Another Life by Inamorata
Summary: "Birthday", turned upside down and shaken.
Spoilers: No spoilers; AU pure as the driven snow.
Notes: This is for Dazzle, who gave copious encouragement and outed my inner hedonist. She gets huge thanks, and co-exec producer credit on my first fic.
Sunset at sunset.
The Strip's busy tonight, jammed with cars, the young and the beautiful partying like tomorrow the world's gonna end. She stands on her patch and watches the cars sail past. She makes up stories about faces she glimpses as they rush past at fifty miles an hour, going places while she stands in one place, waiting for business to come to her.
Life is literally passing her by. Somebody somewhere must be laughing at that joke. Maybe whatever forces are in control of her life these days, now that she isn't anymore. The Powers That Be.
A classic black Chevy glides past, the young woman in the passenger seat pawing the driver, a much older and not particularly attractive man. The story -- she's a Model/Actress/Whatever, he's something low- down in television, she thinks he can get her in the door. The ending -- three fucks, max, and the poor dumb bitch will be looking for another ride. That's how it works.
She wishes she'd known that before she came to this city.
She pulls down her skirt, a pointless action as there's barely enough leather to cover the lacy tops of her stockings. The chill wind whips her hair into her face, mixing dyed platinum strands with her natural chestnut brown. Two months ago, Frankie decided she'd bring in more business if she turned blonde; she told him no, then spent a week covering up the bruises his powers of persuasion left all over her rib cage. She'd been right, of course -- her regulars didn't like the change, and new clients preferred the natural blondes. Her takings had fallen, and that had earned her more bruises. Now the blonde is growing out, and she can't afford to cover it up with something approximating her natural color. She looks cheap and she knows it.
Another car goes past, this time bearing a well-dressed young woman, an executive on her way home after a late night at the office. It halts for a few seconds at the intersection; the woman dabs at her lipstick, then glances out of the car. For the briefest of moments their gazes meet and the contempt in the eyes of the woman in the car is undisguised. Trash, she's thinking. Hooker. Whore.
Cordelia stares right back at her, unflinching. The other woman looks away first. Then the car accelerates down the street, out of Cordelia's life and into a better one.
Cordelia can't follow her, but she closes her eyes wishes she could. She makes a wish to be transported to another life -- maybe the life she used to have, when she had money and a future and the toughest choice she faced was whether to go to college at UCLA or Duke. Even now, she finds it difficult to believe that this is real, that this is her life, this is who she is now.
And the worst part is, as much as she wants to blame Cameron or Frankie or everyone else who let her down or screwed her over since she came to L.A., she can't. She made every decision along the way that brought her here all by herself. And now there's no way back.
Cordelia blinks fast, her chest trembling with gasps that aren't -- quite -- sobs.
"Are you okay, honey?"
Cordelia's glad to hear Val's familiar nasal New York accent, and the genuine concern in her voice. Val has left her patch to make sure Cordelia's all right; she's walking over to join her, unsteady in black thigh-length boots with four-inch heels. Cordelia's clothes are scarcely less ridiculous -- a leather mini skirt, a blouse with studs instead of buttons, for easy removal, and fishnet stockings. Fishnet stockings, Cordelia thinks. She's a walking cliché.
"I'm okay, Val. I'm gonna take ten minutes, get a cup of coffee. Can you cover for me?"
Val nods. "If Frankie drives by, you're with a client."
Cordelia ducks into a side alley and starts walking quickly in the direction of the closest McDonald's. Once, she would have died before sullying her reputation or her shoes by venturing into nasty, dirty back streets like this one. Places like this were for junkies, muggers and whores, not nice, rich girls like Cordelia Chase. Now, these streets no longer frighten her -- they belong to her as much as to the druggies and thieves -- but she still picks her way through the used needles and soiled condoms, being careful to keep her feet clean.
"Going somewhere, sugar?"
Cordelia looks over her shoulder, disinterested. "Just taking a break, Ray."
She doesn't know what his real name is, but the shabby, greasy guy standing in her path is known to all the working girls as Sugar Ray due to his habit of addressing all of them in the same way. He has one lazy eye, and always appears to be staring at a point just above and to the left of the face of the person he's talking to. Depending on his mood, he either tries to save the girls' souls with his unique brand of hellfire and damnation religion, or he comes on to them. Which is rich, Cordelia thinks. As if any of them would give it up for free.
"Where to, sugar? Can Ray come?"
His habit of talking about himself in the third person is more than a little creepy, and always an indication that Ray's link with sanity is that little bit more tenuous than usual. "To answer both your questions -- none of your damn business, and no."
Some nights a sharp put down is enough to make Ray shamble off again to wherever he goes between times. But tonight it only seems to raise his ire. "Little tramp. Little whore. You're damned, you know. Your soul's all black, all black inside. Ray knows. Oh yes, hell yeah, Ray can see you're on the way down." He starts to laugh at that, a nasty, gurgling cackle that's thick with catarrh.
"If I'm going down, it sure as hell isn't on you. Get lost, Ray."
He takes a step nearer to her, and Cordelia moves back. Ray's undernourished, but he's a big guy, and he's got at least five inches and a hundred pounds on Cordelia. For the first time, she starts to feel a little threatened. His eyes brimming with tears, Ray says, "But YOU'RE the one who's lost. Can't you see it? Don't you, can't you? Ray can help. Ray's gonna put you back on the righteous path, sister sugar."
Then, with a deceptively fast movement, he reaches into his shabby gray overcoat and pulls out a knife.
Oh, fuck, Cordelia thinks.
Distract him. Keep him talking.
"Hey, Ray. I'm going to the McDonald's on the next block -- why don't you come with me? I changed my mind."
Ray shakes his head sadly. "It's too late to change your mind, sugar. Decision's already made."
He lunges at her.
Cordelia turns, and runs.
She's careering down the alley, screaming for someone, anyone who might hear her -- but it's dark and she's just finding out she doesn't know the back streets as well as she thought she did, and she can't run in the stupid stilettos she wears when she's working and ohshit she's tripping and sliding and falling down into the crud into the gutter, hands out to save herself but nothing's gonna save her now and she wishes more than anything things had been different --
She crouches down, curls up, and waits for the pain to start.
She stays still, perfectly still, for twenty seconds, a minute, two minutes. The part of her mind that isn't huddling, terrified is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The only explanation she can come up with is that Ray blundered past her in the dark, somehow overlooking her after she fell. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but neither does the fact she's still alive.
Whatever happened, she has to move. Get somewhere safe.
Come on. MOVE.
Cordelia makes herself get up. The first thing she sees when she turns around is Ray's body lying on the ground behind her. His head is pointed in one direction and his chest in the other. The look on his face is one of dumb, stupid surprise.
Her first thought is: Talk about dumb luck, he slipped and fell too --
Then she feels her skin prickle and go cold. No one ever tripped and twisted his neck around the wrong way on the way down.
Now she realizes she isn't alone.
The figure in the shadows is standing absolutely still, blending almost perfectly with the surrounding darkness.
In the distance, Cordelia can hear the noise of traffic on the Strip, horns beeping, distant voices, the sound of human lives being lived. It's never sounded so precious or desirable. If she bolts, she might just make it back to the street --
She tenses, gets ready to flee again.
"Don't -- don't run. Please."
The voice from the shadows is hesitant, and the last word feels artificially tacked on, as if the speaker is having trouble remembering the finer points of polite conversation. But that isn't what stops Cordelia from bolting.
It's the fact that she recognizes the voice.
"Come out of there," she says. When the shadow doesn't move, she injects a note of the old haughtiness into her tone. "Come out where I can see you or I'm leaving on the count of three. One, two --"
As her tongue begins to shape the word 'three', the figure comes forward, into the reflected glare of a neon sign.
He looks a little different than she remembers him -- which is crazy, because he's the last person she'd expect to change. But there is a difference, one she can't quite isolate. Black shirt and pants, leather and hair gel -- these things are the same. Maybe he's lost weight, if vampires can do that. Maybe his eyes are a little more sunken, his cheeks a little more hollow. Maybe he's just tired.
"Angel. Hi." Cordelia is quietly amazed at her ability to keep her voice so steady, her tone so casual. And they said she couldn't act.
If he's as surprised to see her as she is to see him, there's no indication of it in his voice. Or, for that matter in his face, although it's more difficult to tell, there: he has one hand raised, as if to hide his yellow eyes, ridged forehead and fangs. Just this once, Cordelia's grateful for the Sunnydale upbringing that makes this sight less frightening than Sugar Ray with a knife.
Angel lowers his hand; slowly, his face smoothes and his eyes darken. Cordelia isn't sure, but she doesn't remember the change taking this much time or conscious effort. "Still a vampire, then?"
This established, Cordelia moves on to the other important question on the Angel checklist. "Are you evil?"
"I don't think so."
It's hardly the vigorous denial Cordelia would have liked to hear. She points at the body on the ground. "You killed him."
"He was going to rape you and then murder you."
Angel says it with as much feeling as if he were telling her that the capital of France is Paris. But it's true, and that knowledge -- how close she came to being Jane Doe on an autopsy table -- slams into Cordelia like a physical blow. She feels something inside her turn to water; her insides are sloshing around and suddenly she can't stay on her feet. She sinks down and stretches out on a bed of empty fast food containers and cigarette butts, and shuts her eyes.
"Oh God. Oh God. He said I was dirty -- that my soul was black --"
She doesn't know why this, more than the fact that Ray was ready to slash her open with a knife, pushes her over the edge, but it does. Cordelia hears her voice dissolve into incomprehensible sobs, and hates herself for buckling like this. But she can't stop crying.
"Cordelia --" When she opens her eyes again, Angel has moved a step closer. He's holding his arms out from his sides, as if he wants to help her up but can't or won't touch her. "You are dirty." He swallows, then tries to make awkward amends, "I only meant -- your clothes are filthy. Maybe it would help to -- would you like to get cleaned up?"
Hot water and soap and skin that isn't sticky with dried cum. Yes, Cordelia thinks, she would like that a lot. But -- "I share a place with some of the girls. I just don't -- I don't want to be there, right now. Maybe a motel somewhere, a room with a shower --"
Angel hesitates, as if what he's about to say is difficult. "I have some extra space. You could come with me. Just for tonight."
Leaving her patch early for Frankie to drive past and find deserted, going with a vampire back to his lair -- rationally, Cordelia knows that accepting Angel's offer is deeply stupid on every level there is, plus some levels that haven't been explored at all yet. But right now the idea of being lifted out of this life, just for one night, is irresistibly seductive.
"Have you got a spare room?" she asks.
Angel has sixty five spare rooms.
"You have got to be kidding me," Cordelia says as he pulls up his car -- a vampire with a convertible, how the hell does that work? -- outside the back entrance of what seems to be a deserted hotel. "When did you move into real estate?" Then she remembers the mansion on Crawford Street, back in Sunnydale. Angel does seem to have a talent for finding desirable, vacant property; in another life, he would have made one hell of a broker.
Angel doesn't answer, just gets out of the car and pushes open the rusting iron gates. After a second, Cordelia follows him through a weedy, overgrown courtyard and past a dried-up fountain, and into a cavernous space that might once have been the hotel's lobby.
The lobby is dark; dust sheets cover the furniture, and there are no obvious signs of life. But then, Cordelia thinks, when the sole resident is a vampire, signs of life are the last thing you should expect to see.
"This is the Hyperion," Angel says. And then, as if it explains everything: "I live here."
"Sure. Right," Cordelia mutters as he walks past the reception desk and up the grand, creaking staircase. Angel doesn't look back once he starts climbing, and it seems to Cordelia the available options are either follow him or stand in the lobby all night. She follows him.
She catches up with him on the second floor hallway, where he's standing outside one of the bedrooms. As she draws near, he opens the door for her. The room inside smells musty, but it's tidy and the bed is made-up.
"This room's plumbing works," Angel says. "The pressure comes and goes, but there should be enough hot water for a shower. Do you -- want a T-shirt?"
He's looking at her outfit -- the blouse that shows everything, the little leather skirt, the fishnets and the come-fuck-me heels -- as he says it. It's the first indication Angel's given that he knows or cares what she was doing when he found her, and Cordelia feels herself starting to flush. Sometimes, the only thing that lets her survive her new life is the knowledge that no one from her old life knows about it. As grateful as she is to Angel for getting between her and Ray tonight, he's a Sunnydale face, and seeing him is bringing back memories of high school and better times.
Suddenly, she doesn't want to look at him anymore. She doesn't want him looking at her.
"I don't need anything else," Cordelia says shortly, and walks into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
The water that comes out of the shower nozzle is hot, although the pressure's so low it's hardly more than a dribble. Cordelia makes do as best she can, and as she washes off the night's grime she feels the warmth suffusing into her muscles, relaxing them. Mechanically, she scrubs between her legs, then washes her hair, behind her ears, between her toes, and every other part of herself she can reach. By the time she's ready to towel herself off, she feels pleasantly weak and raw.
Her clothes are lying where she dumped them, in the middle of the floor, and she can't bring herself to put them back on. Standing here, naked, she's herself; it's the clothes that push up her tits and squeeze her ass that turn her into the girl on the street-corner. She pushes the soiled heap to one side with her toe and sits down on the bed, still wrapped in the faded blue towel she found hanging on the rail in the bathroom.
The bedroom is cool, and she can see moisture evaporating off her skin, rising in faint clouds before dissipating into the air. Her arms and shoulders are rising in goosebumps, and she's starting to get cold, so she lets the damp towel fall to the floor and gets into the bed.
Initially, this isn't much of an improvement -- the bed is frigid, the mattress cold underneath her. She scissors her legs between the blankets, trying to build a little heat by friction, then curls her arms around herself. Her last conscious thought before she falls asleep is to wonder whether it would be rude to go and find Angel and ask him if he owns an electric blanket.
She dreams that she's back in Sunnydale, hooking outside The Bronze in the snow, shivering in her little leather skirt while Xander and Buffy and Willow and everyone she ever knew take it in turn to sneer at her. So when Angel drives up in a black convertible and offers her a ride anywhere she wants to go, she smiles at him and gets in.
Cordelia is woken up by a sound unlike anything she's ever heard before.
She sits up in the bed, momentarily confused about where she is and how she got here. She remembers Angel, the hotel and Sugar Ray, in that order, then looks at her watch. It's the cheapest one the drugstore had -- the DeVille she loved, her sixteenth birthday present, got stolen months ago. The glowing digital numbers tell her it's just after two o'clock, and the darkness outside the bedroom curtains indicates that means two in the morning. She's only been asleep for a couple of hours.
For a moment, Cordelia wonders if the noise that woke her was just traffic passing in the street below. Then she hears it again. No way is that traffic.
Half way between a howl and scream, it sounds like an animal being tortured. The hairs rise on the back of Cordelia's neck, and she remembers that no matter how happy she was when Angel showed up tonight, right now she's alone in a big empty building with a vampire who has a nasty habit of turning evil at the drop of a soul. Cordelia barely knew Angel in Sunnydale, and she's only just starting to realize she doesn't know what's been going on with him since he left. No more than he knows what's happened to her.
She can stay in here and cower, or she can get out of here as fast as possible. Cordelia has never been a big fan of cowering.
She throws off the blankets and reclaims her clothes from the crumpled heap in the corner of the room, leaving the stockings but pulling on the skirt and blouse, for the modicum of modesty they afford her. The clothes are crumpled and dirty, and they're no one's idea of a fantasy; Cordelia wishes she'd taken Angel up on his offer of a clean T-shirt.
She pushes the bedroom door open gingerly, trying and failing to remember if the hinges squeaked last night. They don't, and a moment later she's standing in the hallway. The stairs leading to the lobby below, the exit, and escape are within sight.
As quietly as possible, Cordelia tiptoes along the corridor, barefoot, holding her stilettos in her right hand. She's passing room 217 -- is right outside the closed door -- when she realizes this is the source of the noises.
But it's not an animal she hears. The screams and whimpers are human.
Or, more accurately, vampire.
Cordelia bites her lip, and looks toward the door of 217. If she left now, she'd never see -- or have to see - Angel again. And, really, what is he to her? The ex-boyfriend of a girl she went to high school with. Someone her own ex-boyfriend didn't like much. A weirdo with odd dietary requirements and limited social skills. No one important.
But Cordelia isn't anyone important these days, either. What is she to Angel, that he was there when Sugar Ray decided to pull a knife on her? She owes him this much.
"This is so stupid," she says out loud. "This is SO stupid." But she goes to the door of room 217, and tries the handle.
It's open; the room beyond is dark. Cordelia takes a breath, and goes in.
"Angel? It's me. I mean Cordelia. Not wanting to barge in, but it sounded like you'd cut yourself shaving or, or --"
He's not in the bedroom; the bed is rumpled but empty.
From the bathroom, Cordelia hears a whimper. It sounds almost like a child crying.
Angel's huddled into the space between the shower cubicle and the sink unit. He's naked, but he's folded up on himself so tightly that all Cordelia can see right now are arms and legs. Nevertheless she keeps her gaze firmly focused front and center, on his face.
Which is difficult, too. Angel's crying.
Tears stream down his face, brimming out of vacant dark eyes. He's about as far from the leather-clad vigilante who saved Cordelia tonight as it's possible to get. Cordelia can't figure out what the hell is going on here, but she's sure it's not healthy. And somehow she's landed in the middle of it.
"Angel? Angel, are you hearing me? C'mon, Angel."
Can vampires develop drug dependency? Cordelia considers that idea, then rejects it quickly -- there's no sign of any drugs paraphernalia, no tell-tale marks on his arms (and if he did shoot up, how could he get a hit without blood circulating to his brain?) She thinks she can smell alcohol off him, but she's never seen liquor produce this kind of effect, no matter what quantity it's taken in.
Angel doesn't respond and Cordelia, growing braver, leans forward and gently slaps his cheeks. His face remains dazed and void; wherever he is, he's not coming back anytime soon.
"Let's get you back to bed," Cordelia says. She takes his hands in hers, and tries to pull him to his feet. She's not strong enough, and on the first attempt he barely budges. But when she's pulled again, harder, several more times, the small part of his brain that's still responding to external stimuli starts to get the message. Clumsily, he gets up, and almost immediately falls forward on to Cordelia's shoulders.
He's still naked, and now there's no way of avoiding it. In two years working the streets, Cordelia's seen enough examples of male genitalia to rid her of any residual embarrassment at the sight of a penis, but this feels different. He probably doesn't even know she's here, and even glancing down there feels like taking advantage.
Walking backwards and almost bumping into the door, Cordelia leads him back into the bedroom, and somehow maneuvers him into sitting on the edge of the bed. She was right about the smell of alcohol -- there's an almost-empty bottle of whiskey on the dresser, a tumbler beside it. But somehow she doubts that's Angel's problem.
She pushes his shoulders, and he goes down without resistance. Then she lifts his legs and turns him so he's lying flat on his back. Throughout, his face stays fixed in that same, eerie blankness, except for the quiet tears that won't stop running down his cheeks.
She pulls the sheets up to his chest, then stands for a moment, looking down at his dull, dead eyes.
There's nothing more she can do here. She starts to turn away.
"Don't go. Please."
His voice is fragile, like it might crack open any second and everything inside him come pouring out. He sounds just like he did in the alleyway last night, when he asked her not to run away. She wonders how many people just run away from him.
He reaches up and takes hold of her wrist with his hand. His grip is strong, but he's disoriented; if she really wanted to get away, she could. The look in his eyes is distant, but it is a look.
"What can I do?" Cordelia asks.
"Are you real?" Angel asks.
He shuts his eyes. "Sometimes I can't tell -- for hours -- or days -- what's real --"
Vampires aren't real, Cordelia thinks. Everyone knows that. Well brought-up girls who go to the big city and slip between the cracks into a life they never even thought about -- they stop being real, too. Just like vampires, the rest of the world walks on by and pretends the things that do exist, don't.
"We're both real," she tells him. "I'll prove it."
Taking his face in her hands, she leans down and kisses him on the mouth. His lips are cool -- it feels weird, but not unpleasant. Just when she thinks he's not going to respond, his mouth opens, and the tip of his tongue brushes her lips, as if seeking permission to come inside her mouth.
He's tentative, uncertain. But that's okay. Cordelia knows what she's doing.
She locks her lips around his tongue, then squeezes and releases it, over and over. She can feel his body tensing as he raises his head, letting her take his tongue deeper into her mouth. His face and mouth are growing warm, and when she moves, he moves with her, as if he can't bear to break the contact.
Firmly, she places her hands on his shoulders and pushes him down. Angel gives a small moan as she forces him back, but he's still disoriented enough to let her set the pace. Cordelia knows that will be better for both of them.
Cordelia moves on to the bed, straddling Angel but not touching him. Supporting her weight on her knees and elbows, she positions herself directly over him, her hair falling down into his face. "Take off my blouse," she says.
His hands fumble as he obeys. Cordelia's still not sure how much of his response is automatic. If she has to walk him through this, step by step, she will.
The last stud pops free and her breasts spill out. Gently, she lowers herself on to him, allowing them to brush against his face. At first he's passive, eyes shut; then his lips part a fraction and he gently massages each nipple in turn, his tongue caressing the darker skin that surrounds them. A second later, and they're hard between his lips.
Last night he broke a man's neck. And now he's gentle, so very gentle --
Cordelia sits up, leaning back and resting her weight on his thighs. She shrugs off the blouse and throws it to one side. Then she tugs away the sheet, the last barrier between them.
Now it's okay to look.
His cock is already half-erect, flushing as it hardens. She takes his balls in her hands and massages them lightly, rolling them between her palms. Angel's soft groan is enough to tell her her touch is having the desired effect.
When he's as hard as he can be, she stops. Angel raises his hands over his head and grips the bars of the bedstead, bracing himself as he raises his hips, trying the find something to thrust against. This is what she intends to get from him -- a response. A connection.
She lowers herself on her elbows, and kisses him lightly, first on the inside of his thighs, and then along the shaft of his cock, working her way from the base to the head. Once there, she flicks out her tongue, barely touching it before alighting somewhere else. He's as cool here as everywhere else, and he tastes clean, a faint flavor of salt and nothing else.
Angel lets out a wordless cry and bucks under her; he can't tell where she's coming from next and it's making him crazy.
Cordelia slips the head of his cock into her mouth and runs her tongue around it. She sucks, again, and again, building a rhythm, allowing him to find and follow it. Now she's holding the shaft in her hand, sliding along his length and back again, in time with the other motions.
He's working against her with a kind of desperation; she's sure he should have come by now, but he's holding back. Between thrusts, he gasps, "Is this -- this is --"
Cordelia lifts her head, lets his cock slip out of her mouth. He's so hard he must be in near-pain. "What?"
"Is this real?" Angel whispers.
"This is real," Cordelia affirms. "This is happening. This is real."
She adjusts her position, supporting herself on her arms and leaning forward so his cock rubs between the fullness of her breasts. When he comes, with a shudder and a shout, it spills on to her and runs between them.
Angel's grip on the metal bars of the bed's frame slackens as his arms relax. He gives a final sigh of lingering pleasure, and slides down on to the pillows, spent. Cordelia uses the edge of a sheet to wipe her chest clean. This was just another transaction, she tells herself, no different to what she does every other night of the week. Angel saved Cordelia's life this evening; he asked her for something in return and she paid him in the only currency she carries these days. Now they're even, parting on equal terms again.
But then there's the way he's looking at her now. Most of Cordelia's clients won't look at her at all when they're through -- if they do, it's with contempt, and an ugly superiority. But Angel's gazing up at her with something like gratitude, or even wonder, and it touches Cordelia in a way she can't explain.
So when Angel says, quietly, "Stay," she does, climbing into bed beside him, and allowing him to wrap his cool arms around her. At first, he feels as cold as the bed in her room did when she first got into it, but it isn't long before his body begins to trap her warmth, reflecting it back at her. Angel is better than an electric blanket, Cordelia decides as she falls asleep, and she doesn't dream about snow.
Cordelia wakes up cold and alone.
There's a space in the bed beside her; at first she thinks Angel must be in the bathroom, but the door to the en suite is sitting open and he isn't in there.
She pulls the curtains open and winces in the bright sunshine; the old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock on Angel's dresser tells her it's almost noon. She searches his closet and helps herself to a plain white T-shirt and a pair of gray drawstring pants. They're musty but clean, and they smell like Angel; his scent is earthy, a little metallic, and Cordelia's surprised at how much she enjoys being surrounded by it.
She gives the room the once-over, but there's no note, no indication of where he's gone, when he might be back, or if he expects her to be here when he does return. She could go back to bed -- the idea of luxuriating longer in the novelty of uninterrupted rest is tempting -- but Cordelia's never made a habit of sitting around waiting for something to happen. She goes downstairs, to the lobby.
She finds the money sitting on the reception desk, where she can't fail to miss it.
It's sitting by itself, a neat pile subdivided according to the bills' denominations. There's no accompanying note or card -- nothing to indicate it's intended for her -- but Cordelia knows what it is, knows what it's for.
Just a transaction, she reminds herself harshly. Stupid to imagine it could have been anything else. Anything more.
She doesn't want his fucking money.
She's out of the hotel and half way down the street when her inner pragmatist cuts in. As her steps slow, then stop, Cordelia remembers a saying she heard first from one of her mother's maids -- one of the ones who didn't stay long, one of the ones whose name Cordelia never bothered to learn. Beggars can't be choosers.
Beggars can't be choosers, Cordelia tells herself as she retraces her steps to the hotel. The money is still sitting on the reception desk; she lifts it and counts it into her purse, her eyes blurring. One hundred dollars is food until the end of the month; being able to take cabs home for a week instead of walking alone; her portion of this week's rent. It means a lot. It makes last night mean nothing.
Beggars can't be choosers, Cordelia thinks, and walks out of the Hyperion. She doesn't expect she'll ever be back.
Angel is following Cordelia.
She hasn't seen him. In fact, she hasn't seen anything, unless you count a shape perched on the roof of the building opposite, or a shadow that's a fraction too dark -- but she knows it's him. Who else would it be?
She thinks it started a couple of weeks after the night she spent with him at his hotel, although it's possible he was following her before that, and she just didn't notice.
She knew for certain when she left the purse containing her night's earnings -- five hundred dollars in cash -- on the bus. She opened her bag as she walked up the street to the apartment building, and felt a yawning, gaping panic begin as she remembered setting the purse on the seat beside her as she rode home. She was ready to run all the way to the bus depot, if she had to; anything to avoid Frankie's fury. Then she heard a light thud and the chink of loose change behind her, and when she turned around her purse was lying in the middle of the sidewalk. There was no one in sight.
Her takings slumped: she couldn't perform, knowing that he might be somewhere close, watching her kneel with her face in a gasping stranger's open flies. Somehow, she managed to pull herself together in time to bring business back to normal levels before she incurred Frankie's wrath. She was lucky -- lately Val has been his victim of choice, and he's been noticeably easier on the other girls. Cordelia is ashamed of herself for the relief she feels that the bruises are on Val and not herself, but it doesn't stop her wanting it to continue.
Then Frankie -- in one of his frequent and inexplicable policy decisions -- shuffled the girls' patches and Cordelia found herself working Sunset again for the first time since the night Sugar Ray tried to kill her. She walked past the entrance to the alley where she'd fallen as she fled from him, and she thought -- although she wasn't sure -- she felt a cool hand brush against hers as she passed. After that, slowly, she started to find the constant shadowy presence trailing her a kind of comfort. She began to associate Angel's presence with safety, a feeling she hasn't enjoyed in too long.
After a month, Cordelia has settled into an odd but increasingly not unwelcome routine. She works the streets and buys her groceries at the All-Nite and walks back to the apartment where she lives with Frankie's other girls just before dawn every day in the knowledge that he is there. Sometimes she even calls, "See you tomorrow, Angel," as she goes inside, half-wondering if he'll respond. Cordelia thinks this strange equilibrium benefits her more than him, although she's a little disappointed that Angel -- Buffy's noble, heroic, vampire-with-a-soul -- is just another voyeur, getting his kicks by watching Cordelia turn tricks for cash. But then, no one is the way you like to think.
Angel watches Cordelia, which she doesn't like, but he keeps her safe, which she does. It doesn't seem an unfair exchange, although Cordelia doesn't think she would always have felt this way. It's a strange equilibrium but, while it benefits her, this is one boat she doesn't intend to rock.
It's Angel who does that.
Cordelia recognizes the car before its driver: one of the few things she ever shared with her father was an appreciation of classic automobiles. Her overriding emotional response as the Plymouth rolls up to her is surprise mingled with amusement -- how can Angel have the nerve? A month and a half of lurking in alcoves and doorways, and now he thinks he can just drive right up to her?
Apparently, that's exactly what he thinks.
The Plymouth pulls in off the street and stops right next to where Cordelia's touting for business. "Hi," Angel greets her awkwardly.
"What do you want?"
Cordelia starts walking along the sidewalk, away from the car. After a moment, Angel gently eases the convertible forward, crawling along beside her. At the other end of the street, Cordelia sees Val look around, then nod and go back to working her own patch, satisfied that Cordelia's not in trouble, just negotiating with a potential client. And, from a distance, that's exactly what it must look like. For an instant, Cordelia wonders if Angel's worried about his reputation, then thinks -- What reputation? He's a *vampire.* Reputations don't get worse than that.
"Are you busy?" Angel asks.
"As it happens -- yes. I'm not out here taking the night air for my health."
"I know," Angel says.
"Then why'd you ask?" Cordelia says harshly. She doesn't mean to snap, but it comes out sounding raw and ugly.
Angel is silent for an unnaturally long time. He never was particularly good at conversation, Cordelia remembers, and now it seems he's lost the knack completely.
"What do you want?" she asks again. "Because time is money, and you're wasting mine."
"I want -- I'd like to talk. To you."
"Come back tomorrow," Cordelia says. "During the day."
He looks stung by that, and for a second she thinks -- she hopes -- he's going to drive away. But he doesn't. Instead he takes one hand off the wheel for long enough to dig out a battered-looking wallet. "I'll pay for your time now. How much does it take?"
Cordelia almost says, You should know, but something makes her bite the words back. Partly it's the genuinely hopeful look on Angel's face. Mostly, it's simply that Cordelia's worn out and, right now, a break sounds too good to pass up on. Especially a paid break.
"Fifty bucks gets you a hand job or a coffee at McDonald's," she tells him as she gets into the car. "Your choice."
It's not good coffee, but it's not bad coffee either. It's hot, and that's almost enough to make up for the flavor and aroma deficit. Cordelia sits at the plastic table with her hands wrapped around the cardboard beaker, allowing the heat to suffuse through her fingers. "So, do you keep up with any of the Scoobies?"
Angel's looking at her blankly; Cordelia can't believe he never heard any of them use the term bestowed on Buffy's immediate circle by Xander. Then again, maybe he never did -- like Cordelia, Angel was always on the fringes of the group, one Slayer ex-girlfriend notwithstanding. It may be a tenuous link, but it's the only thing she has in common with him, and they have to talk about something: the silence is getting awkward and Angel, despite his stated intentions, doesn't look likely to break it anytime soon.
"You know." Cordelia makes a vague gesture with one hand. "The Sunnydale people."
"Oh. No. Not really." Angel looks down into his own coffee, which he hasn't touched. The liquid's cloudy gray surface is perfectly still, and Cordelia can't help but notice that he doesn't even reflect there.
Exasperated, she says, "C'mon Angel. If you wanna talk to me, talk to me. But make it fast, because I need to be back out there in -- " Cordelia looks at her watch -- "Twenty minutes."
Angel nods, then takes a small (and unneeded) breath, like a diver preparing for a long submersion. "I was thinking -- about how we ran into each other. It was about two years ago. Just after I came back to L.A."
It's the longest speech Cordelia's heard Angel make since the night he killed Sugar Ray. She notes, too, that he said, 'back to L.A.', meaning he's lived here before, another new Angel factoid.
"You don't remember it," Angel says.
Cordelia hasn't forgotten. She remembers that party too well -- it was the night she met Angel but, more importantly, the night she met Cameron. Cameron, who was briefly her agent, and even more briefly her lover, and without whose influence Cordelia is pretty sure she wouldn't have begun the long slide down to where she is now. Hell, yes, Cordelia remembers that party.
She shrugs, feigning indifference. "I went to a lot of parties."
There's another long silence.
Finally, Angel decides to try again. "So, how are you -- how are you doing, these days?"
It's an innocent inquiry, but it pushes Cordelia right over the edge. Gripping her beaker of coffee so tightly the scalding liquid sloshes dangerously close to the rim, she snaps at him, "How am I doing? Well, gee, Angel, I'm doing great. I'm just peachy. I live with eight other girls in an apartment with space for four, for the past six weeks I've been stalked by a vampire and, oh, did I mention that I'm a WHORE?"
Angel actually winces on the last word. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," Cordelia says. The moment of anger has passed; now she's just tired. "It just is. Look, I gotta go. If I'm away from my patch much longer, Frankie will notice."
"Who's Frankie?" Angel asks.
"My fencing instructor. Who do you think?" Cordelia gets up, pushing her half-drunk coffee away from herself. She starts to walk away; half-way to the door, she stops and looks back. Angel is sitting at the plastic-topped table, shoulders hunched, eyes almost closed. A grinning poster of Ronald McDonald hangs right above his head. "Angel."
Angel half-turns on the plastic seat. "Yes?"
"Stop following me. I've got my own problems without being your obsession of choice. And why'd you have to pick me, anyhow? Did you get tired of fixating on Buffy twenty-four seven? Or is that on-off thing you two have finally just off?"
Cordelia may not know Angel well, but she knows him well enough, and Buffy's name produces the effect she wants -- his head dips again, and he swallows in something which is almost physical pain. Cordelia feels a moment of pleasure -- she's hurt him the way he hurt her with the cash on the reception desk -- but the sweet feeling sours when Angel says, "Buffy's dead."
"I'm sorry," Cordelia says automatically. She guesses she is, a little. Cordelia never especially liked Buffy and her own special brand of I'm-the-Chosen-One angst, but now she looks back, she's starting to realize Buffy only played the hand she was dealt the only way she knew how. Just like Cordelia's doing. "How'd she die?"
"Saving the world," Angel says, as if it couldn't have been any other way. Which is probably right, Cordelia thinks. Irrationally, she feels a stab of jealousy that Buffy got to die a hero as well as live as one. Buffy died saving the world, and Cordelia can't even save herself.
"I'm sorry you had to see that."
Angel's reply, when it finally comes, is low and hollow, like wind in a graveyard.
"I wasn't there."
Cordelia doesn't know what to say -- Buffy and Angel might have split up, but she'd always assumed -- had never doubted -- that somehow her life and his unlife were intimately entwined, yin and yang forever swirling together, no beginnings or endings. It seems incomprehensible that Buffy faced whatever it was that finally beat her without Angel at her side, fighting with fangs and fury to save her until she fell. The only thing stranger than Buffy being dead is that Buffy is dead and Angel is sitting in front of Cordelia in a McDonald's just off Sunset Boulevard.
"I'm sorry," Cordelia says again, and this time she knows she means it.
"Look, I -- I really gotta go now."
Cordelia is almost at the door when his voice, heavy and slow, calls her back.
"I'll stay away from now on. I promise. But if you ever need help -- if this man Frankie ever does anything -- you know where to find me."
Cordelia nods. Then she leaves Angel, sitting alone in the almost- empty McDonald's, and goes back to work.
"What's the matter, honey?" Val asks Cordelia.
They're walking along the street where Frankie's girls' apartment is, heading out to work for the night. Cordelia's wearing a spandex miniskirt, the bright pink top with the velcro fastenings that comes off in less than a second, too much make-up and heels so high the arches of her feet are cramping already. She feels, like she always does, as if she's an actress wearing a costume. Then she remembers, like she always does, that this isn't an act. This is who she is.
"Cordy, sweetheart? You okay?" Val asks again.
The door of the apartment building is only half a block away but Cordelia realizes with some embarrassment that she's already glanced over her shoulder a dozen times or more.
"I'm fine. It's just -- you remember that guy I told you about? The one I thought was following me?"
Val's eyes narrow. "Is he still doin' that? You should tell Frankie. He'd get some of his guys to fix that real quick."
"No -- he's stopped. I haven't seen or heard anything in a couple of weeks."
"Well, that's good, right?"
"Yeah, it's good," Cordelia agrees. Angel's kept his promise and his distance, and Cordelia knows she should be relieved she's got one less problem to deal with. But when she looks back over her shoulder, these nights, she almost hopes to see his familiar shadow lurking close by, and she's a little disappointed when he's not there. How screwed up must she be, she wonders, that she misses being stalked by a schizo vampire? "I guess he got bored and moved on to something else."
They've arrived at the bus stop; while they wait for the MTA number 302, Val pulls a compact out of her bag and touches up her make-up in the streetlights' neon glare. She's dabbing extra foundation around her eyes, Cordelia notices, trying to cover up the blossom of blue- black left over from Frankie's last fit of temper. Cordelia knows this is a bad sign -- Frankie's left his mark on all the girls, at one time or another, but he's always been careful not to bruise faces or breasts or places that might lose clients.
"Val, about Frankie --" Cordelia begins.
Val snaps her compact shut and smiles an old-timer's smile. "He'll get bored and move on to something new, too, honey. They always do."
The first thing Cordelia notices is that the apartment is too quiet. With nine girls sharing, there are always at least a couple of people about. Cordelia doesn't think she's ever been alone while she's been living here.
Opportunism rapidly overtakes her surprise. For the next ten minutes, or half an hour, Cordelia can walk from room to room, indulge a fantasy in which this is her space and no one else's, where she has somehow regained the independence she never knew was so precious until she lost it.
Cordelia stands in the middle of the living area, next to the battered couch, halted by indecision. What should she do first? She could make herself a sandwich, watch TV, read a magazine, take a shower --
A shower. She wants to take a shower, and then sit in the lounge with her hair wrapped up in a towel and drink coffee made with milk and sugar, the way she used to do on Sunday mornings when she was at high school.
Cordelia is humming to herself as she walks into the bathroom.
Val is there.
She's lying in the bath, legs and arms floating, buoyed by the water. Cordelia almost apologizes for walking in on her.
Then she sees that the bath water is red, that Val's eyes are open and glassy, and that the handle of the best kitchen knife -- the one Cordelia used to slice the meatloaf she ate for dinner last night -- is jutting out of Val's chest, just beneath her right breast.
Val stares up at Cordelia, her empty gaze asking for something that no one can give her now. Somewhere on the floor below, a door slams, and the bath water laps around Val's body, making her limbs sway in an obscene parody of life.
Val's body slips in the bathtub, and her head falls to one side. There's a dent in the side of her skull, and her hair is a sticky mess of dark blood and fragments of bone.
Cordelia turns around and walks out of the bathroom. She throws up, and then she screams, and then she leaves.
Cordelia is banging on the door of the Hyperion so hard the glass is rattling in the pane, and her hands are starting to bruise. It's the middle of the day, she thinks desperately: he's a vampire. How the hell can he be out?
Changing tactics, she presses her face to the window, squinting as she tries to see past the glare and the dirt-encrusted glass into the lobby. There's an old-fashioned coat-rack beside the reception desk; the only item on it is a black leather coat. He isn't out.
Cordelia starts banging the door again, until finally a blurred figure descends the stairs. Angel is pulling a bathrobe around himself as he cautiously opens the door, making sure he stands well back, out of the sunlight. He winces, partly at the unaccustomed brightness and partly, no doubt, at the unexpectedness of having a visitor. "Cordelia?"
"He killed her," Cordelia blurts. All the way here, that one phrase has been playing over and over in her head, like a meditation mantra in reverse. "He killed her. He killed her, and I can't do it anymore. I can't. He'll kill me next."
"He --?" Angel steps back, and Cordelia stumbles over the threshold and into the lobby's cool and welcoming gloom. "What's happened?"
Cordelia dumps her worldly possessions -- the backpack that holds them is pitifully small -- by the reception desk and sits down on a sofa which is well-camouflaged beneath a grimy dust-sheet. "Frankie killed her, Angel. He killed her. Who's he gonna kill next? He can replace any of us. We're worthless."
She's crying as she says it, because she knows it's true. If she were the one floating in that bathtub, would anyone care? Would anyone miss her?
Angel stands against the reception desk, his arms folded across his chest, and listens in silence as Cordelia spills her story out in fits and starts. When she begins to sob, he doesn't move to comfort her, or sit down beside her, or put his arms around her. Instead he vanishes for a moment into the office behind the desk, and when he returns he's carrying two glasses and a half-full bottle of whiskey.
"Did you call the police?" he asks as he fills the first of the glasses and hands it to Cordelia.
Cordelia wipes her eyes, blows her nose, and accepts the whiskey. It scours her tongue and throat on the way down, but after a few seconds she feels a faint warm glow begin to grow in the pit of her stomach. "Of course I didn't."
Angel pours a drink for himself, his face thoughtful. "Is it possible anyone saw you leaving? Could anyone have followed you?"
Cordelia thought until now that no one saw her entering or leaving the apartment building -- but when she arrived, she wasn't on guard for trouble, and when she left she was panicking and desperate. Suddenly she's not so sure. "I don't -- I don't think so."
Angel doesn't appear to register the uncertainty in her tone or, if he does, he dismisses it. "Then no one knows you're here. That's good."
Cordelia finishes her drink in two gulps. Angel drains the last drops of his, puts down the empty glass, then vanishes into the office behind the reception desk again. This time, when he returns he's carrying a blanket. He places it around Cordelia's shoulders, barely touching her -- as if he thinks she's made of spun glass, she thinks, as if he's afraid his touch might shatter her.
"You're safe here," he says as she curls up on the sofa, and the crazy thing is, she believes him. Maybe it's just neat whiskey on an empty stomach, or maybe it's the knowledge that for the first time since she came to this city, someone else actually gives a damn about Cordelia's problems, but whatever the reason, in less than a minute she is sleeping soundly.
But Frankie is everywhere, even in Cordelia's dreams; she twists and puts her hands over her ears, but can't muffle his hoarse, high- pitched whine. "Go away," she tells him sleepily. "Angel's gonna take care of you."
"You get religion, Cordy? That why you run away on me?"
Frankie sounds amused, patronizing, and close. Very close.
This is no dream. He's found her; he's here.
Cordelia jerks upright on the sofa, presses herself against the upholstered backrest, as if retreat can help now. Frankie is leaning against the pillar by the door, his squat, thick body relaxed. He has his hands in his pockets; the sleeves of his white linen jacket are marginally too short, and the tattoos that cover his arms down to his wrists peek out from under them. Frankie has cash, but he's never had class, Cordelia thinks. He was never more than one step up from trash.
Frankie pulls his hands from his pockets and saunters across the reception, taking in his surroundings with curiosity. "Wow. Look at this place. Musta been empty for years. How'd you know about it?"
Cordelia feels cold as she realizes how stupid and naïve she was to think she could just walk away, unnoticed and unmissed. "You saw me leave. You followed me."
Frankie shrugs. "Actually, one of my boys saw you. But I woulda found you sooner or later, you know that."
The street outside is dark, and Cordelia realize she's been asleep for several hours, at least. Over Frankie's shoulder, she can see that Angel's jacket is gone from the coat-stand beside the door. Angel's jacket is gone, therefore Angel is gone. She's alone with Frankie.
"You've come to kill me," she says. Her voice rings hollowly in the suddenly cavernous lobby.
Frankie looks genuinely amused. "Jesus, baby, no. Why would I do that?"
"You killed Val."
"Val had an accident," Frankie says. "We're all real sad about it. I'm upset, the girls are upset -- you're upset too. That's why you went off by yourself. But all you gotta do is come back now, with me, and we'll forget it ever happened. How does that sound?"
"You couldn't risk it," Cordelia says. "That I'd go to cops, tell them everything --"
Frankie smiles. "You could tell 'em anything you liked, baby. But the other girls will all swear they didn't see nothin'. I already got an alibi that's tighter than a five year old's pussy. And by morning there won't be a body, either. Give it up, Cor. Come home."
Cordelia swallows, half chokes. Incapable of speaking, she shakes her head,
Frankie spreads his hands in a placatory gesture. "What? Are you scared? I'd never hurt you, Cor. You're one of my best girls. You've got class. There's at least twenty guys won't even look at any of my other girls."
At that, Cordelia does start to cry, finally feeling the one emotion she's fought against so hard and for so long: despair. Because, for a few brief seconds, she thought she could be a threat to Frankie. But she can't threaten him and he has no need to threaten her. You don't threaten a chair, she thinks, you just sit on it. He'll sit on her like he sat on Val, and if, one day, she breaks, he'll shrug and get himself a new chair. And there's no escape; no way out. There never was.
"Come with me, baby," Frankie says, and holds out his hand.
Cordelia takes a step toward him.
Then, from behind her, Angel's voice. "Do you want to go with him?"
When Cordelia looks around, Angel is standing in an open door at the back of the lobby. She hadn't noticed it -- or him -- until now. The steps behind him seem to lead up from the basement.
Frankie's equable manner shifts suddenly to irritation. "The fuck are you?"
Angel ignores him. Looking at Cordelia, he repeats, "Do you want to go with him?"
Cordelia looks back at Angel. Then at Frankie. "No."
Angel doesn't break away from her gaze as he says, "While you're here, you don't have to do anything you don't want to."
"I don't know who you think you are, but this is none of your fucking business, man."
Angel finally looks at Frankie. "You're wrong about that in two important respects. Firstly, this is my business and, secondly -- I'm not a man."
Angel vamps out and makes a sound that's more like the guttural snarl of a wild animal than anything that should come from a human throat. Frankie doesn't have time to do more than stare before Angel takes hold of him by the lapels of his nasty white jacket. Angel lifts Frankie's two-hundred-and-fifty-pounds-or-more mass and hooks the jacket's collar over a brass light fixture set into the wall.
Frankie hangs suspended by his shirt collar, legs kicking helplessly against the air. His hands scrabble at his throat as he tries to undo the top button, but the collar is cutting so deeply into the excess flesh under his chin that he doesn't have a hope in hell. His face is slowly turning puce, and the look on it is one Cordelia's never seen there before. Frankie's terrified.
Angel stands back and watches Frankie's futile efforts dispassionately. His voice, when he speaks, is calm. More than calm, it's toneless, almost entirely empty of emotion. "Do you know what I am?"
Frankie can barely draw enough breath to speak. "Shit, oh, shit. Jesus and Mary -- You're a -- fucking -- MONSTER --"
"That's right. And you know what monsters do to people, don't you?"
"Oh, God. Oh, God," Frankie whispers. As Cordelia watches, a dark patch appears on his pants around his crotch. Liquid trickles off the bottom of his shoe and on to the carpet.
"Cordelia," Angel says quietly, without turning around. "What do you want me to do with him?"
Cordelia can't speak. She can't breathe. Her heart's thudding so hard inside her ribcage she can't even think. She knows what Angel's offering her; knows how easy it would be to accept.
"You don't have to stay to watch," Angel says. "Not unless you want to."
Cordelia thinks of Val or, more accurately, of Val's body, naked and limp. The worst thing about her death -- in a strange way, almost worse than the fact that Frankie murdered her -- was that it was squalid and cheap, and utterly without dignity. She looks at Frankie.
"Angel," she says softly, "Just -- let him go. Okay?"
Angel hesitates. Then he reaches up and with one hand -- Cordelia knew he was strong, but she never realized how strong -- lifts Frankie down. As soon as Angel removes his support, Frankie collapses on to the floor, a blubbering, wheezing mess. For the first time since she became one of his girls, Cordelia realizes she isn't frightened of him.
"Get up," Angel says. When Frankie doesn't move, he reaches down, grabs his shoulders and hauls him to his feet. "I said, GET UP." Angel pulls Frankie toward himself, so they're nose to nose. Cordelia can't see Angel's face, but she can see the effect it's having on Frankie. His voice quiet again, Angel says, "You're gonna get up now and walk out of here. If you come back, I'll kill you. If I see you again, I'll kill you. If Cordelia even thinks she sees you again, I'll find you and kill you."
Frankie's openly weeping now. "You won't -- you won't see me again."
Frankie doesn't need to be told again. He gets up and half-falls, half-runs toward the door. He's fumbling, trying to get it open, when Angel calls out to him, "Hey, Frankie."
Frankie looks around slowly. Cordelia wonders if he's ever been frightened before. Really frightened.
"You're lucky she's better than either of us," Angel says quietly.
"Goodbye, Frankie," Cordelia says.
Then she watches her pimp stumble out of the hotel, and out of her life.
Angel doesn't move for a long time. When he does turn around, his face is human again, although Cordelia thinks she can still detect traces of yellow in his eyes. "If you change your mind, I can go after him," he says, matter-of-factly.
Cordelia takes a breath and says, "What -- what am I gonna do now?" She doesn't know why she's asking Angel -- if she doesn't know, there's no good reason why he should -- but he's the only person here she can ask.
"Whatever you want," Angel says.
She can do what she wants. It's been so long since Cordelia had choices or options that the concept is almost too immense, too wonderful to grasp. Ever since she came to L.A., her life's path has narrowed, branch routes becoming less frequent and desirable, until finally she found herself on a narrow dirt track, stumbling toward a dead end. And now, suddenly, amazingly, she's back on the highway, limited by nothing except the distant horizons.
"Cordelia?" For the first time, there's something other than dull anger or raw fury in Angel's tone. He sounds concerned. "Are you okay?"
Cordelia wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand. "I'm okay." She looks at Angel and smiles at him; to her immense surprise, he smiles back. "It's just -- he owned the place I was living -- I can't go back and I don't know -- "
"Stay here," Angel says. "For tonight, anyway."
It's a bad idea, Cordelia's sure, to jump straight from being controlled by one man to depending on the protection of another. And the switch from pimp to vampire isn't exactly a step up. But she's tired, more exhausted than she's ever been in her life; she has no money and no place to go, and the only real alternatives she has to staying at the hotel are a homeless shelter or a doorway.
She wants a bed, with sheets and a pillow and a mattress under her. It doesn't seem like too much to ask.
"Okay," she says.
Angel leads her to the same room she slept in that night almost two months ago. But it's changed since then -- there are clean sheets on the bed, and the boxes of junk that cluttered the floorspace are gone. Cordelia wonders if Angel has been expecting her return, or hoping for it.
She lies in the bed she wanted so much, and stares up at the ceiling, watching the lights of cars passing on the street below bend the shadows into strange shapes. She can hear Angel moving about, in the lobby, on the landing outside her room, doing whatever it is that vampires who live alone do all night.
Two o'clock. Three o'clock.
She should feel safer, she thinks, knowing he's there, but somehow she doesn't. Every time his footsteps approach her room, she tenses, expecting the door to open.
Angel said she could stay; he said she'd be safe here, with him. A part of Cordelia -- the old part, left over from the girl she was when she came to L.A. -- wants to believe it could be that simple. But that's the attitude that got her where she is now, and she's not going to accept anyone's charity again, now that she knows charity has a price.
Angel saved her tonight -- again -- which means she owes him, again. That's how it works. If she stays here, Angel will protect her, sure, but he'll want something in return.
And maybe, Cordelia reasons as she lies alone and cold in the bed, that's a fair exchange. Back in Sunnydale, Cordelia thought -- when she thought about it at all -- that sex was enough to trigger the escape clause of Angel's curse. Now, she recognizes that belief for what it was: naïve and adolescent. Sex isn't rainbows and violins and a single, searing moment of bliss. It's insert tab A into slot B, grab and grunt then do it all again for the next guy. If all Angel wants from Cordelia, in exchange for his protection, is a little physical relief, well, she can live with that.
By five o'clock, Cordelia has made up her mind.
Angel looks up, surprised, as she walks unannounced into his room. He's sitting up in the bed, an open book propped against his knees, modesty preserved by a sheet pulled up to his waist, and nothing more. "Hi."
Cordelia sits down on the end of the bed. "I wanted to say thanks for what you did for me tonight."
Angel doesn't move; the book he's reading remains open in front of him. "That's okay."
"I'm very grateful."
"That's okay," Angel says again. He looks uncomfortable. "Cordelia --"
"Do you remember the first night I was here?" Cordelia asks.
Angel hesitates. "Yes. I remember it."
Quickly, Cordelia leans forward, so her body is on top of his. She pushes the book down and kisses him, cutting off whatever he was going to say. Angel doesn't respond, but he doesn't push her away either.
Cordelia pulls back. She wets her finger, and draws it slowly down Angel's chest. "Do you think about it a lot?"
Angel closes his eyes, tips his head back, exposing his throat. Cordelia leans in and brushes her lips, then her tongue, over his Adam's Apple, working down into the hollow just above his breast bone. The noise he makes in response is something like a low growl, and Cordelia thinks she should have guessed this before. Of course vampires have a thing about necks.
"All the time," Angel whispers. "I think about it all the time."
Slowly, Cordelia works one hand under the sheets, using the other to balance herself while she continues to kiss and lick Angel's neck. She hears a thump as the book he was reading falls off the edge of the bed and on to the floor, forgotten.
Her fingers stroke his stomach, then the tops of his thighs. At the same time as her hands find his cock, her mouth reaches the side of his neck, where the pulse would be in a human. Cordelia makes an informed guess, and gently nips his skin with her teeth at the same time as she starts to work him underneath the sheets. The result is immediate: Angel gives a small wordless cry and pulls her closer to him, so that their bodies are locked together.
Cordelia raises her head long enough to whisper in his ear. "Look after me," she says, "and I'll look after you. Deal?"
She goes back to kissing his neck, but Angel's eyes snap open as he sits up and pushes her off him. He pushes her so hard that Cordelia almost falls over the side of the bed. "Hey!"
"Do you want to do this?" Angel asks.
Cordelia's used to telling her clients what they want to hear. "I wouldn't have come in here if I didn't."
"You didn't want to go with Frankie tonight," Angel says, "but you would have gone."
"I didn't have a choice."
"You do now," Angel says. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to."
Cordelia used to want a lot of things. A cute and devoted boyfriend, a great career, a black American Express card and those new Gucci loafers and Hermes bag. Now all she wants is to be safe, and she's stopped caring what she has to do to feel that way.
"Oh, God," she says. "Oh, God. I'm a prostitute."
Angel shakes his head, and looks confused. "I know. But you don't have to be, now. Frankie's gone."
"I don't need Frankie. I'm my own pimp." The look of bewilderment on Angel's face deepens, and she can see he doesn't understand. Haltingly, she tries to explain. "You saved me and you made me feel safe, and I want to stay safe and the only thing I've got to give in return is sex. It's supposed to mean something and I can't tell anymore if it does or not." She swallows back her tears. "I always told myself -- even if I worked as a hooker, that wasn't me. It wasn't who I was, underneath. I'm scared -- I'm scared I'm different, now. I'm a whore. I'll always be a whore."
"Cordelia, I think -- I think you should go now. Please."
Cordelia swings her legs off the bed and stands up. The bitter taste in her mouth as she makes her way to the door isn't just tears. "Right. Because if I stay any longer, I might try to jump your bones again. And we couldn't risk that happening."
She's in the hallway outside his room, about to pull the door shut, when he says, "You're not a whore. I've known whores, and you're not one."
Cordelia doesn't reply. She closes the door behind her, and goes back to her room, and her empty bed.
Cordelia's hand is on the hotel's front door, about to push it open, when Angel's voice makes her stop. It isn't ten a.m., yet, and she hoped that by leaving this early, she wouldn't have to see him again.
She counts to ten silently, then turns around and tries to act natural.
"Hey, good morning. Thanks for everything, but I gotta run. Busy, busy, you know?"
She gives him her perkiest, most upbeat smile, as if her diary is full of exciting appointments and lists of things to do and she has to hurry if she's going to squeeze everything in. She isn't fooling anyone. Angel's frowning as he says, "Do you have somewhere to go?"
Cordelia figures Angel knows enough about her life by now to make lying a pointless exercise. "No. But I'll work something out. It's not your problem."
Slowly, Angel says, "When I said you could stay here, I meant, for as long as you needed to."
"I don't have any money. I can't pay rent. So, thanks for the offer, but I can't do that."
It has nothing to do with cash, but there's no doubt in Cordelia's mind that Angel knows just what she's talking about. The discomfited look he's wearing, the awkward way he's standing too far away from her -- these details tell Cordelia more than enough.
"You need to earn your way," Angel says suddenly. "I understand that. Maybe -- maybe there's another solution. You could work for me."
Cordelia stares at him, and he pulls a small white card from his pocket and hands it to her. He seems almost embarrassed as he tells her, "I have a kind of business."
"Angel Investigations," Cordelia reads out loud. She looks up at Angel in disbelief. "You're a P.I.?"
Angel shuffles on the spot. "Yes. In a way. I mean -- that's the idea."
Cordelia takes in the dust sheets in the hotel's lobby, the non- ringing telephone on the reception desk, the lack of filing cabinets or employees or, indeed, any evidence of productive, income- generating activity taking place in Angel's immediate vicinity.
Clearly, he needs help.
"I could file things," she says.
Angel seizes on the suggestion and runs with it. "Yes. Absolutely. I've been thinking lately -- I really need someone to file. To file -- things," he clarifies. "So, you'll stay?"
Cordelia doesn't answer immediately. This is Angel, who saved her life at least a couple of times in Sunnydale, who came between her and Sugar Ray's knife, and to whom she owes her brand-new, Frankie- free future. But this is also Angel, who followed her at a distance without showing his face for six weeks, who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people Cordelia never knew and several she did.
There's a lot, she reminds herself, that she doesn't know about him.
But Angel is less of a stranger to her than any of the gray faced people who walked past her and looked away while she was working the streets. And sometimes, Cordelia figures, better the devil you know.
"What do you want me to do first?"
Cordelia learns more about Angel than she expects to, and sooner than she expects to learn it. She's been living at the hotel for less than a week when she finds out about the visions.
She's on her hands and knees at the bottom of the stairs, polishing the last of the thirty-six brass rails that hold down the stair carpet. It's taken her all morning, but the effort has been worth it - - when she started, the rails were so dull they were barely visible, but now they gleam attractively, the way they must have done back in the days when the Hyperion had a small army of cleaners and domestic staff. Cordelia is just one person, but she intends to make her presence felt.
She straightens up and admires the rails, and the other changes she's been making since she moved in. The dust-sheets are gone; the lobby furniture has come out from hiding, a little musty but in surprisingly good condition. Red velvet upholstery and the newly- polished reception desk (Tuesday's task of the day) show that the hotel's class never really went away. It was just well hidden.
Cordelia likes the Hyperion already.
She's trying to decide whether her next priority should be to clean the windows or beat the dust from the rugs when Angel comes downstairs. He looks grouchy, she thinks, and wonders if that's because he's changing his routine to accommodate her -- already she's noticed he's getting up in earlier in the afternoons.
"Hey, Angel, check out the stair rails. Isn't that a one hundred per cent improvement?"
Angel grunts a reply that sounds less than enthusiastic, and walks straight past Cordelia and into the office behind the reception desk. He returns with the whiskey bottle and a single glass. When he's bolted back his third straight shot, Cordelia starts to feel a little concerned.
"Uhh, Angel? Technically, it's the afternoon, but since you only just got up it's really kind of morning for you, and do you think it's a good idea to start drinking before you have breakfast?" Cordelia thinks that through, and frowns. "Although for you, breakfast would also involve drinking, so -- "
Before she can finish the sentence, Angel gives a cry of pain, and collapses.
Cordelia's on her feet in an instant, rushing around the side of the desk to find him writhing -- she's never seen anyone actually writhe before -- on the floor. His limbs are thrashing uncontrollably; there's no way she can restrain him, and all she can do is stand back and wait until the fit, or whatever the hell it is, is over.
It seems to go on forever. When it's finally finished, Angel stays on the floor, eyes closed. He's lying as limp and still as an overdose victim, and is about the same color.
Cautiously, she inches toward him, and says his name. When this produces no immediate response, Cordelia kneels down at his side, puts her hand on his shoulder, and rolls him over. He tumbles on to his back, face up. His eyes are open, but blank and distant; Cordelia is reminded of the way he was when she found him crouching naked in the bathroom on that first night.
Then she remembers what he said. About not being able to tell what was real.
"Angel," Cordelia says firmly. She grips him by his arms and pulls him into a sitting position. "Angel, listen to me."
He looks at her like he's never seen her before. "Who --?"
"I'm Cordelia, remember? I'm real. This is real. I'm telling you what's real."
"You're real," Angel says. He repeats it: "You're real. This is real. Oh, God --" He squeezes his eyes shut again.
"What? What is it?"
"Drink," Angel whispers. "Get me a drink."
Sensing that right now would be a very bad time to say no to him, Cordelia retrieves the glass from where it rolled to when he dropped it, and fills it to the brim with cheap whiskey. His hands are shaking so hard she has to hold it to his mouth while he drinks.
"Is this gonna help?" she asks doubtfully.
"Helped Doyle," he says between gulps.
The whiskey gone, Cordelia sits back on her heels, and appraises him critically. "Are you on drugs?"
"Then what?" Angel is silent for a long time, but his gaze is growing more alert, and it seems to Cordelia that the effort he's making to focus on talking to her is bringing him out of the weird fugue state he seemed to be in. "Angel, talk to me."
"I -- saw --"
He squeezes his eyes shut. Carefully, Cordelia asks, "What did you see?"
"A gang of vampires. Near Union Station. Killing a man."
"You mean you had an hallucination?"
"A vision," Angel says. "But more than that. There's noise, and -- pain --"
Slowly, Cordelia starts to understand. "What you saw was real."
"Not saw," Angel corrects. "Felt. I feel them -- everything -- the pain -- but more than that -- the terror -- I thought I knew, but I didn't --"
He's becoming less coherent again, and Cordelia tries to think of a way to keep him lucid. She asks the first direct question she thinks of: "Who's Doyle?"
"Who told you about Doyle?"
Patiently, Cordelia says, "You said a name. Doyle. Just now."
For a second, Angel's face clouds with a grief so deep Cordelia's afraid she's only pushed him deeper into himself. But he answers her.
"The visions were his -- gift, curse, I don't know. I thought they were giving me a mission -- to make things right." Angel shakes his head bitterly. "The last thing he ever said was that I didn't know what I was asking for. And I thought I did, but it's too much and I can't tell what's real anymore --" He breaks off, and when he speaks again, his voice is barely a whisper. "It was never a mission; they meant to punish me. They wanted me to know what it feels like to be a victim. Over and over and over --"
Cordelia doesn't understand everything, but she thinks she understands enough. Suddenly, she remembers how Angel appeared just as Sugar Ray turned on her; how he'd been so flatly certain about what Ray intended to do to her.
"You saw me, didn't you. You had a vision of Ray attacking me, and you came to stop it."
Angel nods. He sees the future, Cordelia realizes, and then has to stop it happening. Cordelia still wakes up sweating at the thought of what Sugar Ray wanted to do to her; Angel, she realizes, experienced her rape and murder first hand. The way she would have if he hadn't been there.
That's not punishment, she thinks. It's torture.
"The vampire attack at the station -- has that happened yet?"
Angel shakes his head. "Tonight. After dusk." He smiles without humor. "They don't send me ones I can't change."
"But you can change them. You can change people's lives. You changed mine." Cordelia starts to help Angel to stand up. "I think we should go out tonight. I hear the station's nice after dark."
In time, Cordelia learns other things about Angel.
A week after Angel reduces the Union Station vampire gang to a large pile of dust, another vision leads to a small horde of Velga demons (big claws, bad breath) living in the subway tunnels and preying on hapless commuters. Angel suffers a gash on his back that he can't reach, and Cordelia dresses it. Her gaze lingers on the tattoo on his right shoulder blade, some kind of winged creature, holding an 'A' in its talons. She's curious, but she doesn't say anything, just hands him his shirt and watches the intricate pattern of blue and red disappear underneath a layer of dark cotton.
She discovers Angel gets cranky -- although he won't admit it -- if he doesn't have at least three glasses of blood and five hours sleep a day, so she makes sure he gets both. The first morning of her first period since she moved into the hotel, Cordelia looks at the smudge of blood in her panties and wonders whether staying in her room until it's over is an option. It isn't, and the next four days are strained -- Angel stands either much too close to her or unnaturally far away -- but on the fifth day, he visibly relaxes again. Cordelia thinks it won't be so tough next time, for either of them, but she takes the precaution of sealing her used Tampax in plastic bags and walking five blocks to a dumpster outside an apartment building to dispose of them.
On the day she makes cheese and crackers for lunch, and finds Angel polishing off the leftovers, she finds out that he can eat as well as drink. He has no appetite for the way food tastes -- he says it's like forcing yourself to eat when you're not hungry -- but sometimes he craves textures, wants to bite and chew. Dry, crunchy things are a particular favorite, and now Cordelia always adds a packet of crackers or potato chips to her grocery basket. Celery for a treat.
She learns he will let her tell him what to do, up to a point, and where that point falls; she learns how to draw him out of himself when he gets moody; she learns he likes old Charlton Heston and new Jet Li movies, that he's good at cards but terrible at board games, that he has no idea about money, that he speaks fluent French but can't ride a bicycle.
She learns that she likes Angel because he is Angel, and that's the most surprising discovery of all.
Sometimes Cordelia thinks she's like a wind-up toy -- those chattering teeth, maybe, the ones that hop on little feet across a table top. She was wound up over and over again, springs always coiled tight, never at rest. Now, finally, she's stopped, and she doesn't know when she'll want to be wound up again, or if she ever will.
In the first weeks after she moved into the hotel, Cordelia scoured the neighborhood second-hand and charity shops and bought herself a new wardrobe. She chose long-sleeved tops, high necks, loose pants and ankle-length skirts, clothes that cover up as much flesh as her working wardrobe used to expose.
She spends her days weeding and painting and cleaning, face bare of make-up, fingernails broken, the curves of her hips and breasts hidden beneath sloppy T shirts and baggy sweat pants. She works hard, until she is physically worn out, and collapses into bed every night in exhaustion and the knowledge that she has earned her rest.
She showers two and sometimes three times a day. It's a habit she picked up from Frankie's other girls, when she was living with them; there was always someone in the apartment's cramped bathroom, scrubbing off a stranger's odor and stains, and the creak of the hot water pipes was a constant element of the background noise. Cordelia washes herself efficiently, scrubbing between her legs without ever glancing down there. She's turned the mirror in her room at the Hyperion toward the wall so she can get dried and dressed without having to look at herself.
She doesn't think about sex and, when she does, she feels sick. She's stopped reading Cosmo and Marie Claire; she flips to another station if a couple in a TV show so much as kiss.
Maybe, she thinks, everyone begins their lives with a kind of sex quota, and she's used up all of hers by twenty one. She imagines herself living the rest of her life in a bubble, isolated from all invasive physical contact. She finds this idea comforting rather than upsetting. She can't imagine she'll ever want to be touched by anyone again.
The only exception she makes is for Angel.
Often, after the visions, he folds his arms around her and then just holds her for anything from a minute to half an hour. Cordelia thinks that holding on to a warm, living person, a real person, helps him pull himself back from the cold, dark places the visions send him to. She tolerates his embrace, but the knots of tension that form between her shoulder blades don't relax until hours after he's recovered enough to let go of her. She's glad he seems to sense how she feels, and that he only reaches out to her after the visions; the rest of the time, he takes pains to avoid so much as brushing the sleeve of his jacket against her arm as he walks at her side.
They haven't spoken again about what happened the night Frankie came looking for Cordelia, and Cordelia thinks it's better that way. She knows where the boundaries between her and Angel lie, and she's beginning to trust that he won't cross them any more than she will.
The tacit mutual understanding she and Angel have reached is working, so far, and Cordelia can live with that.
It's a sunny afternoon, and Cordelia is surprised to return from a trip to the grocery store to find Angel in the Hyperion's courtyard, sheltering from the daylight underneath the awning. "I didn't think you went in for tanning," she says, setting down her bags.
"I got locked out."
Cordelia looks pointedly at the open door right behind him. Angel shrugs, and puts out a hand -- at the threshold, he is blocked by an invisible, and apparently solid, barrier.
"If anybody asks, you can tell them you started thinking of this place as home at twenty past two on a Thursday afternoon in September." Angel looks around. "The courtyard looks great, by the way. Have you been weeding out here?"
"Some," Cordelia acknowledges. "So, you're gonna need --"
Angel nods. "An invitation, yes."
Cordelia picks up her bags again and walks past him, into the hotel. "Come in," she says, and thinks how strange it is to have to invite Angel into his own home. But it is her home, too, even if the weird paranormal forces that keep the universe ticking along realized it before Cordelia did. Looking around the lobby, Cordelia sees evidence of her presence, and her hard work, everywhere. She's in the gleaming brass rails on the stairs, the shining banisters, the newly painted walls and the rugs placed strategically to hide the patches where the carpet is worn. She thinks of the whole hotel as her home, not just her room on the second floor. Or, at least, she has since twenty past two this afternoon.
"Sorry about that," she says to Angel. "Is there etiquette for this kind of thing? There oughtta be."
"Not that I ever heard about." Angel is rummaging through her groceries. "Did you get any celery?"
A week later, Cordelia shares Angel's bed for the first time since the night Sugar Ray attacked her.
A little before eleven, she says goodnight to Angel and goes upstairs. She falls asleep almost straight away. Just after five, she wakes up with a start. A low, keening wail is echoing through the hotel's empty hallways. It sounds as eerie as it did the first night Cordelia was ever in the Hyperion. The difference is, now she knows what it is.
She gets up and pulls on her robe over the loose T-shirt and drawstring pants she sleeps in, and pads barefoot down the hallway to Angel's room. She stands shivering in the drafty hallway for several minutes before deciding what to do next. Cordelia hasn't been in Angel's bedroom since the night Frankie came looking for her, the night she offered herself to him and he asked her to leave.
She knocks on the door. "Angel? Angel, it's me. You okay?"
There's no answer, except the desolate lament of a soul in pain. Cordelia ties her robe tighter around herself, opens the door and goes in.
Angel's crouching in the far corner of the bedroom, rocking forward and backward on his heels, clad in boxers and a T shirt (that first night, he was sleeping naked. Has he changed that on Cordelia's account, too?) His face is twisted in confusion and distress, and he doesn't seem to recognize Cordelia immediately. The first time she saw him this way she was freaked; now, she knows exactly what to do.
Cordelia lifts a notepad and pencil from where they sit on the table by the door, and crouches down beside him. "Angel," she says clearly. "It's me, Cordelia. You were asleep; you had a vision. You're awake now."
"Chinatown," Angel says. His voice is shaking; she can tell it's an effort for him to force the words out. "North Broadway. Claws and scales and fire -- a dragon -- someone -- conjuring -- oh, God, a restaurant, they can't get out -- they're all burning --"
"Angel, this is important. Has it happened yet? When is it gonna happen?"
Angel squeezes his eyes shut. "Full moon. Full moon."
Cordelia relaxes -- that gives them a couple of days, at least. She scrawls the salient points down on the notepad and sets it to one side.
"Are you real?" Angel asks. "Is this real?"
"I'm real," she tells him. "You're back, now. This is real."
Angel reaches for her; Cordelia tenses as he puts his arms around her, but she doesn't push him away. She can feel him trembling against her. She hasn't seen him this deeply shaken since the night she spent at the hotel after Sugar Ray attacked her -- he must have had a vision that night while he slept, too. Cordelia makes hushing noises and pats him on the back. "I guess it's even worse getting one of those things mainlined into your head when you're asleep, huh? Vision plus dreams plus memories equals mucho confusion. Must be pretty bad."
"Pretty bad," Angel echoes.
Cordelia stands up, pulling him with her, and leads him back to his rumpled bed. When she tries to make him lie down, he won't let go of her. "Don't go. Please."
He looks exactly the way he did the first time he said those words to her, fragile and desperate. Cordelia remembers that first night, and thinks how far they've come since then. How much better she knows Angel now; how much better he knows her.
"I'm not going anywhere," she tells him, and climbs into the bed beside him.
He makes a small, relieved sound and turns on his side, his arm over her body, a strange mixture of restraint and protection. She'll stay until he falls asleep again, Cordelia decides, and then she'll go back to her own room.
But by the time Angel is still and relaxed beside her, Cordelia is warm and comfortable and half-asleep herself. Angel is lying against her; she can feel his weight on her back, her hips, her thighs. She'd know if he were hard for her, and he isn't. This sensation -- touching for comfort, not desire -- is entirely new, and Cordelia decides she likes it. Except for one thing.
"You're crushing me, move your arm."
The last knots of tension in the muscles of her neck dissolve, and Cordelia drifts into sleep.
Cordelia still has several showers a day, but she's started taking baths as well -- two or three times a week, she fills the tub to the brim with water as hot as she can stand and soaks until her fingers and toes wrinkle. She likes to take this time to think -- about what she's going to do tomorrow (finish weeding the courtyard, start clearing out the junk in the basement), about what she might do next year, about Angel. Lately, she thinks more and more about Angel.
She thinks about the way his back feels under her fingers when she bandages him after he's fought vampires or demons. She thinks about the tattoo on his shoulder blade. She thinks about the way his body feels next to her as he sleeps, solid, like a wall protecting her. She thinks about the way he holds on to her after the visions, like he's afraid he won't be able to find her again if he lets go.
One night, in the tub, these kinds of thoughts about Angel make Cordelia slip her hand between her legs, under the water's surface. Gently, she touches herself, there and there, and there. She closes her eyes and imagines he is caressing her. She comes with a tiny gasp and a spasm of pleasure that makes the water ripple around her.
She thinks, maybe, she's ready to be touched again.
"His name was Cameron," Cordelia says.
She's lying on her side in Angel's bed; he's behind her, not- breathing against her neck. Tonight's vision was particularly vivid, and Angel is holding on to Cordelia more tightly than usual. He wants to talk -- or, more accurately, to be talked to.
Cordelia has told him how she thinks they ought to tackle the damp problem in the basement, has reminisced about Sunnydale without mentioning Buffy's name and now, running out of things to say, she finds herself saying things she didn't mean to share. But Angel's listening and, now she's begun, she finds she can't stop.
"I met him at that party. The same one I met you at. You remember?"
His voice is muffled. "I remember."
"He was an agent. He was smart and funny and sophisticated, and he acted like I'd be doing him a favor if I let him represent me. He told me I was special. And I wanted so much to be special."
She blinks hard, remembering how she hadn't doubted for a moment what Cameron told her. Of course she was special. She was Cordelia Chase.
"Anyway. I made a tape for him, and he said I was the next Julia Roberts. He took me to dinner, and he was so good to me --" Cordelia exhales. "I moved in with him. I had auditions, and he bought me things, and it was great, for a while. But he had this friend, this TV producer. Cameron said his friend needed a date to take to some industry party. He said it'd be good for me, I'd make contacts. So I did it. And then, a month later, there was another friend who needed a date. Then another. The fourth time, the guy didn't just want someone on his arm."
Angel doesn't say anything, but he holds Cordelia more tightly.
"I didn't like it. But I figured, everybody does this. If you want to get on, you gotta play the game, right? I thought I could play it better than anyone else, but I couldn't. Cameron set me up with another of his friends for the Emmys. This friend got drunk and when he took me back to the hotel room --" Angel's bed, which was cold when Cordelia slid between the blankets beside him, is slowly warming. Cordelia concentrates on how cozy she feels her, how safe. It makes it easier to tell the story. "It wouldn't stand up in court, I guess. I mean, he didn't make me go back to his room, and I didn't say no until it was too late… But I did say no. I said no and I meant it. You believe that, right?"
She feels Angel's nod; his nose rubs behind her ear.
"I told Cameron. I figured he'd be furious, and he was. He was furious with me, for making trouble. So I left."
"You did the right thing."
In the dark, Cordelia smiles sourly. "That's what I told myself while I was waiting tables all day and spending all night in the one-room hole I had to rent after I moved out of his place. I used to look forward to Val coming in to the diner so much. I mean, I could tell from her clothes what she was, but she always smiled when she saw me. She was nice, she wasn't a bad person, and she talked to me. I missed talking to people. I never knew being lonely could actually hurt, like something sticking into your chest, all the time."
Very quietly, Angel says, "I know."
"Even then, I was so sure I could make it on my own, but to get in the door you need to live the life -- the parties and the clothes and the jewelry -- and you can't do that when you're earning ten bucks an hour." Cordelia shakes her head. "I never had to worry about bills, before. And then, suddenly, I didn't know how I was gonna pay the rent, or eat, and I was so scared of ending up on the street -- so when Val said I could stay with her -- it was only gonna be for a little while, until I was back on my feet, and I promised myself I'd only do it as long as I absolutely had to, and -- "
Cordelia's voice is starting to shake. She knows how this sounds. "You know what it was like? It was like, the day I arrived in L.A, someone started cutting slices off me. Just little slices, really thin, like parma ham. So with every slice, there was a little less of me, but I thought it was okay, because I was still mostly there. By the time I finally realized what was happening, it was too late. I was sliced so thin the light shone right through me." Cordelia makes a sound half-way between a sob and a bitter chuckle. "I was so stupid, Angel. I thought I was so smart, but I wasn't. I was dumb."
Anyone else, Cordelia thinks, would say something banal right now like, 'It's okay' or 'It wasn't your fault'. Angel doesn't, and Cordelia is grateful. Instead, he says, "You want to hear about the most stupid thing I ever did?"
Cordelia swallows, and concentrates on keeping her voice steady. "Hit me."
"I met a girl in a tavern. She took me out into the alley and said she could take me places and show me things I couldn't imagine. And I asked her to show me her world."
Cordelia tries to imagine Angel, with old-fashioned clothes and old- fashioned hair, gasping his last living breaths in a dark alleyway that was probably knocked down and built over generations ago. It's not fair, she thinks. It's not fair that so much -- the course of lives -- depends on such tiny decisions. Like who to talk to at a party. Which pretty girl to buy a drink for.
"Angel? Can I ask you something?"
"Do you believe in fate? I mean, do you think the choices we make send us spinning off in new directions all the time? Or do we wind up in the same place, no matter what we do?" He's been around a lot longer than she has, Cordelia figures: maybe he knows more about this kind of thing.
Slowly, Angel says, "The visions show things that should happen. But if we step in, change things, I guess that means everything is mutable. Paths aren't set."
That's not what Cordelia wanted to hear. "It could have been different. If I'd been luckier, or smarter --"
Angel moves the hand he's resting on her hip up to her mouth. Gently, he lays a finger across her lips. "Before you came, I was -- losing myself. It was getting to where I couldn't tell the difference between the visions and reality. Now, when I see you, I know what's real. I'm sorry for the path you had to take to get here, Cordelia. But I can't be sorry you're here."
For a few seconds after Angel falls silent, Cordelia lies perfectly still beside him. She isn't even breathing. Then she makes her decision.
She rolls over, so she's lying nose to nose with Angel. In the dimness, she sees him blink in surprise -- this is something new. Cordelia places her mouth on his and kisses him.
For a second, he doesn't respond. Then he begins to kiss her back, mouth pressing hungrily against hers. Cordelia extends her tongue into his mouth, experiencing his taste, exploring his lips and the jagged line of his teeth. She feels a surge of raw joy as she realizes that no matter how long they kiss, how deeply, it won't be enough; she wants Angel; she wants to touch him and let him touch her. Cordelia didn't think she could ever want that again; she feels as if something glacial is thawing inside her, melt-water filling dry stream beds and running down into parched valleys.
Then Angel pushes himself away from her and gets out of the bed. He tries to stand up, but he's still a little disoriented from the vision and he ends up sitting down again on the edge of the mattress, facing away from her.
Cordelia pushes herself up -- the mattress's old springs creak under her -- and walks around the end of the bed. She sits down beside Angel. "The night Frankie was here, you said I didn't have to do anything I didn't want to. I didn't know what I wanted then, but I do now. I want you."
"I want you." Angel repeats the words, but with the tiniest of alterations in inflection that make the declaration his own.
"You're not making me do anything I don't want to," Cordelia tells him. "This isn't payment, or a deal, or anything like that."
Cordelia puts her hand on his knee. "So why not?"
"It's because it's not just a deal, not just payment. It's okay if it's just a transaction." He shakes his head. "That's how the curse works. That's why it's a curse. Cordelia, the night I asked you to leave, it wasn't because of you. It was because of me."
Years ago, in another life, Cordelia briefly took ballet lessons. She gave it up quickly -- the really popular girls were cheerleaders, not dancers -- but not before she learnt that professional ballerinas soak their feet in alcohol, numbing their toes to the pain of performing. For a long time, Cordelia thinks, she did the same, soaking her heart in alcohol, letting it get small and wrinkled and tough, so that she could believe that what people did to each other's bodies didn't matter. It had worked, too. But now she's sitting beside Angel, unliving proof of how flawed that reasoning is.
He only let her touch him was that first night, when they were strangers to each other. And even then he made sure he paid her.
"The night Sugar Ray attacked me and I came back here -- that's why you left the cash on the reception desk the next morning, wasn't it? So there wasn't any doubt. For either of us."
Angel nods. "That, and I figured you probably needed it."
Cordelia scowls. "I was so mad at you."
Now Angel looks at Cordelia, for the first time since she sat down next to him. "Why?"
Cordelia blinks. She's never really thought about that. "Because I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to mean something. I guess I wasn't as pickled in alcohol as I thought I was."
"You had a drink problem?" Angel asks, confused.
"I'm talking about ballerinas."
"Oh," Angel says. "Okay."
They sit in silence for some time, side by side on the edge of the bed, getting used to this new clarity, this openness between them. Cordelia finally breaks the silence. "It's not fair," she says, and waves a hand up and down herself. "I mean, there must be a thousand guys out there who've had their fifteen minutes of fun with this body. And now there's one I actually WANT to enjoy it, and I can't give it to you."
Angel pushes himself off the bed, turning around at the same time, so that he's kneeling on the carpet, in front of Cordelia. He lifts his hands and places his cool palm against Cordelia's cheek. "You don't have to give me anything. I'm the one who owes you. I owe you so much."
Suddenly, something changes in his face. Cordelia's used, by now, to seeing Angel become less human. What she didn't know was that he could become more human, too. There's a gentleness in his eyes, a playfulness in the way he's smiling, as if he's just had an idea that's too good not to share. "All those men -- did any of them ever make you feel good?"
"No," Cordelia says quietly.
Angel puts his left hand on her other cheek and draws her face down to his. She feels his lips brush her forehead and his fingers run through her hair as he murmurs, "Then let me give you something."
His fingers work their way over her scalp, toward the back of her head. She feels a cool pressure in the hollow at the nape of her neck, and she shivers as he touches her just beneath her hairline. A warm glow radiates outwards, down her back and arms, and she arches her back involuntarily. She's pushing her chest forward, and Angel's ready, his free hand making contact with her breasts, massaging each in turn through the fabric of her T-shirt.
Then he kisses her, and it's almost too much -- her tongue, her breasts, the back of her neck; she doesn't have time to get used to one sensation before the next threatens to overwhelm her.
Angel leans back long enough to whisper hoarsely, "Lift your arms." For a second, Cordelia is torn -- he's going to undress her, and that means he's going to have to stop touching her like this for longer than she thinks she can bear. But once she's naked, she'll be able to feel his skin next to hers, with no barriers between them.
She raises her arms. "Quickly."
Cotton brushes her face; a second later, she feels him nuzzle the hollow between her breasts. Lazily, his tongue traces a spiral around each breast in turn, finishing at the hard, sensitive nubs of her nipples.
Angel's fingertips caress her sides, starting underneath her breasts and tracking down to her hips. His thumbs hook into the waistband of the loose pants she's wearing. She knows what he means to do, and so she puts her hands on his shoulders and raises herself up, just far enough to let him slip them under her, down to her ankles and off over her bare feet. Her panties come off, too, and now she's naked in front of him, her arms around his shoulders, kissing the back of his head and neck.
"Tell me what you want," Angel says. "Tell me what feels good."
Cordelia thinks of cold alleyways, of motel rooms and the back seats of cars, of all the men who knew what they wanted and didn't give a damn whether she liked it or not, as long as she let them do it to her. "It all feels good," she says. "Don't stop. Don't stop."
Angel has no intention of stopping. His kisses sink lower and lower; when they pass her belly button, Cordelia spreads her legs and, letting go of his shoulders, leans back on the bed, putting her arms out behind her to support her weight. At the same time she lifts her legs and rests them on Angel's broad shoulders.
His head dips between her legs. The anticipation is making her crazy; she knows any second now she'll be able to feel him --
Then his lips are on her, his tongue gently massaging her. She cries out, and her fingers dig into the mattress; he responds by going deeper, building a slow rhythm that makes her gasp as she pushes against him. Part of her is desperate to come; part of her never wants to stop feeling the way she does right now.
And then she can't hold it back any longer, and ecstasy explodes through her, white-hot, all-consuming. She gives a shout of pleasure and gratitude and triumph and collapses back on to the bedclothes, taking deep and shaky breaths.
She's still lying in that position as Angel stands and pulls the sheets over her. Cordelia closes her eyes and waits for the dip and creak of the mattress's springs when he joins her. But when she opens them again, she's alone in the bed. Angel is sitting in the armchair by the door, watching her. The armchair is low and comfortable; he should be relaxed, but his body is hard, tense.
"Come back to bed."
He shakes his head. "I can't."
Cordelia sits up. "We can't sleep together, I get that. But we can SLEEP together, right? We've been doing that for weeks."
"We still can," Angel says. "Just not tonight. Or any night we do this. I couldn't lie beside you right now feeling -- this way -- and not act on it."
"Oh." Cordelia thinks about that, about what it means for them. "Some stuff's gonna have to change, isn't it?"
"Yes." There's a note of worry in Angel's voice as he asks, "Are you sorry?"
"Yeah, I'm sorry," she tells him. "I'm sorry I can't make you feel the way you make me feel. But I'm not sorry that when you touch me, it means something. It's real." She lies back on the bed, and pulls the blankets up around her. "Is there anything else I can do for you? I mean, anything ELSE."
Angel sits back in the armchair, and his posture relaxes a fraction. "I'd like -- just to watch you sleep. That'd be nice."
Cordelia stifles a yawn; that request isn't going to be difficult to fulfill. Her eyelids are drooping already; she's comfortable and warm and, just like in the songs, there's an Angel watching over her. She snuggles deeper into the bedclothes, and lets her body and mind relax into the beginnings of a contented fuzziness.
When she hears Angel speak again, the words are barely a murmur, whispered so quietly he must think she's already asleep. But Cordelia's just the right side of conscious, and her hearing has always been sharper than most people's. She doesn't open her eyes, so she doesn't know if he's surprised or not when she answers him.
"I love you, too," she says, and falls asleep.
The sun feels good on her back and her legs. Cordelia shifts her position on the towel she's lying on, and props herself up on her elbows. Around her, the Hyperion's courtyard blooms with the flowers she's planted, and the sound of city traffic is distant and muted.
She turns the page of the community college prospectus she's reading. "Ooooh. They do fashion design, too."
"A couple of minutes ago you wanted to take web programming."
Angel is sitting in the shadows under the awning, right back by the wall. He's wearing sunglasses against the glare and -- at Cordelia's insistence -- the strongest sunblock the drugstore sells. She doesn't want him to get accidentally frazzled.
"Well, I'll do both, and start an internet fashion label. How does that sound?"
Angel smiles. "Like you could do it and make a million dollars."
Cordelia smiles back and rolls over on to her back, so her bare midriff is exposed to the afternoon sun's warmth. Her new bikini cost twenty bucks from Wal-Mart, and she couldn't love it more if it were a Prada original. Only one thing is spoiling the afternoon. "I wish you could enjoy this with me."
"I like the view from here just fine."
A compliment like that, Cordelia decides, deserves a reward. She moves back into the shadows, and hands Angel her bottle of tanning lotion. "My back's starting to burn. You mind?"
He puts down the book he's reading, and a moment later she hears the soft squirt of lotion coming out of the bottle, and feels his hands begin to work it into her back and shoulders. His touch, as always, is cool, and her skin rises in gooseflesh under his fingers.
"I'm used to it," she says, which is true. "I like it," she adds, which is also true.
Angel inclines his head, and she feels his face close to the back of her neck. He inhales her scent. "Tell me what I smell like to you," Cordelia says.
"Sunlight," he says straight away. "Summer flowers. Apples and peaches. Uh, also tanning lotion."
She giggles. "Well, duh. Yeah."
Without warning, Angel's hands tense against her back. "Cordy, I think you should get yourself tested."
She turns around to look at him. Angel's come a long way from the guy whose idea of a relationship was stalking her, but he still has no idea how to change conversational tack with subtlety. "Say what?"
"I've been thinking," Angel says. "There are clinics. Free ones, I mean. Places that don't charge or ask for names. You could go to one of them, get tested. Then you wouldn't have to worry about it anymore."
Or Angel wouldn't have to worry, Cordelia thinks. It's sweet of him, but Cordelia's made up her mind on this point. She knows the life she used to lead puts her in a higher risk category than most other people; few of her clients were willing to wear condoms, and as for the rest -- well, splits and tears were common enough. She shakes her head. "There's no point. I don't have health insurance; I couldn't get it now it even if I had the money. Besides, I feel fine."
"Cordelia --" Angel begins.
"No," Cordelia tells him. She gets up and walks back out into the sunlight, where he can't follow her. "There's no point, Angel. Now leave it, okay?"
But Angel, being Angel, won't leave it, and Cordelia learns something she really should have figured out by now: Never start a war of attrition with someone who's going to live forever.
They argue; or rather, Cordelia argues, while Angel stands with his arms folded across his chest and says, "Yes, but --" a lot. Eventually, he doesn't even say that much, just stands and listens patiently and looks at her while she tells him exactly what she told him in the courtyard that day, again.
It's starting to seem likely that things will go on this way until Angel dies of old age or Cordelia runs out of breath (both, she admits to herself, only slim possibilities), when a gang of vampires decide they've had enough of being hunted by one of their own. There's no vision to warn of the ambush, and when Cordelia answers the phone and hears Angel's faint and fading voice, she is gripped by a terror she hasn't felt since the morning she walked into the bathroom and saw Val's corpse bobbing obscenely in the tub. "I need you --" Angel whispers before the line goes dead, and Cordelia clings to the memory of those words as she searches the sewer tunnels for the rest of that night and the following day, because a part of her is afraid this is the last thing she will ever hear him say.
When she finds him, he's unconscious. One hand is clasped, vise-like, around the cell-phone she made him buy; the other is resting on the stake that protrudes from his chest, an inch or less from his dead heart.
Cordelia takes him back to the Hyperion before she does anything else; once Angel is lying safe in his own bed, she gathers her strength and her nerves and pulls the stake out of his ribs. She half- expects him to disintegrate then and there -- she can picture the bedclothes collapsing inwards on the sudden space. She wouldn't even have a body to mourn, she realizes. Strange that she always knew this, and never really understood until now what it meant.
Cordelia holds the stake, and her breath, and waits. Angel makes a low sound of pain, but he doesn't crumble away to dusty nothingness. Not this time.
Three days later, he's sitting up in bed, chest bandaged, gulping down the blood he needs in larger quantities than usual in order to heal. "You're an idiot," Cordelia tells him as she refills his mug.
"Hey," Angel says mildly, "They jumped me, not the other way round. Besides, I won. Don't I get points for that?"
But Cordelia's in no mood for joking. Tightly, she says, "I thought I was gonna lose you. Do you have any idea how scary that was?"
Angel takes the full cup from her, but doesn't drink from it right away. Instead he looks up at her and says, "Yes. That's what I've been trying to make you understand for the last month."
Cordelia gets the name and address of a charity-run clinic from a flier she picks up in the local hospital. She sits in the waiting room with gaunt-faced addicts and girls whose cheap clothes and dull stares are unpleasantly familiar. More than anything, it's the deadened quality in their eyes that shocks her -- was she ever that numbed, that defeated? Then she remembers walking out of the McDonald's off Sunset Boulevard, telling Angel he couldn't save her. She'd thought no one could save her.
When she's finally called, it's over in less than a minute -- the prick of a needle on the inside of her elbow, a syringe-full of blood that would barely whet Angel's appetite. The nurse seals and labels the sample, then swabs and dresses Cordelia's arm and gives her a slip of paper which is blank except for a six digit number and a check letter. The nurse explains that Cordelia can collect the results in five weeks; her last instruction is a reminder not to lose the piece of paper with the code on it. The clinic provides an anonymous service, which means that Cordelia doesn't have to give her name or address -- but it also means her results will be given to whoever presents her number.
Cordelia shows Angel the slip of paper, holding it up with a flourish before putting it back in her purse. "Happy now?"
"As close as I can get to it," Angel says, deadpan. "Thanks."
As close as Angel can get is pretty close. And pretty close is pretty good, Cordelia tells herself. But, increasingly, it's not enough.
Angel has learned how to touch her so that the merest brush of his fingertips can make her beg him not to stop. He can kiss her so deeply that the memory of his mouth stays with her for days. But the nights when they are together always end the same way, with Cordelia alone in bed and Angel sitting in the chair by the door, watching over her as she falls asleep. Often, lately, he won't even let her see him naked. A lot's changed since that first night, when they were strangers and her touch was just a way of discharging a debt.
If Cordelia ever wondered the best way to guard against perfect contentment, now she has an answer. It turns out frustration is a really effective method.
Angel hasn't said anything, but he hasn't needed to. Cordelia can hear him pounding the punch-bag in the basement training room every afternoon; she's felt the way he tenses when she touches his arm or lightly kisses him goodnight before she goes to bed. She loves that he loves her, and at the same time misses the casual intimacy they used to have more than she thought possible. She dreads the day she knows is coming soon, when he has a vision and won't let himself reach out to her.
More and more, when she looks at Angel, Cordelia thinks of a boulder poised on the crest of a hill, ready to plunge at the gentlest push in any one of a thousand directions. But she doesn't know where the push will come from, or when. All she can do is wait.
In the meantime, at least, there's plenty to keep her occupied.
The visions often lead to long hours of researching the weaknesses of what Cordelia has come to think of as the demon-of-the-week. At first, Cordelia found this merely a boring necessity -- research was one of the few things about her old life in Sunnydale she was glad to leave behind when she left. She re-acquires the skill almost in spite of herself, and is surprised -- and a little smug -- when she can remember references faster than Angel, knows just where in his expanding collection of books on magic and prophecy to find the relevant information. It feels good to be good at something again and, more than that, Cordelia discovers there's a satisfaction in working at a puzzle until she arrives at a solution she knows is the right one. She's been talking about taking classes at the community college for months, but now feels like the right time to do something about it.
"Did you sign up for art and design, or web programming?" Angel asks when she tells him about her application.
"Both," Cordelia says. "Also European history."
Cordelia shrugs. "Well, yeah. I figured, I live with a guy who remembers when the Battle of Waterloo was CNN headline news -- how can I not ace that class?" She unpacks her new textbooks on to the table. "Besides, I like the idea of knowing more about where you came from."
Angel doesn't reply, but he smiles that little smile of his, the one that takes forever to emerge on his features but which, once in place, remains for hours. Cordelia loves that smile.
It's at times like this Cordelia dares to believe they can do it. Somehow, they can preserve this delicate equilibrium indefinitely, make these moments stretch and stretch until time stops entirely, leaving them safe in a perpetual present, with no past to define them and no future to change what they have right now. But Cordelia has always been a realist at heart, and she knows that fantasy is just a fantasy.
Cordelia goes to classes at the community college, nurses Angel through vision hangovers, researches demons and assorted nasties, and tries to make her memories of the increasingly rare occasions when Angel allows himself to touch her carry her through the times between. And she waits for the delicate balance of their lives to shatter again.
Cordelia knows as soon as she walks into the Hyperion's lobby that something terrible has happened.
Everything breakable is broken; everything that can be shattered or smashed or torn has been attacked with vicious fury. For several seconds, it's all Cordelia can do to stare, numbed, at months of hard work reduced to wreckage. The reception desk that took days to polish has a deep gouge running along its length; the vases of flowers she arranged and displayed proudly on the tables and shelves have been toppled, the blooms squashed. And every last one of the stair rails Cordelia spent so long cleaning in her first week at the hotel has been pulled up.
Her hands slacken around the straps of the bag and the file she's carrying, and both fall to the floor at her feet. The file bursts open as it hits the tiles, scattering her notes from today's class around her, adding to the chaos and devastation. Cordelia hardly notices; she steps on the pages as she walks through the lobby, leaving shoe prints all over her neatly handwritten notes on the development of modern art.
Angel's habit of killing evil things has made him a lot of enemies in L.A. Vampires, of course, couldn't get into the hotel without an invitation. But, Cordelia thinks suddenly, not all Angel's enemies are vampires.
"Angel? Angel, are you here? Angel!"
Increasingly frantic, Cordelia checks the office behind reception, the staff cloakrooms, the industrial-sized long-unused kitchens, Angel's training room in the basement. They are all equally devastated. They are all equally empty. Now she's searched everywhere.
Not quite everywhere.
Cordelia runs up the stairs, two, three at a time, becoming dizzy as she follows the rising spiral. She throws open the door of Angel's room without knocking. If he's here, everything will be all right; if he isn't --
He isn't. There's no one here, either.
Several seconds pass before Cordelia notices anything more than that. Then, it hits her --- there are no signs of the battle downstairs up here. Angel's room is perfectly neat, perfectly tidy. The bed is made, the books are shelved by order of height, a pair of shoes sits under the chair by the window. Everything is just the way Angel likes it. Except for one thing.
A typed letter is lying in the middle of the bed, a ripped-open envelope next to it. Cordelia can't read the writing from where she stands, but she can see that most of the first page is taken up with a kind of table. Two columns, writing in the left hand column, nothing in the boxes on the right of the page. No, wait, that's not strictly correct -- one of the boxes is checked with an X.
She lifts the letter.
She'd thought Angel couldn't sneak up on her anymore, make her jump like that. Back in Sunnydale, and in the first weeks at the Hyperion, she'd believed his stealth was supernatural -- but months of closeness have attuned her to his noises, the swish of his coat, the way his feet fall in a very slightly irregular rhythm on the floorboards. She'd thought he couldn't surprise her anymore; but when she turns around, he's standing inside the doorway, and Cordelia has no idea how long he's been there.
Angel can't get breathless, but there's a weariness in his stance that tells Cordelia if he were alive, he'd be winded, exhausted. His shoulders are hunched, and there are scratches on his face, bruises on his fists. A splinter of wood protrudes from a cut on the back of one hand.
The look on his face: she hasn't seen that look -- half-desperate, half-blank -- for almost a year. Not since the first night she met him, when he killed a man for her and asked her not to run away.
"What happened downstairs?"
"Don't read it," Angel says. He isn't looking at Cordelia, but at the paper in her hand. "Don't read it, please."
It takes a second to fit the pieces together. The wrecked lobby. The look in Angel's eyes. The letter.
She lifts the paper to the light, lowers her eyes, almost expects Angel to snatch it from her with that impossible speed of his before she can read a word. But he doesn't.
She skims the introductory paragraph, skips straight to the important part. Eight lines of black text, matched against eight black boxes. The first seven boxes are clear, empty, void, safe. A cross, stark black ink on a white background, fills the last box.
Funny, Cordelia thinks. She always thought only vampires could be harmed by crosses.
There are more words, after that. A reminder that the tests give the wrong results in two to three per cent of cases. A date and a time when she can go and give another sample. An offer of free counseling, advice about what her options are.
Options, Cordelia thinks. That's a joke. That's funny. Options and choices are for other people, now. Her path just narrowed down to that one dirt track to nowhere, again. The one she'd thought she'd escaped for good. The broad highway, the limitless horizons -- they were never more than shimmering illusions.
Everything's been a lie; nothing has been real. The whole time she's been with Angel, remembering who she is, who she wanted to be -- the small dreams she's been quietly nurturing, along with the flowers in the courtyard -- all empty, all hollow. The small cross in black ink she's looking at is the proof of her immutable, unchangeable destiny.
"You were wrong," she says.
Angel's mouth opens a little, then closes again. He had a reply prepared for whatever he thought she was going to say, but she surprised him and now he's at a loss.
"You said that paths aren't fixed," she explains. "That everything can be changed. But that's not how it is, is it? Fate fucks us and leaves us."
He blinks at that -- Cordelia never swears, didn't even pick up the habit after a year of living with Val's fruity language and Frankie's constant stream of foul-mouthed invective.
"I told you," she says. She's blinking, now, as well, but for a different reason. She holds up the letter, waves it at him like one of the weapons in the cabinet downstairs. "I told you I didn't want to know."
"I'm sorry," Angel says. His voice is quiet, loaded with regret. "I'm sorry. The slip fell out of your purse. I just picked it up -- the date was weeks ago, I knew you'd forgotten. And I thought -- I thought it would be good news. I didn't think it could be anything except good news."
Angel takes another step into the room, but stops at the foot of the bed, hanging back. "I'm sorry," he says at last. "I'm sorry -- about the lobby."
The wrecked lobby; the tears in Angel's clothes, the cuts on his face, the splinters in his skin. Cordelia tries to imagine the force necessary to bring about that level of destruction. He must have hit and clawed and kicked and punched for a solid hour or more, a more prolonged and violent rage than a human could ever sustain.
Dully, she says, "Did it make you feel any better?"
"No," Angel says. "Everywhere I looked, I saw you. I couldn't stand the idea of a day when everything you'd done was still there, but you weren't --"
He can't finish the sentence, so Cordelia nods, to show she understands anyway. And she does. Words have never been Angel's forte; he's so much more comfortable with actions. He can't articulate how he imagines life without her, and so he showed her instead. Wreckage and splinters; the lobby's not just the way it was before she came, when the furniture was whole but hidden under dust sheets. It's shattered and broken, irreparable.
"I'm sorry," Angel repeats. "I'll fix it, I'll fix everything."
He won't. He can't.
Cordelia looks at the letter again; she can't stop staring at that little black cross. Black on white. Things aren't black and white, she thinks, except sometimes when they are. No gray areas, no half way houses or reprieves. You're either clean or you're infected, you're damned or you're saved, you're an angel or a whore.
She thinks about the endless stream of clients, so many strangers on so many nights. They rarely gave names; she didn't try to remember their faces and she certainly never kept count. One of those strangers is walking around in the city, and she'll never know who he is, or if he knows what he's carrying and that he passed it on to her.
Whoever he was, she took his money when she let him kill her.
Cordelia lifts her head from the letter, and meets Angel's gaze. "Tell me it's not real. Please."
Angel doesn't say anything.
"It can't be real," Cordelia says. "It can't be. This whole world is so stupid and messed up it's got to be somebody's bad dream. Cameron still lives in his mansion in Bel Air, and you can bet he's still preying on stupid little girls who should know better. And when Buffy died to save the world, she died to save him, too. How crazy and screwed up is that?"
"Cordelia," Angel says softly. But Cordelia isn't done yet. Hell, she's barely started.
"And you love me but you can't even let yourself touch me. And I love you and I'm going to get sick and die, maybe not right away, but it's gonna happen, right? Tell me it's not real. Angel, please, tell me it's not real, it's not real --"
And now Cordelia's crying, because she knows he can't.
And then Angel is holding her.
One second she's alone; the next, his arms envelope her. He has one hand on the back of her head, the other on the small of her back. Cordelia closes her eyes, buries her face in his chest and breathes him in, lets that now-familiar scent -- earth and metal -- fill her up and surround her.
"The best thing you ever did for me," he says, "was show me the goodness in what's real. All I could see, in my head, was the very worst of reality. And it's all out there, but it's not all there is. This is real, too."
He starts to kiss her, and she lets him. Lightly, his lips brush her forehead, her cheeks, her eyelids. The first time his lips meet hers, it's so brief it might be accidental. Then it happens again, and by the third time, Cordelia is certain of his intentions. The next time she feels his mouth against hers, she catches his lower lip lightly between her teeth, stops him moving away.
He doesn't pull away. Instead, he presses his mouth on to hers, runs his tongue over her top lip, then her lower one, leaves her tingling.
She's so hungry for him she aches with it.
He moves his hands around her body and cups her breasts. There are layers of fabric between them; his touch should be muted, barely perceptible, but the light pressure of his fingertips only reminds her what it feels like when his skin is directly against hers.
She pushes him away. "No. Angel, no."
He leans in to kiss her again. "It's okay. It's okay, I promise. I love you and it's okay."
"That's why it's not okay. Hasn't today been bad enough already without letting Angelus out?"
Angel says, "Look at me."
Cordelia does; his dark eyes meet hers in love, and tenderness, and desire. And something else. There's a new quality in his gaze, and when Cordelia names it, she understands what is different now. There's grief in Angel's eyes. Grief for her.
No danger of perfect happiness for Angel, she realizes. Not anymore.
Angel smiles at her, and it's the saddest smile Cordelia's ever seen. "You did it. You broke the curse."
Then, before she can speak or react, he lifts her and carries her to the bed, lays her down on it with such gentleness, such reverence, that Cordelia feels like a princess in a fairy tale. Not tainted or diseased. Pure.
Angel joins her on the bed, begins to undo the buttons of her blouse at the same time as she pops open the ones down the front of his shirt. He shrugs off the shirt, then leans down; Cordelia raises her body, just enough to let him slide his hands underneath her and unhook her bra. Now she's bare from the waist up; Angel takes a moment to look at her, just look, and Cordelia feels a wild pleasure and pride that she can provoke this intensity of love and wonder and desire.
"Hurry," she says. It's the only thought she has that can be expressed in words. In the past months, the physical contact they have allowed themselves has been so rare and restrained that Cordelia has learnt to savor moments of intimacy, to wring every nuance from the experience. Now, she only wants to plunge ahead, because however good this feels, now she knows there's better to come.
Angel lowers his head and kisses her, once, on the mouth. While her lips and tongue are occupied with kissing Angel, Cordelia's hands feel for his belt. She loosens the buckle, unzips his pants and makes a low sound of eagerness when she feels him, already hard. She runs her hand quickly up and down the shaft of his cock, and Angel gasps in need and delight.
Cordelia is wearing one of the first pieces of clothing she bought after she moved into the hotel with Angel, a jade green wraparound skirt with ties at the waist. She isn't certain, but Cordelia thinks she feels Angel's hands shaking a little as he pulls out the tied bow that secures the skirt. They've come this far many times before; this time, they're not stopping.
Cordelia takes her hand off Angel long enough to wriggle out of her panties. It feels intoxicating, to be this close to him and naked -- her skin feels a hundred, a thousand times more sensitive than normal, the lightest caress is enough to make her convulse with pleasure and she needs -- she NEEDS -- to feel him on her, around her, in her. Now.
"Hurry," she says again, this time with an edge of desperation. Hurry, she wants to say. Hurry because time is running out. Hurry because nothing lasts forever.
When she looks up, into Angel's eyes, she sees reflected in them her own fervor, along with something she is startled to identify as hunger, the ravenous appetite of death for life. That's the bargain between them, Cordelia realizes: by this act she will prove she is alive, and bring Angel as close to it as he can get. And her life is precious because of the certain knowledge that it will end. The time left is finite.
His arms are on either side of her shoulders, his body is over hers. They are chest to chest, belly to belly, and she has never felt this safe, this connected.
"Hurry," she says, and welcomes him inside her.
Cordelia lifts her legs and twines them around Angel's hips; at the same time she hooks her arms around his shoulders. He rests his forehead against hers as he pushes deeper inside her, grunts with the satisfaction of resistance. He pushes hard, then harder, consumed by overriding urgency.
Hurry, she can only think. Hurry, hurry, hurryhurryhurry --
Angel gives one last thrust and, with a cry of release, comes; Cordelia can feel his cool essence entering her. But he isn't finished yet, and as he pushes again, and again, she feels a slow explosion go off inside her, a chain reaction that starts somewhere below her pelvis and sends shock waves of euphoria rippling throughout her body, down to the soles of her feet and out to her fingertips, overtaking her consciousness and carrying it along for the ride. She shouts and then laughs and then cries with relief, and says his name over and over, as if it is the only word she will ever need again.
Angel relaxes, and gives her a lingering, languid kiss before gently withdrawing from her. For the first time since Cordelia has known him, he is entirely relaxed as he lies against her. At rest.
"Angel," Cordelia says again.
His hand runs through her hair. "Right here."
Softly, Cordelia says, "I'm going to die."
Beside her, she feels every muscle in Angel's body tighten, like he's just turned from flesh to granite. "You won't," he says. "Because I won't let it happen."
Cordelia loves him for this sincere belief that he can take on fate and win, and hates that he can almost make her believe it, too.
"No," she says, and rolls over so that she's facing him. "People who live, die. Sometimes they get sick, and sometimes they walk on a Don't Walk sign when a bus is coming, and sometimes, if they're lucky, they just fall asleep and don't wake up again. But they all die. I'm going to die, Angel. Not tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that, but one day. That's what you sign up for when you love a human being."
Angel doesn't say anything, but he kisses her. His cheek brushes against hers; she feels the cool wetness of his tears, and she understands that he knows this. Maybe he's always known it. Finally, he asks, "And until then?"
"I'm going to live," Cordelia says, her voice solid with determination. "I'm going to live until I die. Every single day. And, you know what? All those bad and unlucky choices I made -- I'm not sorry about any of them. Because the path I took brought me to you, and I can't be sorry I'm here." She smiles. "And my wish came true."
Softly, Cordelia says, "The night I met you -- the night you saw Sugar Ray attacking me in your vision -- I made a wish. I wished I could close my eyes and wake up in another life. And here I am."
Angel doesn't say anything for a long time. Then he pulls Cordelia closer to himself, clings on to her so hard it's an effort to breathe. When he speaks, his voice is barely above murmur, but she can still hear every word he says.
"That night," Angel says, "I made the same wish."
She returns Angel's embrace, so that their bodies are entwined so closely she can't tell where she stops and he starts. She warms his cold flesh; he protects her fragile life. It's strange, she thinks: all this time, and she never realized she needed to be held by him just as much as he needed to hold her.
And maybe, if there's another place where souls go afterward, this is what it's like -- an endlessness of waking up feeling warm and loved. An eternity of being held.
Cordelia decides she can live with that.