Cordelia looked past Buffy and Willow to where Fred and Gunn stood. "Did they talk you into this?"
Fred started to apologize, but Gunn stood his ground. "Wait a minute. What the hell do you think you're doing? We finally have something that might tell us where Angel's soul is and you break it?"
"What? I'm supposed to just stand by and let Buffy and Willow make wild accusations?" Cordelia moved toward the window, her gait smooth.
"I've been meaning to ask you," Buffy said as Cordelia waved to someone outside, probably Connor, "how's the leg doing? I heard you got a nasty injury the other night."
Cordelia froze for just a second and then turned back toward them, a limp suddenly noticeable. "It's feeling better, thank you."
Fred didn't say anything, but shifted closer to Gunn. "You think it's in here?" he asked Willow.
Cordelia looked disbelievingly at him. "You can't possibly believe I would hide Angel's soul."
"I didn't believe Wesley would steal Angel's son, either...but he did." Gunn shifted the axe slightly within his grasp. "That leg was looking mighty fine a minute ago."
"I don't like what you're insinuating."
As Cordelia took a step forward, Willow stretched out her hand. "Thicken."
Suddenly, it was as if Cordelia was trapped behind a wall of molasses. "If you're going to search, do it now," Willow warned. "She's pushing back."
"No answer?" Wesley was no longer sitting casually, but on his feet, ready for action.
Spike shook his head, trying to resist the temptation to hurl the infuriating device across the room. "It means either she's got it turned off or she's not in a position to pick up."
"Maybe you should just run after and see. They can't have gotten further than halfway down the block. The sunlight would do you good." Angelus seemed to have recovered quite nicely from his latest conversation, which had been cut short only moments after Spike had dialed Buffy's number.
"I'm afraid all we can do is wait," Wesley said. "If she can't answer her phone..."
"Then it's even more important we make sure the Great Poof doesn't get any unexpected help," Spike finished.
Angelus chuckled with anticipation.
They searched with a will, digging behind pillows, under the bed and in the dresser. Once the bed was pronounced clear, Gunn and Fred headed for the closet and bathroom respectively, while Buffy and Lorne continued their way through the dresser drawers.
Although she found an interesting collection of crystals she couldn't understand having unless one was spell casting, Buffy was beginning to worry they might come up empty-handed. If she couldn't prove Cordelia was behind this, the members of Angel Investigation would be forced to decide whether they believed her or Cordelia. As fractured as they were, it was still likely the group would choose Cordelia over someone they barely knew.
She was sorting through tops neatly folded and arranged by color when Lorne lifted a box out of the bottom drawer. "If you don't mind, I'll let you handle this one."
Buffy almost laughed when she looked at the tasteful text and graphics on the box. Maxi-pads. Wondering if their search was actually over, she began to open it.
"What's going on here?" Connor appeared in the open door.
"Stop them!" Cordelia shouted. "They think I have Angel's soul!"
Connor moved, grabbing Buffy by the arm and jerking her to her feet. The box slipped from her fingers, scattering maxi-pads to the floor...along with a round glass jar that glowed.
It was a freeze-frame moment. They all stared at the Mou-ping as if they couldn't believe they'd found the object of their quest. Then Connor raised his head and stared at Cordelia. "Why?"
Cordelia tried to move her hand, probably to reach out to him, but the movement was terribly slow. "I did it for us, for our baby. We need to protect it because they don't understand."
"So you let Angelus loose? You let him loose, didn't you? He didn't trick you; you opened the door."
Buffy actually felt sorry for Connor. His face bore the look of someone whose world had been shattered. "You were glad he killed Lilah, weren't you? Did you care about the other people him might have killed? I took one of his victims to the emergency room. If Buffy hadn't pulled him off her, the girl would have died."
"You have to look at the bigger picture..."
"Bigger picture?" Connor started to lunge, but Buffy grabbed hold of him, preventing him from moving. "Let me go!" he demanded.
"As long as Willow has her trapped, we shouldn't hurt her."
"Oh, if that's all you're worried about."
A flash accompanied Cordelia's words, sending Willow backwards. Suddenly, Cordelia could move quite easily, her eyes the same shade of milky white as the crystal she now held in her hands. "I'll take my Mou-ping back, thank you."
Buffy released Connor. "Now you can hurt her."
They both lunged at Cordelia, hurtling into her with enough force to send the three of them nearly to the wall. She shrieked as they connected, a sound of fury rather than pain. "Go for the crystal!" Willow shouted. "It's probably some kind of focus."
"Someone get the Mou-ping!" Buffy shouted in return, trying to hold down flailing limbs.
For the moment, Cordelia seemed to be pinned, but the question was what to do with her. Before Buffy could ask Willow to try the binding spell she'd used on Angelus, a sudden surge of energy threw both Buffy and Connor back. "Idiot child," Cordelia hissed at Connor. "You don't know what you're giving up. You could have stood at my side, watched our child grow to its destiny."
"You're a demon," Connor was practically spitting the word as he struggled to his feet. "What's growing inside you is a thing; it's not a child."
"You're pregnant?" Fred's voice was high, querulous.
"Not the best time to offer congratulations," Lorne suggested.
"Oh, congratulations are more than welcome." Cordelia was on her feet once more, the crystal in her hand beginning to glow. "Aren't you going to plan a baby shower for me, Fred? I'll be hurt if you don't. We'll talk about it next time. For now..."
The glow was brighter, more intense, causing the others to shield their eyes. The air around Cordelia began to ripple and shift and then her form simply...folded and was gone. "Downstairs!" Buffy shouted. "She's probably going after Angelus!"
The magic started to ripple through the air, the movement almost palpable. Spike whirled toward the source of the disturbance, axe ready. Wesley was at his side instantly, his own weapon to hand.
Cordelia smiled at them, her eyes glowing white. "Happy to see me?"
"So it was you behind all of this," Spike said. "A lot of effort for not much return, I say."
"Why not? You wouldn't understand; you never had the passion for destruction Angelus did, despite his best efforts to teach you. Angelus can be very useful; far more useful than the Beast. Oh, dear Beast had his good points, but he lacked finesse."
"And why Lilah?" Wesley's voice was tight, near to breaking. "Why kill her?"
"For one thing, the girl was too clever for her own good. Escaping from Wolfram and Hart, buying that book on the inter-dimensional black market despite my best efforts to remove the evidence you needed; she had to be stopped. Besides," Cordelia's lips curled in a smile. "It caused you pain. Speaking of which..."
The agony was intense and searing, sending both men to their knees almost instantly. Once they were down, Cordelia strolled past them toward the cage. "Willow's spell shouldn't be hard to break. Let's see..."
"This mean you're letting me out?" Angelus' voice was filled with anticipation. "Do I get a snack?"
"Once we're moving. We need to be away from here."
"You weren't fast enough. Fry!"
Spike couldn't remember ever hearing a spell with that as the trigger word, but the shriek he heard behind him was comforting. Struggling to raise his head, he found Willow on the basement steps, the others arranged behind her, faces grim.
"Kill her body and she's trapped forever," Cordelia threatened, gasping with the effort of the words. "You wouldn't do that to your friend."
Willow's eyes were glowing black and the slightly sadistic smile that spread across her face made Spike very glad he'd missed her meltdown the previous spring. "President and Co-Founder of the We Hate Cordelia Club, remember? There's a part of me that's been waiting years to do this."
Whether it was a bluff or Willow had gone off the deep end, Cordelia -- or whatever that was that was wearing Cordelia's body -- apparently decided this wasn't the time or the place. The air rippled once more with disturbance and she was gone.
When she vanished, the pain in Spike's body stopped and he let himself drop to the floor. Maybe if he just lay there for a few years, he would stop hurting.
It was the touch of a warm hand to his face that convinced him to lift his head once again. Buffy was kneeling at his side, her face worried. "Did she hurt you?"
"Oh, yeah." Painfully, he shifted his position onto his back, letting his head come to rest in her lap. "Really packed a wallop. It's times like this I wished I'd actually paid attention when Darla tried to teach me magic. Might come in handy from time to time for defense."
"Given your ability, you'd probably turn yourself into a toad. It'd be an improvement."
Spike sighed at Angelus' words, which was a mistake because it made his ribs ache. "I hurt too much to make a witty riposte. Think of one yourself and pretend I delivered it."
Buffy giggled, which was the best medicine in the world. No, second best. The best was the way she was stroking his face and looking down at him with such sweetness. "Think you can stand?" she asked.
"Don't really want to move. Nice and comfy where I am." At her annoyed pout, Spike made the effort to roll to his knees; Buffy helped him up the rest of the way.
Wesley was on his feet as well, looking slightly worse for wear. "The Mou-ping?" were his first words.
"We found it," Buffy assured him. "Lorne's holding onto it."
"I don't intend on letting this baby out of my sight," Lorne assured him. "Um, when are we doing that ritual?"
Willow was leaning against the railing. "Later. That...took a lot out of me. I need to rest for a while." She looked around, frowning. "Where's Kennedy?"
"She went upstairs to take a shower," Connor explained. "That was why I..."
He trailed off, looking hurt and confused. "Why don't you help Willow up to her room?" Buffy suggested.
Connor nodded, giving her assistance up the stairs. "Someone looks like he's been kicked in the nuts," Spike said once they were gone.
"He found out Cordelia's evil," Gunn said. "She's the one who had Angel's soul tucked away. Which raises another question. Cordy and Connor have been sleeping together for what, a couple of months? How in the hell can she be that pregnant? She looks like she swallowed a basketball."
"All questions which we need to answer. Not at the moment, though." Wesley stepped toward the stairs and winced. "Gunn, could I perhaps impose on you for a bit of help?"
Everyone finally made it back up to the lobby, Spike and Wesley both beginning to move a little easier. "You know she's going to come back," Gunn said as he helped lower Wesley into a chair. "Right now, we got Willow, but what do we do when you guys go home?"
"As you can tell, Gunn is the practical member of our team." The smile Wesley tried turned into a wince.
"Someone has to be, otherwise we're going to get our ass kicked."
"We could get Willow to set up a protection spell," Buffy suggested. "We'll have to wait a few hours, but she has some that should help. We've had some experience with ultra-powerful beings. As for what to do about Cordelia, we should probably wait until Angel's better."
Everyone looked at the glowing jar in Lorne's hands. "Think we can do it by this evening?" he asked. "Having this is making me a bit nervous."
"Why don't you let me get Spike upstairs and I'll come back and sit with you," Buffy offered.
"I think Lorne likes you," Spike said when they reached the privacy of their room.
"I kind of like him. Willow says he reminds her of Clem. Okay, a bitchier Clem, but there is a resemblance."
She headed into the bathroom and the sound of running water was heard. "Thought you might like a hot bath," she told him as she returned to sit next to him on the bed.
"Sounds good." He took her hand in his, looking down at their entwined fingers. "So, we put the soul back in tonight."
As much as he didn't like the idea of Angelus running loose, Spike discovered he wasn't too happy with the prospect of facing a souled Angel for the first time in three years. He'd made himself scarce when Angel had come to Sunnydale to pay his respects following Buffy's death, not wanting to see everyone offer sympathy to her "great love" while they ignored his own pain. Feelings of uncertainty were starting to churn in his stomach, worried that the bastard would somehow find some way to muck up the works.
"Spike." Her hand was on his cheek, drawing his gaze up to hers. "I love you. Nothing Angel can say will change that. Frankly, I'm more worried about what Giles will say when we get home."
Spike had to smile at that one. "Watcher Boy doesn't think I'm good enough for his girl. I can tell you that already."
"Watcher Boy doesn't get a vote on this one. We finally got here; I'm not letting you go now."
She kissed him lightly. "Go soak your muscles. I need you in shape for tonight."
Continued in Chapter Twenty