I never thought a gym could look so damned eerie, thought Cordy. Tall tapers burned on a fold-out table that was covered with a red cloth. A large bowl was smoldering with charcoal and that awful sticky incense. The girls were kneeling before the table. Sister Maureen began reading from a very, very old book. Cordy was grateful for the terror. It cut through the fog of hunger and brain-numbing smoke, helping her keep focus.
Angel leaned against the wall beneath the stairs, listening intently, doing rough translation in his head. Jezreel, the dogs. It was the same text as the paper handout they'd found in the church. The dogs will come, the dogs will eat the whore of Babylon. Jezebel will be eaten, the way will be made clean. He looked up in time to see Sister Judith sail into view, pulling a cross from her robe. He snatched it out of her hand, marveling briefly at the latex gloves that protected his skin; he snapped it. He shoved the pieces into his pocket and had his hand over her mouth, pulling her under the stairs, before she could cry out.
Sister Maureen put down the book and began leading a chant. The girls joined, the pitch grew. Some of the girls began to make snarling sounds. One of them gave a wolfish wail.
Cordy's world folded. She saw, as through a shattered window, two young girls holding hands. A mission in the desert, a tiny church, little wooden buildings. A fire, shadows, chanting. One of the girls cutting herself on the wrist with a knife, cutting some kind of design. She held her wrist out to let drops of blood fall into the fire. The other girl writhing in the sand, then standing; the skin on her face rippled and gave way to another face, a demonic face. The two girls running through the night. The girls climbing rocks, finding isolation, holding each other and weeping. Whispering, secrets, heartbreak, separation. Cordy gripped the floor, groaning as the episode passed. She looked up.
Angel looked at Sister Judith's face in the darkness and released her.
"I didn't mean to hurt you," she hissed.
"Then why did you pull a cross on me?" he whispered.
"Only to keep you out of the way,"
"Of what?" he pushed her behind him. Sister Maureen was holding a taper and leading the girls single file. He took a step to go after them. Sister Judith hung on his sleeve.
"It's not Cordelia they want," she said.
He turned to stare at her. "What?"
The girls were in the grip of hallucination as they stumbled numbly along; they were making low growling sounds. Cordy was muttering softly into her blouse. "OK...we're heading for the locker room. The showers, that would make sense. That's the best place to feed, you can wash away the evidence. Make clean the way. ICK. Wesley, these two nuns have known each other for a really long time. This is a showdown of some kind, they're just using us. It's not even me-" as she passed Sister Maureen in the line she dissolved into incoherent muttering, then resumed, "There might be a demon in this after all, because I just got a vision,"
"What's going on?" Angel demanded softly, "I want you to tell me right now,"
"I'm going to stop it," Sister Judith broke free from his grip. He was amazed at her sudden strength and agility. He ran after her. She rounded the corner into the locker room, past the lockers, into the showers, with the folds of her habit fluttering black and white. The girls were kneeling in a circle around Sister Margaret. Sister Judith stopped in the doorway. The two nuns locked eyes.
Sister Maureen's eyes filled with tears.
"Tonight it will be over. Tonight it ends. I am the last one,"
"No," said Sister Judith.
They stared at each other.
"I am the ninth," Sister Maureen said, in a patiently explaining tone, "And then we are free,"
"No," said Sister Judith. Her face tensed with contained sadness. "No, it's over. I won't let you. I've allowed it, so I'm to blame as well. I turned my back. I let you do this to yourself, to innocent girls-"
"Innocent?" Sister Maureen shouted, "Dirty ones! Dirty girls!"
"They were only guilty of one thing,"
The nuns were silent, eyeing each other with an intensity that suddenly made Cordy blush.
"The same thing we were guilty of," said Sister Judith, "It's over. Let the girls go,"
"I can call it,"
"No. You can't bring it here without me,"
Sister Maureen pulled a knife as she lunged at Sister Judith. Angel sprang between them. The knife pierced Angel's jacket, spilling the blessing powder across the floor; it dissolved, filling the air with a piercing fragrance that hit Cordy like a cool breeze. The knife clattered on the tiles. Cordy grabbed it and stood, feeling suddenly stronger. The other girls seemed to be shocked from their collective trance. Angel rolled across the tile with Sister Maureen in his arms. He grappled to a stand, keeping her pinned to his chest.
Sister Judith began to weep softly. She spoke through the tears, "Girls, you will all be witnesses. Everything that was done was our fault. You were brain-washed," The girls watched her uncertainly as they began to regain their feet. They blinked and rubbed their eyes.
Sister Judith looked at Sister Maureen. "There hasn't been a demon," she said, "Not since then,"
"I am the ninth!" cried Sister Maureen, "I am the ending!"
"The ninth sacrifice is the Host," said Angel, holding Sister Maureen at arm's length, "But why the sacrifices?"
Judith looked at him. "To erase the bond. The Summoner and the Host are bound forever. That was what we wanted," she stared at Sister Maureen, "It's over now. I didn't want to see. You wanted to erase it, the sin. Our sin. And you used them. This was never about the demon, Maureen. We lied to ourselves. We called love a sin, and that was the real evil. We were never unclean. Until we did this,"
Sister Maureen went limp, staring at the floor. "I am the ninth, and then all filth is washed away," she muttered.
Cordy looked at the other girls. "Who were we going to eat tonight? Sister Maureen?"
Karen shrugged, "We were supposed to,"
"Well," said Tracey, her eyes bulging eyes darting at Angel, than at Sister Judith, "Yeah,"
Cordy swallowed. She looked at Angel. "Wesley," she said to her blouse, "I think it's safe to call the cops now,"
"Mmmg!" Cordy gestured wildly at Wesley, "Mow mubber!"
"Oh...yes," Wesley stopped the waiter, who shot a glare at Cordy, "More butter here, please,"
Angel rolled the cabernet over his tongue. Not bad, but he could taste the nitrites. It was criminal to do that to wine. From what he'd heard they still didn't butcher their wine in Europe. At least someone didn't.
Cordy paused in her work, a bite of steak poised on her fork. "So, why keep her out? She's just as guilty as the other one. Aiding and abetting,"
"First of all, she decided to switch sides at a crucial moment and help," said Angel, "Second, she's valuable. She's learned a lot over the years, and not just about demons. Not to mention the fact that she's a healer. She should be doing community service at a hospital, really doing some good. And she could be very helpful to the LAPD. And to us. She's not going to be any good to anyone in jail. I'm going to back her,"
"Well," Cordy swallowed, "I don't want to see you trusting her again,"
"It's hard to explain," Angel admitted, "It's not garden-variety trust. She's got dark secrets. She's old. I relate,"
"And she loves someone she can never have," Cordy shrugged, reaching past Wesley to spoon a puddle of bernaise onto her plate. "But there's no way you can relate to her code of ethics. I just want to know when you're seeing her,"
Angel blinked. Cordy shook salt over her plate for the third time. "I mean it," she said, "I want to know when you're working with her, when you visit her, every time. I have a right to know,"
Angel tensed suddenly. He looked over his shoulder, turning his head very slowly. She was here. Buffy looked at him across the restaurant, her eyes full of the knowledge of him. She had felt him, too. She turned and said something to her father, then made it to their table. Cordy had been watching the entire exchange.
"Hey, Buffy," said Cordy, "Can I get you something? I think they make moral superiority cocktails here,"
Buffy looked at the floor briefly, "Nothing, thanks," Her eyes shot up at Angel, "I just wanted to be...a grownup, I guess. Say hi,"
"Hi," said Angel, blankly. His sense of balance was gone, as it always was when he saw her. "Visiting your Dad?"
"How are things in Sunnydale?" asked Wesley, all British poise.
"Things are good," she said, then she looked down again, "They're good,"
"Well, this has been real," said Cordy, with finality.
"It must be a rush, being one of the good guys now," Buffy replied, "And I'm the Jezebel,"
The three collectively flinched. Buffy's eyebrows went up. "What did I say?"
"Nothing, it's nothing," said Angel, standing, "I'm sorry. It's been a long week,"
"Well, I can't keep my Dad waiting," said Buffy, "Maybe I shouldn't have-"
"No. You should have. I'm glad you did. Cordy's just a little overprotective at the moment,"
Buffy looked at Cordy, who had just stuffed her mouth with mashed potatoes.
"Not really such a bad thing," she said softly, "No hard feelings, Cordy. Nice to see you Wesley. You um...you all, take care," she looked up at Angel, "OK?"
"We...we will," said Angel. He sat down and watched her walk away. Cordy and Wesley watched him. Cordy's arm lashed out to grab the waiter's sleeve.
"Doggy bag, check, NOW," she said. She looked pensively at Angel. "After an expensive meal like that, I need Dairy Queen. Let's go,"
Angel couldn't help it. He looked across the restaurant again and she felt him, turned. They stared at each other. Cordy took his hand and nearly hoisted him from the chair.
"Come on, dark secret-carrying old guy," she said, "Let's get ice cream,"
They walked slowly down the street, Wesley subtly favoring his left ankle, Cordy being stuffed with food, Angel in a daze.
"Love and sin," mused Cordy, "Calling love a sin IS evil. I think. Except it's a lot more evil to make human sacrifices, no matter what the reason is. Love," she sighed, looking up at Angel and Wesley. She hooked an arm through Angel's and supported Wesley with an arm around his waist, "I'd rather face demons, myself,"