As Time Goes By by Yahtzee
Summary: This story is set six years from now and may contain spoilers for anything that has happened through early Season Three ATS and Season Six BTVS. After that, things begin to go AU. You'll be able to tell where canon is and is not in force. Also, if you haven't watched "Casablanca" before -- well, first of all, what HAVE you been doing with yourself? Go rent it! If you choose to read this first, you'll be spoiled for the movie. (Not that anything actually spoils "Casablanca.")
Spoilers: Early Season Three.
Notes: Not long after I conceived of this idea, I remembered hearing that it had been done before, albeit in XF fandom, not ATS. After some pondering, I decided not to read "Letters of Transit" by Loch Ness before writing this story. I am confident that the differences between the series, sets of characters and dilemmas we were each dealing with will make the resulting stories equally different. Whatever similarities we may have are undoubtedly the result of our shared source material -- but if there's anything more worth sharing, I don't know what it is. All thanks to beta-readers Rheanna (whose contribution here goes beyond that of a beta reader; she could more accurately be called "executive producer"), Mariner and everyone at the Angel Fanfic Workshop; thanks also to Jesse, who braved the mall with me the day after Thanksgiving to discover a clock.
The day shall come when the shadow battle is done
When the children of light become too strong to be denied
On the day of the Venareth, all things shall be transformed
Battles will be waged in darkness no longer
Balance will be restored, and darkness and light will come together
That which was hidden will be known
That which was imprisoned will be made free
He who was dead will live again
And as he once was, humanity shall ever be
And all earth's legacies shall be shaped only
By the sculptor's hand of time
-- Final Prophecy, the Scroll of Aberjian
Chapter One: "Everybody Comes To Rick's"
The Hyperion Hotel is again accepting guests.
So much has changed, these last few years -- the four years since the Venareth -- and not for the better. Wars are being waged and lost, first by humans and now, by demons and vampires as well. Great cities have crumbled, once-mighty nations are falling. Creatures that dare not walk in the light of day threaten to command the world at night. The time of decision is drawing near, but the vast majority of the population (human and inhuman alike) is helpless to affect it, can only stand and watching it coming, and hope not to be drawn down in its wake.
But some things remain the same. People continue about much of the business of life -- eating, drinking, fighting, loving -- with even more intensity than before. Some nations remain safe (Australia, sheltered by wide, bright seas, is best), and people will do anything to travel to these harbors. The natural and supernatural worlds know far more of each other these days, but contact is still largely negotiated through the same mysterious channels.
And the Hyperion is open for business. It looks much as it did when it was first built -- busy, stylish, bustling with energy and false glamour. Instead of movie-star photos, the walls are decorated with weapons from centuries and civilizations long past; now they are as purely ornamental as the movie stars once were. An old grandfather clock sits in one corner, but it has not been wound in a very long time. The chimes would no doubt be lost in the cacophony within, the bustle of human and demonic voices as they laugh and drink and talk and plot and scheme and pray.
Because, in its own unexpected fashion, the Hyperion remains the last help for the hopeless in the vast, violent wasteland of L.A.
Nov. 16, 2007 On the crowded, noisy, gray stretch of road still known -- perhaps much more aptly -- as Sunset Boulevard, an angry man said, "Watch it, there!"
The Velga demons didn't watch it -- they shoved their way past the two men on the corner. Four years ago, those men would have run screaming at the very sight of something like a Velga demon; now they were merely annoyed. Compared to the Cuzfau beast that was sleeping in the bus stop (and might awaken any second), the demons were no great worry.
One of the Velga demons barked at the others; those few in the crowd who spoke Velga knew that they were speculating about whether any of their friends or enemies might be a thief. As the demons jumped off the curb, mud splattered all over the skirt of an older woman whose hair was swept up in a bun. She paid the mud no mind as she continued whispering to her companion, a Hevreth demon. "Morgan can be bought. I've heard it said so many times -- it's worth the risk."
The Hevreth shook his head mournfully, chivalrously stepping around her back to shelter her from future splatters of mud. "That one -- she doesn't need money. You can buy her with other things, but as neither of us are young and handsome men, we cannot pay her price."
"But there must be a way," the woman whispered desperately. "There must --"
The Hevreth half-collided with another couple, these both human; everyone briefly nodded apologies at each other before continuing on their ways.
The human man grasped his wife's hand a little harder and whispered, "Remember when everyone in L.A. used to drive?"
"Never thought I'd miss a traffic jam. Then again, I guess these sidewalks count as a traffic jam. But it's worse when you can smell the other commuters." She looked up at her husband, then slowed her steps. "Are you tired, Wesley? We can rest if you need to --"
"I'm quite all right, Fred," Wesley said. He smiled at her, almost convincingly. Fred smiled and kept walking, but she dropped her eyes from his face to stare down at his pale, thin hand in her own.
A vampire came striding past them, in Donna Karan, Prada and full vamp face. Nobody screamed or ran, though a few humans did discreetly move to the far sides of the sidewalk. The vampire took one look at the dozing Cuzfau beast, shook her head and began looking out for a taxi, though cars were few and far between on the streets.
"Make way! Make way!" The Guards running through the streets now weren't cops, though their uniforms were much the same. Their authority was far more absolute. "Prepare to show your identification!"
The stylish vampire groaned and tiredly pulled some papers from her black suit jacket. Other people did much the same, with varying degrees of nervousness -- depending on how much they each had to hide.
Fred held out her papers with a trembling hand, but her fear was not for herself. The Guard who walked up to them glanced at hers, then looked a little more carefully at Wesley's. His face split into a slow, unkind smile. "Nah, we don't have to take you in." He laughed. "I guess we know you're not going very far, don't we?"
Wesley said nothing, just took his papers back and continued on his way. Fred went with him, looking over again to see if he was all right. They passed under a street lamp then, and for a moment she could see the pale, foggy shimmer drifting above him. She turned her eyes away from it.
"Identification!" the Guards yelled, accosting person after person. One of them lifted up a megaphone and said, "Wolfram and Hart has reported a break-in and robbery from one of their vaults. Anyone with information regarding the theft will be rewarded for coming forward. Or punished for not coming forward. And all identification papers will be checked --"
Just out of earshot of the Guards, people whispered:
"What do you think was stolen?"
"Something important, bet your life on it. They wouldn't admit anybody could break in, not if it weren't important --"
"Shut up, shut up, they'll hear you --"
One guard grabbed the Hevreth demon's papers, then scowled. "This ain't updated, buddy. This is, what, four months old?"
"Oh, yes, yes," the Hevreth gabbled, "forgetful of me, I must have tucked the wrong ones into my coat --"
"Well, we'll go find out about that at the station, won't we?" The Guard motioned toward a patrol car (longer than a police car, and solid, gleaming black). "Come on."
The Hevreth took a couple of halting steps toward the car -- then bolted and ran. Hevreth were faster than humans, faster than anyone in that crowd had ever realized before.
But not fast enough.
One Guard lazily pulled out his gun and fired; the Hevreth collapsed in the middle of the street. A couple of people gasped. Nobody screamed.
"Throw that in the car," the Guard yelled, and they continued their sweep down Sunset. People began to relax and move on.
The older woman stepped to the place in the street where the Hevreth had fallen. Her skirt was still damp with mud, and a few strands of grey-white hair had slipped from her bun. She did not cry or scream, but only stared down at the dark pool of blood on the pavement.
Atop the Wolfram and Hart building, suddenly, lights began flashing -- silver and white, flickering in the black night sky. The hordes of beings, human and otherwise, thronging the streets were perhaps as jaded as it is possible to be -- but they all froze in place, stared up at the light show above them.
Fred slipped her arm around Wesley, and they both pretended that he wasn't leaning against her as they gazed upward. "Maybe someday that will be you," Wesley whispered.
"Not without you," Fred replied. They'd had the argument so many times before that they didn't bother repeating it now. Neither of them looked away from the bright blaze of light in the sky.
Atop the Wolfram and Hart building, Lilah Morgan turned her face slightly from the blast of wind and energy rushing from the Portal. After a moment, the wind stilled somewhat, and she turned back to face the light; her designer sunglasses were perfect for such occasions.
An Emissary of the Underlords, she thought tiredly. Like we don't file enough paperwork for the Underlords as it is. And now I'm gonna have one of their flunkies double-checking my every move.
Then again, Lilah thought, the independence of the past couple of years was the exception, not the rule. And she'd known it the day she signed on at Wolfram and Hart, so there was no point in getting upset about it now. Just time to grin and bear it. Or, if this Emissary was a man, to grin and bare it; Lilah braved the chill and let her white mink stole slip open and reveal just how low-cut her black satin gown actually was.
Within the Portal, shapes began to form, gray in the light. Then they coalesced, took the shapes of men. Her assistant worked with at the scrying mirror on its pedestal for a moment, and the Portal swirled back up into nothing, its blinding light gone. As she slipped her sunglasses from her face, Lilah could see this Emissary --
She managed to keep her jaw from dropping. "Lindsey."
Lindsey McDonald walked toward her, long dark coat whipping in the remaining breeze. "Well, well, well. Lilah. I imagine you're as happy to see me as I am to see you."
"Whatever you're feeling, double it," Lilah said. "You might get my reaction."
Lindsey smiled at that, the wolfish, know-it-all smile that used to make her want to smack him, hard. It still had that effect, actually. "Still on the payroll at good ol' W&H, I see."
"And you, Lindsey -- well. I'm impressed. I thought you'd traded it all in for a good, virtuous life in a cabin somewhere. Growing your own corn, listening to John Denver, the whole bit."
Again that smile. "I got tired of taking orders. Didn't mean I wouldn't like giving them someday."
"Looks like you've got the chance," she said, glancing over his shoulder at the ogres standing there. "And what pleasant company you get to keep."
"Present company included," he said. "I heard about the break-in. What did they get?"
Lilah forced herself to concentrate on the business at hand. "A Deburchan dagger."
Lindsey whistled, a low sound. "Not good. Especially not now, what with -- well. Sounds like security's a little sloppier at Wolfram and Hart than it used to be."
"Back when you used to break in to steal prophecy scrolls? Not hardly. No, this was quality work. Somebody who knew what he was doing. Somebody who'd done something like this before."
"You've got a suspect already."
Lilah smiled. "Surprised, Lindsey? You shouldn't be."
"I learned not to underestimate you," Lindsey said. "So, how long until you catch this suspect?"
"I'm pretty sure we'll have him in custody tonight. You'll get to watch -- not to mention have yourself a drink, catch up with some old friends."
"Old friends?" Lindsey raised an eyebrow.
"Well, you know what I mean. I'm using the term 'friend' very loosely." Lilah folded the mink stole more securely around her. "Come on. And don't mind the help."
She smiled serenely as they swept past Gavin Park --who had, in Lilah's opinion, found his true level at Wolfram and Hart -- and was enviously watching the door. His glare was hot against her back as they got in the elevator to descend into the great, roiling mass of humanity and inhumanity that was now L.A.
The Hyperion was lit up with searchlights that swooped across the street and the sky. Sometimes Anne let herself pretend that they were the same sort of spotlights she used to see, evidence of no more than a movie premiere or awards ceremony.
But most of the time she didn't pretend. Anne had learned the hard way to look straight at the toughest side of life, and it was a lesson she needed now more than ever.
Anne straightened her black skirt before coming through the door; the bouncer, a stately Mendenge troll, looked her up and down in a professional manner before allowing her in. She blinked, getting used to the light -- took in the sight of people and demons and vampires, all huddled around little tables or the bar, sometimes moving up and down a long, sweeping staircase. The place was a little crowded for the nightclub it had become, she decided; then again, it must have been enormous for the hotel it had been. Weapons glinted from the walls, and Anne felt a quick surge of envy and anger. To think, of using stuff like that just for decoration. When her people needed weapons so badly --
Just behind her, she heard someone else come through and pass the troll's brief inspection --
Her eyes lit up. "Gunn!"
Charles Gunn looked different than she'd ever seen him -- hard, in a way he hadn't been even when he was living on the streets. But he clearly wasn't living on the streets now; he was wearing a white dinner jacket and a black bow tie, and looked for all the world as though he were headed to one of those movie premieres. "Anne. Good to see you, girl."
He hugged her, but it wasn't the big, enveloping hug she remembered; one of his arms tightened around her shoulders and dropped away. Anne forced back her disappointment, tried to concentrate on the positive. "I'm glad you're here. I mean it."
"Not everybody in your crew feels the same way."
Anne shrugged. "Not everybody has had to start over again. I have. So I know what it's like."
"Starting over," Gunn said quietly, straightening his tie. "Is that what this is? Don't feel like it."
"What does it feel like?"
"Couldn't tell you. But I know one thing -- it feels better than most of what I've been doin' the past four years."
Anne smiled; this was the Charles Gunn she remembered. "You know, you could -- we could go ahead and --"
"No way," he said. "Buyers only."
"I thought this wasn't about money."
"It ain't. But you oughta know better than anybody that we need to be careful. If anybody ends up taking the fall for this, it shouldn't be you. And it sure as hell shouldn't be me." He gave her a smile that was a shadow of the one she used to love. "Maybe we'll grab us a drink later, okay? I gotta go see the boss."
Anne looked at him in surprise. "You two are still on speaking terms?"
"No grudges held inside these walls," Gunn said with a grin, and headed toward the stairs.
She looked after him, and her eyes lit upon the object on a pedestal in the center of the room. Silver metal twined around a clear, multifaceted jewel that caught the light, glinted in the relative darkness. So, that's it, Anne thought. That's the Eye. She didn't even let herself think about what it was worth -- only reflected for a moment what it would cost her to obtain it. Then she looked away and decided that she needed a drink.
Anne made her way to the bar -- a makeshift thing, something she'd once have seen at a reception, not a fully-operational nightclub. But everyone here was just doing their best, weren't they? Including the owner, as much as Anne hated to admit it. She caught snippets of conversation as she moved --
A handsome young man: "I just want to know if this Lilah keeps her word. I don't care about the rest of it, as long as she follows through --"
Three vampires, huddled over snifters of blood: "And this girl's screaming, right? I mean, they all scream, but the lungs on this one, you could hear her half a mile away, I bet. And that's when Mike jumps out and --"
A demon of a breed Anne didn't recognize, one of the furry ones: "If we don't get the money together before the end of the week, we'll have to go back underground --"
A woman with teased, white-blonde hair: "L.A. usedta be so boring. All anybody could talk about was movies. I got so sick of movies --"
A demon with small horns, well-styled hair and a shiny white suit: "Sorry about the mixup in the kitchen, folks. But, really, the line between Hrunta-demon kill and haggis -- it's a fine one."
"Quite all right, Lorne," trilled the chubby woman who was only now getting her haggis. "I'm thrilled that you serve this at all."
"We try to cater to all tastes here," Lorne said. "Including the exotic, whether that be other-dimensional, extraterrestrial or Scottish."
"And you do such a splendid job!" The woman put her bejeweled hand on Lorne's shoulder. "May I present my compliments to the owner in person?"
"The owner doesn't really mingle with the guests," Lorne said. "No offense, madam, but that's the standing policy."
"But how ridiculous," she said. "To own a nightclub and not even enjoy the company!"
Lorne shrugged. "That might cut into critical brooding time. Whoops -- did I say brooding? Let's call it 'solitary meditation.' Or 'reflection.' Or something." He grinned as he poured the woman a little more champagne. "Besides, that's what I'm here for. To add that little human touch."
The table broke up in laughter. As Anne took her wine to a table in the back, she glanced over her shoulder at them. Fun, she thought. These people are actually having fun.
Then again, that's what most people come to nightclubs for, she reminded herself. For fun.
But her purpose that night was far different. Anne half-turned so that she could keep her eye on the door.
Gunn went up the stairs two at a time, trying not to think about the fact that he used to climb these every day. About everything that went down in the room beneath him now. About the way Faith used to come running down these stairs to meet him. No point.
No point in worrying about anything but getting to the next-to-last person he was ever gonna have to speak to in L.A. before getting the hell out.
What was the room number Angel used to have? It would be the same one; Gunn was sure of that much. He went to the door and rapped hard.
A moment of silence. Then -- "Lorne, is that you?"
"Nope," Gunn said easily. "Yet another blast from the past."
Another pause. "Gunn, can't this wait for another time?"
"Actually, it can't. Kinda got a rush on here. But I tell you what -- let me in to talk to you, and I promise that you won't have to deal with me ever again."
"This I have to hear." Apparently that was as close to permission as Gunn was going to get. After a couple more seconds, he opened the door.
Inside was the suite, much as he remembered it -- some new things on the walls, on the shelves. Fewer books. But still the same sitting room, the same shabby-but-elegant furniture, the same windows looking out on the still-bright lights of the city.
And there, silhouetted against those lights, was the dark form of the owner of the Hyperion Hotel. Gunn grinned. "Evening, Cordelia."
She turned to face him, gave him a smile as brilliant as ever, but with none of the warmth he remembered. "Good evening, Gunn."
Chapter Two: "I Stick My Neck Out For Nobody"
Cordelia took a sip of her wine, dark in the crystal glass. She smiled at Gunn over the rim of the glass. "Good to see you."
"You're lyin', but I forgive you," Gunn said easily, flopping down onto a chaise longue near the window. "Ain't much to respect in days like these except money and manners."
"Isn't that something of a problem for you?" Cordelia said. "You never had much of either."
Gunn just grinned up at her. "All that's about to change. With a little help from you, maybe."
"I thought this was something I was actually going to want to hear," Cordelia said, and her smile was a little more brittle now.
She moved toward Gunn, and he took a long, hard look at her. Her hair was dark again, and long, apparently, to judge by the elaborately braided knot at the nape of her neck. She was wearing a silvery dress that clung to all the right places, which on Cordelia was just about everywhere. Around her neck was a necklace the likes of which Gunn had rarely seen -- black pearls the size of grapes, strung three-deep around her neck, with an even larger opal, snowy and glittering, in the center. "One hell of a trinket you're wearing there."
"You've seen it before."
"Been a while. Forgot how damn big it is. Tell me, Cordy, what's a lady gotta do to get a necklace like that?"
"She has to be a very good girl, and do exactly what she's told." Cordelia fingered the necklace briefly, then turned her attention back to him. "And it sounds like you've got your own money-making scheme in mind."
"The work is done, baby," he said with a grin, patting his jacket just where the inside pocket would be. "All I need is a place to keep it safe, until such time as I can sell it to the very willing buyers."
Cordelia looked at him with something that was half-contempt, half- curiosity. Gunn grinned even wider and pulled out the Deburchan dagger. The jewels sparkled faintly, and Cordelia reached out one finger.
"Never thought I'd see one of these. Gunn, do you realize how much this is worth?"
"Ain't a curse it can't seal," Gunn said. "Ain't a spell it can't make stronger. And ain't a man, woman, child, demon, vamp or beast in the world that wouldn't pay through the nose to get it. And since I got no curses I want to lay down, or spells I want to cast, the money's my main interest."
"No doubt. You do realize that there's not a man, woman, yadda yadda, that wouldn't kill you to get it?"
"With one exception, and that's you." Gunn looked up at her with a touch of his old warmth. "I can't figure out what it is you ARE after these days, Cordelia, but you ain't after money. Just the fact that you're wearing rocks like that instead of selling them tells me that much."
"I heard something major was stolen from Wolfram and Hart yesterday," Cordelia said. "Wolfram and Hart, not so big on the break-ins. Could be trouble."
"I only need to buy myself a day," Gunn said. "I meet with the buyers tonight. And these buyers -- they're serious. They're players. They have plans for this thing." For a moment, he considered telling Cordelia the truth -- the full truth about what he was doing, and why. "I wouldn't sell it to just anybody." He studied Cordelia's face carefully for a moment, then said, "Never mind. I get the money tomorrow, hand off the dagger. Use that money to get myself outta here, all the way to Australia. Looking forward to Australia after this hellhole. Put another shrimp on the barbie and Crocodile Dundee and all that jazz."
Australia. He thought of it longingly for a moment, then pushed the idea aside.
"And where do I come in?"
"You just hide it for me. The Guards are searching everybody, Cordy, and it's getting ugly out there. I just want to know the dagger's in a safe place, is all. And I think it's safe with you."
"Because I like you so much?" Even if her words hadn't been so sharp, Gunn would have caught the sarcasm.
"Because you hate me," Gunn said. "Though I never was real sure just why you started hating me, Cordy. I think I just -- remind you, that's all."
Cordelia smiled coldly. "That's enough."
"If you still liked me, you'd try to save me from myself. But you hate me now, and you'd be just too happy to take a share of the money out from under my nose. Not too big a share, now. But enough to make it worth your while."
"And how do you know I won't turn you in, keep the dagger for myself?"
"Because you hate Wolfram and Hart way more than you hate me."
Cordelia laughed, and it was as close to a real laugh as Gunn had seen from her in a while. "I could get into trouble for this."
"But not too much trouble, huh? The Powers looking out for you and all. Taking care of the Seer, ready to destroy anybody who hurts her." Gunn shook his head. "Must be nice."
"Trust me, Gunn, nice is the one thing it's definitely not." Cordelia held out her hand. "Give it here. I'll hide it. But if push comes to shove, I didn't know a damn thing about it. Got it?"
"Solid," Gunn said, putting the dagger in her hand. He fought off a shudder of guilt; he'd just put Cordelia in terrible danger, and he hadn't even told her the reason why. Because she couldn't be trusted - - but weren't there people who still thought he couldn't be trusted? Was Cordelia any worse than he had been, most of the past four years?
He didn't know. But he couldn't afford to find out. And if Cordelia ended up paying the price -- well, it was unfair, but so was just about everything else, these days.
Cordelia tucked the dagger into the black folds of her evening wrap. Gunn frowned. "You're keeping it on you?"
"You wanted it safe, right?" She smiled. "Trust me. C'mon. I need to put in my evening appearance."
Cordelia looked down at the swirl and bustle of activity in the lobby. In a few rare moments, she felt proud of this; all these people and creatures, good and evil, rich and poor, drawn together and bound to keeping the peace in some capacity -- not through any spell cast by the Furies, either, just because she said so. All of them admired her, and none of them knew her -- in some ways, it was like high school, but with champagne.
Come to think of it, she was overdue for her first glass.
Cordelia put on her most brilliant smile as she swept down the stairs. She took it slow -- no point in just entering when you could make an Entrance. Gunn went past her, shooting her a half-amused glance over one shoulder. Women looked up at her in envy, men in differing shades of desire, and Cordelia basked in it. She'd almost forgotten how good that glow could feel, back when she'd been drudging away here every day -- well. No point in remembering that.
Several people got up from their tables, clearly meaning to come up and talk to her, but Lorne was quicker. Lorne had learned to always be quicker. "Evening, boss," he said easily, taking her arm.
"How's the crowd tonight?"
"A little more anxious than usual, seeing as how the Guards are going berserk looking for whoever was nutty enough to go roaming inside Wolfram and Hart today."
"And are they handling the anxiety as well as they usually do?"
"Yes, they're buying booze. And lots of it. Promises to be a profitable evening."
"Well, that gets a yay from me," Cordelia said. "Listen, when were you planning on doing your set?"
"The tribute to Ella? I was getting ready to take the mic --"
"Hold off for a bit. I feel a floor show coming on."
Lorne patted her shoulder. "Sure thing."
Cordelia snapped her fingers at one of the server-trolls; he was experienced, and good at his job, so it took him just a few seconds to have a glass of champagne in her hand. Cordelia swallowed it down, ignoring the way its bright taste warred with the tang of the dark wine she'd been drinking earlier. That would pass.
She unfurled her wrap, caught the dagger easily in one hand. A man was weaving his way up to her, unsteady with drink -- oh, what was his name again --
"Cordelia?" Carter, that was his name. The liquor license guy. "I expected you the other evening."
"Gosh golly, did I forget you? How did a guy like you ever slip my mind?"
Carter glared at her, the expression accenting every wrinkle on his face, the gray at his temples. "I thought we were friends, Cordelia. That's why I signed off on your latest paperwork -- the only reason why --"
"And next year, when we're due for renewal, you and I will be good friends again." Cordelia wound the wrap around her, nonchalantly hung the Deburchan dagger on the wall with all the other armaments.
"You might be up for review before then," Carter said. His eyes never rose to the level of her face.
"I'm alive with anticipation." Her head swam. She felt a low vibration begin inside her body. Cordelia waved him off. "Excuse me. Showtime."
Cordelia made her way through the crowded room toward the Eye. As she got closer and closer to it, the buzz in the crowd became louder. They reacted in every way imaginable -- excitement, dread, amusement, wonder -- but they reacted. Lorne saw her and went for his microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, please, your attention -- the Hyperion is about to present its world-famous form of entertainment -- you've heard about it, read about it, didn't dare dream that it was true, but it is, folks --"
Cordelia lifted the Eye from the pedestal as the crowed gasped. She held it up, almost in front of her face but a little lower, low enough to still see their reactions --
"-- Hang on to your hindquarters, those of you who have them, because you are about to witness the rarest of the rare, the purest of the pure --"
Cordelia forced herself to look into the Eye as the feeling swept through her --
"-- a actual, genuine, bona fide Vision from the Powers that Be!"
Light streamed out from the Eye -- from Cordelia through the Eye -- and flickered into shapes. Life-size, three dimensional shapes that moved and, yes, spoke. Into people. A young boy -- 16, maybe -- was running from a pack of vampires. The street sign floated conveniently into view; he wasn't very far away at all. The boy was screaming in terror. "Help me! Oh, God, help me!"
The light flickered out. The Eye went dim. Cordelia took a deep breath as the audience began to applaud.
She smiled at them all as she put the Eye back on its pedestal. Cordelia lifted her hand to snap her fingers again, but the troll was at her side with another glass of champagne even before she could do it. "Good job," she said. "Wish I'd had you around when these things used to hurt."
As she sipped and strolled toward the courtyard, Cordelia gave her usual glance around the room to see how people were reacting. The thrill of seeing something that was from the Powers themselves always got the crowd going -- but the curio value generally lasted no longer than the Vision itself. The table of vamps were laughing raucously, gesturing about what they'd do if they were there. That girl at the bar -- that was Anne, wasn't it? Gunn's old friend -- she looked upset. She kept looking at the door, as though she might go to help.
But she didn't. They never did.
And, as usual, most people didn't react at all. They were drinking, eating, carrying on -- perhaps with a little more gusto, having just seen a really great show. They'd tell all their friends they'd seen something straight from the Powers themselves, and probably never bother describing exactly what they'd seen.
Cordelia glanced back toward the door, saw the grandfather clock that stood nearby. She turned away and went outside as quickly as she could.
The courtyard wasn't empty, of course, but it was quieter than the interior of the hotel. She could smell smoke, both tobacco and a few substances that used to be regulated a lot more heavily. A few couples (and one trio) were nestled in corners, tight against each other, negotiating the terms under which they'd rent one of the Hyperion's rooms tonight. Cordelia thought, at a glance, that very few of them were under the impression that this might be love. These days, desperation would do. Certainly it lasted longer.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Lilah's voice came from behind her. "How you can see the stars now."
"Never could before," Cordelia said. "Unless you hung at the Viper Room."
Lilah came to stand beside her, and Cordelia half-smiled. Although she and Lilah were not friends, they had reached a certain understanding, these past few years. Cordelia used to have nothing for contempt for how Lilah had run her life; now she understood that sometimes, life ran you. "Great dress," Lilah said.
"Back at ya," Cordelia said. "I need to explore more options in satin, seriously."
"Took a trip to the Portal tonight," Lilah said.
"But not through it?" Cordelia said. "I honestly wonder, sometimes. Why you don't just throw yourself through, see what happens."
"Because I don't know what would happen," Lilah said. "And here, I do know what will happen. And it's pleasant as often as not, which is as much as you can expect, really."
"So if you weren't making your great escape, what were you doing at the Portal?"
"Welcoming back an old friend. Remember Lindsey McDonald?" When Cordelia snorted in amusement and contempt, Lilah smiled thinly. "I see that you do."
"What's he doing here?"
"Believe it or not, he's the new Emissary of the Underlords."
Cordelia's eyes were wide. "So we actually have to suck up to him. Oh, just when you thought the apocalypse couldn't get any yummier."
"The little joys of working at Wolfram and Hart are without number," Lilah said. "A temp gave me a paperweight that said something like that, once. I think they used her hide for one of the conference-room chairs."
"So not a great time to have a break-in, huh?"
"Tell me about it," Lilah said. "They got away with a Deburchan dagger."
"Major loot," Cordelia said easily.
"Not so major anymore," Lilah said. "Just between you and me, we went through a whole de-enchantment ceremony earlier this evening. That dagger's not good for anything anymore, except maybe as a really flashy steak knife. But the point is, we have to get the guy who stole it, because we have to find the people he's going to sell it to."
Inside the Hyperion, Lorne swung into his set, belting out the first verse of "Goody, Goody." The music wafted out into the courtyard.
"Anybody might want a Deburchan dagger," Cordelia said. "So you're looking at a long list of suspects."
"I don't think so," Lilah said. "According to Lindsey, the Underlords are looking out for two major Warriors. Not just do-gooders with stakes and holy water -- the real deal."
Cordelia shrugged. "Warriors come and go. Mostly go, these days."
"Word is they want to go to Sunnydale. To close the Hellmouth."
Cordelia stared at Lilah, who stared back at her. After a moment, they each burst into laughter. As soon as Cordelia could gulp in a breath, she gasped, "Go -- to Sunnydale? No human being's set foot there in years --"
"Except maybe as a to-go meal some vamp took with him," Lilah smirked. "But, seriously. According to Lindsey, these Warriors have a plan. A plan that requires a seriously high-level magical artifact."
"Like, say, a Deburchan dagger."
"Or a Eye, for that matter," Lilah said. "Though I know you well enough to know you'd never sell."
"You know me well enough to know I can't," Cordelia said. "Not without going to hell, straight to hell, not passing go, not collecting 200 dollars."
"As long as you remember that," Lilah said.
Cordelia swallowed some more champagne as she shot Lilah a glance. "That's why you're spilling all this info, isn't it? You're giving me a warning."
"Don't get me wrong, Cordelia. I have enough faith in your practical nature to know you'll do the safe thing. But you weren't always like that. There was a time when you were quite the crusader --"
"Don't remind me," Cordelia said. "That was a long time ago. I know better now."
"I know that. But Lindsey doesn't. And Lindsey -- well, the guy's always been a loose cannon. Girls like us can't be too careful. Besides, if something happened to you, I'd miss our little chats."
"You'd miss the fact that I comp all your drinks."
"That too. At this point, I can no longer put off telling you that Lindsey wanted to have a word. For old times' sake, no doubt." Lilah rolled her eyes.
"There's a lot of stuff we'd be more likely to do for old times' sake. Like, say, fight it out with axes." Cordelia sighed, thinking of the time Lindsey had sicced Vocah on her. Then again, Lilah had been in on that party too, hadn't she? Bygones. "I should be glad he just wants to chat."
Lindsey swirled his martini appreciatively before taking another sip. Like a cool, smooth cloud, he thought. Every detail of this place was perfect. He could appreciate that.
The captain of the Guards looked over in his direction, and Lindsey nodded slightly, without rising from his seat at the table. This was Lilah's arrest, after all; he hated watching her score a point with Wolfram and Hart. But it was unavoidable, and now would be as good a time as any.
Two Guards came up to where Gunn stood by the counter, stood at either shoulder. The captain said, "Sir, we're going to need you to come with us."
Gunn shrugged. "Sure thing. What's up?"
"We think you know," one Guard said.
"You guys are tearing up the joint looking for the thief, right? Hell, go on and search me --"
"We aren't interested in a search," the captain said. "We have our proof. You are to come with us."
Gunn's face went very still. But he remained casual as he spoke, "Yeah, whatever. Hang on while I finish my drink."
He insouciantly turned around to swallow the rest of his White Russian, then whipped around and slugged one of the Guards in the face. People began to scream, and Gunn vaulted over the barstool to run for it.
Lindsey didn't move, just watched.
The Guards barreled after him. Gunn had a head start, but there were a whole lot of tables and trolls between him and escape. Just as he lurched for the doorway, the Guards seized him. "No, don't!" Gunn yelled. "Cordy! Jesus Christ, Cordy, don't let 'em do it!"
Lindsey looked over his shoulder, saw Cordelia standing by Lilah's side near the courtyard door. He braced himself, waiting for her to cry out or take action. Instead, she stared at Gunn for a moment, then turned away to down the last of her champagne.
"Cordy!" Gunn yelled as the Guards towed him out the door. He was still screaming when the doors slammed shut.
After a moment's pause, Lorne motioned to the three-person band, which then swung into "A Tisket, A Tasket."
Cordelia came walking toward Lindsey, and he set his martini down to take her hand. "Very touching, Cordelia. Nothing like seeing that friendship never ends."
"Or in your case, never begins," Cordelia said. "Seriously, Lindsey, you're a lot less monstrous than the last Emissary the Underlords sent. Seeing you actually counts as a relief."
"Seeing you counts as something of a surprise," Lindsey said. "I mean, all those years working with Angel. All those years as the valiant Seer. Never giving up, even when those around you fell like so many dominoes."
"A whole lot more dominoes have fallen since then," Cordelia said. "Makes a girl wonder what she can rely on." Lilah strolled up behind Cordelia and smiled at them both. Cordelia was looking at her when she continued, "Turns out, she can only rely on herself."
Lindsey smiled. "Could've told you that a long time ago. Lilah here says you've changed your ways. That you don't go running around after lost causes anymore."
Cordelia gestured around the room; the light sparkled on the platinum rings on her hands. "I'm the only cause I care about these days. And I think I've served that cause pretty well, don't you?"
"Brava," Lindsey said, clapping his hands softly. "I just want to be sure of you, Cordelia. I need to know that the trust the Powers have put in you isn't misplaced."
He gestured toward the Eye; Cordelia's eyes followed the gesture, and to his surprise, she smiled a little. "They made the deal clear, Lindsey. The end of the pain, the end of my life being in danger from the Visions. All I had to do was make the Visions available to everyone -- good, bad, indifferent."
Lilah smiled slightly. "These days, the 'indifferent' group is so large that I wonder why they bothered."
"Just checking," Lindsey said. "I have to say, you've convinced me."
"Why are you checking up on this anyway?" Cordelia frowned. "The Powers are the guys in the middle. From the sound of it, you're with the Underlords now."
"The Venareth was all about balance, Cordy," Lindsey said, throwing out the old nickname to see if she'd react. She didn't. "About setting good and evil on the same footing. Seeing as how the Underlords were falling way behind before that -- well, the Venareth was pretty damn overdue, in their opinion. The Underlords like the balance. And giving the Visions back to the side of good -- that would upset the balance, wouldn't it?"
"Don't know how much difference you think the Visions made anyway," Cordelia shrugged. "As far as I can tell, they pretty much just gave me a serious Advil habit."
"I see you've moved up to more civilized painkillers," Lindsey said, as a troll brought Cordelia yet another glass of champagne.
"Civilization," she murmured as she brought the glass to her lips. "These days, I guess you take it where you can find it."
"Fair enough," Lindsey said.
Cordelia got to her feet. "If you'll excuse me, Lindsey, I make a point of not palling around with the guests. They get all grabby if I do."
Lilah waved her off, as though she had the authority to do so. "I'm sure Lindsey and I can keep each other company. Chat about old times."
Lindsey didn't laugh, just half-smiled at Cordelia as she turned and went back toward the courtyard. Lilah watched him watch her go. "See? I told you. She's no trouble anymore."
"Seems like it," Lindsey said. "Good. Good. Just one more test, then."
"Test?" Lilah's voice seemed to betray real concern, but when Lindsey glanced back at her, she was just smiling at him dryly. "So, Linz. How's that evil hand?"
"Much better, now that the rest of me caught up." He looked over at the door, and as if on cue, it opened, and they came in.
Lilah followed his gaze, and her eyes went wide. After a moment, she whispered, "The Warriors for good."
"Mmmm-hmm," Lindsey said, never taking his eyes from the door.
The damned thing about it was that he looked almost the same. The hair was a little longer, the build a little thinner, perhaps. But he was still tall, broad-shouldered, intent -- the image of a Warrior if ever there was one. And still wearing black.
Of course. Even the end of the world wouldn't make Angel stop wearing black.
On the other hand, the second Warrior didn't look it at all; she was a woman of little height and slight build, with hair an unnatural yet ethereal platinum blonde. But if word on the street, reports from the Underlords and several dozen tablets of prophecy were to believed, these days she was the more powerful of the two by far.
Though, as always, Angel was Lindsey's main concern.
"So this is the famous Hyperion Hotel," Buffy said. "What's it like to be back home?"
Angel put his arm around her shoulder, only just glancing at the clock beside the door. "It's not exactly a homecoming."
Chapter Three: "Play It Again, Sam"
Angel looked at the lobby -- what had been the lobby, and was now a combination of that and a nightclub and a restaurant, crammed somewhat uncomfortably together. Before, the Hyperion had always had a kind of grandeur; it was shabby, perhaps, sometimes even a little frightening, but still possessed of some of the dignity it was built to reflect.
But this -- women in fabrics dark and bright, laughing too shrilly at unfunny jokes; men in suits that shone at the elbows and frayed at the collars, gulping back drinks too quickly; the buzz of conversation pitched at tones that others weren't meant to overhear -- well, it conjured up many images, some of them glamorous, some even beautiful. But nothing of dignity.
And the clock was there --
As Angel began ushering Buffy to a vacant table nearby, the band struck up another number. A voice began singing, "Something's Got To Give," and he felt his stomach twist. That voice could only belong to Lorne.
"What's that?" Buffy looked up at him, and Angel realized he had spoken aloud.
"The singer's an old friend of mine," Angel said.
Buffy smiled gently as they took their seats. "We'll have to say hi. Too few old friends to run into these days."
"I know," Angel said. "It'll be good to talk to Lorne again."
"You say that as if --"
As Buffy spoke, Lorne recognized Angel in the crowd. He didn't falter in the song, didn't so much as hesitate, but Angel saw the flash of knowledge in his eyes. Angel didn't look away.
" -- you didn't mean it."
"I mean it," Angel said. "This is just a little strange. I lived here for almost four years, Buffy. It's odd to see it so changed."
"Everything's changed," Buffy said, and Angel turned then to see the sadness in her eyes. He took her hand and squeezed. it.
At that moment, a young woman with blonde hair stepped up to them; Angel realized that she looked somewhat familiar. She was glancing back and forth between Buffy and Angel -- she obviously recognized them both and was surprised by it. "Buffy?" she said.
Buffy looked at her for a long moment, then said, "Chantarelle -- no, Lily."
"No, Anne," the woman said. Buffy straightened up as if in pride as Anne continued, "I just wanted to say hi to both of you. I -- I didn't realize you knew each other."
Buffy and Angel looked at one another; this time the smiles were broad, and mutual. "That and then some," Buffy said. "How did you and Angel meet?"
"I swindled her in a two-million-dollar deal."
When Buffy raised her eyebrows, Anne laughed. "I actually ended up with the money."
"You need to brush up on your swindling," Buffy said. Angel shrugged.
"Well, I can't stay long," Anne said. "I just thought, seeing the two of you like this, it was like something out of a book. Something out of Wuthering Heights."
Angel felt his heartbeat quicken, but he was careful to give no outer sign of his reaction. Buffy was just as placid, half-waving as Anne leaned away from the table. "Thanks for stopping by, Anne."
Anne said nothing more, just nodded and backed away as a serving troll stepped up to get their orders. "Two gin and tonics," Buffy said. "One straight, one on the rocks."
As soon as they were alone again, as alone as it was possible to be in the din, Angel said in a low voice, "Be careful."
She looked at him sideways. "Aren't I always?" That earned a short laugh.
A woman's voice said, from behind Angel, "You know, I ought to have just the right zinger for this occasion, but it seems as though I'm out."
Without turning around, Angel said, "Lilah."
Buffy looked over his shoulder at Lilah, who came around the corner wearing black satin and a killer's smile. "And who's this?" Buffy said.
"Angel and I go way back, don't we, Angel?" When Buffy frowned, Lilah laughed. "Don't worry. The relationship was always purely business."
"Buffy, Lilah is an attorney with Wolfram and Hart. They do a lot of work for the Underlords in this district."
Buffy pressed her lips together, and Lilah shook her head. Angel realized, with something that was almost shock, that Lilah was drunk. "You know, these days, I don't get into the evil as much as I used to. I miss it. I admit that. But Wolfram and Hart is stuck in the middle these days. Like most of us."
"But not all of us." Angel looked up and frowned as Lindsey McDonald strolled to his side. "Some of us have definitely chosen sides, haven't we?"
Lilah said, "Angel, I'm sure you remember Lindsey. He's the new Emissary to the Underlords. Isn't it nice to see how virtue is rewarded?"
"Amazing," Angel muttered as he looked up at Lindsey. "Millions of people have died, and none of them were you."
Buffy held out her hand to shake. "I don't think we've met. I'm Buffy Summers."
"Lindsey McDonald. Charmed, I'm sure. I've read about you. Read quite a lot. Impressive record you've got -- if you're impressed by lost causes."
"I've learned that causes aren't lost," Buffy said. "People are, sometimes. But it's not quite the same thing."
"People are lost sometimes, it's true." Lindsey was studying Buffy's face carefully, as if trying to communicate with more than words. Then he said, slowly, "Take, for instance, Charles Gunn. Good man, once upon a time. More recently, just one more poor dog on the streets of L.A. But as of tonight, he's a prisoner in our custody."
Angel breathed in sharply; if Lindsey registered his shock and dismay, he didn't acknowledge it. "You see, he stole this dagger. Mighty fine dagger -- curved blade, jewels in the hilt, enchanted six ways from Sunday --"
"I bet it makes great julienne fries," Buffy said.
Lindsey actually smiled. "Might at that. And we'll have to find out, soon as we find it. We've already found Gunn, so I imagine the answer will be forthcoming real soon. One thing's for sure -- he's outta luck. And so are the poor saps who were hoping to buy it. Any idea who that might be?"
Buffy shrugged, and, as ever, Angel found himself admiring her nonchalance in the face of even the most ghastly setbacks. "Maybe you should check the subscription list for the Really Cool Magic Daggers catalog."
"I've got a better idea," Lindsey said, and all the slick pleasantry had left his voice as he leaned across their table. "Why don't you guys come down to the Wolfram and Hart office tomorrow? We'd love to ask you a few questions. About why exactly Angel decided to pay a visit to his old haunts. Your future plans. That kinda thing."
"Small talk, really. Like a cocktail party," Lilah said. "But with guards. And no booze."
"If we walk inside Wolfram and Hart, are we going to walk out again?" Angel said.
Lindsey studied him for a moment, then nodded. "As long as you walk in under your own power. If we have to drag you -- no guarantees then."
"We'll be there," Buffy said. "Now, do you mind? The troll's been waiting to serve us for about three minutes."
Lindsey smirked as he took Lilah's arm and led her away from the table. The troll stepped close, set down the gin and tonics, and left.
As soon as they were alone, Angel whispered, "This is bad."
"Stay calm," Buffy said. "So we didn't get the dagger yet. It's still out there somewhere."
Angel thought about that for a minute. "You're right. Lindsey let that slip. He must have been drinking almost as much as Lilah."
"So we hang in there," Buffy said. She smiled at him -- that same wistful smile he remembered from the young girl he'd fallen in love with. "They counted us out before, you know. And we always come back."
He smiled back at her, took her hand again. "Always."
"Angel!" He turned his head, and this time, the surprise was far more pleasant.
"Wesley -- Fred -- oh, my God. You're here. You're both here -- " They were coming toward him, images out of a past that seemed unspeakably distant. How different they looked -- Wesley was almost painfully thin, with hair that was now salt-and-pepper instead of black. Fred's hair had been bobbed in a fashion that somehow managed to make her look even younger than she had when they'd rescued her from Pylea. Angel rose as they reached the table and embraced them each in turn. Wesley then wrapped his arms around Buffy, who returned the hug with such warmth it was hard to remember she and Wesley hadn't always been the dearest of friends.
Wesley whispered into Buffy's hair, "Some old contacts told us Heathcliff and Catherine might be coming to town. So we thought we'd check and see."
"Hey there," Fred said to Buffy. "I've heard a lot about you over the years. And when I say a lot, I mean, a whole lot. I don't suppose you heard a lot about me, but then, you know, what is there to tell, compared to, oh, 'Slayer' and 'great love of Angel's life,' or not- life as the case might be --"
Buffy grinned. "Don't tell me. You're Fred." When Fred nodded happily, Buffy laughed. "And it is life now, you know."
"That's right -- shanshu. We heard, but -- " Wesley held his hand to Angel's neck -- right at the jugular, where the pulse would be strong. His face lit up, and for a moment the past few years seemed to have dropped away from Wesley. Angel knew he ought to return the smile, but he couldn't help but realize how bony Wesley's fingers were against his skin. How shadowed his eyes were.
"Oh, good show, Angel," Wesley said softly. "At least one part of that dratted prophecy was all we hoped it would be."
"You should talk to your friends, Angel," Buffy said, stepping away from the table. "I need to get a twist for my drink. At the bar. Maybe talk a little literature."
Angel quietly repeated, "Be careful."
Buffy just nodded as she turned away.
How like Angel, to be frightened for her on an errand as small as this. He would rush into battle with her -- even now, when he had no powers, no special strength save that of his resolve -- and never hesitate. He had seen her leap through fire, jump off cliffs, fight three ogres while she was armed only with the contents of a basic tool chest. He never doubted her, but he always worried about her. Buffy decided that she rather liked the balance.
She straightened her white suit as she went up to the bar. Fortunately, the bartender was swamped with customers, making do with his inadequate stand. That was going to leave her quite a bit of time in line with Anne.
Anne pretended to simply shift in place, turning so that she was much nearer Buffy's ear. She whispered, "We've got trouble."
"So I hear," Buffy said. "The guy with the dagger's in custody."
"He'd been out of the fight for a long time. He came back, though, and pulled this huge job for us -- and got caught right away. He'd even talked about going to Sunnydale with you guys -- he was ready to fight again --" Anne's face clouded for a moment, as though an old sorrow were making itself felt again. But she quickly continued, "Gunn still didn't trust a whole lot of people. He didn't tell me where the dagger is. It could be anywhere. Absolutely anywhere. I'm not sure that we can find it."
Buffy breathed in and out. Okay, she thought. Staying calm. Coming up with a plan B. "What else could we use?"
"There's a handful of other artifacts," Anne said. "The Mirror of Yeram might do -- we'd have to do some major bargaining to get it, particularly as fast as you're gonna need it, but we can try." She laughed and shook her head. "The ironic thing is, we're standing five feet away from the most powerful magical item on the West Coast."
Buffy stared at her, forgetting to be discreet -- then caught a glimpse of what was behind Anne, glittering on a pedestal. A jewel, shining bright in the smoky darkness of the hotel. "What IS that?" she whispered.
"The Eye," Anne said, as though that answered everything. "A jewel given by the Powers That Be at the Venareth. Channels their sendings, makes them available to good and evil alike."
"Boy, that's big and shiny and helpful and not heavily guarded."
Anne shook her head. "Forget about it. The Powers have certain rules about that jewel. If anybody tries to remove it without the owner's permission, that person becomes marked for vengeance by the Powers. You might not drop dead that day -- but from then on, you're pretty well guaranteed some serious trouble for the rest of your fairly short life. If anybody kills the owner, same thing."
Buffy opened her mouth to ask another question, but as she did so, she glanced over at the table where Angel was talking animatedly with Wesley and Fred. She squinted -- it looked as if there were a kind of a fog over them. A shadow, but not a shadow -- "What is that?"
Anne sighed. "Sad, isn't it? The first couple years after the Venareth, when our resistance was getting started, Wesley was just -- a rock. The first person we went to for answers, the first guy in the fight, the last one to get to safety."
Time changes us all, Buffy thought. "But what happened?"
"About a year and a half ago, we had a raid on one of their camps. They call them labor camps, because that's actually more comforting than the truth. But all those vampires Wolfram and Hart employs -- well, you know they're not eating at the company cafeteria."
"So I've heard."
"Anyway, Wesley got caught. We thought they'd kill him for sure, but they didn't. Not fast and easy, anyway." Anne's face was hard. "They wanted to make an example of him. So they tethered a Solonach to him."
"Solonach," Anne repeated. "It's a kind of -- life vampire, I guess you'd say. It sucks the life energy out of you, little by little. Just attaches itself to you and never lets go, not until you're dead. But it takes you a couple years to die. I hear it hurts a little more every day."
"Oh, God," Buffy whispered. She thought of Wesley in his brand-new, shining-white tennis shoes, panting as he tried to keep up on the obstacle course. She remembered laughing at him. "There's nothing we can do?"
"Best not to think about it," Anne said. "And if you don't squint, and the light doesn't hit it quite right, you can't even see it."
Buffy shook her head, tried to clear it. If she let herself concentrate on any one of the countless tragedies unfolding around them all the time, she knew she'd go mad. Better to concentrate on what she could do, how she could help. "So, this Eye. What if we did get the owner's permission to take it out of here?"
Anne laughed. "You've obviously never met her."
Angel tried to concentrate on Wesley's smile, his clear happiness at seeing Angel again, as his old friend spoke. But he looked so thin -- "And when we heard about the fall of the vampires' stronghold in the north, we knew it had to have been you and Buffy."
"Mostly Buffy," Angel said. "Human now, remember? I can't eviscerate a Hrunta demon like I used to."
"Aw, bet you can," Fred said. "It's like riding a bike. Except no little wicker basket."
"What I mean to say, Angel -- you're an inspiration to us all. Those who are still fighting. Those of us who can fight no longer."
Angel looked up once more at the Solonach above them. "Wesley, isn't there any way --"
"If there were, surely between the three of us, we'd know of it, wouldn't we?" Wesley shook his head. "You with your centuries of experience as a vampire, me with my Watcher training, Fred with her absolutely compulsive study of my texts --"
Angel said, "But I could have sworn I remembered that there was something --"
"Oh, yes, there are ways," Wesley said. "If I perform a spell to move it to someone else, to force them to die in my stead. Fred tried to convince me to -- well, it was out of the question."
"I would," Fred said quietly. "You know I would."
Wesley didn't verbally acknowledge what she had said, but he slipped his arm around her shoulders. "The only other option is for one of the people who tethered it in the first place to release it. But as it was attached by our dear friends at Wolfram and Hart -- no chance there."
"I'm sorry," Angel said, feeling that the words were inadequate, but not knowing what else he could say.
"Angel, truly -- it's all right." Wesley smiled at him, his eyes bright behind his glasses. "I know why I fought. I'm willing to pay the price. If I hadn't fought -- something else in me would have died. And I'd rather lose my life than my soul."
"Take it from someone who's been there," Angel said. "You made the right choice."
Fred cut in. "I'm not feeling very well. Wesley, maybe we should go home."
"Fred?" Angel frowned. "You okay?"
"She's fine," Wesley said. "That's her tactful way of getting around the fact that I don't feel very well. Fred's forever convinced I'm overtaxing myself. But honestly, Fred, I'm all right --"
"You are overtaxing yourself," Fred said. "But, seriously, I'm really tired. I mean, it's not like I'm not happy to see you, Angel, but I just am about to drop --"
Angel didn't believe her for a minute, but he couldn't blame her for wanting to take care of Wesley. "We'll see each other again while Buffy and I are here. Maybe tomorrow afternoon -- are you still at your old place?"
Wesley shook his head as, resigned, he slowly rose to his feet. "We aren't able to afford such luxury now. Not that it was all that luxurious before, but -- well. What say we meet you back here tomorrow night? We can raise a glass to old friends."
Fred took his arm, and they were about to go -- and Angel finally knew, absolutely, that he could put it off no longer. "Is -- is she still here?"
They didn't ask who. Fred just nodded. Wesley said, "I'm surprised she hasn't walked through the lobby already."
"She still owns the Hyperion?" Angel was astonished, though he couldn't think why -- seeing, now, that so much of his former life was intact here, albeit greatly changed, he should have realized this on his own. But somehow he could not put her in the middle of this cacophony -- this smoky, desperate echo of the place they had all lived and loved -- and make the image make any sense. "How is she?"
Wesley and Fred looked at each other for a moment, clearly uncertain as to how to answer. Finally, Fred said, "We don't talk much. That's the way she wants it."
Angel nodded. Wesley quickly hugged him once more, and Fred followed suit; without another word, they went back out into the night.
He took a deep breath and glanced back at Buffy; she was still talking to Anne, still doing a good job of not looking as though she was talking to Anne. Lorne finished the last song of his set, and applause rang throughout the bar. Angel glanced at his watch.
Three minutes to ten.
After a moment's hesitation, Angel got up and walked to the grandfather clock. The time was all wrong, and cobwebs laced around the still pendulum. The weights had all dropped to the bottom..
Slowly, carefully, Angel began bringing up the weights, winding the clock.
"You know, big guy, I'd love for us to have a big old emotional reunion right now, complete with a violin score and soft-focus lighting, just like they used on Joan Collins in the later seasons of 'Dynasty,' but I gotta tell you, you're not supposed to be doing that."
Angel looked over his shoulder and smiled. "It's good to see you, Lorne."
Lorne smiled back at him, but his eyes were guarded. "Likewise. But you're still winding the clock."
"About time somebody did." He shifted the hands. One minute to ten.
"She's the boss. More to the point, she's MY boss, these days. And she doesn't want anybody winding that clock."
Angel put the pendulum in motion, heard the clock swing back into action as though it had never stilled. As it ticked, he shut the door again. "How is she?" he asked, for the second time in a few minutes.
"She's been better."
"Haven't we all?" Angel said.
And then the clock began to chime. One, two --
A few people in the crowd glanced lazily over in their direction. Nobody seemed to pay it much mind.
Three, four --
"Any chance you'd just bolt through those doors and never come back?" Lorne said. "Because you did a pretty good impression of it last time."
Five, six --
"I never ran away," Angel said. "And I'm not running away now."
"Lorne!" That voice -- her voice --
Angel saw her coming in from the courtyard, older, more beautiful, angry as hell. "I thought I said never to --"
She saw him, stopped in her tracks, stared at him as her face went pale.
Angel lifted his chin. "Hello, Cordelia."
Chapter Four: "You Must Remember This"
Cordelia had imagined this moment a thousand times in the past four years. In some of her fantasized meetings, she was imperious and cool; in others, she broke down in tears. Sometimes she was in the arms of her beloved -- who never had a name or a face, but was possessed of many vague-yet-sterling qualities. Sometimes Angel had aged poorly in his years of humanity, and was wearing coke-bottle glasses and a comb-over, albeit a heavily gelled one. There were a few variants of the fantasy that involved weapons.
None of them had anything to do with her being tipsy and tired and coming down from a vision. Or with Angel looking even better than he ever had as a vampire. Or with Buffy walking toward the two of them through the decadent fray, clothed in white, pale hair like a halo, untouched by it all. "Cordy," Buffy said. The smile on her face was genuine, and she held out her hands to grasp Cordelia's. "Angel's friends made it through the Venareth a lot better than mine did. No, don't look like that -- I'm happy for all of you. I'm glad you're okay."
"And you," Cordelia managed to say. And it was true, wasn't it? "I've heard rumors about what you were up to. Kicking ass, taking names, like always. That vamp hideout in the north --"
Buffy lifted her chin and smiled. "Ass was kicked," she admitted. "Names were taken." She looked over at Angel then, all lit up, the way she always had been when she looked at Angel back in high school. Cordelia used to laugh about it, then. "You were going to introduce me."
Angel found his tongue. "Right. Buffy, this is Lorne. Lorne, this is Buffy."
"Pleasure to know you, chica," Lorne said. "Anybody who's smacking the bad guys around is okay in my book. And trust me, my Book Of The Okay is a lot shorter than it used to be. You should be proud to be included."
"I am," Buffy said. She grinned at him, and he smiled back at her, and Cordelia was terrified that Lorne might just ask Buffy to sing right there.
Lilah sauntered up and smiled at Lorne. "Do I get a footnote?"
Lorne rolled his eyes. "If you'll excuse me, I'm sure there's some woodwork that needs polishing."
He wandered off, and for a moment Cordelia envied him the ability to do so. Lilah was looking at her very closely, through half-lidded eyes that, Cordelia had learned, took in far more than you might first expect. And Angel was there, he was RIGHT THERE, and they weren't talking to each other, weren't looking at each other, and Buffy was taking his arm --
"I just wanted to remind you two," Lilah said to Buffy and Angel. "Wolfram and Hart, tomorrow, say, 11 a.m.? I know that unpleasant errands sometimes slip people's minds --"
"I'm not likely to forget about Wolfram and Hart," Angel said.
"What's happening at Wolfram and Hart?" Cordelia blurted out, well- aware that it was none of her business, and even more aware that Lilah knew this.
After a moment's pause, Lilah said, "Routine questions, Cordelia. The firm doesn't look very kindly on people in Buffy and Angel's line of work. As I think you remember."
Cordelia straightened up. "It's all about balance, right, Lilah? Even you guys need Buffy and Angel. You need the side of good." She managed to look squarely at Buffy, to give her her due. "We all do."
"We like the side of good to be fairly weak," Lilah confided. "And you two are just Energizer Bunnies of do-gooding, aren't you? You keep going and going and going --"
"As a matter of fact, we were going," Buffy said, clearly ready to be out of Lilah's sight. "Cordelia, where do you live?"
"Here," Cordelia said. "I live here." Angel reacted to that; she knew what he wanted to ask, knew he wouldn't ask. And he didn't.
"Well, great," Buffy said. "We'll come see you again tomorrow night. Maybe we can talk about old times."
And wouldn't that just be the most fun ever? "Yeah," Cordelia said weakly. "Great."
Angel put his arm around Buffy's shoulders to guide her out the door. But he paused and said, "Good night, Cordelia."
"Good night," she echoed.
She watched them go out the door, watched it swing shut behind them. The clock continued to tick away, completely undamaged by four years of non-use. Still perfect, still working, as though it had been preserved for just this moment.
"Touching," Lilah said. "Though I have to say, you and Angel -- you used to be such good friends. I would have expected a hug, at least."
"Your bar tab's running out," Cordelia said curtly. "You might want to head on home."
"My bar tab? You don't even put my drinks on a tab!" Lilah's outrage lasted just a moment, and was quickly replaced by a too-knowing smile. "Have it your way, then. But I'll want some answers tomorrow."
Tomorrow. He would be coming back tomorrow.
The Hyperion's last nightclub guests were shooed out by the serving trolls a little after 1 a.m. This was rather early for them to close, and more than a few of them grumbled. But Cordelia had commanded it, and in the Hyperion, Cordelia's word was law. If she said the guests stayed, they stayed. If she said they went, they went.
And if she told the trolls to bring her a bottle of champagne, and then another, they did it.
Cordelia sat at one table in the darkness of the lobby. Their overnight guests were either asleep or, more likely, busily engaged in the clandestine encounters they'd come here for. They wouldn't be coming downstairs, and so she could sit alone, drink her champagne, and survey her kingdom.
Even the darkness, she could see the Eye. The clock ticked more loudly than she'd realized -- than she'd remembered. She put one hand to her chest, felt her necklace heavy around her neck, like a slave's collar. In contempt, she tugged it off, tipped her glass back to drain it, then poured herself another.
"Getting a little extreme with the bubbly there, boss."
She didn't turn around. "Go home, Lorne."
"First off, I live here, in what has to be this hotel's least elegant suite, even counting the one we set aside for Velga-demon use. Second, I'm not sure you need to be down here on your own, brooding in the dark."
"If I went upstairs, I'd still be on my own. Brooding in the dark."
"This is true. But you wouldn't be running through our entire store of Veuve Cliquot."
Cordelia knew she should smile, say something comforting. But it wasn't in her, not anymore. Not even the pretense. "I always thought if I saw him again, it would be because he came to see me. To apologize, or to -- to -- because he came to see me. Not because he was doing something else. Just passing through."
Lorne rested one hand on her shoulder. "I know it's hard, pumpkin."
She shrugged him off. "Go home, Lorne."
He sighed and turned to go upstairs.
And the clock began to chime --
"The merriest Christmas Eve ever," she had said. And the world had seemed more open and alive than ever before --
December 22, 2003 Wesley folded his arms, looked at them all sternly. "People. Please. Two days from the Venareth, and instead of preparing, you're all --"
"Preparing," Cordelia insisted, tossing another handful of tinsel on the Christmas tree.
"Check it out," Faith said She laughed as Gunn began juggling some of the shiny ball ornaments, then tossed another one toward him. He fielded it deftly, kept juggling.
"Where's your Christmas spirit?" Fred said, hugging Wesley around his waist.
"I am replete with the Christmas spirit," Wesley said dryly. "For instance, I am wearing this ridiculous novelty tie --"
"What's ridiculous about tap-dancing reindeer?" Cordelia said, as though she meant it.
"-- because Fred bought it, and I've done all my gift-wrapping, the same as the rest of you --"
"You're done?" Gunn said, somewhat dismayed, either by Wesley's promptness or the fact that Faith was tossing him two more ornaments at once.
"You've started?" Faith said, shaking her head in amazement as she began looking for more baubles to throw at Gunn.
" -- but -- the Venareth --"
"The Venareth's not a marching-band performance," Angel said. He was sitting on the circular booth in the center of the hotel, attempting to untangle the lights Cordelia wanted on the banister. "It's been prophesied since the eighth century. Thanks to your brilliant translations --" Angel paused as the others applauded, save for Gunn, who was still juggling. "-- we all know where we're supposed to be, and what we're supposed to do. But the outcome's fixed, right?"
"Well, yes," Wesley said. He relaxed slightly, rubbed Fred's arms as she squeezed him more tightly. "I just want to be certain that all goes well."
"We all do," Gunn said, tossing each ornament back at Faith one by one, and grinning as she dived to get them all. "But we know it's gonna happen. And we've been going over our plans for four months now. We are totally, 100-percent Venareth ready. Can't you just take it for the big ol' Christmas present it is?"
"One day early," Cordelia said. She peeked around the side of the tree to see Angel scowling down at the lights; though she kept herself from laughing out loud, she couldn't help grinning. Then, as if he sensed her watching, he looked up and smiled.
The Venareth. The word was even a beautiful word -- like something in one of those Latin texts Wesley and Fred were always poring over. It could be part of a song, a chant, a prayer. But it was better than any of those things -- it was their deliverance. Their victory. Their reward.
Wesley had read them the final prophecy often enough, connected it with the other writings of Anatole and Aberjian, so they knew what was coming. The powers of good were becoming too strong to be denied. They wouldn't be fighting in the shadows any longer. The Powers were going to give her a way to have her Visions without suffering the usual skull-crushing pain, or the weakness that had plagued her more and more as the years went on. And Angel --
Angel would receive his shanshu, and become human.
In short, everything any of them had ever wanted was arriving, and on Christmas Eve. There would be one more battle, one that would require them to split up and face different dangers -- and there was always the risk of any of them dying, if not all. But Cordelia didn't think much of it; they'd done too much for the Powers not to be rewarded now. They'd make it. And the Venareth would come to pass, as long as they were all there to fulfill the prophecy.
She glanced over at Fred and Wesley, who appeared to have forgotten his Venareth worries as Fred drew him near the mistletoe hanging over the counter. Meanwhile, Faith and Gunn were clowning around in a corner; ever since Faith's parole five months before, those two had hit it off fast. Gunn was pretty much the only one Faith had hit it off fast with; though whatever weirdo ex-murderer bond she and Angel shared was still in place, so was Wesley's memory of what she'd done to him. Not to mention Cordelia's memory of what Faith had done to him. (Fred, of course, didn't remember it -- but just the PG-rated version Wesley had shared with her had guaranteed that Faith wasn't one of Fred's favorite people.)
But Gunn believed in taking people at their deeds -- and Cordelia had to admit, Faith seemed to genuinely ready to do the right thing. And she lapped up Gunn's attention as though she'd been thirsty for it for years. It wasn't a romance, Cordelia thought, but it might be something better: a friendship between two people who each needed to start over, who needed to give trust as much as receive it. Of course, the effect on Angel Investigations was roughly the same as having two large, hyperactive Labrador puppies on staff. But they had so much fun together that it was fun just watching them.
Finally she looked back at Angel, who had somehow managed to create a Gordian knot of lights. In just a few days, he would no longer be a vampire. He would be human once more.
What would Angel do then?
To her surprise, and joy, and deep, heartfelt wonder, she thought she knew.
"Cordelia?" Startled from her reverie, she turned to see Wesley at her shoulder. "I wondered -- could I have a word?"
Cordelia glanced around, saw that Fred had commandeered Faith and Gunn to hang the wreath on the door. "Sure thing. What's up?"
He took her arm and led her toward his office. "Oh, I only wanted to go over this one bit of the prophecy --"
She snorted as he shut the door behind them. "God, Wesley, it is SO past time to lighten up already."
"I don't want to talk about the prophecy," Wesley said. "I wanted to talk about -- well -- my present for Fred."
"You said you were done wrapping!"
"I lied. I have this one gift left." And Wesley pulled out a small black-velvet box.
Cordelia gasped, then took it and pried it open. She squealed with delight as she saw the engagement ring sparkling inside. "Oh, my God! Wesley, this is beautiful!"
He took it back and stared at it as if doubting her words. "And you think she'll say yes?"
"Oh, how do you know what I think?" Cordelia teased him.
"Because you're hopping up and down and making silly little flappy hands," Wesley said. "Which means -- I hope it means -- you think she'll say yes?"
Cordelia forced herself to calm down and put her hands on either side of his face. "She's gonna say yes. And smooch you on the mouth, and be Mrs. Wyndham-Price. Or would you be, I don't know, Burkle-Price? Wyndham-Burkle?"
Wesley looked doubtful for a moment. "I hadn't considered -- do you think she'll want to --"
"Oh, relax already. You can be Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head for all it matters. Wesley, I'm so happy for you. For both of you."
He smiled down at her, and for a moment she saw how hard his natural reserve was warring with his happiness. And she thought back to a hundred occasions when she and Wesley had shared confidences, most all of them tragic -- high time they had some joy, she thought. Wesley, and Fred, and me too, dammit.
She hugged him tightly around the waist, and he returned the embrace. "Thank you, Cordelia. For everything."
"Right back atcha," Cordelia said. "I just want you two to be happy. And no bridesmaid's dresses in yellow, okay? Washes me out."
He laughed. "I hope we will be happy. And you, too -- I mean, you and Angel --"
Cordelia started, then leaned back from him. She felt like she ought to be denying what Wesley'd said with all of her might; after all, she and Angel weren't dating. They'd never even kissed. Never so much as said anything that would suggest that the two of them were anything but the closest of friends.
But with Wesley smiling knowingly, and her own suspicions and hopes so close to the surface, this close to the Venareth -- well, it was hard to deny.
During their four and a half years in Los Angeles, her relationship with Angel had traveled down a hundred different paths, almost all of them unexpected. They'd been friends. They'd been enemies. They'd gone months without speaking, either out of anger or, sometimes, simply from being caught up in other quests, other people. Sometimes she'd been so crushed out on him that she got swoony just smelling his leather coat, and he'd been oblivious. Other times, he'd been following her around, obviously adoring, and she'd felt nothing but awkwardness and a hope that he'd get over it, and soon.
The last few months, though, the admiration was undeniably mutual. And with his shanshu fast approaching, for the first time, Cordelia felt like they might be able to do something about it. Maybe Angel felt the same way. After all, he came to her house most evenings, when she didn't hang out at the Hyperion; they didn't do anything special, really, just rented movies or listened to music or talked about anything in the world. Then again, maybe for Angel, that was special -- just being able to be a guy, with a girl. They made up all kinds of stupid excuses to drop by and see each other, found different ways of touching each other that didn't actually constitute making a move. (She'd rest her feet in his lap as they watched television, or sometimes her head. He'd always guide her through doorways, letting his hand linger on her shoulder or her back.) But they'd never actually discussed the future, at least not their future -- at least, she thought, not directly --
A week ago, she'd dragged him to the mall for some Christmas shopping. They'd had a great evening, ducking in and out of shops, watching children visiting Santa, taking each other's hands to draw each other into displays that looked interesting. Cordelia had enjoyed herself thoroughly; as far as she was concerned, flirting plus shopping equaled a good night.
Finally, they'd gone into a furniture store; Gunn was still using folding chairs around his kitchen table, a state of affairs Cordelia intended to rectify one chair at a time. And that was when she'd seen it -- a grandfather clock. Not just any grandfather clock, either -- one with wood darker than dark, with silvery, filigreed hands, with numbers in the same curliecued font she remembered from childhood.
"Angel, this is it. The grandfather clock that used to be in the hall outside my bedroom when I was little. I mean, this is IT. Or so close I can't even tell the difference."
"It's beautiful." Hand on her shoulder. "You want it, don't you?"
"Oh, yeah," she had breathed. She'd fallen asleep to the clock's ticking every night of her childhood, until the IRS hauled it off like so much junk. It was only one of the many things she'd lost, back then, and probably one of the least -- but it was amazing how much she'd missed that comforting sound as she lay in bed at night. How she still missed it, sometimes. Cordelia had picked up the price tag and frowned. "It's a lot."
Angel had looked at it too, then said, "Yeah, it is. But --"
"Cordy -- I couldn't buy the whole clock for you for Christmas, but maybe we could, you know, split it."
"You mean, buy it together?"
Cordelia couldn't immediately think of a reason why not, except that men and women who bought furniture together were usually, well, married. And bringing that up hadn't seemed at all the thing to do. And besides -- "Angel, I'd love it."
He had smiled at her as he gestured to the salesman. "You know, we could put it against the wall near the kitchen. You think Dennis would mind?"
And that was the moment that sealed it for her -- because she had realized, in that instant, that Angel wasn't just trying to decorate her house. He was imagining living there.
Of course, it was kinda nervy to start planning such a thing without even asking her, not to mention without giving her some serious smooching action, but Cordelia had found she didn't care at all. "It's gonna look great," she'd said, leaning against him.
"Coming back from dreamland anytime soon?" Wesley said.
Cordelia realized she'd completely fugued out in front of Wesley. And realized something else -- "Oh, God, Wes, I'm sorry. I just remembered something."
Wesley cocked his eyebrow, but she ignored him and leaned out of the office door. "Angel! They're delivering the clock in, like, 30 minutes!" As Angel set aside the impossible tangle of lights, she looked back at Wesley. "If you tease me, I'm totally going out there and telling Fred you bought her a Crockpot."
"Don't you dare." Wesley hugged her again. "Have fun feathering the nest."
They put the clock against the wall near the kitchen, brought up the weights to wind it up, set the pendulum in motion. Cordelia even ran into her bedroom to see if she could hear the ticking from her bed, and she could. Dennis either approved or had no opinion; he was unusually quiet that evening, doing no more than lighting some cinnamon-scented candles, perhaps to celebrate the season in his own way. For their part, she and Angel alternately wrapped presents and discussed Venareth plans.
"I just think Faith and I are not the ideal team," Cordelia said. "I mean, don't get me wrong, she's backup with bite. But I'm convinced we're gonna kill each other on the drive back from the canyon."
"You two have been left alone before," Angel said, but he looked worried.
Cordelia shrugged; compared to everything else that was going on, the annoyance of a long car trip with Faith was minor. "Okay, but if only one of us comes back alive, you have only yourselves to blame." She carefully measured out the ribbon to go around the books she'd bought for Wesley, than asked, hoping she sounded casual, "You guys all set up in Sunnydale?"
Angel didn't react. "We're going to meet up at the Magic Box, make our move to the Hellmouth during the eclipse. Buffy and Xander and I went through it pretty thoroughly last month."
Buffy and Xander. Now, that was a pair Cordelia was still having trouble wrapping her mind around. But they'd hooked up about eight months before; when Angel had found out about it, instead of being crushed (that Riley guy) or aghast (Spike, for God's sake), he'd been perfectly calm. Though there was still no love lost between Angel and Xander, Cordelia knew Angel respected Xander's courage, his loyalty to Buffy. And now, apparently, Xander's love for her.
Cordelia knew, without asking, that Angel would not go to Buffy after his shanshu. But she didn't know if that was because he honestly didn't want to anymore -- or if it was just because he wouldn't interfere with her relationship with Xander.
As the clock tick-tocked comfortingly nearby, Cordelia asked herself: Does it matter? If he's coming home to me, what does it matter, what would have happened if only?
It did matter, of course, and she was dying to ask Angel about it. But, Cordelia figured, maybe she should wait to ask where she stood, vis-a-vis Angel's eternal love for Buffy, until after they'd actually been on a date or something.
Still, though, it was making her crazy, not knowing --
Angel was staring at Gunn's new chair and shaking his head. "There's really not any way to wrap a chair and not give away the surprise."
"No, guess not," Cordelia said. "Angel?"
"--- are you excited about being human?"
"Of course." Angel looked at her curiously. "We've talked about this."
"Not really. I mean, we have -- but mostly we joked about it. You know, plaid shirts, hamburgers, Venice Beach, ha ha. But I mean really. Down deep. What are you thinking about?"
Angel was quiet for a few moments, considering. Finally he said, slowly, "Starting over. Living life like a normal man, with a job and a home and -- and a family, and no vampires or ghouls or demons to deal with. Knowing what it's like just to live in this world. And not taking it for granted this time."
Cordelia nodded. Well, that was thoughtful and heartfelt and totally not specific enough, dammit. She started measuring out the paper to fit around the new running shoes for Faith. "Angel?"
"-- when you say starting over, what does that mean to you?"
Angel finished tying the ribbon around Gunn's chair -- not particularly well, either, but dainty bows weren't exactly his specialty. "Not letting my life be run by the past. I mean, I don't want to forget it -- any of it, even the worst. But I figure the Powers mean for this to be a gift. Not just, you know, a shorter time for me to brood."
Cordelia managed to smile and nod; really, she should have asked some of these questions when she was in a state of mind to hear the answers. "That's great," she said, knowing it was a little lame. But Angel didn't seem to mind. He just smiled and handed her the scotch tape.
Oh, yeah, she thought, and taped the edges of the paper around the shoebox. As she looked for a name tag, she said, "Angel?"
Then, just because she couldn't think of anything else to ask, "--- why don't you kiss me?"
She'd said it. She actually said it aloud, put it out there, where he could look horrified or laugh or deny it all. The spell was broken, and from here on out, she was gonna have to stop dreaming and deal with reality --
-- whatever reality was --
Cordelia managed to look up and meet Angel's eyes. He was staring at her, surprised, but not shocked. He seemed to be thinking his answer over very carefully. Her heart was pounding wildly in her chest, but she forced herself to take a deep breath.
Finally, Angel said, "Because I don't want to start until I know I don't have to stop."
"Ohh," Cordelia said, sighing softly. Her entire body seemed to be melting, in the best possible way, and Angel was smiling at her a little. "Good answer."
Angel took the shoebox from her, then clasped one of her hands in his. His hands were so large and strong and cool; she twined her fingers with his, and for a long moment they both just stared down at their hands, touching for what seemed like the very first time.
"I didn't want to say anything," Cordelia whispered. "It was like I'd jinx it, you know? If I admitted it was really happening."
"I know. It was the same for me." She thought she'd seen every expression Angel had, but nothing like the way he was looking at her now -- desire and happiness and hard-fought restraint. But they didn't have to restrain themselves, not any longer, and surely any moment now they were going to be caught up in the most amazing kiss of all time --
Only they weren't. Instead, Angel looked away and shook his head. "Cordelia, we can't. I mean -- it's two days to Venareth. This would be a bad time for Angelus to go free, don't you think?"
His light tone didn't fool her; she could hear in his voice all the impatience, all the desire, that was beating throughout her body. She wanted to protest that stopping after a kiss would be safe, but then she tried to imagine stopping after that kiss. She couldn't. "Okay, good point. Thank God this shanshu is gonna be here soon, before I spontaneously combust or something."
Angel laughed, and she smiled, and all the tension and eagerness settled just the tiniest bit -- like champagne that had stopped foaming over, but still fizzled and bubbled in the glass. "We can wait two more days," he said. "Tonight can just be -- tonight."
They sank back into the sofa, curled around each other, still holding hands as though they'd been bound together, and began talking the happy, disjointed, understandable-only-by-two language of new lovers - - confessing moments of attraction, describing physical beauty, making jokes. Their conversation followed no logic, no pattern, and Cordelia didn't need for it to; it was enough that they were there, together at last. Sometimes -- when Angel smiled a slow, lazy smile at her, or when he traced along her hairline with one fingertip -- it felt more like afterglow than anticipation.
When the clock struck eleven, they were laughing.
"Nobody's ever known me like you do," Cordelia said. "That is, and known me and still liked me. Which is the miracle part."
Angel smiled and pulled her hand to his chest. "I could say the same," he said. "Sometimes I feel like you're the only who's ever seen me just for myself. Not a vampire or a warrior or a villain or a hero or anything like that. Just the man. I used to think there wasn't anything in that man worth caring about. But if you see that -- you see that, and you still want me -- well, I must have been wrong."
"Angel admitted he was wrong," Cordelia said, her lips quirking in a grin she couldn't quite suppress. "God, where is a tape recorder when you need one?"
"I've admitted I was wrong before," Angel insisted, his face so stern that Cordelia thought her teasing might have made him mad -- until he held up three fingers. "At least three times."
When the clock struck twelve, they were planning.
"Cordy, if this is what you were asking -- when I think about starting over, I think about starting over with you. I mean, really starting a life together. If that's what you'd want."
"Oh, yeah," she said, breathing out softly. "I want."
"I realize we're starting something new here, but - well, we'd talked about selling the hotel before --"
"Yes, you can move in," Cordelia said. "Just try to leave, once you get here."
"We could get a nice price. I mean, technically, you could --" To better disguise Angel's lack of legal identity, Cordelia had legally assumed ownership of the Hyperion a year before. "-- and that would make a nice nest egg. For the future."
Cordelia remembered a baby boy who had not lived very long, remembered how long it had taken for the dull pain to leave Angel's eyes. She'd thought, back then, that he would never have the will to have children ever again, shanshu or not. But looking at him now, she knew what "future" truly meant. "You really mean it. You're ready to live your whole life, right now."
Angel nodded. "I don't want to rush you --"
"We met, what, seven years ago? If this is your definition of rushing me, thank God you didn't take your time."
"I'll take my time," Angel said slowly, and Cordelia was suddenly quite sure that he had switched subjects slightly. She felt herself flush with warmth again, caressed his hand.
When the clock struck one, they were confessing.
"I don't know what I'd be without you in my life," Cordelia said softly. "Everything that's happened to me these last few years -- none of it could have happened without you."
Angel couldn't meet her eyes for a moment. "That includes a lot of terrible things."
"But more good," she insisted. "And I wouldn't trade any of the bad if it meant missing the good. Especially if it meant missing you. I wouldn't change anything."
He ran his hand through her hair. "I'm so glad that I have you. That I love you."
He said it. He said the word, the L-word. The Buffy-only word, except it wasn't Buffy-only anymore, was it? He loved her, he really loved her, and this was all really happening -- "I love you, too," she whispered at last.
For one second, she was sure their resolve not to kiss one another would break; Angel grasped her hand so tightly it almost hurt, and they each leaned forward, and she knew he could feel her breath on his skin. Then he said, "Cordelia -- we could --"
"No," she whispered, pulling him down into the sofa cushions to snuggle by her side. "No, we'll wait. I kind of like the waiting."
They stayed like that for a long time, not looking at each other but at their hands as they touched -- brushing fingertips against wrists, placing their hands palm to palm, massaging the fingers and the deep muscles of the thumb. His skin warmed slightly from her touch, and she realized that this is how he would feel in a couple of days, when they could touch each other without fear of a curse, without any need for stopping.
Finally, Angel said quietly, "I should go."
"I know it," Cordelia said with a sigh. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."
Without letting go of her hand, Angel rose from the sofa, pulling her with him. Together they went to the door, none too quickly. Cordelia wished idly that she could somehow take this night and store it up, stay in it forever. But that would put off the future forever, and Cordelia was more eager than ever for that future to get here.
As Dennis slowly swung the door open, Angel said, "I guess we won't be alone again until after the Venareth."
"When we all meet up at the hotel for the merriest Christmas Eve ever," Cordelia said. She smiled up at him; in the soft light of the candles, with his eyes bright with happiness and desire, Angel looked more boyish than any 240-year-old vampire should have the right to. "We'll unwrap our presents, and we'll congratulate each other on ridding the world from evil, and we'll do more hugging than any fully- grown people should do. And then you and I will come back here and -- and we'll spend Christmas together. Just the two of us."
"That would be wonderful." Angel lifted her hand to his mouth and slowly kissed each fingertip in turn. And just the feeling of his lips on her skin -- Oh, Cordelia thought, when we get into bed, God help me. Finally, reluctantly, he let her hand drop. "Good night, Cordy," he whispered.
"Good night, Angel." He backed away from her into the night, still smiling as she closed the door.
Cordelia sank against the door and slid down until she was sitting on the floor. "Did you hear that, Dennis? You're gonna have another roommate. Good with that?
Dennis floated the bag of Christmas bows over her, then shook them out so they fell like so much confetti -- then swooped and spun through the air, metallic stars in her own private sky. Cordelia laughed as she got to her feet. "You sure know how to celebrate."
The clock struck two, and Cordelia thought chimes had never sounded so beautiful. She looked at the silvery filigreed hands, and she imagined that the clock was just counting down the hours and minutes and seconds until Angel would come back, human and happy and ready to be her lover, her love, forever. She laughed from pure joy and flung her hands out; to her surprise, Dennis "took" them and spun her around in gentle circles.
Not caring how bad her voice was, Cordy started singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as she and Dennis danced amid the twirling ribbons in the candlelight. And though she'd lived in her apartment for more than four years, never before had it felt so much like home.
Cordelia screamed and swerved as a pillar of fire collapsed in front of the car. "Faith!" she cried, trying to look in the backseat and keep her eyes on the road at the same time. "Faith, can you still hear me? Can you talk? Faith!"
No response, damn, damn, damn.
In the canyon, the place Cordelia had expected to stand in the eclipse and be delivered from her Visions, they had instead been set upon by too many demons to resist. Cordelia had managed to get back to the car without getting wounded -- because Faith had fought them for her, had taken a blow meant for her that drove claws deep into Faith's gut. She'd been able to swear vehemently when they got into the car, had been able to answer Cordelia until only a few minutes ago. But now she was quiet, except for her ragged breathing.
A Cuzfau beast leaped in front of the car, and Cordelia screamed and swerved yet again. All around her, the world was going mad. Large sections of the city seemed to be ablaze. People were rioting, shrieking, running madly from this creature or that. And, in denial of all the laws of astrophysics, the eclipse hadn't yet ended -- in the hours of darkness, vampires were seizing their chance, running through the streets.
There were too many to even think of fighting them herself. She had to get to safety, had to take care of Faith -- Wesley had worked up a healing potion just in case, she just needed a safe place for the ritual --
As it turned out, the roads leading to her apartment complex were relatively clear. Cordelia slammed the pedal down -- odds were the cops weren't spending a lot of time on speeders today.
What happened? she thought through the haze of panic. This isn't the prophecy. What happened?
Finally, she screeched to a halt in the parking lot, got out, pulled open the passenger-side door -- and gasped. Faith was lying in a pool of her own blood, far too much blood for anyone to lose and live.
Faith opened her eyes and looked up at Cordy. So faintly that Cordelia could barely hear, she rasped out, "Gunn?"
"He's not here," Cordelia said, kneeling by Faith's head. "I know he's coming --"
Faith didn't seem to hear her. "Tell Angel -- " She gasped in one more breath, then whispered, "-- tell Angel -- thank you --"
Faith's head lolled to one side; her eyes dimmed. And Cordelia began to sob, knowing that she'd just watched Faith die.
She managed to pick up Faith's body -- a limp, dead body was so heavy -- and bring her to the door. Dennis didn't open it, but she managed to get it herself. "Dennis," she gasped as she staggered in the door. "Help me --"
No response. Cordelia laid Faith on the sofa, looked stupidly at her answering machine to see if anybody had left a message that might explain this. Nobody had. She grabbed up the phone and clicked "talk" -- but there was no dial tone. She'd already discovered, in the car, that her cell phone was useless too.
And without any word, any friend, any idea of what was going on, Cordelia just shut and locked the door.
"Very wise." Cordelia jumped and spun around; in the center of the room stood a man, perhaps in his late fifties, smiling at her in a maddeningly paternal manner. "Think of your safety first, Miss Chase. In the long run, it pays off."
"Who the hell are you?" Cordelia went for the taser at her belt.
"No weapons are necessary," he said, walking toward her -- and through the sofa. "More to the point, they're not very useful against the dead."
"I know some vampires that would argue with you," she said desperately. "What have you done with Dennis?"
"Nothing at all," he said. "In case you hadn't noticed, Miss Chase, a lot of exceptional events are occurring today -- including the Escape of the Spirits. Dennis has finally, as we say in the business, Gone Into The Light. Believe me, he's better off there than sticking around here. Because things around here are changing rather dramatically for the worse. And that much I suspect you did notice."
"How come you didn't escape? Because I definitely think you need to be moving on to the other side." Cordelia's hand was clamped around her taser so tightly her bones hurt.
"I'm held here, Miss Chase, by contract. I still have some work to do for my employers, Wolfram and Hart. My name is Holland Manners; Angel might have mentioned me. Then again, he might not have." The ghost's - - Holland's -- eyes glittered at her strangely in the gloom. "And my final task today brings me to you."
"Wolfram and Hart," she whispered. "Of course. Of course. They messed it up -- what did they do? How did they stop the Venareth?"
"Miss Chase, this is the Venareth." As she stared at him, disbelieving, he smiled at her. "People can be so gullible, sometimes. So quick to believe what they want to believe. Think about the prophecy for a moment. The forces of good DID become too strong to be denied. Too strong for the balance between good and evil to stand. So the balance -- has been reset."
"But -- but -- the shadow battle is over --" Cordelia parroted, unwilling to believe what Holland was saying.
"Oh, yes, that's very true," Holland said, nodding. "The forces of good will be doing more fighting than ever, I expect. But from now on, the battle's going to be far too large to be fought only in the shadows."
"You mean -- we fought all these years -- we did what the Powers wanted, and we worked, and we suffered, and some of us died -- and the whole city is being punished because of it?"
"More to the point, because you were so good at it." Holland cocked his head as he looked at her. "You upset the balance. You, and your friends, and our mutual acquaintance Angel. The whole city has you to thank. Actually, the whole world. I don't guess any of the major networks are capable of broadcasting right now, but as you'll soon discover, the Venareth didn't just happen to Southern California."
"This can't be real," Cordelia said, putting a shaking hand to her temple. "This just can't be real."
Holland clucked his tongue. "I hope you're not a betting woman."
Someone knocked on the door, and Cordelia jumped. Angel! her mind said, and she ran to the door -- but even as she put her hand on the knob, she realized, today of all days, she'd better check. "Who is it?"
"It's Sonny and Cher! Who else would you expect?" Lorne's voice came through the door. "Let me in now before this Hrunta demon notices me, will you?"
Cordelia quickly fumbled with the lock, let Lorne slide in. He looked at Faith and closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and saw the ghost. "Oh, you must be Dennis --"
"Not quite," Holland said. "Why don't you two finish up your business?"
"Do you know what's happening?" Cordelia said, clutching at Lorne's suit jacket.
He shook his head. "The world went crazy. I think any more details are going to be largely beside the point. But I do have this." Lorne held up a folded square of white paper. "Someone from Sunnydale dropped it off -- Oz, was that the name? Quiet type."
Cordelia saw her name on the note, recognized Angel's handwriting. "Gimme." She unfolded it and read:
I'm alive. Nothing else is like we thought.
Xander is dead. Buffy's hurt, and she's hurting, and she needs me here.
And that was it.
No "I'm sorry," no "I really did care about you," no "I need some time to think about this." Xander was dead, and Buffy needed Angel, and Angel wasn't coming back, and tomorrow would be Christmas Day.
Cordelia's eyes blurred with tears as she crumpled the note in her fists. Lorne and Holland were each staring at her -- Lorne in sympathy, Holland with a nauseating satisfaction.
She'd dared to hope, dared to fight, dared to become so much more than she had ever been before. And she'd been wrong about her cause, wrong about her love. Could everything she'd struggled to build these past four and a half years have been a lie?
Cordelia thrust the note back at Lorne, who discreetly set about reading it. She turned back to Holland. "I want you out," she choked. "I don't want to have anything to do with Wolfram and Hart ever again."
"We're almost there," Holland said. "If you'll excuse us, sir?"
Lorne turned toward the door; from the parking lot came the sound of a roar and a crash. He looked back at Cordelia, who waved him into her bedroom before turning back to Holland. "What?"
"Surely you haven't forgotten the full prophecy so soon? We still have to settle the matter of your Visions. You can keep them as they are -- painful and difficult and, eventually, fatal -- or you can experience them without any pain or harm whatsoever. The only price is that you make these Visions available to all -- good and bad alike. Balance, Miss Chase. That's what the Venareth's all about."
One day before, she would have sworn at him. Found the ingredients for an exorcism (she kept them handy), performed the spell, kicked his undead ass out of there. Told Wolfram and Hart what they could do with their balances.
But now that she knew what the Powers really were -- what a terrible, ghastly trick they'd played on her and on everyone -- what was the point of suffering for them?
She remembered the time the Visions had actually burned her, seared the skin from her body, and she had despaired of living to see the winter. She remembered Angel grabbing her up in his arms as they fled Russell Winters' mansion, the way his body shook when he took the bullets meant for her. She remembered Xander Harris giving her a heart-shaped pendant and looking up at her with all the hope a 17- year-old's eyes could hold.
Something inside Cordelia seemed to harden over, go cold. She looked down at the sofa where she and Angel had held hands and talked about the future, saw Faith's corpse dark with blood.
"Do it," she'd said.
Holland Manners snapped his fingers, and in his other hand appeared a jewel that glittered and caught the light. "I'll leave you with this in just a moment," he said. "We just have a few rules to go over first --"
Inside the Hyperion, Cordelia forced herself to take yet another swallow of champagne. She stared at the Eye for a moment. What a lie, she thought. I live in a world made of lies.
What else is new?
As she tried to push herself to her feet, the door swung open. "We're closed," she slurred.
Startled, she peered into the gloom -- Angel was walking toward her, rumpled, as though he'd left Buffy's bed to sneak out to see her. The thought of that -- Angel in Buffy's bed -- turned her stomach, and she sneered, "What's the matter? Nice 'n' Easy won't let you off your leash to talk to me, so you have to slip out while she's sleeping?"
Angel stared at her. "Cordelia -- we have to talk. I'm not angry anymore. I just want to understand why."
"Why? Good question, that one. Why." Cordelia saw him taking in her drunkenness, tried to toss her head as if she didn't care. The room spun unpleasantly. "Why does a man say he loves you when you're really only second-best? When he's only interested in the one that got away?"
"That's not true," Angel said. "You know that's not true --"
"I don't know anything except money in the safe, champagne in the cellar and a place where people will leave me the hell alone. Speaking of which, why don't you leave me the hell alone? Go off to your big hopeless quest, sacrifice yourself like the fool you are. You talked a nice game about wanting a normal life, about wanting somebody to see you for who you really are. But let's face it. In your heart of hearts, you're glad about all this, aren't you? Because you're finally invisible again. You've finally got a fight so big it can swallow you right up."
Angel's face went blank, then iced over in the chill she remembered so well -- better, sometimes, than his smile. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry? Sorry for what?" she laughed. But something in her wanted to hear the answer.
"I'm sorry for the woman you've become."
Cordelia drew her head back as though she'd been struck. The room spun again, and she whispered, "Well, I'm sorry for the man you never got to be."
And that hurt him -- she could see the flash of pain in his eyes. She'd been hoping to hurt him. It was less satisfying than she would have thought..
Quietly, Angel said, "Good night, Cordelia."
She was able to hold back the tears until after he'd slammed the door shut behind him.
Chapter Five: "A Case Of Do Or Die"
"She's got it," Lindsey said, watching Lilah's reaction carefully.
Lilah laughed and shook her head, as though she could barely be bothered to respond to such a comment. "She hasn't got it. If she had it, she'd have gotten rid of it as fast as she could."
"That's what I'm wondering," Lindsey said. "Would Cordelia get rid of the Deburchan dagger right away? Give it to Buffy and Angel, to help them?"
"Doubt it," Lilah said. "You missed Angel and Cordy's big reunion last night."
Lindsey raised an eyebrow. "Not friendly."
"I had the icy-cold sensation of biting into a York peppermint patty," Lilah said dryly.
"Still, those two -- they had their fallings-out before. Never stopped her from joining the fight," Lindsey said.
"First off, I think four years of total bitter silence constitutes more than a falling-out," Lilah said. "Second, what do you even care? If Cordelia gave them the dagger, it wouldn't do them any good. Remember the big de-enchantment ritual?"
"Of course. But we need Buffy and Angel to be desperate for a bit. We need to find out just what they'll do. Just who they'll go to. If they get the dagger, they run to Sunnydale, try their big routine, and fail. Which has a certain ring to it, but doesn't tell us nearly as much." Lindsey sipped his black coffee for a moment before continuing, as casually as he could, "Then again, I guess if Cordelia had been warned about the dagger, she wouldn't bother giving it to them."
Lilah's back stiffened -- almost imperceptibly. But Lindsey hadn't survived several years at Wolfram and Hart without learning to read such signs.
Lilah had warned Cordelia. Interesting. Might make a difference in how he dealt with Lilah, in the near future.
Before she had time to recover, Lindsey followed it up, "Unless, of course, she really wanted to help them. In that case, she could give them the Eye."
"The Eye?" Lilah was looking at him in honest amazement and contempt now. "Cordelia give up the Eye? It'd be a cold day in hell."
"I hear the weather down there is more unpredictable than you'd expect," Lindsey said.
"Listen, hang around here a little longer and you'll see -- there is no way Cordelia would put herself on the line like that. If she gives up the Eye, she's giving up the visions. And the Powers -- well, nobody knows what they'd do, but everybody knows they wouldn't like it. At all. Cordelia would never risk that. And to help Angel run off with another woman? Not a chance."
We shall see, Lindsey thought.
The day was unexpectedly bright and sunny, like Southern California used to be more often, Fred thought. Taking advantage of the good weather -- and the lack of vampires -- even more people thronged the streets than usual.
She'd hoped the sunshine might do Wesley some good, but the difficulty of their trip -- fighting through crowds, the unaccustomed heat -- seemed to be tiring him all the more. Still, he was determined, and she couldn't blame him.
By the time they'd reached Wolfram and Hart's offices, Wesley's steps were halting, but he was able to speak to the guard in a firm voice. "Gavin Park, please."
"Mr. Park sees clients by appointment only --"
Fred reached in her purse and pulled out a bill that would have fed her and Wesley -- and better than they usually ate -- for weeks. "We're not clients," she said. "We're friends of Mr. Park's." That was probably true, she figured, given that Gavin Park probably had no friends in any sense of the word that didn't involve bribery.
The guard ushered them into a small side room, the sort of place where clients would usually be searched and questioned. The walls were gray, there were no windows, and one sign read, "Breathe deeply and calmly." Fred motioned Wesley toward the one chair, and it was a measure of his exhaustion that he didn't argue before taking it.
He's getting worse, she thought. The weaker he gets, the faster that thing can suck the life out of him. It won't be long before --
She realized some of her fear had to be showing one her face, because Wesley was looking at her, clearly concerned. "I'm antsy," she said, drumming her fingers against her arms as she hugged herself. "Wolfram and Hart makes me antsy."
"Can't say I blame you," Wesley replied.
Gavin Park came in the door, his expression proclaiming the combined pompousness and desperation of a lower-level worker at the firm. "Well, what's this?" Park said. "Hadn't ever expected to see you again after the Solonach ceremony --"
"Spare us the stroll down memory lane," Wesley said, a little too quickly. "We're here to ask about an old associate of mine. Charles Gunn."
"Charles Gunn. Didn't think you two were such close friends anymore."
"We're not," Wesley said. "But we were once. And that's enough for me to find out what's become of him. And -- and to get him out, if possible."
Fred's eyes went wide. She and Wesley had little money and less influence; the only thing Wesley could have to trade was information. And Wesley had given up his life rather than give up information --
She remembered a long-ago Christmas season when Gunn was juggling Christmas ornaments, and put a comforting hand on Wesley's shoulder.
"It's your lucky day," Park grinned. "As it happens, I don't have much use for hanging on to Charles Gunn. And I have a lot of use for something you might know." He leaned forward, and all his pride was gone as he asked, in a desperate whisper, "Where is the Deburchan dagger?"
Wesley stared, and Fred was sure her face looked the same. Of all the things he might have asked, this was the least painful for them to reveal. But --
"We're not certain," Wesley said. "I can only tell you my suspicion." When Park nodded, he said, "I think he must have given it to Cordelia Chase. He would only have taken it to someone he knew very well, and he didn't bring it to us. I know of nobody else to whom he was so close. Had been so close, I mean."
Park pursed his lips, considering that. "Reasonable assumption. It's not information, exactly, but I think it'll do."
"Really?" Fred said. She knew she should feel happy and relieved, but she didn't. "You mean it? You're saying we can take Charles and go?"
Gavin Park smiled. "That's what I'm saying."
The intercom buzzed. "Your 11 a.m. is here."
"Send them in," Lilah said. Lindsey took his seat beside her, at one end of the conference table.
Buffy and Angel came in, looking for all the world like the firm's clients used to in the old days -- nicely dressed, well-coiffed, quiet and intent. The deep, glowing hatred that used to radiate from Angel like waves of heat had either ebbed or become far better concealed; he looked at Lindsey with only the faintest disdain.
"Good morning, you two," Lilah chirped. "Want some coffee? Blood? Oh, wait, that's right -- you're off the liquid diet now." Angel frowned.
"Cut the chit-chat," Buffy said, sitting down at the other end of the conference table as Angel did the same. "I know this district's rules. And you know I haven't broken any of them."
"So far," Lilah said under her breath.
"So what is it you want to know?" Buffy said, as if she hadn't heard.
"Just wanted to talk with you, really," Lindsey said, leaning back in his chair. "You hear a lot about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just about the longest-lived Slayer in history, at this point, I think. Certainly the most effective. You've been up against some heavy batters in your day. The Master. Glorificus. Your significant other's even more significant evil half. And you struck them all out. Like I said last night -- it's impressive."
"If you just wanted an autograph, I would've been happy to sign your cocktail napkin last night."
"Your abilities are extraordinary," Lindsey said. "Even the Underlords admit that. And they wish they had such abilities on their side."
Buffy screwed her mouth up in a poorly stifled grin. "Are you actually deluded enough to ask me to work for them?"
"Not quite that deluded yet, no." Lindsey looked at her for a long moment, then at Angel, before he spoke again. "Slayers work hard. And they die young. Even at age -- what is now, 26? -- you're young to die. And tired of fighting, I imagine. Very, very tired."
Unconsciously, Angel moved a little closer to Buffy. Aha, Lindsey thought, this is where he's weak. Buffy was a little less glib as she said, "That's kind of the deal of being a Slayer. No vacations, no retirement. I know the drill."
"Retirement. Interesting word. What if I told you that the Underlords sent me here to offer you just that?" She didn't immediately react, so Lindsey plowed on. "They have means of transferring your abilities into someone else -- a candidate of our choosing, naturally. The line of Slayers since Faith has still been Watcher-trained, by and large; we'll break that cycle in another couple of years, but in the meantime, it would be nice to have a Slayer on the payroll. You, meanwhile -- you'd be free. A human woman like any other -- and don't knock the transformation. I'm sure Angel there could tell you it's nice. We'll send you both to Australia, put together enough money for you to live reasonably well. It's safe there, you know. You could rest. Live easy. Have children, maybe. Enjoy all the things you can't enjoy here. Lead a normal life."
Buffy and Angel were each quiet for a few moments, and Lindsey had difficulty not letting his surprise show. Surely it wasn't going to be this easy --
Finally, Buffy leaned forward slightly and said, "I'd need more."
His voice almost a whisper, Lindsey said, "What's that?"
"A gold watch. And a farewell luncheon. And, ooh, one of those little engraved plaques." She grinned, and Angel breathed out slowly.
"I see sarcasm is your specialty," Lindsey said. "Never mind. Didn't seriously expect you to take us up on the offer -- but I figured you deserved to hear it."
"You picked the wrong carrot to tie to the stick," Buffy said. "Babies and puppies and white picket fences? Get real. We gave up even wanting a normal life a long time ago."
"Is that so, Angel?" Lindsey said, turning his attention at last to the real subject of his interest.
After a pause so short it was almost unnoticeable, Angel said, "That's right."
I almost believe him, Lindsey thought. "Then I guess our business here is done," he said.
"Not quite," Angel said. "Last night, you arrested Charles Gunn. Can we see him? Talk to him?"
"Looking in on old friends?" Lilah purred. "That's touching. But I'm afraid you're a little late. Charles Gunn was released from custody about an hour ago -- that is, his body was released to some friends."
"His body," Angel said. "Gunn's dead."
"You know Hrunta demons," Lilah said with a shrug. "Overzealous. And sometimes, human life is cheap." She smiled softly up at Angel. "You used to know that."
Once the brutal hangover had dwindled into a dull ache, Cordelia pulled herself together to face the day. She made it a point not to let anything on the inside affect her polish on the outside, and so made up her face with eyeliner and dark lipstick, picked out a black cotton sundress and brushed out her hair so that it fell free. She rarely wore it that way anymore. After a moment's reflection, she put her necklace in a strongbox and decided not to take it out until the evening.
As she came downstairs to see the trolls busily straightening up for the new day, Cordelia heard the clock chime once, marking that it was quarter 'til 12. She remembered last night with fresh pain -- and a different clarity.
"I'm not angry anymore." Last night that had only seemed rich -- how dare Angel, how dare he claim to be angry? He was the one who abandoned her, after all.
But now she realized -- it really didn't make any sense. And Angel, King of Guilt, was unlikely to admit being mad at anybody if he thought he owed them something.
There's something to this I'm not getting, she thought. Something more.
Back in those first terrible days after the Venareth, she'd come up with a hundred explanations, a hundred excuses. Since then, she'd rejected them all as a stupid girl's wishful thinking -- but they floated up to the surface now, demanding reconsideration. Could the note have been a forgery? Lorne had never met Oz, after all; somebody else could have shown up, pretended to be him. Or could Angel have thought better of it when the panic cleared, tried to contact her, been unable to find her? She'd moved out of her apartment pretty quickly afterward; without Dennis, there was no reason to stay.
She'd brought her things -- and the clock, which she now hated but couldn't quite give up -- to the Hyperion. Lorne had needed a place of business, and she had needed a way to make money, so setting up shop here had worked out. Wesley and Fred had still wanted to fight the bad guys; apparently they'd somehow failed to catch on to the fact that the Powers they'd served had just screwed them all over. Gunn got the point, though; from the moment when Cordelia had told him about Faith's death, the way she'd been asking for him even as she bled her last, he hadn't wanted any more to do with the Powers, the good fight, or anything besides his own safety. He'd taken off about the same time Cordelia had finally gotten Wesley and Fred to stop coming around, bothering her. So it had just been her and Lorne - -
Well, that killed the "couldn't find her" theory. If he had seriously been looking for her, he certainly would've known to look in the Hyperion, she told herself as she headed out into the all-too-bright sunshine.
But something was definitely not the way she had thought it was. And Cordelia intended to find out what.
She flagged a taxi to Wolfram and Hart, trying all the while to think of exactly the right excuse to drop by Lilah's office. Maybe something about the damage the Guards caused while arresting Gunn --
When she breezed through the Wolfram and Hart lobby, one man suddenly wheeled around and came to her side. Cordelia saw, to her displeasure, that it was Gavin Park. "Miss Chase. Just the person I hoped to see."
"The feeling's so not mutual," Cordelia said. "What do you want?"
"Heading to Lilah's?" Park said, all consideration. "Come on. We'll take the elevator up together."
"I didn't think they allowed you on those floors anymore," Cordelia said, and had the pleasure of seeing the muscles in his jaw tighten.
As soon as the elevator doors slid shut, Park whispered, "You have the Deburchan dagger. Don't you?"
"Like I'd tell you," Cordelia said, too startled to deny it outright.
"I need to find it," Park said. "I have to be the one who finds it."
"Aren't you the eager beaver? You gonna search me?" Cordelia smirked at him, some calm restored. "Or is that just an excuse?"
He ignored her banter; when he leaned in close, she could see the real desperation in his eyes. "I'm on the way out here. Lilah's been grinding me down, year after year. And Wolfram and Hart -- they don't just fire people. You know that."
"You knew it when you signed up."
Park ignored that, too. "I'll give you a better deal than the firm ever would. No questions asked, no blame. I still have access to some magic, some money. I could get you out of here, you and anybody else you wanted. Give you all the money you'd ever want to take with you. We could grab it, go up to the roof, get you out of here before anybody could stop you."
"And you return the dagger to the firm, get to be the golden boy again?"
"Return it? Are you crazy? Any idea how much power a Deburchan dagger carries? I can do whatever magic I want, go wherever I want after that. That's better than getting in good at the firm again."
Poor bastard, Cordelia thought. So far out of the loop, he doesn't even know the dagger's useless now. "I have nobody to travel with," she shrugged. "And no desire to leave, really."
"There's something you want, Miss Chase," Park said with a snarl. "Let me know what it is. I don't have much power left but - - I might surprise you."
The elevator doors slid open, and Cordelia left Park behind without a second glance. But she could hear that he didn't get off with her -- sure enough, he wasn't allowed on these floors anymore.
She let herself into Lilah's office, saying, as casually as she could manage, "You've got to find goons that do a little less property damage."
"I'll take it under advisement." Cordelia, startled, looked up to see Lindsey staring out the window. He grinned. "Lilah's talking with some of the senior partners. Those seances can last hours. Coffee?"
Cordelia opened her mouth to say no, then felt some of the throbbing in her temples start over again. "Good idea. Make it black."
He handed her a steaming mug, leaned up against Lilah's desk as Cordelia sat on one of the chairs. "Here to talk about Angel and Buffy? See what they were up to?"
"Not hardly. I just want your Guards to pay for some of the damage they did to the Hyperion."
"Ah. I see. Well, you can take that up with Lilah later. I'm glad you stopped by, actually. I was hoping we'd get a chance to chat."
"Hoping we could fondly recall old times? Like that once you had Vocah send horrible visions until I nearly died?"
"I was thinking about the future. Your future. And the Eye."
"The Eye?" Cordelia was honestly surprised. "What about it?"
"As I understand it, the Powers gave it to you to channel your Visions. And you can't get rid of it without facing some serious consequences."
"And this interests you because --?"
"My clients -- the Underlords -- they'd be interested in having those Visions for themselves. And they're equipped to make sure you don't suffer any of the consequences. Not to mention to make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams, safe, et cetera."
Really, Cordelia thought, I am having one hell of a morning. But Lindsey's offer demanded to be taken a lot more seriously. "I thought the Venareth was all about balance."
"Sure it was, for the Powers. But for the Underlords, it's just one more chance to tilt the odds in their favor. The Eye would help with that." He was looking at her very strangely. "I told them I didn't think you'd sell. But you should think it over and let me know. And, by the way, don't mention it to Lilah. Ever."
Cordelia's mind was humming with possibilities when she walked out of Wolfram and Hart; almost on autopilot, she began going toward a bar she knew nearby. Hair of the dog, yadda yadda. And besides, she had a lot to think about.
Gavin Park's offer was barely worth considering -- she had no doubt he could come through, but in order to avoid the wrath of the Powers, she'd have to take her Visions with her, and that meant the normal life he offered was no life at all. Case closed.
Lindsey's offer, though -- that was more tempting. She knew that, deep down, she wanted to really be rid of the Visions -- of the last reminder of the mission she used to have, the life she used to lead.
But that would mean giving the Visions to the Underlords. Actually working for the other side. She had trouble imagining anything that could make that worthwhile --
As she turned the corner nearest the bar, she stopped short -- there, staring into a shop window, was Angel. Right there in the sunshine, light pouring down on him.
Of course, she told herself. He's human now. And she'd seen the sight before -- the Gem of Amarra, Pylea. But it was still surprising, which of course explained why her hands were trembling as she walked to his side. "Angel."
He turned around, surprised in his turn; apparently the vampire hearing had gone with everything else. He did not look happy to see her. "Cordelia."
Unable to think of what else to say, she looked at the window of the store with him. She didn't see what was inside; she couldn't take her eyes off Angel's reflection beside hers in the glass. "Didn't expect to see you out here."
"I don't guess you did." Angel said. After a pause, he continued, "Gunn's dead. Did you know that?"
Charles Gunn dead. And it was a bright, sunshiny day. "No," she whispered. "I didn't know."
"Your good friend Lilah's good friends at Wolfram and Hart killed him in custody."
"She's not my friend," Cordelia said. She looked at him, sucked up her courage and said, "Angel, about last night -- I'm sorry. I'd had too much to drink."
"Would you have heard me out if you'd been sober?" Angel shook his head. "Hearing people out was never one of your strong suits."
"I remember doing it a couple of times," Cordelia said. "Give me another chance, and I might surprise you."
Angel finally met her eyes then, but he still looked distant, a little sad. "I thought about it all morning, and I realized it's no use. What's the point of reopening old wounds?"
"Understanding," she said quietly. "Angel, whatever else we were or weren't, you and I were friends, once upon a time. I don't know what the rest meant, but if our friendship ever mattered to you -- then you'll come. And we'll talk."
"The woman who was my friend -- I wish I could talk to her again. I wish that more than you know," he said. He breathed in sharply, then continued, "But last night I realized she doesn't exist anymore."
Angel turned on his heel and walked into the bar. Cordelia needed a drink worse than ever, but she decided to have one at home.
Angel stepped into the bar, blinked as he got accustomed to the darkness. It still felt strange, to have to get used to darkness.
In a corner booth, Buffy and Anne were still talking. He'd gone outside to keep watch, but it seemed fairly obvious that they weren't being followed, at this point. And he couldn't bear to see Cordelia looking up at him again, questioning --
He slid into the seat beside Buffy; she looked up at him with a smile. "Good news, I think."
"You've found the dagger?"
"No," Anne said. "But we searched his apartment, did some asking around. Pretty much the only person he had the opportunity to give it to was Cordelia Chase."
"And the only other magical thing we can possibly use is that Eye she's got in the hotel lobby. If she won't give up one, I bet we can get the other. Who'da thunk it?" Buffy said with an uneven smile. "Cordelia, our savior."
Angel hesitated, then said, "Are you sure she'll help?"
"Aren't you?" Buffy looked amazed. "Angel, you guys obviously had some kind of falling out. But Cordy -- I mean, she could go off the scale on the Bitchometer, sometimes, but she always ended up doing the right thing in the end."
Anne looked doubtful. Angel wondered if he looked the same way.
Chapter Six: "La Marseillaise"
"And so, she's trying to kick at me, right? But Vic holds her down, and I push her head back, and she's got the longest neck you've ever seen, and I hadn't eaten in about three days -- "
The vamps came through the door, bragging about their hunt, the way they usually did. Cordelia had heard it every night ever since she re- opened the Hyperion for business. Tonight, though, it turned her stomach.
Maybe that was just the hangover. Had to be.
Would Angel be in tonight? Would he have Buffy with him, or would he want to talk to her alone? She'd dressed for the latter contingency -- a white halter dress with a neckline as low as the skirt's slit was high. Put her necklace around her neck. Even pinned a white gardenia behind one ear. Tonight she'd be beating the guys off with a stick (any of the quarterstaffs hanging on the walls would do), and Angel was bound to notice. Whatever else was going on, Cordelia wanted him to notice.
She saw Lilah and Lindsey sweep in through the front door; Lindsey took the best table for himself without checking to see if it was reserved, but Lilah came her way. Cordelia nodded toward the courtyard, and they both strolled outside.
"Lindsey said you came by to see me today," Lilah said. "Nothing major, I hope."
"Just some woodwork I'll have to replace." From the damage when you dragged Gunn off to die. "I'll bill the firm."
"Do that. I'll expense it." Lilah sat on one of the concrete benches in the courtyard; this early in the evening, they had the space to themselves. "What did you want to talk about?"
"Lindsey. How trustworthy is he these days?"
Lilah laughed. "As trustworthy as he ever was. That is to say, not much."
"As opposed to you," Cordelia said dryly.
"I'm completely mercenary," Lilah said. "Which makes me the most trustworthy person of all, these days. You can absolutely rely on me to do whatever it takes to cover my own ass. Lindsey -- who knows what's driving Lindsey, these days?"
"The desire for money and unfathomable power?" Cordelia said.
"Hmmm. Good guess."
"What about me, Lilah? Do you think you could absolutely rely on me?"
Lilah looked up at her. "I guess I trust you about as much as I trust anyone."
"That is to say, not much." Cordelia smiled when she said it, and Lilah returned the smile.
As Angel and Buffy walked into the Hyperion, he forced himself not to look around the room for Cordelia -- only to look down at Buffy, who was nodding as she surveyed the lobby. "Seems like we beat the rush. Doesn't look like many people are here yet -- except some vampires having way too good a time, and our good lawyer buddy over there."
Angel rolled his eyes at the sight of Lindsey downing a martini. "Doesn't look like Cordelia's come downstairs yet either," he said.
"I'll talk to her soon," Buffy said soothingly.
"You want to be the one to talk to her?" Angel tried, without much success, to conceal his surprise.
"You guys are on the outs, right? Better let me have a crack at it first. When are Wesley and Fred getting here?"
"Any second -- wait, there they are." Wesley began walking toward them, but Fred excused herself and walked over to one of the trolls, then headed out to the courtyard.
"What's that about?" Buffy said.
"Could be anything," Angel said.
Wesley made his way to their table, sat down wearily in one of the chairs. "I shan't be able to stay out late tonight," he said tiredly. "Let's do what we came here for."
Angel glanced at Buffy; they'd made the decision earlier to leave Wesley and Fred out of their search for the dagger. Those two had enough trouble.
But Wesley was thinking of something else. "Let's drink a toast to the memory of Charles Gunn."
Fred stood in the courtyard, wearing a dove-gray suit that was a little too big for her and looking about as awkward and out-of-place as she had when she first got back from Pylea. The memory of Fred as she had been then touched Cordelia. Then she was irritated at being touched. "What do you want?"
"I'll leave you two to catch up," Lilah said, with something surprisingly close to tact. As she wandered off, Fred walked up, actually wringing her hands.
"Cordy, I know it's been, like, forever since we talked, and that's the way you want it, and that's okay, really, because people move on. Behavioral studies show that the average length of a friendship is only three years; did you know that? So we were already nearing the statistical --"
"Point, Fred. Is there a point?"
Fred breathed out. "I know you heard about Gunn," she said quietly. "What happened to him -- it's made me do some thinking. I need advice. And you're the person I need advice from."
"Me?" Cordelia, intrigued despite herself, sat down on the concrete bench and motioned for Fred to sit beside her. "Why me?"
"Because you're ruthless." The honesty of it, the truth, hit Cordelia hard. For a moment, she wanted to object. Then she thought, if you can dish it out, you better be ready to take it. Fred watched her reaction, then continued, "You do what it takes to take care of yourself. Wesley thinks that's a bad thing. I don't, I mean, not necessarily. Sometimes you have to look out for yourself. For the people you love."
"When you say, people you love, I know we've stopped talking about me and started talking about you. What's up?"
"I have a decision to make," Fred said. "And it's a tough one." She looked into Cordelia's eyes for a long moment before whispering, "I'm pregnant."
Cordelia laughed before she could help herself. "You and Wesley decided to bring a baby into the world. Into this world. Just great. I guess hope springs eternal -- or Wesley does."
Fred ducked her head. "Please don't make fun."
"I don't mean to -- I mean, I think it's a bad decision. You and Wesley have enough problems as it is. But if that's what you two want --"
"We didn't plan it. It just kinda happened. And Wesley -- I haven't even told Wesley yet."
This surprised Cordelia more than the news of the pregnancy had. "And how exactly did you decide I needed to be the first to know?
"Wesley's dying," Fred said. "You know that. He has maybe another six or eight months left, if the Solonach runs its usual course. He -- he'd never see the baby --"
Cordelia dropped her eyes for a moment. "I'm sorry. I mean it, Fred. I am."
"But -- " Fred wasn't looking at Cordelia anymore; she was staring into a fixed point in the darkness, staring at it intently. "See, you can only get rid of a Solonach one of two ways. Either one of the people who attached it in the first place can remove it --"
"Not real likely, with Wolfram and Hart," Cordelia said.
"Or you can -- the Solonach just needs a life. Doesn't matter how strong or weak. Or how old or young -- just a life. You can attach it to another life." Fred was quiet for a moment longer, then blurted out, "Wesley wouldn't ever have to know. And Baby wouldn't even know to know."
Cordelia watched one of Fred's thin little hands spread over her still-flat belly as she whispered, "Cordy, I know I would've given my life if it would have saved my parents when the Venareth came. And I bet Baby would grow up to feel the same way, right? So if I just -- if I just went on and made that decision for them both -- I could tell Wesley I traded information to get rid of the Solonach, and he'd be so mad, but he'd forgive me sooner or later -- and at least there would be a later -- " Her voice broke off, and she choked back a sob. Then she managed to say, "I could learn to live with it. Couldn't I? I could live with it faster than I could live with letting Wesley die when I could save him. So how do I learn to live with it? Can you tell me how?"
"Fred, I -- Fred -- " For what felt like the first time in her life, Cordelia was utterly speechless. She'd always thought Fred fluttered above reality in a kind of happy intellectual daze; even the worst of their experiences always seemed to slip past her, leave her untouched. Maybe the daze was something she'd adopted to survive in Pylea. Maybe she'd always had it, and that was why she survived Pylea in the first place. But here she was, facing facts, gearing herself up to do something that was clearly going to rip her heart out -- because she couldn't deny the truth about Wesley anymore.
You can't deny it anymore.
"What?" Fred frowned at her, and Cordelia realized she'd spoken out loud. Then she realized something else.
"Fred -- Lilah told me some stuff about the Solonach ceremony. Gavin Park was one of the ones who attached it, right?"
Fred nodded. "But he'd never help us, Cordy --"
"He would if you had something he wanted. If you have the Deburchan dagger."
"You do have it!" When Cordelia glared, Fred shrugged. "That's the word on the street. I didn't believe it, though."
"Good to know. Yeah, I've got it. And I'm giving it to you. You two go there tonight. As fast as you can. Spend whatever you've got on a taxi, because it won't matter. Tell Park I sent you, that you'll only give the dagger to him at the Portal. Make him get rid of the Solonach, give you some money. Then hand it to him about five seconds before you two jump through to Australia. And don't ever even think about coming back."
Fred stared at her open-mouthed, clearly overwhelmed with surprise, joy and relief. Then, just as quickly, her face fell. She took a deep breath and said, "I can't."
"Buffy and Angel need that dagger for something more important than my little problems --"
"The dagger's been unenchanted. It wouldn't do Buffy and Angel a bit of good. But Gavin Park doesn't know that, and you're gonna take him for the ride of his life. Understand me?"
Fred nodded so fast her hair flopped up and down. "What do we do?"
"The dagger's hanging on the wall, near the Frenketh combat axe --"
"Hidden in plain sight!" Fred's face was truly alight now. "Like Edgar Allen Poe! The Purloined Letter!"
"Let's do Honors Lit class some other time, okay? I'll tell Lorne to create a diversion. You know what the dagger looks like? Okay, then. While the diversion's going on, just get it, get Wesley, and get out."
"When?" Fred said breathlessly.
Cordelia shrugged. "No time like the present. Especially since the evening crowd is finally starting to come in."
"What do I tell Wesley?"
"Whatever it takes to get him through that Portal, I guess."
Fred got up and looked at her purse, clearly checking to see if it were big enough for the dagger. Then she looked back up at Cordelia. "I -- I don't guess we'll ever see you again."
"Guess not." Cordelia smoothed her dress, tossed her hair. "I don't think big goodbyes are in order here. Just -- remember me, I guess. I mean --" She paused, trying to think what she did mean. Finally, she said, "I mean, remember me like I used to be."
Unexpectedly, Fred put one hand to Cordelia's cheek. "I'm gonna remember you like you are right now," she said. "Right this minute."
And with that Fred was gone, strolling out into the lobby with what appeared to be nonchalance. Cordelia followed behind; fortunately, Lorne was only a couple steps away. She grabbed his arm and hissed, "Start singing something. LOUD."
"Her name was Lola!" Lorne sang at top volume. "She was a showgirl -- "
Pretty much the entire lobby -- now much more crowded than it had been just ten minutes before -- wheeled around to see just why Lorne had lost his senses and begun belting out "Copacabana." Cordelia glanced around to see if anyone wasn't paying attention --
Lindsey. He hadn't so much as turned around. Instead, he was just sitting there, about five feet away from the dagger, still sipping his damn martini.
Time to test out the halter dress.
Cordelia walked toward him, putting a little of her old swing in her step. And that he did notice; he carefully set his glass down as she came and sat on the edge of his chair. Lindsey shifted slightly, enough to allow her to actually sit by him, though their bodies were pressed rather closely together. "Well, this is a surprise."
"You know what they say is the ultimate aphrodisiac," Cordelia purred.
She laughed a little more than the joke deserved, didn't allow her eyes to flicker back to see how Fred was doing. "Power."
"You expect me to believe that you suddenly find me irresistible," Lindsey said.
"No, not really," Cordelia said, cutting the act by about a third. "But let's face it, Lindsey. You have some serious guns on your side. You say you can get the Powers' hooks out of me. So I'm intrigued. I can't help wondering what else you might do for me. I've had to -- negotiate -- for a lot of favors, these past few years. Usually with men who don't have nearly as much influence. Or who aren't half as hot."
"Mutual use, huh? Well, you're honest; I'll give you that." She saw Lindsey's eyes take in her glossed lips, the curves beneath her deep neckline. "You're also damn sexy. I'll give you that too."
"What else might you give me, Lindsey?" Cordelia traced her fingertip along his jawline.
"That all depends on what you're willing to do."
Great, Cordelia thought. He's a pervert. Well, God knows I've done it all by now. "What do you mean? Be really specific. I want to hear it."
Lindsey leaned in really close, a small smile on his lips. "I want us to go upstairs right now. While Angel's watching."
Cordelia felt her body go numb, turn to ice. Angel. Angel was there, and she hadn't seen him, but he had seen her, could see her right now, hanging all over Lindsey --
"I want us to go upstairs and spend a good hour or so working out our -- arrangement. And then I want to come downstairs with you, with your lipstick gone and your pretty dress rumpled and your hair all over the place. And then I want to see Angel's face. If the expression he's wearing right now is any judge, I'm pretty sure he'll still be down here, waiting." Lindsey put his hand under her chin, held her so that she couldn't look away from his eyes. "Would you like that? Would you like to see what his face looks like then?"
Cordelia took a deep breath as Lindsey nuzzled her neck. That gave her a chance to look over Lindsey's shoulder -- and see that the Deburchan dagger was gone.
She pushed Lindsey's shoulders back, frowned at him. "You know I'm going to say no, don't you?"
"Figured I was pushing my luck," Lindsey said. "But I wanted to see how far you'd go."
"Not quite that far," Cordelia said. "I like my lovers' attention focused on me. Not Angel."
"Too bad. Just when I thought this evening might get interesting." Lindsey put one fingertip to her lips, then leaned away from her slightly. "But if you want to try some less public negotiations, you know where to turn."
Yeah, right, Cordelia thought. She got unsteadily to her feet, tried to look casually around the room. She caught a glimpse of Wesley and Fred going out the door and breathed out in relief. At least she'd accomplished what she set out to do.
Another glance around and she saw Angel -- and oh, God, the look on his face, anger and fear and hurt and want -- the shock that went through her when their eyes met --
"Cordelia." Cordy jumped, startled, to see Lilah standing right next to her.
"Oh, God. You surprised me."
"Not as much as you just surprised me." Lilah was frankly staring at her. "Listen, honey, if you're trying to make Angel jealous, you couldn't pick anybody better. But if you don't want to play with fire, and I was under the impression you didn't anymore, then you couldn't pick anybody worse."
"Lilah, chill. Just a momentary fit of insanity, okay?"
"I never thought I'd say this to anyone, but maybe you should cut back on the alcohol," Lilah said, shaking her head as she walked off.
Someone softly tapped Cordelia's shoulder; she turned around to see Buffy standing there. "Can I have a second?"
If Buffy tells me she's pregnant too, I am officially going to throw up, Cordelia thought. "Come on. Courtyard."
In preparation for this moment, Buffy had tried to call up her most positive memories of Cordelia. Then any positive memories of Cordelia. Then less annoying memories of Cordelia.
The final list was short, but there were a few moments worth summoning up: that time near Buffy's 18th birthday, when she was having that terrible fight with Giles, and Cordelia had given her a ride home, no questions asked. The days when Angelus was loose and Cordelia had, however begrudgingly, let Buffy come out with her and Xander to keep her mind off things. The way Cordelia had jumped right in and staked a vamp during the graduation ceremony.
Those were the things Buffy was going to remember. Because they represented whatever it was inside Cordelia that Buffy needed to come back out.
A few people, and another few non-people, were busily making out in the courtyard; Cordelia sighed, then drew Buffy back inside, into a small office behind the lobby counter. As soon as the door was shut, Cordelia said, "What's the what?"
"Angel and I need your help."
Cordelia smiled sardonically at her; Buffy had expected this reaction at first, and so was not discouraged. "What? The big valiant heroes need little ol' me? I'm just moved as all get out."
"You didn't always run this place," Buffy said. "Angel's told me what you were like when the two of you worked together. You accepted the visions even though they hurt you, because they helped other people. You made him teach you how to fight, even though you were up against things a lot stronger than you. Angel said you never flinched from any of it. He said you were the bravest person he'd ever seen."
"He said that?" Cordelia's frosty glare dimmed for a moment, but she had it back in place pretty quickly.
Buffy kept on. "He's talked about you a lot, Cordelia. Enough for me to know that you weren't always the spoiled brat we dealt with in Sunnydale. Enough for me to know that you're not as cut off from the world as you look right now."
"You don't know as much as you think you do," Cordelia said, her eyes cold.
"Cordelia, let's put it all on the table here, okay? Thanks to our charming mutual acquaintance Lindsey McDonald -- or maybe thanks to the stiff drinks you served him -- we know the Deburchan dagger's still on the market somewhere. And the word is that you're the one who has it."
"I don't," Cordelia said. "I did have it. But I don't any longer."
Her manner was so straightforward, so familiar, so completely Cordy, that Buffy immediately knew this was the truth. She breathed out, trying to control her disappointment. One chance gone. "Well, we do know you've got the Eye."
"You know I've got a huge shiny crystal in the center of my lobby everybody can see? Wow. Is that amazing Slayer superperception?"
"And it's time you knew that Angel and I need the Eye. We have a plan that might allow us to close the Hellmouth again. It's a long shot -- but it could seriously turn the tide again. I think it's worth the risk. But to have any chance of success, we need a majorly powerful magical artifact. The Eye would work."
Cordelia stared at her, then said, "You know I can't just give my Visions away. Not without taking on the wrath of the Powers. And considering the way they treat people they don't hate, I don't really want to find out what happens to people they do hate."
"So don't give it away," Buffy said. "Bring it with you. Come with us. Whatever price you pay, we'll help you deal with it. But you can come back to the fight."
And that surprised her, Buffy saw. For a few long moments, she just gaped at Buffy, obviously unable to think of anything to say or do. Seizing the advantage, Buffy said, "You have to be sick of this, Cordy. This is all so -- so fake. And you used to hide behind a whole lot of fake back in high school, but you always hated it. You have to hate it now. You fell into all this because you were freaked out and scared. I know what that's like -- I've been so down, so lost, that I thought I'd never come back again. But I did, and I came back stronger. I know that you don't have to end up here. Just walk away. Walk out of here with us. Come back. You know you want to."
"You're awfully sure of yourself," Cordelia said. "So sure you know everything about me."
"I think I know enough," Buffy said.
"Well, you don't know jack." Cordelia folded her arms across her chest. "First off, you think I'm gonna walk away from this to play wisecracking comic relief to the star-crossed lovers? Thanks but no thanks. Once was enough. Second, I didn't end up here because I was scared. I didn't end up here because I didn't know what else to do."
"So what did happen, Cordy?"
Cordelia's eyes narrowed. "Ask Angel."
"Ask Angel?" This made no sense. Unless -- unless --
"You heard me. Ask Angel." Cordelia turned on her heel and walked out of the office.
Buffy stood there alone for a minute, considering what Cordelia had and had not said. She thought back to the way Angel had behaved in those first awful months after the Venareth. She remembered the first night he had come to her as her lover once more, how long it had taken him to come to her.
Finally, she ran her hands through her hair and stepped outside the office. The Hyperion was back in full swing, tables crowded, people laughing and talking.
"So the girl's cryin', right, and she's saying, Just let me go, I'll do anything." The three vampires were laughing, braying over their blood and liquor. "And Nick says, Anything? And you know he's not plannin' on letting her go, but she don't know that, and the girl goes --"
Buffy stepped to the table and slapped her hands down on it, hard. The vampires jumped. Buffy said, "And the girl goes, Why don't I knee your balls up to your brain, assuming you have either?" When the vampires gaped at her, Buffy shrugged. "That's the way I heard it."
And then she grabbed one of the vampire's head and slammed it through the table, which splintered in two with a mighty crack.
People started to scream. Demons started to run. And the vampires came at her.
About time, Buffy thought.
She elbowed one in the face, kicked one in the crotch, then spun up into a roundhouse kick that caught the last vamp in the throat. He staggered back, which gave Buffy a chance to somersault backwards over one of the tables --
-- to stand next to the wall, covered in weapons. "Gotta hand it to Cordy," Buffy muttered, grabbing a scimitar from its mounting. "She always did know how to decorate."
The vampires ran back at her now, and Buffy spun one of them into the wall, held him there with a side kick to the kidneys. She swung the scimitar savagely into his neck, and instantly he turned into so much dust.
As the other vamps dodged her scimitar, Buffy heard something she hadn't expected to hear.
She heard cheering.
Buffy backhanded the vamp closest to her, then glanced at the room. Angel was pushing his way through the crowds to her -- but the crowds weren't running, or crying, or trying desperately to ignore the battle. They were cheering her, hands in the air, letting loose with all the rage and frustration and hope they kept pent up all the time.
"Break up the table!" she shouted. "Make stakes!"
To Buffy's delight, and the vampires' obvious dismay, the people started doing what she'd said. Buffy grinned. "You guys want it quick and easy?" She flashed her blade at them. "I know what I'm doing. They don't. Could take 'em a while to find your heart."
A vampire jumped her, and Buffy gave into the force of it, let it take them both into a backward somersault that she spun out of easily enough. As he tried to struggle up from the floor, she planted her heel on his chest. "Don't think so." One more slash into the neck -- one more vamp turned to dust.
"Get them!" somebody yelled, and Buffy looked up in time to see Angel slamming his fist into one vampire's face, while another was grabbed by three people she didn't know and quickly staked. So they did know where the heart was after all.
Other people were grabbing the weapons from the walls, setting upon the vampires and harmful demons in their midst. Even that guy Lorne was smashing a chair down over a Velga demon's head.
Buffy jumped forward to where Angel was pummeling the last vampire, apparently just for the fun of it. "Mind if I cut in?" she said. "I mean that literally."
Angel pinned the vamp to the wall, and she beheaded him with a slice. She smiled up at Angel, and he smiled down at her, and for one moment, it was just like high school, just like when they were falling in love.
The gunshot echoed through the Hyperion, stilling the fracas and quieting the shrieks. In the center of the room stood Lindsey McDonald, gun in the air, a faint snowfall of plaster around him. "This kind of unprovoked combat is forbidden in this district. The hotel is closed for the night."
Angel grabbed her arm, began steering her toward the doors. "You were wonderful," he muttered, "but you broke district rules. They can arrest you now."
"I had to work out some female territorial aggression," Buffy said, tossing her hair. "Feeling much better now. Doesn't it feel good to be back in the game?"
"I bet it does," said Lindsey, who had sidled up near them. "But remember. I could have you incarcerated now, if I wanted. One more false step, and you're out of the game. Maybe for good."
Buffy shrugged it off. If I had a dollar for every time some black- hat made big threats, she thought, I'd have enough money to buy a less cliched phrase than "if I had a dollar."
But next to her, Angel's face was drawn as he slid his arm around her shoulder and tucked her protectively into his embrace.
Chapter Seven: "The World Will Always Welcome Lovers"
From the bed in their shabby little hotel room, Angel watched Buffy peering out the window. Her eyes went wide as a flash of light came through the blinds. "Hey, somebody made it through the Portal. Lucky ducks," she said as she glanced back at him. "Between the late hour and the light show, I'm pretty sure we aren't being watched."
"You don't know that," he said. "They have things that can watch you without using their eyes, you know. Mind readers. Heat seekers."
"Amazing X-ray specs," Buffy said. He knew he should smile, but he couldn't quite work up the will. "Hey," she said gently, coming to sit by his side. "Somebody's going into his patented worry mode."
"You're cutting it close, Buffy," Angel said, brushing her pale hair from her forehead. "I have no idea why Lindsey didn't arrest you tonight. But he could have. Going out to meet up with Anne's group the same night -- you're cutting it close."
"If we didn't do stuff because it was risky -- well, we wouldn't do much at all, would we?" Buffy slipped her arms around his waist. "Angel, I have to do this. Cordelia's not going to help us. So we have to find out what other artifacts we could use. There's this Mirror of Whatsomething that might work, but we'll have to get hold of it. We have to move as fast as we can."
"We don't know for sure that Cordelia won't help," Angel said. "I know you talked to her, but -- Cordy and I -- she might talk to me. It might be different. Maybe she'll help us after all."
"Don't think so. She already gave away the Deburchan dagger -- she told me that much." Buffy sighed. "According to her, you're the reason she won't help."
Angel felt his chest tighten painfully. "What?"
"When I asked her why she wouldn't work with us or give us the Eye, she said I should ask you." Buffy looked up at him, her eyes free of suspicion or anger. Softly, she said, "You and Cordy -- when you worked together in L.A. -- were the two of you lovers?"
"No," he whispered.
"I mean, hello, curse time, of course you weren't lovers lovers. But you can be lovers without having sex. You and I knew all about that, before." She hugged him gently. "Do you want to talk to me about it?"
"No," Angel repeated. Then, because it was as truthful and as clear as he could bear to be. "I don't want to talk about it."
That alone was enough to tell Buffy the truth. He waited for her outburst of anger, of betrayal, of hurt. Instead she just leaned her head against his chest.
After a few moments, she said, "For the longest time, after we were apart, I didn't let myself fall in love with anybody new. I thought that if I loved anyone else, it would mean somehow that I didn't really love you to begin with. And I knew -- if I didn't know anything else in the world, what was true or fake or right or wrong, I knew that I had loved you."
"But when Xander and I started falling for each other, I realized -- it's not like that at all." She leaned back and looked into his eyes. "Once you've truly loved another person -- it's like your heart learns what that really means. How important it is, how good. It gives you strength. Makes you know who you are, and who you want to be. And all those things make you more able to fall in love again, not less. A person who could only feel love one time, ever -- he wouldn't be worth knowing." Buffy put her hand over Angel's chest; he felt her palm against his heartbeat. "Wouldn't be worth loving."
Angel put his hands beneath her chin, turned her lovely face up to his. "I don't deserve you."
"Too bad. Because I deserve you." She smiled up at him. "Sometimes I think you're my reward. Sometimes I think the Powers must not be so bad after all. I mean, on the very darkest day in all the world, they at least gave you back to me."
Angel's throat was too tight to even think of speaking, but he gently kissed Buffy on the forehead.
Buffy slipped away from Angel, peered out the window again. "Okay. Time for me to go."
"You're sure you don't want me to come with you?" Angel said. He'd asked Buffy this often enough earlier in the night. Now, though, he was hoping she'd insist that he stay behind.
"I'm sure. One is always stealthier than two. Just stay here." She raised her eyebrows, pursed her lips in mock seduction. "Warm up the bed for me."
"Be careful," he said as she left.
Sometimes, Angel thought, he felt like he spent his whole life saying those words.
He waited long enough for Buffy to be safely clear of their hotel. Then he got what he needed, put on his coat and slipped out the door.
"How much did we lose?" Cordelia said, surveying the wreckage.
"Three tables, eight chairs, two swords, almost all of what looked to be a busy night's profits and one of my cufflinks," Lorne said. "And these were spiffy cufflinks, I have to tell you."
"If you thought this was fun, you should have seen her at a school dance," Cordelia said. But she couldn't even bring herself to put any energy into the snide remark. Hadn't she been repelled by those ghastly, bragging vampires herself? Hadn't she wished she could shut them up for good?
Hadn't some part of her cheered for Buffy too?
Lorne said, "Sweetie, I know from experience that nothing drags you down like having your nightclub get blitzed, but I have to go."
Cordelia looked sideways at him. "This one of those meetings I'm never supposed to ask about?"
"The book club," Lorne said. "Wuthering Heights. That's it exactly."
"Tell your buddies to come up with a more credible cover story," she sighed, waving him off. "Like anybody in L.A. reads books. And tell the trolls to go home too."
Lorne gestured at the mess. "I think the trolls have a bit of spit and polish to do."
"I don't think I can deal with troll spit tonight. I just -- I need some space."
"Women are always telling me that," Lorne sighed as he sauntered off.
Cordelia took the Eye and stored it for safekeeping -- which involved stuffing it in an old gym sock and stashing it under the bar. Then she began the trip back upstairs. It felt as though she had been awake for days, alive for centuries. She didn't exactly dance through most days as it was, but it seemed as if all the misery and bitterness and confusion of the past four years were concentrating together, descending upon her all at once. Well, she thought, this can go one of three ways.
One, I can do what Buffy asks me to do. I can take my Visions and my favorite stake and go along as Angel and Buffy's wacky sidekick. I can ask for my hotel room to always be on a different floor than theirs, so I don't actually have to hear their headboard thumping against my wall. The Powers will hate me and hunt me down and probably do something that makes Vocah look like a day at the spa. But it will all be worth it, because I will do so much good, and we see where that got us last time.
Two, I can do what Lindsey asks me to do. I can sell him the Visions, and just live with the fact that helping the bad guys did more for me than helping the good guys. I can get money and freedom and a nice place on the beach near Sydney, and if I drink enough gin I can probably manage not to think about the fact that, every day, people are dying because I gave the Visions up.
And three, I can just go on like I am. Keep my Visions. Let Buffy and Angel do whatever the hell they do, which should take them away from Los Angeles sooner rather than later, and probably be heroic and stupid enough to guarantee I never see Angel again. I'll keep on serving drinks in my bar and buying favors on my back and hanging out with Lilah as my closest companion.
My life is full of choices and possibilities.
Cordelia trudged into her rooms, shut the door behind her as she headed into her bedroom -- then stiffened. "Who's there?"
"It's me." Angel stepped out of the shadows with something of his old stealth.
"How did you get in here?"
"The back fire escape. I used to use it all the time. And something told me you'd be in this room."
"Well, you know me. Sentimental to the core." Cordelia folded her arms across her chest, unconsciously shielding herself. "Here to talk over old times at last?"
"You have to help us. We have to get the Eye. That's all there is to it."
"Nope," Cordelia said, almost to herself. "Here to talk over new times. I don't guess old times count for much anymore, do they?"
"I guess not, if you've forgotten everything Lindsey ever did to you."
Cordelia looked at Angel's eyes quickly. "Jealous?"
"More like disgusted." Angel took a deep breath -- it was so odd to see him doing that -- and said, "I'm sorry. I guess it's none of my business what you do."
"Or who." Cordelia tried to relax, to look as though she didn't care that Angel was here, in her bedroom, late at night and alone. "Buffy already made me her offer. But I said no. Never was much into being the third wheel."
"She's in danger," Angel said. "She's out there now trying to find another way. But every time she puts herself on the line in this district, she runs the risk of being arrested. And what are the chances she'd come out of custody alive? What chance did Gunn have?"
"Buffy's strong," Cordelia shrugged. Her stomach was churning uncomfortably. "More to the point, she's fast. They won't get her."
"You don't know that. And if she can't find anything else that works - - you know Buffy -- she'll want to go to Sunnydale anyway --" Angel's face was drawn now, truly desperate, as Cordelia had seen it only a handful of times before. "She'll go anyway, even though she doesn't have a chance of surviving. She won't stop. Buffy never stops."
"Well, bully for Buffy." Would she do that? Cordelia didn't doubt it - - and Angel wouldn't let her go off to die alone, no way -- Oh, God --
"Cordelia, please. Do you want me to beg? I'll beg." Angel stepped closer. "If what we had meant anything to you --"
Cordelia shrank from him. "Bad move. 'What we had' -- turns out that wasn't worth much, huh?"
Angel stared at her for a long moment. "And you won't even think about Buffy --"
"I don't guess Buffy thinks a lot about me." They remained there, in silence, for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, Cordelia said, "Maybe you should go."
Cordelia wanted nothing now except for Angel to leave her alone, so she could cry in peace. But for a few seconds, he didn't move.
Then he drew a gun.
She stared up at him, so dumbfounded that she could only focus on her first, strange thought -- "Since when do you use a gun?"
Angel looked as shocked as she felt, but he kept the weapon pointing at her. "Since I started needing one."
Oh, Cordelia thought, chills washing through her as the reality of the situation set in.
"Don't make me do it, Cordelia," Angel said. "Because I will."
"Will what? Kill me?"
"If that's what it takes to get the Eye, yes."
Would he? Cordelia thought. For Buffy? Hell, yes. So it's come down to this. The man I love is going to kill me to help the woman he loves. I'm just one more corpse for them to step over.
Angel took a shaky breath. "Just give it to me, Cordelia. The Powers will know you didn't give it up willingly. You'll be safe."
"But you won't." Cordelia wanted to look at his face -- wanted to see if he really meant it -- but it was hard not to keep glancing down at the gun. "The Powers will get you for this, you know. You'll be punished by them."
"Oh, yeah, and they've been so great to me so far," Angel said. "They took my soul, took my son, twisted up every good thing I ever tried to do and made it work for evil. I don't think I've been on their list of favorites for a long time now. And frankly, after a few centuries of hell, I don't think the Powers have much to frighten me with anymore."
"Can't argue with that."
Angel relaxed ever so slightly. "You mean -- you'll give me the Eye."
Cordelia took a deep breath. So this is the fourth option, she thought. This is my final choice. "No, I won't." When Angel stared at her, she unfolded her arms and held them wide. "You want to kill me, Angel? Then do it. Just do it."
She waited for the blast of sound and pain, for the convulsive movement of his hand that would kill her. It didn't come. "You think I'm bluffing?" she said.
"I know you're not," Angel said.
"Then you know I haven't got any reason to stay around here anymore. I haven't got any reason to go on. I'm sick of my life, so just end it. Kill me. Save your precious Buffy. I don't blame you. At least you have a reason -- I don't even have that anymore. I'm a drunk and a whore and the world's better off without me. And you know it, too."
She was shaking now, less from fear of what was about to happen than from the terrible realization that she honestly didn't care. "Do it, Angel. Please, just get it over with. Do it."
Angel stepped back, still pointing the gun at her, and Cordelia thought that now, at last, he meant to finish her. She closed her eyes, felt her last hot tears trickle down her cheeks.
She opened her eyes slowly. Angel was shaking his head as he let his arm drop, then tossed the gun on the bed. "I can't do it," he said, his voice hoarse. "I can't. Not even to save her. I couldn't ever hurt you."
Cordelia stared at him as his face twisted in anger and frustration. "You say these horrible things about yourself, and you play this role out front for all the world to see. So we'll all see somebody we can hate, and never see what's inside. And I'm trying to play your little game, but I can't. I don't want to see you -- the real you, the one that's hurting like hell. I don't want to know that she's still in there. I want to take what I need and get away from you, and instead I see that you're lost, and you're afraid -- I don't want to see it anymore, and I do --"
She stepped forward hesitantly, lifted a trembling hand to his cheek. "Angel?"
Something in him broke as she touched him; the hard light in his eyes gentled as he looked down at her now. "I see you, Cordelia, no matter how hard you try to stop me. And I want to hate you, I want to fight you, but I can't. I still love you so much -- "
Cordelia's arms slid around his neck, and his hands pulled her close, and Angel kissed her -- hungrily, desperately, as though he could never have enough. They clutched each other tightly, their bodies pressed close, as his hands slid down the curve of her waist to her hips to pull her against him. She opened her mouth, drew him in, as though she could make him her lover through this kiss alone, this one, precious, long-denied kiss --
Just at the moment she thought he would push them both onto the bed, Angel pulled away, gasping for breath. He closed his eyes for a moment. "No," he said.
Cordelia's heart began to sink -- of course, it was only a moment's passion --
And then Angel said, slowly, "I know I have to hurt Buffy. I know I have to leave her. But I won't betray her."
"Leave -- Buffy?"
Angel looked even more miserable than he had a moment before -- but there was a resolve in his voice now that hadn't been there so short a time ago. "I have to leave her, or I have to leave you. And I'll never have the strength to leave you again. Never again, Cordy. Never." He held her head to his chest, and she felt his heartbeat against her cheek.
Cordelia hung onto him, afraid that if she let go he would vanish -- only a dream, it could only be a dream. But he was real, true, warm and human and alive and back in her arms. Loving her.
After a few moments, Angel whispered, "The front room --"
He wanted to get away from the bed, she realized. Cordelia walked with him -- their arms still twined around one another, clumsy in their arousal and distraction -- into the other room. In a daze, she saw the gardenia she'd pinned in her hair earlier as she stepped on it, crushing the petals beneath her heel. Angel must have brushed it from her hair as they kissed.
They fell onto the sofa together, and for a long, quiet time, Angel simply held her, stroked her hair. Cordelia couldn't stop staring up into his face, couldn't stop asking herself how this could all be happening. For now, though, it was enough to know that it was.
Finally, though, she collected herself enough to ask, "Angel, why now? Why didn't you come back to me at the Venareth?"
"Oh, Cordy." Angel's face was stricken. "You never even got the letter? And all those months I thought -- "
"I got the letter," Cordelia said. "I got the letter that said you wanted to be with Buffy instead of me."
"I never said that. Cordelia, the note you read -- what did it say?"
"It said you were human --"
"That Xander was dead --"
"That Buffy needed you, and so you wouldn't leave her --" Cordelia's voice trailed off as she considered the note in an entirely new light.
"Cordelia -- you thought I meant that we were back together?" He was staring at her in dismay. "You thought you meant that little to me? Or that Xander meant that little to Buffy?"
"No -- I just thought -- you meant so much to each other --"
That hurt him; his eyes went dark with remembered pain, an expression she recognized all too well. But he said, "Cordelia, she was injured. The man she loved had died horribly. I couldn't leave her like that. I -- I thought you would come to us in Sunnydale."
"Why didn't you say so? In the note?"
"I thought I had. Looking back -- I see why you thought that, now, but at the time -- we were on the run, and we had people wounded and dying, and I only had a couple of minutes before Oz was going to have to leave -- " Angel shook his head. "It never even occurred to me that you wouldn't understand."
Cordelia put her hand to her mouth, stifling a cry of misery and anger at her own stupidity. Four years, she thought. Four years gone, because I didn't dare believe.
"I waited," Angel said. "I waited so long -- we couldn't get back to L.A., and Sunnydale was getting more dangerous all the time, but I kept thinking, day after day, surely this is it. Surely Cordelia's going to come to me today."
"I'm so sorry," she whispered.
"No, no. I should have realized -- we should have talked about Buffy before then. Or I should have risked the damn curse and made love to you that night. Done something to show you that I wasn't only with you because I couldn't be with her."
This sounded like a dream to Cordelia -- too much like a dream. She said, "Are you telling me you're not in love with Buffy anymore?"
Again the dark eyes. His body stiffened against hers, and he had to look away. Haltingly he said, "Of course I still love her. She's -- a part of me, maybe the best part. Anything I ever learned about selflessness and perseverance and faith, I learned from Buffy. I can be defeated in battle or watch my friends die, and all I have to do is look at her, and I believe again. I can't lie to you, Cordy. I think I'm always going to love her."
"But you said you love me," Cordelia said obstinately.
"I do," Angel said. He shook his head. "Didn't somebody say you couldn't be in love with two people at the same time?"
"Yeah. Somebody who lied, apparently." Cordelia was relieved to see him smile a little at that, realized she was smiling too. But she knew she had to keep going. "Okay, not trying to go into old-Cordy mode here, but if Buffy's still your be-all end-all, why do you want to be with me?"
"We were happy together," he said simply. "It's harder than it sounds. Buffy and I, we don't -- we never got the chance to learn how to do that together. I'm not sure Buffy ever got the chance at all. I left her so she could have this normal life she never found. But I did. I found it with you."
"Normal, with all the Visions and demons and stuff." Cordelia said with a faint smile.
Angel managed to smile back for a moment. "Relatively speaking." But his face fell as he looked into some unseen distance and said, "All the things I thought I was giving her, I got instead. Friends who stood by me. The chance to have children. A relationship with somebody who could bring me into the world, give me a home."
"Guilt-tripping again," Cordelia said. "This should not come as a surprise."
"It's not guilt." When she shot him a sideways glance, he sighed. "Relatively speaking. Cordelia, you taught me how to be happy. You made me believe in this life I could have -- not as a warrior or a penitent or a superhero or a martyr. Just as a man. But Buffy -- it's like she moved past all that. All the things she went through burned something out of her; she doesn't want that kind of life anymore. She believes in her calling with something that's -- beyond faith. Lindsey tried to buy us off today, talked a big game about how we could be safe together someplace where we could start a family. And it didn't even faze her -- I mean, I didn't expect her to give in to him, but the whole idea didn't mean anything to her. She doesn't even think about what it would be like anymore, to have a home. To have some safety. To hold your child in your arms -- I can't even talk to her about what that's like, holding your child in your arms -- "
"You're being Mr. Strong and Stoic for her," Cordelia said. "You're back in Sunnydale mode, aren't you?"
"That's what she needs," Angel said. "I don't know any other way to be, with her. And the world's different, after the Venareth -- maybe it's selfish to want your own happiness. I don't know. But I was more alive with you as a vampire than I've ever been able to be as a human. It's not anyone's fault -- it's just the way things are now."
"The world's not gonna turn all sweetness and light just because you've come back to me," Cordelia said. Within her mind, she marveled at the words -- you've come back to me. "But we can try, can't we? There are places we could go where we might have a chance."
"I want to try," Angel said. "I'm not going to lose you again, Cordelia."
She hated to say it, but it had to be said. "And Buffy?"
Again that tension -- but Angel didn't let go of her. "She'll go on no matter what. Nothing anybody could ever do to her would stop her. I know this will hurt her -- so much -- but she'll understand." Those last words hurt him more than anything else, Cordelia realized. Because he believed them. "Please, Cordelia -- help her this one last time. Just give the Eye to her -- or just turn a blind eye, and I'll steal it from you, so the Powers will blame me and not you. What she's doing is important, and I -- I need to know Buffy's safe."
His voice was thready, and Cordelia ached to see how badly he was hurting. And even now, it's still about Buffy, she thought. She's always going to own a part of him.
But it had happened -- it had actually happened -- Angel had come back to her. He still loved her. And now he would stay with her forever --
Downstairs, something crashed against the front door, then against a wall. Cordelia and Angel were both on their feet in an instant. They glanced at each other, then Cordelia went to her door, stepped into the hallway and peered down into the lobby.
Buffy and Lorne were rebolting the door shut.
Next to her, Cordelia heard Angel take in a deep breath.
She motioned him back into the room; after a moment's hesitation, he complied. Cordelia then went to the top of the stairs. "What's going on?"
Lorne and Buffy both looked up at her, looked at each other, then looked up at her again. Lorne said, "Buffy decided to stop in on one of the book-club meetings."
"And you nearly got caught by the Guards in the process," Cordelia said.
Buffy shrugged. "So I like Wuthering Heights. Who doesn't like Jane Austen?" Then she winced, and Cordelia realized Buffy's arm was hurt.
Cordelia said, "Lorne, can you come up here for just a sec? Hang on, Buffy."
When Lorne came through Cordelia's door, he said, "What's so important -- why, hello there, Angelcakes. Well, well, well." He raised one eyebrow, but his smile was gentle, not condemning. "I see a chorus of 'Torn Between Two Lovers' is in order here."
"Not now," Cordelia said. "I want you and Angel to get out of here. The Guards are gonna come looking for book-club members, as usual, and I'm fresh out of cover stories for you, Lorne."
"And you're going to play nurse with Buffy? Angel, I'm surprised you want to miss that."
"I don't." Angel's face was grim. "She's hurt, isn't she?"
"It's her arm, but it doesn't look serious," Cordelia said. "I'll bandage her up as fast as possible and get her to you. I'm the one the Guards are least likely to give trouble to if we do get caught. Okay?"
"I should at least check --" Angel stepped to the door, but Cordelia grabbed his hand, held him in place.
"Angel, it's all right. Or it will be. But I want you two to get out of here." Quickly, she kissed his hand. "I'll be there later. And -- I guess we'll talk."
"Not until then, Cordelia," Angel said. "I should be the one to tell her."
Like I'm gonna insist on telling somebody with superpowers and a jealous streak that I'm the other woman, Cordelia thought. "I promise, okay? Soon. Just make sure Lorne gets away safely."
She hurried downstairs; Buffy was sitting at one of the few tables that hadn't been upended during the battle. As Cordelia went for the first-aid kit behind the counter, Buffy said, "Sorry about trashing your place."
"You know, I actually don't mind vacuuming vamp dust out of the rugs. Not a bit." Cordelia knew she sounded a little too cheerful. But actually seeing Buffy there, bloodied arm and shadowed eyes, was driving home the fact that Angel's return to her wasn't going to be easy or blissful. It was going to leave Buffy dragged down in its wake.
As she set about bandaging Buffy's cut -- which was already beginning to heal up -- Buffy said, "Cordelia -- I know."
Cordelia fumbled the scissors, dropped them. "What?"
"I know that you're in love with Angel," Buffy said. "And I know he used to be in love with you."
Somehow it was worse that Buffy only knew half the truth.
Buffy took a deep breath. "Angel and I were kinda thrown together after the Venareth -- I mean, we love each other, but we didn't exactly choose this. If you come with us, Cordelia, fight with us again, then -- then as far as I'm concerned, Angel can make his own decisions. I want him to stay with me, but -- if things changed, if he someday decided to -- I'm just saying, our feelings aren't the most important thing here." Buffy's voice was shaking, but she kept on, "If the three of us leave here as partners, then I can take whatever comes. As long as we can keep fighting, Cordelia. Don't you see that's all that matters?"
Cordelia couldn't bear to look up and meet Buffy's eyes. Her hands were trembling as she clipped together the edges of the bandage. For a moment, she tried to think of what it would be like -- Angel as her lover, Buffy on the outside looking in. Tried to imagine a way in which Angel could bear it, or Buffy. And she couldn't.
WHAM. "Open up! Open up for the Guards!"
Buffy and Cordelia both stared at the front door, which was shaking as the Guards pounded against it. Cordelia said, "If we go into the basement, down into the sewers --"
"No," Buffy said. "I can't run for it yet. And I'd only get you caught. Hand me over." When Cordelia stared at her, Buffy said, "Do it."
Cordelia went to the door, opened it and let the Guards rush inside. They ignored Cordelia and went immediately to Buffy. Their captain grinned nastily. "You were sighted tonight at a meeting of suspected resistance fighters," he said. "We'll have to ask you to come with us."
"What about this one?" a Guard said, pointing at Cordelia.
"Shut up, you," said another. "That's a friend of Morgan's, that one. And she let us in, didn't she?"
"I came in here without her permission," Buffy said. The Guards relaxed; that made it easy for them.
But as they marched out the door with Buffy, Cordelia knew that everything was that much harder for her.
Chapter Eight: "Here's Looking At You, Kid"
Lilah was staring across her desk at Cordelia. "You want me to let Buffy go."
"That's right," Cordelia said.
Lilah leaned back in her chair. "I knew I shouldn't have gotten out of bed this morning. Gray, rainy, so the humidity's gonna wreck my hair. Lindsey's still in town. And now you're telling me that Wolfram and Hart should release one of the most powerful warriors for good in the world, when we got her last night on multiple district-rule violations?"
"Remind me to tell you about this totally great volumizing trick you can do with hot rollers and butterfly clips. But back to the subject. You owe me a few favors, Lilah. Plus, if I ever get around to calculating your bar tab, you'll owe me about a bajillion dollars."
"And you're cashing this in for Buffy's freedom? What has gotten into you? These past couple of days -- I don't know, Cordy. The least appealing parts of your younger self seem to be coming to the surface. Take, for instance, the fate of one Mr. Gavin Park." Lilah's eyes narrowed as she continued. "Seems like last night he tried to curse the whole firm. Using this totally bum Deburchan dagger, which not only thwarted him but alerted our security systems right away. Some of the last words he spoke -- while he still had his tongue -- were that you had possessed the dagger. And that you sent it to him via Wesley and Fred Wyndham-Price. That they got the Solonach removed, passage to Australia and a sweet sum of money out of the deal. And they didn't have anything to give to you in return. That last detail is the one that has the firm convinced Park was lying. Who gives up something for nothing? I can't think of an explanation either."
"So I have a sentimental streak. But going white-hat again? Get real," Cordelia said. "This isn't about doing Buffy a favor. This is about what's in it for you, and what's in it for me."
Lilah leaned forward and smiled. "That sounds a little more like it. What do you have in mind?"
"Angel," Cordelia said. "I want him. And I'm going to have him. But he's still just hung up enough on Buffy to hold him back."
Lilah said, "What's in it for me?"
"Lindsey's total downfall."
"The day's looking up already. Details, please."
Cordelia took a deep breath. "Lilah, please believe me when I tell you that I fully understand the absurdity of what I'm about to say." She looked Lilah in the eyes. "Trust me."
When Lilah was done laughing, Cordelia said, "Remember what we said last night? We can trust each other to look out for our own interests first. And my own interest involves getting Buffy as far away from here as possible."
"Like, say, a labor camp?"
"Honestly, I couldn't care less."
"But you can't tell me the details of this plan?"
"I can tell you some of it. I need you to let Buffy out of jail tonight. Angel will be at the Hyperion, so soon Buffy will be there too. She and Angel will think that I'm going to give them the Eye. You'll come crashing in, just at the perfect moment, and accuse them of stealing the Eye. Buffy and Angel, being their usual self- righteous selves, will confirm it rather than let me go down with them. I'll threaten you with -- oh, something vaguely blackmail- worthy -- and convince you to at least let Angel go. He'll believe that I saved his life, but just couldn't save Buffy. Sooner or later, he'll get over her." Cordelia felt her mouth twisting in a scowl. "He gets over people faster than you'd think."
Lilah smiled knowingly. Cordelia cleared her throat and continued, "You'll have Buffy on charges that'll let you send her to a labor camp, or whatever you want to do with her. Buffy -- well, she won't matter anymore. And Angel and I can start over."
"And how does this involve nailing Lindsey? Because that's the beauty part."
"The reason you're gonna let Buffy go? Because Lindsey's going to ask you to. So when she 'tries to steal' the Eye --"
"-- it's all on his head." Lilah began to grin. "I knew I liked you for a reason."
A few hours later, at the still-wrecked Hyperion, Cordelia hung a sign on the door that said CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. She stepped back inside to see Lindsey working busily at the counter, still writing out what she wanted. He recited, "For due consideration given, I hereby transfer ownership of The Hyperion Hotel, of the above address, to -- what did you say his full name was?"
"Krevlorneswath of the Deathwok Clan."
Lindsey frowned. "How do you spell that?"
"Like it sounds, then. It's interesting -- I haven't written a contract in a while." He finished up, then handed it to her to sign. As Cordelia did so, he said, "I have to say -- I'm surprised, Cordelia."
"Why is that?"
"I just didn't think you'd sell. Even for a sum this tidy -- and especially not for Buffy's freedom."
Cordelia looked up at Lindsey; he was holding the Eye in one hand, testing its heft. She smiled. "You offered me what I needed. A way to be free of the damn Visions forever. A way for me and Angel to get out of this place together, without him tearing himself up worrying about Buffy all the time. He's ready to leave her. He just needs a place to go."
"So Angel's going to be the one with you on those warm winter nights," Lindsey said. "That guy's got all the luck."
"Yeah, if there's any adjective you'd apply to Angel, it's 'lucky.' Do I need to do anything else for the transfer? For my protection?"
"Nope. What's done is done," Lindsey said. "Lilah agreed to set Buffy free tonight. The Powers won't be able to punish you. And nobody else will be able to track where your newfound wealth came from," he said, gesturing to the briefcase Cordelia now had at her side. "Buy your passage out of here and enjoy yourself. Tell Angel I envy him the ride."
"You're not talking about the Portal, are you?"
Lindsey grinned as he tucked the Eye into his coat.
The rain pattered against the windows all day. Naturally, Cordelia thought. It never rains in Southern California unless Angel's having a crisis. But she was grateful for it; for some reason, she found it comforting, and it helped her to think.
She went upstairs and wrote two notes. The first went to Angel and Lorne at the hotel where Angel was staying. It told Angel to return that evening, when Buffy would be back. It also told Lorne to stay away until the next morning, and contained a tidy lie about not wanting to throw suspicion on him. She sent that along with a messenger, a nimble little Tuipi demon, as early as she could.
As evening drew near, she tried to dress for the wretched weather; though she did put on her necklace and some lipstick, she wore sensible shoes (only a one-inch heel) and a long skirt. She tied her hair back in a severe ponytail, then slipped on her gray trenchcoat to ward off the rain. Some other things she needed had found their way to her room; she slipped them into the trenchcoat's pockets.
Then she went to her desk and propped up the second note, which was for Lorne to read the next day. This note contained no lies. It explained everything, possibly more fully than she would ever be able to explain it -- to Buffy, to Angel, to Lilah, even to herself. It said some very kind things about what Lorne had done for her these past years, more than she had ever acknowledged aloud, more than he would even have dreamed she'd noticed. It gave him some advice and wished him well.
And, at the very bottom, it said, "P.S. -- Wind the clock."
As she sat in the lobby, waiting, she heard clanking in the basement - - then steps coming up to the door. Cordelia got to her feet just as Angel walked in. "It's after dark, you know," she said. "Even if you were still a vampire, you could have traveled above ground."
"Old habits die hard," Angel said. He tried to smile, but the effort of it was almost grotesque. His shoulders were bent over, as though he were drawing in from physical pain. He was preparing to tell Buffy goodbye -- and as much as it hurt him, Cordelia knew he meant to do it. She got up, put her arms around him and held him as tightly as she could.
"It's going to be all right," Cordelia said, believing it. "You'll see."
The clock struck six, and as it chimed, he leaned down and kissed her hair. "I love you," Angel said, as though the words were a talisman to ward off his anguish. "I love you."
"I love you too," she whispered. "Always."
Then came the knock at the front door.
Angel tensed, and Cordelia took a deep breath. Here we go, she thought. "Angel, get the door, will you? I'm gonna pour us all some drinks, because God knows we're gonna need 'em."
Angel went past her and unbolted the door at let Buffy in. Buffy looked tired, and her pearly suit was slightly smudged with gray, but otherwise she seemed none the worse for her night at Wolfram and Hart. "Angel?" she said, not even acknowledging Cordelia, looking up at him in the dark.
"Are you all right?" he said as he led Buffy into the lobby. Despite his concern, the energy in the room was strange, and everyone involved knew it. From her place at the makeshift bar, Cordelia watched their faces as their eyes met. She could feel their dread in her gut, as though it were her own.
"They didn't hurt me. There was mostly a lot of shouting," Buffy said. "I think they were saving the good stuff for later. But no later, thanks to Cordy."
"Cordelia?" Angel looked over at her in surprise.
Cordelia shrugged. "I pulled a few strings." More than you know, she thought.
"I knew it," Buffy said, brightening. "You couldn't just sit on the sidelines forever, Cordy. I knew you'd come back to the fight. I just knew it!"
The door swung open, and both Buffy and Angel gasped as Lilah walked through the door.
"You were right, Buffy," Cordelia said. "You were right about everything."
"I take it that's sarcasm?" Lilah said, stepping forward. "You see, we've really got you two, Buffy. Scrapping in public -- I mean, we can hold you on that, make your life a hell for a few months. But stealing the Eye? That's gonna cost you."
"Stealing the Eye?" Buffy looked confused for about two seconds; then understanding dawned in her eyes.
Angel stepped forward. "It wasn't Buffy. She hasn't been out long enough, and you know it. I thought I could --"
"Like Buffy wouldn't be involved." Lilah sneered. "She's here, isn't she? I'm going to call the Guards in here and have the two of you dragged out. Cordelia, do you have anything to add? Something you want to -- "
Her voice trailed off as she saw the gun Cordelia had pointed at her. "Gotta hand it to you, Lilah. You're reliable." Cordelia said. "Here you are, bang on time. Whoops -- did I say bang?"
Lilah just stared at her. "Trust me, you said. I deserve this."
Cordelia didn't flinch from Lilah's accusing gaze. "We're going outside. And we're gonna get in your car, and then we're going up to the Portal. The Guards you've got outside are gonna be happy to help us on our way, if you're into the idea of being alive tomorrow. Buffy, you take charge of Lilah, okay? I'm keeping the gun, but you're in charge of smacking her around."
"I like the sound of that," Buffy said, seizing Lilah's arms as they walked forward.
Angel came to Cordelia's side. "What's happening?" he whispered.
"Traveling to Sunnydale will be a lot safer by Portal, right?"
"But Lilah --"
"Leave her to me," Cordelia said. "You trust me, right?"
"Right," Angel said. "Cordy, I have to talk to Buffy --"
"Just wait, okay?" Cordelia said. "The less time we all have to think about this, the better."
"I'm just ready for it to be over," Angel said.
She didn't trust herself to reply.
Lilah didn't fight them, either in the car or on their way through the lobby of Wolfram and Hart. Cordelia was grateful for that, though it made her nervous -- it meant Lilah was planning something later. Once they were in the elevator to the roof, Lilah muttered, "You know what I hate most about all of this? The fact that Lindsey's not going down in flames with me."
"He is, actually," Cordelia said. "That much was true."
"Maybe the night's not a waste after all," Lilah said.
They stepped out onto the rooftop, where the silvery arch of the Portal stood, glinting faintly in the mist. The small scrying mirror used to control the Portal was on a pedestal some twenty feet away. Cordelia gestured with the gun. "Lilah, go get the Portal ready to send two people to Sunnydale. Buffy, watch and make sure she doesn't reset it for someplace less interesting."
"Got it," Buffy said, casting a glance over her shoulder at Cordelia and Angel as she went.
Angel turned back to Cordelia. "Two people?"
"That's right," she said evenly. "You and Buffy. I'm staying here to bash that mirror in once you leave. By the time they can fix it and get anybody through the Portal again, you and Buffy will be away from the landing point and safe in Sunnydale. If anyone's ever safe in Sunnydale."
"Cordelia, no," Angel said, taking her arms in his hands. "I'm staying here. With you."
"No, you're not." Cordelia looked up at him and smiled gently. "Angel, you can't just live here with me. At the end of the day, you wouldn't be able to live with yourself. If Buffy were hurt or killed in Sunnydale, you'd never stop asking yourself if you could have changed that, if you'd been there. And if she makes it out of Sunnydale, but she dies in the next fight, the same thing."
Angel's face was resolute. "I'm not leaving you again."
"So what are you going to do? Stay here with me? Sell drinks, listen to Lorne sing, turn the other way while vampires and demons wreak havoc all around us? Maybe the first month would be wonderful. Maybe the second, or the third. But you couldn't live like that, Angel. I know how badly you want to just be a man, but let's face it. You're not! You're a hero. Sooner or later, it wouldn't be enough for you to stay home with me. You'd have to get back in the fight. The life you have already with Buffy -- that's the one you really want. Even if it doesn't feel like it right now, when Gunn just died, and you're so tired, and we're -- so close --" Cordelia closed her eyes tightly, forced back the tears.
"I want what we had together," Angel said. "That's the life I want." He meant it, she could tell -- but his expression was less certain now.
"And that's the life we can never have," Cordelia said. "Not in this world, not after the Venareth. In this world, your place is at Buffy's side. You know this, Angel. You don't want to face it, but deep inside -- you know it's true."
Angel opened his mouth to argue with her, but he said nothing. She wondered if the dampness on his cheeks was just the mist. Slowly, she said, "I won't make you go, Angel. But I won't make you stay. You're going to choose, and we both know what you're going to choose. I'm just telling you -- it's okay. That's the man you are, the man I fell in love with. Because I fell in love with the hero too, you know."
He touched his hand to her cheek. "So did I."
The Portal flashed open with brilliant light, and the breeze began whipping all around them. Lilah and Buffy turned around, and Angel and Cordelia stepped away from each other. As they all walked near to the Portal, Lilah said, "By the way, where did you get the gun, Cordy? I'm always interested in how people threaten my life."
"Angel left it in my room last night," Cordelia said.
"Last night?" Buffy whispered.
"He came to me, threatened to kill me if I wouldn't help you," Cordelia said. "I want it perfectly clear, though, I am doing this for my own reasons. Not because Mr. Protective freaked out about his woman being in trouble."
Buffy straightened up, and a little of the shadow was gone from her face. She held her hand out to Angel; he took it and smiled at her. Buffy dipped her head for a moment, then looked back at Cordelia. "Thank you. For everything."
Cordelia just nodded.
"You won't come with us?' Buffy said. Angel looked at her, clearly surprised at the offer.
Cordelia shook her head, swallowed hard and said, "The Powers are gonna be really angry that I gave the Visions to the side of good. If I stay here, their revenge will just be on me. I don't want you guys to have to deal with it."
Lilah grumbled, "Just give them the Eye so we can get this over with, and I can start thinking of a way to buy off Wolfram and Hart's enforcers."
"I sold the Eye to Lindsey this morning," Cordelia said.
"What?" Lilah, Angel and Buffy all said together.
Cordelia shrugged. "Why not? What you actually want is the jewel the Powers gave me to channel the Visions." She put one hand to her throat, then held out her necklace with its great, glittering opal in the center. "And this is it."
"But --" Lilah said. "Then -- the Eye --"
"Is a honkin' ugly paperweight I bought eight years ago at Pier One," Cordelia said. "Please. The Powers give me some incredibly valuable jewel that my whole life depends on, and you think I'm just gonna leave it out in the open? The Powers took away the hurt, not my brain."
"You always had it on -- you always held the Eye in front of it during your Visions. That's devious even by my standards; I'm impressed. So Lindsey's taking a useless trinket to the Underlords," Lilah said with a faint smile. "Cordelia, I might just have to forgive you. Wait. No I won't."
Buffy took the necklace. "This jewel -- this will let us close the Hellmouth."
"If you hurry," Cordelia said, gesturing toward the Portal. "Go."
"The Powers aren't going to like this," Angel said. "And the Underlords will realize what you've done."
"Relax," Cordelia said. "I've got a plan. I'm gonna be fine. But you guys need to get out of here."
Buffy strung the necklace around her own throat. "Okay. I'm ready."
Angel looked down at Cordelia, searching for words that wouldn't come. Finally, he said, "I'll always remember."
She smiled. "I'll always see you. The real you. Never forget that."
Buffy looked up questioningly at Angel; he responded by putting his arm around her waist and leading her toward the Portal. Their bodies were outlined in brilliant light.
I will never see Angel again, Cordelia thought, trying to make the words seem real, trying to memorize his step and his shape as he walked away from her. I will never see Angel again.
He didn't look back as he and Buffy stepped into the light.
The Portal flared, flashed, blasted Cordelia and Lilah with wind. Then it snapped shut once more. Cordelia took the butt of the gun and smashed it into the scrying mirror, which shattered.
She stood there in the silence and the rain. She would never see Angel again. Tears blurred her vision, and the gun tumbled from her grasp as she sagged against the pedestal, all her strength gone.
"I knew it," Lilah said. "Just knew it. You can try to hide idealism, but sooner or later, it bobs to the surface. Like a dead body. I know all about that."
"Just tell them I kidnapped you, Lilah," Cordelia whispered.
"I thought you had a plan for getting out of this."
"I lied," Cordelia said miserably.
The door behind them clanked open, and Cordelia and Lilah spun around to see Lindsey striding toward them, tense and scowling, his dark coat billowing behind him as he walked. He half-glanced back, held up one hand and said, "Stay back. Don't come out here until I tell you."
Cordelia glimpsed the Guards behind him as they obeyed him and stepped back behind the door. She shivered in the cold, in the terror she had promised herself she wouldn't feel.
Lilah pointed her finger at him. "Don't even try to put all this on me. We're going down together, or we're staying alive together. Which is it?"
Lindsey seemed to ignore the question. "I heard the Portal. Who went through?"
Cordelia didn't answer. Lindsey stepped close to her, his heavy boots crunching on the shards of mirror on the ground. "Tell me, Cordelia. Tell me now, while it's easy. Tell me who you gave the real jewel to."
Lilah grabbed his shoulder. "She gave it to Buffy and Angel. They've gone to Sunnydale."
"You got them out of here, didn't you?" Lindsey was looking deeply into Cordelia's eyes.
Lilah shook Lindsey now. "We have to warn the firm and the Underlords right away. If we do that, they can still be stopped, and we might just save our necks."
"I'm actually not all that interested in saving your neck," Lindsey said. "Cordelia, I think you and I need to have a talk."
A talk. How many hours of torture would that represent? Cordelia forced herself to think of Angel walking toward his freedom, toward the fight. She squared her shoulders. "I'm ready," she whispered as she turned to walk away after Lindsey.
Behind them, Lilah said, "You two aren't leaving."
Lindsey half-turned and said, "Oh, yes, we -- aren't."
Turning as well, Cordelia saw that Lilah had picked up the gun Cordelia had dropped -- and was now leveling it at Cordelia and Lindsey, who was standing slightly behind her. Lilah shook her head. "No way, Lindsey. You were always a little quicker, a little smarter. But not this time. You're not pinning this on me. It'll be easy to tell the firm who's to blame -- after you're dead."
Lilah cocked the trigger with a click. "Both of you."
Cordelia had only a moment to brace herself --
Cordelia clutched at her stomach, but felt no pain. Saw only Lilah standing there, staring blankly at her, slowly letting the gun drop -- then tumbling to the ground.
When Cordelia wheeled around, she saw Lindsey standing behind her -- at her side, his gun still smoking in his hand. As she stared at him in astonishment, he raised an eyebrow. "How did you think this would end?"
The Guards came running out, alerted by the gunshot; Cordelia braced herself again for the inevitable. But then Lindsey put one hand on her shoulder. To the Guards, he said, "Rescind the arrest order for Cordelia Chase."
"What?" one Guard said. It was all Cordelia could do not to echo him.
Instead, she just stared at Lindsey as he said, "Miss Chase was deceived, just as I was. Lilah Morgan -- late of the firm --" he nudged Lilah's body with his boot, "-- got the true Eye for herself and one of her lovers. The lover made his getaway. But Miss Chase here managed to destroy the mirror before Lilah could do the same. I was forced to kill her to save our lives."
"Of course, sir," the Guard smirked, obviously used to hearing -- and accepting -- excuses for murder.
"Make your report," Lindsey said. "And get the corpse off the roof. Miss Chase has been through a terrible shock. I need to -- comfort -- her."
The Guards were all smirking now as Lindsey put his arm around Cordelia's waist and led her from the Portal.
Cordelia kept her mouth shut until the elevator doors shut, enclosing her and Lindsey alone. As soon as they had, though -- "What the HELL is going on?"
"You showed your true colors just in time. I've been looking for someone I could trust," Lindsey said simply. "Somebody who couldn't be bought."
"To help me infiltrate the Underlords," Lindsey said. The silky-slick grin he usually wore was gone now; he was serious, even earnest, as he leaned toward her. "Not everybody who fights them uses stakes and swords, Cordelia. You can do a lot of damage from inside. Like tonight, for example."
Cordelia stared at him, then thought back. "The Eye. You tried to buy me off --"
"-- and thought I'd succeeded. I was really worried that I'd end up handing over the real Eye. You gave me a bad afternoon."
"Angel said you tried to get them to give up --"
"I kinda thought Angel would be my guy. Buffy -- she could never have worked undercover," Lindsey said, with a slight shrug. "But I thought Angel could maybe have a convincing change of heart. Especially if he was seen to do it for his chance to be with you. But he wanted that a lot more than I realized he did -- which is a credit to his good taste, I might add. When I realized he was vulnerable, I thought I'd pretty much struck out. And then you come through in the clutch."
"You expect me to believe you're working against the Underlords." Cordelia folded her arms. "And that's why you were doing all the trash-talking about the Deburchan dagger --"
"Like how I told Buffy and Angel we didn't capture it along with Gunn?"
That was true, wasn't it? But -- impossible. "And you've been so shy about using the authority the Underlords give you --"
"Like how I watched Buffy break every district rule there is last night, and let her go instead of throwing her in jail?"
Cordelia stared at him. Impossible, but -- he had been testing her. Testing everybody. Even -- "When you tried me to go upstairs with you in front of Angel -- that was a test too?"
The cocksure grin she remembered was back. "Sort of. But that was mostly just for fun."
Cordelia slapped him hard; he winced a little, but the grin never really left his face. He rubbed his cheek as he said, "I do okay on my own. But I could use someone to watch my back. You've got the smarts and the steel for it, if you want to give it a try."
She considered it for a moment, then said, slowly, "You know they'll catch us, in the end. It's only a matter of time."
Lindsey half-smiled. "But at least the time will matter."
And wasn't that what she wanted, most of all?
Cordelia returned the smile. "You've got a deal -- Mr. -- McDonald -- ohhhhh, no --"
Pain. Claws in her back. Growling. Falling down in an alleyway, wet pavement cutting into bare knees. A woman, maybe 50 years old. Averton Square. Cuzfau beast. Pain and hurt and death --
Cordelia snapped to herself, gasping in the shock of the sudden absence of pain. She was sprawled on the elevator floor; Lindsey was kneeling next to her. "Cordelia! What happened?"
"A Vision," she said slowly. "A Vision. Like I used to have."
The vengeance of the Powers, she realized. This is it? This is all I was afraid of? All this time, all they would've done if I switched sides is -- just make it like it used to be.
Which, of course, means agonizing pain and terror, not to mention the strong possibility that my head may someday explode. And the fact that, someday, this is for sure gonna kill me.
But as otherworldly vengeance goes, I can take it.
"A Vision," Lindsey said. "You mean -- something bad that's about to happen."
Cordelia nodded. "Something we can still prevent. If you're up for it."
He grinned as he helped her to her feet. "I like a challenge. Which is why I think we're going to get along."
Lindsey steered her out of the Wolfram and Hart building and toward his long, black car. Cordelia was still unsteady on her feet, uneasy in her mind. She could still hear Angel's footsteps as he walked away from her, could feel the pain of each one as her heart beat. The agony of her Vision still clouded her thoughts. And the sheer danger of the path Lindsey had suggested was overwhelming and terrifying.
But all this pain and fear felt better than her best moment of pleasure or comfort since the Venareth. It was worth it again. No matter what, it would all be worth it.
Lindsey waved off the driver as he got behind the wheel. The tires whooshed through the rain-flooded streets as they sped away.
"Where are we headed?" Lindsey said.
He meant the address, she knew. But Cordelia said, "I don't know, Lindsey. But it's gonna be one hell of a ride."