the Good Fight

by Naomi Chana

Cordelia Chase was not having a good day. It had started with the discovery that yogurt actually went bad if kept long enough past its expiration date and had progressed through several hours of waiting for phones to ring at the new and improved Angel Investigations, one don’t-call-us response to an audition left on her voicemail, a head-splitting vision of ugly orange demons trying to turn a Monterey Park grocery store into their personal take-out joint, and now some jerk hitting on her at Caritas while she waited for Wesley and Gunn to make their way back around the four-car pile-up on I-10.

“If I told you that you had a wonderful thorax, would you hold it against me?” The demon leering down at her had a thorax of its own, along with lots of legs and several other insectoid body parts she dimly remembered from high-school biology. Unfortunately, it couldn’t take a hint, and the Host was busy onstage belting out the last verse of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.”

Cordelia drew a deep breath and reminded herself that violence was not the answer, fighting was against the rules at Caritas, and some forms of demonic ichor were resistant to Dryel. “I’m waiting for someone. Two someones, actually. Professional demon slayers. Large, protective, male demon slayers.”

The demon’s eyes — which were waving on little stalks — brightened. “I’m sure we could manage something very interesting as a foursome.”

“I’m sure we couldn’t. Please go — eep!” Cordelia scooted back in her chair as the demon’s thorax suddenly split open, revealing a bright green membrane. The membrane seemed to spread along its body as its legs and head shriveled up. In a matter of seconds, the vaguely wormlike demon had been replaced by a large chartreuse pod rocking gently in front of Cordelia’s table, a tiny pile of disintegrating skin underneath it, and a familiar-looking man stepping over it.

“Sorry about that,” he observed, sounding very British but not at all sorry. “I thought about just asking it to stop disturbing the lady, but that seemed so cliched.” He raised his voice as the last strains of Elton John died away onstage. “Pardon me, but we have a Topter demon over here who’s unexpectedly gone into its pupal stage. Does it have any little friends who could take it back to its nest?”

With help from a bartender, a couple of wasp-demony-things rolled the … chrysalis? … back towards the side entrance of Caritas, muttering about moon phases and the need to call a minivan-style cab. Cordelia took a healthy swallow of Perrier, wishing that she hadn’t lost her fake ID in one of those ichor incidents last week, and then took a closer look at her rescuer. She usually had a good memory for faces, and she’d last seen this one in Sunnydale — one strike against him right there — cowering against a wall in a grungy shop as Giles held Ms. Calendar and Angel struggled with … oh, yeah … some kind of demon. Funny, how most of her high-school memories involved ‘some kind of demon.’ Which meant that the man now taking a seat across from her at the table was …

“Ethan Rayne.” The Host’s electric-blue suit was accessorized with a red plaid handkerchief that matched his eyes. “Long time no see, buckaroo. How’s Janus treating you? Were you planning to favor us with ‘Hello, Hello, I’m Back Again,’ or did you want to go with something a little less pre-disco?” Yet another Caritas bartender materialized at Ethan’s right shoulder and handed him a glass of amber liquid.

“Strictly speaking, it’s against house rules to speed up anyone’s life-cycle shifts, but I’ll ignore it this once. Once they mature, the Toptera only have twenty-eight days to mate, so they tend not to take no for an answer.”

Ethan raised an eyebrow and sipped his drink. “I’m not singing tonight, just basking in the ambiance. And isn’t this where you say something cutting about my aura?”

“Well, you already know it clashes with your shirt, right?” Cordelia blinked and wondered when the Host had discovered that colors clashed, period. “You may have to deal with a little change of plan here and there, but it’s all for the best. Which reminds me, I’ll be fronting a Godspell medley tomorrow night, and I have to make sure we have the right songs in the machine. Besides, a pair of attractively disheveled demon fighters are looming on the horizon. Cheerio!”

It wasn’t worth looking, but Cordelia did anyway — sure enough, just Gunn and Wesley. Not that they weren’t attractively disheveled, just … they’d played one too many games of Risk in her living room before she finally kicked them out last week. They were, as promised on the cell phone earlier, unharmed except for a few surface scratches, but they were definitely looming as they crossed over to the table where Cordy and Ethan were sitting.

Gunn got there first, which meant that the first words directed at Ethan were not “Are we interrupting something, Cordelia?” but “Hey, man, should we know you?” Wesley followed, having stopped at the bar long enough to snag a few bottles of beer and another Perrier. Cordelia’s two co-workers sat down on either side of her, effectively flanking Ethan, who eyed them with more interest than he’d shown in her. Hmph.

“Ethan, these are my co-workers, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce and Charles Gunn. Gunn, Wesley, I’d like you to meet Ethan Rayne.” She was just wondering how to put a polite spin on “some old demon-summoning acquaintance of Rupert Giles’s” — after all, she was not born in a barn — when Wesley straightened up in his chair and adjusted his grip on the beer bottle in a disturbingly weapon-like way.

“Cordelia, have you met this man before?”

Oh, well, it wasn’t like she had to be Tact Girl all of a sudden. “Yeah — he hung out with Giles during his Ripper phase, tried to sic their demonic leftovers on Buffy our junior year, and before that he did something funky to turn people into their Halloween costumes one night. Oh, and Willow told me he was involved with the whole band candy thing, when all the grown-ups in Sunnydale acted like dorky teenagers for a few days.” There had been some kind of demon involved then, too, but she had been waiting to duck into a closet with Xander and had missed the details.

Ethan smiled, clearly uninsulted. “You haven’t heard about my most recent appearance in Sunnydale, I take it?”

Wesley relaxed only marginally. “None of us have been near the Hellmouth in well over a year, and I can’t say I miss it. But I can understand why a notorious chaos mage would be attracted to the … possibilities.” Gunn, who had remained slouched down in his chair but alert, shot Cordelia a baffled look, and she returned a tiny shrug. ‘Chaos mage’ sounded like the name of a really pathetic heavy-metal band. Of course, so did ‘Hellmouth.’

“Notorious, it is? I’m touched.” Ethan winked. “Actually, I haven’t been back in almost a year; I’m afraid I may have overstayed my welcome last time. I gather you know Rupert Giles?” Wesley nodded mutely. “We used to be friends, then enemies, and … well, I owed him a little joke, so I, er, turned him into a Fyarl demon. Just temporarily, you understand.”

Wesley hadn’t dropped his guard or loosened his grip on his beer bottle, but he was suddenly whooping with high-pitched laughter. Gunn and Cordelia both turned to Ethan, whose mouth had quirked up. “Fyarl demons are … big and dumb. Horns, spines, tufted ears, tendency to speak in monosyllables and break things.” Cordelia started to giggle as Ethan continued, sounding like some Hellmouthy version of Sir David Attenborough. “The Fyarl’s principal defense against its enemies is its, ah, paralyzing mucus attack.” Gunn nearly choked on his beer.

“Damn, English. Remind me never to hang out with any more of your people.”

Wesley recovered quickly, although his expression remained lighter than usual. “Most of ‘my people’ would find it very difficult to turn a human into a demon, much less sustain the transformation. Mr. Rayne has access to a significant reservoir of power which most sorcerers avoid.”

“Yes, well, most sorcerers don’t appreciate the benefits of a life devoted to chaos. Travel the world, meet interesting people, take on exciting jobs and develop a host of unbeatable party tricks.” Ethan smiled sweetly and sipped his drink. “Of course, you lot are more or less committed to the so-called Powers That Be — especially in your case, my dear,” he nodded towards Cordelia, “which would make an additional commitment to chaos much more difficult.”

“Not impossible?” Gunn looked puzzled.

“No, Mr. Gunn, not impossible. The Powers are on the side of … well, for lack of a better term, we’ll call it ‘good.’ It’s opposed to ‘evil.’ Janus, whom I serve, is a chaos god who is opposed to the forces of order. Chaos tends to have an affinity for evil, and order for good, but the alliances are always in flux — so to speak. The Council of Watchers, for example, tends to choose pure order above pure good.”

Cordelia glanced at Wesley in time to see her friend’s grimace before he hid it behind his drink. It didn’t take much sensitivity to figure out that Wesley would rather not discuss the motivations of the Watchers’ Council. Besides, Cordelia had never been fond of small talk. “So … Ethan,” she chirped in her best receptionist voice. “You’ve already done some background research on us, and you’re not at Caritas to sing, so I’m guessing you need to hire us.”

“I’m not precisely ‘helpless,’ but yes. I need to recover an item — a relic, really — which was stolen from the underground temple of Janus in Rome last year. It’s called the Staff of Agonius. Needless to state, it could be very dangerous in the wrong hands, not to mention a sacrilege from my perspective. I was, er, otherwise occupied when it was stolen; by the time I was able to concentrate on recovering it, it had passed through the supernatural underworld of Europe and two demon dimensions before winding up in the States. Apparently, it came up for auction in Seattle last month and was sold to a very powerful law firm headquartered here in L.A.”

Cordelia suddenly felt grateful that she had been drinking Perrier all night.

“Wolfram & Hart,” Wesley said. It wasn’t a question. “I suppose we have developed a certain expertise when it comes to infiltrating their organization.”

“Precisely.” Ethan’s voice became more brisk. “I would be willing to remunerate you handsomely, of course, and to offer my own assistance in dealing with the protections they have no doubt placed on their new acquisitions. Some of them, however, must surely be designed to guard against chaos magic, and I do hate to be predictable. It seems easier to hire you lot and your specialized skills than to waste precious time managing the whole business on my own.”

Wesley nodded. “We’ll need to discuss this amongst ourselves; if we decide to accept the job, we’ll need more details. Are you able to come by our office tomorrow morning, around ten o’clock, say?”

“I’d prefer eleven, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Eleven it is, then.”

“I’ll look forward to it. Ta.” it was weird, Cordelia thought, how two British people in a room together sounded more and more British the longer they spoke together. Thank goodness Ethan was leaving before he and Wesley started discussing rugby or eating things with vaguely obscene names like ‘bubbles and squeak.’

The Angel Investigations team nodded civilly at Ethan as he rose from the table, stopped at the bar a moment to settle his tab, and continued to the door outside. Cordelia could only take so much civility, though. “Uh … Wesley? Doesn’t ‘remunerate’ mean ‘pay’? And, if so, why are we not jumping at the chance to take our first paying case since that guy with the cute widdle vampire canary last week?”

“I still can’t believe he wanted us to restore its soul,” Gunn muttered, taking a swig of his beer.

“Point being … Wesley!” Cordelia waved a hand in front of his face. “Earth to Wesley, come in, Wesley. Besides our perfectly natural fear of dying, is there any reason not to sneak into Wolfram & Hart’s office building — for, like, the third or fourth time this year — and try to get this agony-stick thing back to its happy Roman temple?”

Wesley glared at her. Yep, all systems normal. “There’s the chance that Rayne could be working in tandem with Wolfram & Hart to entrap us — although I’m not really getting any signs of that. There’s the chance that this artifact could do something very unpleasant to us if we approach it without the proper precautions. There’s the chance that we could run into a certain vampire doing his best not to live up to his soul. And then there’s the simple fact that we can trust Ethan Rayne about as far as Dennis can throw him. I’m inclined to give this a shot for the same reasons you are, but I want to go back to the office and do a little research into the cult of Janus and the practice of chaos magic first.”

Gunn nodded. “Be nice to burn Wolfram & Hart’s asses, though.”

“Yeah, but … Wesley? Going back to the office tonight isn’t such a great idea.” Cordelia fiddled with her drink.

“I’m perfectly capable of staying there by myself, Cordelia.”

“No, it’s not that. It’s just that … uh … the lights still aren’t working, and we’re almost through the big bag of discount pillar candles.”

*               *               *

When Cordelia swung into the new AI office at 9:55 the next morning, she was not at all surprised to find the door unlocked and Wesley seated at their single desk with a legal pad in front of him, surrounded by books and a battery-powered desk lamp. He barely looked up when she came in, placed a green-and-white polka-dotted box on the table with their newly functional telephone, and stuffed her purse into the bottom file cabinet.

“Good morning, sunshine,” she chirped. Wesley grunted something that might have been ‘good morning’ in a demon language. “Oh, good, you already made coffee. Want a doughnut?” Another grunt. “Can I have a twenty percent raise?” Wesley sighed and put his pen down.

“We can’t afford a raise, as you very well know. In fact, I’m not sure we can afford a salary, much less three of them. And, yes, I’d love a doughnut. Plain glazed if you have one.” Cordelia poured herself a cup of coffee, freshened Wesley’s, then piled two plain glazed doughnuts — what else did anyone get from Krispy Kreme, besides the thrill of star-watching? — onto napkins and set them down next to a closed volume bound in some sort of knobbly grey leather. At least, she hoped it was leather.

“So, have you discovered anything useful about the agony-whatsis? I guess we should ask Chaos Guy what it looks like.”

“Well, I know the basics.” Wesley spoke around a mouthful of doughnut. “It’s got to be a lituus — the wooden stick used by Etruscan and Roman augurers to divide the skies for purposes of divination. It’d be curved on one end and slightly barbed on the other, sort of like a cross between a shepherd’s crook and a harpoon, but only a few feet long.” With his doughnut-free hand, he flipped a few pages in a book and showed her an illustration. “The earliest iconography of Janus shows him with a key in his right hand and a lituus in his left — and, of course, with two heads looking in opposite directions.”

“And the agony part?” Cordelia broke her doughnut into pieces, hoping the calories would fall out.

“‘Agonius’ is the aspect of Janus which controls the activities of human beings. The Roman festival of the Agonia fell in the month of January. I’m guessing that this staff is the one used by some manifestation of the deity at that festival, if it was indeed stolen from the Aedes Jani — the old Roman Temple of Janus, under the present-day church of Santa Nicola in Carcere.” Wesley made a note on his legal pad and frowned. “This sort of research would be a lot easier if we had extant Etruscan sources; most of what’s survived is in Latin, so I’m effectively reading about the original Janus cult in translation.” His tone of voice implied that this was a lot more dire than a bad hair day. “Of course, the Etruscan language allegedly died out in late antiquity — even the Council hasn’t preserved more than a few snippets — but I’ll bet anything you like that our newest client knows how to tell dirty jokes in Etruscan.”

Cordelia reflected, not for the first time, that the only thing Wesley enjoyed more than reading moldy old history books was proving the moldy old history books wrong. “No thanks. You win enough money from those poor saps who challenge you at darts.”

“Who’re you calling a sap? I’m gonna beat him one of these days.” Gunn walked in and headed straight for the doughnuts. “Hey, you only left nine for me!”

Unfortunately, Watcher training included basic math. “Cordelia’s already had two. You’re behind.”

Cordelia sniffed, popped the last piece of doughnut into her mouth, and changed the subject. “Gunn, have you seen the picture of this staff-thingummy we’re supposed to rescue?”

“Not yet.” He joined Cordelia at the desk, peering down at the illustration. “That’s Janus, right?” Wesley and Cordelia nodded in unison. “What I don’t get is how come he’s a chaos god all of a sudden. I thought he was in charge of doors, gates, all that jazz. Don’t sound too chaotic to me.” Gunn shifted under Cordelia’s stare. “I had the mythology unit in middle school same as everyone else.”

Wesley cleared his throat. “In his attenuated Roman form, Janus ruled the beginning of each day, month, and year; he opened the gates of heaven at dawn and closed them at dusk. As a result, his worship became associated with doors, gates, and entrances. But the Latin sources retain traces of the Etruscan Janus who was Father and First of Gods, the origin of all things. In Ovid’s Fasti, Janus says that ‘the ancients called me Chaos, for I am a being from of old.’ Torentianus Maurus described —”

“Whoa, whoa.” Cordelia made a time-out signal. “We know what it is and what it looks like, and we’ll check with Chaos Guy to make sure it won’t blast us if one of us picks it up. Before he gets here, though, how are we going to get into the Wolfram & Hart office building to do any kind of reconnaissance? I think they’ve got footage of all of us on camera by now, and this thing could be just about anywhere in their storage area, or in somebody’s office if we’re really unlucky.”

Gunn smiled. “I took the film out of the cameras in the basement when we went in last time — no point in getting caught on tape if you don’t have to — so they’ve only seen me that one time when I dropped a vamp off in the lobby, and I don’t think they were looking at me. Give me a suit, a tie, and some goofy little wire-rimmed glasses,” — he tapped Wesley’s — “and I can wander around like a good little prospective client. I might even be able to catch a cab to take me there. God bless America.”

“That sounds workable, if slightly dangerous,” Wesley observed carefully. “Unless we come up with something better, I’ll bring some clothes in tomorrow morning. And we should be able to plan a route around the most obvious guard-points if we look through the schematics of the Wolfram & Hart building we got from McDonald last year. I suspect they’d store magical artifacts in the same vault area where, ah, the Prophecies of Aberjian were found, but there are other areas we should check as well.”

Over at the file cabinet, her back to her co-workers, Cordelia allowed herself to make a face at Wesley’s phrasing. They all knew perfectly well who had found that scroll with the Prophecies; obviously, she wasn’t the only one with some lingering issues about their former employer. Well, he was too busy plotting against vampiric ex-girlfriends, and they had clients to take care of. End of story. She pulled the plans out of the appropriate file and picked up another doughnut on her way back to the desk.

*               *               *

Within half an hour of his arrival, it became clear that Ethan Rayne had a lot going for him compared to the average Angel Investigations client. He not only gave them a detailed description of the Janus-staff and a good-sized advance retainer in cash; he also helped Wesley fiddle with some sort of spell designed to keep Gunn from being noticed on the Wolfram & Hart security cameras — “he’ll show up as usual, but anyone who sees him will be overwhelmingly disinclined to worry about it” — and made a few suggestions about how to trace the item which Cordelia barely understood.

“You want me to walk around until my shoelaces come untied and I trip over them?” Gunn looked skeptical.

“In layman’s terms, yes.” Ethan smiled approvingly from the chair in front of Wesley’s desk and finished off his third doughnut. “The Staff is intended to affect the actions of human beings rather than, say, demons or inanimate objects. It tends to create anarchy more or less at random unless properly contained. And I’m almost positive they wouldn’t have anyone who knows how to contain it. You just have to keep an eye out for manifestations of human-induced chaos — anything from a spilled drink to a riot.”

“Won’t the artifact affect him as well, though?” Wesley seemed a little more relaxed around Ethan than he had been in Caritas the previous night, but they were on his turf now.

“He might be a little more likely to trip over his shoelaces, yes, but the same would apply to everyone else in the area, and they’ll have been around the Staff for a lot longer than he has. Direct contact with it would probably be a bad idea, though. If such an event should come to pass —” Ethan took a small pad of paper and a pen out of his jacket and scribbled a few lines, then ripped the top sheet off and presented it to Gunn. “Say that out loud before you touch it.”

Cordelia scanned the page over Gunn’s shoulder. The language was completely unfamiliar, and the pad had apparently come from a hotel in Barcelona. Gunn handed it over to Wesley, who studied it for a moment, then looked up to meet Ethan’s gaze squarely across the desk. “I don’t know that any of us wants to make that sort of commitment.”

Ethan’s eyes widened ever so slightly, but his face held its usual expression of faint amusement. “Perhaps you’re right. I’d hate to wind up with any unwilling recruits. Nice to see that the Watchers’ Council has expanded its language offerings, though.”

“Oh, I’ve learned all sorts of things since I left the Council.” Wesley smiled at Ethan — not, Cordelia realized, his usual goofy grin, but something more dangerous. “It’s beginning to look as though you’ll need to come with us when we actually liberate the Staff. You can control it, correct?”

“Insofar as anyone can — that is to say, yes. But I’m paying you lot to infiltrate and retrieve the Staff. I’m allergic to physical danger, myself.” Ethan winked. Cordelia rolled her eyes and Gunn shook his head, but Wesley was unfazed.

“Then perhaps you could suggest a way we could move it; obviously, it can be moved by someone not pledged to chaos, or it wouldn’t’ve been stolen in the first place.”

Ethan sighed. “Obviously. I’ve never had this problem myself, of course, but if you took the basic don’t-mind-me spell we were fiddling with earlier, added a specific injunction against chaos to the propitiatory part of the text, then bound some heliotrope oil into the opal mixture …” Round one to Wesley, Cordelia thought, as the two Englishmen hammered out the details of what sounded like either a protective amulet or the latest in trendy spa treatments.

After the spell had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction, Ethan agreed to come by the office again tomorrow afternoon, left a phone number where he could be reached, and said “cheers” instead of “goodbye.” Cordelia waited until the door closed behind him before she threw the last two doughnuts into the trash, just in case. Gunn simply leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk, and addressed Wesley. “So, what’d he want me to say?”

“I don’t actually know, more’s the pity, but my educated guess would be something like ‘I promise my soul to Chaos, world without end, amen.’ Far be it from me to make your religious decisions for you, but —”

“I like my soul the way it is. I just won’t touch the damn staff. And I won’t play poker with you, either.” Gunn grinned at his nominal boss. “I’ll settle for kicking your skinny white ass at Risk.”

Male bonding, Cordelia reflected, was cute — in a slightly moronic way. And it gave her time to touch up her nails, think about their new client, and, yes, wait for the phone to ring.

“Wesley?” Her co-workers looked up from the plans of Wolfram & Hart’s basement storage facilities (demonic guardians marked in yellow). “Ethan underestimates you, y’know. Big-time. All of us, but especially you.”

“Yes, I know,” Wesley said, and there was that not-at-all-goofy smile again. “I’m counting on it to get us through this unscathed and a little richer.”

*               *               *

An hour later, Wesley was buried in new stacks of books, trying to put together an all-purpose demonic-guardian-countering kit for Gunn, who had finally realized that he couldn’t hide his favorite axe under a three-piece suit. Cordelia didn’t trust either of them to answer the phone properly — Wesley forgot it was there half the time, and Gunn still thought it was funny to answer “Domino’s Pizza” — so she nominated Gunn to go get some sandwiches from the Russian deli down the street. She had just shut the door on his complaints when the phone, for a wonder, rang.

“Angel Investigations, we help the helpless,” Cordelia answered, fully expecting an invitation to change long-distance plans or another wrong number for Lucinda Gomez.

“Cordelia? Virginia. I need to talk to that schmuck I date, and he’s not answering his cell phone.” Cordelia almost dropped her bottle of topcoat; the voice coming out of the receiver sounded angrier than Virginia had been after her father had tried to sacrifice her to the demon Yeska.

“Hold on a sec while I see if he’s here,” she lied, and pressed the mute button. “Wesley! Wesley! Virginia’s on the phone, and she’s seriously ticked off. Are you taking the call? I don’t know what you did, but I suggest some serious flowers and maybe tasteful jewelry.”

Wesley emerged from his books, blinking. “Huh?” He looked innocent enough, Cordelia thought, as she held out the receiver.

“Virginia. Angry. I’ll be over in the corner, pretending not to listen.”

She hadn’t said anything about actually listening, or occasionally glancing over from her magazine to see what was going on. Unfortunately, Wesley’s side of the conversation was pretty boring at first. “Uh-huh … I’m sorry, sweetheart, I must’ve forgotten to turn it back on … yes, of course … what on earth are you talking about?” There was enough of a pause that Cordelia got halfway through an article on whitening toothpastes. “He did WHAT?”

Wesley was standing at his desk, clutching the phone to his ear with one hand and making a fist with the other. His eyes flashed behind his glasses, and he had turned a shade of pink that was unhealthy for anything except Pepto-Bismol. “Oh, God, Virginia … no, it antedates our relationship … of course not! Cordelia wasn’t involved at all!” Cordelia stopped even pretending to read the magazine; whatever this was, it was more interesting than Colgate versus Aquafresh.

“He’s obviously gone round the bend. I’m so sorry you had to be embarrassed like that. I’ll understand if … no, I appreciate the offer, but I’ll take care of it myself … yes, I’ll tell her. And I’m so sorry. Let me know when … right. I understand. Have a good time. I’ll talk to you later. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” He fumbled the phone back into the cradle and stood in the tiny office, hands clenching and unclenching helplessly. Cordelia recognized his expression: it had been common during Wesley’s tenure in Sunnydale, when Buffy, Giles, and company alternated between ignoring and making fun of him. She had forgotten how little she liked that expression. It didn’t suit Wesley at all, and humiliation should be reserved for people she wanted to humiliate.

“Wesley?” Her voice was a little gentler than usual. “I don’t mean to pry — well, okay, I do — but I’d really like to know what I’m not involved in, and whether Virginia’s going to be sending some wizard-community thugs after either of us.”

Wesley looked over at her. Nope, she definitely didn’t like that expression. “It’s not … so bad for you.” She also didn’t like the way he seemed to shrink in on himself as he sat down. “Apparently, Angel turned up at some Wolfram & Hart charity fundraising event three nights ago, brandishing a videotape that he claimed held incriminating evidence against the firm. Virginia wasn’t there, but several of her friends were. It sounds like things went a little crazy for awhile, with Angel and some blue demon and costumed TV stars and Holland Manners’ surviving flunkies running all over the place. They’re still not sure what happened to the money that was raised — it disappeared in the melee. At any rate, someone decided to play the tape for the assembled audience.”


“It must’ve been the tape we put in right when we bought the camera. For the Jenkins case, if you’ll recall. I thought I’d recorded over it. Apparently, the first part featured you practicing for an audition — something about milk, if Virginia’s right. The second part, was, um …” Wesley’s face had gone from pink to red, and he couldn’t seem to meet her eyes. “Iwasdoingastriptease.”

“Gesundheit.” She couldn’t have heard him right, could she?

“I … was … doing … a … striptease. After introducing myself by name. Although I did keep a few clothes on, thank God, so I may still have a girlfriend. She’s, ah, thinking about it.”

Cordelia thought about it for several seconds. There had to be a tactful way to ask this. Then, again, maybe not. “Where were you?”

“In … well, it wasn’t actually the office. One of those empty rooms at the Hyperion.” Wesley had his face buried in his arms now.

It was like watching a train wreck, she decided. Absolutely wrong and irresistibly compelling. “I know I’m going to regret asking this, but was anyone else involved, or do you regularly strip down in front of available Camcorders?”

“No!” He met her gaze for a moment and returned to staring downwards. “I was seeing Kat, and she … ah … manned the camera. So to speak.”

“Kat … would that be the ‘bleached blonde’ Angel mentioned during his weird sniff fit?”

Wesley nodded mutely.

“So, basically, Angel played a tape of me auditioning for a really crappy commercial and you doing a Chippendales act for your ex-girlfriend in front of a crowd of L.A. movers and shakers?”

Another nod. She paused the way her drama coach had suggested.

“Just so you know, Wesley, if you get a job offer out of this and I don’t, I’m going to be royally p.o.’ed.”

It took a few seconds before he started laughing.

*               *               *

Of course, Gunn walked in just as the tension began to seep out of the room. “What’s happening?” he asked, as he tossed her chicken-salad and Wesley’s roast beef toward their rightful owners.

Cordelia looked over at Wesley, whose head was back on the desk. Obviously, it was her turn to tell the story, with a few strategic omissions. “… So while the lawyers were running around screaming and making asses of themselves to get at the tape, someone actually played it, and it featured Wesley and me making asses of ourselves — separately, that is — in front of our new videocamera. Some of Virginia’s friends recognized Wesley, and she’s just thrilled, as you can imagine. I’m thinking we should sneak into the Hyperion and put Nair in —”

“Cordy, back up.” Wesley’s head had come up again, and now he was staring off into space. “Run through that again.”

“You wanted more detail?”

“No, I want you to say what you just said. Again.”

“Okayyy … Angel crashed a Wolfram & Hart party with a videotape. Everyone went pretty much nutso. The lawyers tripped all over themselves to get it, and —”

“There. That’s it.” Wesley’s hand slammed down on a closed book, his sandwich — and his striptease — forgotten for the moment. “Tripping over their shoelaces. General anarchy. Nothing like the Special Projects division we know and tolerate. What have we heard about recently that fits that description?”

Once things started falling into place, the operation came together almost too easily. Gunn and Wesley would infiltrate the building late in the evening dressed in cleaning-crew uniforms — Cordelia decided that she’d rather not ask how Gunn planned to get hold of those — dispose of a Graknar demon on the ninth floor, and trundle around the Special Projects offices with an axe disguised as a mop and bucket looking for a three-foot-long crooked piece of wood under some sort of mystical wraps. There was, Wesley pointed out, every likelihood that it would be there rather than in the firm’s vaults with other artifacts: the vaults were much better shielded, and only the Special Projects division was behaving as chaotically as Virginia’s story, and the additional newspaper references Cordelia dug up at the library, would indicate.

Cordelia would wait in, if not drive, the getaway truck, since the last thing they needed was to worry about was finding legal parking. Anyone who used the line “Is that a lituus in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” would be hit upside the head. Of course, there were a few minor flaws in the plan, such as Wesley’s inability to fake a convincing American accent and Gunn’s inability to stop laughing at his attempts, but they’d certainly gone with worse ideas. Some of them had even worked.

“Just let me do the talking if we get stopped, English.” Gunn still sounded suspiciously close to a chuckle. “One thing’s bothering me, though. Do we really want to get rid of something that’s messing with the lawyers’ little heads?”

“We are kind of getting paid for it,” Cordelia muttered.

“More to the point, it’s not our job to take down Wolfram & Hart.” Wesley paused in putting books back on the shelf for a moment, then kept going. “It is our job to prevent the very real possibility that they’d eventually figure out how to turn the Staff against their enemies. Frankly, I’m more worried about giving Ethan Rayne anything that will augment his powers, but if I understand him correctly, it’s an object which his beliefs will prevent his using on a regular basis — it’s supposed to sit in the Temple of Janus for most of the year, presumably doing nothing worse than snarling Roman traffic somewhere nearby. One of the few things Rayne cannot be lying about is his allegiance to Janus, which means he’ll put the Staff back precisely where Janus says it belongs.”

“Should we do this tonight, then?” Cordelia tapped one of Wesley’s pencils on the newly revealed surface of the desk. “It’s not like I’ve got plans, and since Wesley won’t let me dye his hair, there’s nothing about your disguises that we can’t get together this afternoon.”

“My ‘plans’ with Virginia have been curtailed until further notice,” Wesley said, grimacing.

“If I leave now, I can be back with the uniforms by seven or so,” Gunn chimed in. “And if we get the Staff before Winking Boy expects it, he won’t have time to try anything else funny. I’d like to get this over with.”

“Besides,” Cordelia added, “he’s paying us a fixed sum, so the faster we deal with this, the faster we can move on to all those other projects … which we’re going to have really soon.” She glared at the silent telephone. “So. We still have another hour before we officially close; should I stick around in case something wild and unexpected happens, like the lights coming on or another money-making case walking through the door?”

“I’ll stay,” Wesley offered. He had started taking books off the shelves again. “I just remembered — there are a few more things I want to look up, and it might take awhile.”

“Stop the presses,” Cordelia stage-whispered to Gunn, then returned to her normal volume. “Meet you both back here at sevenish, then?”

“Sure,” Gunn said. They turned to look at Wesley, who had his nose buried in a tome larger than the average Hollywood director’s ego. “Mm-hmm,” he finally said — although Cordelia wasn’t sure whether he was responding to them or to the book. Well, it was easy enough to find out.

“We need to get Wesley out of the office more,” she announced loudly as she extracted her purse from the file cabinet. “He’s going to butt-meld with that chair.” Gunn snickered.


“Gotcha, Wesley. Remember, if the phone rings, you have to answer it. We don’t need siding, a new long-distance plan, or … well, if a credit-card company calls, tell them to call back tomorrow morning. See you at seven.”

*               *               *

Gunn wasn’t thrilled about even the possibility of Cordelia driving his precious truck — apparently, he was still scarred from that one time she’d left Angel’s keys in his car, a simple mistake that could happen to anyone — but there was no way Wesley’s motorcycle had enough room for two grown men and an untouchable mystical artifact with strongly Freudian overtones. Besides, it looked like rain. Cordelia reminded her co-workers of this in a noble but ultimately vain effort to avoid Gunn’s lecture on vehicle safety, delivered as he parked the truck in a blatantly illegal parking place along a convenient cul-de-sac. They were just around the corner from the back of the Wolfram & Hart building, and if she craned her neck at the right angle and squinted into the dusk, she could almost see the inconspicuous metal door through which Gunn and Wesley disappeared. Just as they had hoped, the Wolfram & Hart brass were still too busy plotting elaborate magical schemes and defending supernatural slime in court to ward their service entrances against garden-variety breaking and entering.

Cordelia slid over into the driver’s seat, locked the doors, and settled in to wait. She couldn’t risk turning the map light or the radio on — although she had a story about her second-shift boyfriend all ready in case a cop stopped by — and she didn’t dare blank out her surroundings with headphones, so she had plenty of time to think. She could, of course, wonder whether the Graknar demon had been replaced by something even scarier and less susceptible to powdered kothos root, but that did nothing for her peace of mind, so she stubbornly shoved it out of her conscious thoughts. Gunn and Wesley would be fine, she told herself. They had to be. Meanwhile, a well-organized woman would probably use this time to plan out her schedule for tomorrow, with such highlights as bill-paying, audition scheduling, buying that Britney Spears CD that Dennis wanted — someone had been watching a little too much MTV while she was out of the apartment — and remembering to shop for groceries. Of course, most of those activities required money, and that was something she was pretty much out of, thanks to a certain undead jerk who didn’t know the meaning of basic human concepts like ‘loyalty’ and ‘severance pay’.

Before long, Cordelia was smiling into the night as she indulged in petty but entertaining revenge fantasies. Her favorite was Angel’s Most Horrible Day Ever. He would wake up one evening to find that his black clothes had been exchanged for brightly-colored floral-print polyester outfits. His freshly ground coffee would have vanished, to be replaced by Diet Swiss Miss cocoa mix (the kind without the dehydrated marshmallows, and she hoped that aspartame really did cause brain tumors). He would stumble downstairs only to find the lobby of the Hyperion full of conventioneers, every one fully convinced both that the hotel was the site of a major conference on the treatment and prevention of erectile dysfunction and that they were entitled to an open-bar cocktail hour serving something other than O-negative. His coat would … wait, what was that?

Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness some time ago, which was probably why they had picked up both the movement two cars ahead and the tiny flare of light. Someone was leaning up against an SUV, lighting a cigarette. The someone was tall and just a bit too thin, and … yes, strangely familiar. Cordelia carefully removed the keys from the ignition before she reached under her seat, selected a small axe, opened the door — thanks to the truck’s history as a vampire-hunting machine, its hinges were soundless — and eased out into the night, where a few raindrops were beginning to fall. It didn’t take much stealth to circle around and get within ten feet of a man who was drawing on his cigarette while he fed something long and metallic through the top of an SUV window.

“Hello, Ethan,” she said, and closed the distance.

He didn’t exactly jump, but his stance changed abruptly, and the piece of metal vanished up his sleeve. “Cordelia. Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

“What’s going on?”

“Going on? Why, nothing, nothing at all. I just thought I’d gaze wistfully at the fortress holding Janus’s property. You don’t mean to tell me that your co-workers are already inside?”

Ethan Rayne might have been a good liar and extremely charming when he needed to be, but Cordelia knew she had caught him off-guard. She also knew that he had no way out of the cul-de-sac except over the hulking SUV or past her on the narrow sidewalk; demon-hunting had a way of making people notice available exits. “You know they’re inside; you were probably watching them. You just didn’t know that I was outside. I repeat: what is going on?”

The rain was getting stronger, and Ethan took one last drag on his cigarette before dropping it into the tiny stream flowing next to the curb. “I’m eager to be reunited with the Staff?”

“Bullshit,” Cordelia observed succinctly, and pushed dripping hair back from her face. “What do you know that we don’t?”

“Well, my dear, the list would take too long to —” She moved even closer, adjusting her grip on the axe the way Gunn usually did. Of course, the extra height and heft probably made Gunn more intimidating, not to mention the shaved head, but she thought she was doing a pretty decent job.

“About the Staff. About Wesley and Gunn retrieving it. You wouldn’t be waiting out here if you didn’t think they were going to bring it out, but you could ambush us just as easily back at the office, so you must be expecting something to happen when they bring it out.” Cordelia forced her voice back down into its normal register and took a deep breath for calm. “What’s going to happen when they bring it out?”

Ethan looked at her, looked at the axe, feinted towards the back of the cul-de-sac, and took off running — or tried to. Obviously, he didn’t remember Cordelia’s high-school years as well as she did, because she stuck out the same foot that had taken him down in the Sunnydale High library four years ago, and it worked more or less the same way. Just as obviously, it hadn’t been raining inside the school, because this time Ethan skidded on an emerging puddle and he went down at a different angle. The back of his head hit the wet pavement with an audible thunk.

“Oh, crap,” Cordelia muttered. She knelt down gingerly and checked his pulse. Okay, he had a pulse, which was definitely of the good. He was also completely unconscious. She was about to try slapping his cheeks — after all, it had worked on Giles once or twice — when she caught another movement out of the corner of her eye. Ethan had chosen to stand in this position, she realized, because it offered an unobstructed view of the door Gunn and Wesley had gone through. Now the door was opening again.

*               *               *

It was Gunn, alone, who stepped through the door, and he was running towards the truck — until he saw her kneeling over Ethan’s body and skidded to a stop. “Into the truck,” he hissed over the drumming rain.

Cordelia felt as though her muscles had turned to mush. “There’s something … Gunn, something’s going to happen when Wesley brings the Staff outside. You’ve got to stop him.”

“No, we’ve got to get in the truck,” Gunn responded. “He said we have three minutes, give or take, and that we should be in the truck, windows rolled up, not touching the doors or steering wheel.”


“He’s doing some sort of spell. I think — oh, shit, what’s he doing here?” it had taken Gunn this long to identify the man lying in front of Cordelia.

“He was waiting for you guys to come out, and I don’t think he wanted to shake your hands and congratulate you on a job well done. Are you sure we can’t warn Wesley?”

Gunn hesitated for several seconds, drops of water rolling down his face unnoticed. “He had a bunch of circles and things started when I left. I think we have to trust him.” Reaching out to Cordelia, he pulled her to her feet, ignoring the figure sprawled on the sidewalk. “C’mon. Two minutes, give or take.”

“Okay — you grab Ethan and I’ll unlock the door for you.”

“Why the —”

“If Wesley doesn’t think we’ll be safe outside the truck, I don’t think much of Ethan’s chances. He was breaking into a car when I interrupted. And he owes us money. A lot of it.”

It took them another minute to get him inside the truck; Gunn had trouble with Ethan’s dead weight, but with Cordelia’s help, the two men wound up wedged together into the truck’s tiny back seat, Gunn holding a knife on Ethan in case he came around. Cordelia left the passenger-side door unlocked as she climbed in and shut it behind her, slid over into the driver’s seat, and wrapped her arms around herself to avoid the steering wheel.

“Thirty seconds,” Gunn whispered, then was silent. Outside the truck, the rain seemed to intensify. Part of Cordelia’s brain started to count the seconds down while the other part kept up a steady rhythm of something that might have been prayer. Pleaseohpleaseohplease … thousand-twelve, thousand-eleven … ohpleaseohplease … thousand-eight, thousand-seven …

Wesley was prompt, as usual. At ‘thousand-three’ by her count, she saw the light change at the corner of her vision and knew that the door was opening. At ‘thousand-two,’ all the hairs on her arms stood up. And at ‘thousand-one,’ the sky exploded.

The lightning dazzled her vision, and the thunder deafened her. She felt the truck shake, then hum, and her body registered a very slight shock. Bolts of lightning were dancing in front of her eyes, over the cars parked in front of them, around the Wolfram & Hart building. They seemed to last forever, and the roar of the thunder was continuous.

She continued to stare at the corner where Wesley should be emerging. Ohpleaseohpleaseohplease. There were silver spots flashing in her vision, but one of them was larger and brighter than the others, and it seemed to be moving slowly toward the truck. She blinked, and in the moment before she was blinded again, realized that the lightning bolts were coming in towards it and bouncing back off onto other objects or onto the ground.

As suddenly as the lightning had started, it stopped. Cordelia’s ears were still ringing, and the silver spots had been replaced by black dots, but something silver continued to approach the truck. She squinted, trying to focus on it. It looked sort of like a tent, with a single point at the top and — yes, now she could see — a series of glowing silver lines flowing down from the point and crisscrossing on their way to the ground. Inside the tent was a strangely elongated figure.

“I’ll be damned.” It was Ethan’s voice, but Cordelia didn’t bother to turn around. She heard a brief choking sound, and Ethan spoke again, a little more hoarsely. “I spoon-fed you that line. The least you could do is answer ‘certainly’ or —” Another choking sound. The figure under the silver tent had resolved into a man, holding something tall and narrow up to the sky. One last bolt of lightning, bouncing off something outside her field of vision, flashed on his left, and then the tent disappeared. There was only Wesley, bringing the Staff of Agonius down from above his head and grinning like a lunatic in the pouring rain.

Cordelia had to blink a few more times before she was able to reach across and open the door for him.

*               *               *

“So the guard looks at Wesley and says, ‘What’s your name, son?’, and Wesley starts babbling in Spanish.”

“I wasn’t babbling. I was telling him that my name was Diego, I didn’t speak English, and it was my first time working there.”

“Well, he bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Warned us about a couple of lawyers working late on the fourth floor and a sacrifice happening on the eighth. Chickens, it sounded like.”

“The elevators above the fifth floor are restricted-access after hours, so we had to take the stairs from there. The Graknar demon was no problem, and Gunn handled our little bonus.”

“It was just a garden-variety vampire. Not a real bright one, either. The expression on his face when I took my axe out of the bucket was just about priceless.”

“Speaking of priceless, would you believe they had the Staff right there on the wall in McDonald’s new office? I almost hated to move it. They’d put a simple glamour on it that discouraged people from wanting to touch it and made it look like a watercolor of the Santa Clara Mission. Someone apparently has a sense of humor.”

Cordelia leaned back in her favorite chair, sipped the hot chocolate Dennis had brought her, and nodded at all the right points in the story. She had already nodded through Gunn’s comments about how the Staff affected her driving abilities and Wesley’s miniature dissertation on the eleven types of lightning (including meteors) and the sixteen regions of the heavens recognized by Etruscan augurers. For the next few minutes, at least, even their godawful new handshake didn’t bother her — which was just as well, since she’d already witnessed it twice.

A loud groan interrupted Gunn’s enthusiastic account of their descent. Ethan had passed out twice on the drive back from Wolfram & Hart; the second time, when Gunn swore he hadn’t laid a hand on him, Cordelia had decided to go with her instincts and bring them all back to her apartment. After all, she had hot beverages, dry towels, bandages for Ethan’s goose-egg and Wesley’s blistered hands, working electricity, and a perfectly serviceable chair to tie their client to until he recovered. Now he seemed to be coming around.

Cordelia uncurled herself from her chair and went to stand in front of Ethan. “Hello again. Are you feeling okay?” He blinked at her, apparently dazed. “See, you owe us a lot of money, so we’re willing to be nice to a point. I can get you hot chocolate, tea, Tylenol, a pen to sign a certified check …”

It obviously took some energy, but Ethan focused on her and smirked. “No alcohol or hard drugs?”

“You have a concussion. Probably not the best idea. Something tells me we wouldn’t have a lot of luck suing your estate.” Ethan’s eyes flicked around the room, taking in Gunn and Wesley on the sofa and the Staff lying peacefully across another of Cordelia’s dining-room chairs. She could almost see him make the calculations: Gunn and Wesley were between Ethan and the Staff, and she was between Ethan and the front door. Also, his hands were tied behind his back to the chair.

“In case you’re wondering, my roommate Phantom Dennis is also keeping an eye on you. So to speak.”

“Oh.” He wiggled, testing the bonds. “Somebody’s had a lot of practice tying people up.”

“Why, thank you,” she responded calmly. He looked slightly disappointed, and she decided that the implications didn’t really bear thinking about. “Are you going to pay up?”

“Well … ah … we may need to reach an alternative settlement.” Cordelia’s smile didn’t waver; she’d been expecting something like this even before she looked through his wallet.

Wesley sat up straight on the sofa, drawing Ethan’s attention. “You were counting on our being killed by the lightning, weren’t you? That way you’d have the Staff and no further inconvenient bills.”

“I was surprised that you figured out that piece of the puzzle.” Ethan shrugged as best he could. “Would you mind awfully telling me what tipped you off?”

Cordelia had to give the man points for people skills, because Wesley loved explaining this sort of thing. He could hardly keep the grin off his face. “Actually, it was the way you winked at me.”

Ethan raised an eyebrow. “I’m flattered, really, but I wasn’t aware that my face conveyed specific details about …” He trailed off. “Oh. Cicero.”

“Precisely.” Wesley turned to Cordelia and Gunn. “It’s a famous remark Cicero makes in On Divination: ‘When two augurs meet, they wink.’ The point, of course, being that Cicero thought augury was a sham. But it reminded me that we were dealing with an artifact devoted to augury, and the original and proper meaning of augury is indeed that of divination by lightning, as opposed to haruspicium, divination by entrails, or vaticinatio, divination by oracle.” Gunn stifled a yawn. “At any rate, given that the Staff usually stays underground and had been inside the Wolfram & Hart building since before its festival season, I thought it prudent to investigate spells for protection against lightning. Most of them create some sort of Faraday cage, but —” Wesley paused. “I won’t go into the details. Suffice it to say that I put something together and it worked.”

Ethan’s expression was rueful. “It worked very well indeed, and you caught me out fairly, a distinction which clearly matters more to you than to me.” As Cordelia managed to swallow most of her laugh, Ethan’s tone drifted toward the conversational. “Next time I run into Ripper, I’ll have to tell him that he’s wrong about you.”

Wesley nodded, as though confirming a suspicion, and replied just as casually. “You do that.” The momentary silence was almost companionable until Gunn’s head shot up from where it had been drifting toward his chest.

*               *               *


“Ethan and Wesley were just clearing up a few misunderstandings.” As Gunn’s eyes closed again, Cordelia returned her attention to their client-cum-prisoner. “Unfortunately, Ethan, you could butter up Wesley all night and not get anywhere on this payment issue, because haggling is my department. We don’t have any use for the Staff, and we’d be happy for you to return it to its nice safe Roman temple, but we haven’t come close to covering our costs on this case, which means you owe us.” She was, of course, billing their time at rates approaching those of Wolfram & Hart’s junior partners — even the most evil firm in L.A. had to get something right. “I think we may have to switch to the barter system.”

Ethan eyed her suspiciously, both of them ignoring the soft snores now emanating from Gunn’s end of the sofa. “I do have some rather unique skills. What did you have in mind?”

“Two things. First of all,” Cordelia lifted a finger, “I want the power on in our office. I’d be willing to bet that chaos magic can deal with PG&E rather handily.” Ethan nodded, still looking apprehensive.

“I can do that.”

“Secondly … you said something about ‘unbeatable party tricks’ last night?”

*               *               *

Caritas was hopping — literally, in this case, with a charter busload of monopod demons from somewhere in the Midwest monopolizing the karaoke machine. Cordelia tucked her feet under her chair as she savored her strawberry margarita. She had gotten a new fake ID that afternoon from a little place out near Long Beach; very few of its other clients had looked human, but then neither did she in her genuine driver’s license photo.

Across from her, Gunn and Wesley were discussing strategy, or how they would have dealt with the purple slime thing in today’s Technicolor vision if it hadn’t dissolved when Wesley poured table salt on it.

“… you remember, like that lightning spell you used the other day. Hey, did Rayne ever clear out of town like he was supposed to?” Gunn set his empty beer bottle on the table and signaled for another.

“I believe so, yes.” Wesley shrugged. “We’d have heard if he were still around, and paying us off shouldn’t’ve taken him more than a few days.”

Gunn nodded. “Great idea to have him fix the lights back at the office, Cordy. We could actually hang out there after dark now if we wanted to.”

Cordelia glanced over at Wesley. Wesley looked back at Cordelia. Well, she thought, they needed to come clean sooner or later. “Um, actually, Gunn, that was only part of his payment. After you fell asleep, I had a little chat with him, and we arranged a —”

“Hello, campers!” it was the Host, wearing a mustard-yellow vest and trousers with a shirt the color of Cordelia’s drink. “How’s the P.I. business going? Things looking up?” He handed Gunn his beer.

Wesley answered for the group. “Splendidly, thank you.”

“Good on you.” The Host borrowed a chair from the near-comatose Lubber demons at the next table and sat down with them. “Nice work with the roses, by the way. She’ll love them, and they go perfectly with your whole gentleman-hero shtick.” As Wesley’s eyebrows drew together, the Host continued his monologue. “We’re short-handed at the bar again. M’loshi seems to think she can ‘make it’ as a freelance Web designer, and Jean-Pierre broke his wrist rollerblading on Wednesday — I told him he had bad karma, but would he listen? Nooooo, I’m just his anagogic boss. And speaking of bad karma, you’ll never guess what happened to Angelcakes yesterday.”

Cordelia drew on every ounce of acting ability she possessed. “What?”

The Host told them in great detail, while Wesley and Cordelia carefully avoided meeting each others’ eyes. “… would you believe, all the blood in his refrigerator had turned into cherry Kool-Aid? The poor guy had to hike over here wearing those awful shorts — and it seems he already had a morbid fear of plaid — just so he could get a few pints of pig’s blood to go.”

Wesley’s face turned red as he tried to stifle a laugh. Gunn had given up trying several minutes back and was howling at the image of Angel in Bermudas. Finally, clearing his throat, he asked, “Why didn’t he just drive?”

“Oh, that’s the most terrible part. Somehow, they got to his car, too.” The Host shook his head and snickered at the same time.

“They stole it?” Gunn looked intrigued.

“Worse — they repainted it. Pink. The guys down at the body shop told him that it looked like a Barbie Dream Car, only with baby-blue upholstery and custom-painted unicorns frolicking along the driver’s side.”

Cordelia lost her own struggle with laughter. It had been a little much, she admitted to herself, but the odds that Angel would recognize her re-creation of Harmony’s first car had been miniscule, and Wesley’s suggestion about the shorts was pure genius. He had assured her that nearly every right-minded British male dreaded them, even vampires. She wasn’t sure that Angel counted as British, actually, but in this case …

“Of course, he wanted to know what kind of monster would do something like this to him,” the Host continued, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. Cordelia kept her features frozen in a natural-seeming smile as she waited for his next words, and Wesley took a strategically long drink of beer to hide his face. “He was going on and on about Wolfram & Hart, forces of evil aligned against him, yadda yadda yadda. I told him that the tricks themselves bore the stamp of powerful chaos magic, but they were too carefully controlled for it to be a purely recreational prank from one of that sort. Nobody was hurt, no irreparable harm was done — although it’ll cost him a pretty penny to replace all that leather, and I can’t imagine what he’ll do with the legwarmers. Still, you’d almost think whoever masterminded the stunt actually cared about him, and was trying to send him a message. Something about lightening up, maybe, or consideration for others.” The green demon frowned. “I’m afraid he wasn’t very considerate to those nice conventioneers. It would only have taken a few calls to redirect them to the Hilton.”

“Mm-hmm.” Cordelia toyed with the stem of her margarita glass. “Maybe whoever it was was just ticked off. I know Angel’s offended lots of people over the last few years, and especially recently.” Wesley choked on his beer, and Gunn helpfully thumped him on the back as he coughed.

“Could be,” the Host said thoughtfully. His eyes narrowed as he stared at Cordelia. “By the way, I wish you’d stop flashing all that guilt at me. I’m going to get a headache if you can’t get it under control.” She goggled at him. “I knew it was a fake ID before, and I didn’t care. Most of our clientele here have a lifespan of less than ten solar years. They’re all drinking. You do the math.” He got up from the table. “Not that I’m advocating overindulgence, drunk driving, or you three singing together ever again, but the next round’s on me. Have fun, kids.”

And so they did.