Fred and Willow were still chatting happily as they walked back into the hotel, Kennedy was sticking possessively to Willow's side. Not that Fred was giving off any vibes she might be interested in Willow (considering the large Gunn-shaped vibe that was probably waiting for her), but Kennedy looked a bit threatened that Willow might have friends who could easily talk about subjects Kennedy clearly knew nothing about. Oh, dear. What was she going to do when she realized Willow ran with the smart kids at school?
Trailing slightly behind them, Buffy wondered if Spike had actually gotten out of bed or if she was going to have to go roust him. Part of her was hoping for the latter, a chance to steal a little cuddle time before going back to the real world. Then she saw Angel sitting broodily on one of the chairs in the lobby and realized the real world wasn't going to give her the chance.
The four women paused on the steps as he looked up. "Thank god you're back, Willow. I need to talk to you."
Angel rose and started toward them, but Kennedy quickly moved to place herself between him and Willow. "Don't come one step closer, you son of a bitch."
"Kennedy, that's Angel!" Willow squeaked. "He's our friend."
"He's a vampire. He tried to bite me. I'm not letting him anywhere near you."
"That was Angelus; this is Angel." Willow shifted her own position, putting herself between Kennedy and Angel. "Maybe the two of you should be introduced."
Angel started to step backwards. "You and I can talk later, Willow. It's just...it's about Cordelia."
That caught the attention of everyone except Kennedy. "What about Cordelia?" Willow asked.
He hesitated, one eye still on Kennedy. "Spike said that she's pregnant...and it might not really be her."
The expression on his face was hopeful, as if one word from Willow could make it right. Then the name of the messenger sunk in for Buffy. "You were talking to Spike?"
"This morning. He came down for some blood and we...talked."
She knew that shifty look. There was something he wasn't telling her and she began scanning the room for dust piles. "So help me, Angel, if you hurt him..."
"I didn't hurt him." There was a defensive note to Angel's voice. "We just talked." At her glare he added, "About you."
"Let me guess: you tried to convince him he needed to break it off with me 'for my own good. Why does this happen every time I come down here?"
"Maybe because I don't like your boyfriends," Angel snapped back. "Spike's fine. Look, I just want to talk to Willow about Cordelia, see if what Spike said was true."
"I don't know the whole story," Willow told him. "It's a little hard to give you a definite answer if we don't really know what's going on."
"Then let's get everyone together. If Cordelia is in some kind of trouble, we need to get her back."
It took the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon to sort through the various bits and pieces everyone knew about Cordelia and her activities. She'd taken full advantage of the fractured nature of the group, giving Fred and Gunn one impression, while offering another to Lorne or Connor. She'd been tentative or confident, depending on whom she was dealing with. There was the material Wolfram and Hart had extracted from Lorne's brain, much of which still needed translation; it was decided Fred would make copies for Willow to take back to Sunnydale. For the first time, Angel shared his experiences with Cordelia, including the fact that she'd been the one to convince him Angelus needed to be called forth.
"That would have told me something was up right there," Buffy said. "Okay, okay, I get Cordelia has changed and grown, but when you turned into Angelus up in Sunnydale, she freaked because she'd once invited you to ride in her car."
Gunn started to snicker and a hint of a smile flitted across Angel's face. "I'm serious," Buffy said. "She hung strands of garlic in the back seat and made us do a disinvite spell."
"It sounds like Cordelia," Angel admitted. "First she can't wait to get me into the car, then she wants to get rid of me."
"Sounds like the girl who tried to put cinnamon in your blood," Wesley said.
"She put cinnamon..." Spike shook his head. "Nope. Not even going there."
It was a brief respite before things grew serious again. For the first time, Angel told the story of the 'perfect day' that had led to the extraction of his soul, avoiding looking anywhere near Buffy when he came to the day's final moments. She found his reticence somewhat amusing since Spike had perched himself on the arm of the chair she was sitting in, one arm draped across her shoulder.
Less amusing was his tale of what happened with the "re-souling" spell Cordelia had instigated. "There was a flash of light and pain and then suddenly I wasn't in control anymore. I spoke the words that were given me, sang the song to prove I was myself again to Lorne...but it wasn't me or Angelus. Then Cordelia opened the cell door and Angelus woke up again."
"Sounds like a control spell," Willow said. "Probably completely unrelated to the spell that everyone saw performed. That one is a glamour; Anya finally ran it down for me. Pretty obscure one, at that."
"Which means that who -- or what -- has control of Cordelia's body is not only powerful but knowledgeable," Wesley said. "We'll have to widen the research net."
"But what if she's removed the knowledge we need from our books, just like she did for the Beast?" Fred asked.
"We'd have no way of knowing if she did or didn't." Gunn sighed. "Sounds like we're back to square one."
"Not quite. We need to try to communicate with her."
At Willow's words, Connor broke the silence he'd been maintaining throughout most of the discussion with a harsh laugh. "Communicate with her? What would that do? She's become a demon, a thing. There's no communicating with any demon."
Lorne looked distinctly uncomfortable at the hateful biting tone, while Angel's face began to darken. Spike offered up a sigh. "Connor, did it ever occur to you that you don't get along with Angel not because he's a demon, but because he's your father and you're a teenager? From what I recall hearing, he didn't get on with his father when he was your age, either."
Connor opened his mouth then shut it again, as if the concept had never occurred to him. "You were saying, Red?" Spike asked, ignoring any further reaction Connor might have.
"I was saying that we might attempt to communicate with Cordelia's spirit, her soul. Angel, you said you saw her with that Axis thing?"
"Yes. She was surrounded by light and warmth and everything seemed peaceful."
Willow looked toward Buffy. "Sound familiar?"
Not a subject she necessarily wanted to tread on, but Buffy realized the answer was important. "Very familiar. It sounds like...where I was."
A gentle squeeze to her shoulder and Buffy looked up to find Spike watching her with a touch of concern. She gave him a smile to let him know she was okay as Willow continued with her thoughts. "There's a spell we could use to attempt to communicate with her. I haven't actually used it, but I did some heavy research into it last year after Buffy came back. It's sort of tricky and some of it is darker than I really want to do, but I think this might be the time to use it."
Not surprisingly, Angel was all for the idea. Not surprisingly, Kennedy wanted to talk to Willow...alone. The two women retreated to the office for the discussion, while the others stared at one another. "We're going to need to do some more research on whatever it is that's possessing Cordelia's body," Wesley said at last. "Even if we do contact Cordelia's spirit, we still need to stop the creature, determine its plans."
"She said something about the child she was carrying having a destiny," Buffy said. "Maybe a prophecy or something."
"Could be something connected with a dhamphyr," Spike suggested.
"What's a dhamphyr?" Connor asked, sounding none too happy.
"Old legend from the Balkans. Some folk hold that if a man was turned into a vampire, he'd come back to pay his wife a visit, sleep with her. The resulting child was known as a dhamphyr; supernatural strength, healing, the whole vampire package...without the requirement of blood for food and the pesky sunlight allergy. Others thought dhamphyrs were created by vampires coming back and biting the wives who already carried their child, thus tainting the baby. We ran into one once, up in Romania. You remember, Angel?"
Angel nodded. "Hard to forget. He looked at us and instantly knew we were vampires, as if some instinct had told him."
Connor drew back. "You're saying I'm not human."
"You're the son of two vampires. What do you think?"
For a moment, it looked as if Connor might launch himself at Spike, but then the door to office opened and Kennedy stormed out. "Want to work out?" she said to Connor. "I'm feeling the need to hit something."
Connor glared at both Spike and his father. "I know how you feel. Let's go."
The two teenagers stomped away as everyone else turned their heads toward the office. Willow still hadn't emerged, and Buffy decided a little friend time might be in order.
Willow was sitting in a chair, head tipped forward so her hair hung to hide her face. "I'm not changing my mind," she said as Buffy entered.
"I'm not asking you to." Buffy took the chair opposite as Willow looked up. Her eyes were a bit damp but she wasn't actually crying and she was wearing her resolve face.
"We're going to do the spell just after sundown," Willow said. "I'm going to need until then to meditate and get my head together. At the moment, I'd appreciate it if Kennedy wasn't there."
"Will, if this is causing a problem..."
"Oh, yeah, it's causing a problem. She doesn't object to the magic; she's objecting because it's Angel. Apparently putting his soul back in was one thing because that was removing a threat, but she doesn't want me to do anything else that might help him. She doesn't care that I like Angel and consider him a friend. Yeah, he bit her, but if contacting Cordelia is going to help them get her back and stop that she-thing who's running around wearing her face and about to bear the Spawn of Connor, I think she needs to look at the bigger picture."
Buffy opened her mouth and closed it again. She had her own opinion about Kennedy needing to look at the bigger picture, but she didn't think it would be particularly helpful at the moment. "Anything I can do to help?"
"Find me a place to mediate. Make sure my bags are packed. Ask Lorne to come talk to me; I'm going to need a few things."
Willow stood and for a moment the resolve face wavered. "I'm never going to stop using the big magics am I?"
"I'm afraid not, no more than I'm going to get to stop being the slayer."
A big sigh. "Okay, just wanted to get that straight."
Willow opted to use the lobby for her working. The furniture was pushed back to the wall, leaving room for a circle to be carefully drawn in sand on the marble floor. Smudge pots of herbs were set at the four quarters and Fred dispatched to walk the perimeter of the circle itself with a fifth.
Gunn and Buffy stood to one side, watching the preparations. "Do they ever ask you to participate?" she asked him out of curiosity.
"I've done it once or twice, but it's not really my thing. I prefer what I can see and touch...although I've seen far too much to discount any of this. What about you?"
"Not my thing either. Giles -- he's my Watcher -- knows about rituals and all that, but I try to stick to sharp pointy things. Every time I've dealt with magic, weird things happen. Ancient slayers trying to kill me and my friends in our dreams, coming back from the dead, guys with slices of American cheese..."
Gunn looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "Cheese?"
Angel came down the stairs, a length of fabric in his hands. "I got it," he announced. "I knew it was in one of the boxes and I hadn't seen her wear it again."
"Isn't that the dress Cordelia wore to the ballet?" Wesley asked, pausing in his work of drawing symbols on the floor with chalk.
"Only worn once and it was definitely Cordelia in it. On the tray, Willow?"
Willow nodded and then closed her eyes once more, her lips moving in silent words. Angel carefully laid the dress on the tray at the center of the circle and then moved to join Buffy and Gunn. "Think we're almost ready?"
He was almost bouncing with constrained energy and Buffy couldn't ever remember a time when she'd seen him like this. He'd always seemed so much older and more mature. Sure, every once in a while she could recall a sudden burst of pacing, but not this eagerness. There was a tiny part of her which hurt at the idea he was so eager over the fate of another woman.
"Connor and Kennedy are downstairs whacking away at each other with poles, so I don't think we have to worry about them during all of this," Spike announced, coming around the corner from the basement door. That easy stalk was starting to creep back into his movements, she realized as he came toward her, the hint of a confident swagger that had been so long missing. The confidence was there in his eyes as well when he looked down at her and the tiny part which had been mourning the true end of her relationship with Angel fell silent.
Willow must have heard his words, for she chose that moment to look up from her meditations. "Wesley, are you ready?"
Wesley didn’t look completely certain, but he nodded. Willow rose and moved toward the center of the circle. When she had settled herself, Lorne rang a bell and the ritual began. "Answer the seekers who search the beyond. Lift the veil to show us they who have gone."
"Our quest lies in another place," Wesley read from the book he held. "We seek that which is no longer with us."
"Our quest lies in another place. Show us the path."
"Guard the seekers as they walk. Guide them in their quest."
"By earth and air, wind and fire, show us the spirit. Show us her who has been lost to us."
"Let her who had been lost be found. Let she who has been found be free to speak with us."
The call and response between Willow and Wesley had an almost hypnotic quality, causing Buffy to struggle slightly to keep her eyes open. Something was happening, though; she could feel the tingling along her skin that always accompanied one of Willow's rituals.
Willow stretched her hands out over the tray and the dress that lay there. "We seek Cordelia Chase. Her body lives upon this plane but her spirit is lost to us. Gods that see, show us the way so we can speak unto her. Guide her steps upon the bridge between her world and ours."
The glow was starting, dripping from Willow's fingers and swirling over the dressing that lay on the tray. The sparks from this working were intense ones, deep reds that spit fire when they collided with one another. And collide they did, sparking, glowing, merging, coalescing into a glowing figure that grew taller and more familiar in shape...
She wasn't solid, but glimmered, semi-transparent. "It's about time! Do you have any idea how long I've been sitting there, waiting for you to figure out that wasn't me?"
"Cordelia?" Angel's voice was tentative, with just a hint of a tremble.
Cordelia smiled, that real, genuine smile even Buffy had to admit made her look beautiful. "It's me. I mean, it's the spirit me, but it's the me me." She glanced down at her dress. "I thought I took this back."
Fred giggled nervously. "We were going to, but we got distracted, remember, and it just ended up sitting in the trunk, so I put it with your things after you disappeared."
"Oh. Well, I suppose if I'm on a higher plane, I don't have to worry about my credit card bill."
"Definitely sounds like Cordelia," Gunn said.
"Of course it's me. Willow knows what she's doing...well, except for that time she tried to do a de-lusting on her and Xander...no, that was Spike's fault." Her eyes fell on Spike and she favored him with all of Queen C's infamous disdain. "You got a soul? For Buffy?"
"Can you think of a better reason?" Spike snarked back. Once the words were out, though, he looked like he wasn't certain he should have done that.
Cordelia's expression softened. "Not if you love her. Or she loves you. Which means, of course, Buffy, that you don't have any objection..."
Somehow, Buffy had the feeling she was being informed, not asked. "No objection."
"Good. Angel? Dear?"
Angel's face lit up. "Yes, Cordelia?"
"Get me the hell out of here. Now."
Wesley's mouth was twitching, looking for all the world like he was trying not to laugh. "We'd love to oblige, Cordelia, but we don't know how."
The figure issued a long-suffering sigh. "Do I have to do everything around here?" There was a pause. "I was asking a rhetorical question, okay? Look, do you still have the Axis?"
"No, but we could probably find it again."
"You'll need that. I can't tell you exactly how to do it, but you'll need the Axis and you need to track down who Skip is working for. Believe me, if I could tell you how to do it, I would so you could get me out of here."
"You're okay, aren't you?" Angel sounded worried. "I mean, it's not like you're in pain or anything like that?"
"Only the pain of boredom and the pain of watching my body running around doing disgusting things. I mean, my god, Connor. How icky is that? I changed his diapers! And do you see the clothes they're making me wear? Angel, if you love me, get me the hell out of here."
The figure glanced over her shoulder to where Willow sat, her face flushed and her breathing heavy. "Time to go," Cordelia told them. "If I stay much longer, it's going to hurt Willow."
"But..." Angel protested, stretching out a hand.
"Find me. Use your heart and the path will become clear." She rolled her eyes. "You've got to get me out. I'm starting to talk like them. Oh, and Angel? Don't be too hard on Connor. He's confused and he's just been betrayed by the one person he thought he could trust completely...again. Try to remember that. And a talk about the facts of life might come in handy, okay?"
With that, the figure vanished and Willow slumped to the floor. Buffy and Spike rushed to her side, gently lifting her to a sitting position. Wesley brought water and Buffy took the glass, holding it ready. "Willow?" she asked softly.
Willow's eyes opened and she blinked twice, her gaze a bit unfocused. "Did it work?"
Continued in Chapter Twenty-Four