Dead Man's Rope by Starlet2367

 

Summary: Cordy wakes from a long sleep to find the world isn't exactly as she remembered...and neither is she.

 

Spoilers: Early Season Five.

 

Notes: For AbbyCadabra. Part of the Halloween challenge at Stranger Things. ABBY'S CHALLENGE: Insanity, gross disfiguation, excessive vanity, unwavering pride, and Cacophobia--the fear of ugliness. Thanks to littleheaven70 for the quick turnaround on the beta. A trick-or-treat bag full of Lindseys to you, my dear. To Cordy'sBitch for the insider's look at comics and anime. Any time you want me to write you a CB/Kristin Kreuk fic, you just let me know. And to Wang Chung's "Points on the Curve" for providing the soundtrack.

 

 

All this wandering has led me to this place
Inside the well of my memory, sweet rain of forgiveness
I'm just hanging here in space

Now I'm suspended between my darkest fears and dearest hope
Yes, I've been walking, now I'm hanging, from a dead man's rope

- Sting, "Dead Man's Rope"

Prologue

"I'm here to see Fred." David Nabbit adjusted the collar of his blue button-down and eyed the receptionist, who was simultaneously talking into her headpiece and typing something into the black Dell flat- screen on her walnut desk. She gave him a "just a moment" wave.

He'd have to talk to Angel about all these Dells. The little spin-off he'd started could outfit all of Wolfram and Hart in better computers, for less money. And his company actually gave their clients customer service, he thought wryly, which was more than could be said for—

"She'll be right with you, Mr. Nabbit," the receptionist said, breaking into his thoughts. "If you'd like to take a seat." She nodded at the row of chairs next to the window.

"Thanks." He settled in, pulled out his Trio, and hit the wi-fi connection. Waiting wasn't really his thing. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd been asked to wait.

But whatever. He and Fred were friends, sort of. And it wasn't like he couldn't use the time to check the stock reports.

White-coated lab workers bustled in and out of reception, some carrying equipment, others carrying food or coffee from the cafeteria. One guy walked by with a white paper bag that smelled like icing and cinnamon. David's mouth watered. Say what you would about Wolfram and Hart being evil, they had some outstanding cinnamon rolls.

Just as he was getting deep into technologies quotes, the receptionist said his name. He glanced up, and for a second it looked like the streamer was scrolling right across her forehead. "Huh?" He shook it off, snapping back to reality. "I'm sorry?"

"Mr. Nabbit, Ms. Burkle will see you now."

"Thanks." He rose, pocketed his PDA, picked up his satchel, and started for the lab.

"Mr. Nabbit?" Her voice rose over the ringing phone. "I'm sorry—she's not in the lab. She's in with Ms. Chase."

A little jolt hit him. "Cordelia Chase?" He hadn't thought about her since the first time he met with Angel nearly six months ago, right after AI had taken over Wolfram and Hart. But when no one mentioned her name, he figured she'd moved on, and didn't bring it up.

Actually, he thought she probably freaked at the idea of working with Big Evil and went back into show business. Not that Hollywood wasn't evil—hell, it was run by accountants, and everyone knew they were just one rung below lawyers--but it was minor evil compared with what Wolfram and Hart did every day.

Or did, before Angel took over.

The receptionist nodded. "That's right. If you'll just take the elevator to the fourteenth floor, the receptionist there will direct you."

His forehead wrinkled. Strange. He was supposed to be meeting with Fred about software. Not that he was ever opposed to seeing Cordelia, but the girl he remembered could barely turn on a computer. And if she could have typed, she likely wouldn't. He could still hear her say, "The only thing I'm typing is an invoice. And not till my nails are dry."

"Uh, okay. Thanks." He shrugged and turned toward the elevator.

The fourteenth floor was a repeat of Fred's. Clean-lined furniture, pale carpet, sleek receptionist. Like every company he spent time in these days, including his own. Sometimes he wished for the early days, when dotcommers skateboarded barefoot down the halls of their loft offices.

When had he gotten so damn boring?

"I'm David Nabbit. Here for Fred."

This receptionist, a black guy in a tan suit with geeky-cool glasses, looked up from his computer. "Mr. Nabitt. Ms. Burkle is expecting you. If you'll just follow the hall to the right, you'll come to a set of double doors. She's in with Ms. Chase."

"Right. Thanks." He followed the hall, tugging on the open collar of his shirt again. Already he could feel the blush building. God, he was such a loser. But then, Cordelia had always turned him into a social idiot.

Oh, wait. He was a gamer. He already was a social idiot. He was chuckling to himself as he opened the double doors.

The laugh cut off as he saw Fred, in a comfortable leather arm chair, pulled up next to a twin-sized bed. Cordelia lay under pale blue sheets, her dark hair pulled over her shoulder, eyes closed, perfectly still.

He stopped mid-step. "Uh…." The room was painted a soft white, with a big window across from the bed.

Fred turned, smiling at him, and put her folder down on Cordy's bedside table. "David! How are ya?" Her voice sounded brittle. "I was just catching up with Cordy." She jumped out of the chair and gave him a one-armed hug, drawing him into the room. Around his shoulders her arm was a tight band.

His brain stuttered like a hard drive with a bad controller. "Uh…." Potted palms flanked the window and in addition to the bed, bedside table and chair Fred was in, there was a round table in the corner with four ladder-back chairs.

A huge vase of tropical flowers sat on the table. The curtains were rich tapestry, burgundy and blue, the kind of thing you saw in better hotels.

David's gaze drifted around the room and landed on Cordy. She was pale and a little puffy, with an IV running from the back of her hand to the stand by the bed. Her pajamas were a pretty floral print that, strangely, coordinated with the curtains. Someone had put make-up on her and painted her nails.

"Is she asleep?" David couldn't see Fred's face through the fall of her long, brown hair. "Fred?"

When she looked up, he sucked in a breath. Anguish, fear, confusion, barely banked. "She—she's in a coma. We've been researching, testing… it's a huge part of my job, to try to find something to wake her up. But I can't, David. I haven't been able to—" She broke off and turned away. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Angel just left and--" She took a great big breath, and when she let it out, her shoulders sagged.

He blinked at her in surprise. Fred tended to wear her feelings for everyone to see. It made her great fun on D&D nights, but you sure as hell didn't want her on your poker team. "Fred, you're the best there is. I'm sure, if anyone can find a cure for her, it's you."

She shook her head. "But until then, what?" When she turned, her arms were wrapped around her waist. "I come sit in here, not just because I want to hang out with Cordy, but because I feel guilty."

"Fred, it's okay. No one is blaming you." When he glanced down at Cordy, he was struck with how still she was, how lifeless. Nothing like the girl whose smile made even someone like him feel warm—until she opened her mouth and said something tactless, cutting and absolutely true. He'd never met anyone with exactly that ability and his heart twisted. "How long has she been like this?"

"Since May. She was in an…accident." Fred's hands twisted in front of her.

"Eleven months?" He tried to imagine what it would be like to sleep for that long and his mind fogged over. "Wow. That's just…. Wow."

Fred pulled her chair around to face David, and ran over to the work table on the other side of the room. He went to help her drag one of the ladder-back chairs next to the bed, and they both sat, staring at Cordy.

"It's eerie," Fred said. "Some days I come in and it's like I can almost feel her, you know?" She glanced at him, like she was feeling him out for his response.

He'd spent enough time with creatures most people thought of as fairy tales or legends to be thrown off by the idea that someone in a coma could hear what you were saying. "Didn't I read that the latest coma research says people can hear what's going on around them, and feel touch?"

Fred nodded, reaching out to stroke Cordy's limp hand. "Yeah. Which is why I—" She shook her head. "I usually don't break down like that, especially in here. But mostly that's because I try to keep a good face for Angel. He gets really upset when—" Her lips pressed together in a thin line.

David thought back to the time when Angel and Cordy had that little office on Figueroa. They'd been best friends, family even. Anyone could see it. "I can imagine it must be hard on all of you."

She sat quietly, staring down at their linked hands. "Probably hardest on Cordy." Then she took a breath and pulled her hand away. "Well, we should probably get to work. I thought we might work in here—give Cordy some company, you know?"

He felt twitchy being in what was obviously a hospital room, despite the bedroom-like feel. But he liked Fred. They had fun on game nights and she was helping him develop the new software. It was the least he could do. "Sure. That'd be great."

She opened her laptop, booted up, and started right in on the programming bugs they'd run into this week.

David listened, but only halfway. The rest of his attention was on Cordelia. The rise-and-fall of her chest. The way her eyelids twitched, like she was dreaming. Was she? Her face was perfectly smooth, but she didn't look sad or angry. Just…asleep.

Maybe she was living a life far away from here. He hoped she was happy, wherever she was.

***

David set his cinnamon roll and latte down on the bedside table. "Hey, Cordelia. How's it going?" He thought maybe her eyelids twitched just a little more than usual. "Great! Glad to hear it. You won't mind if I work here again, will ya? The lab's too noisy to concentrate and if I leave the building I'll miss my ten o'clock with Fred."

He glanced at his watch. Eight-thirty. Plenty of time to crunch the data. Man, if he wasn't careful, he was gonna turn into a code grinder.

Someone, probably from the janitorial service, had tidied the room, and it felt lifeless, cold. Even with the vase of sunflowers on the table, it felt like a hotel room or something out of FHM. Not the sort of place anyone actually lived.

Cordy was the only sign of life. He'd been in with her often enough in the last month that he'd tuned into her vibe. How he'd ever thought she'd lost her vivacity was beyond him. She made a great conversation partner—the first non-geek girl he'd ever had a chance to really chat with. Once, when he said something particularly funny, she'd even raised her eyebrow.

Sure, it was a little creepy sometimes to be in a room with someone who wasn't much more than a living doll. And the way Angel kept the room stocked with oversized vases of flowers, or, this week, little Christmas trees, made it feel like a shrine. But if you ignored all that, Cordy was, well, Cordy.

He popped open the laptop and went to work.

"David?"

He looked up. "Yeah? Oh, hey, Angel." He glanced at his watch. Ten till ten. "Oh, wow." Hitting save, he jumped to his feet and started collecting his stuff. "I'm about to be late. Fred will kill me."

Angel looked confused. "Fred?"

"Yeah. We've got a ten o'clock. I was just getting some work done and must have lost track of time." He motioned toward his laptop. "You know how it is."

Angel smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "And you're here, because…?"

David may have spent his share of time in demon brothels, but that didn't make him the Demon-American's best friend. It became especially apparent when one was staring at him the way Angel was.

"Uh, yeah." He shouldered his computer bag and tossed his coffee cup in the trash. Suddenly he felt sticky, like he hadn't quite gotten the cinnamon roll's crumbs off his face. "Well, Fred and I met here one day to keep Cordelia company, and I, uh, I kinda liked hanging with her. She's cool." When Angel didn't respond David felt the urge to babble well up. "And when Fred said you guys weren't around as much any more, I thought maybe Cordy would like the company."

The smile disappeared. "How often did you say you'd been here?"

He tugged at his collar. "Uh—" His voice broke. "Uh, once or twice..." he paused, "…a week for the last month," he said, looking down at his shoes. "Maybe a little more." Or a lot more. The good thing about his job was that you could do it from anywhere, given a laptop and a cell phone.

But probably Angel, who had looked more than a little pissed, didn't need to know that. David wanted to smack himself. When would he ever learn to shut up? When he looked up, though, Angel's face had shifted.

"That often?" He looked queasy. Or maybe that was guilt. You could never tell with the dead guys.

"Uh. Yeah? I guess?"

Angel's hands found the pockets of his suit pants and his gaze shifted to Cordelia. "Well, thanks. Come back any time," he said, in a tone of voice that clearly stated, come back any time, but get the hell out right now.

David scurried to the door, and realized, just as he got there, that he hadn't told Cordy good-bye. But when he turned, Angel sat in the leather chair, hands clasped with hers, head bowed.

For a second, he couldn't do anything but stare. Angel, usually Mr. Large and In Charge, looked bent under the weight of his grief. As David stood there Angel raised his eyes. The mask was gone, and he glimpsed something Angel had never let him see before. Helplessness.

They stood, staring at each other, for a long beat. And then Angel nodded, turned his head, and went back to his vigil.

David closed the door softly behind him.

***

A couple of weeks later, David walked out the doors of the lab and punched the button for the elevator. "Not a bad way to make a million," he said, straightening his hair in the mirror over the hall table. He had a Board meeting in an hour, and they liked him to look tidy. Not that he usually did. Maybe tonight he'd surprise them.

The elevator dinged and the doors swung open. He stepped in with a couple of lawyers, on their way home, or wherever they went after a hard day of slinging evil.

"So he says, `Did he pick Mr. Bentley up by the ears?' My client says, 'No,' and the opposition goes, 'What was he doing with Mr. Bentley's ears?'

"'Picking them up in the air,' says my client.' And the opposition replies, 'Where was Mr. Bentley at this time?'"

The other lawyer snickered. "Wait-wait, don't tell me. 'Attached to his ears?'" They broke out laughing and the joke-teller slapped his leg.

David rolled his eyes and hummed along with Fur Elise, which was playing over the elevator's speakers. God, what happened to his cool, slacker life? He was stuck in an elevator with Rob-Lowe wannabes whose jokes were even less funny than his own. He should just go back to designing games.

Glancing at his watch, he realized he had just enough time to swing through the drive-thru at Fatburger before his Board Meeting. Or he could call and have Anise order something decent for him.

The elevator doors opened and he hurried into the lobby, healthy sushi-thoughts pushed aside by the mouth-watering memory of a King Burger and a strawberry shake.

"—how long am I supposed to wait, Angel?" The high-pitched voice echoed around the grand lobby.

David glanced toward the noise and saw Angel with his back to him, in one of those snappy suits. Maybe he should find out who Angel's tailor was. Wear a suit to the board meeting one night and really freak those guys out.

As he walked by, Angel visibly shushed the small, blond woman.

Her cheeks turned bright red. "No, I won't be quiet!" She crossed her arms, her face drawn to an angry point. "I thought we were trying this, Angel. I thought we could finally be happy but—"

Angel put his hand on her arm and glanced toward the guard, obviously embarrassed by her blow-up. David put his head down and sped up, trying to hurry by and help Angel save face.

"Just move her some place she can be cared for, and let her go—"

David slowed, a few paces behind them.

"Let's go upstairs and talk about this in private," Angel said.

"Look, I know you care about her," she said, lowering her voice. "But as far as I can see, nothing's changing in this scenario except you. And not for the good." She put her hand on his arm, and now the anger seemed to fade to regret. "She's never going to wake up, Angel. You have to get on with your life sometime. That's what she'd want, isn't it?"

Oh, God. They were talking about Cordelia.

"Buffy, please—"

Just then, David's PDA went off, shrilling a loud, beeping alarm in the near-empty lobby.

Angel whirled and nailed him with his gaze.

He always set it to go off an hour before important appointments, which was good, because he usually lost track of time. Not so good this time, because now he was busted.

"Angel? Hey." He stepped up to Angel and shook his hand. "Good to see you." He smiled at the woman, who just stared at him.

The silence stretched thinner than cellophane.

Were they really thinking about putting Cordy away like a couch they didn't want anymore? "I'm sorry. I couldn't help but overhear—" He swallowed, trying to soothe his dry throat. "Are you really thinking of moving Cordy to a home?"

"What?" Angel's voice was cold, flat.

Buffy tilted her head, and looked at him suspiciously. "Who are you?"

"D-david Nabbit. I own—"

Her eyes widened. "Of course. Mr. Nabbit." She shook his hand. Hers was tiny, like a child's, but very strong. "It's nice to meet you. Angel's told me all about you." Her smile looked plastic, but at least she wasn't glaring at him any more.

"Nice to meet you, too," he said.

Her smile widened and she became an ad for shampoo or toothpaste. Beautiful California girl. Angel always had been lucky with the ladies.

"David," Angel interrupted, "this is Buffy." He looked at her like he was considering something, then spoke again. "My girlfriend."

She glanced at him, those summer-gold eyes going wide with shock. "I am?"

He half-smiled. "You're not?"

Her brow wrinkled. "I guess I am. I mean, we haven't really talked—" She cut herself off, pressed her lips together, and turned back to David. "I'm sorry, David. Angel and I were talking about Cordelia, which you seem to have figured out already. It's a sucky situation for him."

David thought about Fred and Wes, struggling under the weight of unanswerable questions. About Angel sitting quietly and helplessly by Cordelia's bed. "For all of them, I think."

Angel looked at him, seeming unsure how to take that, then did what Angel always did in uncomfortable social situations. He stuck his hands in his pockets and waited for someone else to talk first.

An idea struck. "Look, I know this isn't any of my business, but—" He broke off, wondering if he was really about to offer to do this. Then he thought about Cordelia in some room, alone with nurses who didn't know or care about her, and he rushed ahead. "I can take her. I'd like to."

He could put her in the second spare bedroom, the one with the antiques from China. She'd like the bright red; it would suit her, all that color, those silk tapestries. And that woman, what was her name? Rita? Right, the Irish nurse he met at ComicCon, who made all that cool silver jewelry on the side. She'd be perfect. Maybe he could even move his office to the house. Go barefoot, skateboard down the halls, look in on Cordy--

"No," Angel said, shutting David down mid-thought. "I'm not letting her go." He shook his head, shooting Buffy an apologetic look. "I can't."

Buffy's eyes closed. "Angel, please," she whispered.

David felt himself start to speak, then bottled it up. The expression on Angel's face— His PDA beeped again. "I've got a Board meeting," he said. "I've got to go."

Angel blinked, still looking agonized, agitated. "Thanks for the offer. See you around?"

He nodded. "Sure. We've got to get our people to finalize plans for the charity dinner for the Sutter Fund."

"It was nice to meet you, David," Buffy said. She twined her hand through the crook of Angel's arm. "Come on," she said gently. "Let's go get some dinner."

David watched them go, the two of them, a couple, and thought about Cordelia upstairs alone in that room as night set in. About his big house, empty except for people who wanted a piece of his action.

There wasn't really anyone in his life who just liked him for him, except some of his gaming friends who'd known him before he got rich. Even Fred and Knox were only with him because of work.

But Cordy had always liked him, or at least tolerated him. Of all the people that could have—should have—clung to him, it would be her. An aspiring starlet, a former rich girl forced to shop at the Penny Saver. But all she'd ever done was mock him, like a bratty sister, the way she did Angel and Wesley. She'd made him feel part of something bigger than himself.

Even asleep, she still did.

He shook his head and walked out the doors to the parking garage. She's in a coma, you idiot, he scolded himself. And she's never going to wake up. *And* she's Angel's.

But he still couldn't stop thinking imagining what it would be like to come home to her, instead of that big, empty house.

***

"So then, Johnny Depp's character is standing there in the plaza, with his eyes all gouged out and blood dripping down his face—it's so cool! And—"

"Excuse me."

David turned so fast he almost gave himself whiplash. "Oh, hey, Angel. I didn't hear you come in." He stood and stepped away from the chair. "I was just telling Cordy about how I'd rented `Once Upon a Time in Mexico.' If you and Buffy haven't seen it, you really should—"

"David, wait."

Surprised, he stopped. Usually, when Angel came in, David left. The stereo was set on 95.5 and the Chili Peppers belted through the room. Their raucous energy was a startling contrast to Angel's stillness.

"Please. Sit." Angel gestured to the leather armchair, and pulled up a chair from the table for himself.

David sat. "What's up?"

When Angel glanced at Cordy, his gaze stuck on her face. "I've been thinking about your offer," he said.

David leaned forward, sure he hadn't heard right. "I'm sorry, did you say you'd been thinking about my offer?" He waited a beat, watching Angel's face carefully, but Angel didn't look at him. "To take Cordy?" he clarified.

The Chili Peppers bled off into the commercial break, and the fast- talking announcer's voice filled the air. David waited, holding his breath, for Angel to answer.

"It was a generous offer," Angel said, taking Cordy's hand in his. "And I really think—" He shook his head.

Well, shit. Angel was gonna turn him down. It had been over a week since he offered to take her. Why bring it up again at all?

Then Angel took one of those long, unnatural breaths. "That it'd be best if she moved in with you."

"Def Leppard in concert. Saturday, June the second. No one parties your summer break like KLOS—"

Angel flicked the remote and stopped the announcer mid-ad.

David sat there, heart racing, hands breaking out in itchy sweat. "Wh- what?"

When Angel turned, his face was completely composed, the mask firmly in place. Perfectly coiffed hair, perfectly tailored suit, the handsome looks David had always coveted.

But his eyes were empty.

"She needs someone who will spend time with her. Who will…." He turned back to Cordy, stroked her face with his free hand, brushing her hair's beautiful, smooth fall. "Who will take care of her. And I—"

He broke off and stood up, pacing to the window. Hands on hips, jacket flaring around him, he stared out at the LA skyline. "So if you're still interested?"

David shook his head. Of all the things he'd expected, this was not one of them. He hadn't had time to prepare, to get the room ready, to call Rita. Shit, did he even have her card, still?

Angel turned, his brow furrowed. "David?"

"I—" He cleared his throat and tried again. "I-- You just caught me by surprise, is all. Of course, of course I'd love to have her. She's welcome to stay with me as long as—" He trailed off, thinking that he might be tying himself to her for…. Fifty years? Seventy-five? God, at this rate, he could die before she did, and what then?

She sighed, something she did on occasion. He always took those little moves as signs, the quirk of an eyebrow, the extra wiggle of an eyelid. He stared at her, wondering whether that sigh meant yes or no.

Forcing her into a sterile health care facility would kill her light. It seemed wasteful, criminal, to let someone go who'd brought so much life to the people around her.

She sighed again and David decided that meant she didn't want to flicker out, any more than he wanted her to. "I'll be glad to. She can stay with me as long as she wants."

Angel left the window and stood on the opposite side of the bed, facing David. He lay both hands on the mattress, one at Cordy's shoulder and the other at her hip, and bowed his head. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I just can't do it any more."

David bit his lip, uncomfortable with such an open display from a man who rarely showed any emotion at all. Then Angel shook his head, breathed deeply and looked up. "Let me know when you're ready. We'll make arrangements to move her." He stuck out his hand.

David took it, feeling the cool, dense flesh close around his. Angel held on tight, nearly wringing his fingers off, and pain flared up David's arm. But he didn't drop Angel's gaze. "I'll take care of her, Angel. I'll always take care of her."

With one, last squeeze, Angel dropped his hand. The blood rushed back in, making David's skin tingle. He watched as Angel walked to the door, looking like a man who'd made a hard decision and hated himself for it.

Hand on the knob, he turned. "Promise me you'll call if she wakes up?"

David held his breath. Was this really happening? Should they sign some papers, or— This wasn't a business deal. This was one man to another. They both knew, if Cordy woke, who she would choose. Knowing Angel, that's exactly why he asked.

"I will," David said. The words wanted to stick but he pushed them out. "I promise."

Their gazes held, one beat, two, and then Angel left the room, closing the door softly behind him.

David swiveled around to look at Cordy, almost expecting to see her eyes open. "Wow," he said, collapsing into the chair. "That was-- Wow."

In the last two months, he'd never touched her. Never felt like he should. Now he reached out and stroked her hand with the tips of his fingers.

"I guess it's you and me, kid." They sat there for a minute, Cordy still and silent, David's heart racing at the commitment he'd just made. At the gift he'd just been granted.

Freedom. Life. Joy. Moving a sleeping woman into his house did the exact opposite of making him feel shackled. It did what Cordy had always done for him; it made him feel part of a family.

He pulled out his cell phone and called Anise. "Do you still have those cards I picked up at Comic-Con this year?"

Chapter 1

It was like floating in white, fluffy clouds. She felt like she'd been there forever, just floating. Not happy, not sad, just…there.

And then the clouds parted.

The light, white with sharp, gold edges, pierced her eyes so she closed them and turned her face away.

There was a flurry of movement—rustling fabric, a book hitting the floor, and then a man's voice, high-pitched and nervous. "Hey! Oh, wow! You're awake!"

She blinked up at him, oddly soothed by the sound of his voice, as if it were a radio left on all night for comfort. "I am now." The words felt dry in her mouth. When she ran her tongue over her teeth it didn't surprise her, as she seemed to have picked up the mother of all teeth-sweaters.

He was patting her hand, quick little taps, like a Chihuahua dancing on parquet. "How do you feel? Can I get you something? Water?" And then he darted off to the table next to a set of glass doors, where he poured water from a silver carafe into a crystal tumbler.

She thought about those sweaters on her teeth. "Water would be great. And a toothbrush. Or maybe a dentist, if you have one around?" Then it hit her, the thing that seemed off. "And why am I waking up in David Nabbit's bedroom?" Not that it wasn't a nice bedroom, because it was. As her eyes focused, she saw dove-gray walls and black-and- red Chinese bedspread. Even through the cottony strangeness she could see it was elegant, tasteful.

He whirled, bobbling the water glass. "I—Uh—My bedroom?" he squeaked. "This is my *guest* bedroom, actually. Well," he broke off, chuckling breathlessly, "one of about thirty, but you know, it's my favorite, and since I figured I'd be spending so much time--" He stopped, eyes widening. "Oh, jeez. You must really be thirsty."

When he lifted her shoulders and put the glass to her lips, he was incredibly gentle. He smiled at her, and his eyes warmed, crinkling around the edges. He'd aged since she saw him last, and it suited him.

He was still a geek, though. Too short. Weak chin. Floppy hair. And that sweater…. Jeez. The man was a gazillionaire and he dressed like Xander did when the washing machine broke.

"Thanks."

He eased her back down onto the pillows and set the tumbler on the carved, glass-topped bedside table. "You're welcome."

Her forehead wrinkled and it made her skin feel itchy. She started to scratch then stopped because her shoulder twinged. The muscles felt weak, rubbery, and just that one small move left her out of breath.

"Okay, that's weird." She squinted at him. "What's going on? Where's Angel?"

Nabbit's eyes went sharp, his voice flat. "Angel is out…doing whatever Angel does."

She'd always wondered how he negotiated those multi-billion dollar deals, and now she knew. Of course, that could have just been his dungeon-master voice, but whatever. The important thing right now was Angel. "I don't understand. You mean he's out fighting evil?"

Nabbit snorted. "Riiiight." He fluffed her pillows and absently smoothed her hair, a gesture felt intimate—and familiar.

An impatient heat struck her. "Look, David, I appreciate whatever it is you've done but-" She tried to scoot higher in the bed but her muscles didn't agree with her decision and she went crashing back against the pillows.

David was there, soothing her, clucking over her, getting her settled again. "Cordy— Can I call you that? I mean, I have been, it's just that you weren't, you know, awake…."

She nodded. "Cordy's fine." The impatience turned to suspicion. "David, what aren't you telling me?"

The nervous energy disappeared and left behind a supremely sad look. "How much do you remember?"

She cast back, beyond the light, beyond the clouds to…. "Oh." She couldn't stop staring into those sad, sad eyes. "Oh, crap." It was like someone was sitting on her chest or something. The breath wouldn't stay in there.

David handed her a Kleenex, face solemn. "It's all right. No one blames you, you know."

The lavender-scented gray sheets—300-count or better—were so soft on her cheek when she turned her face away. "I didn't-- That's not-- Oh, for crap's *sake*." She balled the Kleenex up in her hand and banged her fist weakly against the mattress.

It was like lying in that hospital bed after the Great Rebar Incident of '99. All she could see then was Willow and Xander, macking like the lovebirds they'd always pretended not to be.

Which was a hell of a lot less gross than macking on your *son*. Not that Connor was her son, but she'd been the closest thing to a mom he'd had and everyone knew it, even when they didn't say it out loud.

David's hand settled on her shoulder. "They found you in a mall. You'd been tied up by some madman who was threatening to kill everyone in the sporting goods store."

Her breath caught. "I...what?"

"Yeah, some kid named Connor Angel."

Her brow wrinkled. "Connor Angel?"

David leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees. "The story is, you went shopping at the mall. The security guard said he saw this kid go off his rocker, and then you were there, trying to stop him." He smiled, and pride flared in his eyes. "I hear it was really cool the way you whaled on him." The smile disappeared. "But then he hit you or something, and he must have been really strong `cause when they found you—"

"That's not—I mean—What? What about Jasmine?" When he didn't answer, her thoughts slid off the rails. "What about me becoming demon, only the demon not really being *demon* but more a Power that Was who needed a body to…." She trailed off when she saw him looking as befuddled as she felt. "That…didn't happen?"

He shook his head. "Not in this reality."

It was like a punch in the gut. And it must have showed on her face.

"Hey, hey," he said, soothing her with a stroke of his hand. "I was only kidding. It's that whole sci-fi humor, you know?" He laughed a little bit too loud. "No one really gets my humor."

She remembered once, a long time ago, complaining that no one got her humor, either. Except Angel did. This was just…. This was a nightmare.

"I've got to see Angel. Now."

The nervous energy was back. "Are you sure that's such a good idea?" He tugged at the collar of his shirt. "I mean, you've just woken up after a really long, uh, time, and--"

"David!"

His teeth pinched his lower lip. "Cordy, I--" At her look, his shoulders sagged. "Sure. Sure thing." He fumbled with something at his belt--she realized as he dropped it that it was his cell phone. He fished it out from under the bed then stood, phone in hand, and stared down at the keypad. "Just gotta give Wolfram and Hart a call and track him down."

She stared at him. "Oh, my God, they didn't— He's okay, right?"

He looked up, just as he was getting ready to dial. "Yeah. I mean, sure, he's okay." His brow wrinkled. "Oh, that's right! I totally forgot. I mean, how would you know?"

She narrowed her eyes. "Know what, David?"

"Angel. He runs the company."

That breathless feeling intensified. "Runs what company?"

"Wolfram and Hart. He's, like, the CEO." He shrugged. "The only vampire CEO in the nation, if you don't count Donald Trump, but everyone knows he's not really a vampire. Just more like a—"

"David?"

"Yeah?"

Her heart was rolling in her chest. "Get me Angel."

She heard a click and the tinny echo of a voice on the other end, and then David answered. "David Nabbit for Angel." His eyes stayed on her face the whole time.

Something about his tone of voice, the look in his eyes…. What was it, defeat? Regret? "David, wait." She felt out of breath again, but this time because she was afraid. And she didn't know why.

He pulled the phone away from his ear. "What?" he asked her.

Going completely on instinct, Cordy said, "Stop. Hang up. Now."

A furrow appeared between his brows, but he only said, "No, that's okay. Tell him it's about—"

She shook her head. "No!"

He paused, obviously shifting gears. "—that charity dinner for the Sutter Fund. No biggie. I'll call him back later. Thanks." He stuck the phone back on his belt with a trembling hand. "You okay?"

The panic stopped, and so did her pounding heart. "Y-yeah. I mean, I think so." Dammit, she couldn't explain what came over her. But suddenly, something really deep did *not* want her talking to Angel. And until she figured it out--

"Okay." He smiled and squeezed her hand. It looked like he wanted to say something, but then he glanced toward the door, as if a thought had just occurred to him. "You know," he said, "I should go get Rita. Let her check you out."

She pressed her fingers to her eyes, trying to force herself to wake up and start thinking. Maybe if she got some facts. "Wait. Please." She cradled her hands on her stomach, feeling at loose ends, strangely heavy in her body.

He turned. "Yeah?"

"Before we do that, could we-- Would you--" What was she asking? She was so tired, and everything was so foggy.

She sucked in a breath, let it out, and pulled in another. The fog cleared a little, enough that she could force herself to talk. "Angel's working for Wolfram and Hart?" The words slurred some, but at least her thoughts were still connected to her mouth.

"Uh huh. He's the head of the company." David sat back down in the plush, silk-covered chair next to the bed and crossed his legs. His Chuck Taylors—blue to match the stripe in his sweater—were worn down along the heel.

"B-but—" She shook her head. It was like she was falling over the edge back into that fluffy white space. Only it wasn't nearly so soft a landing as before. "That doesn't make any sense."

David shrugged. "Well, it does, kinda. I mean, they practically backed the money truck up to his door. And who doesn't love the money truck, right?" He laughed, a dry, cynical sound, and strange coming from him.

"Angel--" She blinked hard against the encroaching darkness. "He wouldn't sell his soul for it." She tried to get up again, but couldn't even roll onto her side. "Dammit! What is *wrong* with me?"

He put his hand on hers. There was that sad look again. "You've been in a coma for over a year."

The air got stuck in her throat. "Wh—What?"

She felt him squeeze her hand, felt in stark relief his strong, callused skin against her trembling, water-weak fingers. "I'm so sorry. We tried everything we could."

Things started falling into place. Jasmine's birth. Her weakness. The strange, floating darkness that seemed like a hole opening up next to her feet…. "Oh. Oh, God." She grabbed his hand as tightly as she could and hung on.

There was this niggling feeling, like she'd left the oven on. "David? Why am I here instead of at the hotel?"

He took a deep breath. "Fred— Oh, right. You don't know that, either. She heads up the science lab—"

It was like that time Keanu balked at the jump on the second turn in the Pony Club event and threw her right into the rails. "Fred works there too?"

He nodded. "And Lorne, and Wes…the whole crew."

That oven thing grew stronger. "Connor?"

"Who?"

"Angel's son? The one who--?"

He laughed. "Cordy, vampires can't have babies."

She tried another track. "The boy? In the mall?"

There was a long pause and David looked like he was trying to connect two wires that wouldn't quite stretch to meet. "Angel killed him."

"Angel killed—" She sucked in a breath. No, oh God. Angel. You can't have--

He nodded. "Yup. Deader than a doornail. Whatever that means."

And there was that weight on her chest again. She clung to David's hand, waiting for the whirling blackness to pass. Connor. Dead. Just like Wes's prophecy said.

Had she dreamed it? She ran her free hand over her face and scrubbed it through her hair. Which had grown out long enough to nearly cover her breasts. "Over a year?"

David nodded. "It's June 2003. Angel and his crew took over Wolfram and Hart in September 2002, right after you went to sleep. I found out from Fred--" he gestured toward the bed. "You know, about the coma?"

A surge of energy burst through her, enough that she was able to grab his forearm and tug him forward. Her fingers trembled but she held on, strengthened by his warmth and the feel of real, human flesh in her hand. "Why am I here?"

"I couldn't let them put you in a home, Cordy."

"Angel was going to send me to a *home*?" In the quiet room, her voice sounded sharp, loud.

David jumped. "They were taking really good care of you at Wolfram and Hart. You had a really nice room, and we could visit you whenever we wanted. But then Buffy wanted to send you away because it was draining Angel, the guilt and worry, and I said I'd take you."

"And Angel let you?" Her voice had gone from big to small in a single breath. "Like I was a piece of furniture?"

The downward tilt of his head, the way his eyes slid away, told her everything she needed to know.

"Angel," he said, crumpling his khakis in his fingers. "He said-- Um. That he was sorry, but he just couldn't do it any more." His voice faded away.

"Thank you, David," Cordy said. She cleared her throat. "Please, don't bother calling Angel."

The promise of that last night together, when she called him from the apartment to tell him to meet her…. The feelings of heat, of warmth, of love, of *possibility*—

She thought of Willow and Xander, lying on that bed kissing. Of her body, used by Jasmine to seduce Connor. Of Angel, going back to Buffy while she was in a coma.

Thoughts of Angelus flickered hazily through her memory. For a minute she wondered, what if it's not Angel? What if it's Angelus, running Wolfram and Hart? Angel would never go back to Buffy. They hadn't even *talked* in over a year and—

But deep down, she knew it was true.

She closed her eyes and after awhile she heard the door close. For the first time since she hooked up with Angel all those years ago she felt completely alone.

***

"Hey, girl." Rita dropped the tray on the bedside table with a clatter. "You ready for some breakfast?" Poached eggs, tomatoes and avocado, turkey bacon. The smells scented the room.

Rita's voice had a way of grounding her. Maybe the accent reminded her of Doyle; maybe it was the confident, no-nonsense lilt. "What I'm ready for, is to get out of this bed." Cordy pushed herself up, frustrated with her trembling arms and weak back.

"That's on schedule for today, actually." Rita settled on the edge of the mattress and put the tray across Cordy's knees. She hadn't opened the shades yet and in the low light from the bedside lamp her short, red hair looked almost brown. Long silver spirals spun at her ears when she moved. "You get to walk to the door."

Cordy picked up a piece of the bacon and chewed, still not used to the explosion of salty flavor. "God, this is good."

Rita laughed, brown eyes crinkling at the edges, and patted Cordy's knee. "It's good to hear you say that."

"You're happy I'm talking about bacon?" This whole thing was so surreal. It was like she'd woken from one dream, only to find herself in the middle of another.

"Honey, I'm just happy you're talking." She adjusted the tray with her short-nailed hands. "Now, finish breakfast and we'll get you moving." Her smile was genuine, warm, affectionate. "You've been doing so great the last couple of weeks with the muscle- strengthening, I think you'll be surprised at how fast you start walking again."

She bit off another piece of bacon just as the phone at the bedside rang. Rita picked it up, said hello whoever was on the other end, and passed it to Cordy.

"Mornin' sunshine!" It was David, sounding totally goofy, like talking to her was the best part of his day.

But she couldn't help but smile, and some of that loneliness dissipated at his familiar voice. "Hey, back." She put the bacon down on the tray. "What's up?"

She heard him shuffle paper in the background. "Working. There's this cool video game company I'm trying to buy. It takes D-and-D to totally new levels."

"What, you actually get to rent a room in a real demon brothel when you play?"

He giggled. "Don't I wish. Anyway, I think it'd be a hot seller."

Cordy forked up a bite of egg, willing her muscles to steady and not splatter yolk everywhere. "And how do you decide what a hot seller is?"

"Oh, it's very scientific. I give a copy to my friends. If they like it, it's a go. You wanna play?"

She snorted. "As if."

"Don't say I never asked. So what's on the agenda for the day?"

She glanced up at Rita, who was rolling a portable double-barre into the room. "Looks like Rita's gonna teach me to dance."

"Really? But I thought you'd have to walk first—"

She rolled her eyes. "David, it was a joke."

"Sorry. That was me being geeky again, wasn't it?" He laughed self- consciously. "Oh, hang on." His hand muffled the sound in the background, and then he was back. "Hey, my nine o'clock is here. If I've got time, you want me to come home for lunch?"

"Home for lunch?" What was she, his wife? "Uh, yeah. Great."

She hung up and caught Rita's eye. "What?"

"What, what?" Rita asked, throwing a towel over the bar.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

Cordy felt like she'd been dropped down into a family she'd never met. She should know Rita—her nurse obviously knew her—but all she was left with was a big hole where her memories of the last few months should have been. And David? What was up with him?

"He's glad you're awake. We all are."

She wasn't so sure she was, but it seemed like she didn't have a choice.

Choice--the word triggered something in her. A memory of a moment, over a year ago, when she'd made a choice to stay with Angel, one she could see now affected her entire life.

And yet, despite the kiss that returned the visions to her, it was a choice that hadn't seemed to affect anyone else--or, at least, not David and Rita. "Rita, how did you first hear about me?"

Rita glanced up from the barre. "David called and mentioned that he'd moved someone to his house, and she needed a nurse. I was between clients, so I came." She smiled. "I'm glad I did, too. I was prepared to work with you for a long time without you ever waking up. You've been a ray of hope in my life."

Cordy's mouth twisted into what she hoped was a smile. A ray of hope-- there was no way Rita would call her that if she remembered anything that had happened before Connor died. "Did he tell you how I got into the coma?"

"Just that some crazy young man had hurt you. I'd heard about that, you know." She came to the bed, hands full of clothes, and handed them to Cordy. "It was all on the news, how the boy had taken hostages, and was killed." She shook her head. "So sad."

"What about Jasmine?"

Rita looked at her strangely. "Jasmine? I think there's some blooming outside. Why? Are you feeling okay?"

Cordy forced a laugh. "I guess that came out sort of coma-girl crazy, didn't it?" Or maybe she really was crazy. What in the hell was going on? Did she dream it all?

A thought occurred to her as she pushed her arm into her shirtsleeve. "Rita? Could you--and this is gonna sound strange too, so just bear with me--could you look at my neck? Are there two marks on it that look like bite marks?" She bared her throat.

"Lift up," Rita said, sliding the pajamas down her legs. "I don't need to look, honey. I've been bathing you for months. The only scar you have is on your belly." Her brow wrinkled. "Bite marks?"

Cordy thought fast as she buttoned her shirt. "I've, uh, been having weird dreams. It's hard to tell what's real sometimes after being asleep for so long."

Rita pulled her to the side of the bed and started shimmying a pair of black sweat pants up her legs. "I'd say that's perfectly normal."

"That's good to know," Cordy said, feeling like she was sliding back into the clouds, getting lost in the fog. "Anyway, you said we were gonna walk today?"

While Rita talked excitedly about getting Cordy up on the barre, Cordy tried to figure out what was going on.

She raised her hand to her throat. Sure enough, the skin was perfectly smooth.

Time for a major wig, she thought. Because evidently she remembered an entire life that no one else did.

Chapter 2

"I've got you scheduled for an appointment with the dentist at eleven," Rita said, in a relentlessly cheerful voice, that Cordy recognized already as her "I-know-you're-not-going-to-like-this-but- do-it-anyway" voice.

Cordy puffed hard, lifting her leg and forcing it forward. Her arms shuddered and her back muscles clenched. "Eleven...today?" She put her weight down carefully so she wouldn't overbalance and crash, which she'd already done twice and had the bruises to show for it. "Yeah, right. Like I'm going outside looking like this."

Rita braced herself on the open end of the bar and helped Cordy turn and start back the other direction. This was the last five minutes of this torture, and usually Rita wheeled her down to the gym and tortured her more with the weight machines. Her big, brown eyes traveled Cordy's body from tennis shoes to ponytail. "Looking like what?"

"There's no fricking way I'm going outside in a wheelchair." Her body clenched, shuddered. It wasn't just the wheelchair. It was being ejected from her safe haven. What if someone remembered her out there? What if everyone hated her?

"You have to go out sometime, Cordelia. May as well be now. And I'm not canceling the appointment, so get over it." She wrapped a towel around Cordy's neck. "Come on. Let's get you changed, and then we'll go."

"I'm not your baby, needing to be changed." She grabbed the barre and held on, refusing to move.

"Could have fooled me." Rita rolled the chair over next over next to her and locked the wheels. "Get in." Her chin was set. "Come on, we don't have all day."

Cordy stood still. "Make me."

Rita's eyebrows arched. "You really don't want me to do that, now do you?" She glanced down at Cordy's legs. "It would be far, far too easy."

She huffed. Rita put her hand on Cordy shoulder and pushed. Cordy fell into the chair.

"See, now that wasn't so hard, was it?" Rita asked.

She felt exposed, like the whole world was watching her and laughing. Her hands clenched in her lap. "Rita--"

"You'll be fine, I promise."

This sucked. She was freaking out, and no one cared.

Rita rolled her down the hall to the elevator, and they glided to the garage. Mercedes, Rolls, Rolls, MGB--okay, that was cute--VW bus. They stopped by a Mini Cooper and Rita opened the passenger door.

"You have to be joking. This is a clown car."

Rita wedged her into the seat. "Buckle your seat belt."

Cordy sat still, trying to adjust to being out of her bedroom. She'd just been starting to feel safe and now--

Rita slammed the trunk and opened the driver's door. "I just bought it. It's wicked cute, eh?" The engine caught and the radio blasted Jimmy Buffet.

Cordy flinched and went for the volume knob. Now the pirate looking at 40 was singing a lot quieter.

Rita hit a button on the visor and the garage door slid up. She glanced at Cordy. "Ready?"

"No."

The little car buzzed through the open garage door. "We'll go slow."

Cordy held on as she swung out of the driveway. The car cornered like a motorcycle, hunching over the curves and blasting out on the straight-aways. Cordy held on to the Oh-Jesus bar and closed her eyes.

Rita turned the music up and sang, "And I have been drunk now for over two weeks. I passed out and I rallied and I sprung a few leaks."

She thought of Doyle, sitting on the sofa in the office on Figueroa, smelling like bad scotch and funky demon. How he'd raised drunkenness to high art. How he's sprung a few leaks, but never lived to patch them up.

And now she was the one springing leaks. She ran a hand over her face, covered her eyes to block out the world flashing by. It was all so big, so fast. Moving on without her like the ocean passing through a broken boat.

Tears stung the back of her throat. I wanna go home, to Dennis, to my own bed. I want to stand at the sink and eat Cheerios and listen to Britney Spears.

And instead, I'm stuck in this car, getting shoved into a world that doesn't want me, that doesn't have any use for me, that might even hate me.

The car shuddered to a halt and Cordy lowered her hand. They were parked in front of a building somewhere downtown, a high rise, all steel and glass, with a sculpture on the raised terrace that looked like an exploding star.

Rita cut the engine, and Cordy sat silently, waiting, shivering, while Rita pulled the chair from the trunk. She opened the door. "Come on, let's go."

Cordy stared up at her, at her pretty, Irish face, and in that moment, hated her more than she'd ever hated anyone. "I hate you."

"I know," Rita said, pulling her into the chair. "It's okay."

They were in a handicapped space in front of the door, the little car wedged between a FedEx truck and a van with a handicap sticker in the window. Cordy pulled the jacket around her and ducked her head, unable to look at the people, the cars, all the movement.

It was too loud, like she'd stuck her head in a bucket and someone clanged it with a hammer. She wanted to pull the hood over her head and hide.

When she looked up, she realized they'd gone into the building and were rolling through the lobby. The guard stared at her, eyes narrowed. People stopped, mid-rush, to stare at her, and she waited, holding her breath, for someone to shout, "Jasmine's mother! Kill her!"

Instead, they stared at the chair. Just a split-second, maybe not much more than that, but enough that it creeped her out. Made her realize that she really was being stared at, but not because they recognized her. Because she was broken.

Her jaw clenched. She jabbed the elevator call button and waited impatiently while it climbed down to the lobby. The doors slid open and she found herself face to face with a cab full of suits. They swarmed out around her, glancing at the chair, at her face, then away.

"Poor girl," she heard someone whisper behind her.

And then they were on the elevator and the doors were shutting behind them.

Rita hummed along with Simon and Garfunkel and Cordy tugged the string in the hood of her jacket. They rolled off at the 18th floor and into the lobby of a dentist's office. The smell of strong toothpaste and antiseptic slammed into her like a fist.

Rita rolled her to a corner next to a yellow couch and parked her. "Be right back."

Cordy pulled a magazine off the table and opened it randomly. A beautiful face stared at her, the girl's hair dark and thick, her eyes sparkling with life. Lean, muscular legs, perky breasts, she was the perfect girl.

Her eyes slid down her legs, peeking out below the magazine, and caught on something bright across the room. Blocks in a basket, a couple of scattered children's books, a plastic truck. A little girl sat playing with the blocks.

Cordy stared at her, at the plump little body and reaching hands. She couldn't have been more than three, and Cordy wondered what Connor would have been like at three. He was the only baby she'd ever loved, and what had happened between them later--

God, there wasn't enough yuck in the world.

And then the little girl looked up and caught her staring. Cordy smiled.

The bright, innocent eyes traveled Cordy's face, down her body, to the wheelchair, and the face started to crumple.

"It's okay," Cordy said, reaching out her hand.

The baby burst into tears and her mother, sitting next to her, swept her up and shushed her. Cordy stared. "What'd I do?"

The mom looked at her, eyes following the same path as the baby's. "Sorry. You scared her. In the chair?"

Cordy blinked.

"Yo, you ready?"

She looked up at Rita. "Get me out of here."

***

Cordy fell into bed and pulled the covers up over her face. "I'm taking a nap."

"Fine. See you tomorrow. If you need anything, call John. He'll help you."

"Yeah, right."

Going to the dentist sucked. Going to a dentist in a wheelchair sucked even more. They had to help her out, help her sit. The teeth- cleaning hadn't been that bad; they'd kept them clean at Wolfram and Hart, and she hadn't been eating anything, anyway. The wool sweaters were finally gone, which was of the good.

But the way the hygienist smiled at her, with those pitying eyes. "What happened to your legs, honey?"

The dentist, "Physical therapy going well? I tore an ACL once and--"

Rita made it worse by dragging her to Whole Foods next. Getting down the narrow aisles to buy lotion, trying to grab a bunch of lettuce when she couldn't reach the shelf, watching everyone try not to stare at her.

There was only one thing to do and that was get up. Walk out of here on her own. Until she could do that, she wouldn't have any power, any control. And she was damn tired of being flat on her back and fucked without permission.

And since she had to pee, there was no time like the present. She rolled to the edge of the bed and put both feet down, then slowly pushed herself off till she landed on her knees.

Crawling, she got to the wall and pulled herself up. Her legs trembled, the unused muscles not used to the weight. One hand flat on the plaster, the other out for balance, she took a tiny step. Her leg buckled and she hit the floor.

"Dammit!"

She pulled herself up and balanced against the wall, panting. Sweat broke out along her hairline. "I will do this." Another step and her whole body shook, but her leg held. Another, and she fell.

Gritting her teeth, she stood. Desperate now, not because she had to pee, but because she wouldn't be beaten by her own body. It was her left leg that wouldn't take her weight. Again and again, it dropped her to the ground.

Pain throbbed in her hip, her lower back. Sweat rolled out of her hair and down her face and she finally grabbed the doorjamb and held on.

Her breath sounded like a gale force wind, but she'd made it. Except for her left leg, she could walk. She laughed. "That's stupid. Except for my left leg--" She sobbed out a breath.

Down the hall a door slammed and she froze.

"Cordy? I'm home!"

She looked over her shoulder at the bed, back at her hands, clutched around the doorframe. There was no way she could get back. She was stuck--

"Hey!" David burst through the door, stared at the bed, and the empty wheel chair, and then looked at her. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Cartwheels."

He cocked his head. "Did you walk over there? You look kinda hot."

She laughed, but it didn't sound very pretty. "Thanks. Yeah, I walked."

"Cordy, what were you thinking? You haven't even been up two weeks." He came over to her and peeled her fingers off the door.

"I had to pee. I didn't exactly want to call John, since he's the chef, and say, can you stop peeling potatoes and help me urinate? Because, God knows, my urination just hasn't been public enough lately."

David blushed. "Uh--"

"Look, just help me in and I'll do the rest."

He nodded, looking only slightly relieved. "So, how was your day?" he asked, in a totally forced tone. His arms slid around her and he walked her, slowly and gently, the last two steps in.

With his support, her legs didn't buckle, and she was able to brace herself on the sink. "Fine, dear," she said. "Now leave. I'll call you in a minute."

After she was done, the toilet flushed, her hands washed, she stared at herself in the mirror. She looked a little more like herself today, not quite like the Dough Boy with a dark wig. But no one would ever apply the term "hot" to her unless it had to do with temperature.

She *so* had to get better. Now. "David? I'm done."

A few seconds later, the door opened. He stood looking at her, a shy smile on his face. "I can't believe you walked that far. You wanna walk back, or you want the chair?"

If she let go of the sink, she'd collapse. "Chair." It was hard to admit, but she may just have blown every bit of energy she had on a pee break.

He held the chair as she got in and rolled her to the other side of the suite, to the gray leather couch. She crawled out and collapsed onto the cushions. "Rita made me go out. I got my teeth cleaned. I couldn't reach the lettuce. I made a baby cry. How about you?"

David's eyebrows rose. "Not nearly so exciting. I worked out a few bugs on that new software, tried to read through a board package-- they should be called b-o-r-e-d packages, let me tell you. Then I did some research." He grinned at her. "You made a baby cry? You're mean."

She jabbed him with her finger. "Am not. It was the chair."

Something about the way his smile lit his funny face made the crappy day not quite so crappy. She couldn't help but grin back.

"You wanna order pizza?" he asked.

"Only if half is veggie."

David smiled and reached for his Trio. "Deal."

***

"It's so nice out here," Cordelia said. She and David sat on the patio off her room, watching the sun set over the ocean. David's house, from what she had seen of it, was a concrete, steel and glass structure that hugged the hillside above Malibu. He'd put her on the side facing the water, so that when she sat at the table next to the doors, she had the best view.

David looked up from the latest issue of Wired on his PDA. "It's great, isn't it?" He stared out at the sunset, bursts of red and gold over the spangled water. "I never came out here till you moved in. I almost forgot about the view."

Cordelia rolled her eyes and wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck. "Only you would move into a house with a multi-million dollar view, and wind up spending more screen time than back-yard time." She rolled her wheelchair away from the table and left the remains of dinner behind.

Since she'd awakened a month ago, and had finally gotten strong enough to wheel the chair on her own, David had the path off the patio fitted with pavers so she could move around the yard.

David laid his little computer down and followed her. "Well, you know, all that screen time is what got me where I am today," he said, coming up behind her so he could push her along.

"Why'd you buy this house, anyway?"

The gravel crunched under the tires and a light breeze blew. The jacaranda trees fluttered in the evening breeze. "You really wanna know?"

She looked over her shoulder at him. "Yeah."

"One of the guys from Kiss owned it. I thought it was cool, so I bought it."

Cordy couldn't believe it. "You bought a Riker-designed house because someone from *Kiss* owned it?"

His eyebrows went up. "Who's Riker?"

Cordy shook her head and turned around. "Because Kiss is a much better conversation-starter than Riker."

David laughed, that oddly self-effacing laugh. "Well, yeah. I need every ounce of cool I can get."

They rolled along the path and Cordy thought about what it was like to be cool. To be the one everyone looked up to.

Hardly her life anymore.

In the last two weeks it had become a nightly ritual. Dinner together, then a turn around the yard. Compared to her life before, it felt isolated, strange. She was used to walking everywhere, doing for herself. And she was used to doing it in middle-class surroundings.

Once in her life she'd have felt right at home in David's wealth; it would have been no less than she deserved. Now she just felt useless, out of place.

She couldn't even look at her legs. They were like a sick person's legs, pale and spindly. All her bones stuck out in the wrong places. Her boobs sagged. Her skin was pasty.

She was her worst fricking nightmare and boy, did she appreciate the irony that she'd finally gotten what she'd always wanted...and she didn't have her health, or the desire to enjoy it.

She glanced over her shoulder and saw David waiting for her to say something. "I don't think perving over hentai counts toward your corporate earnings."

His face lit. "Hey, I only go to those sites for the game reviews."

Cordy snorted. "Oh, please, I saw your favorites list. 'Naughty Dickgirls on Ice'?"

It was good exercise for her to roll the chair, but Rita had busted Cordy's ass in workout today, so she figured it wouldn't hurt to let David drive for awhile. It wasn't like her legs were going anywhere, anyway.

He rolled her off the sidewalk and onto one of the smaller, gravel paths. The wheels sunk and he laughed. "Note to self: buy Cordelia her own laptop so she'll leave mine alone."

She held on as he backed up a few steps and came at the chair full force. With a bump, she was moving again, flying over the path.

By the time they made it to the fountain, he was out of breath. "I always thought wheelchairs were for the old and deformed," he said. "But this one's actually fun." He was glowing from the exertion and his eyes were bright and happy. "I should get one, too. That way, we could have races and stuff."

She'd come across a tiny hockey jersey and sticks after Connor was taken. Gunn told her how he and Angel had played in the lobby, how they broke a window. How many times had they all played together down there? Video games, board games, hunt the vamp, with Fred as vamp- bait?

God, she missed her family. It hurt in ways she'd never imagined that they didn't seem to miss her. No one called to check on her. No one came by. She was stuck by herself with virtual strangers, cut off from her world. Cut off from her body.

"I like seeing you like this," he said. "You seem a little better every day."

"Uh huh," she said, barely even registering what he'd said.

He lay back on the bench and stared up at the darkening sky. "I'd gotten boring, you know?"

She stared out at the sunset. "Boring? You?" She couldn't stop thinking about the hotel. About Angel, smiling at her as she came through the doors. About Wes's tea set and Connor's diaper bag.

David cut his eyes at her. "This from, Miss I-go-to-bed-with-a-book- at-eight?"

She glanced at him. The dimming golden light hit his face, highlighting his eyes. "Hey, coma girl, here! I have an excuse for being boring. You don't."

"Must be genetic, or something. Anyway, I'd just been wishing for the days when I was young and carefree. And there you were, offering me a chance to be, well, young and carefree."

Her forehead wrinkled. "David, did I not mention I was in a coma? How, exactly does taking care of a comatose patient equal young and carefree?"

He sat up and propped his elbows on his knees. "Hell if I know. I just figured it was you, you know, your energy and stuff. You always accepted me, never came around asking for money."

"I thought about propositioning you once," she said, letting some of her anger snap loose. "Then I decided you were too boring."

Hurt flashed across his face. "Everyone wants a piece of me. What can I say?"

And now she felt like she'd squashed a puppy. "I'm sorry, David. That came out wrong." She turned her face toward the fountain so she wouldn't have to look at him. "Ever since I...came back, I've been feeling strange. You know? Like I'm not supposed to be here. Like I don't have a purpose."

He rolled off the fountain and knelt at her feet. "That's stupid. You have more purpose than--"

"Than who? Starving children in Africa? David, look at me!" She tugged at her hair. "I'm a freak! I'm ugly! My family doesn't even want me."

He winced.

"And my visions are gone. My mission. I'm a lump in a wheelchair, taking your money, living in your house. For what? Really, for *what*? You should have let them put me in that home!"

That hurt look was back. "You don't get it, do you?" He shook his head. "Even when you were asleep, you made my life better. It sounds stupid, but I felt like I could talk to you, no matter what. Like you heard me."

She laughed bitterly. "I was asleep, David! You were talking to coma girl!"

"You don't think I know that?" He stood, paced to the fountain. "You all think I'm just some-- some emotional retard. You think, 'poor David, he's such a loser,' and you're right, you know?"

"Dav--"

"Just shut up! Cordelia, all right? Shut up." He turned and paced back to her, standing tall in the soft breeze. The light silhouetted him, and for the first time she saw him as someone other than weak, ineffectual David. "You made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself. Before the coma, I mean. When I knew you before, you were the only person who didn't want me for my money, who treated me normal. And when I saw the chance to help you, I took it."

He whirled and stared out across the hills to the sparkling rise of ocean. "Maybe that was the desperate act of a loser. But it's what I did."

She sat, stunned. "David, I--"

"You know, let's just go back to the house. I've got a ton of meetings tomorrow I need to get ready for."

Cordy bit her lip, desperate to say something that would make it better. "I'd say I'm sorry, but I think we were both telling the truth."

He heaved her across the gravel, taking his time getting the chair rolling. "It's fine, Cordy. Really."

The trip back to the house was agonizingly slow. She found herself missing the flight over the gravel, his laughter. When he got her to the patio, he parked the chair carefully next to the table and stepped away. "You can get in by yourself, right?"

It was deep purple now, and hard to see his face. That sense of isolation was back, stronger than ever. "Yeah."

He went through the doors and she saw him silhouetted against the sheers. He didn't stop, just walked out of her sight, and she heard the door to her bedroom close.

Cordy banged her fist against her leg. "Way to go, dumbass. Piss off your meal ticket. You'll be rolling into a homeless shelter any day now."

But she knew it was more than that. What David said meant something to her. She didn't know what she was here for, but David's faith gave her something to cling to.

She stared out at the lights, twinkling awake in the city below.

Chapter 3

"Cordy, could I see you for a moment?" It was David, at the door to her room, sounding very formal. Obviously he was still pissed about last night.

She put her book on the bedside table and sat up against he pillows. "Sure, come in."

He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked everywhere but at her. "It's my turn to host game night."

"That sounds like fun," she said. "Anyone I know coming?"

He cut his eyes at her. "That's kind of it. Knox is coming, and he's bringing Fred."

Cordy had been joking, trying to draw him out. She never expected the answer to be yes. "Well, that's-- Huh." She stared down at her legs, wasted sticks under the plush comforter, and tried to imagine facing anyone from her former life. Even though she'd desperately wanted them to come.

"She asked about you. She wanted to come see you. Actually, she's wanted to several, times, but I keep putting her off."

A flash of anger burst in her chest. "Really? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I don't know," he said, defensively. "Look, what do you want to do about it? I can't keep her away. It would be too strange."

Cordy twisted the sheet between her fingers. What if Fred knew about the other life? Would Angel know, too? Her stomach clenched. She couldn't face him yet, not like this. "Fred can't keep a secret to save her life. There's no way she can see me."

He stared toward the double doors toward the garden. "Maybe you could pretend to still be asleep."

Her heart jumped. "What?"

David stuck his hands in the pockets of his khakis. "You know, pretend to be in a coma. You wanted to act once, right? Now's your chance."

She couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic or not. But he was right. Much as it creeped her out, it was the only way. And maybe she could get him to mention something that would clue her in as to what Fred knew. "When are they coming?"

"Eight o'clock."

This would be so much easier if she'd just see Angel. But the thought of facing him, looking like this, when he had a whole, healthy Buffy by his side.... And even more, what if he didn't remember. Or, oh, God. What if he did? She nodded. "I'll do it."

"Great," he said. His hand was on the doorknob when she called his name. He turned. "Yeah?"

"Thank you. I don't think I've really said that, yet." She smiled at him, realizing for the first time just how truly grateful she was that he'd rescued her.

His face, set in hard lines, softened slightly. "You're welcome."

"Hey, David. How's tricks?" Rita bustled through the door, nearly running him down.

He nodded at Rita, then turned back to Cordy. "I'll see you tonight?"

She nodded. "Rita and I will get it all set up. Don't worry about a thing."

"Yeah," Rita said, helping Cordy stand. "We'll set it all up. What are we setting up?"

***

"I still don't like it," Rita said, as she inserted the IV needle into the back of Cordy's hand.

Cordy grimaced at the sharp jab. "Really? From the way you're poking me with that thing, I'd never have guessed." Cordy smoothed the collar of her satin pajamas and settled against the pillows.

"Ha ha." Rita adjusted the drip. It was the same thing Cordy had been getting before: nutrients and water. She figured it was the safest to make the whole set-up look as real as possible.

Cordy watched as Rita taped the needle down. Getting her to agree had been a bitch. She thought Cordy should be happy to be awake, and didn't understand why she'd want to lie to her friends.

Cordy explained that she wasn't ready to see them yet--she wanted to be walking again, full strength, before she presented herself to the world. That much was true.

It was the part about that other life that she didn't mention.

A vase of jasmine sat by the bedside, its slick-sweet scent permeating the air. "Smells like a funeral parlor in here," Rita said.

"You don't think it's nice to have flowers for my friend's visit?"

Rita huffed and picked up her journal and her fountain pen. "I'm gonna write about you tonight, missy. You and your lying ways." She waved the leather book at Cordy. Even from here, Cordy could see her fingers were tipped blue with the ink.

"You work for a computer geek, and yet you refuse to do anything on screen," Cordy said, hoping to change the subject.

"Don't think you can placate me by changing the subject. I'll be back at nine to take your IV out," Rita said. "I should just leave it in there all night."

Cordy's hand was still sore and bruised from wearing the IV for all those months. And it ached now, having the needle back in. "You wouldn't."

"I might." Then her face softened. "I don't know what you think you have to prove to these people, Cordelia. I thought they were your family."

"I did, too," Cordy said, looking down at her hand. When she looked up, Rita was gone and she was alone in the room.

She stared at the jasmine on the table, which she'd finally decided was safer than having David try to bring the subject up. No way David could make it through without leaning over her and yelling, "Line!" Plus, she'd have to explain why she wanted him to bait Fred, and nothing she thought of seemed plausible.

Hopefully she could carry off enough of a lie that Fred would believe she was still asleep. She heard voices in the hall and stiffened. This was it.

Closing her eyes, she tried to even her breath, make herself look at peace. Just as the door swung open she realized that her Vogue lay open on the bed next to her.

"Wow, her room's really nice," Fred said.

Crap. Maybe she wouldn't notice the magazine.

"Smells good, too. Is that jasmine?" The carpet muffled the sound of her footsteps, but when she spoke again, Cordy could tell she was standing by the table. "Mmm, I love jasmine. I knew someone named Jasmine once--"

Cordy tensed.

"Really?" David asked. "It's an unusual name."

Fred laughed. "Unusual for Texas, I can assure you. She was in my fifth grade class," she said, and her voice moved back toward the bed.

Cordy blew out a long, slow breath and willed her heart to slow down.

Long, slim fingers gripped hers. "Cordy? It's me, Fred. It's so good to see you. You look wonderful."

There was the sound of rustling cloth as Fred settled into the chair. "She looks much better, David. Not nearly so puffy."

"Uh huh," David said.

Cordy forced her face to stay in that blank, relaxed mode.

"You wouldn't believe how busy we've been. Wes is Mr. Efficiency. His department always gets its reports in before deadline. And Gunn?" She laughed. "You should see him now, all lawyerly." She leaned closer and said, under her breath, "He looks pretty fine in those suits, let me tell you."

The stuff about Wes she could easily believe. But Gunn? Lawyerly? Cordy felt her forehead wrinkle and immediately tried to smooth it

"Oh, look, a Vogue!" Cordy felt a weight on her body as Fred leaned across her, and tried not to stiffen. "Were you reading to her, David? That's so sweet!"

"Uh...yeah. She likes the part about the, uh, you know, fashion stuff?"

The magazine hit the bedside table with a flat slap. "She always dressed so well. I looked up to her, you know? She was so beautiful, such a great dresser, and now she's...."

Cordy's hand tightened.

"Wow! She grabbed my hand!"

David cleared his throat. "Uh, yeah, she's been doing that some lately."

"Maybe it means she's waking up."

"Maybe. Look, I gotta run down to the game room and make sure everything's set up. Just buzz Rita on the phone when you're done and she'll come finish with Cordy for the night."

"Okay, excellent. Thanks, David. I've been wanting to see her, but I didn't want to intrude."

"No problem. See you in a bit."

He must have gone because Fred said, "I didn't want to say it in front of him, but Angel really misses you. He doesn't show it much, but sometimes, if I catch him alone-- Anyway. He and Buffy seem to be having some trouble. Not that I'm glad about that. I like Buffy. I just always thought you and he had something special."

She sighed and let go of Cordy's hand. Cordy heard her shift, and then felt her hairbrush pulling through her hair. Okay, that was totally annoying. But Fred probably thought they were bonding.

"I never thought I'd be working at Wolfram and Hart. I mean, we always talked about how evil they were. But now that I'm there, I see they're just people, you know? Doing a job. And they have great cinnamon rolls!

"Don't get me wrong, I haven't stopped working on a cure for you. Wes and I are still poring over all the research we can find. It's just that it's taking so long, and sometimes I feel like, no matter what I do it's not enough."

She fell silent. "Do you ever feel that way? Like what you do isn't enough?" Fred laughed. "Of course you don't. You're Cordy. Even in a coma you have rich guys falling all over you to make your life perfect. I swear, if I ever got in a coma, I'd end up at the VA hospital with the old guys with no legs."

It was scary that she'd actually followed that, Cordy thought. Fred's circular logic was familiar and soothing, like the feel of the brush tugging through her hair had become. Cordy actually found herself sad when Fred put the brush away and stopped talking.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, and the Fred spoke. "I miss you. I always knew you were the heart, you know? But I didn't realize that you were also the conscience." Her voice dropped. "Angel-- He's doing how he knows best. And God knows, having all that pressure on him has to be hard. But sometimes...."

She paused and took a breath. "He crosses lines I don't think he should cross. Lines you wouldn't let him cross. Like that time he killed the black ops man? I mean, I know he was evil, but still."

It took everything Cordy had in her to stay still, to not sit up and go, "WHAT?"

"I just can't talk to anyone about it. Gunn's too busy lawyering, and Wes is too busy running his department, and Lorne's too busy eating at chichi restaurants with movie stars. Everyone seems really happy, but me. I go home at night sometimes and cry. Because as good as the money is? I miss our other life."

Maybe pretending to be sick wasn't such a good idea. She was getting a picture of a group that had lost its mission, its soul. How had they ended up working at Wolfram and Hart, anyway? God, she so wanted to ask Fred that. To find out what she remembered.

"Oh, wow. Look at the time." Cordy heard her stand and then felt the brush of Fred's lips on her forehead. "I have to go. Can I come see you again? I've missed our talks. I know Angel's missed his. I think he's wanted to come, but doesn't feel like he can do that to Buffy, you know?"

Fred squeezed her hand. "David's taking good care of you. I'm glad to see that. And I should so go, but I hate to." She took a deep breath. "Okay, I'm going. What was your nurse's name again? Oh, right, Rita." Fred fumbled with the buttons on the phone. "Rita? It's Fred. I'm done in here now."

"I'll be right there, Fred." Rita's voice was as bright as if she'd been sitting in the same room with them.

"Thanks. So, okay," Fred said, and even without looking Cordy knew she was talking to her again. "Talk to you soon? God, Fred, just leave. It's not like she can hear you."

Cordy counted to sixty before she opened her eyes. "Actually, she can," she whispered.

***

Cordy sat at the table staring out the window at the rain. It came down in sheets, beating against the windows, blowing back against itself, and turning the world your basic, non-fashionable gray.

"Perfect," she said, frowning. Just what she needed. One of those rare summer storms. After Fred's confessions last night, she felt pulled in two directions, and totally depressed. The last thing she wanted was to look out the window and see a reflection of her own, pissy mood.

She stood on her crutches and turned toward the living area of her suite. "Ah! David, you scared me."

He stood just inside the bedroom door, watching her. "Yeah. Sorry."

"What's up?" Okay, this was weird. Why was he looking at her like that? "How was game night?"

"It was fine." He frowned at her. "Why didn't you tell me you missed your birthday?"

Cordy's forehead wrinkled. "What?"

"Your birthday. You missed it while you were in the coma, and you never told me."

She shook her head. "I don't know. I mean, I thought about it, but--" Now she was feeling flustered. "What's this about, anyway? You're not still pissed, are you? Because--"

"Fred told me last night," he said, the frown deepening.

Fred knew when her birthday was? Cordy thought back to the year before when-- Her stomach clenched.

"Cordy?"

She shook her head to clear it. "Huh?"

David stepped into the room, and she saw that he was dressed for the damp day in gray jeans and a burgundy cotton sweater, with a gray T- shirt underneath. He held a red plastic bag from the Virgin Megastore.

He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I yelled at you the other night. And I'm sorry you missed your birthday. And--" He pulled something out of the bag and handed it to her. "Here."

And suddenly she was in the Hyperion lobby. "Oh, wanting. Wanting presents!" she'd said, and they'd all gathered around, with a cake and presents wrapped with too-much tape.

And Angel. He'd been such a dork, shuffling on his feet, talking about champions and important stuff. She hadn't been paying much attention because she was distracted by presents and baby snuggles.

The memory faded, and she found herself staring down at David's gift. She sat on the couch, lay the crutches down beside her, and took it from him. "It's-- It's from Tiffany." She held a little blue bag, and in it she could see a small box, about the size of the one Angel gave her last year.

"Yeah," David said, breaking into her thoughts. "Anise said that girls like stuff from Tiffany, so I had them open the store for me this morning and I picked it out." He smiled at her, the same hopeful, anxious look Angel had worn.

Angel had said, "Who's more important than--"

She realized now that she'd never opened his gift. Between the vision, and Skip and what she now knew was Jasmine....

"Aren't you gonna open it?"

"Oh, oh sure." She pulled the box out of the bag. "The last time I got something from Tiffany was my sixteenth birthday. I'd almost forgotten what the box looked like." She forced herself to smile. "Thank you."

And then there'd been Connor, smelling like milky formula and the Crabtree & Evelyn baby soap she bought for him. He was a warm, sweet weight in her arms.

She'd been holding him when the vision hit-- "Take the baby."

"You're choosing birthday gifts over my kid?"

"Take the baby! Take the baby!" And then--

The vision had hit, hard, hard enough to knock her right out of her body. Even though she'd been all floaty, she'd been terrified when the shadow had swooped through the room. That was the first time she'd seen Skip. She should have paid more attention to her intuition. It'd had been warning her the whole time.

Her jaw clenched. "Lying bastard."

"Huh?"

Cordy glanced up. "What?"

"Sounded like you said, 'lying bastard.'" David shot her one of those smiles, the kind kids who get bullied wear when they think they're about to get hit.

She thought fast. "No, I said, 'flying faster.' I was just thinking of how the years keep flying by, faster and faster."

David's smile turned rueful. "I hear ya. Next thing I know, I'll be thirty." He shook his head. "No more skateboarding barefoot through the loft for me."

Cordy squinted at him. "Huh?"

He laughed, embarrassed. "Nothing. Nothing. Still learning to talk to girls, I guess." His cheeks turned pink. "Anyway, open your present!"

She lifted the lid and found a pretty silver key chain, shaped into an open circle with knobs on either end. A round tag hung from it that said, "If found, return to Tiffany New York," and underneath was a number, which she guessed was her ID number with the company.

An ID number. If she lost it, anyone could send it back to Tiffany, and the store would return it to her. "Yes, Ms. Chase, you can pick up your keys at the Tiffany store on...."

Was that how Jasmine had chosen her? Gone through all the celestial ID numbers till she found one she liked, and said, "Send this one to LA and I'll pick her up at the Hyperion?"

She turned the silver bauble over in her hand, unscrewed one of the knobs and put it back on, realizing that she was a hell of a lot less useful now than this key ring. Angel Investigations didn't exist any more. Any hope she'd had for her and Angel was erased by Buffy's presence in his life. She didn't have the visions, didn't have a mission. She was dead weight, useless and crippled and ugly.

Rain slapped the windows, and the palm trees bent over under the force of the wind.

"Hey, Cordy, you all right?" David sank down next to her and put his hand on hers.

She stared at him. "David?" He felt so solid, his skin warm and alive against hers. "Is this real?"

He laughed uncomfortably, obviously unsure how to answer. "Who really wants to be reminded they're getting older, right? Maybe I should take everything back--"

Cordy shook her head, trying to focus. "No, that's not what I mean. I keep having these--" She gestured, not sure how to explain. "These flashbacks. Something triggers memories, only I don't know if they're real or if I dreamed them."

David's head tilted, and he studied her carefully. "Do you want me to call Rita? You don't sound so good."

What was real? Was it this world, or that one? Connor, he was Angel's baby in that world--but vampires couldn't have babies. And her and Angel? In love? She shook her head. Everyone knew that Angel and Buffy were destined for each other.

"Okay, that's it. I'm calling Rita."

Cordy shook herself out of the daze. "No, no! David, I'm fine. I'm sure it's just a side effect of sleeping for so long." Desperate, she pulled the key chain out and held it up. "Really, it's beautiful, thank you."

David stared at her, "Are you sure you're all right?"

She nodded. "I guess this means I'll have to get some keys, soon, huh?" Unless he'd gotten her a car. She remembered a check he'd written once, just for hanging with them.

His brow wrinkled. "Oh, right. You don't have any keys...well, I can get you a house key, and I have a whole bunch of cars I never drive. You can have keys to as many of them as you want." He waved his hand. "That wasn't the real gift, though. That was, you know, 'cause Anise said--" He shook his head. "Anyway, here's the real gift."

David reached into the Virgin bag and pulled out a flat box, wrapped in one of the store's gift envelopes.

Cordy took it from him, staring down at the Virgin logo, still spinning but trying hard to stay focused. "Did you get them to open the store, too?"

He nodded exuberantly. "Yeah. I know the manager. Open it! Open it!"

She lifted the flap and slid out the DVD. "'While You Were Sleeping'?" Cordy looked up at him, not at all sure what to think. "You got me a DVD about a guy in a *coma*?" At least it wasn't Flatliners or Dead Zone, for God's sake.

He clapped delightedly. "Yeah! Aren't you gonna ask me how you're gonna watch it?"

"Uh, I guess I'll just put it in the DVD player over there and--"

"Not that old thing," David said, giggling. He opened the bedroom door and nodded to someone in the hall. "Not when you can play it in this!"

Cordy's mouth fell open as two guys in coveralls rolled several boxes in on a hand truck. "David?"

He laughed. "I got you a new entertainment center! It's so cool!"

One guy opened the doors to the antique armoire that had been fitted to hold electronics, and started unhooking the TV, VCR and DVD player. The other slit open the biggest box with his knife. The smell of new wiring and plastic filled the air.

In less than fifteen minutes they were rolling the empty hand truck out into the hall and handing David the instruction sheets.

He took them and signed for the delivery. "Thanks," he said, waving jauntily.

"No problem," one said, and they closed the door behind them.

Cordy shook her head. "That was amazing."

"Yeah, it's a really cool system." David rolled her over next to the couch, and sat down so they were shoulder to shoulder.

"No, I meant the guys. Usually, if I buy anything new like that it takes me days to hook it up. Wes usually--" She stopped and fiddled with the DVD.

David glanced up from the remote. "Oh, those guys are great. They do all my installation if I don't have time to do it myself." He grabbed the DVD. "You mind if I--?"

Cordy shook her head. "No, go ahead."

He popped it in, then sat down next to her again. "See this remote?" He held it up. "It controls everything, so we can get rid of the three you had to use before." He grabbed them off of the end table and pitched them toward the garbage can next to the desk.

"And this DVD player? Top of the line. Has a Shannon & Fluency filter." The FBI warning tag popped up on the screen. He leaned closer and showed her which buttons went with which machine.

She'd just gotten used to working the other three remotes, and now she was gonna have to learn a new one? Cordy tried to follow, but got lost after "Punch AV 1 for videos, and AV 2 for DVDs. But make sure you also hit this button so the speakers come on--"

Sound flooded the room. The music loop on the DVD menu, apparently.

"You can't make a cheat sheet, can you?" she asked.

"Oh, sure! That'd be fun! I've got this cool little software package that lets me draw stuff on my Trio. I can draw the remote for you and make a list of how you turn everything on. It'll be way cool!"

She smiled. "You're a big old nerd."

"I thought we once confirmed that was part of the public record." He thumbed through the menu. "Wanna watch a movie?"

"Don't you have to work?"

"Oh, sure, sometime." He shrugged. "I don't have any meetings till after lunch, so I'm free all morning.

"Well, sure. But only if we can have popcorn. And only if you explain to Rita why I'm skipping my morning workout."

"I'm not explaining anything to Rita! But I'll order the popcorn."

"Chicken."

"Yeah." He picked up the phone and dialed the kitchen. "Hey, John. Can we have popcorn and movie stuff in Cordy's room?"

David's life was so strange. Opening Tiffany early, getting stereo equipment delivered and set up, having popcorn for breakfast.

She shivered. Had she chosen this life while she was asleep? Had another conversation with Skip she didn't remember?

"What kind of milkshake do you want?" David asked.

"Chocolate's great."

David hung up the looked over at her. "I've been thinking. You know, about what you said?"

Cordy shook her head. "When?"

"It was about feeling, I don't know, un-missioned? Like you didn't have anything to do?"

She shrugged and looked down at her hands. Tried to remember the last vision she'd had that was hers and not Jasmine's--the girl on Oak Street, had they saved her? "Yeah?"

"Well, I was thinking. You can't actually go into an office yet, but I've got this charity function that needs planning, and the woman who was doing it at work? Maternity leave." He shook his head. "I'm glad for her and all--they've tried a long time to have a baby. But now I don't have anyone to do it and I thought maybe you could. It'd, you know, give you something to do?"

He looked as unsure of himself as he had, earlier, when he gave her the key chain. She found herself warmed by his confidence in her. "I guess I could give it a shot. If I can tear myself away from the plasma TV."

"Great! I was hoping you'd say that. I've got the files in the car." His gaze dropped. "Only one thing. You'd have to work with Wolfram and Hart. We're planning it together."

Her breath caught in her throat. "Not Angel?"

He shook his head. "Just one of his people. But he'd be at the dinner. So if you went, you'd see him there."

The look on his face triggered a memory, and all the other times she'd seen it fell into place like lock tumblers. "Why don't you want me to see Angel?"

David glanced away. "I don't know what you mean."

"You do this all the time. Every time his name comes up, you freak."

His head whipped around. "I do not freak."

"Uh huh. You look...I don't know. Wigged? Like something bad's gonna happen if I see Angel."

David fidgeted. "Yeah, well, I just know that you guys have, um, history. And I don't want you to get hurt." His voice had the ring of almost-truth.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "That's sweet, but you're still holding back."

He stood, too quickly, and went to the door. "I'll just get those files."

Chapter 4

Cordy took a deep breath and stepped on the pad in front of the medical center's doors. They swished open and she walked into the lobby leaning heavily on her cane. A fountain gurgled in the center of the large, tiled floor, surrounded by waving ferns.

At the end of the lobby was an elevator bank. She slid her finger down the directory. "Fitch," she said, under her breath. "Third floor."

Adam Fitch was the doctor recommended by David's HMO. He'd come by right after she woke up, and his office kept tabs on her through Rita's notes.

She'd been working out with Rita every morning but her left leg still wasn't getting any better. Cordy knew Rita was worried when she finally recommended that Cordy go in for tests.

She was down to her last few pain pills, too. She didn't take them often--the woozy, cottony feeling reminded her too much of that last year with the visions.

The only good thing she could see was that this was way different than that first trip to the dentist. No sensory overwhelm. No crying babies, unless she decked them with the cane. "I'm here to see Doctor Fitch. I have a two o'clock."

She sat and waited, flipping through the magazine, until about 2:20.

"Miss Chase?"

Cordy stood and followed the nurse, who was clad in pink scrubs, down the shiny, linoleum hall.

"In here." She directed Cordy into an exam room. "Doctor Fitch will be right in."

There was a chair next to the exam table, so she sat. A picture of an anatomical drawing of a man hung on the wall. She was sounding out names like "sciatic nerve" and "crest of greater trochanter" when the door opened.

Wow. Doctor Fitch was cute. "Hi. I'm Cordelia." She stood and stuck out her hand.

"Adam Fitch. We've met, but you may not remember." His bright blue eyes seemed to take in everything about her at once. "Your comeback is amazing, can I just say?"

"Any time you want to use the word amazing to describe me, you go right ahead," she said, shooting him her brightest smile.

He ran his hand through a shock of pool-boy blond hair and opened her file. "I hear you're having some trouble with the leg. That's to be expected." He patted the exam table. "Hop up here and let's see what's going on."

She climbed up and he started probing her hip and thigh muscles and bending her leg. Just as she was about to make a flirtatious comment about the placement of his hands, he turned her leg the wrong way. "Ow!"

"Sorry." His head was almost buried in her breasts, but his eyes were closed as he manipulated her leg--it was almost like he was listening to her body talk to him.

Finally he stood. "Walk for me."

Cordy slid carefully off the table and walked from one end of the small office to another. Dr. Fitch wrote something in her file.

"We need to do some x-rays and see what's going on in there." He glanced at his watch. "If you'll make another appointment at the front desk, we'll check it out."

***

They sat in the quiet kitchen eating peanut butter sandwiches. Cordy had a pile of potato chips and a glass of milk; David put the chips right on his sandwich. "More efficient this way," he said, as he took a crunchy bite.

Cordy glanced at the cane leaning against the wall behind her. She didn't like to think she was clinging to this safe haven he'd created for her. But she was walking now, unsteadily and with a limp, but she was walking.

She'd thought a lot about that day when she'd gotten home from the dentist. Her commitment not to take life lying down--or sitting down. And now that she was standing, she knew she needed to take the next step.

But the thought of letting him go, of living on her own was so overwhelming. That's how she knew it was time. "I need to talk to you about something, David."

He glanced up. "Sounds serious."

Cordy looked down at her hands. "I guess it is, in a way."

His hands covered hers, long-fingered and surprisingly graceful. "What is it. Are you okay?"

Her gaze snapped up. "Oh, David I'm fine. It's just--" She blew out a breath, looked up at the halogen lights over the sink. "I think it's time I moved out on my own."

He did that tilty thing with his head. "Huh?"

"Not now, I mean, obviously. But soon, you know? I can't depend on you forever, no matter how much I--" She pressed her lips together, surprised at how emotional she was feeling. "Anyway. Thank you for keeping me going."

He was still sitting there with his mouth open.

"David?"

"Wow. I just.... Wow." He looked away and his Adam's Apple bobbed. "I kinda wanted you to stay forever."

Oh, crap. She pressed her hands to her eyes, totally confused by what was happening. She didn't want to leave him, and he didn't want her to go, but she felt like she had to.

After what happened with Jasmine, she had to be the captain of her own ship, the ruler of her own life. She could never really explain that to David, because he didn't even know who Jasmine was.

When he turned to her, he looked resigned. "I guess I knew this day would come. And believe me, I understand. Or, well, obviously I don't, since I've never been in a coma." He laughed, a dry, breathless laugh. "But it makes sense. You're an independent woman. You need your own space, and, really who wants to live with a--"

She covered his mouth with her fingers. "If you say 'geek' I will kick your ass."

He went totally still, then pulled away and stared at her.

"David, I'm terrified of being on my own. I can't imagine eating dinner without you. And that's exactly why I have to go. Does that make any sense?"

"Uh, yeah. Sure." His voice broke.

Cordy put her hand over his and squeezed. "Hey, I'm not going far. You *so* need someone to give you clothing tips. Otherwise, it's Queer Eye for you."

"Right. Break my heart, then threaten my life." He took a deep breath then put his sandwich down on his plate. "Obviously you're the perfect woman for me."

She smiled at him shakily. "Obviously."

***

"I had them clean it up really good for you. Not that there was much to do— Evidently everyone who lived here moved out pretty quickly." David bounced on the toes of his Chucks and shoved his hands into the pockets of his loose jeans. "I heard it was haunted," he said, leaning over to whisper it in her ear.

She looked around at her apartment. Felt Dennis—oh, God, Dennis, I'm *home*--ruffle her hair, pat her hands, kiss her face. It felt incredible to smile and cry at the same time. A real Hallmark moment, she thought, with a laugh. "It is."

"No way."

"Uh huh." She smiled up into the air. "Dennis, meet David Nabbit. David, Dennis."

David flinched as a breeze tugged at his shirt sleeve. "Uh, hi." But he smiled gamely.

The apartment looked just like it did when she first moved in, still furnished with the same couch and tables, and there was that stain on the floor under the window where she'd watered that fern to death.

She limped over to the window and looked out at her view. "I don't know how to thank you, David. This is just incredible." When she turned to smile at him, he was looking at her with real affection and warmth. She returned the look. He was a geek, sure, but he had such a good heart. "Not that your place wasn't incredible, though, don't get me wrong."

He strolled over to stand with her and look out at the hills. "Well, all that space can get kinda lonely. I always thought it'd be nice to have a place like this, small and cozy and…haunted." That boyish grin flashed.

"Lucky for me, Dennis and I had an agreement. No one but me was allowed to live here. Thank goodness the landlord finally figured it out."

"Lucky for you, I bought the building."

Cordy rolled her eyes. "You didn't."

He nodded. "After that guy told you that you couldn't have the place for the same price as before? I mean, hey, I always wanted a place like this, like I said. And rent control…well, there's a reason it exists."

"I'm not sure whether to kick you or kiss you."

David blushed. "Um—" His voice broke. "I'd probably be better with the kicking. I mean, girls are more likely to react that way to me."

"Come here." She reached up and pulled him down by the collar and pressed her lips to his. She pulled away, laughing and blushing, surprised by how soft, how innocent his mouth felt. So fresh, so real.

David's face was beet red and he tugged at the collar of his shirt. "Uh—thanks."

She grinned. "Well, I figured I owed you, what with getting my apartment back for me, not to mention the months of—"

His face went serious. "Cordelia, you don't owe me anything. Promise me you understand that. I didn't do this for any reason other than that I respected you and I wanted you to have the best care possible."

There was a funny, warm feeling in her chest. "That's just— Thanks." She smiled and held out her hand. "Once I get my stuff moved back in…." She didn't even know where it was anymore. Her clothes, her shoes, her pictures. Having it all back would be really strange, like stepping into someone else's life.

"Oh, I have it."

"My stuff?"

He went over to the couch and plopped down, propping his feet on the coffee table. "Yeah, I got it from Angel when we moved you to my house." He jumped up, a bundle of energy as always, and disappeared into the kitchen. Cabinet doors opened and shut and the silver splash of water on porcelain hit the air.

Cordy sucked in a breath and forced back tears. This apartment had always meant something bigger to her than just a place for her stuff.

It meant she wasn't being punished anymore. Not for being a bitch in high school, or for being Jasmine's toady. Thoughts of Jasmine brought a little pill of guilt, hard to swallow, and always on the back of her tongue.

David bopped back into the living room. "So I'll have your stuff sent over this afternoon and Rita will help get you settled in. They put some food in the fridge for you and, uh—" He stopped, his lightning- quick mind spinning off to the next thing.

"Yeah. So I have a meeting with FedEx. We're doing the upgrade on their tracking software." He grabbed her hand and swung it loosely between them. "I've got my phone if you need anything. Otherwise I probably won't see you until tomorrow. Dinner with the guys from the Getty museum. They need a big check." He rolled his eyes, then waved and was gone.

She watched the door close behind him. Silence settled over the apartment and she felt Dennis wrap himself around her. "Hi," she whispered. "How ya been?"

The words, the horror story of her life since she left over a year before, tumbled out into the quiet apartment. She'd never been Catholic—really didn't even understand why anyone would go to church— but there in the quiet confines of her apartment, the concept of confession made sense to her.

Even if Dennis could talk back, she knew he wouldn't have. That he'd have just listened, without judging, to the story of how she let her pride, a need to be needed, and her desire to help lead her into making a decision that was the mother of all stupid decisions. How she'd fucked with Angel's head, fucked his son, and nearly fucked over the world.

How she didn't deserve what David was giving her. She was living a lie, but it was another lie the universe seemed bent on perpetrating with her.

And Connor, God. Connor. The sweet baby who'd been a miracle child, then a pawn in Jasmine's game, then a hopeless, crazy man who'd given his own life at the hands of his father.

What she wouldn't give to hit the reset button on her memories. To be as free and clear of all that crap as everyone else in the world seemed to be. But maybe that was her own version of hell. To live with the guilt, the secrets and lies, to know the role she'd played and to never be able to speak of it. With anyone but a ghost.

***

Cordy leaned her cane against the wall, set the groceries on the floor, and stuck her key in the lock. "God, my leg is killing me," she grumbled as she swung the door open.

Grocery shopping with a cane and no car was about as much fun as getting a third eye from a Skilosh. "Dennis, could you get the door?" It swung open and she saw David sitting on the couch.

"Hey, can I help you with that stuff?" He bolted up, dropping his Trio on the coffee table.

"David?"

He kissed her cheek. "Hey. I was starting to get worried." He took both bags of groceries and schlepped them to the kitchen. "You look beat. I was worried you would be." He frowned. "I have all these cars to play with. You have to at least borrow one sometime. No one should have to ride the bus in LA."

She hobbled into the kitchen behind him. "Oh, David. You know I can't take a car on top of everything else--" She glanced at the table.

White boxes of take-out sat on the table, next to an open pink plastic bag, full of chopsticks and fortune cookies. "But I can *so* eat. How long have you been here?" She grabbed one of the grocery bags and pulled out the cereal.

David put the half-gallon of milk it in the fridge. "Just a little while." He glanced at his watch and his eyebrows flew up. "Wow, actually, more than a little while. More like a couple of hours." He leaned in like a man with a secret. "Dennis and I were reading baseball stats."

Cordy dropped paper towels and toilet paper on the counter. "Dennis is a huge fan. His main problem is that he likes the Yankees."

"Where do you want the peanut butter?"

"In the cabinet next to the sink. Everyone knows the Yankees suck," she said, winking at David.

Dennis replied by stripping a set of chopsticks from the wrapper and pointing them at her chest. Cordy rolled her eyes and plucked them from the air. "See what I mean?"

David laughed. "Hey, I respect a man who loves his team." He put a loaf of bread on the counter and folded the empty bag. "So, should I even ask how your day was?"

She smoothed her bag flat and put both of them under the sink next to the garbage can. "Not bad, actually." Water streamed out of the faucet and she soaped her hands. "Wanna wash up?"

He took the soap under her and shared the water. Their fingers slipped across each other and Cordy grinned and tangled them together. "You brought me dinner. That is so sweet."

David's gaze slid away. "Yeah, well, I was worried you were overdoing it."

She turned off the faucet and dried her hands, then gave him the towel. "Plus, you wanted to hang with my ghost."

They sat and started dishing food onto the plates he'd set out. "So, your day?"

"I talked to Joanna at Evil Central and we're clicking along for the party." She stared down at the white containers, her mind clicking back into planning mode. "I'm thinking, since it'll be a little chilly at night in October, we might want to have heat lamps near the tables. It's hard to cough up the big bucks if you can't grip the pen."

"Well, we want to do everything we can to ensure that they cough it up."

"The next thing on the list is getting me a job. I so need to buy a car."

His face pulled into a frown. "Wait--I thought you knew. I'm paying you for planning the dinner."

"You are?" Taking charity was one thing. Getting paid was entirely another.

"I figure I'd pay an event planner at least ten thousand to pick up the slack, so let's start there." He looked worried. "Is that okay?"

She eyeballed him. "Ten thousand? I don't know. I'll have to think about--" She gave up and grinned. "Woo hoo! I have a job!" She made her chopsticks do a can-can. "I'm gainfully employed!"

David stole a bite of pork off her plate. "Yeah, but now you have to pay me rent." His eyes twinkled.

She considered it for a moment. "I was paying seven-fifty a month on this before. Will that work?"

He rolled his eyes. "I was thinking maybe you could buy the next dinner."

"That's not fair, though, David. I need to pay you something."

"Okay, buy the next two."

"Seven-fifty. And I buy the next dinner."

When he leaned in, he looked earnest, determined. "What's the use of being rich and all-powerful if I can't help my friends?"

She thought of Angel. Rich and all-powerful and locked away in his penthouse apartment. "Not much, as far as I can see."

"Oh, I almost forgot." David hopped up, went to the fridge, and came back with a bottle of wine and two juice glasses. "I know you're not supposed to drink much with the painkillers, but I had this at one of those Rubber Chicken dinners the other night, and it actually wasn't bad." He pulled out his pocketknife and popped the corkscrew free.

"Really? What is it?" She leaned forward to look at the label. It was a Chardonnay from a Sonoma vintner.

"I'm not much of a wine guy, you know?" The cork came out with a quiet pop and he set the bottle down on the table at his elbow.

Cordelia smiled. "I'm sure it'll be great."

When he poured, it was the color of spring sunshine. Green-tinted gold, young and fresh. The sound of the wine hitting the glass was like music and she found herself relaxing, fully relaxing, for the first time since she could remember.

He handed her a glass and toasted. "To California wine and carry out."

"Cheers," she said. It tasted like honey and flowers. "Not bad," she said, surprised. "And you say you're not a wine guy."

He shrugged, sat, and picked up his chopsticks. "I know what I like," he said, looking at her.

From his expression she knew he was talking about more than the wine. She picked up her glass, strangely warmed and comforted by his words. Of her friend, who cared about her. It had been so long since anyone looked at her like that.

She found herself pulled toward him, leaning forward slowly, watching his eyes grow wide, his mouth part. When she kissed him it was sweet, soft, like the wine.

When she pulled back, he looked dazed. She smiled, pressed her fingers to her lips. Her body wasn't racing, wasn't churning. But she felt warm and content.

Then David spilled his wine and she laughed and the spell was broken.

They finished eating and while they were cleaning the kitchen, David said, "Um, I have a thing--"

She glanced over the dishtowel at him. "A thing? That sounds kinda dirty, David."

He blushed.

"You're so easy," she teased.

David cleared his throat. "Not the first time I've heard that. Anyway, what I was gonna say is, I have a charity dinner. Maybe you've heard of it. The Sutter Fund?"

She smirked. "Never heard of it. Sounds boring."

"Oh, it is. Totally. I wondered if you'd go with me." It came out in a rush, the way an inexperienced high school boy's question-popping would.

She took the next dish from him and dried it carefully. "I'd have to see Angel."

He nodded and swished his hands in the soapy water. "I understand if you don't want to--"

"How can I not? I'm planning it. I've already been stockpiling the armor."

His eyebrows rose over the top of his glasses. "I've got a mesh chest plate if you're interested."

She snorted. "As if."

They turned off the light in the kitchen and went to the couch, settling in on opposite ends. He picked up the remote. "This okay?"

She stretched her tired feet out on the coffee table. "As long as we don't watch any geeky sci-fi, we're cool." The cushions felt wonderful. She was full, relaxed, and with David and Dennis some of that deep loneliness seemed to disappear.

She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. When she woke up, the TV was off, and she was snuggled under the afghan. The apartment was quiet and dark, and she was alone again. But she smiled when she thought about David, and going back to sleep was effortless.

Chapter 5


Cordy sat in Dr. Fitch's office waiting to talk with him about the results of her first round of tests.

"Cordelia Chase." It was the same nurse as before, only this time she was wearing navy scrubs. "Dr. Fitch will see you now." She held the door open for her, and Cordy brushed by and knocked on Dr. Fitch's door.

He welcomed her in and motioned her to a chair. Then he sat and got right down to business. "We've reviewed your test results." He smiled. "The right leg looks excellent. Muscle tone and bone mass are right on target. You're at about a hundred per cent of operating capacity there."

She arched a brow. "And the left?"

"That's a bit of a different story." He held up the test results and showed her where he'd underlined a portion of the printout. "You can see here that, for whatever reason, the muscle degenerated, and has left you with permanent damage. We don't really know why, though I'm guessing its due to a defect in the structural stability of the sarcolemma."

"The sarco-huh?"

Dr. Fitch chuckled. "The thin membrane enclosing the muscle fibers."

She blinked. "So, what does that mean?

He put the film back into the manila envelope and folded his hands on the blotter. "Well, it basically means that the muscles beneath your left hip bone just aren't responding to the body's prompts to get better."

Cordy sucked in a breath. "And?"

"And we'll do some more tests." He shook his head. "I wish I could give you a definitive answer now, but I think the next round of tests will really help us pinpoint the problem."

She clenched her purse to her chest. "Will it ever improve?"

He looked down at the papers. "I really don't know. We could do surgery to remove any scar tissue, but there's no way to reverse permanent damage." His looked up at her and smiled. "But why don't we let the tests determine that for us? No use worrying till we have something to worry about, right?"

"Right," she said, over the ringing in her ears.

***

She cranked the Coldplay disk as loud as it would go. "Nobody said it was easy…. But it's such a shame for us to part…." The breeze carried her tone-deaf voice away, flinging it somewhere toward Japan. David's classic MG buzzed beneath her like a green bee, carrying her up the coast.

Under her hand the ball of the gear shift was worn smooth. The car was stripped down, bare, primitive next to the Mercedes he preferred her to drive. It was temperamental, good-looking and required a lot of attention, but that's why she liked it. That and the fact that nothing else handled Highway 1 like this.

After seeing the now less-than-charming Dr. Fitch, all she wanted to do was get away. Be alone for awhile. Think about the direction her life was taking.

Salt wind mixed with old leather and the chemical tang of Armor All and as she breathed, something in her uncoiled and let go. She thumbed off the cell phone and lost herself in the tug of gravity and the shift of gears. Her left leg ached when she shifted the clutch, but screw it. It was probably never work right again anyway.

The glass panel of the ocean cut through jutting black rocks and sliced the sunset in half. As LA dimmed in her rearview mirror, houses became sparser, dark canyons hulking to her right, home of mudslides and earthquakes, unstable earth moving somewhere way down below her like a stretching tiger.

She sneered at herself for being so poetic—something about the view always got her thinking, moping, wishing.

Wondering—what if she'd said yes to Groo? What if she'd said no to Skip?

Wrapping a long scarf around her head Garbo-style kept her hair out of her eyes; the black, zip-up sweatshirt kept the chill off of her shoulders. Curves in the road gave way to a long, straight line outside of Malibu then dipped back in, arcing in and out along the craggy coast.

Why her? Why not Buffy or Willow or the guy behind the counter at Perks?

The warbling piano of "Clocks" smoothed the rippling air. "Lights go out and I can't be saved, tides that I tried to swim against, put me down upon my knees, oh, I beg, I beg and plead…."

She tapped her fingers on the wheel in time to the music and followed the road's snakelike curves. It was nearly full night now; she'd been driving almost two hours, if you counted the time it took her to make it out of the city.

Ahead lay the silver smudge of light that was Ventura; behind was long, dark coastline cut only by the glow of the MG's red taillights. Maybe she'd stop in Ventura, have dinner, call David. Let him know she was okay.

She passed a slow-moving van just in time to see it turn off on one of the canyon roads, leaving her alone in the darkness. Not the first time she thought, remembering the months she'd been trapped in her own, comatose body.

Was it fate? Destiny? What was that Pylean word Fred had used… kyerumption?

Or was it all just a choice?

Suddenly the car sputtered.

She glanced down at the dash, with its big, round dials and strange knobs and instinctively hit the gas. The engine throbbed, shooting the little car forward, and she relaxed. The tires hummed against the tarmac and she patted the dash. "Good girl."

As she rounded another curve, the lights flickered and the car choked. "Oh, come on." She wrestled it to the side of the road just in time for the engine to rattle and die.

Coldplay gave way to silence and darkness and Cordy stared at the blank dash. "Dammit!" She opened the shell on the phone. No service. Flipping it opened and closed didn't help; the screen stayed as stubbornly blank as the dashboard.

She tried the lights again, but no dice. This far out, there were no street lamps, though when she dug in the glove compartment she came up with a small Maglite. She leaned under the dash to pop the hood. Like she'd know what to do with the thing, but it was worth a look.

Her trainers hit gravel with a soft crunch and with a metallic creak, the old metal bonnet rose against the pure night sky. The beam of light dusted the engine with gold.

Okay, that looked like a bunch of metal intestines, and ewwww, where did *that* thought come from? The beam of light traveled up the open hood, over to the slab of rocky hill standing next to the car, and around toward Ventura.

She closed the hood, went back to the car and tried the engine again. The car shook with the effort and finally caught.

"Thank *God*! I thought I was stuck out here all by myself with serious thoughts."

Cordy slipped the car into gear and hit the gas. It rolled for about ten feet then stalled. "Argh!" She banged the heel of her hand on the steering wheel. "Come *on*!" Cranked the ignition, stomped the gas…. Nothing.

She laid her head on her hands. How far away was she from Ventura? Five miles? Ten? There was no way she could walk that far. Lifting her head, she peered out into the soft, moonlit night.

Of course, she could just stay with the car. Someone would come by eventually. But the thought of sitting out here, isolated and alone, gave her the creeps.

Maybe if she walked back to that canyon road the van had turned on, she'd find a house. She thought about the hills of Malibu, and how densely populated they were, and how, even then, you had to travel sometimes miles to find the next driveway.

The wind blew, shuffling her scarf, and she yanked it off in frustration and threw it into the passenger seat. Under the visors were the latches for the convertible top. She popped them open then leaned into the back seat, undid the straps, and yanked up the top.

"Dammit!" The jagged edge of a broken nail pissed her off almost as much as the car stalling out. Finally she got the top in place, grabbed her bag and cane, and locked the car door behind her. The gravel gave under her feet, so she moved to the road, walking carefully to keep her weaker leg under her. The pavement was straight enough that she could see someone coming and get back on the shoulder.

All those cars in California, she thought, looking down the road, and none of them were here. What was *with* that?

She shivered in the chilly breeze and pulled the stretchy cotton of her sweatshirt tighter. Of course it'd be just her luck when one came by for her to wind up with a psycho, who'd tie her up like that girl from that slasher movie and turn her into a Moonie, or something.

She kicked a rock off the road and watched it skitter away into darkness. Even this far up the surf roared, and the strong arm of the wind elbowed her face. Everything was dark, salty, hard.

It was so dark that it hurt her eyes. She'd turned the light off, hoping to conserve the battery, but the moonlight wasn't bright enough to guide her. Twisting the flashlight's head and illuminated her shoes made her feel a little better—she still had some power.

Her ears picked up on something different, a hum that cut beneath the surf and wind. She turned, breath catching. Was it a car?

Cordy stepped onto the shoulder and listened as the hum changed to a whine and then a whoosh. The car came into view, blinding her with its lights. She threw up her arms to cover her face, and realized she'd effectively waved the driver down.

So much for not luring in the psychos.

The hulk of an SUV slowed, its black hide gleaming. The window rolled down. "Everything okay?"

Something in her stilled, tensed.

The truck pulled over and the driver leaned out the window. "That must have been your car I passed. MG? Probably the electrical system. Those cars are really cool, but they always lose power…."

He kept talking and talking, his tone of voice easy, light. And all she could think was, "It can't be."

The door opened and she stumbled back, stopping when she ran into the sharp bank of dirt and rock. The overhead light turned his face to shadow, and it gave her a minute to catch her breath.

And then he stepped out of the car, and the light's reflection off the rock face threw his features into shadowy relief.

Maybe somewhere, sometime, she had felt this way. Like she was light, glancing off rock. But she couldn't remember. Couldn't remember ever—

"Hey, whoa."

She must have wavered because he touched her, steadied her. His hands felt the same. Strong, sure, long-fingered. He gripped her upper arms and she didn't struggle, just stared at him.

Her lips trembled. "Connor?"

The young man shook his head, longish brown hair trimmed to a respectable cut that suited him, made him look like a college boy back home for the summer. "Nope, Ben. Hey, you all right? You look a little pale."

She nodded, feeling weak, empty. "I'm-- I'm fine." Maybe it was just her fear, and wondering about everything, and being out here alone that had her thinking this was Connor.

Maybe after all that happened, she needed it to be Connor.

"Really, I'm okay. You just-- You just reminded me of someone I knew." She shook her head and smiled, trying to assure them both that she wasn't going crazy. She held up her cell phone. "I can't get a signal. Could you maybe help me get to a phone?"

Ben smiled. "Cell phones are iffy near the canyon. Look, why don't we check the car out, see if we can get it running." He reached in and turned off the ignition, pocketing the keys in his loose jeans. An ancient, white Sex Wax T-shirt fluttered around his lean body.

She followed him to the little car, handing him the flashlight on the way.

"You from LA?"

Something in his voice—envy?—reminded her of the conversation she'd had with Buffy about a thousand years ago. About how LA had everything Sunnydale didn't: class, style. Shoes. "Yeah. For about eight years."

Connor—Ben—leaned under the hood. His capable hands fiddled with wires, jiggling and twisting and poking, and when he came up, he had greasy hands and a black smudge on front of the shirt. "See if she'll start."

Cordy slid behind the wheel and cranked it. Nothing but a couple of clicks.

"Huh." He brushed his hair out of his eyes with his forearm. "Sounds like the alternator. How old's the battery?"

"No idea."

The wind ruffled him, from hair to T-shirt to the hem of his jeans, but he managed to look calm, in control. Just like Angel used to. "You got Triple A?"

Did she? "My friend-- It's my friend's car. I'll have to call him and find out."

He gestured down the road toward the truck. "I live just down the road. You're welcome to use our phone."

She hesitated for just a second, thinking about refusing. Which would net her another wait of who-knew-how-long on the side of a dark road. With even more serious thoughts and chance for psychos than before.

He was probably about as safe as any other stranger she could hitch a ride with. So she followed him again, rounded the back of the truck and climbed into the high seat, slamming the door behind her.

Ben turned down the radio, dimming Eminem's voice to a whisper. The truck was expensive, with leather and burled wood, but a well-worn baseball glove huddled at her feet, and in the back seat she could see the coiled mass of a sleeping bag and a six-pack of bottled water. When they pulled out, a baseball rolled and banged into her heels.

He laughed. "Sorry about that. I've practically been living out of the truck since I got home."

"Home?" She stared at his profile. Angel's forehead. Darla's mouth. Such a pretty boy; he'd always been beauti—

"…going to school up at Berkeley but mom wanted me to…."

So, she'd been right. He was just another college boy, home with his family. Probably spent most of his time with his friends playing ball or surfing.

His voice trailed off and the warm hum of the music pulsed through the truck.

She nudged the ball with her toe. He wasn't Connor at all. His voice wasn't right. The cadence was different—not that tense, always-on-the- run inflection he'd had, but a light, easy drift. This boy was happy, healthy….

Silence met her, growing tenser by the minute. She realized he'd asked her something. "I'm sorry. I was just--" Her hands slapped against the soft, cotton-covered bend of her knees. "Must have spaced out." The laugh was high, self-conscious.

"What's your name?" he asked, gamely trying again.

She paused, not quite sure she wanted to tell him the truth. If she told him and he knew her, how awful would that be? But if she told him and he didn't….

"Cordelia Chase." She'd never been able to lie well. It just wasn't in her nature.

He shifted and she realized he held out his hand. She took it, shook. Felt him move his eyes from the road to her face, which was probably lit with the same, blue halogen glow as his. "Ben Maddox."

He released her hand and went back to driving, maneuvering the big vehicle over the winding roads with familiar ease. Ahead a green road sign flashed and he turned left onto another winding street.

Live oaks, lacy and sage-green, flared and disappeared in the lights. Ice plant poked its plump fingers through the blowing sand and craggy coastal rock. Ben steered through the dark, singing under his breath to the radio.

Led Zeppelin, driven and otherworldly, wove its spell around her and left her with the feeling that they were the only two people alive. Adrift with Ben, a boy who looked like the son she'd loved—and who Jasmine had used her body to seduce.

"Ooh, it makes me wonder, ooh, it really makes me wonder…."

She let his voice, tuneful and low, soothe her. It was as familiar to her as the roads were to him—even with the different cadence, the tone was achingly right. She could pretend for a minute that he wasn't dead.

That was fair, wasn't it? After all she'd been through, to pretend, just for now, that everything was okay?

Ben pulled off the main road and down a long, sloping driveway. They passed a large mailbox with "Maddox" on the side, and then the nose of the truck dipped like a car on the first hill of a roller coaster.

She gasped, grabbing the dash with one hand.

His grin flashed, teeth white and straight. It wasn't fair—first Angel, now Connor. Dead guys with heart-stopping smiles.

"Sorry about that. Driveway's kinda steep." And then the truck straightened out and the lights illuminated a big, old wood-frame house. Two cars sat next to each other in the driveway. Before he turned off the lights, she saw a tabby cat, curled up on the porch rail and a mountain bike standing next to the door.

They hopped out and threaded through a hedge toward a back-yard patio. Through the screen of bushes lights glowed, showing a butter- yellow kitchen and a den with shelves and shelves of books.

From inside the house a dog barked, and as they got to the patio doors the light from the kitchen spilled onto her feet, golden and warm. An older woman—Ben's mom?—was leaning on the butcher-block- topped island, talking on the phone. He slid the door open with a quiet hiss and they crossed the threshold from darkness into light.

The woman waved them in. "Yes, tomorrow at nine would be fine." She leaned down to scribble something on a piece of paper and laughed, the same laugh Cordy had heard Ben give earlier. Easy, free, confident. She was a slim woman, with a quietly pretty face and smile lines around her eyes.

"That's my mom, Barb," Ben whispered, drawing her into the kitchen. A golden retriever burst into the room, barking. "Gandalf! No!" He corralled the dog out onto the patio and closed the door behind him.

"Sorry about that." He went to the fridge, his lean, hungry lines barely filling his loose clothes. "You want something to drink?"

He turned, a can of Coke in each hand, and his eyes flashed, perfect, pure blue.

Oh, God.

She heard the cans hit the cabinet and felt his hands, cool and damp, clamp around her wrists. Then Barb was there, clutching her shoulders and saying something in soothing tones.

She couldn't stop staring at Ben—at Connor.

Darla's eyes and mouth. Angel's forehead and smile. All wrapped up in a happy, healthy, perfect, All-American package.

Oh, God. What had Angel done?

"I'm sorry," she said, feeling her stomach slosh. "I'm sorry—" She ran to the sink and vomited brown, watery stomach acid. There was a flurry of activity behind her, of raised voices.

She was led out of the kitchen to the den she'd glimpsed earlier. The sofa was big, leather, well-used. Comfortable. It opened its arms and drew her in, and she lay on it, panting and sweating, watching as Connor crossed the room.

"Cordy?" It seemed like he wanted to say something else, but just then his mother rushed into the room, a wet towel in her hands.

She leaned over Connor to wipe Cordy's face with it, then asked, "Are you all right?"

Cordy nodded. "Better, thanks. I'm really sorry about that--"

"It's okay." The woman was staring at her, a look of suspicion and worry on her face.

"I'm really am sorry," Cordy said, scrabbling for an explanation. Again, she settled on the truth. Or most of it. "I was recently in a coma."

Barb's eyebrows flew up. "A coma."

Great. Now she was barf girl *and* soap opera girl. "After an accident."

Barb's face relaxed somewhat. "Oh."

A line flexed between Connor's eyebrows. "A coma?"

She could see something shifting behind his eyes, like a scarf blowing in the wind.

Barb stood and wadded the towel between her hands. "Can I call you a tow truck?"

Cordy drew a breath, tugging her gaze away from Ben's. "If you could call my friend, David, for me, that'd be great." She gave Barb the number and watched her walk away to make the call.

That left her alone with Connor. He knelt next to her and took her hand, and the look on his face was exactly like the one he wore before, when she'd been morning-sick with rapidly-growing baby Jasmine. Concerned, upset, uncertain. "How are you feeling?"

"Besides wanting to bury my head in the pillows and die of embarrassment?"

He grinned. "Yeah. Besides that."

"A little shaky, but better."

His fingers were soft on her forehead as he brushed back her bangs. It was an intimate touch, more than something an acquaintance would make, and she stilled. He didn't even seem to realize he'd done it, but simply rose to his feet and left the room.

When he came back he held one of the Coke cans and a glass of ice. "This might help."

His mom followed him into the room. "Your friend is David Nabbit." It wasn't a question, and if anything, the tone of voice was even frostier.

Connor stopped pouring and turned to look at his mom. "What?"

"*The* David Nabbit?" Barb asked, phone still in hand.

Cordy nodded, suddenly very aware of how crazy this whole thing sounded. "I know it sounds crazy—I mean, how many people do you know who hang out with David Nabbit?" She laughed just a little too loud. "He's really just a big old geek. I mean, if you think about it, why wouldn't he be? All those video games—"

Barb cut in. "Maybe you should just call a tow truck. I'll take you back to your car."

The sound of soda hitting glass cut the tension. "Here," Ben said, handing her the glass. "Mom, don't be like that. Cordy hasn't done anything wrong."

Cordy. He kept calling her Cordy. The spinny feeling came over her again. What was happening?

"Look I really am sorry— If you don't mind, could you maybe call me a cab?"

Connor put the empty can down on the coffee table. "You don't have to do that." He glanced at his mom. "I can take her home."

His mom looked at him, then at Cordy. "Ben, would you mind joining me in the kitchen for a moment?"

He smiled reassuringly at Cordy and followed his mom into the kitchen. Cordy listened to the low, heated tones of an argument. What now? Could she sneak out? Walk back to the car?

Just then, Ben came back into the room, face flushed, eyes flashing. "I'm going to take you home."

"But, your mom—"

"Says it's fine." He helped her off the couch.

Crap. Two hours in the car with Connor? "Let me call a cab."

He dropped her arm. "Look, this is stupid." Now he sounded like the boy she remembered. Pushed to emotions he didn't understand, wasn't comfortable with. "Let me take you home."

He was right. It was stupid. "You're right. This is the best way."

Connor guided her out of the house and to the car. "Sorry about my mom," he said as he held the door for her. He buckled into the driver's seat and started the engine. "She's real protective of me. Always has been."

"I understand that," Cordy said, remembering how protective she'd felt of him when he was a baby. How tuned she was to his cries, his expressions. How she knew, instinctively, if he needed something.

And now she knew exactly how much could go wrong with a life. There was no protection against the Powers, not if they wanted you for something.

Fate.

Ben was Connor. She knew that the same way she'd known which smile meant "happy" and which one meant "gas." Elemental. Instinctive.

What were the chances of him finding her? How many millions to one?

Destiny.

She dropped her head to the headrest and stared out the window.

Choice. What a joke.

"Cordy?"

She turned to him, realizing that he'd called her by her nickname again. Which she'd never told him. "Yes?"

How much did he remember?

"Where are we going?"

Her laugh sounded slightly unhinged. "Hell if I know." At his uncomfortable pause, she relented. "Silverlake. Just head toward LA and I'll give you directions."

They drove in silence, and the truck's big engine hummed beneath them, eating the miles. Finally he spoke. "You said you'd been sick?" He threw her a glance and his eyes slid to the cane resting against the car door. "Do you mind if I ask--?"

Memories of the mall surfaced like grainy video. She'd seen it happen in one of those weird flashbacks, but hadn't been able to do anything about it. Connor, building a bomb. Strapping it to her and a roomful of innocent people.

Angel's face as they fought. As he fulfilled the prophecy.

Floating free, high above everything. Dark. Stars. Nothing.

Sort of like now, soaring above the sea, with night pressing in.

Did he know he was living a lie?

"I was in a coma for over a year. I just came out about three months ago."

It was about the same length of time since Connor died. Since Ben was born.

Since Angel started working at Wolfram and Hart.

And with a click, everything fell into place.

"God, that's awful. Are you all right now?"

Innocence shimmered in his voice, as if waking up from the coma had solved all her problems. As if a coma was the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

She knew this breakable boy inside and out. Her body had been his; her mind knew everything about him, just like she knew everything about Angelus.

Seeing him again.... It didn't make up for what happened, but God, if Connor was really alive, then at least some awful part of what happened to her had been reset.

It gave her hope. Until she remembered the truth.

She could never tell him. Or anyone.

The life she'd been living, the *lie* she'd been living had to continue to protect Connor. She glanced at him and remembered how Holtz tied him to trees and left him, teaching him to track. What Connor's back had looked like, riddled and swollen with welts where Holtz had beaten him because he went to sleep on watch. How he'd tried to learn to read as Holtz traced letters in the dirt, slow to retain the information because he was constantly having to shift his attention to the hell-world around them. Talk about an ADD kid.

"What about you?" she asked, desperate to turn the attention away from her. To stop thinking about all the lies. "Do you like school?"

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and thought about his answer. "The first year was tougher than I imagined." His blue eyes glittered in the alien light of the control panel. "I mean, high school, you know? It's pretty easy compared to some of my classes at Berkeley."

She tried to reconcile the image of the boy, stumbling over "Adam" and "Eve" and "father" with this one, who obviously was smart enough to get into one of the toughest schools in the nation.

"Yeah. Well, I mean, I know high school. I didn't do college. I, uh-- " Went to work for your father. Slayed vampires and demons. Almost blew my head off with killer visions. "Got a job in an office and tried out for small roles in Hollywood." She laughed, another one of those dry, wry huffs. "I wanted to be an actress."

He didn't answer, which surprised her. Usually saying she'd wanted to be an actress got a response. Instead, they fell into silence. She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. 9:45. Her phone probably worked again; they were close enough to LA that she should be able to pick up a tower. She reached into her pocket for it when he spoke.

"Do you ever feel like you left the iron on?" Connor's voice was quiet, shy, like a child asking a question he wasn't really sure how to phrase, or even if it would be answered.

Her hand stilled on the cool plastic. Flash of that other life, the one where she was "Cordy!" the award-winning actress, not Cordy, the seer. Time folded in on itself, leaving her feeling unsettled, spooked. "What?" Her voice was loud in the quiet car.

"Do you ever feel like you're missing something? Like you've forgotten something?"

Fragile things came to mind: eggshells, thin ice, antique porcelain. She cleared her throat. "Um, sure. I mean, doesn't everyone?"

Connor's shoulders tensed. "I just-- It was weird, but when I saw you before, I felt like I knew you." He glanced at her, and she could see confusion, fear.

"Well, I was in a couple of commercials," she said, feeling the web of lies tighten. "Maybe that's it."

His fingers drummed the steering wheel again.

"Oh, look," Cordy said, trying not to sound as relieved as she felt. "Here's the PCH. Just go up to Santa Monica Boulevard and hang a left."

Traffic was thicker. Malibu's strip malls were welcome beacons. Nearly home now. Nearly through this hell ride; this amazing, wonderful, terrifying, sickening hell ride.

They wove through the towers, down toward the freeway, silence broken only by her quiet voice, giving directions. The long day had caught up with her; she felt like an overstretched rubber band, limp and useless. Her body wanted to lie down and not get up again for hours.

How much did he remember?

Sleep would be the door that closed on all those lies, locking her in with them. He drummed his fingers on the wheel again, and the silence went from warm and comfortable to a chilly, thin buzz. Her presence was doing something to him; she could feel it in the car, the edges of the spell wavering.

Drive. Faster. Before this all collapses.

His profile, so familiar, so dear-- She loved him like a mother, like a sister, and yet she carried the memories of him as a lover. First love, so black, so polluted, and delivered through her body like a sacrifice to a hell-god.

Her gaze snapped to the passing streets, the rows of offices and apartments and restaurants. This was the last time she could ever see him. It couldn't be any other way. But watching the final flare of his taillights, feeling her head on the pillow, letting her eyes close and dreams come….

When she woke up tomorrow all of this would be gone.

Grief was like a sucking tide, she thought, as the brightly lit city blurred by. Put one foot in, and it'd swallow you whole. And no matter how hard she flailed, she couldn't seem to get out.

It was only going to get worse.

For a second she considered disappearing. Leaving this life behind and going somewhere to live an anonymous, quiet life. A trailer in the desert. An apartment in Knoxville. A bungalow in Ensenada.

Then she thought of David. Of his goofy laugh and generous heart. How sweet and real his kiss had been.

They turned into her drive and she remembered the last time she'd been here with David. How he'd run around the back of the car and opened the door, bowing like a concierge and holding out his hand for her.

Could she give that up, too? "Here's my apartment," she said, careful to keep her voice steady.

He pulled the truck to a stop. "I'll walk you up." He was reaching for his seatbelt when she stopped him.

"No, thanks." Hand on the door handle, foot on the curb. Her gaze caught his and held, one beat, two. She filled her mind with him, her heart. Memorized his blue eyes, his sweet cheekbones, the stand-up brush of hair that, with a little gel, could have been Angel's.

Refused to let her eyes water and block any view of his face, these memories.

Fate?

Or choice?

She smiled, but she knew it didn't reach her eyes. "Good-bye, Ben. Thank you." And then she closed the door and left him behind.

Chapter 6


"Man, I'll be glad when all this is over," David said. He stuck his finger in the collar of his tux shirt and tugged.

They were in the big, black Mercedes, with tinted windows and leather seats. Max, the driver, looked all official in his uniform, as the car glided up Los Feliz Boulevard toward the Griffith Observatory.

"Stop picking at it. You look fine," Cordy said, shooting him a glare. "I already tied that tie three times for you tonight." She'd sat as still as she could on the drive over, trying not to wrinkle her red sequined dress, and all his fidgeting was driving her nuts.

"Not the least of which is because," David continued like she hadn't spoken, "you've been like the queen of the hags for the last two weeks. I was thinking about naming a troll after you."

She huffed. "You try putting on a charity dinner for two-hundred- fifty of your richest pals and see how you feel." Her leg ached, which pissed her off, but not enough to take a pain pill.

He slid an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. She stiffened and pulled away. "Stop. You'll mess up my hair." She'd spent an hour on it, pulling it up on top of her head in a twist of curls that looked effortlessly loose and sexy.

"Stop," he mimicked, and he primped his hair.

Despite herself she laughed. "Shut up, David."

"It's not just the dinner is it?"

When he looked at her like that, she felt pressured. Like she had to tell him the truth. So she shrugged and stared out the window, instead. Her hand clenched on the head of the cane. The silence stretched then enough to prod her into answering. "No," she said. "It's not just the dinner."

He touched her hand, just a brush. "It must be hard. Seeing them all again, I mean."

"Yeah."

Houses flashed past, with sloping yards and big, old palm trees whose paddle-like branches waved in the warm summer air. She'd always liked this neighborhood, the way it felt rich but cozy, the kind of place you could really settle into.

That's all she wanted, was a place to settle. To feel like she had a mission and a family. And here was David, being all decent, and she was taking her crap out on him.

She turned to him and smiled, eased by his humor and his affection. "I'm sorry I was such a hag. I guess you kinda got the worst of it, huh?"

David shrugged. "You know me. Most of the time I don't even notice what color my socks are."

She snorted. "Please don't tell me you wore the white ones."

"You should know." He raised his leg and hiked up his pants. "You picked them out." The black socks were a concession--black to match the tux pants and patent leather shoes, but Pacmen chased each other around the top band in all their yellow, open-mouthed glory.

"Just promise me you won't get drunk and show them off. Unless one of your big-money guys or gals has a Pacman thing." Her stomach fluttered with butterflies and her mouth was dry--but at least she wasn't ready to bite someone's head off any more.

"I'll stick with Kool-Aid, then."

"I don't think that's on the menu."

He kissed her cheek. "Tell me what you need, and I'll get it for you, Cordy. I just want you to be happy."

Her breath caught.

His eyes were so soft, so open, his hand so warm. He leaned close, closer. She felt his breath, saw his eyes drift closed. And then he was kissing her.

When they pulled apart, they were both breathing hard. "Wow. Okay, that was unexpected."

David looked intense, serious. "I don't know why." He cupped her cheek.

"We're here, Mr. Nabbit."

Cordy looked out the window and saw the lights of the parking lot, filled with limos and expensive sports cars. When she glanced back, David was watching her.

"You gonna be okay?" he asked.

She smiled at him. "Yeah. Stick close?"

He nodded. "Not hard to do."

Then Max was opening her door and helping her out. Flashbulbs exploded in her face, blinding her, and she stumbled, surprised by the glare, even though she'd been the one who sent out the press releases. But then David was behind her, hand in the small of her back, saying something goofy that had the reporters laughing.

"Who's your lady friend, David?" one called.

Cordy stared into the crowd, trying to place the voice with a face, but couldn't get past the lights of the news cameras. "Cordelia Chase," he said. He squeezed her waist gently. "She's the one who put all of this together, so if you guys have a good time tonight, it's all her fault."

She smiled at him, surprised at his confidence and ease in the face of the press. Then he was leading her across the drive and up the sidewalk to the Observatory. The cane hit the soft lawn and sunk in and they slowed down so she could walk without busting her ass.

The lawn spread from the driveway to the balustrude that lined the edge of the hill. City lights twinkled below, and on the lawn tables and chairs sat under white tents. On the steps leading to the observatory was a stage, lit so it could be seen from the back tables.

A screen hung next to it to broadcast tonight's video, one she'd had Joanna make Wesley do. His plummy voice and James-Bond looks would get the women hot enough to get their husbands to write big checks, and by God, she was gonna see that those kids got some money. Plus, it made her feel good to boss him around, even if he didn't know she was doing it.

Candles turned everything gold, designed to make everyone look beautiful and young, and the place settings glittered white in the sparkling night.

Cordy watched as people spilled out of limos, Lexus SUVs and Porsches. The orchestra played under their tent, something from Broadway with swelling violins and a gorgeous melody. She'd been up here organizing and making sure everything was in place until three hours ago, but it was the first time she'd seen it all come together.

"You should be proud," David whispered, kissing her on the temple. "This is beautiful."

She smiled and nodded. "Doesn't suck, does it?"

And then she saw Buffy by the Wolfram and Hart table, tiny and blond, in a silver strapless dress that made her look like a shooting star. Cordy froze. "Oh, crap."

"What?"

"Buffy."

His hand squeezed hers. "Wanna get it out of the way?"

She swallowed. "Guess we'd better."

"Cordelia!" She turned, and Joanna was rushing across the lawn, her fuschia dress setting off her blond hair and creamy skin. "We've had a screw-up with the caterer."

Cordy let out a breath, then glanced at David. "I'll be back. Go have fun."

He nodded. "I'll see you when you get done."

***

Cordy and Joanna made their way slowly around the building from the back parking lot where the caterer's big, white vans were parked. DeRossa's had brought shrimp puffs instead of crab puffs, which--as far as Cordy was concerned--wasn't even on the screw-up radar for an event this big.

But Joanna had proven herself to be a perfectionist, and she'd come this close to sending them back. "You made the right decision to keep the shrimp," Cordy said. "I mean, think about it. It was either that or give yourself the hives again, and rashes really don't go well with fuschia."

Joanna blew her bangs out of her eyes. "I know. I'm glad you talked me down." She scratched her elbow. "I really think I need a drink, though. Will you be okay walking back by yourself?"

Cordy glanced out at the wide expanse of lawn, with bars set up on either end. From the looks of it every single guest who RSVP'd had made it--and then some. "I don't think you could call this 'alone,'" she said, with a laugh. "Go, get drunk. You've earned it."

"Cool." With a wave, she trotted off toward a white-gloved waiter with a tray full of champagne flutes.

Cordy hummed the theme from "Somewhere in Time" along with the orchestra, letting herself enjoy the breeze and the music and the sense of accomplishment. Just as her foot hit the lawn, she heard someone call her name.

She turned. "Angel."

He looked like he did when Darla showed up ten months pregnant. "Cordy?"

If she had to see him, being dressed in Valentino, with her hair up and diamonds in her ears was really the way to do it. "Yeah. Hey." She held herself regally, shoulders back, head up. All those months of putting this off, of waiting until she was beautiful enough.... And of course, she thought, as she clasped her cane, now she never would be.

Angel stepped toward her, looking broad-shouldered and gorgeous in his fitted tux. "You-- You're awake."

Her heart pummeled her chest and she felt light-headed, like she'd fall over if the wind blew in any harder. "Yeah." She cleared her throat and stood there, twisting the cane back and forth, the haunting melody a painful soundtrack for the real drama unfolding between them. "I have been for about four months."

His eyes flashed and he looked over the crowd, like he was looking for someone.

"Don't go after David. I didn't want him to call you."

Those eyes, so dark, so intense, pinned her. Even so, he looked like he wanted to sit down. "Why not?"

"Angel? There you are. I've been looking for you--" Buffy stopped on her silver slippers and stared. It was like watching a computer process code--one minute the screen was blank, and the next it displayed the right answer. "Oh, my God. Cordy?"

Buffy rushed forward and hugged her, her arms like tight bands around Cordy's waist. When she pulled back her eyes were luminous with tears. "Oh, my God. You're awake." She laughed and turned to Angel. "She's awake!"

"Yeah, I got that." Angel's obvious anger, his uncertainty, were like wet wool, heavy and chilly.

"How long...? How...? This is so of the cool. I mean, we thought you were destined for the Land of Nod forever, and now, look at you!" She stepped back and took Cordy in from head to stiletto. Then she focused on the cane. Her beautifully made-up eyes were full of questions.

Cordy shrugged. "Side effect of not walking for so long."

Buffy's face drooped. "That sucks." She stepped back and took Angel's hand, and as always her petite, golden beauty was the perfect foil for his tall-dark-and-brooding-ness.

Cordy smiled, the brightest she could. "If you'll excuse me, I really need to make sure everything's running smoothly."

Angel blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Cordelia! Could you come here? There's someone you need to meet." Joanna raised her glass to wave Cordy down.

"I helped plan it." She nodded to them both and walked as quickly as she could to Joanna's side.

"Hey, this is Doctor Barbara Maddox. She's on the staff at Sutter South."

Already shaken, it took everything Cordy had to smile. "Hello, Doctor Maddox. I'm Cordelia Chase. We met at your house--"

Barb's eyes were blue chips of ice. "Of course, Miss Chase. I remember you. Ben talked about nothing else for days." Her black dress was classic, probably five years old and obviously trotted out only for occasions like this one. But its simple, Grecian lines suited her.

"How is Ben?" Cordelia asked, trying to sound easy. She knew Barb and her husband were on the guest list, but she'd put it out of her mind so she could focus on the party--to the point that she'd nearly forgotten they were coming.

"Why don't you ask him, yourself?"

Cordy's breath left her body as she found herself face-to-face with Connor, who held a glass of champagne in each hand. The tux fit him well, like it was his and not a rental. His hair was longer and unstyled, just that pretty, rich brown that showed off his eternal blue eyes.

"C-cordy?" He handed his mother her drink and took a quick gulp of his.

She wished she had a Scotch. Or some Dran-O. Her triumphant return was fast becoming a cluster fuck. "Hi, Ben. It's good to see you again. How's school?"

Okay, Powers, she thought, I made the choice to let him go. Why'd you bring him back? And then she froze. Angel. He couldn't see Angel. She had to get him out of here--now. She didn't know how she knew that, but she knew, somewhere deep, that if they saw each other again....

"Con-- Ben, would you mind helping me with something over here?" She laughed uncomfortably. "I want to make sure all the lights are in place, and I can't lift them, myself." She motioned toward her cane, then, without waiting to see what his mother said, hurried him off toward the stage.

A low hedge ran along the front of the building as part of the new landscaping that went in when they retrofitted the Observatory. As they rushed along, Connor grabbed her arm. "What's going on?"

"I'll tell you in a minute." She ducked behind the hedge with him, and hid behind one of the Bartlett pears growing in the front bed. She pressed as close to the building as she could without picking her dress.

"Cordelia, what's going on?" He looked flustered, confused.

"There's a man here who you can't meet. I don't care what it takes-- get sick, cut your finger, whatever. Just go home. Now," she whispered harshly.

He looked at her like she was two parts crazy, one part mystery. "What? Why?"

"Just-- Oh, crap." She held her breath and tried to squeeze in behind the tree.

"Cordelia?"

"It's David," she whispered. A quick glance at her watch told her it was time to be seated for dinner.

"Oh, there you are!" He came around the hedge like he walked through flower beds every day. Knowing David, he probably did. "Who's this?"

"David, this is Barb Maddox's son, Ben. We were just, uh, talking about plants. He's, uh, a talented landscaper and--"

Connor stepped forward and shook hands with David. "Nice to meet you, Mr...?"

"Oh, David's fine." His smile widened. "You guys look like you're having way more fun than I have been. But the good news is, steak's on. You ready for some real food?"

Connor shot Cordy a glance. "Sure. Cordelia?"

She plastered on a smile. "You bet." Crawling out from behind the hedge, she took David's arm and let him lead her across the yard.

"Ben, remember what I said about that *landscaper*?"

"Sure, sure. I know--he's not the kind of guy I should be working for." He shot her another of those "what dimension are you from" looks.

"It's good you can talk about so many subjects," David said. "Me? I'm all computers, computers, computers." He laughed. "I even have Pacmen on my socks."

"Really?" Connor stopped walking. "Cool. Can I see?"

"Guys," Cordy said, gaze sweeping the crowd for any sign of Angel. "We really need to be going. And Ben, didn't you have an elsewhere to be?" She shot him a Significant Look.

He shook his head. "I wish I could, Cordy, but I promised mom I'd be her date. Can't let her down."

David said, "You sound like a way better son than me."

"Probably not what mom would say," Connor said, with a wolfish grin.

The closer they got to the tables, the tighter her shoulders got. The Wolfram and Hart tables were up front, next to theirs, and they had to pass them to get Connor back to his mom's. She stepped between Connor and the Big Evil, hoping to block him from sight.

Too late. "Cordy? Cordy!" Fred rushed across the lawn to meet them, nearly tackling her in a hug. "Angel told me! This is fantastic!" Her rose-colored dress was wrapped with a burgundy pashmina. She looked rich, delicate.

Cordy hugged her back hard, holding on to the only friendly voice in the crowd. "Fred. It's good to see you."

When they pulled apart, Wes and Gunn were standing behind Fred like tuxedoed bookends. "Hi, guys."

Wes's smile didn't reach his eyes, and his hug was stiff, formal. "Cordelia. You've engineered this entire party, I hear."

She nodded and sank into Gunn's hug. "Cordy-girl," he whispered. "Have I got stories for you."

When she pulled back there was something in his eyes--something more than she remembered. It made her shiver. "Looks like it. Hey, where's Lorne?"

Gunn shrugged. "Sleeping. And, trust me, you don't want to wake him up."

Cordy really hoped Connor had moved on. But when she looked, he was admiring David's socks. And when she looked again, there was Angel, staring at her, Buffy on his arm.

"Oh, God," she said.

Out the corner of her eye, she saw Connor stand, and turn to her.

"Cordy?" he asked. "You ready to eat?"

Angel froze, his eyes locked on Connor's face. She saw him mouth the word, "Connor?"

She couldn't stop watching Angel. Couldn't stop the recognition that flooded her--he knew. He'd known all along. He remembered everything, just like she did.

It was like a building crumbling around her. The careful reality she'd built, the bricks of lies, the mortar of fear. In that one second, in that flash of Angel's eyes, she knew: all of this had been planned from the beginning.

And there was no way to avoid it.

She grabbed David's hand. "I need to sit," she said, and her voice sounded wrong.

He immediately pulled a chair up from the nearest table and hustled her into it. She felt queasy, weak-kneed.

"Are you okay? You look pale."

"Cordy?" Fred knelt beside her, and put her hand on her knee. "Can I get you something? There are lots of doctors here, ya know, if ya think you might faint, or something."

Cordelia shook her head and took a careful breath. The waiters started flowing onto the lawn with huge, silver trays, stacked high with plates full of food. The symphony played Mozart and the breeze blew, carrying the scent of eucalyptus and pear blossoms.

David squeezed in behind Fred. "You need to leave? I can take you home now if you want."

Connor rushed to her side. "Cordy? Want me to get my mom?"

It was like a tidal wave rushing through her. "All of you stop it!" Silence at the tables around them, and then light chatter, covering her faux pas. The clink of silver on china started filling the air as people got their meals.

Fred and David pulled back, giving her space, but Connor stayed close, looking at her like he did that night at his house. When she finally collected herself, Angel was standing behind Connor, staring down at both of them, a grim look on his face.

Cordy eased back, grabbing for the distraction dinner offered. "Yeah, I'm fine now. You guys go find your seats and let's have dinner. Ben, thanks for the offer, but I think I just need to eat something, okay?"

He nodded and stood. "If you're sure."

"I'm sure."

"Hey, guys, can we switch tables?" David asked.

The Wolfram and Hart employees whose seats they'd taken moved to the other table, and the waiters set their plates down in front of them.

Cordy stared down at her petit fillet. She wasn't alone. It wasn't a dream. She pressed her hand to her stomach and swallowed, trying desperately not to be sick.

She turned her head and found Angel staring at her, shock and betrayal clearly written on his face. She wanted to apologize, but had nothing to apologize for, except loving him.

"You sure you're okay?" David asked, looking at her like she was as fragile as the china on the table in front of them.

"I'm fine. Sorry about that. I think all the excitement finally got to me." She smiled and put her hand on his knee. "Thanks. I'm pretty sure I'd be taking up residence at the insane asylum if you hadn't been here." She kissed him on the cheek, ignoring the feeling of Angel's gaze burning between her shoulders.

***

"You sure you want to go home? You can come back and sleep at my house, if you want. That way you wouldn't have to worry about catching the bus for your workout tomorrow morning."

She smiled tiredly and shook her head. "Thanks, but we cancelled tomorrow's workout. I'm planning on sleeping in. Can I call you when I wake up?" Dinner sat like a stone in her belly, and her leg throbbed. "I really just want to sleep."

David smiled. "Sure." He squeezed her hand. "You were great tonight. Any time you want to be my date, you let me know."

Cordy laughed ruefully. "I always wanted to be in the spotlight. Funny how we seem to get what we want, just not like we imagined it, huh?"

David's smile turned sad. "Yeah. Funny, huh?" He kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Call me when you get up."

Max helped her out of the car and she smiled at him. "Thanks, Max."

"No problem."

She leaned into the car, a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. "David, what did you mean just then? What did you think is funny?"

The corners of his eyes