Release, Part III

The two figures strolled side by side along the poorly lit sidewalk. Above them, one streetlight flickered and buzzed with the strenuous effort of casting one pale stream of light to the glittering concrete below.

"I may regret this… but I find myself in need of some advice," Wesley stated somewhat reluctantly, as he and Cordelia dutifully patrolled their section of the map not far from where Wendy Harrison had worked.

At Wesley's inquiry, Cordelia's face lit up with excited glee that was visible even in the poor lighting. "Do bees make honey?" she replied with rhetorical enthusiasm. "Honestly, giving advice is one of my favorite things. I should've become a therapist."

"You still can," he suggested.

"Sure, with all the extra time I have to go back to school," she countered, tilting her head to get a better look at the troubled Englishman beside her. "I'll start practicing right now. What seems to be the problem?"

"Well, I'm afraid I've managed to make things rather uncomfortable… between me and Fred." he admitted with a hapless shrug.

"It's a shame MTV cancelled Loveline," Cordelia commented, maintaining her laid-back pace as she considered Wesley's unrelenting crush on their colleague. Part of it made her feel sad for her friend; he was still completely hung up on a woman who didn't readily appear to share his feelings. The other part of her was just relieved he wasn't still into Lilah Morgan—because Satan himself was better than Lilah Morgan. And then there was the part of her that had eyes, and could see that Fred and Gunn were not the impenetrable force they used to be. "You didn't make a move on her, did you?"

"No, nothing so bold," Wesley admitted, making it clear that he very much wanted to make a move on Fred, and didn't necessarily think it wrong to do so, despite her questionable relationship status. "She overheard a conversation between me and Faith that was… somewhat suggestive in nature. And now, I do believe she's avoiding me."

"Ah, so now Fred knows how bad you want her, and you know that Fred knows how bad you want her, and she knows that you know that she knows how bad you want her," Cordelia exposited with a toss of her long, well-conditioned tresses. "Sounds like textbook sexual tension to me. By the way, what possessed you to have that conversation with Faith, of all people? There's your first mistake."

"It wasn't on purpose, Faith has a way of twisting things to her desire," Wesley deflected. "In any case, my main concern is salvaging my friendship with Fred."

"So you can swoop in when she and Gunn go kaput," Cordelia said perceptively.

"Not at all!" Wesley lodged his vehement denial and then caught the knowing arch of Cordelia's brow and dropped the pretense, "Well, alright. Yes, it does seem like their relationship has run its course. And I've been in love with her for all of it. That doesn't make me a bad person."

"Of course not," Cordelia agreed, placing a supportive hand on her old friend's shoulder. "It means you can afford to be patient, and let her come to you when the time is right. I mean, you've waited this long…"

Cordelia couldn't gauge Wesley's reaction, because she had no time to do so. An ear-damaging clatter from behind caused her to nearly jump out of her skin. Literally! She forcibly clung to her human face, whirling around with her long brown waves swinging behind her like a cape.

On the ground lay one groaning vampire, who had obviously been the source of the deafening noise—he'd managed to take a rusty old fire escape down with him, leaving him and it strewn across the pavement. No threat whatsoever. The four other lithe bodies that leapt out of the darkness were, however, a threat. A very serious threat!

"Who ordered delivery?" growled one of the larger vampires as he crept forward, bearing his fangs. He looked formidable even without vamp strength at his disposal. "I'm definitely liking the menu, boys—way more breast meat than usual."

"Ew!" Cordelia shot back without a hint of fear. She hated when the demons got pervy with her. Unless they were Doyle, of course. "Manners?!"

Wesley expertly unsheathed two stakes from within the cuffs of his shirtsleeve, and Cordelia retrieved her own pointy wooden object from the messenger bag at her side, both of them stood shoulder to shoulder, instantly on the defensive. "I'll have some skinny fries with that stake!" came the mocking chortle from one of the backup vamps as they all lurched forward into attack formation.

"Think again, buster—I'm more than meets the eye!" Cordelia bragged, letting her smooth, peachy human complexion give way to a layer of tough demon hide and rows of pointy defensive quills.

One of the backup vamps let out a groan of disappointment, but the oversized ringleader cocked his head curiously, taking an extra large sniff in Cordelia's direction. Satisfied by the scent that hit his nostrils, a cruel sneer lifted the side of his mouth, "Half-breed or not, the blood's human. Soup's up, boys!"

The gang of four moved in unison, each springing at the pair at a slightly different angle making it clear they were well-rehearsed. The largest one aimed for Cordelia, knocking the stake out of her hand with one bowling-ball-sized fist—he reached toward her throat with the intention of throttling her against the nearby brick wall.

But, Cordelia was too fast for the lumbering brute—she nimbly ducked below his meat hook, and then spun around to give him a high-kick to the back of his leaden head. The vampire, shocked by her unexpected speed, was left spluttering angrily as he plunged face first into the bricks where she was supposed to land. While he was temporarily distracted, Cordelia stepped back and searched the sidewalk for her weapon. Luckily, she spotted it quickly… unluckily, it was far out of reach, having rolled into the mouth of the alley where the fifth vampire had since recovered from his fall and was now looking to join the fray. He growled at her as he lunged forward to join his comrades.

Cordelia didn't think, she just leapt. Straight up in the air, much higher than she expected she could go. She sailed over the heads of her attackers and caught a dangling beam leftover from the collapsed fire escape, using it to swing herself onto a nearby window well. She perched on the slim easement with the grace of a cat, taking in the scene one story below. The total vamp count was down to four, meaning that Wesley had already managed to dust one of their attackers. He now grappled with two others and it wasn't looking terribly good for him. The remaining two—the giant leader and the clutz—were focused on Cordelia, growling up at her with annoyance that she had evaded their reach.

Her stake had been kicked deeper into the depths of the alley, making its retrieval an unviable strategy. There was also the sizable pile of rusted iron directly below her perch, compliments of the broken fire escape. Sure, vampires couldn't be killed by metal through the heart, but it would cause damage, hurt like hell and give her an opportunity to reclaim the deadly wooden stake. As she considered that option, the two vampires began to scale the pile of beams, limiting her options once again.

She needed to be unpredictable, and use her supernatural abilities to her advantage. So, she jumped! Straight forward—over their heads, clear across the alley, momentarily grasping the rough exterior of the opposite building, which had no windows or ledges. On impact, she simply bounced, propelling herself diagonally off the wall and successfully landing back on the sidewalk, right next to where Wesley was struggling. As soon as her sneakers hit the pavement, she spun and retrieved one of the stakes from Wesley's pinned hand, plunging it into the back of the vampire who was mid-way through a tackle. Instead of wasting the momentum from the potential fall, Wesley used it to knock down the vampire who had been restraining him from behind. He then rolled over and rammed the stake in his other hand straight into his attacker's chest.

Two more down. Two to go.

The dust had barely hit the pavement when the leader and his remaining sidekick steamrolled forward brandishing the wrought iron beams that Cordelia herself had been considering. This wasn't good—she traded a wary glimpse with Wesley who didn't look concerned. In fact, his nod back at her was full of nothing but encouragement. Not that she needed it. As the lumbering vamp targeted her, swinging his heavy weapon directly at her head, she let reflex take over.

Her body angled backward, and she felt the breeze against her face from the force of her attacker's powerful swing. And then, as if she was breakdancing, she side-winded her body around using as much force as she could to punch the giant vampire in his supernatural balls. He yelped in surprised pain, then reeled back, raising the weapon over his head and slamming it back down—but she was no longer in its path. She'd already sidestepped him, twirled around his back, and slammed her stake firmly into his broad back. Without waiting for his dusty silhouette to fall, she whirled to stake the final vampire standing. He was just out of reach, having been decked by Wesley. And he continued on that trajectory upon seeing the ashes of his boss rain down on Cordelia's stylish sneakers.

"Should we go after him?" Cordelia wondered, her eyes following as the vampire turned tail and ran, disappearing into the depths of the dark alley.

"If you can catch him," Wesley replied breathlessly, making it clear that he could not do any such thing.

"Is that a dare?" She asked with an amused arch of her brow.

"Hardly," Wesley clarified with an expression of mild awe etched across his features. "If I may speak frank—I had no idea Brachens were capable of what you just did. And you've not even broken a sweat."

Cordelia couldn't help the prideful grin that stole across her lips, "Well, unlike some half-Brachen husbands who shall remain nameless, I actually work out and take care of my body. Not to mention the many years of calisthenics training I had as a Sunnydale High cheerleader. Needless to say, I'm an exceptional physical specimen, as a human or a Brachen."

"Yes, that you are," Wesley chuckled at her well-deserved boasting. "I suspect that, also unlike Doyle, you have no qualms about using your demonic assets to their fullest."

"Oh, I have some qualms," Cordelia rebutted, waving a hand at the mouth of the trash-filled alley and then gesturing to her quill-covered nose. "For instance, while we can both tell that someone has recently urinated in this alleyway; only I can detect the large number of other bodily fluids."

"Oh, dear," Wesley replied as a brief look of disgust shadowed his face. He stared down the alley of olfactory unpleasantness for a few loaded seconds before turning back to her apologetically. "You do realize what this means, don't you?"

Cordelia knew exactly what it meant. Smelly human odors meant smelly human witnesses. She huffed out a deep breath of resignation. "We're going in."

"Angel's orders," Wesley confirmed, securing one of his retractable stakes back into its hiding place inside his left cuff.

"Okay, while you work on re-Batmaning yourself I'm gonna run across the street," she announced, hitching a thumb across the multiple lanes of traffic to where a sad-looking 99 cents store resided.

"What could you possibly need from there?" Wesley questioned as he briefly wrestled with his second retractable stake, finally giving up and shoving it in his pocket instead.

"Hey, that bog of eternal stench is bad enough for a regular human nose," she clarified. "Unless you want me adding my own vomit to the mix, then I'm going to need a clothespin and some air freshener!"

Skip paced the creaky wooden floorboards, his pointed talons folded in repose behind his back. He alone habited the modest-sized stage at the front of the room. The rest of the spacious auditorium featured plush red carpeting, stadium seating and Egyptian décor, as was its namesake—The Egyptian Theater. In the center of Hollywood Boulevard, it was the kind of lair most demons could only dream of squatting in. Close to the ripe touristy action, right under their unsuspecting noses.

But Skip wasn't most demons, and prime location or not, he was tired of being in charge. Tired of leading a band of imbeciles. Loyal imbeciles, sure. The acolytes that remained after their failed go-round with the vampire with a soul, the vessel, and the slayer, were all waiting anxiously to bring forth The Master.

The problem was, that was all they were doing—waiting. No bringing forth whatsoever. Not even offering up any good ideas for a new plan. And Skip himself, was all out of his own.

He thought that maybe if they found a substitute who looked like the vessel and acted like the vessel, that they would actually—by some miracle—create a new vessel. As entertaining as that strategy had been, there was no tricking the fates. There was only one woman capable of fulfilling this particular prophecy, and she was not only lacking in the required visions, but also currently knocked up with some half-breed's not-so-hellspawn. A far cry from hosting the spiritual essence of his most incandescent Master.

The amount of course correcting that would have to be done in order to reach their goal was almost unfathomable at this point. Not that he could ever admit that they were at a dead end—not that he could ever stop trying to bring forth the Master. He simply had no other reason for existing.

The loud din of demon voices suddenly got softer and the energy in the room took a decisive shift. Intruder, it told him. Someone had entered the hideout who was not supposed to be there. Someone noticeably human.

Skip stilled his pacing and stood curiously at the center of the stage, waiting expectantly for the average-sized mortal to step out of the shadows. When she did, he was… unimpressed, to say the least. Not to mention perplexed about her reasons for being there in the first place.

The woman wasn't the rebellious slayer or the spoiled vessel or the other Angel Investigations wanna-be-champion. She wasn't even one of those despicable lawyers who were always sticking their legal briefs where they didn't belong. No, this blonde woman of average height and build brought nothing with her into the den of lions except the complete confidence of someone who believed herself at the top of the food chain.

"Uh, hey there… are you lost? Because the mall is that-a-way," Skip said facetiously as she stopped just short of the stage, turning her shrewd blue eyes up in his direction. The mischievous twinkle that shimmered there along with the sly smirk across her lips told him that she was accustomed to playing naughty. "Can I help you?"

"No, but I think I can help you," she stated, cocking her head up at him audaciously.

"Is that right?" Skip inquired, nodding along as if this unassuming human could possibly have anything to offer him aside from a midnight snack.

Several of the minions had followed the young woman to the front of the theater and now stood at her back like a pack of wild dogs, sniffing at her and licking their chops hungrily. Skip didn't bother calling them off, knowing they had to be at least half as curious as he was. After all, if she was risking her life to be there, she had a reason. And despite the fact that every one of the creatures behind her could slice and dice her in under 30 seconds, her conviction and smile didn't falter. That was telling.

"I should probably introduce myself," she said, batting her eyelashes in a way that almost seemed flirtatious. Skip's demon features furrowed with suspicion.

Then, the woman showed her hand. She muttered a few words, her eyes turned black and a pulse of invisible energy knocked all of the demons behind her clear across the room. Her eyes cleared, returning to their natural crystal blue, and she smiled pleasantly as if nothing had happened, "My name is Amy… and I know how to bring your Master here."