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Shadow Of Doubt

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October 31, 1999

The old house sat in an otherwise tidy street in North Hollywood. Set back from the road, it hid behind a fringe of overgrown grass and a tangle of weeds, all separated from the pavement by a rusty wrought-iron fence. The building’s paint was blistered and peeling in the Californian sun, and the roof tiles askew, like crooked teeth. Despite being abandoned for longer than anyone could remember, nobody squatted there, and the walls were devoid of graffiti.

Normally children hurried past it on their way home from school, and whispered to each other about how it was haunted. But today two young boys stood on the porch, hesitating at the front door, which hung partially open on broken hinges.

“You’re scared,” said the redhead, whose name was Timmy.

His friend, Blake, stuck his chin out in defiance. “Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Am not.”

“Prove it,” Timmy challenged.

Blake shrugged. “How?”

“Tonight. Come back here and stay the night,” Timmy said.

“But I’m supposed to go trick-or-treating with my sister,” Blake protested, shouldering his backpack and moving to leave.

Timmy snorted. “Chicken.”

“Fine,” Blake retorted. “I’ll sneak out after, but you have to come too.”

“Okay,” Timmy said, paling a little. “Meet you here at ten. Bring your candy.”

The boys parted ways then, clattering down the rickety wooden steps and hurrying along the overgrown garden path, heading home.

Deep in the bowels of the building, disturbed by the noise, something woke.

***

The previous evening

The Plymouth screeched to a halt on the wet asphalt, blocking the entrance to the alley. Cordy gripped the back of the passenger seat and squeezed her eyes shut. God, this couldn’t be happening.

The car bounced as Angel launched himself over the driver’s door and across the hood, and she heard Wes open his door, and both their feet echoing as they ran. And then - abrupt silence.

She couldn’t look.

“Damn.” Wesley’s one, defeated word, told her all she needed to know, and suddenly she had to get out and see for herself. It was her fault and she needed to face it. Her eyes popped open.

“Cordy, don’t.” Angel loomed in her field of vision, all broad shoulders and leather. “We’re too late.”

She pushed the door open, trying to get around him. “Angel, please, I have to look. I’ve seen it already, in the vision.”

A few long seconds ticked by, filled by the sound of water running through gutters and rushing down pipes, and then he moved aside so she could peer into the gloom. She’d seen it in her head, but somehow seeing it now was a hundred times more awful.

Because now it was real, and it was real because of her.

The blood in her veins turned to ice. That horrible, plummeting feeling of too late, if only, take it back… Like realizing she’d left a $500 purse on the bus, but a zillion times worse. Hot tears wet her cheeks, turning everything soft-focus. “Oh, God.”

Cool fingers rested against the back of her neck. “It’s not your fault.”

“I sent us to the wrong place,” she whispered, hearing the horror in her own voice. “I killed him.”

“You made a mistake, Cordelia. You’re new at this. You can’t expect to get it right every time,” Wes said, climbing back into his seat. His voice was comforting, but his face was pulled into stark, shocked lines.

“I have to get it right every time,” she snapped, curling in on herself. How had it never occurred to her before? How precarious it all was. How responsible she was now. How much depended on her interpretation of a few blurry, screaming seconds.

Angel hovered beside her, looking sympathetic and awkward, like he wanted to comfort her but didn’t know how.

She shook her head at him. “Just take me home, please.”

He nodded silently, and slid behind the wheel.

***

When Cordy hauled ass into the office the following afternoon, the guys were nowhere to be found. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed. Angel had called and left a message giving her the day off, and considering she hadn’t slept a wink, it was an enticing proposition.


But she couldn’t sit at home running it over and over in her head any longer. Venice B… Why had she thought Venice Beach, not Venice Boulevard? It was bad enough that every dark, stinky alley in LA looked the same. Why hadn’t the stupid PTBs shown her the whole name? Did they want her to get it wrong? Like they needed to make it harder than it already was. Ugh. It was making her head spin.

“I didn’t ask for this,” she hissed under her breath, kicking the trashcan aside and dumping her bag on the floor.

There was a commotion on the stairs, and Angel burst through the door, brandishing a knife, with Wes not far behind.

Cordy gasped, pressing a hand to her chest. “Jeez, what’s your damage?”

“Oh, it’s you.” Angel lowered his arm sheepishly.

She glared at them.

“Sorry, we thought you were an intruder,” Wesley said, slightly out of breath. “We weren’t expecting you in today.”

“Well, loathe as I am to look a gift holiday in the mouth, I kinda need to keep busy today, okay?” She fished in her drawer for a clean mug, aware Angel was scrutinizing her. “What? Do I have spinach in my teeth?”

“You look tired,” he said.

Way to make a girl feel good, Angel. “Well, you look dead.”

“Cordy.” He seemed to get larger, closer.

She finally located a mug and snatched it from the drawer, pushing past him to get to the caffeine. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. Happy?”

Realization flashed across his face. Great. She didn’t want his sympathy, and she certainly didn’t need psychoanalysis from the undead.

“It’s normal, Cordy. Guilt is hard to deal with,” Angel said, following her to the coffee machine and watching her pour a fresh cup. “Believe me, I know.”

She whirled on him, almost sloshing scalding coffee on his pants. “Don’t compare me to you. You killed people on purpose.” She caught her breath as the words spilled out. That was harsh, even by her old Queen C standards.

Angel didn’t even blink. “But it still feels the same, doesn’t it? And please watch where you’re splashing that.” He took the mug from her trembling hand and moved his groin out of the firing line.

“Like you’ll ever need that again,” she huffed.

Wesley smothered a smirk. “Actually, Cordelia, we were going to ask if you’d like to go out tonight,” he said.

Oh, boy. A sympathy date with the two most socially inept men she knew.

“We were?” Angel looked confused.

“Why not? It’s Halloween,” Wes said. “ We’re unlikely to see hide nor hair of demons tonight.”

“Gee, Wes, you obviously didn’t spend enough time in Sunnydale,” Cordy said, taking her coffee mug back and pouring in a couple of packs of Splenda.

Wes looked affronted. “From what I understand, that incident was human interference, not demon. Come on. It’ll be fun! We could catch a movie – or, ooh, should I break out the Word-Puzz?”

“No!” Cordy and Angel both said at the same time.

“Maybe we could –”

Cordy never got to hear Angel’s suggestion, because the vision slammed her back across Wesley’s desk and all she could hear was her own screams and the sound of his tea cup smashing.

A dusty wooden floor, foul-smelling darkness, and a horrid, spinny feeling. Her own face, ashen, her sightless eyes fixed on the ceiling. Angel leaning over her, fully vamped, blood dripping down his chin.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you.” Angel’s voice phased in, close to her left ear.

She sucked in a raw, wet breath; realized her arms were flailing, frantically pushing at his chest.

“Cordy, Cordy. I’ve got you!”

She forced herself to stillness, and opened her eyes. He’d saved her from hitting her head on the desk, and now she was cradled against him. Without a word he gently eased her into the closest chair.

Wesley already had a glass of water and two aspirin at the ready, and she sucked them straight down.

“That’s it, the PTBs have totally lost it.”

“Beg pardon?” Wesley asked, notepad poised.

She scowled at him, wincing when it made her head hurt more. “Maybe they’ve got a trainee on or something. Because if the last vision was cryptic, this one was just plain stupid.”

“What did you see?” Angel asked, leaning on the edge of Wes’ desk.

“I’m not repeating it because it would never happen.” She sipped at the remaining water. “Just forget it. It doesn’t matter.”

“I rather think it does, Cordy. Just because you got one wrong, doesn’t mean –”

Wesley shut up quickly when she pinned him with her death glare. “Angel’s going to kill me. Tonight. Sound plausible?”

Both men stared at her in stunned silence.

“See? Either the PTBs are up there huffing something, or I’ve gone completely psycho. Or you’ve been getting groiny with someone and gone evil.” She pointed an accusing finger at Angel. “You’re not evil, are you?”

“No. Not currently,” he said. “But Cordy, you shouldn’t dismiss this. Get away from me, just in case. Go home.”

This was getting stupid. “Don’t be ridiculous. You want to spend your evening playing Word-Puzz? Now that’s a truly scary Halloween.” She braced herself against the throbbing in her head and stood up, grabbing her bag from beside her chair. “What movie are we seeing?”

Wesley moved to stop her. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Like Angel’s going to off me in a crowded movie theater,” she scoffed. “And for super safety, he should buy us dinner in a crowded restaurant first.”

Wes’ face lit up. “Excellent idea, Cordelia!”

They hustled out of the office, leaving a perplexed-looking Angel to lock up behind them.

****

When they came out of the movie theater it was around ten o’clock, and Cordelia could sense the change in the weather before she heard the low rumble of thunder in the distance. All the fine hairs on her arms prickled, and she hugged them around herself, uneasy.

“Well, there’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back,” Wesley muttered.

Cordy shivered involuntarily, rubbing her forearms. “This from the man who spends days on end with his nose stuck in moldy old books.”

“At least that’s educational,” he retorted.

“I didn’t think the mummy was very convincing,” Angel added, looking ill-at-ease as the exiting patrons jostled around them.

“Who cares, when you have the hotness that is Brendan Fraser in all his full-screen glory?” she asked.

“The Matrix was better,” Angel said, holding open the door to the parking garage.

Cordy was about to comment on the hotness that was Keanu Reeves, when her skull cracked open and, for the second time since lunch, the world exploded.

A dilapidated house, two young boys, scales glinting in torchlight. Raw terror. A door hanging off its hinges -

“Crap!” Her own voice startled her, overly-loud in her ears.

Angel had her again, inches above the concrete floor, and he was looking at Wesley in concern. “That’s not normal, is it? Two in one day?”

“I don’t know.” Wesley fished around in his pocket and produced more aspirin and half a bottle of warm Sprite.

Cordy took them doubtfully. “If I take these with soda, will I explode?”

“The vision, Cordy?” Angel asked, setting her on her feet.

For a second it flashed back, and she clutched at his arm for support. “Oh, God, Angel. They’re just children.”

“That’s okay, we’ll get to them,” he said, pulling the keys to the Plymouth from his black duster.

Cordy’s heart caught in her throat, self-doubt almost suffocating her. “But – what if I’m wrong again? What if -?”

He put a hand to her cheek, and the intimacy of the gesture shocked her silent.

“Trust yourself, Cordy. Please. Where are we going?”

She took a deep, trembling breath, trying to damp down the panic. “North Hollywood. Hurry.”

***

They sped along the 101N with the top up and the windows down. The humid breeze smelled damp and as they hit Burbank Boulevard, the first fat drops exploded on the windshield. Lightning flashed intermittently somewhere off to the left, drawing ever closer.

“It’s a what?” Wesley asked over the sound of air rushing through the car.

“I told you, a huge snake. Do I need to be more specific?” Cordy snapped, the pain in her head fuelling the irritation. The last thing she wanted was to recall the image of that disgusting thing.

Wes leaned forward and fished between his feet, pulling a large leather-bound book from under the seat.

She rolled her eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Baxter’s Comprehensive Demon Compendium,” he said, scanning the index under S. “It always pays to have a copy somewhere handy. Yes, here we go. Snake demons. Does it look like that?” He held the book up so she could see the illustration more clearly from the back seat.

She recognized it immediately. “Yes. What is it?”

“A Basilisk,” Wes replied.

“Like in Harry Potter?” Angel asked, and at their incredulous stares, added, “What? I had a lot of time on my hands when I first arrived in LA.”

“I didn’t know they were real,” Wes said, looking fascinated.

Angel shrugged. “Where do you think J K Rowling got the idea?”

“We’re going to need a very big axe. Do we have a very big axe?” Wes asked.

Cordy leaned over the seat back. “How bad is it?”

He sighed. “Pretty bad. Deadly poisonous, and if this one is fully grown, it could swallow any one of us whole.”

“Oh, happy day.” Cordy slumped back in the seat and put her hand over her aching eyes. God, let the vision be wrong. She couldn’t live with any more deaths on her conscience, especially those of children. She cracked an eye and looked at Angel, and suddenly she understood exactly what a burden he carried.

They continued in silence for a while, Wes pouring over the pages of his book while rain poured on the roof. Angel negotiated the busy streets as fast as he could. It was after ten-thirty now, and most of the trick-or-treaters were done for the night, but a few costumed, bedraggled party-goers dashed between cars and houses as the Plymouth sped past.

“Here, here!” Cordy shouted, spotting the street sign. Please be right, please be right.

“What number?” Angel asked, cornering as fast as he could safely manage on the wet asphalt.

She pointed to an overgrown garden down near the corner, and a house that looked like something out of every horror movie ever made. “547. That one.”

Wes watched the house loom into view and sighed, “Of course it is”.

Angel swung the car to the curb, braking hard before putting it in park and popping the trunk. The air shook with thunder as they all bailed out into the downpour. By the time Wesley had selected a large, lethal-looking axe, and Angel his favorite broadsword, they were all drenched.

The gate stood half-open, and Cordy made sure to avoid getting rust on her jeans as she followed the guys through it and up the brick path that was almost engulfed by weeds. She should have known better than to wear Calvin Klein to work.

More lightning lit the house in sharp relief and the hair on the back of her neck rose to match that on her arms. “All we need now is Vincent Price and some cello music,” she muttered under her breath.

The peeling front door hung off its hinges, and inside was dark and quiet. Angel went first. Cordy could see his nostrils flaring, scenting the air like a wild animal, and if there was a hair on her body still lying flat, then it was definitely bucking the trend.

The room lit briefly, and she spotted a kid’s backpack in the corner, and something glittering on the floor beside it.

“Wes,” she hissed, nudging him as thunder rattled the old timber walls.

He jumped about six inches in the air and fumbled his axe, causing her to lurch backwards in self-preservation. “Good Lord, Cordelia. Don’t do that.”

Angel had seen it too, and he picked it up, turning it over and over like a coin between his fingers. “It’s a scale.”

Wesley took it, digging a small mag-lite from his trouser pocket to examine it. It had a smooth, shiny surface, multi-colored but black, like an oil slick. And it smelled foul.

“Ugh.”” Cordy covered her nose with a damp sleeve. “Like I needed reminding of that.”

Angel turned towards a dark doorway. “Through here.”

They crept single file into a pitch-black hallway. Stale, foul-smelling air filled Cordy’s nostrils and made her stomach roll uneasily. Wes pointed his mag-lite at the floor, and the small beam picked out narrow, rickety stairs heading down into darkness so thick it looked like it had substance.

Angel went first, Cordy ducked in behind him, and Wes was a warm presence at her back. She could see Angel’s reaction to the sound first, his head tilting to one side, but they were almost at the bottom before she picked it up. Somewhere down there a child was crying.

Which meant at least one of them was still alive. Relief surged, making her light-headed.

“Cordy, get the kids out. Wesley and I will deal with the snake,” Angel whispered, and before she had time to respond, he charged down the last few steps and kicked at the door.

It exploded from its hinges, slamming down onto the basement floor. Angel ran across it, sword clutched in one big hand. Wes gulped audibly behind her - then ran by with his axe aloft. It promptly embedded in the doorframe above his head, and while chaos erupted from the room beyond, he struggled to pull it back out.

Cordy ducked around him and dashed in, and oh good God, that thing looked so much bigger than in her vision, and smelled a whole lot worse. In the dim light that came from nowhere in particular she could see its tail was curled around two white-faced boys, while its head was trying to bite Angel in half. He ducked and twisted, his sword flying in a wide arc and glancing off the oily-black scales.

“Avoid the teeth!” Wes was yelling behind her. “The venom is deadly!”

“Cordy, the kids!” Angel shouted, ducking another attack.

She skirted the wall, running to her right until she was as close to the boys as she could get without touching the snake. She waved them towards her. “Come on, this way. Hurry!”

They sat frozen for a second, and then the Basilisk screeched. Angel had pierced the softer skin under its chin. The sound appeared to re-animate the boys, and they popped up, vaulting over the coils of tail.

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Wesley roared, pelting past with his axe swinging, thankfully now freed from the doorframe. He tripped on a loose board and fell forward and the axe sank deep into the snake’s side. It reared up and went for him with fangs bared. Angel used the distraction to stab again at the soft spot, his sword going deep.

“Cordy, get out!” he yelled, and she grabbed the boy’s hands and ran.

The snake screeched and thrashed as Wes wrenched his axe free. Its huge head swung low across the room as Cordy pushed the terrified children towards the stairs. She saw a flash of tongue and teeth, and dived for doorway as the foul-smelling mouth swished past. There was a brief, hot flare of pain in her ankle as she hit the floor and skidded into the bottom step. She scrambled to her feet and flew up the steps, as Wesley’s cry of “Take that, evil fiend!” echoed behind her.

They emerged into the upstairs room and stood for a second, panting hard. The red-haired one snagged the backpack laying on the floor, and a Snickers bar fell out.

“Go, go!” She shooed the boys towards the door, but they needed no further encouragement as more screeching erupted from downstairs. They fled across the dusty boards and out into the storm.

As they hit the sidewalk and turned down the road, adrenaline and relief caught her in a dizzy rush, and she plopped down onto her backside. Thank God, she got it right. Thank God, thank -

Lightning flashed, illuminating her legs splayed out before her, and a seeping, red patch on her jeans caught her eye. She leaned closer, found the rip, and the slash in her skin just above her ankle. Remembered the Basilisk’s fangs swinging past her legs. Oh, crap. Her ears began to ring.

Suddenly a blood-curdling shriek filled the air, and there was a shuddering crash from the basement. A few moments later Angel and Wes staggered into the room, dusty, dirty, but still intact. Their weapons shone red in the dim light from the street.

“I thought it was never going to go down,” Wesley panted, leaning on the handle of his axe.

Angel slapped him on the back, almost knocking him over. “Are you kidding? It didn’t stand a chance one you buried that thing in its neck.”

Wes looked pleased. “Merely a flesh wound. Now, you –”

“Guys, I don’t mean to interrupt your moment of macho glory, but I have a bit of a situation here,” Cordy interrupted, pointing to her leg, which was starting to burn.

“Oh, my.” Wesley dropped to his knees beside her. “Any chance you did that on a protruding nail?”

She shook her head. Little silver sparkles flashed on the periphery of her vision.

Vision. Something about a vision…

“Hold on, Cordy. We’ll get you to a hospital,” Angel said, tossing his sword down and joining Wesley at her side.

“Bite me,” she blurted out.

Wes tut-tutted. “There’s no need for -”

“No, dumbass, Angel has to bite me. He needs to suck out the poison.” The room was starting to spin now.

“Of course, the other vision,” Wes said, eyes wide.

Angel looked freaked. “Cordy, are you sure?”

“Um –” God, was she? Maybe the PTBs were warning her that this was the way he’d tried to save her, and he’d accidentally sucked too much blood. She did look dead in the vision, after all. She shook her head, trying to think clearly, but everything was so fuzzy. Like thinking through peanut butter.

Angel was shaking her shoulders. “Cordy, stay with me. Are you sure?” His voice distorted, and somewhere deep inside her head she heard him say, “Trust yourself, Cordy.” She closed her eyes, went with the tide of weariness tugging her down, and let the vision roll back in, wave after wave.

And she was sure, deep in her heart. Without a shadow of doubt.

“Yes,” she whispered.

Dimly she heard fabric tearing, felt a sharp throb of pain in her thigh, and then she was flying, and everything was warm and dark.

***

It was like waking after an anesthetic. Like the time she came to from the rebar operation, except there was no crisp white linen here. No nurses, no drugs. Just a hard dusty floor, a dull ache in both her ankle and thigh, and squares of street lighting slanting across an empty Snickers wrapper and a bloody sword on the ground near her head. She struggled up onto her elbows.

“Oh, thank God,” Wesley said, still on his knees at her side. He held out the remainder of his warm Sprite. “For a moment we thought – well, let’s just say it’s good to have you back.”

She looked around, swallowing a mouthful of flat soda. “Where’s Angel?”

Wes pointed towards the front door, just as a horrid retching sound came from outside.

“Wow, did I taste that bad?”

Wes shook his head. “I’m afraid the venom made him rather sick to his stomach.”

“Oh, right. Ew. The PTBs didn’t mention that part in the vision.”

“He’ll live.” Wes smiled.

Gingerly she sat up the rest of the way, and when that went well, got to her knees, shooting Wes ‘The Brow’ when he looked like he meant to stop her. He sighed, and helped her to her feet instead.

She toed the Snickers wrapper. “I can’t believe I was dying and you were eating.”

“Doing battle depleted my blood sugar,” Wes protested.

She shook free of his steadying hands. “Well, you could have saved me some. Hello, bitten by a snake? I think that deserves chocolate.”

More retching noises drifted in from outside.

“I’ll go see how he is,” she said, taking an experimental step towards the door.

Wes nodded. “I’ll just grab a few samples.” He glanced back towards the stairwell door.

“Didn’t need to know that.” Cordy screwed up her nose, and with her shredded jeans leg flapping, walked carefully out into the damp evening.

Angel was on the covered verandah, leaning on the rail, looking more ashen than usual.

“Have you finished barfing? Because I can come back,” she said, keeping a safe distance.

He sucked in a deep breath, and looked up. “I’m okay.”

She held out the Sprite bottle, and he took it slowly before having a tiny sip.

“Thanks,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself.

He shook his head, and sipped again. “You don’t need –”

“No, I do,” she interrupted. “I don’t mean thanks for saving me. Well, I do, obviously – though you’re totally buying me a new pair of jeans tomorrow – but I meant thank you for believing me. About the vision. I know my track record’s been a little spotty lately.”

Angel coughed - then belched, and she took a hasty step back. “I’m okay,” he said, looking anything but. “I figured it wasn’t something you’d suggest unless it was the only way.”

Cordy nodded. “Yeah. Not exactly my preferred way to round off dinner and a movie. Plus, it’s not like I hadn’t already been bitten enough times tonight.” She eyed the wound on her ankle.

“True.” He nodded, and turned back to look at the rain-washed street.

Cordy leaned on the railing beside him, gazing out at the shiny asphalt. A wet alleyway flashed through her mind, and a life not saved. However hard she tried, it could happen again. There were no guarantees she’d always get it right. “How do you do it?”

“What?” Angel asked, not looking at her.

“Live with it. You know. All those people –” She made a slicing motion across her neck with her thumb.

He was quiet for a long time, so long that she though he wasn’t going to answer. Finally he said, “You just do your best. You can’t undo the past, but you can try to make a difference in the future.”

Wow, deep. She nodded, for once unable to find a suitable response. He didn’t seem to need one.

There was a clatter behind them as Wesley bumbled through the door, axe in one hand, Angel’s sword in the other, and what looked like a fang tucked under one arm. “Shall we go then? There’s still time for Word-Puzz.”

Cordy saw the corner of Angel’s mouth twitch upwards, and bit her lip to stifle a laugh. “I think I need to go home and take a bath.”

“All in good time. We need to see to that ankle first,” Wes said.

She sighed. It was true, Angel Investigations probably had the most comprehensive first aid kit in LA, and she did need patching up.

Angel wiped his chin on the sleeve of his coat – she could still see the shadow of her own blood on his skin – and took his sword from Wes. “You need to eat, Cordy. And hot tea. To replace –” He gestured in the direction of her leg.

“Oh, excellent, are you making eggs?” Wesley beamed.

Cordy slapped his arm. “Maybe you should cook, considering we’ve both been poisoned.”

“Jolly good. I’ll do the eggs and you can set up the Word-Puzz.” He shouldered his axe and marched cheerfully toward the car as Cordy and Angel both groaned.

“You don’t have to come,” Angel said, as they followed Wes down the overgrown path.

She laughed. “I think I owe it to you to suffer in solidarity.”

He smiled. “Thanks.”

“Anyway, you have to write me a check. I think a hundred will cover the new jeans.”

She smiled sweetly at him, and they walked the rest of the way to the car in silence.