Thaw by Dazzle

 

Summary: Losing everything you loved was terrible, but it was so much worse to know that it had never been at all. So much worse.

 

Spoilers: Birthday, Season Three.

 

Notes: Warnings for language and sexual content.

 

 

Part I

Angel sat at his window and watched the snow fall.

He thought idly that at least tonight the snow was beautiful -- thick and soft and deep, coming down in round, fat flakes that seemed to shine in the night sky. Too often, in the previous two years, he had watched from this same window as hailstones pounded down, rattling against windowpanes and pavement. Or as sleet turned the streets and sidewalks to so much gray mush, almost impassable to humans, and ever more inviting to things that were not human.

But this night's snow was gentle, even peaceful. The sounds on the street were muffled, and the ground sparkled in an almost unbroken field of white. Angel wasn't sure -- his memory might have failed him, he thought, because he'd been in southern California for so long -- but he thought that this was what a real winter would look like.

No, he corrected himself. A natural winter. Because he remembered well that, however unnatural this might be, it was all too real.

From the small bed beside him came a soft rustling of blankets; Angel half turned as the woman there pushed herself up on her elbows. "Did you rest well?" he asked.

Buffy shrugged. "As well as I ever do." Her voice was flat and businesslike. Angel had a momentary recollection -- piercing, fleeting -- of the way her voice used to sound, musical with humor and spirit.

Then again, he also used to hear doubt there, and fear. He used to wonder if Buffy was at the breaking point, to be afraid that she had reached it. Now she'd found her strength, and there was no point in wondering if the change was for the better. It had to be.

"Snow tonight," he said as he went to the weapons cabinet, selecting the arms for their nightly patrol.

Buffy swung her legs off the edge of his bed. She took the few steps required to cross his cramped little apartment and went straight to her clothes, still hanging on the spindly rack near the heater, where Angel had placed them to dry hours before. "Good," she said. "They won't hear us coming."

Always thinking about the fight, Angel thought, with something that was both wistfulness and pride. These days, he knew, there was little enough else in their world to think about. But he still admired her focus, wished for it himself.

Because, despite his place at her side, Angel knew his own weakness. He still longed sometimes for things to be the way they had been in the beginning. When they fell in love, when she laughed and played and teased, and he had been so caught up in her joy. When he had thought he might find his own place in the world, really stand at her side, instead of just watching her back.

But that was before the Winter, and therefore belonged to another world altogether.

*****

"Boo."

Wesley jumped -- then felt the familiar wave of embarrassment. Buffy had, somehow, managed to startle him again, with that, no less, by saying Boo, of all things --

He turned from his shelving to see her smirking slightly at him, as usual. "Feeling kinda tense there, Wes?"

"More than usual? No," Wesley said, setting his books down on a shelf. He'd finish later; keeping the Sunnydale High library in order was a largely a matter of make-work now. The few students who still bothered to attend classes did so mostly out of the need to be with others their own age. If possible, what few academic leanings they'd ever possessed had diminished still further. But order had to be maintained, after all. "Which is to say, yes, still rather tense indeed."

Buffy's smile became a little more genuine, and Wesley felt heartened. In the past few months -- as the crisis had grown more dire -- Buffy had finally begun to show some signs of warming to him. Well, perhaps 'warming' was too strong a word. But the bitter rejection she'd met him with, the strong resistance to his very presence -- that at last was fading.

Perhaps she'd finally forgiven herself for Rupert Giles' death. Or perhaps she'd just begun to accept the fact that, after the Winter, she needed another Watcher.

But Wesley couldn't fool himself into thinking that he would ever have been her first choice.

Buffy pulled her navy woolen cap down a little more firmly about her ears. "Angel and I are gonna head out on patrol," she said. "Standard operating procedure, unless the demons are up to something in particular tonight."

"I don't believe so," Wesley said. "They're still quiet -- fourth day in a row. Which of course means they're planning something again. But you should take advantage of the break. Gather your strength. You push yourself too hard."

Buffy sighed. "If demons were any better at organizing, they'd have figured out by now not to give me and Angel any days off." She did not acknowledge Wesley's last remark.

He decided not to press the issue. The burgeoning truce between him and Buffy was too fragile to upset on this slight point; also, the mention of Angel always left him feeling slightly disquieted. Wesley had never come around to his predecessor's acceptance of his Slayer's love affair with a vampire. "However, I did receive a report of Initiative patrols in the northern part of town. Near the warehouse district. So you'll want to steer clear."

Buffy said a word that made Wesley blush slightly. "Wes, you keep saying that the demons are gonna off those Initiative guys sooner or later. And you know, it makes sense, because since when do demons need human henchmen anyway? They're lamer than the lamest demon I ever ran across, which is pretty lame, if you count the slug demon from last December. But sooner has definitely turned into later." Her mouth twisted in a sneer that told Wesley the truce was just about over. "Another Wesley Wyndham-Pryce plan flakes out. Boy, who woulda thunk it?"

Wesley tried to think of something sarcastic to say in reply, failed as usual, and settled for, "Just stay out of their sight."

They stepped out of the stacks into the main area of the library. Angel was standing against the counter, as ever dressed in black, somber. "Hello, Wesley," he said. Angel never failed to be polite, which unsettled Wesley all the more. He just nodded in reply.

Buffy smiled a little upon seeing her lover; Wesley told himself, as he often did, that perhaps enduring Angel's presence was worth it, if it provided Buffy with the little pleasure she still had in her life. "Southern part of town for us tonight. Feel like checking out Hillcrest Cemetary?"

"Thought you'd never ask." Angel almost smiled. As the two turned to go, the library doors swung open again.

"Hey, Miss Calendar," Buffy said amiably, waving as she went out the door. Angel nodded quickly as he followed.

"Hey, guys." Jenny Calendar waved back with one hand; in the other, she held a cup of coffee.

"Bit late for caffeine, isn't it?" Wesley said. "You'll be up all night."

"It's not for me," Jenny said, holding the mug out to him. She was wearing the green sweater Wesley liked so much, a leaf-patterned skirt he didn't remember seeing before. "You were looking a little worn-out earlier. Thought I'd provide a pick-me-up."

Wesley could feel the smile spreading across his face, as well as the embarrassed urge to check it. However, it didn't matter; he could smile or beam or out-and-out glow at Jenny Calendar if he wanted to. And, generally, he did want to. But it didn't matter, because she didn't notice.

Apparently Jenny stopped noticing a lot of things around the time Rupert Giles had died. Wesley had, of course, realized how devoted the two were to one another during his first, brief stay in Sunnydale. Neither Mr. Giles nor his fiancee had had much use for Wesley in those days, but the attraction and trust between the two was evident, as was Giles' joy in the woman he had intended to marry.

When Wesley had returned to Sunnydale, he had done so for Giles' funeral -- a ceremony held on a cool, bright day. He remembered seeing her standing by the grave, in a black dress and veil, and his own shock at the blankness of her stare.

Whatever light within Jenny had dimmed when her lover died, her inner strength and kindness still survived. Wesley felt grateful to have her friendship, at least; without hers, he would have had no one's. But the care and attention she gave him reflected nothing deeper. It was the same sort of impersonal nurturing one might give a fern. Wesley didn't even expect anything more.

After all, Rupert Giles was the true Watcher, the true love. He was just the replacement.

*****

Buffy trudged through the snow, listening to its cornstarch crunch against her feet.

She knew, rather than heard, that Angel was behind her. His stealth was more than a match for the snow. She half-smiled, thinking, Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night shall keep ensouled vampires from their rounds.

Once she would have said it out loud, to see if Angel would get the joke. By this time, she was pretty sure he wouldn't. Besides, if she were joking out loud, someone or something might hear. She'd learned the hard way that it paid to be careful.

"Buffy," Angel said, his voice low. In warning. She stopped moving, listened. More cornstarch crunching, farther away -- a group, maybe three or four. Human, maybe. Or maybe just human-sized.

She pulled out her stake, began moving toward the sound as lightly as she could. Once again, she knew Angel would be behind her; in some ways, predictability could be a good thing.

They moved toward a hedge -- no point in not using cover if you had it, particularly on a night when your dark patrolling clothes stood out against the snow. She bent low, felt Angel crouch down next to her. Buffy tried to peer through the hedge, but could see nothing but shining green leaves tipped in white.

But she could hear.

"I bet it's another freakin' coffin," someone laughed. A man, or -- Buffy glanced over at Angel at last, saw him shake his head slightly. Not vamps, then. But they weren't ordinary people, either; it had been more than two years since ordinary people had been outside in Sunnydale after dark.

"They wouldn't go to all this trouble for a vampire coffin," another man's voice said. "It's probably some magical artifact."

"I hope it's not another trans-dimensional liquifier," a third man sighed. "I do not want to spend another two months pouring concrete for new floors."

"Doesn't matter what it is," said a fourth voice. Buffy tensed in recognition. The tone was commanding, dry, familiar.

She looked back at Angel and mouthed the name of the Initiative's strike-team leader -- Finn? Angel nodded in agreement. So, she thought with a flash of excitement, the famous Finn is screwing up, and lucky little me is here to hear it.

"Doesn't matter?" the first voice said. "Come on, Riley, how can you say that?"

"Walsh says we guard it, we guard it," Finn said. "Doesn't matter if it's a vampire coffin, trans-dimensional liquifier or a tub of Parkay. And we sure the hell don't blab about it on patrol, Graham. Come on."

As their footsteps moved further away in the snow, Buffy grinned. Too late, sucker, she thought.

"They've found something," Angel whispered.

"Wow, way to state the obvious," Buffy said. Angel looked a little hurt; once, he would have known that her put-downs didn't mean anything. But back then, her put-downs really didn't mean anything. But as she looked into his dark eyes, she regretted snapping at him. Sure, he was predictable, and he was obvious, but he was -- Angel. Her backup. Her boyfriend.

All she had left.

Buffy put her hand on his shoulder; as ever, her touch seemed to smooth over his hurt feelings. "Sorry. Just dreading telling Wesley about this. Because you know what he's gonna say."

Angel sighed with her as they both said, "Research."

*****

The elevator dived down into the depths of the Initiative; Riley imagined that he could feel the stone closing in around them. He'd been imagining that more and more, lately -- not exactly a healthy impulse, he figured. Ought to stop that.

But he still felt the weight of it as he stepped out into the Initiative labs. And his claustrophobia intensified as he saw who was awaiting him -- not just Walsh, but --

"Brother," Adam said, reaching out with his human hand. "It is -- good to see you."

As ever, Riley resisted the urge to attack -- that thing -- to yell that he wasn't its brother, its lackey, or its friend. However, he suspected that only the last was true. Adam was looking at him somewhat strangely, even by Adam standards. "You have come from above. From the Winter."

"Of course," Riley thought. Silently he added, Like every other night for the past two years. Then again, Adam did have something of a tendency to stress the same points over and over again.

Adam bowed his head, as though considering something. Riley had learned that this was, by far, the most dangerous time to confront Adam. He remained silent, at attention, as though the creature really were his commanding officer. Walsh, his real commanding officer, was half-smiling at him. Approving of his obedience. Riley felt his back teeth clenching together, hard.

"You have come to report to me." Adam looked as though he would say more, but he asked only, "What word?"

"Quiet. Unusually so. Not even a nest of vampires to be found."

"I don't like it," Maggie Walsh said, folding her arms in front. "The word must be out. They have to be planning."

"They cannot plan," Adam said. "They can only execute the plans of others. Our own demons are silent, because we wish it. The others -- if they knew, they would attack."

Knew what? Riley wondered. But he had long since realized that the best means of gathering information within the Initiative was not to ask questions. Better by far to be quiet and wait.

Walsh gave Riley a perfunctory nod. "That will be all, Finn." He walked away slowly, moving quietly up the metal steps of the catwalk as he listened to her saying, "If anything else were able to harness this power --"

"Do not fear, Mother," Adam said.

The "Mother," as usual, freaked Riley out enough to get him to stop listening and walk away faster. He cast one glance down into the research well, hoping that what he saw would shed some more light than it had before. But, no, all he saw were a couple of white-coated researchers huddled around -- something.

Well, he'd find out. In the meantime, there were a few jobs left in the Initiative that he didn't mind much at all. With a slight smile, Riley half-jogged to the mess hall, grabbed a couple of apples, and headed to unit 941.

He punched in the security code and stepped through without fear. It had taken him a couple years to get to this point; he was the only member of the Initiative who'd reached it, probably the only one who ever would, and with good reason. "Brought you something," Riley said easily.

"Big fuckin' deal," Faith said. "The zookeeper brought the monkey some fruit. Gee, ya think maybe you could get me an inner tube to swing from?"

Riley sighed. Not one of her good days, then. "The inner tube wouldn't be much good without rope," he said.

Faith ran one hand through her long hair -- almost to her waist, now - - and glanced sideways at him. "If you were really my friend, you'd get me some rope."

He caught himself looking up at the steel rafters of her cell. "Faith," he said quietly. "You promised you weren't going to think like that."

"No, I promised I wasn't gonna talk like that," Faith said. "You can control every other damn thing about my life, Lee, but you can't control how I think."

Riley didn't let the anger get to him anymore; he knew that her rage was directed at Walsh, Adam and the Initiative. In the past few months, she'd grown to know it too. But he was still the only outlet she had, and Riley was willing to bear the weight.

She flopped down on her little bunk in her stark room -- stark even by the standards of someone who'd spent half his life in army barracks. He had considered asking if he could bring Faith a few things -- nothing that could be a weapon, just a couple of posters and some tape, or a blanket that would give the room a little color. Or maybe some clothing besides the shapeless blue scrubs they saw fit to give her. But Walsh would just have given him that look, the one that saw right through him, and assigned someone else to Faith duty. Which wouldn't do either of them any good.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I know how you feel."

"You know how I feel?" Faith raised an eyebrow. "That's pretty rich, Lee. You haven't been a prisoner for two and a half years."

"They keep you in a cage," Riley said. "They keep me on a leash. Not that much of a difference."

"Bullshit. You get to walk around. You get to go outside --"

"Outside's not what it used to be," Riley said. "Not in Sunnydale, anyway."

Faith was quiet for a while. Then she said, "What was it tonight?"

"Snow," Riley said. "If you didn't know why -- I mean, if you just saw it -- you'd say it was pretty."

"Bet I wouldn't," Faith said, snatching the apple from his hand.

"You?" Riley smiled then, was relieved to see her smile in return. "No, you probably wouldn't."

*****

Angel brushed snow from his hair again, saw that Buffy was beginning to struggle as she made her way through the drifts. Perhaps six or eight inches had fallen already, and the sky was still thick with flakes. Buffy was only a few feet ahead of him, and her form was already indistinct, clouded by the falling snow.

He wanted to catch up with her, and he didn't. If she wanted to talk to him, she'd be talking. And when she wasn't in the mood to talk, he had long since despaired of finding the right things to say. But that didn't stop him from feeling slightly lost as he watched her, half- hidden from his sight, making her way uneasily through the snow, uninterested in his help.

And then he heard it -- not even a scream, just a cry.

Angel froze in place; Buffy kept trudging on, and he said, as quietly as he could, "Stop."

She stopped and turned her head; even in the heavy snow he could sense her starting to listen, call upon her own abilities to sense what he sensed.

Footsteps in snow -- something falling -- and again, the cry --

As one, Angel and Buffy turned and began running toward the sound. A nearby alley seemed to provide the best path; as they ran, Angel realized Buffy was falling behind in the snow. He'd have to start alone.

He emerged onto the street to see two vampires after one girl. Apparently they'd just seized her; one had grabbed her arms behind her back, and the other was slipping on the icy curb as he clutched at her shoulder. The girl still didn't scream for help; instead, she kicked the vampire in front of her in the crotch.

It doubled over with a screech; Angel felt himself smile as he ran toward them. Amazing -- you so rarely saw humans fighting worth a damn --

The vampire behind the girl shoved her roughly to the ground, but before it could pounce Angel had skidded up behind it and slammed his stake into its back. Grey dust was soon lost in the swirl of snow. Angel jumped over the girl to do the same for the one on the ground. Easy kills. They must have been new.

"Good shootin, Tex." Buffy's voice came from behind him. As she stumbled toward him, she pointed at the girl, who lay still in the snow. "What the hell was she doing outside?"

"Let's find out," Angel said, kneeling by her side. He noticed, as he turned her over, that she wasn't dressed for the weather at all -- a thin sweater and a silk jacket, cloth gloves that were already soaked through.

And then he saw her face.

"It's Cordelia Chase," he said.

"What?" Buffy peered over his shoulder. "What's she doing in Sunnydale?"

Angel shrugged. Like most sensible alumni of Sunnydale High, Cordelia Chase had moved away shortly after graduation. Apparently she'd gone to Hollywood and found success -- Angel remembered some group excitement when she'd appeared on the cover of a magazine -- but otherwise he knew little of her.

Cordelia was staring up at him, clearly dazed and disoriented. Angel could smell the faintest tracings of blood, resisted the urge to touch his fingers to her temple, where he sensed the wound. "They hit her head," he said. "We have to get her indoors."

"Angel?" Cordelia whispered.

"That's right. It's me," he said. "Don't worry. You're okay."

"Oh, thank God," she breathed. "Angel, I had the most awful dream --"

"It's okay," Angel said, picking her up in his arms. Buffy began heading back toward the alleyway, and he followed. "You're okay, Cordelia. We're getting you someplace warm."

"I dreamed -- I dreamed I messed up everything, Angel. I changed everything, and it was all so terrible --"

"It's okay," Angel repeated, paying little attention to her delirious ramblings. "Don't worry."

"It was just a dream --"

"That's right," Angel said. "Just a dream."

*****

Part II

TWO DAYS AGO, IN ANOTHER UNIVERSE

"Naiura?" Cordelia said. "Am I pronouncing your name right?"

"You are as close as you can be," Naiura said, "with a human voice."

Cordelia had suspected that, even if she did have her memories, she wouldn't remember seeing anything quite as gloriously unearthly as Naiura. Naiura's skin shimmered right between slate and silver. Her ice-green eyes were large and thickly lashed. A soft cap of white feathers covered her head, almost like some stylish hat. Cordelia had felt slightly awed by her -- surely something so beautiful had to be good.

"Well, then, hi there, Naiura," Cordelia said nervously. "Suppose you're wondering why I summoned you. What with having been summoned and all."

Naiura nodded, perhaps a little tiredly, and sat down on the corner of the bed Cordelia shared with Connor. "The spell was clumsy," Nairua said. "I do not blame you. You did your best. But why do you try something so dangerous when you know so little? You cannot guess at the consequences."

"Because I don't know anything," Cordelia said. She had knelt near Naiura in subconscious supplication. "My memory's been taken from me, and I have to get it back. Apparently I'm half-demon, and I have visions and a mission, and all this other stuff that sounds kinda important. But I can't remember it, so I can't get it back, and nobody seems to know how to help me."

"So you have helped yourself," Naiura said, amused.

"I sneaked back into the hotel -- it's a hotel where I used to live, I think -- and I snooped around some. I found this book that talked all about you, and how you came here from another dimension long ago, and how you change reality? Well, I thought maybe you could change this reality so I have my memory back." Cordelia had smiled. "It said all the stuff I had to get to do the spell, and I wasn't sure it would work, but it did! And here you are. So -- can you?"

"Change this reality so that your memory has never been taken?" Naiura had cocked her head to one side. "Difficult. I sense this already. Many forces, many events, have led to this."

Cordelia had folded her arms. "You mean, you've seen that I can't pay you. Listen, I'm pretty sure we can work something out -- I have to have a Visa card or something --"

Naiura's eyes had gone wide. She put her silver-blue hands on either side of Cordelia's face and laughed -- a beautiful laugh, like bells pealing. "I see it now! I see a way to change it now. Yes, yes, I can get your memory back for you. I can arrange it so that it is never taken at all."

Cordelia had felt tears springing to her eyes. "You can? You will? I'll pay whatever you want, I swear --"

"You do not have to pay me," Naiura said. "This reality is its own reward."

If Cordelia had had her memory, she would have known to be suspicious. She would have known the kind of rewards demons prize.

But she didn't have her memory. She had only her fear, and her loneliness, and a warehouse room she shared with a boy who left her for long hours to fight monsters she didn't understand. And she had a beautiful, powerful creature who held her face and smiled and told her it would all be better soon. Cordelia had met only four demons in the brief few days she remembered -- one of them was scary, but two others, Angel and Lorne, seemed like they were helpful and nice. The fourth was, apparently, herself. And so she wasn't as afraid as she should have been.

"Do it," Cordelia said.

The world had gone silver, then dark, and then light had returned to reveal --

"And your host for the VH1 Fashion Awards -- Cordy Chase!"

She was standing on a stage, surrounded by cheering crowds and TV lights. She was wearing Donatella Versace, which meant she was showing a hell of a lot of skin. She looked good. The camera loved her. The microphones were waiting for her next words.

"Dammit!" she yelled. "Not AGAIN?"

 
***

HERE AND NOW

Angel pulled the blankets up over Cordelia, plumped the pillow beneath her head. She was all but unconscious on the tiny cot in the library office, mumbling indistinctly. Behind him, he could hear Buffy and Wesley arguing. As usual.

"Buffy, she was exposed to the cold for God only knows how long. And a blow to the head -- she could be in serious trouble."

Angel switched on one of Giles' old lamps; the light shone dim and golden through a heavy mica shade. Cordelia stirred slightly, and he feared the light would disturb her, but then her head lolled to one side, a lock of dark hair falling across her cheek.

"Wesley, if we try and move her all the way to the hospital tonight, the rest of us are going to join her. We don't let people travel at night for a reason, remember? It's late, and it's dangerous, and if vamps attack our car, she's not a whole lot better off."

"If she has hypothermia --"

"--then the hospital would do exactly what we're doing, which is get her warm and let her rest."

Angel looked down at the girl lying on the cot next to him; he could hear her heartbeat, too-slow but steady. Her breathing was deep and even. Carefully, Angel lay his palm against her forehead. He couldn't gauge her body heat well -- after a night outside, his skin would be colder than any living human's for hours to come -- but he suspected Cordelia's temperature was not so low as to require emergency help.

In short, Buffy was right. But Angel found himself wishing that Wesley would argue with Buffy harder -- or that either of them would ask him about Cordelia's condition, show that they cared more about her than about their arguments.

But Wesley just sighed, and Angel knew the question was settled. They would be doing things Buffy's way, right or wrong. As usual.

Angel curbed his impulse to bitterness -- Buffy had good instincts, and Wesley didn't seem to have many leadership instincts at all, and they all listened to her for a reason, and she really was right about Cordelia's condition --

But he felt suddenly, irrationally protective of the dazed girl on the cot.

Buffy stuck her head in the door. "We're headed out. Come on."

"No," he said. "Someone should stay to watch Cordelia."

"That's what Wesley's for," Buffy shrugged.

"Wesley's for research," Angel said. "And you guys do have something to research, remember?"

"What's that?" Wesley said from the other room.

"D'oh!" Buffy said, smacking her forehead. "Way to forget the big honkin' Initiative clue."

"Clue?" Wesley sounded more eager than ever, and Angel had to suppress a smile.

Buffy was smiling too. "Oh, I get it now. You're doing the Florence Creature-of-the-Nightingale act to get out of the latest research party."

Angel laughed softly. "Wesley told you I was evil."

She giggled at that, then came forward and kissed him gently on the mouth; Angel tilted his head up to meet her lips, felt himself relaxing more than he had in days. Every once in a great while, they still had these moments -- and just these few moments were so much more than he'd ever thought to have in his lonely life. No point in even wondering if it were enough.

Buffy went back to the doorway. "Let me go give Wesley the thrill of his life. Have fun playing doctor." She waggled her eyebrows as though they were both going to be up to something far dirtier and more fun.

Angel settled back in the chair and took up a book -- though he'd never imagined telling Wesley so, the man did have good taste in books -- to wait out the night until Cordelia awoke.

*****

"They've found something?" Wesley said. "What exactly?"

Buffy shrugged, and Wesley felt his hopes and good spirits begin to fade, as quickly as usual. "I dunno. That guy Finn said something about a vampire coffin, a trans-dimensional liquifier or a tub of Parkay. I think the Parkay was a joke. I hope so, anyway. All we need is demonic margarine."

"Hard to imagine the Initiative taking on so about a vampire coffin," Wesley said.

"Not in this town," Buffy agreed. "The trans-dimensional whatsit -- maybe. But I'm not sure they were serious about that, either."

Wesley folded his arms, considering. "They found something. Meaning that they didn't go and get it, or receive it from the government -- it didn't come to them --"

"You know, with all the books in here, I bet we could find a dictionary. Probably got the definition of 'found' right in there."

"I -- of course -- I meant only that whatever they found, it, it was something that was already here."

"Oh." To Wesley's surprise, he saw Buffy nodding. "Right. So we start looking for stuff that would already have been here. More people come here to bury their weirdo artifacts, you know?"

"Exactly," he said, relieved that she understood him and, for once, would cooperate. "So, we have a place to begin."

*****

" -- Naiura -- "

Angel glanced down at Cordelia, who was stirring on the cot, awakening. He set aside his book and leaned forward, arms on his knees. "Cordelia? Are you all right?"

She opened her eyes slowly, blinked, then smiled an uneven, groggy smile. "Felt -- better --"

"I'm sure you have. Do you want some water? Aspirin?"

"No -- just need to -- rest a little," she breathed. "I'm so glad you're here -- I was scared -- wouldn't ever see you again --"

Angel frowned. Given that he'd only barely known Cordelia when she was in high school, it wasn't possible that she could have been scared of not seeing him again. Therefore, Cordelia was slightly delusional, thinking him someone else -- and still in poorer shape than he'd hoped.

If she's not coherent by morning, he thought, I'll get Buffy to take her to the hospital after all. In the meantime, there was little point in arguing with either of them. "You're safe, Cordelia. Don't worry about anything. Just go back to sleep."

"But this thing -- Naiura -- I think she was real --"

Naiura? The name was unfamiliar to Angel, but he filed it away to tell Buffy and Wesley later. Cordelia had traveled to Sunnydale for some reason, and these days it was unlikely anyone would come for a purely social visit. "We'll work that out later, when you feel better."

Cordelia reached out; her trembling hand wrapped around his, kitten- weak. "She made me dream things -- I wasn't where I was supposed to be. I was on TV -- and when I went back to the hotel, you weren't there --"

So, whoever Cordelia thought Angel was, it was somebody she'd visited a hotel with. Faintly amused, he tried to gently disengage his hand from hers. "Shhhhh. Don't worry about it now. It's all over."

"I thought I'd messed everything up -- I thought I'd lost you," Cordelia murmured as he nestled her hand back in her blankets.

Angel wanted to reassure her, but checked himself. He couldn't promise that she hadn't lost whoever it was forever -- if he'd come to Sunnydale with her, there was a chance he was indeed lost. Silently, he cursed himself for not making a more thorough recon of the area where he and Buffy had found Cordelia. Was there time to go now? He checked the impulse. No need. Anyone who'd been unprotected on the streets of Sunnydale at nighttime for several hours was by now beyond any help.

And then Cordelia gazed up at him -- her eyes almost clear, her voice a little stronger, as if she really did know who he was -- and said, "I love you so much." She smiled tenderly. "I never thought I'd get to tell you. It's worth -- all of it -- to tell you."

He shook his head slightly. "Rest," Angel said. "You'll do us both some good if you rest."

Cordelia closed her eyes, apparently having said all she had to say. As she fell back into a deeper, easier sleep, Angel hoped for her sake that she would find the man she sought.

*****

 The first thing she felt was pain.

Her whole body ached, and in a few places -- her left knee, her right temple -- Cordelia felt the sharp stabbing pain of injury. She grimaced as she struggled toward consciousness.

Must've been a fight, she thought. She'd woken up feeling like this often enough, the past few years --

-- fighting alongside Angel (working out with the studio-supplied personal trainer), battling vamps and slime demons and Haxol beasts (waving to the studio audience at the end of a taping), getting banged up by visions before her demon-izing (posing for the cover of In Style) --

She'd gone to Nairua to get back her memories of her life. Now she remembered two lives. Both her own.

Cordelia's eyes flew open. Immediately, she saw Angel sleeping in a chair next to her, and she smiled. Angel. He was here. She could tell him she remembered him, that she loved him, and that it was all going to be okay --

But then she realized that she and Angel weren't at the Hyperion. They were in Giles' old library office, which was looking remarkably not-blown-up. They were in Sunnydale -- in Sunnydale --

It couldn't be true. It couldn't be. She'd asked for her memory back, not for the whole world to be changed. This was a dream, just a bad dream, or a warning from the Powers -- a vision! That was it, a vision. Now that she was part demon, the visions sometimes just appeared around her like part of the scenery, and there was no reason in the world for her to have a vision about Giles' library, and these weird memories in her mind didn't seem like part of a vision, but they had to be --

She felt her body shaking in terror, forced herself to focus on Angel. On the one thing in the world she knew was real.

As if in response, Angel stirred slightly, then slowly opened his eyes. She smiled weakly at him, grateful that he was awake, frightened of whatever was happening to her bewildered mind --

"Cordelia?" Angel said. He looked worried, the way he did after they'd been in a battle or she'd had a strange vision. No doubt he knew what was going on, and he would explain it all, and then this would finally make sense.

She saw him register her confusion, then he leaned forward to come closer to her. "Cordelia?" he asked gently. "Do you remember me?"

And as she stared up at him, she realized that the gentleness and concern in his eyes -- were all. There was no recognition. No understanding. No love.

Cordelia clasped her hand to her mouth, trying to stifle her scream. For a long, long moment, all she could do was try and slow her breathing so she wouldn't hyperventilate; that, and think: Naiura, you demon bitch.

And then: No. This can't last. This was done, and it can be undone, and I'm gonna figure out how.

"Cordelia?" The Angel who was not Angel -- not her Angel -- was still looking at her, patient and puzzled as ever.

It seemed wrong to speak to him -- wrong even to acknowledge that he could exist -- but she managed to blurt out. "Thanks for the lifesaving. Gotta go."

She ran from him, through the library, out the doors, and into Sunnydale High --

(graduation day, her cap and gown in the back seat of Oz's van, taping explosives under the library tables and trying really hard not to look at Wesley)

(graduation day, everyone joking about the commencement speaker who had to fill in for the "missing" mayor, Faith giving Buffy a high- five, Cordelia sobbing as she and Xander finally split up)

The world is different, Cordelia thought. Everything is different. But why? Why? This isn't what I asked Naiura for -- this isn't what she was supposed to do.

"Cordy!" That was Buffy's voice behind her. By instinct only, Cordelia half-turned to see Buffy standing there --

(Buffy, the winter of 1998, getting thinner and paler by the day, living in terror, crying every day, looking down and away every time Cordelia and Xander made the mistake of holding hands in front of her, suiting up for patrol every night as though she were going into battle)

(Buffy, the winter of 1998, glowing as though she were lit from within, cutting study hall only to show up two hours later with beard burn on her cheeks and a silly smile on her face, giggling with Willow and Cordelia as they slipped into Victoria's Secret, giddy with happiness and embarrassment)

"Hey, are you okay?" Buffy said. She was staring at Cordelia very strangely, clearly torn between annoyance and concern. "Should you be up?"

"She did it," Cordelia whispered. "She said she'd change reality -- and I didn't remember, so I didn't realize -- "

"Cordy?" Buffy was edging closer. Behind her, Cordelia could see Angel and Wesley leaning out into the hall, looking as confused as she felt.

(Angel and Wesley, buying her magazines to read during working hours, cruising Ventura Boulevard with the top of Angel's convertible down, loving her as brothers and as men, asking nothing, giving everything, coming to blows with each other and tearing her heart out)

(Wesley almost a stranger to her, someone she'd had a secret crush on during those last days with Xander, and Angel only a distant memory of the strangeness she'd left behind -- almost nothing to her at all - -)

"I have to go," Cordelia said, to Buffy, to all of them, only to herself. "Just let me go."

"Cordelia, you aren't well." Wesley's voice. She wouldn't look at Wesley, because he was standing near Angel, an Angel with no love for her in his eyes. She felt a dizzying rush of blood, draining from her head, leaving her chilled and disoriented and more ready to bolt than ever.

"You'll try to stop me," Cordelia said. "You think this world is real."

"Ohhh-kay," Buffy said. Buffy's face was shifting slightly, out of focus and then in again, and the the dim light in the corridor seemed to be getting even dimmer. "Cordelia, what isn't real to you?"

"I'm going to fix this," Cordelia said. "I'm going to fix everything. I'm going to find Naiura and make her make it right again. And don't - - don't you get in my way."

She turned away from Buffy then, trying to ignore the nauseating swirl in her stomach as her head whipped around. As best as she could, she began jogging toward the nearby exit. All she had to do was get back to Los Angeles, find the books -- no, the books were in the Hyperion, and nothing would be in the Hyperion now, nothing but empty rooms and dust and a hungry demon.

"Cordelia?" Oh, God, that was Angel's voice. She tried to ignore it, to pretend she didn't hear his footsteps coming up behind her. "You shouldn't be on your feet. Just stop, okay? Sit down and we'll talk."

"Don't you touch me," she said without turning around. That wasn't Angel. Not the real Angel. "Leave me alone."

"It's dangerous out there!" Buffy this time. Cordelia ignored her too, put her hands out on the iron bar across the door, only to have it swing open as soon as she touched it. She half-stumbled, half- swooned toward --

"Cordelia?" Jenny Calendar. Alive. Framed in darkness and snowflakes and the reddish glow of the exit sign. Staring at Cordelia. "Are you all right?"

Cordelia sank to the floor, braced her hands against the linoleum. It was better than falling down. "Cordelia?" Buffy said, stepping closer.

"I'm sorry," Cordelia said, to no one who would understand. "I'm so sorry."

And then, to her embarrassment and surprise, she burst into tears.

*****

Pull yourself together, Cordelia told herself sternly. You have committed the fuck-up of all fuck-ups, but there's got to be a way out. There always is. The sooner you figure it out, the better.

The little voice on the inside had its act together. Unfortunately, the rest of her was still a total wreck.

Cordelia wiped at her eyes, sniffled, breathed in as slowly and deeply as she could. They'd brought her back to the library, let her sit at the big oaken table and have a cup of hot tea. Buffy, Wesley, Angel and holy Mary mother of God Jenny Calendar were all semicircled around her, looking equal parts worried and bemused. And every time Cordelia thought she was about to steady herself, she would catch sight of Jenny or, even worse, Angel, and the tears welled up again. She had to calm down, she had to think --

But it was so hard, with Angel near her but without even a single memory of their years in Los Angeles. Because she'd wiped them all away. It was like what had been done to her by the Powers, but the Powers had only taken her memory. Cordelia had accidentally destroyed an entire reality.

No, she corrected herself, her eyes filling with tears again, she didn't destroy it. It was worse even than that. No, instead she had wiped it out of existence. Losing everything you loved was terrible, but it was so much worse to know that it had never been at all. So much worse.

There was something else too, something she couldn't quite put words to. During her time with the Powers, there was something she'd seen -- something important -- something yet to come. Eyes, she thought, but she couldn't see whatever it was she'd seen before. She only had that one word, eyes.

It was a part of that reality's future, Cordelia realized. And I can't see the future of a world that doesn't exist -- a world that I ruined --

Pull yourself together, she told herself again, with more force this time. You didn't have your memory. You didn't know to be cautious, and you were counting on Connor to protect you, HELLO big mistake. You made this big fake world, and it sucks, so you just have to unmake it. What's done can be undone, and the only people who can help you are looking at you like you are a crazy person. Time to prove them wrong.

Cordelia sat up straight and focused Buffy, then Wesley in turn. "I'm gonna tell you guys a few things," she said, choking back her last tears. "And I want you to listen, okay? Hear me out."

Buffy shrugged. "Okay, but just know, you have to do the walk-a- straight-line test when you're done."

Ignoring that, Cordelia stared at Wesley. Think objective, she reminded herself. Think facts. "Wesley -- you had a pretty miserable childhood, thanks to the scariest dad this side of Marvin Gaye's. You like mint tea, and you hate it when they pile whipped cream on your coffee drinks. You play darts really well -- anything to do with aiming, whether it's guns or crossbows or whatever, you're good at. And you love word puzzles. You'll play them all day."

Buffy raised her eyebrows as she looked over at Wesley. He said, cautiously, "Everything you've said is accurate."

Shooting Angel a quick look, Buffy said, "You gonna do the mind- reading thing on me?"

"We didn't know each other any better in this reality," Cordelia said. "But Angel --"

Angel, apparently surprised to hear his own name, said, "Yes?"

Think objective. Think facts. Cordelia breathed in shakily. "You loved convents. Churches. Holy places. You went through this way- disturbing phase where you would cut crosses in the cheeks of your victims. That was about the same time you turned a vampire named Penn. But being the Scourge of Europe wasn't all about mayhem and gore, because you took time out to go to the ballet, the Blitnikov's version of 'Giselle,' and big bad evil you actually cried."

Angel blinked, clearly trying to fathom how she could possibly know about the ballet. Cordelia fought back the urge to say more -- she could say so much more. Things like, You pay so much attention to your hair, to your clothes, to your car, and it's all because you're so afraid of what people will see -- that if they even find one external flaw, they'll see the internal flaws too. You can't sing worth a damn, but you sang to your baby and didn't care who heard you. You sometimes don't take the time to slow down and listen, but when you do, you take it all in, every word, every moment, and you make the person talking to you feel like she's the only person in the world --

"So, you have information about us," Wesley said. "More than you ought to have. Something has happened to you."

"Not that much happened to me," Cordelia said. "But to everyone else - - reality's been totally warped. This isn't the world I remember. This isn't the way it's supposed to be."

Buffy and Wesley traded looks; Wesley was trying to hide his skepticism. Buffy didn't bother. "So this thing you think manipulated reality -- what was the name?"

"Naiura," Angel said quietly. "Right? That's what you were saying last night."

"That's the name," Cordelia affirmed. "Kinda silvery-blue, tall, thin, attractive if you go for that kind of thing. Ringing any bells?"

"No." Wesley suggested, "This Naiura creature may only have manipulated your memory."

"Don't think so," Cordelia said tiredly. "I didn't exactly have a memory to manipulate. I mean, I remember this reality -- sort of. But I know which reality is real. I mean, more real."

"You do remember reality then," Wesley said. "But you have a set of -- secondary memories."

"It's so weird, Wes. All the things that happened in this reality -- I know them, but they're like something I read in a book, or memorized for a test. I know they're facts, but they didn't happen to me." She stood up, held a hand out beseechingly toward Wesley. Still she could not look at Angel. "Listen, even if you don't believe me totally -- you know something's up. I know stuff about both of you guys that I shouldn't know. So, that's spooky, right? The kind of things a Watcher and a do-gooder vampire would investigate?"

"Something decided to reprogram your brain, Cordelia," Buffy said. "I understand the impulse, but still, that's a lousy thing to do. Worth looking into. But, believe it or not, we have problems that rank a little bit higher on the priority scale. Remember that blizzard you got yourself frozen in last night? The thing that's responsible for it might just be on the verge of his next major crime, which I for one would like to stop."

Cordelia looked up at the skylight; no sunlight shone through, a factor of the heavy snow above. In her memory -- her true memory -- she knew that southern California was as warm and balmy as ever. But in the flat, artificial memory of the past few years that overlaid it all, she knew that, for two years, winter had had ruled an area some two hundred miles in diameter -- with Sunnydale right at the center. She said, slowly, "The weathermen call it El Abuelo. They pretend it's some new weird meteorological phenomenon."

Wesley, obviously grateful to have something constructive to add, said, "Adam -- the underworld overlord here for the past two years -- he found a way to harness the energies of the Hellmouth. A spell that not only draws energy from the Hellmouth, but from the world at large -- it takes away heat. Plants don't grow as they ought. Machines break down. The fertility rate in Sunnydale is astonishingly low, though that might be as much a factor of people not wishing to bear a child here."

"Can't blame 'em," Buffy said quietly.

"Naiura didn't mess with my brain," Cordelia insisted. "She messed with reality. Adam and El Abuelo and all the rest of it -- that's not supposed to be real. Naiura changed reality."

"And why would she have done this?" Buffy countered.

Well, this wasn't going to be pretty. Cordelia tried to edge into it gently: "It's worth something to her. And I should've found out what it was -- should've found out what the changes were going to be --"

"Wait," Wesley said. "You mean -- you knew this Naiura creature was going to change reality?" After a moment, Cordelia nodded miserably. Might as well admit it, get it all out now. Wesley pressed further. "So, you were -- working with her. You wanted reality changed as well."

"I swear to God, the only thing I was trying to change was something that really, really needed changing."

Buffy, apparently unconvinced, crossed her arms in front of her. "What was it you were supposedly trying to change, anyway? What was so awful in your TV-star life that it was worth messing with everybody else's lives to fix it?"

"I'm not a TV star!" Cordelia said. "At least, I wasn't. I had lost my memory -- I mean, ALL of it, no idea about my own name until somebody told me. And I wanted my memory back. I didn't know to be scared of demons --"

"How much do you have to know to know that?" Buffy retorted.

"Well, I DIDN'T know, and I was scared -- you have no idea how scary it is -- and I just wanted my memory back. I only asked her to change reality to change that. But instead, she changed almost everything."

"But not everything," Jenny said. Just hearing her voice gave Cordelia chills; it was like hearing a ghost speak. Actually, after a couple years of living with Phantom Dennis, Cordelia thought of ghosts as fairly comforting. Hearing Jenny Calendar speak was anything but comforting. "I mean, you still went to high school here, right? Still knew Buffy and the rest of us?" When Cordelia nodded, Jenny continued, "So, when exactly did things change? What's the point where Naiura altered reality?"

Cordelia sat back and tried to put her chaotic memories into some sort of order. God, it was awful having no memory, but having two sets of memories was almost worse. May Queen -- check. Cheerleader -- check. Boyfriend killed by vampires -- check. Making out with Xander in the broom closets -- check, dammit. Leave it to Naiura not to change the embarrassing stuff. Buffy's 17th-birthday party -- check. Flame-thrower in the mall --

No check. Angelus in the graveyard -- nope. The attack in the library -- didn't happen.

Angelus never got out.

Cordelia felt the shock all over her body, as though she'd been plunged into icewater. "Your curse," she whispered. "Angel, Naiura changed your curse."

"What?" Angel sounded beyond horrified. "The curse -- that's my soul - -"

Cordelia shook her head. "It is NOW. But before, it was different. The gypsies had this weird loophole in it, a way you could lose your soul again. If you had -- perfect happiness, your soul went away. And you became Angelus again."

"You mean -- this could actually happen?" Wesley said. He pushed his glasses up his nose and drew back, as if recoiling from the very thought. "Good Lord -- if Angelus were ever to get out again, to be loosed upon the world -- "

"That can't be real," Angel protested. "Why would they curse me with a soul to make me stop killing, then make it possible for me to become a killer again? It's a stupid loophole."

"We've done stranger," Jenny said.

"What Cordy's talking about -- is that part of Angel's curse?" Buffy demanded.

Jenny shook her head. "No. The curse is pretty straightforward -- well, by the standards of Calderash curses. Which is to say, about as labyrinthine as it gets short of the income-tax code. But there's no perfect-happiness loophole."

Angel was clearly, understandably, still in shock. "My soul could be - - could have been -- impermanent. I could have been a killer again -- Angelus again --" He looked across the room at Buffy. "I could have hurt you." Buffy's face was pale, and everyone was silent for a long time.

"I know it sounds scary," Cordelia said. "It was pretty damn scary to live through, let me tell you. But it's still part of reality, and what's all around us now isn't reality. It's fake. And we have to get back to what's real. That's the way it works, right?"

Wesley folded his arms in front of his chest. "Miss Chase -- either everything in the world has been affected, or just your memory has. Which do you think is more likely?" Cordelia breathed out in something that was half a sob, and he hastened to add, "I do think it's important to track down this Naiura creature -- find out what's been done to you, and why --"

"Listen to me," Cordelia said firmly. She stood up and faced them -- even Jenny -- and called upon the new memories, the flat and terrible ones, to give her the words she needed. "In my reality, Xander and Willow and Giles are all alive. Alive and well and fighting the big evil here in Sunnydale, where there isn't any Winter. Never was. I mean, sure, it's still a Hellmouth, but Buffy's got it under control."

Jenny was blinking back tears. "Alive?" she whispered. "Rupert's alive?"

Cordelia couldn't bring herself to answer her -- to tell her that Giles had lived and leave out the fact that Jenny herself had died. Instead she said, "It's important for me to prove that what I'm saying is true. You and me and -- and Angel, we have to go to LA."

"Angel?" Buffy was frowning. "What, you want a vampire sidekick on your show?"

"The three of us lived there," Cordelia said. As she thought about this, forced herself to grab onto those memories, she finally felt her strength coming back to her. She managed to look at Angel -- not her Angel, but Angel all the same -- and she focused on him as though he were the only person in the library. The only person in the world. . "We worked together. We had a mission. We have to get it back again."

*****

Part III

"She's stark raving bonkers," Buffy said.

Wesley winced -- she'd said that very loudly -- and glanced back through the doorway. Cordelia, by herself at the library table, did not appear to hear, or at any rate to care. "I don't think so," he said. "I think there's more to this -- more than she's telling us. But I don't think she's insane."

All of them were in the library office -- Angel and Buffy on the cot, Jenny in the chair, Wesley on his feet, fighting the urge to pace. Pacing meant that you had nervous energy to burn, and Wesley did not want to reveal to the others -- or admit to himself -- how much Cordelia's words had affected him.

Yet he was realizing that others were just as overwhelmed by what Cordelia had told them about her idea of what was real. Buffy was hugging herself tightly, a hunched, protective posture that belied her angry words. Jenny's eyes were tear-filled, as they had been since the moment Cordelia first said that Giles still lived. And Angel still seemed dazed from the thought of Angelus' escape, not that Wesley could blame him. If such a thing were true -- though of course it could not be -- the repercussions would have been ghastly.

Angel was apparently somewhat focused on the conversation at hand, though, as he asked, "That name she keeps saying -- Naiura. What is that? A demon?"

"Not that I recognize," Wesley said.

He cast a quick glance over at Jenny, who shook her head. "Me either. Of course, that doesn't mean Naiura's not a demon. Contrary to popular belief, Wes and I aren't on a first-name basis with them all. Rupert -- he would've known, I bet --"

"What's with all this mission-in-LA crap, anyway?" Buffy grumbled. "You guys have a mission here. You're my Watcher, and Angel's my -- well, he's here to help me. You two wouldn't ever leave me."

Wesley said nothing; he knew what Buffy had said was entirely true. He had never questioned the fact that his calling, his purpose, was to help Buffy in her sacred duty as the slayer. Certainly it was hard to imagine that Angel could have anything more positive to contribute.

And yet -- something in him he'd hardly realized was there had responded powerfully to what Cordelia had said. A mission. Not Buffy's or the Council's or anyone else's. His own.

Wesley remembered Cordelia as Xander's girlfriend, remembered his own rather guilty crush on the schoolgirl. He'd indulged that crush by watching "Cordy!" a few times; to him it seemed rather typical American sitcom fare, diverting but forgettable, of interest only because of his familiarity with the star. And now, suddenly, here she was again, a flickering image on a screen made real once more, arriving in his life bearing tidings of a world that had never existed. Of a man he had never been. And despite every bit of training and education he'd had in his life, Wesley was tempted by her words.

"Just going on gut instinct here," Jenny said, "but I don't think she's lying. Whatever it is that's trying to pull a fast one, it's not Cordelia herself."

"Agreed," Wesley said. "But I do think we should find out what's going on. I doubt anything would have tampered so seriously with her memories and sent her to us only for amusement's sake."

"I think it's just to hurt us," Buffy said. "Just to get under our skin. Maybe distract us before something important. I mean, think about it. She tells Angel that he went retro-evil to scare him. She tells Miss Calendar and me that Giles didn't die, so we have to miss him all over again." Her voice was trembling as she continued. "And that's why she tells me that Willow and Xander didn't die -- so I have to miss them again too --"

Angel put one hand on Buffy's shoulder; she did not acknowledge the touch, but her trembling diminished.

Wesley ventured, "Not all of her stories were meant to placate us. The bit about Faith becoming twisted and evil, betraying us to the Mayor -- what could that serve?"

Buffy shook her head. "Just reminding us that Faith's dead. That those bastards in the Initiative killed her. Hey -- the Initiative. You think they might've done this to Cordelia?"

"If the Initative could alter memories, they wouldn't bother with Cordelia. They'd go straight for us." Angel seemed to hesitate for a moment, then added, "I think we should do what Cordelia says."

"What?" Buffy said. staring at her lover. "You're just gonna drop everything and go to Los Angeles? Wouldn't that be exactly what this Naiura chick wanted? If this is a setup, then walking right into it doesn't seem like our Plan A."

"I don't think we have to follow through on all of what Cordelia wants to do," Angel said. "But I do think we have to get her to talk to us. Whatever it is Naiura made her believe in -- that's got to be important, right?"

"I see," Wesley said. He met Angel's eyes -- something he rarely did - - and genuinely considered what Angel had said, something he did even more rarely. "Yes. By not challenging Cordelia's delusions, we make it easier for her to talk to us about them."

"I've got another idea," Buffy said. "Let's challenge Cordelia's delusions a little harder. She wants you guys to pick up and take off to LA? Okay, well, then, she can explain what the hell's going on. And just why she doesn't like 'this reality' to start with. I mean, I know why I don't like it, but she's a star and everything. So what's her damage?"

"There's more to it, I think," Angel said. "Last night -- she was rambling, kind of. And she said something that about a -- a lover, I think -- somebody I think she lost."

"If she had a psychotic break after getting dumped, too bad," Buffy said. Wesley noted the harshness in her tone. He understood that Buffy did not intend to be cruel about Cordelia, but she had a deep terror of being alone. More alone, Wesley thought, remembering Willow and Xander. "Hey, Wesley, maybe it's you. You guys were making eyes at each other back during senior year -- and don't even try to deny it, because it was obvious in a 40-foot-high-billboard kind of way. Maybe in her reality, you two had a hot-and-heavy affair, and now the reason she's all freaked out is that you don't even remember it."

Wesley could feel himself blushing, knew Jenny could see it, felt even more embarrassed, and so blushed all the deeper. He managed to say, "I don't -- I mean, I doubt -- that's not the, ah, vibe I'm picking up from her."

Buffy frowned. "You pick up vibes?"

Angel said, "This is just a weird thing for a demon to do. Why alter someone's memories if you don't have something to gain from the alteration? Whatever messed with Cordelia's head -- it had a purpose. And it obviously has some power. I'd rather go looking for it before it comes looking for us."

"We have stuff to do here, remember?" Buffy said. "Looking up all the weirdo stuff that's been buried in Sunnydale? Which is a lot."

"I could help with that," Jenny offered. "Buffy, I really think something's up with Cordelia. In high school -- I think she was fond of Rupert. You all were. But there wasn't anything special there. But when she was telling me that he didn't die -- that he was still alive -- " Jenny shook her head, and Wesley wished that he could do as Angel had done. That he could reach out and comfort the woman he loved. "I felt like there was more she wanted to say. So much more that she felt. There's even more to her story than she's told us. This isn't just a knock on the head. This is something real."

Buffy did not look any happier. "So Cordelia drops the vicious act for a day, and we all assume something supernatural has to be involved? Wait, that kinda made sense. But it's still not a reason for my boyfriend and my Watcher to abandon me."

"It's a two-hour drive, Buffy," Angel said. His voice was -- not sharp, exactly, but it was the closest Wesley had ever heard Angel come to snapping at her. "It's not exactly abandonment. If we leave at sundown, we'll be back before dawn. One night won't kill you."

Buffy sighed, glanced over at Wesley. "So both of you actually think this is a good idea?"

Wesley looked back at Angel. And for the first time ever, Wesley was sure he knew what Angel was thinking.

We had a mission, Wesley thought. Cordelia and Angel and I? It's quite impossible, and it doesn't make any sense, but -- it would've been nice. To have a mission, a reason. Something that didn't belong to people you helped or people near you -- something that was yours, alone. Maybe Angel was as taken with the idea as Wesley was himself.

Even though it wasn't true, he had the irresistible urge to hear more about it.

Wesley said, "Yes. I think we both do."

 
*****

Riley hurried through the corridors -- tunnels, really, lined in claustrophobia-inducing sheet metal -- grateful for a chance to get back into the open air, cold or no. He had almost made it to his post -- was even thinking the words "home free" -- when he heard her voice. "You almost missed the changeover, Finn. Again."

He turned to face Walsh, who had her hands in the pockets of her white coat. Her face was set in the official detachment that, he'd learned the hard way, could conceal a number of emotions that were neither detached nor official. "I show up on schedule to take on my duty, ma'am. Showing up earlier would be an inefficient use of time."

"Ah," Walsh said. His defiance seemed to have amused her. "And whiling away the hours with a research subject -- that's efficient."

Research subject. "Faith cooperates more now that she understands. Doesn't she?"

"She cooperates more," Walsh agreed. Her voice echoed slightly in the corridor, flat and tinny against the metal. "But I hope she doesn't understand too much."

"For her to understand too much, I would have had to tell her too much," Riley said. "And it's your job to keep me from knowing too much. You do it well, ma'am."

Walsh laughed out loud. "It's a pity you didn't serve in the days when they taught fencing, Finn. You'd have been good." She gestured toward the post. "Go. Scoot."

She liked Riley, a fact Riley didn't find very comforting. He turned and went toward the south exit, his guard post for the day, turning down the earflaps on his hat and tugging on his gloves.

He silently thanked whatever might be listening -- something in which he had less and less belief these days -- that there was no precipitation today, no wind. Riley looked out on the broad, unbroken expanse of white from the snowfall of the night before; the horizon was almost lost against the pale sky.

Riley stared into that invisible horizon as he thought -- as he did more and more often these days -- about Faith. The slayer.

One of the slayers, he corrected himself. He had yet to capture the other -- an embarrassment, considering that both he and Walsh had briefly known her and failed to realize her true identity. But also a relief, given what he now knew.

Slayers were not monsters. They were not less than human, or even other than human. Just humans who had the ability to do some good, if others would let them.

For two years now, Faith had only done what little good she could do as a research subject. If anyone needed to know, there were now cold, hard facts about how much pressure per square inch a slayer could exert, how miles per hour a slayer could run, how hard a slayer could punch. Riley worked his jaw, ruefully remembering a less-scientific but quite effective test Faith had made of this herself.

But Riley had learned other facts too, less cold, less hard. How much a human being could long to be free. How the need for companionship could override the most well-founded anger and doubt. How some people could be strong and brave enough to fight against their chains, for weeks and months and years, without ever giving in.

He wished they'd discovered how to recreate that strength. To give it to someone. Because he could only imagine what that might be like.

Abruptly, Riley realized that something was approaching the exit -- something or someone, a shape in a long white cloak that was almost lost in the snow. Today his guard duty appeared to be more than a formality. "Halt!" he said. "Who goes there?"

The shape took another couple of steps before stopping, then pulled off its hood. The female smiled, her teeth bright against her silvery, scaled skin. She was as thin and pale as a sliver of ice, as much a part of the winter around them as the snow.

"My name is Naiura," she said. "Tell Adam that he has a visitor, who has come to call, and to share good tidings."

*****

"I don't like this," Buffy said for the umpteenth time. For the umpteenth time, nobody listened to her.

Wesley was loading bags as though he, Cordy and Angel were setting out on a five-month world tour instead of a drive to Los Angeles; Buffy would not have been at all surprised to see him taking along pith helmets and a butterfly net. This was pretty typical Wesley- overcompensation behavior.

What was not typical was the way Angel was behaving. He seemed -- excited wasn't the word, but -- eager, maybe. "You're rarin' to go," she said, stepping uneasily through the tire-tread grooves of snow and ice in the parking lot.

Angel glanced back at her; in the twilight, it was hard to read his eyes. "It's interesting," he said. "Why would this demon give her a totally different set of memories. What purpose would that serve? It's -- I don't know -- like a mystery novel."

Buffy felt a fleck of ice against her cheek, scowled up at the low clouds that were apparently about to begin sleeting. "I didn't realize you liked those. Mysteries." Weird, to realize that after six years she wouldn't know something that mundane about Angel. Then again, she and Angel didn't have a lot of time for the mundane. Angel just shrugged.

"There, now," Wesley said, sounding insufferably pleased with himself as he studied the back of the SUV. "We have a wide array of weaponry, basic medical supplies, a change of clothing --"

"You're worse than Ginger from Gilligan's Island," Buffy sighed. "Taking along evening gowns and a seven-year supply of hair spray for a three-hour tour."

Wesley smiled slightly at the joke, and Buffy took a deep breath, trying to fight down her panic. She wanted to grab Angel, hell, to grab Wesley, and say, Don't leave, you can't leave, Willow and Xander left me, and I wasn't there to protect them, and I lost them forever, and if I lose anyone else, I'll -- I'll --

Buffy shivered, but if Angel noticed it, he only thought it was the cold.

Jenny made her way down the school's back steps, clutching a brightly patterned scarf over her head. "Man, if you guys thought Cordelia was acting weird around you --"

"What's she doing now?" Buffy rolled her eyes.

"It's not what she's doing. More what she's not. That girl does not want to so much as look at me if she doesn't have to." Jenny shrugged. "She ended up with a B+ in my class, so I'm not getting what the problem is here."

"Is she changed and ready?" Wesley said. "Mustn't run any later than necessary. Chop chop."

Jenny nodded. "Fortunately, we pretty much wear the same size. Though I suspect my sweater might be a bit stretched out in front."

"Why would -- oh. But you -- I mean -- where is Miss Chase?" Buffy had to smile at the sight of Wesley turning so brightly red that she could see it in the dark.

"Coming," Cordelia said as she came out. She had Buffy's silver anorak on, with the plum-colored collar of Jenny's turtleneck peeping out. Cordelia glanced around the parking lot, taking in Sunnydale High, the all-but-deserted roads, the snowy earth, the ice-frosted trees. Buffy had the distinct impression that Cordelia never wanted to see any of it again, and Buffy didn't blame her.

Wesley motioned toward the shotgun seat, which Cordelia took without another word. He clambered into the back, saying to Jenny, "Now, if anything should seem amiss, anything at all, my cell phone will be on --"

"I'll take care of her," Buffy said.

"Be sure to fill my dish with water," Jenny said. "And walkies twice a day."

"I -- I never meant to suggest that you couldn't -- that you weren't capable --"

"We're fine, Wes," Jenny said. "Just go."

Next to Buffy, Angel stood -- close enough for them to hug, not so close as to suggest that he was about to. She fought off another moment of irrational terror -- don't leave me, don't leave me, bad things happen when people leave me, Angel, don't go --

"Drive carefully," she said.

"I will." Angel hesitated for a moment, as if wanting to say more, then kissed her quickly on the mouth. His lips were closed and dry.

Buffy turned around and headed back inside. She didn't hear Jenny following her; no doubt she was watching as the SUV roared to life and headed away, out of Sunnydale and out of sight.

*****

If Angelus were released -- no. Impossible. It couldn't happen. Not even gypsies would be so cruel -- to him, perhaps, but not to those around him. And through perfect happiness? Why happiness? And had he ever known perfect happiness in his existence? There had been days -- and nights -- when he was first in love with Buffy, yes; they'd seemed like perfection, or as close to it as any man would ever come.

But perfection would have to last, wouldn't it?

Then again, perhaps perfect happiness had something to do with the mission Cordelia spoke of. His mission. Something of his own.

Something he had been given, had been granted, because something up there thought he deserved it --

The sleet prickling against the windshield began to be mixed with spatters of rain, and Angel moved to shift the windshield wipers into faster speed. The simple motion broke his reverie, and he shook his head slightly, surprised at how deeply he'd been caught up in his imaginings of this other life Cordelia had been made to believe in.

A sideways glance revealed that Cordelia was balled up in her seat, parka still tucked around her despite the SUV's heater blowing at full blast. Even in the dim glow of the dashboard lights, Angel could see how profoundly troubled her expression was. He tried to imagine her confusion and fear, and once again he felt a wave of protectiveness toward her. "It's going to be all right," he said.

Cordelia bit her lip. "You don't know how far from all right we are."

Wesley, who'd been fidgeting in the back seat, took the opportunity to say, "What are the principal differences you see, Cordelia? Knowing what the demon thought it most important to confuse you about -- well, that could help us narrow down --"

"I'm not confused," Cordelia said. "Not about what reality's supposed to be, anyway. I realize you guys don't remember what I remember, but I'm right about this. Just give me this chance, and I can prove it to you."

"Prove it to us?" Angel frowned. "How?"

Cordelia opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of it and sighed. "If I told you, you'd really think I was nuts. Just promise to give it a try when we get there, okay?"

Angel turned back to Wesley, who nodded and gestured for Angel to look at the road. Carefully, Wesley ventured, "Well, all the same, can't you tell us more about this lost reality? If nothing else, I admit I'm rather curious."

"So am I," Angel said. A thought hit him, made his gut twist and his lips curl. "For instance, if I was supposed to have some sacred mission, why did I turn into Angelus?" he asked, trying hard to bank down his cynicism, at least enough to keep it out of his voice. "If I were doing this important work for -- whatever it would be --"

"The Powers That Be," Cordelia supplied. She sounded as though she'd said it many times before - as though she weren't telling Angel as much as reminding him.

"Well, why would they let someone with a mission go evil again? Why would they let something like that happen?"

"I don't know why they'd let it happen," Cordelia said. "But you've got the order mixed up. The mission came after the whole Angelus thing."

"After?" Wesley stuck his head between them. "If Angel had lost his soul, why would the, ah, Powers ever entrust him with anything?"

"They wouldn't." Angel wondered just how hard Cordelia had been hit in the head.

"Angel got his soul back," Cordelia said. Whatever web of lies she'd been fed, it was certainly intricate. "Willow did it -- I helped a little, Oz too, but Willow did the magic stuff. They had to find the original curse again, I think. But Angelus was out for almost six months. Six very long months, let me tell you." Her eyes lit on Angel as she said, "You killed a bunch of kids in my class. Left them where Buffy would find them, stuff like that. Nearly killed Xander one time. Tackled me in a graveyard another time. You killed --" she hesitated, then said, "You killed a lot of people."

Angel could well imagine it. But the Naiura demon had obviously forgotten to give Cordelia the reactions to go with the false memories. If he had done the things she said he'd done -- of which he knew he was easily capable -- she could not be sitting here, now, calm and content to be in his presence. She could never have looked on him with anything but horror and hatred.

Wesley, obviously thinking much the same thing, "But, when Willow cursed Angel with his soul once more, you all simply -- forgave and forgot?"

Cordelia was silent for a while before she shook her head. "It wasn't that easy. Angelus had done this thing -- I never got the full story, so bear with me -- this thing where he awakened some evil demon called Acathla."

Acathla. The demon Acathla. Come to destroy the world, sleeping and waiting for its chance. Two centuries ago, Angelus had sworn his blood in fealty to a dark spirit in the hopes of finding it. The dark spirit hadn't come through -- at least, he thought it hadn't, but maybe it was only taking its time --

She knows about Acathla, he thought. She's heard of Acathla. How could she know about that?

Wesley apparently had no knowledge of Acathla. "And this demon did -- what, precisely?"

"Nothing, because Angelus' blood woke him up -- but Angel's blood could put him down again. Buffy had to stab Angel to stop Acathla. And Angel got sucked into hell."

The SUV was quiet for a very long time. Finally, Cordelia ventured, in a wavery voice, "You did get out, you know. And after that -- that was when the whole mission thing happened. You got out of hell for a reason. For good reasons."

She knew about Acathla. Buffy had sent him to hell. She knew about Acathla, and what purpose could it serve to make her believe a story about Acathla?

Angel felt a jolt of something that was not pleasant enough to be excitement, but not painful either. "Why did I become evil? When did I know perfect happiness?"

"When you and Buffy had sex," Cordelia said matter-of-factly. Now that she could talk about the memories she considered real, she seemed much more confident and at ease -- despite the subject. "The first time. The only time. Which is, by the way, when my version of reality and yours part company."

"Oh, my." Angel could smell Wesley's blush from the back seat. "Good heavens. That's rather, ah, personal --"

"Not when half the town gets offed because of it," Cordelia said. "We all knew. Not much getting around it."

Angel remembered that first night -- the rain and the thunder, the fear of the Judge, their terror at their own potential separation. He remembered sliding the claddagh ring on her finger, feeling that ring as a sliver of coolness against his back as Buffy embraced his naked body, as they'd made love gently, tenderly, for her first time. How precious it had all seemed. How right. And now it only seemed so -- distant.

"The only time?" Wesley said trepidatiously.

"Well, yeah," Cordelia said. "I mean, if having sex with someone you love turns you into an evil murderer, you don't have sex with anybody you love ever again. People you don't love, sure." She actually snorted. "Darla, for instance --"

"Darla's dust," Angel said abruptly, grateful to find another hole in this strange web of untruths. "I staked her long before anything happened with me and Buffy."

"Turns out you're not the only one who can get out of hell."

"I would never sleep with Darla again," Angel said, knowing down to his bones that this was true. "I never loved her. I grew to hate her, everything she represented."

Cordelia sighed. "To your face, I gave you way more hell about this," she said. "But since you're not remembering the facts, and I now know how rough that is, I'll let you off the hook. You were kinda having a breakdown when it happened; you weren't yourself, exactly. It doesn't make it okay -- not by a long shot -- but at least some good came out of it."

"What do you mean?" Wesley said.

"Connor," she said. Her voice was softer now. "Your son. Yours and Darla's."

Absurd. "Vampires can't have children," Angel said curtly.

"He's quite right," Wesley said. "Dead bodies, however animated by demonic forces, are incapable of engendering life."

"I know it's not supposed to be real," Cordelia said. "It seemed impossible to us at the time. It really did. But when you actually have 8 pounds, 4 ounces of screaming newborn on your hands, you become a believer, and fast."

A child. A son. Life, made from his unlife. Innocence, created from his evil. Angel did not believe it -- this, above all, he did not deserve and could not have. This above all was proof that Cordelia's visions of this other world were nothing but a demon's tricks or the haze of injury.

But for one moment, he did not see the dark, rainy road in front of them, did not feel the rubbery surface of the steering wheel in his hands. He imagined holding a child, small and warm and alive. Imagined knowing that this child was his. It seemed to him that, all in a rush, he could envision this life Cordelia described -- friendship and fatherhood and the knowledge that he was on this earth, not because of the perversity of fate and the indestructibility of his unnatural body, but because he was needed. Because he was good.

It could not be real, and Angel felt a rush of hot, unreasoning anger at Cordelia -- no, he reminded himself, at whatever had deceived her - - for even giving him a glimpse of this world so far beyond his reach.

Wesley, clearly attempting to be tactful, said, "Well, your memories certainly don't lack for interest."

"You can stop patronizing me any time now." Cordelia wiped her cheeks with the back of one hand; she had been crying. Angel realized that talking about the child -- the child who had never been -- had profoundly upset her for some reason.

Acathla. She knew about Acathla --

A child. A mission. It could not be.

"I'm glad this isn't real," Angel said. "Buffy wouldn't like the no- sex rule." The attempt at a joke, like most of his attempts, fell flat; Cordelia shrank down in her seat, as if his words had only made it harder to go on.

But she continued: "Buffy didn't like it. And neither did you. And that's why -- well, one of the reasons why -- you guys broke up."

"We would never break up," Angel said, the words snapping out of him whip-fast, requiring no pause, no thought. "Buffy and I are meant to be together. It's destiny. My real destiny."

"Destiny's never what you think it is," Cordelia shot back. "Not yours, not mine, not anybody's."

"I know that Buffy's the only person I could ever love," Angel said by rote.

"That's not true." Cordelia was deadly earnest now, staring at him intently, as if willing him to understand something. To understand --

Angel raised his eyebrows. "You?"

"Me," Cordelia said, not flattered by his disbelief. "I loved you. I mean -- I love you. And I'm pretty sure you love me too." The softness was back in her eyes, her voice. "This is so not the way I saw this conversation going."

It was so strange to be told that by someone who wasn't Buffy. And, really, to be told that at all -- Buffy hadn't said it to him in a very long time --

"You don't even know me," Angel said.

"I do," Cordelia said. "I do know you. I know you better than anybody, except maybe Darla, and maybe even better than her. Buffy -- she doesn't know half of what you are. Or what you can be, anyway."

"My word," Wesley said. Angel paid him no attention, and there was no sign Cordelia had even heard.

"So you're claiming that we were in love. That I fell out of love with Buffy and in love with you."

"It was a lot more complicated than that, but that's kinda the TV Guide-blurb version." Cordelia thumped her head against the back of her seat. "I was just in total denial about it, because we were best friends for so long --" The idea of being Cordelia's best friend was almost as alien to Angel as the idea of being in love with her. "But finally, just when I realized it all, and I was coming to tell you -- Angel, we were going to meet up at the beach, and your voice on the phone when I asked you to be there -- I know you love me. I know you do. I know it. But that's when the Powers snatched me away, and tried to recruit me for -- okay, not going there, because it sounds even crazier. Anyway, that's when things got screwed up."

"Wait," Angel said. "Just wait." He felt his entire body tensing, his teeth clenching, his hands gripping the steering wheel so hard that the metal frame creaked slightly in protest. "You're telling me -- I'm supposed to believe -- that we all had this great, wonderful life together, and I had a mission from, the whatever, the Powers, and I had a reason for my miserable existence to continue, and I had friends, and I had a child, a son, and it all went to hell because I fell in love with you?"

"That's not why!" Cordelia shouted. She was furious at him, at his disbelief, and if Angel had been amused before he was exasperated now. "You know, if I didn't love you, and if I didn't understand that you're in a real different place, you would be in some serious trouble."

"According to you, you just wiped out a good life I had and replaced it with this one," Angel said. "If I didn't understand that you're just deluded -- if I thought what you'd done was real --"

"Angel," Wesley said, his voice a warning. "Calm yourself. It's not as though any of this were true."

The warning trailed off into silence. Cordelia buried her face in her hands -- maybe to cry, maybe just to hide herself away. Wesley settled uneasily back into his seat. Angel stared at the road, white lines in black night, a path that extended no further than the headlights shone.

*****

Part IV

Everyone left her, in the end.

Her daddy was only the first. He was the one who hurt the most, by far, but he was just one of many. After her father left there was her first Watcher, dead at a vampire's hand. Then Kendra, dead in Spike and Dru's last attempt at conquering the Hellmouth; Buffy had staked them to avenge her, but it didn't do anything to assuage the gnawing emptiness she'd felt. Then Faith, murdered by the Initiative in their first days in Sunnydale; they hadn't even had a body to bury.

Then Willow and Xander, murdered by a demon soon after the Winter descended. Then Oz, who made his apologies and got the hell out of Sunnydale; he'd always been the brightest of the bunch. Then Mom, who simply died. Finally Giles, drained by a vampire -- the last agony, the ultimate horror. No, not quite the ultimate: Angel had cut off Giles' head for her.

Angel was the only one who'd never abandoned her. After Kendra's and Faith's deaths, he had been her rock, her comfort, her guide. But after Willow and Xander's death, it had changed. She had needed so much -- more than he could give. Maybe more than anyone could give.

Buffy needed Angel to make her life right, and he couldn't. It was unfair to expect him to be able to perform miracles. In her head, she understood that. In her heart, it felt as though the anger had been building up for years on end. And yet she never walked away from him. How could she? He was all she had left. All she would ever have. Angel was the one consolation for all the sorrows in her life; if he couldn't make up for everything, well, she'd take what he could give: Companionship. Sex. Backup. Support. Strength.

He couldn't give her any of that while he was wheeling around Los Angeles with Wesley and Cordelia.

She tried to tell Jenny that and make her understand why it was so hard to let Angel go, even for a night. But Jenny just didn't get it.

"It's one night," Jenny said. She was going through some of Giles' old books, looking for any mention of Naiura. Her elbows were propped up on the counter, and one eyebrow was raised. "Even you can go without for one night, right? Or is there something about vampire- slayer appetites I don't know? No, don't tell me. If I don't know, I want to go right on not knowing."

"It's not sex," Buffy said. "Didn't you hear a word I said?"

"I heard you saying that Angel's the only thing in your life," Jenny said. "Which is my cue to say something like 'What am I, chopped liver?'"

"We're friends," Buffy said automatically. "But -- it's not the same as it was with Will and Xander. Just like Wesley's not the same as Giles." She hadn't meant it as an attack, but she could tell Jenny took it that way. Jenny took a deep breath, then shut the book. "Miss Calendar -- I didn't mean --"

"You just meant that you've lost what mattered most to you," Jenny said. "Guess what? You're not the only one. And if I can live the rest of my life without Rupert, you can learn to make it one night without Angel."

Buffy thought Jenny might be crying. She couldn't see for sure because of the tears in her own eyes. "I'll make it one night without Angel," she said. "I just don't want to. I've had to make it so long without so many people. I just -- I just want the one person I've got -- "

"I know," Jenny said, a little less roughly. "I'm just saying -- it's only one night. It could be a lot worse. At least tomorrow, Angel's coming back to you." After a moment of silence, Jenny turned and went out of the library, back to her own office, her own pain. Buffy felt even worse than she had before.

***

Wesley had thought that Cordelia would take them to her L.A. mansion. He hadn't really thought it through or come up with a reason why she'd take them to a home she didn't believe was her own. He only knew that, insofar as he'd thought about it, he'd pictured them seated in some ridiculously large and luxurious home, Cordelia perched on a $50,000 sofa as she spilled out more tales of this world that never was.

Instead, she'd brought them to a nightclub.

"Caritas," Wesley said. "That's Latin for 'mercy.'"

"I understand Latin," Angel said shortly. Wesley sometimes forgot that Angel had been educated in a century when Latin was a requirement for every schoolboy. "Unusual name for a nightclub."

"It's an unusual nightclub," Cordelia said. After her melancholy and silence in the car, Wesley was surprised to see that Cordelia seemed alert, even eager to go inside. "Come on, guys. We're about to get the poop. As in facts, not as in, you know, poop."

"I should hope not," Wesley sniffed.

Cordelia frowned. "I forgot what a tight-ass you used to be."

"Used to be?" Angel murmured. Wesley decided to ignore that.

As soon as they went through the doors, Wesley realized exactly what Cordelia had meant by "unusual." The place was packed with demons -- good, evil and neutral; ugly and beautiful; dangerous and harmless. Humans were there too: Lawyers with sleek suits and suspicious faces, witches with rune-necklaces, tourists with disposable cameras. Strangest of all -- they were all enjoying a night of karaoke.

"The moment I wake up --" crooned a small, violet-colored demon, "-- before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you --"

"Bizarre," Wesley said. "Of all the activities to bring about a sort of truce between demons and humans --"

"It's not the karaoke," Cordelia said. She was smiling now, and Wesley could only describe the expression on her face as one of profound relief. "It's what happens after. Come on." She tugged at Angel's arm familiarly, as though she'd done it dozens of times before; when Angel stared down at her, Cordelia tensed and pulled away.

To cover the awkwardness, Wesley said, "Is this where you met Naiura?"

"No," she said, then sighed. "I actually summoned her. Amnesia is an ugly, ugly thing."

They wound their way through the crowd to a small table next to the stage. A green demon with short red horns sat alone, nodding his head to the music and sipping what looked like a Sea Breeze. As they got to the table, Cordelia hesitated before saying, "Lorne?"

The green demon -- Lorne -- looked up and grinned. "Well, hello there, gorgeous!"

"You remember me?" Cordelia's eyes lit up.

"Forget a face like yours? Never!" Lorne said. "Let me tell ya, I never miss an episode. The sexual tension between Cordy and Todd? Hot stuff, baby, this evening!"

Cordelia's happiness faded in an instant. Her shoulders slumped. "You mean -- you only remember me from the show. The show from this reality."

"Yes, like another 22.9 million viewers each week, I watch the show. But that 'this reality' bit -- that's kind of a cliffhanger, hon."

Wesley cut in. "Cordelia's memories have been tampered with."

"No, they haven't," Cordelia insisted. "Reality's been tampered with. Not my memory. I mean, I remembered where to find this place, right?"

"We can argue about this all night," Angel said. "We're never going to get an answer."

"Yes, we are," Cordelia insisted. "As soon as I sing."

"Sing?" Angel and Wesley said in unison.

"I don't know about her I.Q., but she's got my M.O. down pat," Lorne said. "When people sing, their souls open up, and I can read them. I get a little peek at their past, maybe a sneak preview of the future. That's why people and sort-of people come to Caritas. To learn their destiny. And as long as people are singing, why not karaoke?"

Angel sat heavily at the table. "I really thought there was something behind all this," he whispered to Wesley. "But no. Cordelia Chase has simply gone insane."

Wesley couldn't disagree.

***

Riley took sentry position at the door, nodded for the guard there to leave. His rank was high enough to get out of this kind of duty if he chose, but he wanted to know what was about to be said here -- and he knew by now that Maggie Walsh only told him what she wanted him to hear.

She was sitting at the broad table now, glancing at him with a too- knowing smirk. Dr. Walsh could read him easily. It bothered Riley that she knew what he was up to and didn't feel like doing anything about it. He liked to think he could be a problem for her, if he chose.

But then you never do choose, do you? he thought.

Nairua sat next to Walsh, not acknowledging her. The silvery-blue demon didn't seem to be deliberately ignoring Walsh so much as she appeared to be genuinely indifferent to her presence. Riley wondered at such nonchalance, even envied it.

The doors slid open, and Adam lumbered in. His twisted face and hulking body rarely betrayed any emotion, but he reacted to Naiura. Riley couldn't tell how, exactly -- he could only see some tension, some hesitancy.

Naiura smiled. "Greetings, Adam. It is a pleasure to know you. I am Naiura. Do you know of me?"

"I know things that have been said," Adam replied in his usual grave, polite voice. "I know things that have been."

"Then you know that I am from a dimension very unlike your own," Naiura said. She steepled her long, slender hands in front of her. "And that I wish to go home."

"I had realized this must be so," Adam said. "But you have not made it clear why I should help you."

"Give me time." Naiura smiled, her teeth shark-white in contrast to her slate-scale skin. "You owe me, Adam. Far more than you know."

Maggie Walsh drew back. "He owes you?" she scoffed. "He's only been alive for three years, and I've been here for all of them. And I don't recall you doing him any favors."

Naiura was unfazed. "You owe me too, woman."

"She is correct," Adam said. It took Riley a moment to realize that he was reprimanding Walsh instead of Naiura. "But for Naiura's work, you and I would both be dead, Mother." Riley felt his eyes go wide; he fought to keep his jaw from dropping.

Apparently he wasn't the only one who was surprised; Naiura straightened up and raised her feathery eyebrows. "How can you know this?"

Adam smiled -- a rare, terrible sight. "I understand all realities. I can sense when they change around me, when they are created new. I have known such manipulation in the past, and I understand now that the reality we live in is a recent creation of yours. In the reality that came before, both Mother and I died long ago." Adam turned toward Walsh, and his smile was more horrible yet. "Things were very different between us, Mother."

"I don't understand," Walsh said. Her hands gripped her clipboard tightly; Riley could see her white knuckles. "This -- this isn't reality?"

"It is reality," Naiura said. "Now. And perhaps hereafter. But not before."

"You gave us the reality we now possess," Adam clarified. "The sight granted to me does not reveal why you did so, however."

Naiura was beginning to relax again, her smile broadening; Riley figured that the conversation was going the way she wanted it. For his own part, he knew he was still in a state of shock. Reality wasn't -- real. Or was it? His head would hurt later when he tried to puzzle this out. For now, he concentrated on what Naiura was saying. "I can only change reality when and as I am petitioned to do so. The limitations on my power in this realm are severe. For centuries I have twisted fate this way and that -- reuniting distant lovers, changing the outcome of wars, other such ridiculous, earthly things. But finally, two days ago, a girl summoned me and made a very -- vague -- request." Naiura laughed, a sound that Riley found lovely and alluring despite himself. "I saw a way to answer her plea and yet serve my own purpose. The result is the reality you now inhabit."

"Your own purpose," Adam said. "What is that?"

"To go home," Naiura replied. "And I believe you have found the means."

***

Angel couldn't take his eyes away from Cordelia. Neither could anyone else in the room. They were all staring, all listening -- all aghast.

"Youuuuuu're heeere, there's nothing I feeeear," Cordelia sang, her voice cracking on the notes. "I know my heart will go onnnnnn--"

"That answers that question," Wesley said. Angel turned and raised an eyebrow, and Wesley shrugged. "I always suspected she was lip- synching in the musical episode." Angel shook his head and went back to watching Cordelia.

She thinks she loves me, he thought as he studied her face, upturned in the rose-and-white stage lights. Why would she ever think that? Angel knew all too well that his love was more burden then blessing; Buffy hadn't ever put that in words, at least not to his face, but he understood that it was true. Buffy was hurting so much, in such desperate loneliness and need; she deserved someone who could devote himself to her, give her happiness and joy in her life. Angel carried his darkness within him, memories and guilt and grief that kept him from ever being able to elevate Buffy from her present depression. They could only suffer together -- but they were destined to support one another, and Angel had long since stopped asking why.

Why would a girl like Cordelia -- wealthy and beautiful and successful beyond her wildest dreams -- want to imagine herself in love with somebody like him?

Maybe it had something to do with the mission she talked about, Angel thought. She doesn't just think we're romantically involved; she believes that we're partners in something. Something bigger than just ourselves. Something that really matters.

That feeling -- that sense of being two parts of one whole, serving a cause that was worth living for or dying for -- it was intoxicating. Angel could remember when he'd felt that way about Buffy. It bound you together. Cordelia's hallucinations might be false, but they had the ring of emotional truth. And he couldn't deny that the thought of having a mission of his own resonated powerfully within him -- even if it was impossible.

"Goooo on and onnnnnn!" Cordelia finished big -- as big as she could, anyway. The audience was silent for a moment, then applauded heartily, celebrating the star rather than the song. She smiled weakly at them and went down the steps toward Lorne. Angel turned to look at the demon himself --

Lorne's mouth was agape. He'd apparently spilled his Sea Breeze at some point during the number, but he hadn't noticed; a huge puddle covered his table. Angel tapped Wesley on the shoulder as he got up. "I think something's wrong with this Lorne guy," he said.

"My word," Wesley said. "If he has sensitive hearing, no wonder, after THAT."

They got to Lorne's table at almost the same moment Cordelia did. To Angel's surprise, she was smiling at Lorne's stunned condition. "What did I tell ya?" she said with a grin.

Her question broke Lorne from his stupor. "Holy cow," Lorne said. "And, not being a Hindu, I do not praise the divinity of bovinity all that often. But what you just showed me --"

"What did you see?" Angel said.

"Normally, big guy, I'd tell you that what I saw was none of your business," Lorne replied tartly. "Readings are personal. But as it happens, this is your business. Turns out we all knew each other a hell of a lot better, until recently."

Angel said, haltingly, "You mean -- the world she's telling us about, the one she remembers --"

"Was 100% bona fide," Lorne replied. "Believe you me, there is no way I would imagine ending up as your baby's nanny. In a totally unofficial sense, of course, but you don't do that much babysitting without earning your au pair creds."

Angel stared at Lorne, then looked at Cordelia, who was gazing back at him in a mixture of triumph and hope. He tried to think of something to say, but could only come up with, "Nanny?"

It couldn't be real. A mission. A child. Loving Cordelia, and not Buffy. It couldn't be real. Something else was going on, something stranger than he'd known.

Wesley had apparently drawn the same conclusion. "Mr. Lorne --"

"The last name is actually Deathwok, if you can believe that," Lorne said. "So please stick to the first-name basis. It's the least you owe me, since in the previous reality, you smashed me over the head with something very blunt, and no, I don't mean our TV star here."

"Hey!" Cordelia said. But then she relaxed and smiled. "You know, I don't even care. Even being teased by you guys again feels good."

A mission. A reason to be here. It couldn't be true. Angel wanted it to be true, and he did not trust his own desires.

"Lorne," Wesley said, in the measured tone of a schoolmaster, "you must realize that we need some verification of your abilities."

"Natch," Lorne said. "So, which one of you lads is going to rock the mic? There are a couple points of that other reality I want to clarify -- particularly one about a bunch of guys coming in here and shooting up the place --"

"I'll sing," Angel said darkly. He hadn't sung for a very long time, but he well remembered that Cordelia's performance was likely to put his to shame. However, he figured his embarrassment wasn't the most important thing here. "Read me. I want to know what Cordelia's -- beliefs -- have to do with me."

Wesley nodded. Cordelia laughed, a little nervously. "I never thought I'd be glad to hear you sing Manilow again."

Angel stared at her. "What did you say?"

Cordelia paused, then realized what she'd said and began to smile widely. "I said -- I never thought I'd be glad to hear you sing Manilow again."

Angel stepped a little closer. "Which song?" he asked. "Which song do you think I'm going to sing?"

She stepped closer in return, so that their faces were close together, and her face glowed with excitement. "'Mandy,'" she whispered. "You are going to get up and sing 'Mandy,' because you are such a big ol' softy that you think it's pretty."

Wesley scoffed. "Don't be absurd. Nobody thinks that -- Angel?"

Angel kept staring down at Cordelia's face in slow, dawning wonder. She could have made up the baby, he thought. She could have met Darla or Drusilla once, and they might have told her about the ballet. There are probably records somewhere of my history with Acathla. And anybody who knew me might have guessed I'd want a reason to think I deserved to live. But there is nobody, nobody on earth, living or dead, who's ever known that I liked "Mandy."

Except Cordelia.

He whispered, "It's true, isn't it?"

"It's true," she said, and she took his hands in hers. "It's all true. Angel, do you believe me? Oh, God, please say you believe me."

"Angel?" Wesley was staring at them in frank disbelief.

"I think -- I think I do," Angel said to Cordelia. He felt it washing over him, lifting some weight he hadn't realized he was carrying. For the first time in years, Angel felt strangely, exhilaratingly free. "I believe you."

She gave a wordless cry of delight and flung her arms around him. Angel stiffened and stepped back, disentangling himself right away. The weight descended again, as quickly as it had gone. Cordelia looked at him, first in hurt, then in understanding. "This doesn't exactly solve our problems, does it?" she said.

"I should rather think it doubles them," Wesley said.

***

Riley walked alongside Dr. Walsh, hoping to catch her eye. Surely she wouldn't let Adam give this Naiura creature access to their latest find. Riley didn't fully understand what it was yet, but he'd gathered that nobody else did either. They only knew that it possessed great power, which was a pretty good damn reason to keep Naiura or any other creature like her far away from it.

Then again, it had been years since the Initiative's reasons for anything had seemed to make sense to Riley.

They reached the research chamber door, and Walsh punched in a code, swiped a card. As the doors slid open, Naiura swept in grandly, Adam by her side. Walsh followed them, and Riley followed her. He saw Dr. Walsh shoot him a look -- his authorization to be in this area was limited -- but she didn't openly challenge him.

The giant stone stood in the middle of the floor, various bits of dust and debris cluttering the floor around it. Riley realized that it had indeed been a box, a casing of some kind -- and the box had been opened. Within it --

"Beautiful," Naiura whispered.

Walsh raised an eyebrow. "If you say so. I find it somewhat grotesque."

"The way home is always beautiful," Naiura said.

"It opens up a gateway to a hell dimension," Adam said. "I have sensed this already. That is your home?"

"It is -- close enough," Naiura said, as if mesmerized. "From there, I can find my way. Nothing will constrain my powers there."

"So, you wish me to open up this gateway," Adam said.

"You are close enough to human to do it," Naiura said. "Only something part human -- a vampire or a zombie, or you, whatever you are -- can use his blood to do so."

"Why?" Riley said. They all stared at him, angered by his uncharacteristic break from silence. But he stood up straighter and continued. "Why would he open up a gateway to a hell dimension? That would destroy him along with the rest of us."

"To cement this reality in place," Naiura said.

"This is reality!" Walsh insisted. "You said you'd changed it; I can't verify that, but I know what's real now."

Naiura sneered, "It is real because I am in it. When I leave -- when my influence over this realm ceases -- then things will shift. They will change. I do not know exactly how. But I do know that it does not take many changes to ensure that both of you cease to live, and your power in Sunnydale to be ended."

Riley was confused, but Adam seemed to understand. "Opening the gateway for a short time would release great power into the Hellmouth," he said. "You could pass through. And when I closed it, using my own blood, then this reality will become the only reality. Now and forever."

"You see?" Naiura said, delighted at his understanding. "We can all have what we need. All of us." She placed her hands on the feet of the stone demon. "I couldn't get to this, last time. I didn't have a chance, but now I do."

"Someone else used it before?" Walsh said.

"Someone else," Naiura agreed. "Someone else who had sworn his blood to Acathla."

Riley made sure he remembered the name. Acathla. Acathla.

***

Cordelia cried all the way through "Mandy." She couldn't help it, and she didn't want to.

At one point, Wesley leaned toward her and said, "Come, now. It's not THAT bad."

She laughed through her tears. "No, it's not," she agreed. "It's wonderful. It's beautiful."

Lorne nodded sagely. "That's how you know it's love."

She beamed up at Angel onstage; she thought he looked at her once, but mostly he was concentrating desperately on the teleprompter, stumbling over the notes. "You came and you gave without taking -- and I sent you away -- " Angel sang, gripping the mic tightly in his hands.

He looked awkward. He looked earnest. Despite the sheer terribleness of the moment, he looked hopeful. In short, he looked like her Angel - - like the man she loved.

Angel believes me, Cordelia thought. He believes in me, even with all this craziness. This Angel wasn't her Angel, not exactly -- but the difference didn't seem to matter so much. When she'd had amnesia, she'd been bewildered and disconcerted by Angel's unquestioning adoration; now she knew just how he'd felt. When you loved a person, you loved more than the shared memories and experiences. You loved the pure truth of them, the spirit or soul or whatever you called it. The part that never really changed -- you loved that too.

 
Cordelia still wanted their world back desperately, but for the first time since she'd come to during the fashion awards, she felt certain she would get that world back. She had Angel at her side again. Now that they were together, they'd find a way. They always had. They always would.

"And I need --" Angel looked even more uneasy than before, but he gamely went for the last note: "Youuuuuu!" Wesley winced. Lorne clutched his temples. Even Cordelia felt her smile waver for a moment.

But he did this for me, she thought. He did it to find a way back for us. Cordelia laughed through her tears and applauded furiously as Angel left the stage. Nobody else was clapping, but Cordelia didn't care.

Angel was smiling ruefully at her as he walked to their table. "Even you aren't going to call for an encore."

"I wouldn't do that to you," Cordelia said. "Well, actually, I would, but not tonight. You got the whole picture, didn't you, Lorne?"

"In Technicolor Cinescope," Lorne said. "Aren't you the little bundle of psychological oddities? You could sing the whole EMI catalog, and I still wouldn't get to the bottom of them all. Not that I want you to sing," he added hurriedly.

"Can you tell me more?" Angel said. "About this life Cordelia and I had together? And Wesley," he added, as an afterthought. Wesley looked pained. Weird, Cordelia thought. They don't even know each other or care about each other, in this reality -- and they're getting along better.

Then she remembered Connor -- what had become of the baby, what had transpired with the teenager during her amnesia -- and she had to fight back a surge of anger. Cordelia reminded herself: Save it for the Wesley who actually got you guys into this mess.

"I can tell you she's been giving you the straight story," Lorne said. "You were quite the crusader in these parts, it seems. Doing good deeds, righting wrongs, occasionally going off the deep end, but, hey, it all comes out in the wash. This reality's clearer to me, though, and in this reality, buddy, you are in serious need of a change or two. Can you say 'in a rut?' You're getting buried in snowdrifts, and it's high time you dug yourself out."

Uh-huh, Cordelia thought. There's trouble in Buffy-Angel paradise. She knew she shouldn't care about this reality, seeing as how it was only going to last for another couple of days, but she couldn't help feeling a warm glow of satisfaction. Then she saw the pain in Angel's eyes, and she felt ashamed and confused.

"Okay, heading back to the original reality for a sec," Cordelia said. "I know I got us into this mess, but how do we get out of it?"

"We need to pay a little attention to this reality too," Lorne said. "Big things are a'brewin', and they bode not well."

"Can you explain a little more, ah, concretely?" Wesley said.

"It's all kind of a jumble to me," Lorne confessed, "but I know a fella who's been going on about some of this for a while now. I just thought he'd had too much to drink -- in here, it happens -- but I am starting to think that you guys are the missing pieces to his puzzle."

Lorne rose to his feet and started toward the bar; Cordelia and the others followed. "What do you mean?" she said. "Somebody else remembers my reality?"

"I'm not sure," Lorne said, gesturing toward a figure slumped on a barstool. "Why don't you ask him?"

The figure turned around. Cordelia gasped.

"There you are," Doyle said. "About time you guys showed up."

*****

Part V

Angel watched Cordelia's face change into a mixture of surprise and delight. "Doyle?" she gasped.

The Irishman at the bar -- Doyle, apparently -- smiled. "Don't tell me we've been introduced," he said. "I was hoping to make a good first impression for once, and now it looks like I blew that one already."

To Angel's astonishment, Cordelia stepped forward and kissed Doyle hard. Then she stared at him for a moment before kissing him again. "Come on!" she said. "Hand 'em over!"

"You can have whatever you want, darlin', seeing as how we're hitting it off so well."

"I thought she was in love with you," Wesley said to Angel.

"I thought so too," Angel replied. Absurdly, he found himself feeling jealous of this Doyle.

Cordelia smacked Doyle on the arm. "Don't get big ideas, Mister I- never-ask-girls-out-because-I'm-all-shy-about-being-half-demon. You blew your chance. But I need the visions, Doyle. Give them to me. I'm ready. I'm past ready." She kissed Doyle one more time, but this time Doyle appeared to be too surprised to much enjoy the experience.

"How'd you know about the part-demon thing?" Doyle said. "Did I go green and not notice?"

"You're as smooth as a baby's bottom," Lorne assured him. "But not as smooth as this lady here." He smirked at Cordelia. "Boy, you don't waste any time, do you?"

"I'm in love with Angel," Cordelia said. "I wasn't ever in love with Doyle, though I did go through a phase where I found him really attractive, despite the shirts."

"What's wrong with my shirt?" Doyle protested.

Angel took in the gold-and-orange polyester check. "Everything," he said. Why did it feel good to score a point off somebody he didn't know?

Because that somebody was kissing Cordelia. Angel didn't truly feel anything for her, he told himself -- but the world she represented, a world where he had purpose and meaning, was already something he was desperate to claim.

Then he saw Cordelia smiling at his joke, her dark eyes shining with love; against his will, Angel felt a shiver of longing for her -- just for her to keep smiling at him, just that way.

"So you're not in love with Doyle," Wesley said, as maddeningly analytical as ever. "Obviously you're not overtaken by any sort of overwhelming magnetism --"

"Hey!" Doyle scowled at Wesley. "Stranger things have happened. Not many and not often, I grant you, but now and again."

"-- so what on earth are you doing?" Wesley finished. Angel was glad the question had been asked for him.

"She's trying to get the visions," Lorne said.

"You understand what's going on?" Angel said.

"Hell, no, sweetpea," Lorne said. "I'm as confused as you are, and that takes some doing. But the star of the small screen did just say she needed the visions, if I heard correctly."

"My visions?" Doyle said. "My greeting cards from the future, courtesy of the Powers That Be?" There was that phrase again.

"In the reality I remember, they were my visions," Cordelia said. "After you gave them to me. After --" Her voice trailed off.

Angel tried to put all this together. "You mean you had visions -- you had powers? You could see the future?"

Wesley looked rather piqued. "You never told us that."

"Excuse me, but I was already sounding crazy!" Cordelia protested. "Saying, and oh, by the way, I was a psychic too -- well, it didn't seem like it was going to help my chances."

Doyle's face went ashen; though Angel had only just met the man, he sensed immediately that something was seriously wrong. "What is it?" Angel said. "If it's about the 'different reality' stuff, we can explain."

"I'm already getting that picture," Doyle said. He took a deep drink of his Guinness and slumped back on the bar. "It's just that there's only one way to give up the visions. It involves kissing somebody --"

"Right, right, we got that," Angel said, trying to brush past the subject.

"-- as I was saying, kissing somebody right before you die."

Cordelia nodded slowly. "I should have figured that out," she said. "That dying was the trigger, not just kissing. That explains a lot."

Angel pieced it together and stared at Doyle. "You mean -- in the other reality -- you're dead."

"You went out like a hero," Cordelia said. Her eyes were damp with unshed tears. "If that helps. You saved a whole lot of men and women and children, not to mention Angel and me."

"It helps some," Doyle said. He was wary now, and Angel couldn't blame him. "What helps more is the fact that I'm alive in this reality right here."

The reality we're trying to change, Angel realized. If we get back to the world Cordelia remembers -- this world that sounds like every dream I've ever had, slightly bent -- then we're going to kill this man. Cordelia had realized it too, he could see; the hands she lifted to her face were shaking. Angel grasped her arm and gave it a reassuring squeeze; he didn't miss the dark look Wesley gave him as he did so.

"What really, really bites," Doyle continued, "is the fact that I'm supposed to help you do what you're after, which I suspect ends up with a tombstone for yours truly."

"Wait," Angel said. "You know this, and you want to help us?"

"'Want to' might be putting it a bit strongly," Doyle said. "Way the hell too strongly, as a matter of fact. But I had a vision of the three of you, just like this. I know you're headed into serious danger. And I know it's my job to help you do whatever it is you decide to do. Helluva thing to do to a man, asking him to sign his own death warrant. But the Powers aren't what you'd call fair." He drained the rest of his Guinness in one great draught.

"No," Cordelia said flatly. "They're not fair. I'm starting to think they're complete bastards, if you want to know the truth."

Wesley said, "You mean, even if the steps we take now -- about which, incidentally, we have not the slightest clue -- lead to the destruction of this reality and the restoration of the old one, you'll help us? Even though it means your own death?"

"You can't defy the Powers." It was Cordelia who answered him, her face set. For a moment, she looked far older and more formidable than Angel had ever thought her to be. "If you do, they make you pay. I'm the proof of that."

"Damn, look at you," Doyle said. "White like a ghost, shaking like a leaf. And you're not the one who's supposed to be dying. What in the name of Christ and his Apostles did they do to YOU?"

"They stole my memory," Cordelia said. "And because my memory was gone, I ended up erasing my whole world. Our whole world."

"It's going to be all right," Angel said, projecting a confidence he didn't feel. "We'll figure out the right thing to do, and how to do it. We just need time to figure it out, that's all. But -- hey -- we've got Wesley's Watcher training, and Doyle's visions, and Lorne's power -- whatever that is -- and we have you. Your memories of before. All that's got to add up to something, right?"

"And we have you," Cordelia said. "Don't leave yourself out."

Wesley stepped between them, not-so-subtly separating Angel and Cordelia. "Suffice it to say, we now know our situation. We have a group of people with various skills that may be useful. No matter how fearsome the situation may appear, it would seem that things are only going to get better."

At that moment, someone fired a bazooka into the room.

Angel tackled Wesley and Cordelia, bearing them down to the floor with superhuman speed. Doyle and Lorne hit the ground a split-second later, just as the bazooka exploded into the stage. A flash of heat seared Angel's skin as shreds of wood and metal ripped through the air. He felt something spear him in the back -- nothing big, nothing fatal -- and tugged Cordelia closer to him, to shelter her better.

Demons and humans alike were screaming and running. At least one of the vampires was on fire; Angel saw it wavering on its feet, stumbling toward the exit, before it crumpled into a pile of ash. A furry demon bolted toward the back door, then was hit by a spray of bullets from an automatic gun. It collapsed, dead or dying.

Lorne gasped, "Remember that stuff I saw in your mind, Cordelia? The stuff about the club getting shot up? I knew we should've talked about that earlier."

"Cordelia?" Angel said. "Do you know what's going on?"

"Not exactly," she said, coughing from the smoke. "But I have an idea -- and if my idea is right --"

"What?" Doyle said.

To Angel's astonishment, Cordelia smiled. "Then this really is about to get better."

"Attention, ladies and gentlemen and ugly undead creatures of the night!" A young man strode into the smoldering club, a swagger in his step. He had a black cloth tied around his head, a long black coat not unlike one of Angel's own. And he had a large machine gun cradled in his hands. "The name is Charles Gunn. And we're about to get a few things sorted out."

***

Riley had been trained as a commando, and he knew how to be still. Not still the way most people are still, but absolutely free of movement. He could breathe so shallowly that his chest didn't rise or fall, could lock his muscles into complete immobility yet be ready to strike again in an instant. He'd had plenty of training, plenty of practice. The past three years, he'd perfected his technique while stalking demons of every variety through the streets of Sunnydale.

Right now, he was using it in the heart of Initiative headquarters, against his own people. Riley hadn't expected to ever do that, but he was getting a lot better at adapting.

The guards turned the corner, giving him approximately one minute, forty-five seconds before the next team wound come into sight. Riley swung down from the ceiling, checked to make sure that the missing tile was invisible in the shadows. Quickly and silently, he went to the door of 941 and punched in the code. It would mark him as the one who'd done this, later on. But later on, he hoped, it wouldn't matter.

As the door slid shut silently behind him, Riley could hear the motion from the cot. They were in total darkness, so he couldn't see her face. He didn't know if slayer abilities let her see his, but just in case, he quietly said, "Faith, it's me."

"I figured that," she said quietly. "They did all their sleep- deprivation experiments on me years ago. I wasn't guessing they had any left to do. Anyway, I knew you'd visit me some night or another."

"You did?" Riley had thought Faith took him for a straight-arrow Initiative soldier. He hoped everyone did. If he wasn't fooling people, they might be in more trouble than he'd thought.

"Sure," Faith said. He could hear the tension in her voice. "You don't get something for nothing in this world. I know that. You've been nice to me, Lee. You get me the quality snacks, don't let 'em do too many really scary tests to me in a row. So I guess it's my turn to be nice to you, huh?"

In his shock, Riley couldn't think of anything to say. He knew his face must be a mask of pure astonishment and dismay, but apparently Faith couldn't see him after all. As her covers rustled -- apparently being pulled back -- she continued, "I don't mind. Hell, it's been long enough since I got laid, and for a white-bread Iowa guy, you look pretty good. Just promise me I get something outta this, okay? We'll do whatever you want, but I'd like to at least get off with something besides my right hand for a change."

"Whoa," Riley said. "Stop right there. Faith -- that's not what I -- how could you think I'd force you to --"

"Ain't rape if I say yes," Faith said. "Don't act all innocent with me, Lee. You came here to fuck me. I'll let you. Let's leave the sweet talk and lies out of it, okay? I'm in a cage and you keep me here, so this ain't gonna be that romantic, even if you do bring me extra applesauce tomorrow."

"I'm not trying to be -- Faith -- you don't understand." He was too surprised -- and, against his will, too aroused -- to think straight. He told himself, focus, dammit.

"What don't I understand?" He heard her stand up, the soft padding of her bare feet against the concrete floor. Riley gasped as her hands went to his belt buckle; she didn't unfasten it, but she pulled him forward slightly, pelvis first. "You want to play all noble, pretend this is spontaneous?" Her face wasn't far from his now; he could feel the faint brush of her breath against his skin. "Won't work, Lee. I know you want to fuck me."

Her attitude had gone just about far enough. Riley pulled back just enough to tug his belt free from her hands. "Of COURSE I want to fuck you," Riley said. "You're beautiful, and you're sexy, and you give me hell, which I happen to like in a woman, unfortunately for me. I'd have to be CRAZY not to want to fuck you, and somehow, the Initiative hasn't driven me crazy just yet. However, whether you believe it or not, not even you are hot enough to make me stoop to using a woman who hasn't got a choice in the matter. Or to make me stop thinking about subjects besides what's between your legs, because I actually have more important things on my mind. Are you still with me?"

"Oh. Um. Yeah." Faith sounded surprised. "Shit, Lee, I'm sorry."

"Save it. We'll talk about it some other time," Riley said. "And some other place."

He heard Faith draw in a breath. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, there's big trouble here."

"Define big," Faith said.

"Opening up a gate to hell would be the definition of big."

"What?" Faith's voice was a little too loud; Riley put his hand out to cover her mouth. His fingers found her lips in the dark, and he tried hard to ignore the jolt he felt. She whispered, her lips moving softly against his palm. "This the bitch-queen's latest project?"

"It's Adam's latest project," Riley replied. "Adam and some demon who waltzed in here today. There's more to it -- something about shifting realities, and cementing one reality, and blood --"

"That all sounds real encouraging." Faith shifted her weight slightly; Riley knew without seeing it that she was subconsciously getting ready for action. "What are we gonna do about it?"

"I've been thinking about that all day. And I realized -- in here, there's nothing we can do."

"You woke me up and got me all excited about potential sexage just to tell me this? Hell, Lee, next time, wait until morning."

She was excited? Riley pushed the thought aside. "We need help," he said. "We need to find Buffy Summers, and whoever else is helping her now. You and I can't do anything about this from inside. That means we have to get out and get help."

"Get out. You mean -- escape."

Riley let his hand brush against the side of her face for a moment before pulling it away. "I know the risks. But we both know we were going to have to try this someday. I think today's the day."

Faith's voice shook as she answered. "Lee -- when I tried it before -- they always got me. Always. And they used those things on me -- those things that shock -- I talk like a bad-ass, I mean, I AM a bad- ass, but them holding me down and shocking me 'til I scream and piss myself and pass out -- I can't take that again."

He knew what it cost her to show fear and longed to draw her close. If she hadn't taunted him about his desire, he would have. "When you tried to break out before, you were alone. You won't be this time. I know this place, Faith. I've got the security codes, the clearance, everything. I think we can get out, if we go now."

She was quiet for another couple of moments. Then she said, "What the hell."

***

Cordelia tried very hard not to laugh. Gunn was doing his best gangsta routine, street attitude and weirdo black head kerchief -- who told him that the kerchief look was tough instead of dopey? But she knew him, and because she knew him, she knew this raid was going to go a lot differently than the one she remembered from the past reality.

Of course, it didn't look very different right now --

"Ain't got no problem with any humans in the room," Gunn said. He was pacing the perimeter of the room, glaring at the cowering people and non-people on the floor. "You got zero scales, zero horns and a normal pulse, take yourself on outta here right now."

Doyle muttered, "I haven't got any scales or horns at the moment. You figure I'm clear?"

"Just hang on," Cordelia said. "Let me handle this." She saw Angel's face shift from surprise to disapproval and fear as she stood up, but she wasn't afraid. It was just Gunn, after all. She knew that even if they didn't -- even if Gunn didn't.

"That's right," said a member of Gunn's gang. "Get your human-hottie self on outta here."

"Charles?" she said, folding her arms in front of her. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

Gunn glared at her. "I think I'm conducting a raid on a demon hideout," he said. "Just what do you think you're doing? Playing like my second-grade teacher?"

She grinned despite herself. "Mrs. Mills, right? The one who totally abandoned the lesson plans and read 'Bluebeard' to a group of impressionable eight-year-olds?"

"What the -- how the hell did you know that?"

"I know a lot about you," Cordelia said, stepping closer to him. With that closed-off, grim look on his face wiped away by astonishment, Gunn looked more like himself. She felt the tension already lifting from her. "It's a really long story, but I know you. I've fought demons and vampires with you. I've also been to see 'Lord of the Rings' with you. Three times, which I only consented to because Viggo is so hot, NOT because I am turning into some kind of fan-geek."

"You mind explaining how we did all this, and I don't even know you?" Gunn backed up a couple of steps, reestablishing the distance between them.

"You do know me," Cordelia said quietly. Over Gunn's shoulder, she could see a few demons taking advantage of the distraction to sneak out. Despite her increasing confidence that the situation was about to be defused, Cordelia didn't say or do anything to stop them. "You don't know that you do, but you do."

"Wait a second -- " Gunn squinted his eyes as he peered at her. "You're that girl on TV. The show that's on right after 'Will and Grace,' right?"

"Not from THAT." She already hated the very fact and existence of "Cordy!" "If I explained it just point-blank, it would sound really crazy --"

"No, surely not," Lorne said dryly from his place on the floor. Doyle stifled a laugh. Cordelia pretended not to hear them. Gunn needed to be calmed down and convinced, and she was sure she could do both.

"Hear me out, okay?" Cordelia held out her hands. "You had it tough growing up. Your parents took off pretty early on, and there wasn't anyone but you and your sister Alonna." Gunn's eyes darkened, and Cordelia realized something this reality had in common with her own. "You lost her to vampires, and you blame yourself for not taking care of her. But you take care of so many other people -- you're not happy unless you've got somebody to look after. For a long time it was your gang, and then it became your friends."

Gunn shook his head slowly in wonder. "You're in my head."

"You used to be pretty good at getting into mine, too," she said gently. "We're friends, whether you remember me or not. And I can help you, if you'll let me. But you're not getting anywhere with this. You're just hurting and scaring people. Not everything in this bar is evil, you know? Stop fighting the world so hard. Just -- listen, okay? Listen to someone who knows you. I know you."

He studied her face, and she could see the Charles she knew flickering just beneath the surface of that face. All his intelligence, his friendliness, his compassion -- it was all still in there, buried down deep, but she could get to it. Maybe she already had.

Then Gunn shouldered his weapon and pointed it straight at her.

She gasped. "What are you doing?"

"You're in my head," he repeated. "You're not normal -- not anything human. You're here to confuse me, to stop me from carrying out my mission. Well, you ain't gonna stop me."

Her body went cold as he went for the trigger -- oh, God, she'd been so wrong --

"Wait!" Angel was on his feet in a flash, standing between her and Gunn. "Don't do this."

Cordelia pulled at Angel's arm. Desperately she whispered, "What are you doing? He'll kill you!"

"He won't kill you," Angel murmured. "I won't let him."

"Don't do what, vamp?" Gunn sounded surer of himself now. "You ain't reflecting in the mirror over there, so I know what you are."

"Yeah, well, I know what you are," Angel said. "You're a kid who's too scared of the shadows in the dark to do anything but lash out at them."

"Are you in my head too?"

"Nope," Angel said. "I don't know a damn thing about who you are. But I know what you're about to become, and I don't think you'll like it."

"A killer, you mean," Gunn said. "I been killing for a while now."

"I don't blame you. There's a lot of stuff out there that needs killing."

"Including you," Gunn retorted.

"That's one way of looking at it," Angel said. "Another way of looking at it is -- you were just about to kill a human being, a woman who didn't do anything to you but offer friendship."

"Girl knows all KINDS of freaky stuff --"

"She knows it about me too," Angel said. "And about some of these guys down on the floor." Wesley waved somewhat weakly. "She hasn't done anything to hurt any of us. She's trying to help us all, including you -- even though you came in here with a bazooka and a bunch of hotheads who are too busy looking for a fight to look at anything else."

"Hey." One of the gang members came closer to Gunn. "You gonna let him say this shit to you?"

"Shut up," Gunn said. He was studying Angel's face a lot more intently than he'd ever looked at Cordelia's. She had to fight the urge to throw herself in front of Angel, or at least to tow him down to the ground, out of harm's way.

Angel continued, "Cordelia says you lost a sister, and you feel like it's your fault." Gunn gave an almost imperceptible nod. "I lost a sister too, and it was my fault. I know what it's like to carry that guilt around all the time. But you can't let it force you into doing things worse than what you're making up for in the first place."

"Just what is it you think I'm gonna do?" Gunn's voice was tense.

One of Angel's hands reached back and wrapped around Cordelia's. She realized with a jolt of panic that he thought there was a good chance Gunn would strike after what he said next; there was nothing for her to do but squeeze his hand back. Angel finally replied, "I think you're gonna do what your sister would want you to do."

Gunn made a small sound in the back of his throat. He remained tense, at the ready, for another moment -- and then he let the weapon drop.

Cordelia let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding. From the floor, she heard Wesley murmur, "Remarkable."

The other gang members didn't think so. "Hell, dog, what're you doing?"

"Y'all get," Gunn said. When they remained motionless, Gunn pointed his weapon at the one closest to him. "Just get outta here. We gonna talk about this some other time, you hear me?"

"This is bullshit," another gang member said. "You ain't stopped nothing. We'll be back." They all began to file out, and the various humans and demons on the floor began to sigh, stretch and groan as they got to their feet.

Cordelia looked up at Angel, almost unable to contain her welling pride. "There you are." Angel raised an eyebrow. "The guy I fell in love with."

Angel looked away for a moment, embarrassed and uneasy. Then he said, "He sounds like a good guy. I wish -- I wish I were more like him. In this reality."

"It's you," she said. "It's all you. Believe it."

"I wish I could," he whispered.

"You can," she said, smiling up at him. "I do."

Doyle got to his knees. "I think we all deserve a free pint on the house, don't you?"

Gunn still looked as though he might snap, but he nodded slowly. "Now that guy -- HE makes sense."

"A round for everyone," Lorne agreed. "If we weren't friends before, we will be after a couple of beers."

Cordelia thought, I couldn't talk to Gunn, but Angel could. She began thinking about what that meant, about the way she'd seen all the people around her, and her stomach twisted uncomfortably. She put one trembling hand to her lips. She'd thought it would so easy, but --

Angel, perhaps concerned by her silence, touched her shoulder as he smiled gently. "Were these guys just as crazy in the other reality?"

She shook her head. "They were a WHOLE lot worse."

****

Part VI

The dream was different this time.

Buffy had had variations on the dream for years. It gained in complexity and intensity over the years, as her losses grew greater and greater, but the theme remained the same.

She was walking through the streets of Sunnydale, and at first it was warm and balmy, the way it used to be. She wasn't alone -- when the dream began, it was Kendra who walked with her. Then, as others died, others entered the dream. Some nights it was Willow, the sunlight gleaming on her red hair. Sometimes it was Xander, who was always laughing and usually eating something. Sometimes it was Mom, who had shopping bags in both hands. Very rarely, it would be Giles, quieter and more grave than the others. He spoke less. Buffy always felt, upon awakening, that it was as if Giles knew it was only a dream.

Faith came into the dreams too, but she was never like the others. The others were only there to be with Buffy, to keep her company or talk about the things they had always talked about, things Buffy almost didn't remember anymore: school dances, bands at the Bronze, making brownies and watching Bollywood movies, or in Giles' case, a new shipment of books for the library. They were always happy and carefree. Faith never was. When Faith was in the dreams, she was walking a little behind Buffy, calling for her to wait.

And, as happy as Buffy was in the first part of the dream, she could never wait. She could only cry out for Faith to catch up. Faith never did.

Angel was never in the dream -- until this night.

Buffy turned her head to see him in the sunlight. She wrinkled her nose. "Aren't you uncomfortable?"

"Not anymore," Angel said. "I learned how to walk in the sun. Cordelia taught me how."

"Why didn't you ever show me before?" Buffy said.

"I didn't know before." Angel was smiling. "I kept waiting for you to teach me. But then I realized you didn't know how either."

"I'm in the sunlight right now," Buffy said, holding out her hands.

But then the dream changed, as it always did. The sun began to set preternaturally fast. As it became darker, the snow began to fall. Buffy cried out in despair and looked back toward Angel -- this was the part of the dream where the people she loved disappeared --

Angel remained. One single shaft of sunlight penetrated the growing darkness and the snow, illuminating the space around him.

"B!" That was Faith's voice. She was farther down the street, her voice all but lost in the gathering winds. "I'm coming. I swear to God I'm coming."

"I can't wait for you," Buffy said automatically. Her feet kept moving, almost apart from any conscious will on her part. Angel kept pace beside her. "I want to wait, but I can't."

Faith laughed. "I don't need you to wait this time! I need you to run faster!"

"You need to run faster," Angel said. He pointed to the horizon, where the faint red glimmer of sunset remained. "You have to reach the light."

"Let's go," she said. "We have to hurry, Angel."

He shook his head and smiled, so sadly. "You won't get there with me," he said. "That's what I had to teach you. You have to go on your own."

Buffy's eyes filled with tears that threatened to freeze on her cheeks. "I don't want to be alone," she whispered. "I'm frightened of being alone."

"You're alone here," Angel said. "You won't be alone in that light. But you have to go there, Buffy. You have to go there on your own."

She wanted to protest, to argue, to cry. Instead, she turned her head and saw that far-distant light.

Faith yelled, "Jesus, B, you deaf or something? Run faster!"

Buffy began walking faster toward the light. Then she started jogging. She glanced over her shoulder just once to see Angel standing perfectly still, framed in light. He raised his hand once in farewell. Buffy turned away and began running, full-out, all her Slayer strength flowing out of her as she went, faster and faster and faster, and oh, God, it felt like flying, and the sky suddenly opened up in a brilliant burst of light --

She gasped as she awoke, more from surprise than anything else. Buffy sat up in bed and clutched the pillow to her, trying to slow her breathing.

That dream had haunted her for years, but it had always ended the same way -- with her alone in the dark, screaming in fear and pain, then awakening to find Angel's comforting arms around her. Sometimes Buffy thought half the reason they'd been brought together was so that she could wake from that dream with him by her side.

Tonight he wasn't there; she was alone in the tiny apartment she still thought of as Angel's, despite the fact that she'd lived there with him ever since her mother's death. She'd felt desperately alone all night, ashamed of her vulnerability but unable to deny it, and she'd thought she would never fall asleep.

But she had, and the one night she'd awoken without Angel was the one night she hadn't needed him.

Buffy leaned against the headboard and went over the dream. I've always been most afraid of being alone, she thought. But when I was alone in that dream, it wasn't frightening anymore. It was -- beautiful, I guess.

Still slightly disoriented, she swung her feet off the bed and stood up, stretching out all her muscles. She hadn't patrolled, of course; though she'd gone about alone before the Winter, she'd always considered it far too dangerous afterward. Angel and Wesley agreed, which was so rare that she'd decided the matter was beyond argument. Yet her body didn't feel as though she'd been inactive; she felt energized, humming, as though she'd been in the thick of battle but was still ready for more.

She went to the window and lifted the shade. The sleet had stopped. Sunnydale was still and white, and so far as she could hear, silent. So much more is going on, she thought. So much more than even I know.

Almost without thinking about it, she grabbed her jeans from the rack and slid them on. Next came a T-shirt, then a heavy sweater. By the time she reached for her parka, Buffy knew what she was going to do: She was going to patrol alone, for the first time in two and a half years. She wasn't sure how she felt about it, but she knew that, for some reason, she was no longer afraid.

****

"This feel weird to you?" said Doyle. "And what's this rubbish in the tape deck -- Enya? Who the hell put something that crappity in the tape deck?"

"That's my cassette, actually," Wesley said, casting a sideways glance at the man who was riding shotgun.

Doyle did not appear at all abashed. "I'd make fun of you if she weren't Irish. As it is, I figure I share the blame for her with the rest of the motherland. And you didn't answer me."

Wesley tried to remember just what it was Doyle had asked him. In truth, he'd been paying more attention to what was going on in the rest of the SUV. At the very back, Lorne was trying to convince this Gunn person to submit to a reading, and insisting that rap generally didn't work. Right behind him, Angel and Cordelia were riding in silence. Wesley was familiar with Angel's quiet nature, but he remembered Cordelia as a talkative, lively girl. They'd just proved her words true, so Wesley had expected her to be jubilant and even a little self-righteous on the way home. Instead she said nothing, her silence strangely ominous.

"You have to know some songs," Lorne insisted. "TV theme songs? A little Brady Bunch, perhaps?"

"I ain't havin' my soul pour out of any song about the youngest one in curls, you hear what I'm sayin'?" Against his will, Wesley found himself rather agreeing with Gunn.

Doyle prodded, "I said, this is weird stuff. I say that as a man who sprouts spikes when he sneezes, so I don't go throwin' the word 'weird' around lightly."

"During my studies to become a Watcher, I found out about some unusual things." Wesley confessed. "But this is unprecedented, at least in my experience. I -- I beg your pardon -- did you say something about sneezing and --" As he looked over, Doyle shook his head vigorously; his skin turned green and small points rose all over his face. "My word!"

"Whoa!" Gunn yelled from the back.

"Looking GOOD!" Lorne said.

"Oh, God," Cordelia said. Her voice was raspy, as though she had been crying or struggling not to. "I even missed that, and I only saw it once. How pathetic am I, huh?"

Angel said, "I thought you didn't smell fully human, but there were so many demons in the bar I couldn't be sure. What are you?"

"Brachen demon on my dad's side," Doyle replied, his face shifting back to human. "Irish on my mum's. That means I'm a terror in a fight, plus I can tell the difference between real beer and this American shite."

"Man, my night took a weird turn somewhere," Gunn said.

"Was that before or after the planned genocide?" Lorne said crisply.

An awkward silence fell over the vehicle for a moment. Then Gunn said brightly, "How about a little 'New York, New York' action?"

"Let 'er rip," Lorne said, apparently content to be doing his job once more.

As Gunn began singing, Wesley heard Angel murmur to Cordelia, "Are you okay?"

"I just need a few minutes," she whispered back.

Wesley caught Doyle smiling at him knowingly, apparently aware of his eavesdropping. He forced himself to concentrate on the conversation he'd been having before. "This must be far stranger for you than for any of the rest of us," Wesley said. "Knowing -- that you would be dead in another reality."

"Yeah, that was a kick in the ribs," Doyle said. "Trying not to think about it, to tell you the truth. But fact is, I'd had a kind of a premonition."

"You mean, the visions that Cordelia spoke of? The ones where you saw us before we met?"

"No," Doyle said. "Those just showed us all fighting like hell on the same side. I mean something less clear. Just -- a feeling I had, you know? There was a time, a few years back, when I had a chance to be brave. And I wasn't." Wesley had only known Doyle for a couple of hours, but he could already tell the gravity in his voice was a rare, and important, thing. "I always knew I was gonna have to make up for that someday, and that it was gonna cost me dear. I just been waiting for the occasion to arise, and looks like today's the day."

Wesley considered what Doyle had said. "Whatever you may have done before -- surely you needn't die to make up for it."

"We're on the same page, brother," Doyle said. "But looks like those Powers that Be have another plan."

"I want to wake up in the city that doesn't sleep --" Gunn warbled, more than a little off-key.

"Sounds more like Sunnydale to me," Angel said. Wesley laughed, less from the joke itself than from the surprise that Angel had said it.

"To find I'm king of the -- FUCK!" Gunn yelled. Wesley turned to see what had changed -- just in time to see the Borca demon ram the side of the SUV.

Cordelia screamed, and Doyle did something very like it. The SUV swerved wildly out of control, and Wesley struggled to keep them from plunging into a ditch. The icy curbs sent them careering this way and that, people knocking into windows and seats and each other as they went. "Hold on!" he cried, knowing it was futile.

The SUV slammed into a lightpost, sending Wesley and Doyle flying into airbags. For one moment, Wesley was too stunned to think. Nobody spoke. Finally, Angel said, "They must have staked out the highway. There will be others."

Gunn coughed. "Knew I was gonna be killin' demons tonight."

"Just keep it to the ones outside the car," Doyle said, pushing himself back from the airbag. "We'll work on the finer points of your moral education later."

"Cordelia?" Angel's voice was concerned.

"I'm good." To Wesley's surprise, Cordelia's earlier gloom and shock were entirely gone. When he turned, neck aching, to look at her, she was grimly determined. "Wesley, you are Mr. Prepared. Tell me you packed weapons."

Outside, he could hear the crunching of demon feet in the snow. "Oh, yes," he said. "We're armed. Give me the crossbow, will you, Angel?"

Quickly, they got their preferred weapons. Gunn's machine gun was a more welcome sight in his hands now. Wesley pulled out his trusty crossbow; he hadn't used it in actual combat much -- well, ever -- but it remained the weapon he felt best with. Doyle and Lorne helped themselves to stakes. Angel got his usual sword, and to Wesley's astonishment, Cordelia took one as well. When Angel looked at her curiously, she smiled -- a strange, tight little smile. "You want to see a few things you taught me? Keep watching."

"Don't tell me," Gunn said. "We gotta go out there to them."

"It's that or wait for them to tear their way in here," Angel pointed out.

Wesley took a deep breath and tried to size up the situation outside. Unfortunately, their wreck had disabled the streetlight. "Are they close, Angel?"

"Close enough," Angel said.

"Right, then," Wesley replied. "On my mark -- go!"

They all spilled out of the vehicle -- Gunn, Doyle and Lorne on one side, Cordelia, Angel and Wesley on the other. Wesley glanced over at the others; Angel looked as prepared for battle as ever, and Cordelia was standing in perfect fighting stance, her grip on the sword a professional's. "They're coming," Angel said quietly.

In the white drifts of snow, Wesley could make out a few sand-colored shapes lumbering toward them. "I see them now."

"Borca can only be killed one way," said Cordelia. "Beheading. Well, beheading or this particular magic spell that requires one of the Great Pyramids, and I haven't got one handy. So we should only stab to weaken."

Wesley stared at her. "How did you know that?"

She smiled bleakly. "You told me."

"Heads up!" Doyle yelled, just as the beasts attacked.

One of the Borca lunged toward them, and Angel swung his sword with deadly speed. He missed the neck by a fraction, but the resulting gash sent reddish-purple blood gushing into the snow. The Borca bellowed, and Cordelia sent her sword flying towards its neck. Her blow struck true, and the demon's corpse collapsed, sending snow and ash pluming into the air.

Great God, Wesley thought. Cordelia's a fighter.

He had no more time to watch her; another Borca was coming into sight, snorting through its row of tusks as it sighted Wesley. Wesley brought his crossbow to bear. For a moment he was nervous -- he'd only used this in practice, never for real -- but then he found himself remembering something Cordelia had said: "Anything to do with aiming, you're good at."

She said it, so she must have seen it, Wesley thought. If what Cordelia believes to be real WAS real, then I can do this.

The Borca leapt toward Wesley. He fired instantly, and the arrow sank deep within the demon's chest. It bellowed and collapsed into the closest snowdrift. Cordelia jumped forward and brought her sword slashing down; this Borca, too, collapsed into dust.

"Hey!" Doyle yelled over the sound of Gunn's automatic-weapon fire. "We've no beheading thingamajigs over here!"

Cordelia looked toward them in fear, but it was Angel who yelled, "I'm coming!" He jumped atop the SUV, then disappeared out of sight on the other side.

"They're still coming," Cordelia said, wheeling around. Sure enough, two different Borca were lunging through the snow toward them. "Take the one on the right!"

Wesley wheeled right. The Borca's pale shape was almost invisible in the snow, but not quite. He brought the crossbow back to his shoulder and fired again. It howled, struck badly if not fatally; Wesley reloaded faster than he'd known he could and fired again, sending the Borca flopping into the snow. "Cordelia!" he called.

"Hang on!" He looked over his shoulder to see, to his astonishment, Cordelia spinning around in a roundhouse kick that landed squarely on the other Borca's nose. It yelped, perhaps as much in surprise as pain, and in that moment Cordelia brought her blade slashing down again. The demon's head rolled away, to vanish like the rest into so much ash. She then tossed her sword at Wesley. "Take him!"

Wesley dropped his crossbow and caught the sword as much by accident as anything else. He fumbled for the right grip, but the moment he had it -- the moment the Borca in front of him began to stir -- he swung it downward. The strike was unwieldy but accurate; the Borca dissolved in an instant.

He stared down at the indentation in the snow where it had been. Behind him, he heard Angel's guttural attack cry, then whoops of victory from Doyle and Lorne. It was Gunn who called, "Anything else out there?"

Wesley scanned the horizon, but he could sense no motion. He called, "Angel? Do you hear anything else?"

"No," Angel said. "No. That's it."

"Yeah!" Gunn yelled. "We kick ASS!"

The others started laughing, and Wesley found himself chiming in. The sword in his hands didn't feel so awkward now. "We did it," he gasped. "I never thought we could. Angel, perhaps --"

"We can do it," Cordelia said. "We always could." She alone did not share in the general jubilation. Her face was pale and drawn as she shuffled through the thick snow toward the SUV.

Thinking that perhaps she wanted some of her well-deserved recognition, Wesley called, "Angel, did you see Cordelia? What a fighter this girl is! And you trained her?"

"I saw," Angel said as he came around the front of the vehicle. "Cordelia, that was amazing."

"Yeah," she said dully. "I'm so Xena."

Wesley glanced over at Angel, who also looked concerned. Cordelia could only look at Doyle, who was doing a little dance in the headlights. Lorne said, "Well, this has been a charming winter sojourn, but what say we get to this Sunnydale hamlet you folk have been talking about? I'm all for carnage before breakfast, but I'm all for breakfast after carnage. Get my drift?"

Doyle said, amiably, "Eggs sound nice right around now."

"Cordelia?" Angel stepped toward her, but she seemed to shrink back.

"Let's get back in the car," she said. "You think it'll still start, Wesley?"

He appraised the damage. "Most likely. Angel and I should push it back onto the road, though. Put it in neutral."

As the others clambered in, and Wesley and Angel took their places near the bumper, Angel said, "Wesley, she fought -- I mean, that was amazing, wasn't it?"

"Amazing," Wesley agreed. "But -- she is no Slayer." As Wesley had intended, the words made Angel looked abashed and ashamed. "Angel, believe me, I know how -- seductive -- the world she describes can be. But we are still in this world. You are still with Buffy."

"I know that. God, Wesley, I would never --" Angel put his hands against the bumper, more for support than for pushing. "Wesley, I love Buffy. Cordelia -- what's happening here -- it's not --" He struggled for words, and for the first time ever, Wesley found himself feeling something other than fear and tempered dislike for Angel. He felt a kind of empathy, unusual but undeniable. "I'm just looking out for her. I'm just -- looking."

"Every man's prerogative," Wesley said. "But I warn you. I am Buffy's Watcher, and I won't see her hurt."

To Wesley's surprise, Angel smiled. "She underestimates you."

"Okay!" Doyle said. "Push!"

***

"I hear something," Faith said for the eightieth time. Riley looked around them, but he could see nothing in the snowy night.

"We're okay," he said. He'd thought Faith's terror would subside a little once they made it out of the confines of the Initiative compound, but even as they stumbled through the snow, she was still jittery and ill-at-ease. Not that he could blame her.

She was wrapped in the Initiative cold-weather coveralls he had stashed away for her; they were too big, but they were white, which was the main thing. They blended into the surroundings as well as they could hope to do. What he hadn't counted on was the pure, visceral shock for Faith; she'd never actually seen the Winter, only heard about it, and the reality of it had proved overwhelming for her. More than that -- she hadn't been unconfined for years, and the mere fact of being in open spaces had clearly thrown Faith off.

Even now, as they tried to make their escape, she kept stopping and looking upward. "Stars," she whispered. "Lee, I can see the stars."

"They'll still be there tomorrow," he pointed out. "Tonight, let's hurry, okay?"

"We gotta get to the library," Faith said, focusing once more on the reality of their situation. "I don't know what's going on with them anymore, but there's gonna be somebody in the library. All the time. As long as there IS a library, anyway."

"Lead the way," Riley said. "And when we get there, mention I helped you, okay?"

For one moment, Faith looked like herself as she smirked at him. "Maybe."

A few feet away, some twigs snapped -- a normal enough sound, but it made Faith wheel around in fear. "What was that?"

Riley opened his mouth to tell her it was nothing, then he heard it again. Closer. He pulled a stake from his belt and handed it to her wordlessly. Her eyes were wide as took it from him, her grip unpracticed and uncertain. Can a Slayer lose her edge? he wondered. I think I'm about to find out.

The vampires came swaggering out from the hedges, each of them in full demonic visage. They were stronger that way. Riley got his own stake ready as he counted them. Five. Okay, maybe he and Faith could take five -- she might be out of shape and out of practice, but she was still a Slayer. "Well, well, well," said one vampire. "Initiative types out for a stroll. We just love you Initiative types."

"We ain't with them," Faith said. "Don't mean we won't kick your butts."

"Don't mean we like you any better," said the leader vamp. He had on a Subway jacket and hat, which made Riley think some very strange things about sandwiches. "Don't mean you'd be any less fun to eat."

Riley said, "It's better for you to walk away now." The vampires just laughed. They had a good handle on the situation, Riley thought.

"Seven words," Faith said, stepping closer to the leader vamp. When he raised an inquisitive eyebrow, she said, "Six-inch turkey on wheat, spicy mustard."

"SHUT UP!" the vampire bellowed. "I am a SANDWICH ARTIST!"

Faith plunged her stake into the leader vamp, and the Subway hat fell alone into the snow. Unfortunately, the other vamps weren't quite as slow. Even as Riley spun around, one of the vamps was tackling him, and they rolled into the snow. "Faith!" he yelled. "Faith, run!"

Maybe they'll take me -- maybe they'll take me and let her go --

"Get back!" Faith cried, and she began battling one of the other vamps, a female. She was strong; he could see the blows landing on Faith's body despite her best moves. Riley writhed in the snow, trying to push the vampires on him back to staking distance -- or, failing that, to keep him from his neck --

Suddenly, one of the vamps shrieked, then faded into dust. Riley watched its face turn to nothing, then saw behind it -- "Buffy Summers," he said.

"Bingo was his name-o," Buffy said, then struck at the vampire still hanging onto Riley's back. It was nothing immediately. Buffy whirled toward the two vamps attacking Faith. Faith didn't see her, just realized that her attackers were distracted. Even as she staked one, Buffy sent a flying side kick into the other, then staked it dead.

For a few moments, they all stood there silently in the snow. Riley wanted to say something, but he had a feeling nobody would hear him. Faith was looking only at Buffy, Buffy only at Faith. At last, Faith said, "B?"

Buffy was shaking her head, whether in wonder or disbelief, Riley couldn't say. "Are you -- are you a ghost, or a vision --?"

"Ghost, SHIT. B, it's me. It's Faith. Is it you?"

Buffy's body began to shake, and Riley realized she was crying. "I ran toward the light," she said, which made no sense, because it was still completely dark out. "I ran toward the light to find you, and you're here. Oh, God, Faith, you're here."

"The Initiative had me -- I thought you didn't look for me -- but you thought I was dead?" Faith was beginning to cry now too. "Oh, Jesus. B, don't you know? Don't you know I couldn't leave you that easy?"

With a wordless cry, Buffy embraced Faith, and they held onto each other, sobbing, for a long time. Riley lay there, uncomfortable physically and mentally, but unwilling to intrude on the moment in any way. We made it, he thought, but the fact held little satisfaction. What they'd accomplished was only the first step. Riley couldn't forget the stony face of Acathla grimacing down at him, promising doom for them all.

At last, Buffy pulled back from Faith slightly and scowled down at Riley. "You say they held you prisoner?"

"Lee's okay," Faith said. "He kinda looked out for me. He's the one got me outta there. Took his own damn sweet time -- but hey, better late than never."

Riley pushed himself up from the snow. The cold had numbed him and made him clumsy, but he could still speak. "We've got trouble, courtesy of Adam," he said. "We need to find your -- what is it, a Watcher? We have to research this thing."

Buffy was still sniffling, her arm still around Faith, as they all began walking in what Riley figured was the general direction of the library. "What thing is that?" she said. Then she half- laughed. "Don't guess it was called Naiura." Riley froze in place. Buffy's eyes went wide. "You have GOT to be kidding me."

"Lee, make a joke?" Faith shook her head. "You guys don't know each other that well."

"We have to hurry," Riley said. "We don't have any more time to lose."

"Before what?" Buffy said.

"How does the end of the world grab you?" Faith said.

****

Part VII

"I cannot believe you people dragged me halfway 'cross California to go back to high school," Gunn said as the group walked into Sunnydale High, their footsteps echoing in the empty hallway. "This is the weirdest-ass truant patrol I ever saw, and I've seen a bunch."

"Nobody really goes to this school much anymore," Angel said. "We use the library as our headquarters."

Our headquarters, Angel thought. It was true, and yet he'd never thought of it that way, not once in all the time he'd been around the school. He'd been in Sunnydale High more regularly than just about any student for the past few years, and yet he'd always felt like an intruder in this space. The surroundings had taunted him -- posters about pep rallies and the dangers of driving drunk, the locker smells of gym clothes and broken pens and hidden cigarettes. All things that had nothing to do with Angel, as alien to him as if they'd dropped from another world.

But it was different now. It was his. Theirs. And it had been for years, even if he'd never known. Cordelia had made him see it. For one instant, he was taken by the funny image of her in an optometrist's office, wearing a white coat and a professional bun, carefully sliding a pair of glasses onto his face and bringing the world into focus.

Angel turned toward Cordelia -- not to share the private joke, but to better envision her in it -- and saw that she was still as grave and uncertain as she had been in the SUV on the way back. "Are you sure you're all right?" he said.

It was a token question, and he expected a token response, maybe "fine" or "hanging in there." Instead, she seemed to think it over, and then shook her head and said, "No. Not sure of that at all."

But for Wesley's words of warning, Angel would have taken her hand then. He felt the temptation to be nearer to her, physically and emotionally, and knew the wrong of it: he would not only be betraying Buffy and her love for him, but Cordelia and her love for someone who wasn't quite him. Angel knew he had to comfort her, but he decided he could do that best by doing it a little less. "We're going to get this figured out now," he said. "We can convince Buffy and Jenny, dive back into the research. And it looks like Lorne and Gunn and Doyle all know a lot that might help."

Cordelia held up her hand to shush him. Angel expected her to say something, but for a few moments, she was silent. The only words echoing in the hallway were the voices of Lorne, Gunn and Doyle, arguing about who was really the greatest diva of Motown. She must have heard them bicker like this a hundred times, Angel thought. So it can't be them she's listening to.

Finally she looked over at him, her eyes dark with emotion. "This world is real," she said.

"Yeah," he said, surprised. "I thought you understood that all along."

"I knew it from the beginning," she said. "But I didn't understand it -- like, deep down inside me -- until I couldn't talk Gunn down, and you could."

"I think I understand what you mean," Angel said carefully as they turned a corner. "But why was that the thing that convinced you? I would have thought getting knocked on the head by a vampire would be real enough."

She half-smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "Before that, I thought I could change it all, if I needed to. I could drag you guys to L.A. I could convince you I was telling the truth. It just seemed like a matter of time before I snapped my fingers and poof, the world would be back to the way I knew it. The way I wanted it to be."

At least she's still a little like she was in high school, Angel thought. He said only, "And when you couldn't talk Gunn down, you realized it wouldn't be that easy."

"That's part of it," she said. "But it's less that I couldn't talk him down and more that you could. See, back in L.A. -- I mean, in the L.A. I remember -- you were the one who got through to him first. When Wesley and I thought he was some kinda street thug, you listened to him and brought him in and gave him a shot. He listened to you when he still laughed at us. When I saw you talk to him, I realized -- that connection you guys made, whatever it was that let him listen to you, and let you talk to him -- that's as real here as it was there. And it doesn't have a damn thing to do with me."

"It's only fair," Angel said. When she raised an eyebrow, he explained, "You made me believe in your world. So I'm glad I could make you believe in mine."

"I'm not," she said flatly. "It was easier, before -- before I realized that what we do here has consequences."

Angel wanted to talk to her about it more, but they were about to enter the library, and somehow, he felt odd about continuing this discussion in front of Buffy. Then, as he opened the door, he saw who was inside, and everything else -- even Cordelia -- fell away. He whispered, "Faith?"

"Dead man walking!" Faith said cheerfully. She was wearing blue scrubs, and her hair was almost to her waist, and she was older, and she was alive. Alive.

He went forward and hugged her tightly, feeling the agreeable crush of her powerful arms around him. Over her shoulder, he could see Buffy smiling -- no, beaming, radiant with energy he hadn't realized she still possessed. Angel smiled back at her, and for a moment, it was as if many years had fallen from them both. For one moment, he liked this world even better than the one Cordelia knew.

Then he saw another figure in the back of the room, and he straightened up, getting into fighting stance automatically. "Buffy -- " he said in warning.

Buffy glanced over her shoulder to see who he saw, then shook her head. "Believe it or not, he's okay," she said. "Angel, let me introduce you to Riley Finn, ex-Initiative leader and Faith's new best friend."

"Maybe ours too," Jenny said, emerging from Giles' office. She then turned and saw all the people coming in behind Angel and Cordelia. "Speaking of making new friends, wow. That must have been one hell of a mixer."

"Faith!" Wesley cried, hurrying forward to hug her as well. "You're alive? How --"

"Initiative had me," Faith said, her voice muffled from being nestled against Wesley's shoulder. "Lee got me out."

"I take it you're Lee," Wesley said to Riley. "We've not been on the same side for some time now, but for this -- on behalf of the Council of Watchers, and for myself -- thank you."

"I did it for Faith," Riley said, but he smiled. "I guess it's high time we stopped fighting and met each other."

"Introductions, right," Angel said, grasping at one of the few social rules he was good at. He gestured at each person in turn, "Buffy, Jenny, Faith and, ah, Riley, this is Doyle, Gunn and Lorne." For Riley's benefit, he added, "And this is Cordelia."

Doyle raised his hand in a half-wave. "Charmed, I'm sure." He looked over at Cordelia. "So, Hotlips, did you know this Faith girl in the other reality too? Because I'm hoping for a much warmer and more endearing introduction in the near future."

"Yeah," Cordelia said. Angel realized that Cordelia looked disoriented and afraid -- more so than she had since she'd first awoken on the cot almost ten hours ago. "I -- I need a minute here."

Wesley said, quietly, "I suppose you must have heard what Doyle said about the other reality --"

"We know," Buffy said, startling Angel deeply. "This Naiura chick made a stop by Initiative headquarters earlier tonight. She's making big buddies with Adam, and whatever they're up to can't be good."

"I must say, you're rather cavalier about finding out your entire reality's as fake as Britney's breasts," Lorne said.

Buffy blinked at him, then said, "It's not fake. It's just -- new. That doesn't make it not real."

Her words were an echo of what Cordelia had said before, and Angel looked at her once more to see if she caught the resonance. Cordelia was still trembling and uneasy; he noticed that, for some weird reason, she was staring at Jenny Calendar. It was almost as though she were forcing herself to do so.

"Who gives a shit about this shifting-reality crap?" Faith said. Angel had forgotten just how quickly she could get to the subject. "This is my world, new or used, and I'd like to keep it from getting sucked into hell."

Angel said, "Wait -- what? Sucked into hell?"

"We don't know for sure," Jenny said. "But you remember how we were trying to figure out if the Initiative had just found something major? Turns out that's a big, fat yeah."

Riley stepped forward, obviously still feeling ill-at-ease in what had been the lair of the enemy. "What they found -- that's what Naiura's after. What she changed this reality to get to. It's some kind of sleeping demon, something called Acathla --"

Acathla. Acathla, awakening from his unnatural slumber to drag the world down into hell. Acathla, sworn to Angel's own blood. It was here. Now.

"-- and they're planning on using it to make this reality more real. The fact that they're going to let any amount of creatures from hell into our world doesn't seem to matter," Riley finished grimly.

Buffy said, "We've been trying to look this Acathla thingy up in your books, Wes. Does Acathla not start with an A? Because it seems like it would, but we can't find jack."

"I've only heard of it once," Wesley said. "And that was from Cordelia, in the car before."

Faith raised an eyebrow. "Queen C's the one with the knowledge?" she said. "I figured this reality was kinda weird, but that totally takes it, right there."

"Cordelia?" Gunn said. "You mind fillin' the rest of us in on just what this Acathy thingy is?"

Cordelia clapped her hand to her mouth; she didn't scream aloud, but Angel felt as though he could hear it, high and shrill and cutting. He knew the scream because he was holding it back too.

She backed away from them all until her back was against the wall, then slumped down to the floor. Angel went to her side and sat heavily beside her, supposedly to comfort her but also because he needed to sit down just as badly.

Gunn said, "So, I'm going out on a limb and saying this is a bad thing."

"Oh, God," Cordelia whispered, her voice so low only Angel could hear. "Two worlds, and I'm going to destroy them both."

***

Cordelia had to excuse herself to the bathroom twice to cry out loud in the stalls and then splash cold water on her face. The fragile bubble of conviction she'd built around herself to stay sane in this warped reality had been shaken when Angel talked Gunn down from his rampage. It had cracked when she'd walked in to see Faith hugging Angel, then Wesley, like they were the greatest pals of all time. But it hadn't shattered until the moment she'd heard the name Acathla.

Acathla. Angel was explaining to them what it was. He knew better than she did in either reality -- but Cordelia knew enough. Acathla had taken Angel to hell for centuries of torment. Acathla would have borne them all down to hell, given the chance. And Cordelia's blind, unknowing, desperate clutch for her memory had not only erased one reality in favor of this one -- it had put this reality, perhaps all realities, in danger of being destroyed.

She felt like she couldn't keep walking, keep standing. She wanted to throw up, pass out, scream until she couldn't speak or hear or think ever again.

Instead, Cordelia looked in the mirror and took a deep breath. The reflection she saw was different. Her skin was waxen and soft from years of better sunscreen and skin-care products; her flat, two- dimensional memory of this reality included dermatologists and facialists laboring over her to make her complexion perfect. The diamond studs that glittered in her ears had been a gift from the network, a present to celebrate her sitcom's move to Thursday night. She'd gotten better hairstyling advice in this reality; her hair was still long and dark, just like it had been before she started messing with it and screwed it up. The reflection was one of a pretty, pampered, wealthy creature -- except for one thing. Her eyes, the expression in them -- that was the same.

"Acathla didn't get the world last time," she muttered. "Didn't even get Angel, not for good. So we can stop it this time."

Cordelia squared her shoulders and went back into the library. The others were gathered around the big table, talking animatedly, putting together what Riley and Faith and Angel and Wesley had all told them about Acathla, Naiura and Adam's plan. She'd heard enough, between crying jags, to get the gist of it. "Hey," she said, pitching her voice to carry. It worked; the others all turned toward her. "Bear with me while I recap, okay? I want to make sure I'm clear on this."

"As do we all," Wesley said encouragingly.

"Naiura wants to go home," Cordelia said. "Naiura needs Acathla to get home. For whatever reason, she couldn't get to Acathla when it showed up in my reality. So when I went to her with my request, she seized on the idea of changing Angel's curse to create this reality. She could give me my memory back and end up with a world that would show her Acathla at a time she could use it, also known as now."

"That sounds about right," Riley said. "It matches what I heard her say."

So this was Riley Finn, Cordelia thought. She had heard his name only once before, on a night almost three years ago when Angel came back from Sunnydale and got really, really drunk. She'd sat by his side and tried to match him drink for drink, listening to stories about some grand new love in Buffy's life. Riley looked nice enough, but Cordelia had imagined someone a lot more -- well, MORE. "Moving along," she said. "Only certain people can wake Acathla up. Angel's one of them, and Adam's about to be the other one."

Angel said, quietly, "The spell where you swear fealty -- where you get the ability to awaken Acathla -- takes the better part of a day to take effect. He won't be able to do anything until tomorrow night, I mean, tonight." The sun had risen an hour or two before; Cordelia was used to staying up all night in her own reality, but to judge by her exhaustion, her body didn't do it often here.

"Adam's planning on waking up Acathla and opening up the gateway to hell, which not only sucks people from our side in but can spit stuff from the other side out," Cordelia said. "Then he's gonna shut it, which has the double-whammy effect of giving him loads of new demons to serve him AND freezing this reality in place forever."

"Yeah, yeah, we get it," Faith said. She shrugged. "Since when does the Homecoming Queen lead the meetings?"

Cordelia'd won the crown in this reality. She'd forgotten.

She looked down at Faith -- who looked every bit as rude and as dangerous as she'd been in the original reality. And yet, in her two- dimensional memories of this reality, Faith hadn't gone rogue. She had always been Buffy's friend, their ally, a fighter. Sure, she was suspicious at first, but she'd believed in Buffy and Giles ever since she went and reported her worries about Gwendolyn Post, and they'd believed her --

Of course, Cordelia realized with a jolt. Faith fell for that evil- bitch Watcher in the beginning, but in my reality, she found out the hard way -- because Angel had come back from hell. In this reality, Angel didn't go to hell, and Faith got to figure out Post's act on her own. That first thing hadn't seemed to push her so far away from them all, but now Cordelia realized just how important the first damage to Faith's relationship with Buffy had been.

"Quit starin' at me," Faith said, scooting back in her seat. "You're creeping me out."

"Sorry," Cordelia said, pulling herself back to the here-and- now. "So, we gotta stop Adam. No question about that."

Buffy pointed at the drawings on the table: Riley's schematics of the Initiative compound now had arrows, lines, paths of attack drawn on them. "Ergo the battle planning," Buffy said. She squinted down at the drawings again, then shook her head. "You have no idea how bad we've wanted these plans. If we'd had them three years ago, Adam never could have taken over."

And that answers another question, Cordelia thought. She plowed on: "Angel, does the same person who opens Acathla have to be the one who closes it? If we don't get there before Adam awakens Acathla, are we just doomed?"

"I don't think so, no," Angel said. "Anybody who's sworn fealty to Acathla should be able to close it. Even if Adam gets started, I should be able to end it."

"And the person who closes it -- their reality is going to be the permanent reality," Cordelia said. "Come hell or high water, and I speak literally as well as figuratively."

"That sounds most likely," Wesley said.

"Is all this talking actually getting us somewhere?" Gunn said. "Because my night was pretty much sucking until we started talking about this major bad-ass battle going down here. And now we ain't talking about that anymore."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Gunn, be patient for once in your life, or I'm gonna have to tell all these nice people what your middle name is."

"Shuttin' up now," Gunn said quickly.

"Okay," Cordelia said, taking a deep breath. "Angel -- could we do a spell here? Fix it so -- so that I've sworn fealty to Acathla?"

The impact of her words hit different people at different times, in different ways. Angel and Wesley got it first, and their reactions were the hardest to read. Jenny was next, her eyes brightening with excitement. Then Doyle, whose head drooped just a little, making Cordelia's heart contract painfully. Riley and Faith each narrowed their eyes in distrust.

It was Buffy who spoke first. "You mean, you'd want to be the one to shut Acathla. To restore your reality in the place of this one."

"I just want to know if it's possible," Cordelia said evenly.

"Yes," Angel said. "It's possible. The spell is pretty simple. You wouldn't be able to do anything until tonight -- a few hours after Adam --"

"We could possibly think of a way to stall him," Wesley said. "Delay Adam's actions, so that we have a chance to let the spell work on Cordelia --"

"We could," Riley said. "If we wanted to. But why would we want to? We want to save this world, not destroy it. Right?"

Jenny said, quietly, "Rupert Giles -- someone who meant a lot to me, a lot to Buffy -- he's alive in that other reality. That's the only reason I need."

"There's also a mission, apparently," Wesley said. "Some important work Angel and Cordelia and I are meant to be carrying out in Los Angeles."

"You guys don't know the whole story," Cordelia said. "You need to know the whole truth, before you decide."

For one moment, she imagined she could feel each reality like a weight in her hand -- equally heavy, equally fragile, equally precious. One of them would have to be smashed; it would slip from her hand like a glass sphere and drop, splintering into so many shards that it could never be made whole again. Cordelia knew what she wanted -- her real life, her life with Angel, and she wanted it so badly it made her body shake.

But this reality, and the people who sat before her now -- their desires mattered as much as her own. Their destinies were no less important, their love no less desperate. Cordelia could not treat them as lesser any longer. The price might be everything that had ever mattered to her, but she knew that she had to pay it.

"In my reality, I work with Angel in Los Angeles. Wesley's there too - - but he's not exactly working with us right now. We had a falling- out." She decided the details weren't as important as the spirit of the thing. "Pretty serious falling-out, as these things go. I think -- I hope we all still care a lot about each other. But Wesley, I'm pretty sure you're in a bad place, psychologically speaking. I know that there was something in the future -- that reality's future -- that was seriously scary, something we were all going to be up against." Cordelia tried once more to remember what the eyes that stared at her had looked like, and she failed again. "I can't figure out what it was, though. Apparently that future was erased along with that reality, so I don't know what we might be battling when I return. Until then, though, Gunn and Lorne are with us and help out, as well as this girl Fred, who right now is probably in serious need of rescue from Pylea."

"Pylea?" Lorne said, turning a paler shade of green. "Oh, no. Not going back there."

"We're getting off-subject," Cordelia said. "In my reality, yeah, Giles is still alive. So are Willow and Xander --"

"And Mom?" Buffy said, her voice tiny. "Is my mom alive?"

Cordelia closed her eyes so that she wouldn't have to see Buffy's face when she said it. "I'm sorry. No, she's not. She died there too." When she opened her eyes again, Angel's hand was on Buffy's shoulder. Buffy wasn't looking at him, just looking straight ahead, into a distance only she could see.

"So that makes two of us," Doyle said. When the others stared at him, he shrugged. "Seems as though I died a courageous, heroic-type death in her reality. Just goes to show you the kind of stand-up guy I am beneath this polyester exterior."

"You're not the only one," Cordelia said. This was the hardest, but she forced herself to say it. "Jenny -- a few years ago -- you were killed."

She couldn't bring herself to say who had done it.

"What?" Wesley half-stood, his hands on the table, his entire body tense. "Jenny -- she was -- my God. You weren't going to tell us that changing reality meant -- meant killing her?"

Jenny said nothing. She stared up at Cordelia, her black eyes unreadable.

"I'm sorry," Cordelia said. "At first this all seemed like some kind of bad dream. It didn't seem to matter what happened here. I -- I know better now. I'm sorry. Jenny, I'm sorry." Jenny only nodded.

"Anybody else kick the bucket that we oughta know about?" Gunn said.

Cordelia considered that for a moment, then said, "Nobody died permanently. We had a couple of resurrections."

"I miss Iowa," Riley said suddenly. He ran one hand through his hair. "I never had conversations like this in Iowa."

"No shit, Lee," Faith said. "You were too busy talking about crops and cows and all that jazz. So, Cordelia, only one thing I want to know about this other reality. I didn't spend years locked in a cell in that one, did I?"

"Actually, you did," Cordelia said. "You kinda made some major screw- ups in my reality. You've got your head together now -- at least Angel says you have -- but you're in jail for a long time." Faith swore under her breath.

Riley said, "Did you even know me in this other reality?"

"We hadn't met," Cordelia said. "I heard about you, though. Apparently, after Buffy and Angel broke up --" Buffy's eyes went wide, and Cordelia grimaced. "--you and Buffy had this major romance for a while." Riley and Buffy looked at each other, completely nonplused, then looked back at Cordelia. Faith laughed in disbelief. Angel didn't look at all happy.

Doyle grinned. "So that's what freed up Angel there to fall in love with you, eh, Cordelia?"

Cordelia felt her cheeks flush scarlet even before Buffy stared up at her, mouth open, eyes accusing. Then Buffy whipped around to look at Angel, who didn't quite seem able to meet her eyes. Lorne chuckled, "Doyle, buddy, you have no idea just how faux your pas just was."

"So now you guys know," Cordelia continued, hoping her voice wouldn't crack. "You know the other reality isn't all peaches and cream. Some things that seem important here -- they aren't as important there. But I can tell you that the Winter never happened. Giles and Willow and Xander all lived. And those of us who were in L.A. had a mission of our own, an important one I wasn't ever supposed to mess with. We're only in this situation because I did. And I'd like the chance to change it back."

For a moment, they were all silent. Then everyone began talking at once, arguing and pointing and gesturing. After only a few moments, Wesley stood up again. "We'll get nowhere like this. As astonishing as it seems, it appears that we have different points of view on this." He sighed heavily. "As the obvious thing to do isn't obvious to everyone, we should probably put this to a vote. The saner majority should prevail."

"Just us?" Riley said. "We're supposed to make a decision for the whole world?"

"We do it every day," Buffy said irritably. She was still agitated and angry, glaring at Cordelia every moment she wasn't glaring at Angel.

"It's only fair," Jenny said, her voice low but steady. "This affects us all. We should all have a say."

"Not me," Lorne said cheerfully. "Ixnay, no way. I don't vote."

Gunn said, "Why not? You not registered in this dimension?"

"The answer to that question is sort of a 'yes,' actually," Lorne said. He sat back in his chair, relaxed as ever. "I have my own connection to the Powers, compadres. That connection tells me I'm a receiver, not a transmitter. I help other people along their path, show them which way they ought to go. But I don't take them there. I'm supposed to advise people, not make up their minds for them. Doing that would be abusing my abilities. It would take the music right out of the songs, forever. Does that make sense?"

"No," Wesley said shortly, "but that's fine. Your abstention prevents a tie, assuming a question this simple could possibly be close enough for a tie."

"So, are we voting now?" Cordelia said. When nobody disagreed, she took a deep breath and said, "You know my vote. Yes. I mean, yes to changing reality back to the way that it was before. I've already explained why."

Wesley said, "My vote is, of course, no. Nobody regrets the loss of Rupert Giles more than I do. Or Willow Rosenburg, or Xander Harris. Nobody has fought harder against Adam's Winter. But no matter how this reality came to be -- as of now, it is reality. To change it is not to undo past deaths but to create new ones." His eyes were on Jenny as he again said, "No."

"Speaking as one of the dead," Doyle said, "I appreciate the thought. Very civilized of you, Wes, old man. But I vote yes."

"To your own death?" Wesley protested.

"We talked about this in the car, remember?" Doyle said. "I know my mission as well as Lorne there knows his. I got a vision of Cordelia. I'm supposed to help her do what she needs to do. If she thinks that's changing reality, well, then, we change reality. Besides --" he hesitated for a moment, then continued, "I'd rather die a hero than live a coward. Obviously, living as a hero would be choice number one, but that doesn't appear to be an option. So I vote yes."

"Put me down for a no," Faith said. "At least in this reality, I escaped from jail. I did three years in a cage, and I about went crazy -- and you want me to switch back to some reality where I'm stuck in the pen for life? I'm commuting my sentence to time served. In fact, change my vote to 'Hell, no.'"

"No offense to you and your jail time," Gunn said, "but I'm voting yes."

"Really?" Cordelia blurted out. She couldn't quite believe Gunn had sided with her -- his distrust and wariness were still evident on his face.

He just looked down at the table and shrugged. "My life ain't gettin' no better here," he muttered.

"No," Riley said. "This is the only world I know. This is the world I've been fighting to save. These are the lives I've been trying to save. I can't throw them into some reality I don't understand. I sympathize with what you're saying. But I have to vote no."

Jenny Calendar lifted her head, and Cordelia forced herself to meet her eyes. Surely she wouldn't just vote no -- she would vote no and then lash out at Cordelia for lying, for not warning her right away about her fate. Cordelia braced herself for the lecture she knew she deserved.

Then Jenny said, quietly, "I vote yes."

"What?" Wesley stared at her. "Jenny, what are you--"

"Rupert's ALIVE," Jenny said. "In Cordelia's world, he didn't die. Some vampire didn't rip his throat out and leave him in an alleyway. In Cordelia's world, Angel didn't have to saw the head off the man I loved to make sure he wouldn't rise again. What happened to me -- dammit, I don't care what happened to me." She took a deep, shaky breath. "I would have died for Rupert before, if I could have. I won't do any less for him now."

Wesley looked as though he might cry. Cordelia wasn't sure she wouldn't join in.

Buffy spoke next. "Jenny -- I loved Giles as much as you did -- not the same way, but as much. And I loved Will and Xan so deeply --" She looked up at the ceiling, blinking back tears. "But I had this dream last night. One of my Slayer dreams. I was supposed to go find Faith, and I went out and found her. I still don't understand everything that dream meant, but I know it had something to do with this world. Walking in it. Not hiding from it -- or throwing it away. I vote no."

Four and four, Cordelia thought. That means it's all up to Angel.

She looked at him, along with everyone else. Angel first looked up at Cordelia, his dark eyes meeting hers. Cordelia remembered every moment they'd been close to each other -- in the hospital after the attack by Vocah; in Pylea when he'd come to rescue her; when Connor was first born and they would sit up all night with him, napping on the same bed between feedings; the night at the ballet when they'd come as close as two people could to making love without crossing the boundaries. The memory of his kisses made her skin flush, and she hoped some fraction of what she was feeling -- love, desire, need and hope -- was in her eyes, telling Angel what he needed to know to make the right choice.

Then he looked at Buffy, who had tears running down her face. Cordelia saw him smile at her, very slightly, very gently. She recognized the expression from long ago, in another reality. Angel was looking at Buffy with all the love he felt for her -- all the love he didn't feel for Cordelia. Tears began to flood her eyes, and she prayed for the strength to hold together until the vote was over, and she could leave to be alone and mourn what she'd lost in peace.

Angel finally looked down at the table, drawing away from both of them, drawing into himself. He thought about it for what seemed like a very long time. Nobody spoke.

At last, Angel said, "If the Powers gave me a mission now, I wouldn't refuse it. I couldn't. Knowing what I've done, being what I've been, I don't have the right to turn away. They gave me a mission in Cordelia's reality, and -- and I can't turn away from that either." He paused, then said, "I vote yes."

Cordelia felt the tears she'd been holding back begin to roll down her face; relief and shock did what pain hadn't been able to do, shattering her composure. She managed to choke out, "Majority rules, right? You guys will go along with this?"

Riley nodded, then Wesley did likewise. Faith rolled her eyes and shrugged. Buffy's hands were gripping the table so hard her veins stood out, but she finally nodded too.

"We gotta do that spell, right?' Gunn said. "Get Cordelia all sworn over to that Acathla thing. Work out some logistics. Keep on with the battle plans."

"And then we could all use some rest," Angel said soothingly. He spoke for Buffy's benefit, but Buffy would not look at him.

"I'll be back," Cordelia said as she stumbled toward the door. "Give me a second --"

"I think we could all use a few moments," Wesley said faintly.

Cordelia got into the hallway before she began to sob. Thank you, she prayed, to God or the Powers or whatever might be listening. Thank you for giving me another chance.

***

Part VIII

Another world, Buffy thought.

From the moment Riley Finn had told her Naiura was real, not a figment of Cordelia Chase's fevered imagination, Buffy had felt as though she couldn't trust anything -- anything at all. The ground beneath her feet. The grey-clouded sky above her. The bed she and Angel shared. Jenny Calendar. All of it could be gone in an instant.

In other words, Buffy felt more or less the same way she had for years. Ever since she'd reached into a coffin to put a lily in Willow Rosenberg's dead hands, her reality had seemed -- less than real.

Buffy had heard that this world was in danger, again. She was prepared to fight and die to defend it, again. She didn't ask herself questions of right or wrong anymore, if it was worth it, if she could face the worst-case scenario. She already had. At least, so she'd thought.

And then Angel had chosen to end their reality -- in effect, she thought, killing them all -- in favor of another one, where he lived and worked far from her. Where he loved Cordelia Chase, cheerleader and homecoming queen and all-around bitch. He'd looked into Cordelia's eyes, then looked into hers, and he'd still chosen Cordelia.

Buffy tucked her feet up under her; she was curled in Giles' chair in his little office, trying as she so often did to conjure up some fragment of his spirit -- his wisdom, his courage -- that would make her able to face what had happened.

As she often did, she was failing.

"Netquereu -- levitaph -- Acathla -- quereu --" Wesley's voice chanted from the next room, and the entire library was thick with incense. In the center of the library, Wesley, Angel, Jenny and Cordelia were performing the spell that would bind Cordelia to Acathla, freeing her to end Buffy's world and resurrect her own.

Giles will be alive, she told herself. Willow and Xander, too. She tried to imagine what they would all be like, a little older, a little wiser. Would Willow still be with Oz? After a few moments, Buffy decided she probably would. They'd been good together. Xander would probably still be bombing out in love, still flirting with her, waiting for his chance. With a jolt, she realized that maybe, just maybe, she would have given him that chance. With Angel out of her life -- but no. Apparently she was destined for a romance with stiff- necked Finn.

Frustrated, Buffy went to the window and looked outside. It was midmorning, but the sky was as grey as dusk. Gusts of wind scattered sleet and snow against the windowpane, thrashed the branches of the shrubs beneath. She tried to remember what it had been like before. Did the shrubs ever flower? What had that tree's branches looked like? She'd never taken the time to notice.

"Hey." She half-turned to see Angel standing in the doorway behind her. He looked uncertain of his welcome, which showed some understanding of the situation. "We're finished. Cordelia -- she, uh, she's sworn to Acathla. She's going to get herself a hotel room to get some rest." He held out his hand. "We should do the same. I mean, we should rest for tonight."

Buffy tried to imagine lying next to Angel in bed again. Right now, it seemed as unimaginable as lying in that bed without him had seemed only a day before. "Yeah, tonight. When we end our world so you can go off to a better one with Cordelia."

He winced. She was glad to see it. "Buffy -- that's not why I voted the way I did. You know that."

"I don't know anything anymore." It was frightening how true those words were.

"If I didn't believe this was the best thing for everyone, I wouldn't have voted the way I did," Angel said. He stepped a little closer, and she could see him trying to decide whether or not to touch her. He chose correctly and didn't. "You know that I love you. That I always will. Even in that other reality -- Buffy, if we're not together, if we're with other people, I know that deep down, I still love you. That couldn't ever end. Not ever."

Buffy ran her hands through her hair. "I'm sure you still love me," she said dully. "Just like a sister. Maybe we go out for dinner and give each other relationship advice. Maybe I sent Cordelia some naughty lingerie for Christmas. Maybe I just LOVE it that you're fucking someone else. Hey, you think you gave Riley Finn some tips on going down on a woman? Hope so. Hate to think about Cordelia being the only one enjoying your expertise."

Angel opened his mouth as if to snap at her, but hesitated. After a moment, he said only, "You're angry."

"And you're perceptive."

Angel stepped away from her -- or from the window, it could be either -- and leaned against the wall. Buffy could see the hurt in his eyes, but she couldn't stop herself. It's the end of the world, she thought, at least this world. No future. No consequences. All we have is what happens right now.

So why am I hurting the man that I love?

As a pang of guilt stabbed her, Buffy looked away, out the window once more. Why am I doing this? Why am I making it hurt so much worse? So it will be easier to let go? She tried to remember the last time she had felt happy, and it seemed so long ago --

Then her eyes lit on the horizon, where it was just a little bit brighter. She remembered her dream. She remembered what it felt like to fly.

"Buffy -- let's not do this, okay?" Angel's voice was hoarse. "I know I hurt you. I'm sorry. But if this happens the way we think it will, this is our last day together. I don't want us to spend it fighting. I just want to be with you." She could feel something melting inside her, going warm and soft and fluid, as he whispered, "Let's go home. If I could just -- hold you -- it would all feel so different --"

She opened her mouth to say yes. And yet, she heard herself saying, "No." She glanced over her shoulder, and the look on Angel's face nearly destroyed her resolve. But she realized what she wanted to say. "I've spent the last five years of my life being terrified of being alone. I know I'm not gonna die tonight, not technically. But it feels like I am. And I'm not gonna die afraid."

"Buffy --"

"What was it you said to me yesterday? One day won't kill me. And it turns out one day is all I have left." Buffy lifted her head, blinking back tears. "I only have one day to learn to stand on my own two feet. So that's what I'm gonna do."

Angel opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. Finally, he said only, "Kiss me goodbye?"

A sob lodged in her throat. Buffy forced back the tears, then shook her head. "I can't," she choked. "If I do -- then I won't be able to - - Angel -- " She looked at the ceiling, blinking fast. "Please go. Just -- go."

She didn't look down, but she heard him leave. And then it was finally safe to cry.

***

"This is fucked-up," Faith said. "You know that, right?"

"Yeah, I know," Riley said. Everything that was happening still seemed surreal to him -- his world not real? Erasing the past several years? Dating Buffy Summers? He shook his head as he set the small bag of clothing borrowed for Faith on the edge of the motel bed. "Guess that makes sense, though. I mean, the way we've lived -- it was wrong in so many ways. I ought to feel better that it's not real. I mean, as real."

Faith snorted unattractively as she peeled off her shapeless coverall, revealing her shapeless blue scrubs. "So are we actually gonna do this? Help these guys erase this world, send me back to jail? And sentence you to dating B, which, let me tell ya, would not be a cakewalk."

"Of course we're going to do this," Riley said. "We said we would."

"Yeah, I know," Faith said. "I was wondering if we were maybe lying."

"Well, we weren't!" Riley folded his arms across his chest. "Majority rules, Faith. Anything else would betray the democratic process."

Her mouth twitched, and she bit her lip. Riley realized how he sounded, and they burst into laughter at the exact same time. Faith clutched her sides as she slumped against the wall, and Riley flopped over on the bed. As soon as he could get his breath, he gasped, "I'm sorry I'm such a square."

"Square!" Faith said, laughing again. "Don't worry about it, Lee. If you weren't so -- square -- you wouldn't be you." The smile on her face was more brilliant, more free, than he had ever seen. "Not sayin' that would be a bad thing. Just sayin'."

The cheap bedspread smelled like cigarettes, and Riley frowned in distaste. "Why did you pick this place?" he said, sitting up.

"Usedta live here," Faith said, shaking out her hair. "Some kinda swanky, huh?"

"We could have afforded someplace nicer," Riley said. "It wouldn't matter if I maxed out my credit card."

"Sure wouldn't," Faith said, stripping off her top.

All Riley could think was, I guess the quartermaster never issued her a bra.

"You doing okay there, Lee?" Faith said, a wicked smile flickering across her lips. "You look a little pale."

She pushed down her pants, and Riley was positive they'd given her underwear, but apparently she'd chosen to do without.

Faith -- naked, beautiful and completely matter-of-fact -- strolled toward the bed, still smiling. Riley tried to think of something to say, but he couldn't do much of anything but look at her. He'd imagined her naked before -- no denying that -- but all his frustrated fantasies hadn't come close to the truth.

"Today is the last day of the rest of my life," Faith said. "I haven't taken a real bath or gotten well and truly fucked in three years. Before we blow this reality, I intend to change that. I can run my own bath, but I could use some help with the fucking. You up for it?"

"I -- uh --" Riley took a deep breath and said, "Yeah. Definitely. I mean -- yeah."

"Looks like it." She grinned as she glanced downward, then turned around and headed for the bathroom. Lazily, she said, "Gonna get all that nice, hot, steamy water running. Say, Lee?"

"Uh-huh?" Riley began unlacing his boots as quickly as he could.

"How long can you hold your breath underwater?"

He started laughing even as he kicked off the first boot. "We're about to find out."

***

"It's not too late," Wesley said. "You could still change your vote."

"I don't want to change my vote." Jenny was sitting in her classroom, staring at the bulletin board. In lime-green foam letters, it read, "Computer illiteracy bytes!" Wesley remembered helping her put it up. He'd cut the letters from the foam. Did she remember that? Probably not.

"Jenny -- please --" Wesley knew he was begging, hated the sound of it in his throat, but couldn't stop. "You don't have to martyr yourself. Your life is as important as anyone else's. Even Rupert Giles'. It is to me."

She shrugged. "It isn't to me." Jenny tried to smile at him a little. "I guess that sounds pretty awful, huh? But it's true."

Wesley turned away from her and began to pace in frustration. It frightened him to think how easily he'd been willing to throw this world away, so tempted had he been by Cordelia's words of a mission, a destiny, a purpose. He'd selfishly thought only of his own good. Never once had he asked himself if this reality was the only one with Jenny Calendar in it.

He glanced back over his shoulder at her; she wasn't looking at him, just at her various ZIP disks and CD-ROMs, all methodically organized in a way nothing else in her life was. Wesley had felt her wrath when he'd filed a CD of Calderash spells in with her technopagan research. Now he knew better. Now he knew her.

She was wearing a red cashmere v-neck sweater, and he knew she'd bought it from the Land's End catalogue via their website. Her hair was pulled back in a clip, because she'd had to cut it herself -- most service professions had cleared out of Sunnydale since the Winter -- and she hadn't done all that good a job. On her desk was a coffee mug from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it had a chip off the handle from when she'd been startled by a vampire and knocked it into a doorjamb.

Wesley knew all of that. He knew her favorite flavor of ice cream (dulce de leche), her favorite musician (Bjork) and the reason she kept a teddy bear in the trunk of her car. He knew that, at this moment, she was looking down at her careful files, thinking of the futility of it all. He knew that her feelings of futility mirrored his own. And he knew that she had no idea that her desperation was echoed in his heart.

She would give up any reality for one with Giles in it, he thought. Just as I would give up any reality for this one, with her in it. I can't condemn her for that.

And yet he wanted to. Anger and desperation and his final, ultimate loss made him angry -- not at Jenny, but at fate. He'd sworn to obey the wishes of the majority, and he would. Perhaps he was moving on to a better life. But it was a life without Jenny.

When have you ever had a life with Jenny? Wesley thought. She never loved you, and she never would have done. Her heart died with Rupert Giles.

Jenny's voice broke through the silence. "Do you think you'll have your memories of this world in the next one?" she said. "Like Cordelia does. Will you remember both realities?"

"I don't know," Wesley said. "It doesn't seem likely, but then, none of this does. Perhaps."

"Will you do something for me?" She got up from her desk and walked over to him, and the proximity of her was more intoxicating, more frustrating, than it had ever been before. "Will you tell Giles that - - God, what should I tell him?" Jenny was blinking back tears as she clutched Wesley's arm. "Tell him that I got to live a few more years here. Tell him that I always loved him. That wherever I am, I still love him."

Wesley couldn't deny her. He couldn't even want to. "I'll tell him if I can," he promised. "But -- Jenny --"

She cocked her head. "What is it, Wes?"

Maybe it was a solid day of listening to Cordelia Chase. Maybe it was knowing that he was alone with Jenny for what seemed likely to be the last time. Maybe he'd just remained silent as long as he could, and could do so no longer. But in one instant, Wesley felt his timidity and fear drop away from him, felt courage flush through him in a surge of blood.

"Your life didn't have to end when Giles died. You have -- you had reasons to be here. You had things to live for. You could have had so much more, if you'd only taken it." Wesley knew he was speaking to himself as well, and it only made him angrier. "You could have had a life worth living. You could have had love." And he grabbed Jenny and kissed her, a long, slow, intense kiss unlike any he had dared give a woman before.

Her arms went around him, perhaps only by reflex, but he held her even tighter, pressing her body against his own as he slipped his tongue inside her mouth. Wesley was still astonished at his own behavior when he felt Jenny begin to respond. Surprise and desire nearly overwhelmed him as they kept kissing, on and on, making the moment last.

Their lips parted. Jenny stared at him in undisguised shock. The courage that had flooded his spirit a moment ago seemed to fade to black, leaving only the realization that he had just --

Wesley pulled away. As Jenny kept staring at him, speechless, he said, "I -- oh -- beg pardon." Then he hurried out the door before he could do anything else, or before she could.

***

Cordelia was surprised that Sunnydale's one bed-and-breakfast was still open; to judge by the proprietor's delight when she arrived, they were kinda surprised too. What with Adam's Winter, she was probably the first paying guest they'd had in months. They asked for a head shot of her, one she could autograph so they could put it in the hallway. Cordelia promised to send them one, feeling more remorse than she should have for making a promise she couldn't keep.

Business is probably better for them in my reality, she thought. See? Just one more reason I'm doing the right thing.

She lay flat on her back for a while, waiting for sleep that didn't come. Instead she catalogued the furniture (cherry wood, canopy bed, armoire, real antiques from the look of them), the faint patterns of flowers on the embossed wallpaper (big, droopy, extravagant blooms, like hydrangeas), and the patterns on the Tiffany lamp (water lilies in green and pink and cream.) She tried to think of the lines for the episode of "Cordy" she was supposed to tape next week and realized, to her surprise, that she still knew every word, the timing, the blocking, the whole bit. She tried to remember which of her mother's friends had had boob jobs and which ones had just had boob lifts.

In short, she thought about absolutely everything besides the fact that she was spending her last hours in a world she had created and would, later on that night, destroy.

Doyle, she thought. Jenny Calendar. I'm not killing them, I know that. But it's almost worse, what I'm doing. If they died tonight, at least they'd have had the last few years. It's better to have died than -- than never to have been.

But then what about Giles? And Willow, and Xander? Or even Connor -- in this reality, Connor had never been born.

Cordelia remembered Connor as a baby, and then as a man, and then it was time to count the flowers on the wallpaper again.

At last, in frustration, she decided to go out and have a drink; maybe after a glass of wine she could relax and get a few precious hours of sleep. Then again, she thought, can I do that at this hour? It's, like, noon, and I don't think I could face eating alone in a restaurant. Where could I get a drink?

***

Cordelia smiled. At least the Bronze was still the same -- ratty pool tables, cast-iron chair hanging from the staircase, and bartenders who didn't care about time of day or legitimacy of ID. She got a glass of the "house white," which was the quality of alcohol usually used as an antiseptic, and prepared to sit down in the cast-iron chair when three more people came through the door.

"It's the last day of me life," Doyle said. "If you think I'm spendin' it sober, you're a madman."

"I'm with you there," Gunn replied. "You think they got Colt 45 in this joint?"

"A likelier bet than a good draw of Guinness," Doyle said.

"And a decent Sea Breeze?" Lorne chimed in. "Forget about it. We'll be lucky to find a Michelob Light -- and a lovely, reality-shifting movie star waiting for us."

The other two looked over at her; Doyle grinned and Gunn just sort of shrugged. Cordelia smiled back and waved; she'd thought she wanted to be alone, but the sight of them warmed her more than she'd thought possible. They came and sat around her -- a circle of attentive men, just like the Bronze in the bad ol' days, she thought.

"Well, darlin', see you couldn't sleep either," Doyle said. "Now, me, I've only got a few hours of consciousness left to drown in beer, so you can see why I'd be awake. But you?"

She sighed. "This isn't that much easier for me, believe it or not."

The waiter wandered up and looked at Lorne in alarm. "Your face --"

"I lost a bet," Lorne replied smoothly. "The darkest beer in the house for the two gents here, and I'll settle for a vodka cranberry."

Gunn looked at Cordelia, an odd expression on his face -- as though he wanted to talk, but was unsure of himself. He hadn't held back his words with her in years. "So -- so you like being a demon-fighter better than being a celebrity. What's up with that?"

"Look at it this way," Cordelia said with a shrug. "You could face down crazed vampires in a back alley or Joan Rivers on the red carpet. Which would you pick?"

Lorne winced. "At least you can kill the vampires."

"Exactly." Cordelia hesitated, then held Doyle's hand in her own. "Doyle, there's some stuff I never said to you before --"

"Outstanding!" Doyle grinned. "Are these words of undying love? Confessions of hot, sweaty, secret desire? I'll settle for finding out you owe me a lot of money."

She laughed. "No such luck. But -- you were a great guy. More than that. You were a good man. I didn't appreciate you enough while you were here. I wish we'd had more time together, and I'm always going to miss you."

Now, see? Cordelia thought. That was simple. But her eyes were welling with tears all the same.

Doyle's eyes had the soft sparkle that she knew meant he was moved, but she also knew he'd never admit it. "That has a nice ring to it," he said. "But hot, sweaty desire would have been even better."

"Speaking of hot, sweaty desire," Lorne said, "when I read you, sweetie, I'd swear I got a flash of you in a liplock with Wesley Wyndham-Price. Did my third eye deceive me?"

Cordelia blushed. "That was just -- nothing. I mean, a crush. We're both over it. SO over it."

"And here I was thinkin' I was something special," Doyle protested. "You and me nearly had a thing, and you and Angel apparently still have a thing, and now it turns out you're lockin' lips with the English ponce, too? Are you from some magical universe where everyone's in love with you?"

"No!" Cordelia protested, pointing at Gunn. "He's not in love with me."

"Damn straight," Gunn said. "I don't go for white girls." He glared at Cordelia. "Why are you laughing?"

Cordelia grinned. "You don't know everything about yourself --"

Lorne cut in, "Speaking of love and desire and the end of the world, look who's brooding."

She followed Lorne's gesture up to the Bronze's skywalk. Angel stood there, looking down -- not at them, but at a spot on the dance floor where nobody stood. He seemed lost to the world, an outline of black on black, no more. Cordelia somehow felt as though she were intruding, watching him, and yet she couldn't turn away.

Gunn said, "Is anybody gonna fill me in on this whole vampire-with-a- soul concept?"

Lorne shook his head. "It would take more time than this reality has left. Besides, Cordelia's about to go have a chat with him, and that'll free us up to return to our Motown divas debate."

"I'm not," Cordelia said. "I mean, not unless he comes down here -- or if he --"

"If people had not already run the phrase 'queen of denial' into the ground, they would have had to invent it for you," Lorne said. "Face it, sweetcheeks, you have two paths open to you. You can sit here debating about talking to him for an hour before you go talk to him, or you can just go talk to him. Which one should you choose? Remember what I said earlier about this reality only having so much time left."

She opened her mouth to argue, then just lifted her glass and drained the rest of her wine. "I'll see you guys at sundown," she said.

"Take care, princess," Doyle said as she started up the stairs.

Princess. Cordelia waved goodbye to Doyle one more time, then went up to Angel.

He didn't turn as she approached him, but she knew he was aware. Sure enough, as she came to his side, he said, "This is where it happened the first time."

"Yeah," Cordelia said, surprised he remembered. "This is where I first saw you. I didn't think you noticed me."

Angel looked over at her then, his eyes both sympathetic and pained. "That's not what I meant."

"Oh. Right. Non-Cordeliacentric universe. They tell me it's real, just having trouble believing it." She pushed past her own embarrassment. "Where what happened the first time?"

"This is where Buffy and I broke up." He said it so simply, and yet she knew him too well not to know the deep undercurrents of pain in his voice. "I guess -- we weren't exactly dating before, but we'd gotten involved, and then she found out I was a vampire, and it seemed like the only thing we could do was let each other go. We didn't want to, but we thought we had to. She kissed me goodbye, and the cross I gave her burned my chest. I thought that was it. I thought it was the end."

Cordelia had never known that Angel and Buffy originally meant not to get involved. She could hear the yearning in his voice, and she hated herself for the way her envy burned and twisted inside her. "You said -- the first time. I thought, in this reality, you guys never split up. Again, I mean."

"Today," he said dully. "She wants to go out of this world on her own terms. Independent. And that means without me."

"Oh, God." Cordelia felt her body going cold, and she clutched his arm. "Is this because of me? I'm sorry -- I didn't want to hurt you -- "

"It's not you," he said. His eyes flickered over to her briefly, then went back to the spot on the dance floor where, no doubt, a shadowy Buffy and Angel still stood in memory. "Not only you. She didn't like finding out that we were -- are -- in love, in that other reality. But that's not why Buffy broke up with me."

Angel was hurting so much, and Cordelia was torn between her own selfish resentment of his pain over losing Buffy and the simple urge to take him in her arms, comfort him any way she could. She settled for resting her hand on his. "Do you want to tell me why?" she whispered. "It's okay if you don't."

He hesitated for a moment, then said, "Things haven't been right for us for a long time. I don't know why it changed for us, but it did. It seemed like I couldn't help her anymore. Like I could only hurt her. I never said the right thing or did the right thing -- maybe, after a while, I quit trying." Angel grimaced as he shut his eyes, unable to look at the shadows of the past any longer. "I thought she needed me. What if she didn't? What if I just held her back all this time?"

"Angel, no," Cordelia said, squeezing his hand. "You don't hold people back. Don't you know that?" He finally turned his head to face her as she whispered, "You have this way about you -- you can just look into my eyes, or say a few words, and all of a sudden, it's like -- like I'm stronger, and smarter, and better than I ever was before. And it's not just me. You have this gift, Angel. You make people see what they are, and what they can be. You make them believe in themselves. So we all believe in you."

She expected him to doubt her. Maybe to ask her questions. On his best day, to thank her. She wasn't expecting him to kiss her.

Angel, she thought, her mind's voice speaking where she could not. Angel's mouth was on hers, his lips cool, his body close. Her head was tilted back, and her blood whirled inside her head, and she couldn't see, couldn't speak, couldn't think. There was only the name Angel, and the man who was holding her close, kissing her, making her feel as though she could never get close enough to him.

When his lips parted from hers, he whispered raggedly, "I'm sorry."

"No -- don't be sorry." Cordelia took a deep, shaky breath. Their eyes met. She could see his regret, his pain, his anguish. She knew, with a conviction that pierced her to the core, that he hadn't kissed her out of love. He still loved Buffy. But he wanted to feel like somebody who could matter, somebody who had something to give. Buffy couldn't give him that. She could.

She thought about the reality she would return to, the problems of it, the complexities. She felt his hands, still tight on her waist, and remembered how they'd felt against her bare skin one night at the ballet. She weighed the right and the wrong of it, made her decision, and looked into his eyes. "Come to my hotel with me."

Angel shook his head no, responding automatically. But his hands didn't leave her body. "I shouldn't. You -- Cordelia, you deserve to be with the man you love. That's not me. We're a lot alike -- but it's not me. I'm not the man you love. I'm not the man who loves you."

"Shhh." Cordelia put her fingers over his mouth. "We don't love each other. But we can comfort each other. And Angel -- the man who loves me -- he has a curse. He can't make love to me, not really -- not without risking losing his soul forever. Eventually, he's going to feel all bad and burdensome about that, like he's taking something away from me. Like the way we fell about each other couldn't possibly matter more than Tab A in Slot B."

"You mean -- we never -- we haven't --"

"Never got past the kissing phase," Cordelia said. She figured mentioning that their one petting session had been the result of ghostly possession would be completely beside the point. "We couldn't. We can't. Do you understand? But here -- Angel, you and I could -- " She swallowed hard, kept going. "If I could tell him that we had made love -- that I knew what it was like to be with him, that he'd given me everything he could give me in bed, that I only needed him to love me -- it would help, I think."

"You could never make love to your Angel," he said. "But you want to make love with me."

Just the words -- make love with me -- made Cordelia want to reel. She murmured, "Yes. Just once, Angel -- just to be with you once --"

He kissed her again, clutching her tightly against him, so tightly it almost hurt. So much of this is wrong, Cordelia thought. But so much of it isn't.

Roughly, Angel said, "Let's go."

***

Cordelia's room was a frilly, feminine place. Brocade wallpaper and lace coverlets. It made Angel feel even more out of place than he already did.

He was betraying Buffy (no, Buffy broke up with him, she didn't want him anymore, she hadn't wanted him in so long and Cordelia wanted him), and he ought to be resting before the battle (how could he sleep, how could he think, how could he do anything other than feel the pain of losing Buffy?), and he was about to go to bed with a woman he didn't love.

A woman he wished he loved.

"Well," Cordelia said. She appeared as uncomfortable as he felt. She pulled off her parka -- no, Buffy's parka that Cordelia borrowed -- but otherwise, she made no move to undress. She didn't even look exactly at him. "Not even a little awkward here, huh?"

"I'm sorry," Angel said. He took off his own coat, wished for a hanger for the leather, then thought about the end of the universe and just let it drop. "I ought to be doing something manly. Ripping off your clothes or throwing you on the bed. Something."

"Those sound okay," Cordelia said hopefully. But she was as uncertain as he was. Their eyes met for a moment, then they both looked away again.

"Cordelia -- before we do this --" Angel took a deep breath, then plunged on. "I just don't want to take advantage -- I don't want to do something stupid because I'm hurting --"

"Angel," Cordelia put her hands on either side of his face. "You're not taking advantage of me. I'm not taking advantage of you. You need to feel loved. I need to know what it is to make love to you. We can be there for each other, just for today. If you want."

Her hair was long and soft and dark. Her eyes were shining with love and desire. Angel felt the last strands of his resolve pull and break. "Okay," he whispered.

"Okay," she said. But they still stood there, staring at one another.

Angel broke the moment by taking her hand as he sat down on the foot of the bed, pulling her after him. "Your Angel -- the one you remember, the one you love -- what do you think he would have done?" He brushed one hand through her hair. "How -- how would he have wanted it to be? Your first time together."

She hesitated, then hugged him close, resting her head against his chest. Angel held her, rocked her softly back and forth. He stroked her hair, feeling the soft curve of her neck. Her muffled voice said, "I think -- I think he would have wanted it to be slow. Gentle. Sweet."

"I can do that." Angel pushed her back just far enough that her face tilted up to his. "I can go slow." Gently, so gently, he lowered his mouth over hers again.

This kiss was nothing like the one at the Bronze -- so full of pain, so hard, so harsh. This time, he let himself feel; Cordelia's mouth was so soft, her tongue so warm, the taste of her so sweet and so real. He brought his hands up to her face, traced along the line of her jaw as they kissed each other deeply.

Her hands pulled at his shirt, her fingers tense, his collar taut against his neck. He had forgotten what that felt like -- to be grasped so desperately, held so tightly. Wanted so much.

Angel slid one hand up her back to the base of her neck, so he could hold her face up to his, keep her from breaking their kisses for even an instant. With his other hand he began touching her -- soft, gentle brushes of his fingertips against her back, her belly, the deep well between her breasts. As she arched against him, inviting him to touch her more, Angel felt himself swelling, going hard, getting hot. "Cordelia," he murmured against her lips. She tensed slightly, and he looked at her, surprised and dismayed. "What -- did I do something wrong?"

"It's just -- could you -- call me Cordy?"

He'd call her anything. Do anything. "Cordy," he said. "You're Cordy."

She kissed him again, even more deeply this time, and her trembling fingers began unfastening his shirt. His body seemed to flush with almost living heat, the warmth in her body transferring to him, calling something from him that had been quiet for far too long. Her hands slid along his shoulders, removing his shirt in a soft brush of fabric. Her fingertips left tingling lines of sensation on his shoulders, his arms. He imagined her touching him all over, and something inside him melted and gave way.

"Cordy," he whispered again, calling her by the name she wanted, the name given to her by the man he could have been. Angel pulled up her sweater, and she quit touching him just long enough to lift her arms and help him. She was wearing a bra of seafoam-green lace, expensive and alluring. Cordelia was staring back at him, as if torn between her physical desire and something that could only be -- "Are you shy?" he murmured. "Haven't I -- seen you before?"

"You've seen this much," she whispered. "So have I. But this -- this is kinda where --"

"I want to see you." Angel kissed the corner of her jaw, the long line of her neck, the small hollow at the base of her throat. "I want you to see me."

Cordelia sighed out, a long, shuddering breath. Then she shifted away from him slightly and pushed her slacks down, letting them fall at the foot of the bed. Her panties matched the bra. She had curves -- hips you could hold on to, breasts you wanted to taste --

Angel's memory flashed to Buffy -- tiny, reed-thin little Buffy, so fragile, so delicate -- and for a moment the cold had settled over him again, chilling his heart and his desire.

But then he looked into Cordelia's dark eyes, wide and uncertain. She didn't know how he would feel about her -- whether he would want her, and in an instant Angel understood that her worry was for the other Angel as well. He saw her need and fear as clearly as he felt his own. Only then did he know that what happened between them in this room, in this bed -- it would be theirs and theirs alone. It wasn't about his losing Buffy, or trying to lash out at her. This was about Cordelia. It was about two frightened people taking their only chance to be close to each other. To give themselves to each other.

He owed Cordelia that much, just for making him believe.

"You're beautiful," he whispered. "You know that, don't you?"

A shadow of her old smile flickered over her face. "In this reality, I won the Maxim 'Hottie of the Year' award. That kinda clued me in," she confessed. "But those -- those were other guys. You're the only one that ever mattered."

Cordelia's fingers hooked into his belt; when Angel didn't resist, she unbuckled it, then began unfastening his pants. The heat flooded back into his body as she tugged at the waist; he stood up, breaking contact just long enough to let his pants and boxers drop to the floor. Naked, he stood before her for a long moment, reveling in the way her eyes followed the length of his body, the way her lips parted slightly as she let herself stare at his hardening cock.

She was shivering, and Angel realized that her physical reaction might not be entirely arousal. "Come here," he murmured, stepping around the side of the bed and pulling back the covers. He slid into the bed, making room for her beside him; she crawled up to him -- her breasts spilling almost out of the cups of her lacy bra -- and curled by his side. Angel draped the covers over her, saving her body's warmth for the both of them. "That's better."

"Oh," Cordelia breathed as his hand settled on the slight swell of her belly. "Yes."

Angel kissed her again, long and wet and slow. Her mouth was so warm, so wide. She tasted like cheap wine and something else -- something so much richer --

Cordelia's fingernails scraped lightly along his back, making him arch against her and groan. Encouraged, she scratched him a little harder, kissed him more deeply. He pushed his knee between her legs -- oh, God, soft skin and the lace of her underwear, damp and musky against his thigh. Cordelia moved against him, rubbing herself against his leg, and he watched, aroused, as her face registered the pure, carnal satisfaction of the contact.

Angel caressed her breasts; she filled his hands, warm and soft, and he could feel her nipples tightening against his palms, even through the lace. He tugged at one of the straps, pushing it off her shoulder. "This is beautiful," he said. "And it's got to go."

"Gladly." Cordelia half-sat up, breaking the contact between their bodies for a few seconds that felt far too long. But he watched as she bent her arms behind her, unhooked the bra and let it drop. The sight of her full breasts, her wide, dark nipples, made Angel even harder, blood flowing into his already-thick cock so fast it almost hurt.

He pulled her back down, pushing her shoulders down against the bed. Cordelia cried out as he took one of her nipples into his mouth, plump between his lips, soft against his tongue. He sucked at her gently, loving the way she twisted beneath him, searching for both escape and release. Angel lifted his head away only long enough to whisper, "Cordy," before he moved to the other breast, to tease her once again into the same arousal. She cried out again -- oh, God, she was loud, and he liked loud, and he hadn't even gotten started yet -- and his cock was rubbing against one of her legs as she writhed, and this was already so damn good --

"Angel," she breathed, "please -- I want --"

"Tell me what you want," he whispered, hoping his breath would be cool against her tight nipples. She shivered, and he smiled. "Anything you want."

"I want to taste you." Cordelia kissed him hard, her tongue doing things inside his mouth meant to suggest everything else she wanted to do. Angel's cock pulsed so hard that for a moment he thought he might come right then, right there, spilling out onto her thigh.

His face must have registered the excitement he hadn't been able to voice. Cordelia smiled knowingly as she shifted him onto his back and began kissing her way down the center of his chest. Angel grabbed the edge of the headboard with both hands; the lacy canopy over them shook. Just as her tongue dipped into his navel, she paused. After a moment, Angel gasped, "Oh, God, don't stop now."

"I -- it's just --" She looked up at him, almost comically dismayed. "I wasn't ever with an uncircumcised guy before. Is it different? I don't want to do it wrong."

"You're not going to do it wrong," Angel said in a rush. "Anything you do is not going to be wrong."

Cordelia still looked uncertain, and Angel -- forcing himself into whatever patience he could muster -- let go of the headboard. He took her hand in his and folded it around his cock. Just the touch of her warm, soft skin made him grimace, and it took him another few moments to be able to speak. "Do this," he gasped, using her fingers to smooth his foreskin back. "Just like that."

"Just like that," she whispered, her breath warm against the exposed head of his cock. "Got it."

And then her mouth was on him, so hot and wet that he thought he would explode. Angel grabbed the headboard again, so hard he should have broken it. Her tongue flickered around the ridge, pressed against the indentation right at the tip. He fought the urge to pump into her, but he couldn't keep himself from moving his hips just a little, just the faintest imitation of thrusting. Then Cordelia started sucking -- sucking hard, so much pressure that it felt as though his cock had never been so hard, so tight, so desperate to come --

"Stop, stop," he gasped, pulling away. Her lips made a slick sound as he slipped out of her mouth. When Cordelia looked at him in confusion, he managed to say, "Inside you. Want to be -- inside you."

"Then be inside me," she murmured. Cordelia's long hair trailed along his skin as she crawled up to kiss him on the mouth once more. Angel pulled her panties down, the two of them fumbling to get them off without breaking their kiss. They were wet in his hands, and the scent of her was thick in the room.

As she straddled him, Angel gazed at her naked body for the first time. She was curved and golden in the room's faint light, a fantasy woman, but so real, so near, he could hardly stand it. He touched her gently, quickly, everywhere -- breasts, back, collarbones, knees. "Cordelia -- Cordy --"

"Yeah?" Her breath was shallow, and Angel could hear how fast her heart was beating. He looked up at her and saw her entire -- her body's beauty, her spirit's courage, her humor, her fierceness, her impulsiveness, all of it.

"He loves you," Angel said quietly. "I know he does."

Tears -- whether of grief or joy, he couldn't guess -- filled her eyes. "I love him too."

He dipped his fingers between her legs, felt the soft folds of her slick against his skin. Then she took his cock in her hand and guided him, just where he needed to be -- and then she plunged down onto him, living heat, so tight, so good.

Cordelia moaned, and Angel grabbed her right at the waist, pulling her closer, going in even deeper. When he had sunk completely into her, for a long moment he couldn't move, couldn't think. He could only feel the pulse of her heartbeat against his cock, could only watch her as she caressed his chest, then brought her hands up to her breasts,

Angel could take a hint. He took one of her breasts into his hand, circling the nipple with his thumb. She made a low, humming sound of satisfaction. He brought his other hand to the joining of their bodies, searched and found --

"Oh, oh, oh God, Angel --" Cordelia gasped, then cried out incoherently as he began massaging her there, just there.

"Cordy," Angel whispered. Cordelia began to move atop him, twisting her hips in a way that was half thrust, half circle. He caught the motion immediately, spiraling with her, thrusting into her as they went. His fingers pressed into her just as he was deepest inside her, again and again, both of them feeling the heat and pressure of each other at the same moment, in the same rhythm, building in tempo and pleasure as they went.

She threw her head back as she moaned again, a sound so deep inside her that he could feel the vibrations against his own body. Her long, dark hair stuck to her skin with her sweat. She was alive with heat -- she was heat, and he was buried in her so deeply that it felt like he was on fire.

Angel massaged her just a little harder, a little faster, and her moan turned into a cry of pure pleasure. Cordelia's body tensed, and then he felt the contractions of her orgasm tight around his cock. He felt it then -- that lockslide shift in his brain and his gut that told him he would come at any moment, any moment --

Then there was nothing but heat and light and sensation, pulling him inside himself until he was just one glimmer of sensation -- then exploding, outward and outward, better and better, flowing out of him, out of his skin, spilling into her in a rush that wiped away everything else.

Cordelia collapsed atop him, her breasts heavy against his chest. When Angel thought he could move again, he managed to take hold of the covers and pull them back up around her, cocooning the two of them together. She was breathing hard, her body sweat-slick and warm. He embraced her as tightly as he could; his muscles didn't seem to want to obey. He was shaking from emotion and pure release, and she was too. For a long time they said nothing, just held each other as the tremors passed from them.

Finally, he murmured, "He's a lucky man. That other me."

She didn't lift her head from his chest, but she turned so that her cheek was against his skin and their eyes could meet. "He'll never have this, you know. What you and I just shared -- I can't ever give that to him."

"He has your love," Angel says. "As incredible as this was -- I think your love is worth a whole lot more."

She smiled gently. "I'll tell him that."

He looked down at her face -- so beautiful, so frightened, so lost -- and touched his fingertips to her cheek. "Tell him -- " Angel closed his eyes for a moment and searched his memories. Then he smiled at her once more. "Tell him that once, back in Ireland, as a boy, he climbed a mountain. Not much of a mountain, I guess, but it was a hard day's work. His father forbid him to do it, and so there was that thrill to it too." He played with the dark strands of her hair. "When he -- when I got to the top, I could look down over the countryside. I was tired, and my heart was pounding, but it was so beautiful. I was so proud -- of being able to climb that far, of knowing that the country I was looking at was my own. And I was up in the sky, so it felt like heaven was all around me."

Angel kissed Cordelia gently, then whispered, "Tell him, that after we made love -- that was how it felt. Just like that."

"Oh, Angel." Cordelia took a deep, shaky breath. She said, "You shouldn't say stuff like that."

"Why not?"

Her smile was faint. "You'll make me fall in love with you, too."

***

Part IX

Riley tried not to think about the stabbing pains in his arms, or about the fact that people who used to be his friends -- Graham, Forrest -- were the ones holding him so painfully. Above all, he tried not to think about what they were doing to Faith only a few steps away. He could hear her struggling, hear the swearing of the men trying to keep her down; even though Faith wasn't trying her hardest, they couldn't know that, and it sounded like Faith was putting on a good show.

"Finn." He looked up to see Maggie Walsh standing at the top of the stairs, Adam at one side, Naiura on the other. Riley felt -- everything at once, it seemed. Guilt, fear and most amazingly and strongly of all, relief.

They hadn't started yet, he thought. We stalled them. They won't go back to Acathla until they're done with us.

"Where were they?" Walsh said crisply, directing her icy gaze at Forrest.

"Far perimeter," Forrest answered. "North side. They were holed up in one of the abandoned college buildings, some kind of maintenance shed --"

"That you missed on your earlier patrol," Walsh finished. Riley could feel Forrest's tension -- Riley knew, as Walsh did not, that the Initiative team had done its job properly before. Faith and Riley had sneaked into that shed only a few moments before their "capture," just when Riley knew they'd come by on their second search. Weirdly, he still felt protective of the team; part of him wanted to defend them. But he kept his silence.

"Get your goddamn hands off me!" Faith swore, still struggling beside them. "What are you trying to do? Rape me? I fucked that one to pay him back for getting me out, but no way I'm fucking you for taking me back in."

Riley felt his face flush as his stomach dropped in pure horror. Why had she told them that? Then he remembered the medical exams they always gave her and realized -- she had to explain. They'd probably find the evidence, and she couldn't afford to make it look like they'd hidden anything. When Walsh came down the stairs, staring at him, he forced himself to say, in what he hoped was a convincingly bitter voice, "She wanted it."

"Good Lord, Finn," Walsh said, folding her arms in front of her. She seemed both disappointed and amused. "If I'd known you were getting so desperate -- well. Measures could have been taken."

"We will not eliminate him, Mother," Adam said. He lumbered up behind her, his small, dark eyes intelligent as they studied Riley and Faith. "He is my brother. He understands so much. We could never find another."

"We could make one," Walsh said. She was smiling, but Riley was horrified to realize that she wasn't joking.

"This is foolishness," said Naiura, who swept up to the others in a glittering of veils. "Why do we waste time here? Reprimand your men on your own time. We have a ritual to prepare for now."

"What happens here matters to our future, if not to yours," Walsh snapped. "We're doing you a favor. Act like it."

"A favor? You should have seen yourself before, if you want to talk of favors." Naiura sneered. "No thought in your mind, your body shuffling about to do your demon-son's bidding --"

"You've waited so long to go home," Adam said. "Another hour cannot be of consequence." Naiura huffed, the small white feathers atop her head fluttering. Adam looked down at Riley again, his expression more kind than Riley had ever seen it. "We have the Slayer again, and we will discover why my brother wanted to break free."

"Whatever it is," Walsh said, "we can fix it."

Fix it? Riley thought of the various chips and cables he'd been required to endure through the years, the drugs he knew had been slipped into his food. He thought of the masklike face of a couple of new recruits who'd come out from experiment rooms as shadows of what they had been when they'd gone in. For the first time, he felt raw terror -- Riley was willing to die, was willing to risk everything on a new reality, but to become one of Walsh's drones --

"Motherfuckers!" Faith shrieked, throwing herself at Walsh. Her fist made contact, sending Walsh snapping back onto the floor. One of the soldiers hit Faith with the taser, and she jumped and twisted in the currents. Not the tasers, Riley thought. She hates them so much.

Adam knelt by Walsh's side, cradled her head in his enormous hand. She was blinking, disoriented but clearly all right. "Take her back to her cell," he said, nodding toward Faith. "And take my brother to room 812."

Room 812 was an experiment room.

For the first time since their deliberate recapture, Riley let his eyes meet Faith's. She was still stunned from the taser strike, but she met his gaze, her expression unlike any other he had seen on her face. He saw fear, compassion, the desperation to give him strength. For a moment, he thought he saw something else there as well --

"Come on," Graham grunted, pulling Riley away from her and toward the experiment room. Riley looked upward, wondering about the world above, and praying that the others were coming. Soon.

***

Angel was sure he'd been in more uncomfortable situations. But at the moment -- standing on the outskirts of the Initiative compound, preparing to end the only reality he knew, with the woman he loved at his right shoulder and the woman he'd spent the afternoon making love to at his left -- he couldn't think of one.

"Check your weapons," Wesley said. Though Angel could see how deeply Wesley disliked what they were about to do, he was still preparing them fully for the task ahead. "Make sure you've got one in hand, one ready to be grabbed if you're disarmed in combat."

"Wow, never would have thought of that on my own," Buffy said. But her voice was devoid of the bitterness Angel had, he realized, come to associate with her. She seemed curiously at ease; apparently her strike for independence had fulfilled something within her, though Angel wasn't sure what. He only knew that she was smiling as she tied a flashlight to her belt, and that she hadn't met his eyes the entire time they'd spent gearing up.

Angel had expected to feel guilty when he saw Buffy again, stood before her with the taste of another woman in his mouth, the faint traces of her scratches on his back. But he didn't. What had happened with Cordelia seemed to have nothing at all to do with Buffy -- as though it truly belonged to that other universe, the one that had been and would be. Something in Cordelia belonged to him, and he knew that, despite everything, something in him belonged to her, too.

Yet he still yearned for Buffy, for her to turn her face to him, to acknowledge something of the pain he felt, the gaping wound her departure had left. Angel knew her too well not to know that she felt it too. They had spent almost seven years together, inseparable, both for good and for ill. The brutal suddenness of their break, the finality of it, was crushing her too.

Yet she kept it within, kept this last emotion they would ever share - - anguish -- beneath the surface.

"Have you guys ever tried spring-loading these things?" Cordelia offered. She was holding a stake against her wrist experimentally as she crouched slightly behind a frost-crisp hedge. "You know, no swing, all stake?"

Angel had thought of that, once, but Buffy and Wesley hadn't been interested, so he hadn't followed through. "It's a good idea," he said. "But no time now." Cordelia gave him an uncertain little smile, and he returned it. Once again he felt the urge to comfort her, protect her. Then again, what they were about to do was the best comfort and protection he could offer.

A better world is ahead of us, he thought. For all of us. Cordelia's showing us the way. Nothing else matters, compared to that.

Gunn shook his head as he hefted his own sword. "I shoulda brought my truck," he said. "We got a stake cannon mounted on that thing. Works great, let me tell you."

"A stake cannon," Jenny said. Her voice was just a little -- distracted, Angel thought. As though she were with them far more in body than in spirit. "That's not a bad idea. We should have tried that."

"Guess I should get my game face on," Doyle said, shaking his head as his visage shifted into that of his Brachen-demon father. "Now, that feels better."

"Why don't you wear that all the time?" Lorne said. He didn't look as though he much knew what to do with any of the weapons, but he'd gamely armed himself with a stake and a wide-bladed knife. "Seriously, green is your color. And I know what I'm talking about here."

"I'm not as smooth as you are with the excuses," Doyle said. "If I weren't shuffling off this mortal coil in about an hour, I'd ask you for a few."

"You should switch back to human, just like Angel should keep from vamping out, if he can help it," Buffy said. Angel noticed that he was only being spoken of in the third person. "The Initiative has a majorly schizophrenic attitude toward demons. Adam totally runs their lives, but they hate demons otherwise. They'll fight differently against you if they think you're human."

"As in, be less likely to kill me?" Doyle said. "What's that matter now? I'm stronger this way. Best I stick with it."

Buffy shrugged. "Take your chances. I guess we all are."

"Right then," Wesley said. "Does everyone understand what we're doing?" As he said this, he looked at Jenny very hard. She didn't react.

"We're ready," Angel said. "This reality is still in place, so Faith and Riley must have stalled them. But I don't think we have much time to lose." As in, let's get a move on, Wes.

"Very well," Wesley said. He turned to Buffy, waiting, as ever, for her call to strike.

Buffy looked toward the small concrete shed that, according to Riley Finn, was their entrance to the compound; Angel felt his body tensing, preparing for her word. But then she turned toward him and, at last, looked into his eyes. She whispered, "Goodbye, Angel."

His girl. Blond hair blowing in the icy wind. The end of the world. Angel felt his throat closing up, but he managed to say, "Goodbye, Buffy."

She turned back toward the entrance, toward the battle. "Let's go."

***

They were deep into the tunnels before the first patrol spotted them, and fortunately, Cordelia spotted the patrol first.

"Get ready," she whispered, motioning for the others to duck down. She saw the look of surprise on Buffy's face, but the men -- the ones who'd seen her fight -- all immediately ducked. The patrol was within five feet before they realized what was going on.

"Stations!" the patrol leader yelled, but Cordelia leaped forward and spun-kicked her foot squarely into his solar plexus before he could say anything else. He retched and doubled over, and Cordelia whirled around, searching for another opportunity to strike.

The others seemed to have the situation handled. Buffy was smacking one Initiative guy around like he was a punching bag, Gunn had already floored another and Angel pounced at the last one. He tackled the guy and smashed his fist into his face -- but too late. Apparently he'd given some sort of signal, because lights began to flash golden-yellow in the tunnel, and she could hear a faraway klaxon begin to blare. "We got trouble," Cordelia said.

"And that starts with a T, which rhymes with G, which stands for Gee, ya think?" Lorne darted forward. "They've got a few people already headed this way. We better hustle."

They split up in the teams they'd agreed on beforehand -- Jenny, Lorne and Doyle with Buffy, and Cordelia, Angel and Gunn with Wesley. Cordelia saw Wesley's reluctance to go; she'd thought Angel would be the one who couldn't walk away, but he was doing so, resolutely. She grabbed Wesley's hand and whispered, "Come on. We have to hurry."

"Bye," Jenny said -- oh, God, that was the last thing she was ever going to hear Miss Calendar say --

And then they were running, just the four of them, together in the tunnels. Cordelia felt her memories -- her true ones -- flashing back to a dozen times or more when it had been like this: Gunn at her right, Wesley at her left, Angel charging ahead of them all. It was more like the world she remembered than at any other moment since Naiura's spell, and against all odds, Cordelia felt a smile spreading across her face. This is the way it's supposed to be, she thought. This is the way it's going to be again. I'm gonna get Angel to forgive Wesley, and Wesley to forgive Angel, and it's all going to be like it used to be, only better. It's too important to throw away. I know that now. I'll make them know it too.

Angel threw open a door that, according to Riley's maps, would lead them to the service corridor for the elevator shafts. Apparently the elevators ran on voice-recognition; they'd have to shimmy down the cables. This had all sounded very practical when they'd discussed it back at the library, but as Cordelia looked down into the dark, cavernous shaft, she realized that reality was very different. "Okay, not liking this," she said. "I can't fly in this reality."

Angel stared at her. "You can FLY in the other reality?"

"This story just gets stranger and stranger," Gunn said.

"Not really fly," Cordelia said. "It's more hovering."

Amazed, Angel shook his head and half-smiled at her, the first real expression of warmth he'd given her since they'd left her hotel room. The memory of what had happened in that room seared her skin and made her wish the moment were a little less desperate, so she could talk to him or just hold him. This Angel wasn't exactly her Angel -- but they were close enough for her to care about him deeply.

"I'll go first," he said. "That way you don't have to be frightened. I'll be right beneath you. I can catch you if you fall."

She smiled at him and tried to mentally brace herself as Angel took hold of the cables and began to ease himself down. The drop's not getting any shorter, she thought, as she reached out for the cables herself.

"Hold!" Cordelia whirled around to see two Initiative soldiers running into the room -- carrying guns. Wesley was fast; he fired his crossbow immediately, catching a soldier in the shoulder and taking him down. But even he wasn't fast enough for the second one, who swung his gun up, aiming it right at Cordelia --

She saw Gunn move the moment she heard the weapon's fire. He threw himself in front of her, and her scream mingled with his own anguished cry as he fell to the ground.

Wesley fired his crossbow again, felling the other soldier. Cordelia stared down at Gunn in horror, seeing a pool of dark blood spreading across his torn abdomen. "Gunn? Gunn!?"

As she dropped to her knees, Gunn coughed once, then tried to focus on her. "Stranger -- and stranger."

"Oh, God, oh no, Gunn, no --" She put her hands on his belly; weren't you supposed to apply pressure? But his grimace of pain made her pull away. Her hands were wet with his blood. "We need a doctor, or an ambulance, or something."

Behind her, she heard Angel climb out of the elevator shaft and his sharp intake of breath as he saw Gunn's injuries. "He can't be moved."

"Meaning I can't go with y'all," Gunn waved one hand weakly at the shaft. "Get going. Don't matter none what happens to me."

"What do you mean, it doesn't matter?" Cordelia cried. But even as she spoke, she knew what he meant. She was erasing this Gunn from existence in a few minutes -- what happened to him here couldn't affect the other reality. And yet looking down at him, horribly wounded, she could only see Charles Gunn, her friend and her partner, bleeding to death before her eyes.

"Cordelia." Wesley's voice was gentle, but firm. "We don't have much time."

She looked down into Gunn's eyes; he smiled at her just a little. "You say I got a better life ahead of me," he rasped. "Make it happen."

"I promise," she whispered. "I promise." She pulled off her parka -- didn't need it anymore anyway -- and balled it up under his head, giving him what little comfort she could.

"Goodbye," he said, as she took hold of the cables to follow Angel down at last. She looked into his brown eyes for as long as she could before dropping into the darkness.

***

Buffy's part of the plan was simple: Kick astonishing amounts of ass in the Initiative's main area, thus creating a distraction to let Jenny do her work, and let Angel and Cordelia get to Acathla.

So far, she thought with grim satisfaction, so good.

One soldier -- Graham, was that the name -- came rushing at her, and she roundhouse-kicked him into the wall. Another half-dozen or so of his buddies were collapsed around her, and Doyle had taken out about three himself. Apparently his demon half meant serious business, even if the human half was kinda goofy. Even Lorne -- all demon, all goofy -- had managed to shriek a couple of the soldiers into unconsciousness.

Jenny knelt on the floor, her fingers working frantically on one of the computer keyboards. "I'm past the security lock!" she called. "Shutting down lights -- NOW."

Deep thumps echoed from the walls as the lights began to shut down, one row after the other. Buffy pulled her flashlight from her belt and ignited it; she knew Wesley had one for the other group as well --

-- not that Angel would need it, Angel could see in the dark --

She shook her head, came back to the here and now. "That oughta throw them off," she said. "Good job, Jenny."

"Thanks," Jenny said, peering into the faint green flow of the monitor, which seemed so much brighter in the faint light. "Huh."

Lorne peered over her shoulder. "I am an expert on pitch and tone," he said. "That 'huh' said volumes. What's wrong?"

"Not that it matters," Jenny said, "but apparently they're planning on doing something nasty to Mr. Finn."

"Nasty?" Buffy frowned. "Nasty how?"

"I can't get the exact procedure; I didn't hack deep enough into the security," Jenny said. She pointed at one line of data. "But it says experimental, and we've seen a few of the Initiative's failed experiments."

Buffy had found their bodies after, sometimes. Or worse -- twisted things, not demon and not human, unable to fight her or feed themselves, to do anything but suffer. Those were the only times that her slaying had felt like an act of mercy.

Not that it matters, Jenny had said. This Riley, experimented-on or not, wouldn't exist in another half-hour, and neither would Buffy herself. And she'd spent enough time wishing ill to Riley Finn not to feel any particular horror on his behalf.

And yet. And still.

"Does it say where he is?" Buffy said.

It was Doyle, leaning over Jenny's other shoulder, who answered. "Room 812. That mean something to you?"

"I can pull up a map," Jenny offered. A few clicks of the keyboard, and the map appeared. The room wasn't too far away.

"I'm getting him out," Buffy said. "You guys should stay here, make sure they can't get control of the power again."

"You got it, She-Ra," Doyle said. "We'll leave the lights out for ya." He grinned -- a surprisingly warm smile, given the green spines still all over his face. Buffy found herself smiling back before she turned and ran.

She only ran into two soldiers on the way to room 812, both of which she easily dispatched. They should have more guys out, she thought. Either they've sent their troops to their holding pen for vamps and demons, or -- or they've figured out what we're really after. As much as she didn't want this reality to end, she shuddered at the thought of Angel falling into the Initiative's clutches.

Which was, of course, just where Riley was now --

Room 812's door had a computerized lock; after a moment's hesitation, Buffy smashed it in with her hand. The door made a static sound, but remained shut. She shoved her fingers between the slender crack and tugged with all her considerable might.

The door swung open, revealing Riley Finn, strapped to a chair with a gag in his mouth. At his side was Maggie Walsh.

Buffy had expected some reaction to her breaking and entering, but Walsh just raised an eyebrow. "So you're what the alert is for," she said.

"I like to keep you guys on your toes," she said. "Speaking of which, I'd like to see Finn there on his feet. Now."

"You're here to rescue Riley?" Walsh looked genuinely surprised. As far as Buffy could tell from Riley's expression, he was a bit startled himself. "How novel. I thought you were strictly a part of demon control."

"I'm bad-guy control," Buffy said. "You make other people demons on the outside, but inside? You're the real thing."

Walsh smiled thinly. "We have one Slayer to study," she said. "We don't need you."

She moved fast -- so fast that a human would have been hit -- but Buffy managed to duck the hand with the taser just in time. Before Walsh could strike again, Buffy hit her across the jaw, hard. Walsh staggered back and fell against her tray table of instruments. "That's for the Winter," Buffy said. She slapped Walsh this time, hand open. "That's for the vampires overrunning this town, including the one who killed Giles." She slapped her again. "THAT'S for locking Faith up for years and making me think she was dead." And again. "That's for my Mom, which you didn't have anything to do with, but it's for her anyway. And THAT'S for Willow. And THAT'S for Xander. And THAT --"

Buffy balled up her fist and smashed Walsh hard, right in the nose. Walsh collapsed back onto the ground, unconscious. After staring down at her for a moment, she went to Riley's side and pulled the gag from his mouth. He gasped in a deep breath, then said, "What was that for?"

"Why did I rescue you?" she said, already annoyed. "Boy, you're great with the gratitude, aren't you?"

"Thanks," Riley said fervently as she went to work unfastening his restraints. "But what I meant was -- that last time you hit Walsh -- what was that for?"

"Oh," Buffy said. "That was for giving me a C+ on my final paper in her psych class. It had footnotes and everything."

"Would this be a bad time to mention that I graded that paper?" Riley said.

She stared at him, then started to laugh. He joined in; their laughter had a slightly hysterical edge to it, and Buffy knew it, but she didn't care. It felt so good to laugh.

When they quieted, Riley said, "I'd like to find Faith now. I'd like to be with her."

"I would too," Buffy said, feeling the rightness of it even as she spoke. "Let's hurry."

***

Wesley aimed his flashlight ahead of them; the doorway had the right number. They were there at last. "Get ready," he said. "We'll only have our one chance to strike."

Cordelia nodded quickly; Angel put one hand on his sword. Wesley took a deep breath. More than anything, he did not want to go through this door, to do the work they had to do there. To kill Jenny Calendar, or die in the attempt.

He hoped that Jenny's wish came true, that he could remember this reality in the new one. If only he could remember her -- remember loving her --

Angel tensed, no doubt hearing something lost to Wesley and Cordelia's human ears. He put his hand on the door. "Now."

With his vampiric strength, Angel tore the door from its hinges. Cordelia plunged through instantly, and Wesley followed her, blinking the darkness to make out what was happening --

The room was lit with a few candles that burned with a greenish, unnaturally steady flame. Standing in the far corner of the room was a large, misshapen creature, part man and part demon. For all his years of hunting Adam, Wesley had never actually seen him before. Yet he knew his enemy instantly; only Adam could be so powerful, so grotesque. A few feet away was one of the most beautiful beings Wesley had ever seen -- a woman made of blue frost and feathers like snowflakes. In the room's center was Acathla -- a giant stone slab, from which the frozen form of a demon reached, its body forever captured in a snarl and a pounce.

No, Wesley thought. Not forever. Not even for long.

Adam stood there with his human hand outstretched, blood dripping from his lacerated palm. And even as Wesley watched, energy began to flow from Acathla, swirling around it.

"Naiura," Cordelia said, her face set. "I'm calling off our little bargain. Now."

"Foolish, forgetful girl," Naiura said, raising an imperious, white- feathered eyebrow. "My arrangements are final. So is your fate."

"Hate to argue with you," Angel said. "But the negotiations are back on."

In a flash, Angel threw his sword as hard as he could -- and it speared Adam through the middle. Adam clutched at the weapon and staggered, clearly in pain.

"You will NOT!" The bolts flew from Naiura's fingertips even as she spat the words from her mouth; Wesley felt the jolt hit him, mid- chest, knocking him back several feet. He collapsed to the floor beside Cordelia, who was gasping in the same pain he felt.

"You didn't -- mention -- the lightning bolts," Wesley choked.

"Didn't -- know." Cordelia struggled to sit up, but Wesley saw her eyes open wide in fear as Naiura raised her hands again. But then Angel -- apparently less affected by the power surge -- tackled her from the side.

Naiura shrieked in rage, and Wesley saw her claw at Angel with hands that surged and crackled with power. Angel was still holding onto her -- but his body shook, and his face registered the agony he was feeling as she poured energy into him.

Wesley staggered forward. The vortex near Acathla was getting larger and more powerful. An unearthly howling filled the room. "Cordelia!" he shouted. "You must close the portal! Now!"

"Angel --" she said, staring at his tortured form as he grappled with Naiura. But she somehow got to her feet and began making her way toward the vortex, fighting the powerful winds pouring from Acathla.

"Cordy!" Angel cried, and it seemed to be more than a nickname. Cordelia's face changed as he said it, becoming more pained and yet more resolute.

Wesley forced his way closer to Naiura; so caught up was she in battling Angel that she didn't even notice him. He didn't know what kind of demon she was, or what might kill her -- still, some moves were classics.

He plunged his stake into her back, right between her shoulder blades -- right where the heart should be. Naiura screamed, a ghastly, unearthly sound that was too shrill for any human throat. Power crackled over her entire body, convulsing her limbs, making her eyelids flutter. Then she flopped to the floor and vanished in a thick puff of blue powder.

Angel was still shaking with pain, but he looked up at Wesley in wordless gratitude. My last act on this earth is saving the Scourge of Europe from pain, Wesley thought. And yet I think it was the right thing to do.

Cordelia's shriek made them both whirl around -- just in time to see her body flying toward them. She tumbled into Wesley, knocking them both onto the ground beside Angel.

Adam -- hunched over and bleeding, but still alive -- stood at the mouth of the vortex. He stared at them, his small dark eyes showing only something that looked strangely like compassion. "If you knew," he rasped, "if you knew the future of the reality you would return to -- you would thank me."

"Oh, this is all for our own good?" Cordelia said. "Forgive me if I don't believe you."

"Adam," Angel said, calling to be heard over the wind, "you're dying. You can't get out of this alive."

Wesley added, "Let us do what we're trying to do here. It can't make any difference to you."

Adam smiled.

"It is better to have died," Adam said, "than never to have been."

He turned to Acathla and pulled out Angel's sword. Blood gushed from the wound, spiraling into the winds, sealing the vortex. Adam held his arms open wide, silhouetted against the power and energy of Acathla for one moment more -- then was sucked into it, spiraling into eternity, out of their reality and into the hell he chose.

The vortex snapped shut. The light and wind was gone. The greenish candles instantly went dark. The only illumination in the room was Wesley's own flashlight, casting a beam across the bloodstained floor.

"Wesley?" Cordelia's voice shook. "What just happened?"