, figure out what you need to pummel. And I don't think we can track down the guy who wrote the lousy poetry and pummel him."

"Not that the idea isn't an appealing one." Giles smiled slightly at Cordelia before looking over at Buffy. "Give us a bit more time before you go out to, ah, pummel anything."

"Fine." Buffy gave a really great tortured sigh, but she'd always been good at those. "I've got class anyway, and tell me again whose great idea summer school was?"

"I think it was your professor's," Riley told her. "The one whose class you flunked?"

"Which one?" Buffy asked, making a face. But she snuggled back into Riley's arms when he put them around her, and Cordelia watched them with a pang. Lindsey used to hold her like that, when she was complaining about a bad audition. Then he'd start kissing her neck and...

She got up abruptly and started for the kitchen, with no real goal in mind except to get away from the cute couple. She almost bumped into Angel, heading in the same direction. "Tough, huh?" she asked sympathetically as they went into the kitchen, patting his shoulder because he looked like he needed it.

He shrugged, his face neutral but his eyes hurting, and put water on to boil. "I can handle it."

"I know you can." She still made a mental note to tell Buffy to knock it off with the PDAs for a while. You'd think the girl would have developed some sensitivity by now. Oh wait, she reminded herself, it's Buffy you're talking about. No chance. "Want some help with the tea?"

Angel almost managed not to wince. "No, that's okay. You know, Wesley still hasn't gotten any sleep," he said, sacrificing their co-worker without a second's hesitation. "You should probably go talk to him about it."

She gave him a look just so he knew she knew what he was up to, but wandered back out into the living room. Most of the Scoobies were getting ready to leave. "So, we'll meet back here in a few hours?" Xander was saying, picking up a backpack with the hand Anya wasn't glommed onto.

"I'm there," Buffy agreed. "And if Team Research hasn't got anything, at least we'll have time for some good gossip." She grinned at Cordelia and it almost looked genuine.

Cordelia blinked, then smiled back, and it felt just about as real. "Oh, yeah; I still haven't gotten any details on this whole 'Hi, I'm gay now' thing Willow's got going."

Tara and Willow both blushed and Xander laughed, getting a poke in the ribs from Anya. Buffy snorted very unattractively and retaliated, "Actually, I was thinking that someone's got some dirt to dish about a certain possibly-evil lawyer she's been dating?"

Cordelia's smile faded; she fought the urge to cross her arms protectively and managed to just shrug. "Ancient history, believe me. Which is totally of the good."

"Oh." Maybe Buffy had developed some sensitivity; amazingly, she looked like she knew she'd said something wrong. More amazingly, she offered, "Um, want me to blow off my class and we'll go track down some chocolate or something? A little girl talk?"

Willow and Tara both looked willing, and even Xander looked sympathetic; so much for the old untouchable facade. What was worse was that the whole idea sounded not unappealing. L.A. really was turning her into a wuss. "Tcha," Cordelia waved them off. "Like I said, so last week. I'm gonna stay here and make someone--" She narrowed her eyes at Wesley, "--get some sleep before he falls on his face. I'll catch you guys later."

"Okay." Buffy looked relieved and took off with Riley; Xander hung back for a second, but Anya had a death grip on his arm and dragged him with her. Willow looked at Cordelia with big eyes and almost said something; a glare silenced her and she settled back onto the couch with Tara and their books. Good. Looked like L.A. hadn't killed all the old instincts.

With nothing better to do, Cordelia sank back down next to Wesley, deciding it would be too cute or vulnerable or something to lean against him in front of Willow and Tara. "So, sleeping?" she said instead, pointedly. "Since I got so much sleep and all...."

"Take it up with Angel," Wesley replied without looking away from his book. "I wanted to wake you."

"Excuse me?" Angel, coming out of the kitchen with teacups in hand, straightened in righteous indignation. "'We should let Cordelia sleep; she'll be much less irritable with a few hours rest.' Does that sound familiar to anyone but me?"

His imitation of Wesley was dead-on; Cordelia gave Wesley a hard stare and he started fiddling with his glasses. Tara and Willow's eyes followed the exchange with fascination. "Yes, well..."

"Sleep, Wesley," Cordelia ordered, pointing at the stairs. "The mean ol' prophecy will still be here when you wake up, and you might even be able to focus on the page well enough to read it."

He gave her what probably would have been a pout on anyone less British, but put the book down and headed up to bed with only a minimal amount of resistance. Angel took his place on the couch and picked up the book Wesley had put down, handing Cordelia the tea that had been intended for the other man.

"Got anything fun and demony for me to read that's in, like, English?" Cordelia asked as she sipped, her smile of triumph only a little smug.

"Not really," Angel said after a quick survey. "You could try the computer, though."

"Yeah, I could do that," Cordelia sighed, getting up. "Looking for all hits in the World of the Weird?"

"Please," Giles responded from the depths of his own thick volume.

"My laptop's on the desk," Willow volunteered. "You turn it on at the side and plug in--"

"I've got it, Willow," Cordelia assured her, starting up the computer and making sure the modem cable was plugged in. "Honest, I hardly ever hit the deliver key any more."

Willow blinked, then winced when the memory floated to the surface. "Um, right. That's good. That you've learned. To use... The Sunnydale Chronicle archives are free," she concluded meekly into her book.

"Cool. Got it." Cordelia settled down to work, focusing intently on the screen and willing research to block out anything remotely related to Sunnydale or L.A., and everyone in both cities.

Wow, it was fun to be home again.


"So, how weird is it that Cordelia was in the same room with the rest of the gang for almost half an hour, and didn't insult anyone even once? And that whole thing with her and Wesley joking instead of vibing -- what was up with that?"

"You've got me; considering that I don't know Cordelia, I'm taking your word for it being weird."

Buffy gave Riley an exasperated look, which made him grin, then looked narrowly at a shadow in a nearby alley. Yep, blowing newspaper; the only creepy thing around here was a litterbug. She fell back into step with her boyfriend. "Okay, fair enough. But trust me, it's way of the weird."

"Kind of weird that any of them came back," Riley offered, his hand tightening on hers. "It hasn't sounded to me like they left under very good conditions."

"Not so you'd notice." Buffy made a face. "And not all of that was their fault. Well, Wesley was mostly his own fault, but he seems to be growing out of the total dorkness that was him. And Cordelia was, as previously mentioned, actually being nice, and Angel... Well, he's Angel. He carries around his whole big thing of baggage."

"Very fair of you."

"Thank you." She took a couple quick steps to keep up with Riley's longer legs, frowning at him. "Stop speeding up every time I say Angel's name. I'm wandering around holding your hand, not his, so be nice."

"Right." His face didn't lighten up at all; Buffy wrinkled her nose and made a mental note to keep him and Angel as far apart as possible. Cordelia looked like she'd be up for helping with that. Which was more weirdness in and of itself, but she'd deal with that later.

"So, see anything that looks vampire-related?" she asked perkily.

"Not yet," Riley ansered, scanning the streets around them. "I'm not sure what you expect to find in broad daylight, though."

"Three people have died in this neighborhood in two nights; that's little excessive even for Sunnydale. Gotta be a new nest around here somewhere." She ducked into another alley to check a back door, found it locked tight. "Slayage tip: the best time to go looking for vampire nests is when you can run away, but they can't."

"If those people were killed by vampires."

"God, are you still on that?" Buffy lifted her eyes to the sky, then checked a sewer grate to make sure it was rusted closed.

"I'm just saying that the coronor's photos didn't look exactly right," Riley said for about the fiftieth time, checking another back door. They must have looked pretty stupid, Buffy thought, but no one was paying attention, it being Sunnydale and all. "I don't like how this feels."

"Do upcoming apocalypses always make you paranoid?"

"Not funny," he told her seriously and moved ahead, pretending to wander aimlessly around a small office building. Buffy followed him, debating whether it would be easier to joke him out of his bad mood, or just kiss it out of him. The second sounded more effective, plus had the 'more fun' thing going for it.

Before she could put either plan into action, she noticed something in the air. A weird smell, like incense and burning things, not all of them nice. "Riley?"

She gestured towards the building and he nodded, falling back to her side and covering her without a word. Buffy smiled to herself; she wouldn't trade the Scoobies for anything, but it was sometimes nice to have backup that didn't feel compelled to talk every little thing out.

She tested the front door, found it locked, and moved to the back door. Also locked. She traded places with Riley and let him kneel in front of the lock to go to work. Normally, she'd have kicked the door open, but that wasn't such a good idea in late afternoon off a semi-busy street; fortunately, it was also wasn't necessary. Fun, but not necessary.

Riley stood, putting away his lockpicks and opening the door, which proclaimed the office to be Tyler Consulting, Inc. "After you," he said with a cute little bow.

"My very own Riley-shaped skeleton key." She patted his cheek as she went past. "And they said you were just another pretty face."

"Who said that?" he demanded jokingly as he came in, moving carefully and covering her back again. "If it was Xander, I'm flattered, but make sure he knows he's not my type."

"I promise, it wasn't Xander." A carefully timed beat. "I'm thinking it might have been Giles."

"Wha--!" Riley started to yelp, and she slapped her hand over his mouth, stifling completely inappropriate giggles. She let go only when his startled expression changed to a threat of punishment in her future. Then they both got serious, scoping around the big room that didn't look like any office Space Buffy had ever seen.

It was currently very empty, but she'd bet money it wasn't going to be that way for long. The huge stone firepit built into the middle of the floor, full of ashes and little crunchy things that didn't look like ashes and that she wasn't going to think too hard about, was her first big clue. The lingering scent of incense -- and a lot of it, enough to be smelled from the street -- was another. The only real question was, how did whoever was using the place for magic games managed to hide the smoke. Or kept the wooden shelves that lined the room, and the piles of various icky looking magic things on them, from going up in flames.

"Whoever lives here, they're not home," Buffy finally concluded, standing over the fire pit with her arms crossed and scowling into it as if she could make it cough up some answers.

"Think they've got anything to do with our upcoming apocalypse?" Riley asked, poking into the boxes of various arcane stuff that lined the shelves.

Buffy shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. But some of the stuff in the fire looks like it was alive -- well, before the fire, obviously -- so whatever they're doing, it's probably not of the good."

Riley walked over to stare into the pit for himself, nudging the remains of something suspiciously ratlike with the toe of his boot, then poking the side of the pit. "Did you see these?"

"Yeah." Buffy knelt to take a closer look at the blurred chalk figures surrounding the edges. "Magic stuff, definitely."

"I hate magic," Riley said definitely, taking out a teeny tiny little digital camera that was one of the last of his Initiative toys and starting to snap pictures.

Buffy patted him on the shoulder. "I know, honey. If it's any comfort, magic hates you, too." Which should have been funny, but almost wasn't; every time Willow and Tara tried a healing spell on Riley, it rebounded in some weird way. His hair had been blue for a week after the last time, when he'd politely asked them not do any more spells around him. Some kind of anti-magic left over from the Initiative, they'd decided; Giles was doing research.

"You know what really worries me?" Riley asked after a moment, standing and staring back down at the pit as he put the camera back in his pocket.

"The fact that they're going to do a second Survivor series?"

"No-- Well, yes, that does worry me, but..."

Buffy smiled at him. He was a sweetie, but he could be such a big doofus. "I get the idea, Riley. What worries you about this?"

Riley nudged the rat corpse with his boot again. "Most people build fires in the middle of fireplaces. Whoever's using this one, build the fire around the edges."

"Like they were going to use the center for something else." Buffy got that sick Slayerey feeling in the pit of her stomach; she needed to beat something up or get some chocolate, stat. "Come on, let's go tell the others what we found."


They heard the voices from Giles' condo before they even made it into the courtyard; Buffy shared a look with Riley, kissed him quickly, then settled her shoulders and went through the door, ready to break up anything from a scuffle over the stereo remote to a Cordelia/Anya catfight.

It was none of the above -- to Buffy's surprise, the condo was packed with Scoobies and the L.A. contingent, minus Cordelia, and no one was at anyone else's throats. It was... a little eerie, actually.

At first, she thought Wesley hadn't moved since they'd left hours ago, but he was wearing a different shirt, so he must have. He actually looked kind of cute, Buffy realized with a little shock; loosening up had a good effect on him. He and Giles were debating something in one of their books, with Angel contributing to the debate from behind Wesley's shoulder. Which another bit of weirdness; last time she'd seen both of them in the same room, Wesley had made it a point to stay as far away from Angel as possible. Now it was like he didn't even notice. And Angel was actually almost smiling, like he had been when he'd been hassling Cordelia earlier. She fought back the little lurch her heart gave at that smile, and went into the living room with as cheerful an expression as she could force onto her face.

"So, anybody find anything as fun as we did?" she asked the room in general.

Xander looked up from the computer, which he was huddled around with Anya, Willow and Tara, and grinned. "Hey, it's research -- every little thing we do is fun!"

"You don't have to suck up," Anya informed him. "Giles isn't listening to us."

"Yes, but some skills need to be practiced at all times. Never know when you'll suddenly be in need of a good sucking-up." Xander stopped and blinked. "And, um, can we just all pretend I didn't say that?"

"I have no problem with that," Buffy told him. "Seriously, what's the Book Squad arguing about?"

"Prophecies," Anya answered helpfully. Buffy looked at her and she clarified, "The prophecy about the demon." Which wasn't much more helpful, but at least had a new keyword.

"Demon?" she asked, directing her voice over to the gaggle of Watchers and Watcher wanna-bes. They ignored her, apparently too intent on translating some weird Latin-sounding word to talk to the Slayer. "Guys!" she finally yelled, and was rewarded by three sets of startled eyes. "Demon?"

"Yes," Giles answered after a moment. "It seems we have a second prophecy slated for the same time period as the one we found originally -- this one concerns the demon Aztorath, who will 'break his binding and come forth to swallow Hell.'"

Buffy frowned at him. "Well, that's useful. You know, I'm still in favor of the 'pummel all cryptic prophets' option."

"This prophecy sounds like quite the party," Riley said, one hand playing with his sidearm. "Why do prophecies always involve Hell?" Buffy leaned against his arm to try and relax him a little; he put his arm around her, but stayed tense. She caught sight of Angel's face as she looked over at Wesley; the remnants of his smile had faded as he looked at them, which made her heart do that squeezing thing again. Angel tried to fake his smile again, which didn't really help, and looked away.

"Well, it should be interesting, at the very least," Wesley said, oblivious to the drama being played out behind his head. "Aztorath is known as a binding demon himself, which makes a prophecy in which he breaks a binding quite fascinating."

"Binding demon?" Buffy asked.

"That's a demon who concerns himself with the binding forces of the universe," Anya contributed. "You know, using the energy that holds everything together, usually perverting it meet his or her own ends. How powerful they are usually depends on how smart they are -- binding in and of itself can be kind of limited, unless you can find good ways to twist it. Which there are; I've seen binding demons become quite powerful by finding someone less smart than they are and manipulating them. It always looked sort of fun, actually. And profitable."

They all looked at her, more than a little freaked, and she shrank a little into Xander's side. "What?"

"Nothing," Giles assured her, cleaning his glasses and not looking her way. "Just... that's useful information, Anya. Thank you."

Anya's face cleared and she smiled sunnily. "You're welcome. Happy to help."

The front door opened before anyone could say anything else, and Cordelia's irritated voice called, "Hello, woman with food. Someone want to help?" Riley did, of course, holding the door open and taking some of the fast food bags Cordy was carrying. She flashed him one of her megawatt Prom Queen smiles. "Thanks. Kitchen, please?"

"No problem."

He started off with Cordelia on his heels, poking through her bags. "Subway, Happy Wok, and Starbucks," she announced, "and I hope everyone appreciates that these shoes were not made for this much walking. Wes, I got you a tunafish with everything, since you didn't tell me what you wanted. Buffy, Riley, you're on your own unless you just want something to drink."

"Um, a drink is fine," Buffy said, at the same time that Wesley objected, "I didn't tell you what I wanted because I didn't want anything."

Cordelia stopped to glare at Wesley, one hand on her hip. "Eating is not an optional thing, Rogue Demon Hunter Boy. Doughnuts for breakfast and god knows how much tea does not count as nutrition."

"I do not need to be lectured on nutrition--"

"Oh yes, you do, until you learn more about it than how it's spelled."

"Nag, nag, nag," Wesley muttered, too softly for Cordelia to hear; she narrowed her eyes at him anyway and flounced the rest of the way into the kitchen. Angel looked like he was trying really hard not to laugh.

Buffy stared after Cordelia, along with most of the Scoobies, then turned to Angel. "Okay, I've been good so far, but I gotta know -- who did the exorcism? You or Wesley?"

"Exorcism?" Angel asked blankly; Buffy gave a meaningful nod towards the kitchen and he got it. "Oh. No, no exorcism."

"Are you sure?" Xander put in. "'Cause that's sure not the Cordelia Chase we used to know and love."

"More likely," Wesley said levelly, his eyes unexpectedly hard behind his glasses, "you never knew Cordelia Chase. And I sincerely doubt you ever--"

"What did you find on patrol, Buffy?" Angel asked quickly, before Wesley could finish that thought.

Buffy let it drop, but her curiosity was beginning to kill her. "Well, we weren't sure, but now I'm thinking it looks like a good place to, oh, I don't know, summon a demon?" She filled them in on the office/altar/fire hazard as Riley plugged his camera into the laptop; everyone clustered around to check it out.

Wesley, of course, glommed onto the symbols around the firepit right off. "Runes of joining," he thought out loud, tracing one set of blurred outlines. "Another of summoning, alternating with protective runes -- a ritual of entrapment."

"It's not the demon who's the real threat here, I think; it's whomever is summoning him to this plane." Giles tapped his glasses against his hand thoughtfully. "Someone is playing a very dangerous game."

"So what else is new in Sunnydale?" Willow sighed. "There ought to be a varsity team for sorcerors and mad scientists."

"You'd wind up being captain," Xander pointed out. Willow whapped him on the shoulder.

Cordelia reappeared from the kitchen before he could retaliate, an overloaded tray in her hands. She set it down on the coffee table, announcing, "Giles, I picked up more tea since we're drinking it all, but trust me, you'd rather have Starbucks than any coffee any of us make." She picked up a steaming mug and carried it over to Angel. "Here, dinner. And don't give me any of your stupid routine about not drinking in public. Everyone here knows about the blood thing, and they can deal."

Angel took the mug even as he tried to object; Cordelia stared him down and he finally took an embarrassed gulp, although whether he was embarrassed about drinking or about Cordy making him do it was anyone's guess. Whichever, Cordelia nodded in satisfaction and moved away. Something that felt nauseatingly like jealousy caught in Buffy's stomach as she remembered how adamant Angel had always been about eating in front of anyone -- even her.

Everyone else was busy doing the food thing, too; Xander, Anya and both witches had already lunged for the Chinese. Buffy forced her yuckier emotions aside and elbowed them out of the way to snag the kung pao chicken.

Cordelia grabbed something in a Subway wrapper for herself and sat down next to Wesley. "So, who's going to fill me in, since you guys keep having meetings when I'm not around."

"Where's my sandwich?" Wesley interrupted before Giles could start.

Cordelia gave him a 'duh' look. "I left it in the kitchen for Riley."

"You gave my sandwich to Riley?"

"You said you didn't want it."

"Only because you were forcing it--" Wesley stopped and took a deep breath. "Cordelia, may I have the sandwich you were kind enough to bring for me?"

She sighed heavily, put down her sandwich and got back up. "Fine, I'll go get it, since your legs are broken and you're completely helpless...."

"I am not completely helpless," Wesley objected, getting up and following her as if to prove it. "I simply want to know why you persist in--"

The volume on the bitchfest got a little lower as they went into the kitchen, and Giles gave Angel an almost respectful look. "You work with the two of them?" he asked quietly. "On a daily basis?"


"And I thought my life was difficult."

"They're not usually this bad." Angel winced as something broke and Cordelia called out a 'Sorry!'. "Well, not always. I'll try and keep them under control, they're just... you know." He gestured vaguely with one hand. "Sunnydale."

"Ah." Giles nodded with that 'total comprehension' expression of his and Angel shrugged, taking another self-conscious drink. Buffy wanted to tell him to relax, nothing could be worse than Spike and his Wheetabix, but looked sideways at Riley and didn't.

It was all just too weird. Cordelia being nice (right after apparently getting her heart broken again), Wesley fighting with her and actually being funny, Angel being amused by both of them.... Next thing you knew, Hell was going to freeze over instead of breaking loose.

Which would actually be fine, now that she thought about it.

Wesley and Cordelia reappeared from the kitchen still fighting, Angel got up to referee, and Xander and Riley started arm-wrestling over the garlic chicken (probably so they could breathe it towards Angel all night). Buffy sighed up at the ceiling, wished plaintively for a nice, normal life, then dove into the fray in search of fried rice.

She was the Slayer, after all; if she was going to deal with the Ghosts of Slayage Past and kick some demon butt all in one day, she needed to be well-fed.

Comments welcomed at perri@neon-hummingbird.com or drop a note on LiveJournal. Last updated Sesptember 17, 2009.


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