Two Steps Back by Yahtzee
Summary: Angel has a chance to go back and put everything right – but where can he begin? And where can it possibly end?
Spoilers: Not Fade Away, Season Five, and Chosen, Season Seven of BTVS
So this is what comes after death, Angel thought.
Then he remembered that he already knew all about that.
He sat up, memories rushing in along with consciousness. The final battle - Wolfram & Hart - the dragon -
"The dragon got the better of ya, pal. No shame in it. They're a bitch to deal with, and that's even if you DO have a flamethrower."
Scrambling to his feet, Angel peered into the strange, inky darkness that surrounded him. He made out a familiar form and scowled. "Skip. I might have known."
"Excuse me? I'm not Skip. Clearly not Skip. You know, people say we all look alike, but that is the biggest load of stereotypical crap that I ever -"
"If you're not Skip, who are you?"
The gray-skinned demon glared at him before saying, as though it were obvious, "I'm Chip."
"Fantastic." Angel tried to peer into the blackness around them both, but there was nothing to see: no walls, no ceiling, no furniture or trees or stone. Come to think of it, there wasn't exactly a floor beneath his feet - just an end to falling. He was familiar enough with unpleasant situations to be quite certain that he was in another one - but he wasn't at all familiar with this. "Let me guess. You're the one designated to tell me where I am."
"Yeah, I drew the short straw." Chip folded his arms. "Though, I gotta say, I figured you'd know where we are. Where YOU are, specifically. I'm just visiting."
Angel held one hand to his abdomen; it seemed to him that he remembered a blow, and blood. And the sharp jabbing in his chest -
"I wasn't wrong," Angel said. "When I woke up, my first thought was - was that I'd died. Except, well -"
"You're already dead," Chip supplied. "How can you be deader than dead? Turns out it's more than a semantic problem. Doesn't really jibe on the metaphysical level, either."
"Is this Limbo?"
"Do you see anybody dancing under a stick? I didn't think so." Chip shook his head, the heavy plates upon his back lifting and falling as if in a sigh. "Turns out nobody knows what to do with you, exactly. We haven't had to decide what comes after the afterlife before."
The paradox wasn't unfamiliar to Angel - he'd considered it before - but he'd thought the likely options were hell or oblivion. This didn't appear to be either. Then it occurred to him that he wasn't the only one that paradox would apply to. "Where's Spike? And Illyria?"
"That's our problem," Chip replied. "Trust me, you've got enough of your own problems to deal with."
Angel shrugged. "How is this my problem? I've been to hell, remember? Compared to that, eternity in a black room isn't so bad, even if you're here."
"I think after a few millennia, a black room might lose its charm."
"It's not worse than hell," Angel said flatly.
Chip shrugged. "You got me there. Not that it matters, though. You can't stay here. This is strictly a holding area."
"So where am I going?"
"Great question." Chip held out one clawed hand and dropped something round and heavy into Angel's palm; upon closer inspection, it turned out to look something like a 19th-century astrolabe, with dials and gears and floating hands that pointed in a thousand directions. "Turns out that your destination is up to you - with a few caveats."
Angel was startled enough to look up from the glittering mechanism in his hands. "Up to me?"
The smile on Chip's face was not reassuring. "Funny thing about immortality: It's both a reward and a curse. You know all about that, of course; it was mortality you were playing for, wasn't it?"
Angel went very still. "I wasn't playing."
"Might as well have been, for all the good you did." Chip's laughter grated against Angel's nerves; it sounded like gravel on broken glass. "So - immortality. We don't have the power to take it away, as it turns out. But we can't just throw you back in there with the dragon, because then you're back in the holding room in about 5 minutes. And I don't expect to spend eternity as the guy watching your revolving door."
Maybe - to some far more practiced eyes - Chip and Skip weren't identical, Angel thought. But they were both remarkably alike in their inability to give a straight answer. "I'm going to live forever," he said. It didn't make him happy, but then, he'd had some time to get used to the idea. "But where am I going to live?"
"It's less a question of 'where' and more a question of 'when.'" Pointing to the instrument in Angel's hand, Chip said, "We can't give you another life. We can only give you back yours. So you get to go backward in time - how far is up to you - and, if I know you, try to start over."
The ramifications took a moment to sink in. Angel's fingers tightened around the instrument in his hands, its whirring and vibration now almost like a heartbeat against his skin. He heard his voice break over the words: "Start over?"
"Sounds like a big treat, doesn't it? Must be, for a guy with as many regrets as you've piled up." Chip's coal-dark eyes glinted, as though swirling with oil. "But starting over is harder than it sounds."
Start over. Start over. He could go back - fix it all, fix everything, because he knew how it had ended, how it had begun, oh, God, maybe it was all for something after all - "Just tell me how this thing works. That's all I need to know."
As Chip shook his head, he said, "If you say so, pal. The device takes you backward in time within your own life. You'll be you - not suddenly standing in front of your 1945 self to freak yourself out, you get it?"
"No duplication. I'll be within my own skin."
"About time you guessed something right." Chip tapped a claw against the mechanism's brassy surface. "Also, you'll be glad to know, your soul goes where you do. You hope back into the year 1848, for example, you're not gonna be the Scourge of Europe again - unless you decide to take mass homicide up as a hobby."
Angel frowned. "I doubt it."
"Important point: It ONLY goes backwards. Only. Once you go back to, say, 2001, you ain't seeing 2002 again, unless you wait 365 days. Clear?"
"Crystal," Angel said, peering down at the dials. They were painted in a bizarre collection of symbols - Arabic and Roman numerals, mystical signs, and squiggles he didn't recognize. "How do you -"
Chip interrupted with, "You can use it as many times as you want to. No limit on how many jumps backward you'll make -"
"I only need one."
"Or how far you jump when you go," Chip continued, ignoring Angel's words. "Of course, if and when you reach your own infancy, you're going to lose the ability to operate the thing, not to mention your adult comprehension of the world. You end up in the womb, you better hope for your mother's sake you don't have the device in there with you. And that, my friend, is as far back as you're able to go."
Angel, already impatient to begin, replied, "I don't need to go back nearly that far. All I need to know is -"
"You're on your own, pal," Chip said. "See ya."
And Chip was gone. No puff of smoke, no flash of light - he was there, and then he wasn't.
Angel shouted, "How do I know how far back I'm jumping?"
"Perfect." Gazing down at the spinning instrument in his palm, Angel realized that he had literally no idea how to interpret the settings - or to manipulate them. How did the Powers expect him to make the right choice if he couldn't actually choose? This was guesswork, purely guesswork -
--then he realized that might be for the best. Because when Angel tried to think of the first wrong he would set right, too many sins and omissions and losses crowded into his mind, fighting for dominance. He wanted to save Wesley. He wanted to save Doyle. He wanted to keep baby Connor forever. He wanted never to see the human girl Drusilla had been. He wanted to make sure that Cordelia -
That Cordelia was safe, that she never met him, that she never left him, that she and he -
No. There were too many regrets. Better to go back by chance, take what fate gave him, and make everything better from there.
Angel studied the dials for another moment, not so much hoping for inspiration that wouldn't come as considering the possibilities. Should he go as far back as he possibly could?
The temptation to go back and prevent his own turning rose up - to go home to his parents and his sister, make something of himself, live out his life in Galway and remain in the grave he'd someday have -- but Angel slowly put it aside. It had been years since he'd come to the realization that the crimes he'd committed as Angelus were a painful price to pay, but a necessary one, to bring him to a point where he was able to fight for the Powers. So going back and stopping his vampirism wasn't an option.
Also, the point was to fix some of the countless mistakes he'd made; the further back he went, the more variables he'd have to contend with. Every day just gave him more room to get it all wrong.
So - he didn't want to go too far. Maybe he should just move the dials a little.
Experimentally, Angel gave the device a turn - not even a quarter of an inch. In an instant it began humming, glowing slightly warmer in his grip.
He felt no fear. After death - the death after death - what could be left to fear? It was another chance, more than he deserved, and perhaps it would be enough.
The golden warmth shot through him, enveloping him, making him one with the whirring of the device. As the world turned to light, Angel whispered, "Let's begin again."
He blinked as the world around him turned from gold to gray to - the hallways of Wolfram & Hart. Fred stood next to him, squinting at him over the lenses of her glasses.
"Angel, are you listening? You seemed to kind of fugue out there."
"Fred." It was her - really her - not Illyria in her body, using her, but Fred Burkle herself, alive and well. "Fred, you're all right. You're -" Then words failed him, and Angel wrapped her in his embrace, shutting his eyes to savor the moment. Had he ever hugged Fred? Yes, but not enough. Definitely not enough.
Her skinny arms slid around his waist, somewhat awkwardly. "Uh, Angel? Are you okay?"
"I'm great," he said. "It's been a long time since I was this good."
"This is really sweet and all, but - you know I only think of you as a friend, right?"
"Absolutely. Friends." Angel pulled away and cupped her face in his hands. Fred was obviously still puzzled, but she smiled at him, the sweet little crooked grin he'd never thought he'd see again. "You - what were you saying?"
"That we have a lot of adjustments to make, if we're going to be here every day." She began walking down the hallway again, clearly uncertain whether Angel would follow. He did, but already he was calming down. A quick check of his jacket pockets revealed the device, heavy and still, right next to his Wolfram & Hart ID. Fred kept talking, bubbling on, giving him a sense of time. "We're used to just talking to each other whenever we bump into each other, which is pretty much constantly, or was, back when we were in the Hyperion. But now - we could walk around for WEEKS without bumping into each other. So we should set up, say, maybe a regular meeting time. Every day, or at least every week, to make sure we're all on the same page."
"That's a good idea," Angel said carefully. "After all, we've been with Wolfram & Hart for - how long is it now?"
"Two weeks," Fred replied. "Two weeks and a day. And four hours. If we're being exact."
"Exact is perfect. You're perfect." Of course she would be exact; it was the physicist in her, and how had he not realized he even missed the physicist in her? Angel might have hugged her again, if two people hadn't come around the corner to join them. He could feel the grin spreading over his face as he said, "I can't believe it's you."
Wesley half-turned, as if expecting someone else to be standing behind him and Gunn. "Why wouldn't it be -" The words were cut off as Angel embraced Wesley as well, weak with gratitude for his friends' survival.
Behind him, he could hear Fred saying, "Angel seems to be in a huggy mood."
"Since when does Angel have huggy moods?" Gunn demanded.
"Sorry. I'm sorry. I just -" Angel pulled away from Wesley, who wasn't bothering to hide his surprise. There was a hint of a smile on Wes' face, though, and it was good to see. "I'm just glad to see you guys. That's all."
Gunn folded his arms. "I don't get a hug?"
As far as Angel knew, Gunn hadn't died - but the fact that he wasn't feeling the rush of oh-my-God relief for Gunn that he did for Wes and Fred didn't make him any less pleased. "Would you like a hug?"
"Hell, no. Are you possessed or something?"
"No. Just overwhelmed." Angel started pulling himself together, adjusting to the shift, finding his footing. "Two weeks, one day and four hours since we took Wolfram & Hart's bargain, right?"
"Right," Wesley said. He cocked his head. "Why is this important?"
Angel began to answer, then remembered where they were: Wolfram & Hart, evil to the core, laced with every kind of magical and nonmagical eavesdropping device possible. "Let's not talk about it here."
"Here as in the hallway?" Fred said.
"Here as in Wolfram & Hart."
Gunn frowned. "It's afternoon - you remember afternoon, right? The light outside these windows ain't so kind to you when you're on the other side of the glass."
"I'm not likely to forget that," Angel said. "But we can get to the sewers from here."
"Sewers?" Fred wrinkled her nose. "See, not dealing with sewers again was one of the definite pluses of this deal."
"I agree," Wesley said, "though if it's necessary --"
"It is," Angel said. He didn't want to make a scene that might alert Wolfram & Hart's goons to his plan, but he needed his friends to follow.
Perhaps Wesley saw that in his eyes, because he nodded slowly. "Right. The sewers. Let's go."
"The sewers," Gunn chuckled. "We're kickin' it old-school."
Fred sighed. "Wait while I change my shoes."
"You want to walk out of Wolfram & Hart." Wesley leaned forward, intent on Angel's words. "Walk away from the deal we've made."
"I don't think we have any other choice," Angel said.
For a few moments, they were all quiet; the only sound was the dripping of water into puddles and the occasional clank of a thumping pipe. Angel's sharp ears could hear a scurrying rat in a faraway corner, which reminded him that he was hungry. But he was trying to be persuasive now, and drinking rats would probably work against that.
"If we could handle it - the temptations, the problems -" Fred made a small gesture, as if grabbing at something that wasn't there. "The possibilities for the good we could do are endless."
"We can't handle it," Angel said. "The very fact that we thought we could should tell us that we're living in a dream world about this. Wolfram & Hart - we're not dealing with the lawyers in the suits. Those guys, yeah, we could handle them. But behind this place is real, primordial evil. Stuff that exists on a scale we can't contend with. If we were perfect - maybe then we could walk through these halls without becoming tainted. We aren't perfect. Me least of all."
They didn't argue this point. All of them were deep in thought, obviously making their own judgments, reconsidering the decisions they had made. It was Wesley who spoke first: "Your concerns can't be rejected. We all had them, and we all disregarded them - but that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't reconsider."
"It's not that easy, though," Gunn said. "Can we back out now, even if we want to?"
"There's a trial period in the contract," Angel replied "Thirty days -- boilerplate language. Lilah joked about it." Wesley flinched at bit at the name Lilah, and Angel realized he shouldn't have said it; the scars were still too raw.
But that concern was wiped away by what Gunn said next. "I don't mean, can we get out of the contract. I mean - Wolfram & Hart is taking care of Cordelia. That's part of the package."
Cordelia. She was upstairs - alive, but not alive. Cordy, but not Cordy. Angel felt a sick lurch deep in his belly, regret and sorrow and anger at Chip. If he could only have turned the device back just a bit further -
Quietly, he said, "Cordelia's dead. Not her body but - her mind, her soul, what we think of as being her. You guys know that, right?"
They all stared at him in silence. Gunn dropped his eyes, as if unable to meet Angel's gaze any longer. Wesley replied, "I had thought you would be the last of us to give up. Not the first."
"It's not giving up," Angel said. "It's - letting her go to something so much better than this. She deserves that. Not being tied up in wires and machines while we - pretend."
A tear trickled down Fred's cheek as she gripped Wesley's arm; Wes responded by covering her hand with his own. Angel gave them all a moment to consider.
But in that silence, it occurred to him that there had been one more "signing bonus" for the Wolfram & Hart contract: the forgetfulness spell. The one that hid the knowledge of Connor - everything he had done, everything he had been - from all the others, and most importantly, from Connor himself. Would they undo that spell also?
The time had come when Connor was ready for some of the knowledge - but it hadn't come yet. Distance had never muted Angel's horror and misery at the sight of his son in suicidal anguish, ready to obliterate his life and those of innocents just to score the world with one more black, ugly mark - to remind them that he was there.
Still - Fred was alive. Wesley was alive. If breaking with Wolfram & Hart now could save them, then it was worth the risk. Angel told himself he could save his son again, no matter what the cost. He could, and he would.
"Are you sure about this, Angel?" Fred looked up into his eyes. He could hear her heart beating, and he'd never known it was such a beautiful sound.
"Yes, I'm sure."
Gunn crammed his fists into his pockets. "And we're just gonna let them flip the switch on Cordy?"
Angel considered that, then steeled himself. "I'll take care of it."
"You are her legal guardian," the doctor said, frowning at the chart. "Seeing as how her parents are beyond even the Firm's reach. So you're within your rights to switch the machines off. Before you make a hasty decision, though -"
"It's not hasty," Angel said. The contract had not yet been broken; Wes, Fred and Gunn had all agreed that Cordelia should be decently seen to before they made their effort to escape Wolfram & Hart's clutches. Therefore it was important to make this seem like an isolated choice, something that wouldn't affect the contract. "We've all talked about it. Slept on it. Even when we signed up to work here, we knew we'd probably take this step."
"Very well." The doctor shut Cordelia's chart and took a deep breath. "We can do this whenever you'd like -"
"Now." It felt as though an iron bar was pressing on his chest, but Angel kept his voice firm. "We should do this now."
"Would your friends like to visit her one last time?"
"I asked them to let me come alone."
The doctor patted his shoulder once, then drew back the hand, as if regretting it. "She'll probably breathe on her own for a while - maybe even a few hours. Will you want to stay with her?"
Angel nodded, wordless. He knew this was the right decision - knew it past any shadow of a doubt - but now that the moment had come, it was harder than he'd thought.
He followed the doctor into Cordelia's room; she lay on a flat bed in the center, the lights and machines all circled around her like attendants. Angel had come to this room before, but the sight never stopped hurting. So much seemed normal - her beautiful face, her long-fingered hands, even the flush of her lips. It was as though, at any moment, she might sit up and raise an eyebrow. What are you doing here? she'd say. Don't you have an elsewhere to be?
But so much was wrong, too. Her breasts were too full, still swollen with milk for the child she'd never fed - the child who had devoured her. The rise and fall of her chest was too deep and too regular. And of course, she was silent - Cordelia, who was never silent.
The wrongness of keeping Cordelia's body alive had never been as agonizing as it was right now, when Angel was ready to end it.
The doctor seemed to take a long time about it; it wasn't just a switch to flip. But one by one, the machines around Cordelia went quiet and dark, dimming the light surrounding her more and more. As they ceased to hum, the room became ever more quiet, until only the mechanical shhh-thk of the ventilator remained.
At last, the doctor made one more move, and the ventilator went silent. Cordelia still breathed; her heart kept beating. Angel watched her face as the doctor peeled away strips of tape and pulled out the plastic breathing tube. No expression, no movement, no sign.
Angel hadn't realized until now that he still wanted to save her - that part of him still thought it was possible. If he hadn't known beyond any doubt that she would die, he could never have borne this. But he wasn't positive he could bear it now.
"I'll leave you alone," the doctor said, backing out the door.
Cordelia breathed in and out, the tempo just the same as it had been when the machine was on. But her breaths were more shallow now.
He took her hand in his; her skin was soft, even softer than it had been before. Maybe the nurses had rubbed her hands with lotion. At this moment, even that small kindness seemed worth the price of paying Wolfram & Hart in blood.
"We've done this before," Angel said. His voice echoed slightly in the absolute silence of the room. "You in the hospital bed, me here holding your hand. I never knew - I never asked if you could remember that. But I never forgot it."
Her hand seemed so warm - but it wasn't as warm as it ought to have been. It was only in comparison to his dead flesh that Cordelia still seemed alive.
"I told you then that I wanted you back. And then I corrected myself - told the truth, for first time between us. The last time too, I guess. I told you that I needed you back. And I do need you, Cordelia. I never stopped. I've only needed you more."
Her breath caught in her throat - only for a moment, but her breathing was slowing now. Angel's vision blurred with tears, cold lines making their way down his cheeks. Did humans understand that you could even miss the warmth of your own tears?
"I lost you a lot of times, in a lot of ways. Almost all of them were my fault." Angel held her hand to his unbeating heart; her pulse, weak and thready, was the only life between them. "But I never stopped needing you, and I never will."
Now her heartbeat was irregular. Angel remembered that sound, that stop-and-start flutter, from a thousand murders in alleyways; it was the sound of a heart ceasing to beat for the last time. His hand tightened around hers, as though he could hold her there by sheer force of will.
Could she hear him? At all? Hearing was the last sense to go - he knew that, too, and if anything of Cordelia's soul remained to witness, Angel wanted her to hear the words he'd been too afraid to say aloud before, the words he hadn't wanted to admit even to himself. "Cordelia, I love you."
Her heart stopped. Her chest rose and fell once more - then was still. Cordelia didn't struggle; her beautiful face didn't even move. Cordelia was gone forever. Angel stood beside a shell.
Maybe it had been selfish, to ask Wes and Fred and Gunn not to attend, but Angel could not regret it. Only alone could he have said those words to her; only alone could he rest his head against her shoulder, the fading heat of her body soaking into his skin, and give in to his grief.
"We should have a funeral service," Wesley said. "Something after the cremation - perhaps she would've liked her ashes to be scattered at sea."
"You said that already," Angel replied, trying to keep the irritation from his voice. The previous 24 hours had been an ordeal that even Wesley and Fred's presence couldn't entirely heal. Cordelia's death had been the worst but only the first blow; quitting Wolfram & Hart had only been easier by comparison.
Lilah had reappeared from her grave, hand at her throat, to castigate them all; Wesley's eyes had taken on a hollow look, as though something had ripped from him. Threats had been levied. Lorne had pointed out, repeatedly and at far too much length, that he was willing to walk into battle and die with them but wasn't really keen on a lawsuit. The firm had even threatened not to turn over Cordelia's body, which was when Angel had put on his game face and made it clear that, in his opinion, Angelus' sins could possibly be enlisted in the service of a good cause.
Now they had a body in the morgue, a dusty Hyperion still littered with debris from Jasmine's followers, and no plan on what the hell to do next. Angel knew they needed another direction - he was sure he could think of one - but with Cordelia's death heavy on his heart, it was hard to focus.
"I called Sunnydale," Wesley said. "I thought that perhaps Giles and Willow and - well, and Buffy, if it wouldn't be difficult for you - that they would like to attend a short memorial. But apparently all lines are down. I do hope it's not another apocalypse."
"I haven't been to a funeral since my own," Angel said. The thought of saying goodbye to Cordelia again was too difficult to bear. "There's no rush. We can keep the ashes for a while until we decide what to do."
Wesley opened his mouth as if to argue, but he finally sighed. "I suppose we have nothing but time."
"Where's Gunn, anyway?" Angel stood up from behind his desk and began pacing; he was ready to start the day, even if he had no idea what the day would bring. "Fred should've been downstairs a while ago."
"Yesterday was difficult," Wesley replied. "Give them time."
Angel put his hands against the wall, working to steady himself. He knew the true source of his restlessness, and it wasn't grief. It was - uncertainty. At last he said, "If I took a - well, a side trip - you'd handle things here."
"Of course." Wesley cocked his head. "Are you certain you're all right?"
"I will be," Angel said, hoping it was true. And it would be true, once he had learned to live with Cordelia's loss -
--and once he knew that Connor was truly all right.
He'd had no idea a limo with tinted windows cost so much. Maybe Wolfram & Hart would send him the bill for the first trip, now that he'd backed out of working for the firm.
Angel had only traveled this way once, and yet it felt to him as though he knew it by heart; the turning of the country road, the height of the pines, the fresh, cool scent in the air. The day was cloudy and the ground near the house well-shaded by tall trees, so Angel could simply throw his coat over his head and run toward the house.
Here, not long ago in this time, he had listened to Connor bragging about his SAT scores to a family that loved him. Angel had since had the opportunity to meet the strong, happy young man who believed he'd grown up in that family, and his gratitude had eclipsed his loss. When he'd given notice to Wolfram & Hart, Angel's greatest fear had been that they would undo the spell that rewrote everyone's memories; instead, no mention had been made of it, and Wesley, Fred and Gunn had made no mention of Connor or any of the events surrounding his brief, eventful time with them.
It makes sense, Angel reasoned as he crept through the shadows closer to the house. Rewriting Connor's memories isn't just a benefit to Connor, or to me; Wolfram & Hart doesn't want the Destroyer on the loose, either. Especially not if they want to loose Sahjahn on the world once more -
--Connor still had to destroy Sahjahn, of course, but that would take care of itself, just as it had before -
--so Connor was safe.
No sooner had the thought taken shape in Angel's mind than he smelled blood.
Human blood, thick and rich, awakening hunger even before horror. But the horror came too.
"No," Angel whispered, quickening his steps, ignoring the flash of heat and pain across his fingers as he dashed through small patches of sunlight. So much blood - too much, more than one person could lose and live - more than two or three people could lose and live -
He smashed through the door, hearing the lock shatter as he stumbled into the kitchen. His boots slipped in blood.
Lying on the floor were two girls, younger even than Connor himself - his sisters, or the girls he had believed to be his sisters. A slender hand was splayed on the tile next to Angel's foot, each nail painted glittery pink, a friendship bracelet braided around the wrist. Each of the girls had had her throat cut, along the carotid artery from the bright scent of it. But that darker, mustier scent, the one that hovered along the back of Angel's tongue - that was blood from the abdomen. Which meant that somewhere else in the house, someone else -
Angel turned to see Connor standing in the hallway. He was wearing pajamas; his face was stained with blood, but the pajamas were clean. Apparently Connor had had time afterward to change and take a nap.
"Connor," Angel whispered. "Why did you do this?"
"They kept saying they were my family." Connor's face wasn't contorted with rage, the way it so often had been when he looked at his father; instead, there was only confusion. "And they were my family - but they weren't. I had other memories. I had dreams. You were in some of them." Connor walked forward, just a couple of halting, uneasy steps. "Please tell me - who are you?"
"You don't know me. Oh, my God." He had calculated what would happen if Connor remembered himself; he had never considered what would happen if Connor remembered nothing at all. "The dreams - when I'm in your dreams - what happens?"
Connor shook his head and laughed, as though he were a little bit embarrassed. "It's weird. You know how, sometimes, you can remember a dream when you first wake up, but later in the day it's just - gone? I know that I dreamed you but - maybe there was something with water? I don't know. It's crazy." Then he frowned, disquieted once more. "Maybe I'm dreaming right now. Because something seems - wrong."
Angel held out a hand. "Connor, I know you're confused right now. But I want you to come with me. I want you to trust me."
The one reason he had was the best in the world - but it still hurt to know that he only had one. "Because I love you."
Connor looked more bemused than anything else. "It really seems like I ought to know you."
Angel was able to convince Connor to wash up and change clothes again, so the limo driver wouldn't be tipped off that anything was wrong. Of course, there were probably fingerprints in the house, and other kinds of evidence - assuming that the records in the home showed any proof that Connor had ever lived there or been a part of that family.
Never mind that. They would cross that bridge when they got to it. Right now, the most important thing was getting Connor back to the Hyperion safely.
As the limo dropped them off and Angel angled his coat above his head, he knew a moment of trepidation. The memory spell had failed to work on Connor, erasing his entire memory. Wesley and the others had been fine when he'd left, though. So was the spell still intact for them? Or had the illusion simply shattered, leaving them with their true memories of what had gone before? If so, Wesley would probably be unhappy.
Well, Angel had gotten used to Wesley being unhappy. It never prevented them from working together in a crisis, and it wouldn't now.
"Wes?" he called as he steered Connor into the lobby; his son ambled along at his side, passive in his bewilderment. "Fred?"
"Ah, there you are." Wesley strolled out from the office, and he smiled politely at Connor. "Is this a new client?"
Spell still intact for them, then. "Kinda, yeah. I think Wolfram & Hart might have erased his memory. Most of his memory, anyway."
"That's terrible." All business, Wesley touched Connor's shoulder; Connor flinched, but made no other move. "We'll do what we can. Please, sit down. We'll get you something to drink."
Connor did as he was told, but his dark eyes followed Angel intently as the two of them went back toward the office. Quietly, keeping Connor's preternatural hearing in mind, Angel murmured, "How can we find out what was done to him?"
"It's going to take some time. Memory spells are both numerous and complex." Wesley paused, then said, "Before we dig into research, I wanted to touch on a, well, difficult topic. Better it's resolved now, I think."
Compared to what they'd been through the past two days, what could be difficult? "Sure. What?"
"We should have a funeral service for Cordelia," Wesley said. "Something after the cremation - I thought we might scatter her ashes at sea."
Wesley had said that to him this morning. No - Wesley had said that to him repeatedly this morning. Angel had thought it grief and distraction that made Wesley repeat himself, but instead - instead --
"I called Sunnydale," Wesley said. "I wanted to invite Xander and Giles and - well, and Buffy, if you think the two of you could - I'm certain you could, for Cordelia's memory. But the operators can't get through to Sunnydale."
Angel braced himself against the counter, overcome with something too scary for regret but too dismal for horror.
Wesley said, "I do hope it's not another apocalypse."
After a long moment, Angel said, "You should probably start your research now."
"Excellent idea. You can see to our client." Wesley smiled fondly, all bad blood between them worse than forgotten. "I'm going to make some tea for us. Darjeeling?"
"Great." Angel watched Wesley go, then cast another glance at the still-motionless Connor before taking the stairs to the second floor, two at a time. He looked for Fred until he saw a small shape cowering beneath one of the desks; for her, memory had rolled back to a point where she had just returned from Pylea. He could have gone in to speak to her, but already, he knew what he had to do.
Angel drew the golden device from his coat pocket and stared at it. He thought he hadn't turned the dial much- but then, who was to say that the instrument was calibrated to his own lifetime? Maybe all of eternity was wound in there, waiting to be set free.
He hadn't gone far enough, though he didn't need to go too much farther. Just a few more months - surely that would do it -
"Once more," Angel said, giving the device a small twist and feeling the world spin into nothingness around him.
Angel looked up from the small globe in his hands to see Connor standing in an alleyway - uneasy, even angry, but obviously with his memory intact. He shook off the last disorientation from the turn of the device and tried to get his bearings. "Connor. Yeah. Hi. I'm sorry, I just got a little - lightheaded - for a second."
"Vampires can do that?"
Memory definitely intact. "Dizziness comes with the package, yeah."
Connor folded his arms, shielding himself against his father, a posture Angel knew well. At the moment, though, the fact that Connor was trying to guard himself against Angel didn't seem to matter nearly as much as the fact that his son knew who they both were and was trying, however imperfectly, to talk to him.
After another moment, Angel realized they were fairly near the Hyperion. Connor would have been the one seeking him out, then. But when? Was Holtz dead yet? Probably - otherwise Connor shouldn't have called him Dad. But he had; the sound was still sweet in Angel's ears. "What's on your mind?"
At once he knew roughly "when" he was - and too much more, besides. The old emotions came flooding back - rage and pain and pure revulsion - but Angel worked to put them aside. Whatever creature had used Connor's body and Angel's emotions, it hadn't been Cordelia herself. Connor had been more manipulated than any of them - save perhaps Cordelia, lost and trapped deep within her own person - and this was no time for anger. Or possessiveness. So he could stop clenching his fists any time now. "Cordy. Right. What's the problem?"
"She's scared." Connor's voice betrayed more fear, Angel was sure, than the thing calling itself Cordelia had ever felt. "Without her memory, she doesn't know what to do. And I think - I think - she needs you. All of you, I mean."
It had cost his son deeply to say that. Angel had realized this the first time around as well, but what he hadn't known then was that Connor was spending all his courage, all his love, on a monster that was twisting them all in its grip. Through clenched teeth, Angel said, "I know what she needs."
Connor's cheeks flushed; he probably thought it was a sexual taunt, Angel figured. Let him think that. The truth was going to come out soon enough.
Yes, that was it, exactly. Last time around, the truth had come out too late - for Cordelia, for Connor, for everyone. This time, the truth would come out soon enough to change everything.
"She wanted to visit," Connor said, jaw working as though he wanted to bite back the words. "She's in the hotel now, talking with Gunn and Fred. And I think - I think she wanted to visit you, too."
"Sounds like a great idea." Angel slipped the device in his pocket and did a quick check of his material; sure enough, beneath his long coat, there were plenty of stakes and even a Deburchan dagger for good measure. "Cordy and I need to catch up on old times."
With a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, Connor said, "Yeah. You go ahead. I'm just going to wait here."
One of the stakes had left a long splinter in Angel's palm, but he welcomed the small sliver of pain. "That's probably a good idea."
Fred and Gunn were making out in the lobby.
"Whoops! Sorry, Angel," Fred giggled, letting go of Gunn, who ducked his head as if abashed, though he was grinning.
Angel hadn't ever thought to see that couple again. But it was easy enough to smile - Fred's reappearance was as surprising, and as wonderful, as it had been at Wolfram & Hart. "Don't let me interrupt, you - you crazy kids." He kept his voice casual as he added, "Connor said Cordelia was in here."
"She went to the courtyard," Gunn said, nodding in that direction. "Wanted to get some fresh air, though why she thinks we got some in L.A. is beyond me."
"It's the amnesia," Fred said.
"You guys go back to what you were doing." Angel could feel his battle anger coming over him again, thick and dark and rich with blood. He could think about all the other ramifications of landing at this time and place later. Nothing was more important than destroying - that THING - that had ruined his son and destroyed his friend. Reflection would come later. He had to end this now. "I'll be outside. With Cordelia."
Gunn drew Fred back into his arms. "If you insist."
Ignoring the soft laughter behind him, Angel walked toward the courtyard. As the doors swung open at his touch, he could see Cordelia - the thing in Cordelia's body - standing at the far edge of the courtyard. The moonlight dappled her short hair, turning the highlights to gold.
She looked over her shoulder and smiled. "Hey. It's you."
"And it's - you." Angel came toward her at a slow, deliberate pace, unwilling to tip his hand just yet, but unwilling to play the fool for even a moment longer. "Funny meeting you here."
After a moment she smiled - uncertain, as she should be, but still suspecting no danger. "Took me a second to realize you were joking. Maybe my sense of humor vanished along with my memory, huh?"
She sounded so much - SO much - like Cordelia. Angel had forgotten just how vivid the impersonation was. Though his anger never subsided, it was harder than he'd thought it could be to look down and see her face: the same wide grin, the same beautiful eyes, the tilt of her chin. And her body - he stared at her curves now, more boldly than he had ever allowed himself to do before - God, she even moved like Cordelia.
"You're different tonight," she said. But her voice was coquettish; she was watching him rake his eyes over her body and thinking that she had an opportunity. This creature could look at Angel's love and desire - and Connor's, too - and see nothing but tools to be used.
"Yeah. I am."
"Can I ask why?" She gazed up at him through half-lowered lids, the kind of stare that invites a kiss.
She's using Cordelia, everything that Cordelia is. This is rape - no, worse than rape, because she'll leave Cordelia with nothing. Not even her life.
Angel stepped a little closer, forcing himself to focus on her lips as he closed his hand over one of the stakes. "I guess I've realized something I never really accepted before."
"And what would that be?"
He smiled. "You're not Cordelia," he said, and slammed the stake into her chest.
It didn't kill her instantly; she stumbled back, oozing blood, but she laughed. "This is Cordelia's body," she said, and the voice was horrible now. "I don't have one. You can't kill me."
"No, I can't." Angel pulled the stake out and plunged it into her again, this time in the belly, ignoring the rush of hot blood against his hand. "And I can't save Cordelia. But I can damn sure you keep you from using her body to play head games with us anymore."
She fell to her knees, clutching her abdomen. A cough sent blood splashing from her mouth, and she gave him a gory smile. "This doesn't stop me. Just slows me down."
"I know your plans. I know your game. I know where the Beast will appear, and I know how to stop him. You didn't win last time -"
"-and you won't win next time."
"I -- always win," she said, falling back onto the cobblestones. " You - should know that - by now."
"What do you mean?" Angel demanded.
But she was fading now, taking Cordelia's body with her. "You - never knew - my name."
And that might have meant anything in the world - but those were her last words, as the light in her eyes faded and her last breath rattled in her chest.
Angel braced himself against the courtyard wall; with the malevolent presence possessing Cordelia now gone, he was left with Cordelia's dead body - for the second time in two days.
At least last time the blood on his hands had only been metaphorical.
"I'm sorry," Angel said to a woman who wasn't there.
Fred and Gunn accepted his explanation more easily than he would've thought. Too late, Angel wondered if he should have taken them into his confidence before he attacked Cordelia's impostor, and not after; however, he suspected any delay or uncertainty might have tipped her off, and so his decision was probably the right one regardless.
"I know it's hard seeing her like this," Angel said when Gunn looked out into the courtyard to see Cordelia's bloodied corpse lying there. "But Cordelia - the Cordy we knew - she never came back. And she never will. The sooner we all accept that, the better."
"You did what you thought right," Fred said quietly. Her hands were folded her in lap, and her eyes were rimmed with red. "That's all any of us can do."
"I have to find Connor." Opening the weapons chest, Angel chose a few choice instruments to take with him; if Connor took it badly - and he would - more than a Deburchan dagger would be necessary for protection. "Once he's come to terms with this, we'll have to learn what she said to him. What specifically she was trying to get him to do." Most of this, he'd pieced together since it first happened, but Angel didn't intend to leave any stone unturned. Her final words had shaken him, and he'd be damned if he'd let her defeat him from the grave.
From Cordelia's grave, that was. He wondered if Wesley was right, about scattering her ashes at sea. No, he'd think about that later.
Connor wasn't at the ratty little room he'd fashioned for himself; it was empty and cold, and the longer Angel waited there, the more pitiful it seemed. A few fast-food bags were tossed in a makeshift garbage can fashioned from a Glad bag and a cardboard box. The mattress that lay on the floor was lumpy and smelled somewhat sour; no doubt Connor had fished it from a Dumpster, where it had definitely belonged.
--Connor made love to Cordelia on this godawful thing -
--no, he hadn't, Angel reminded himself. First of all, it had never been Cordelia; second, now that consummation would never happen at all. And that alone had to be reason to celebrate.
Angel didn't feel like celebrating, though. He felt as if, in some sense, his mind was only now beginning to catch up to the whirlwind trip the rest of him had taken back in time. Leaping back the first go-round had been discomfiting enough, but in essence, relatively little had changed. He had Wesley and Fred back - and thank God - but the dilemma they'd been facing was the one he had only just finished dealing with. Cordelia's fate had been different only in the sense that the monitors connected to her had still been blinking. The emotional shift hadn't been as profound; he'd known where to go from there, or thought he had, anyway. If the memory spell had only remained intact, that would have worked out fine.
This, though - this was different. It was harder to go back to this, one of the most painful times in all their lives, and confront the deception all over again. And Wesley - God, Wesley would still be hating him, and rightfully so, but if they worked this out the first time, they'd work it out again.
Lilah would still be alive, too. Angel frowned as he realized he'd just saved her life as well, not that he'd get any thanks for it, either from Lilah herself or those forced to deal with her.
Well. You couldn't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Or not breaking, in this case. Something.
Nothing remained for Angel but to live in the here and now. As he sat in Connor's room, he tried to absorb more than the atmosphere of the place, but to fully live in the time that now surrounded him. Connor was still his, still angry and unsettled - but yearning for a home and for love. Angel could give him that, and eventually Connor would see it. Fred and Gunn were still together; would they last longer this time, without the pressure of the Beast's arrival weighing them down? It was weird to think that, with Wesley no doubt still entangled with Lilah, Fred and Gunn might actually go the distance this time.
That, or they'd break up tomorrow. Angel had learned he was a very bad judge of other people's love lives, if somewhat a better judge than of his own.
He glanced to one side and saw the open duffle bag that he'd packed with Cordelia's things, a week or two - or, depending on how you looked at it, more than a year - before. Angel knelt beside it and began going through it all: the royal-blue sweater she used to wear around the office, as soft to the touch as he'd once imagined it might be. A bottle of Chanel No. 9 that she couldn't afford but bought anyway; Angel sprayed a little on the sweater and inhaled deeply, relishing the soft scent that reminded him of her. This perfume had more to do with Cordelia than the creature he'd confronted that night.
The photographs were the worst. There they were - him and Wes and Cordy, all sitting around a table and smiling like mad at whoever might have taken the picture. Gunn, probably. When had they ever been this happy?
Why couldn't he remember them being happy?
His distraction kept him from hearing the footfalls on the fire escape until Connor was actually opening the window. Angel turned to face him, expecting surprise and anger. Buffy had always been angry when her mom touched her stuff; probably he could expect some of the same.
Connor's face was white, and his body was shaking. He was enraged - but it wasn't the rage of a boy whose privacy has been invaded. It was gut-deep anger, and in that moment Angel knew that Connor had already learned of Cordelia's death.
"You couldn't let her go," Connor said, his voice cracking. "You couldn't let her love anybody else. Or was it that you couldn't let anybody love me?"
"That was not Cordelia."
"The hell it wasn't! I went to see what you were saying to her -"
"To spy on me," Angel corrected him, then wondered why the hell he was making a very bad situation worse.
"I saw what you did to her. I saw what was left of her. How could you do that? Why -"
"I told you. It WASN'T Cordelia. Connor - the thing inside her - it fooled you, it fooled us all, but -"
"Stop it!" Connor yelled, reaching back as if for a weapon. "Stop making excuses! You killed her and - and I've left you alive long enough."
The knife came spinning toward Angel at superhuman speed.
Fortunately, Angel had superhuman speed.
He dodged the blade, spun and grabbed the handle from the air. As Connor stared at him, he held it up. "First lesson: This wouldn't have killed me, even if you had hit me."
"It would have hurt you," Connor said. "And I want to hurt you."
"Hurt your opponent after you've disabled him. Before, you're just wasting time." That advice came from Angelus' experience, not Angel's, but anything that might keep his son alive in a future battle was worth passing on. "Second lesson: Listen when somebody tells you the truth."
"Third lesson." Connor smirked. "Don't assume the first blow is the worst."
The stake thudded into Angel's arm, not his chest, but it hurt like all hell anyway. Why hadn't he watched what Connor was doing with his other hand? "Dammit -"
Connor leaped forward, swinging one foot into Angel's ribs with a sickening crack. But Angel had fought through broken bones before. He elbowed Connor savagely under the chin, stunning him.
As Connor fell back onto the floor, Angel said, "This hurts me more than it hurts you."
"What else is new?" Connor spat at him, before slumping dully to the floor.
He needed to bind Connor's hands and feet before he tried to move him, but it took Angel a few moments to bring himself to do it. He spent that time looking down at his son's unmoving form and wondering how - and if - they might find a way to be together this time.
Connor's weight was heavy across his shoulders - awkward and difficult, like a dead body. But his heartbeat was still strong, and Angel could already feel relief replacing his rage.
Imprisoning Connor - that would be a bad idea. He'd hate it, and he'd hate Angel - more - for it. But they could keep him under control long enough to get it through his head that Cordelia hadn't been Cordelia. There were portals, oracles, ways of getting at cosmic truth; could he maybe lead Connor through one of them, talk things through? After that -
After that, he would get to try again.
Angel could feel the weight of the device in his coat pocket, thudding against his side as he walked through the alleyways. For the first time, he realized that he wasn't just undoing a couple of specific wrongs - he was going to get to live the past two years over again, and get a future that spooled out past it as well.
He'd still lost Cordy - that would always hurt, but at least this time he knew that he'd stopped the desecration of her body as soon as he possibly could. But he hadn't lost Connor, and now that his son wouldn't be warped by Jasmine's lies, there was still hope that his son could rebuild his life.
He had the agency back, too, just as it had been. Fred and Gunn, here at his side. And he could convince Wesley to return, given enough time; hell, he'd beg if he had to, admit he was wrong, and manage not to laugh at the astonishment in Wesley's face.
And hey - he could make some money on World Series bets.
So he felt reasonably good as he walked back into the Hyperion, right up until the moment that the arrow thudded into his chest.
Gasping in pain, Angel stumbled, only just managing to put Connor down instead of dropping him. He heard a voice say, coolly, "Missed the heart, I'm afraid."
Angel braced his shoulder against the wall as he tugged the arrow out; blinking through tears of pain, he saw Wesley standing by the door to the courtyard, a crossbow in his hands. On either side of him stood Fred and Gunn, both of them tense.
He'd thought they'd understood, when he told them about the malevolent being inside Cordelia. But not Angel realized - they'd only been humoring him.
"I don't know if you've lost your soul again," Wesley said, stepping forward briskly. "Nor do I care. At times I've wondered if you ever had one to start with."
"That was not Cordelia," Angel gasped, struggling back to his feet. He could dodge a crossbow if he had to; there was still a chance to flee. But he wanted to try and get through to them if he could -
"She may not have remembered herself, but that was Cordelia. You murdered her, for reasons only you would know. In short, you've lost your mind." Wesley cocked his head, studying Angel, obviously sizing up his weaknesses. "Though you may not believe this now, I pity you, Angel. Just as one might pity a rabid dog that must be put down."
"Dammit, Wesley, listen to me!" Angel couldn't take this any more. "You know how much I loved Cordelia. You were there, at the beginning, and you know. You can't have forgotten that, can you? Remember - remember when that bastard Wilson Christopher took advantage of her, and we thought she was going to die? And we came and sat on her bed and talked to her - you and I, we worked together to freeze that demon before he could hurt her anymore - don't you remember any of that?"
Wesley hesitated. In his eyes, Angel could see the glimmerings of doubt, and memory, and the gentler man Wesley used to be. "You - Angelus' skills at manipulation are legendary -"
"I'm not manipulating you. I'm telling you the truth. I loved Cordelia, and I would never have hurt her, any more than you would. That thing out there - it wasn't Cordelia."
The silence stretched out for a moment, and Angel tried to ignore the spear of pain in his chest as he kept his eyes locked with Wesley's. Slowly, the tension in Wesley's shoulders began to ease. He didn't want to believe, Angel could tell - but he was beginning to, all the same.
Then the dagger stabbed into his belly.
Angel fell back, turning to see Gunn standing there, arm still extended. "He was getting to your mind, man," Gunn said. He wasn't talking to Angel. "Leave this to me."
Fighting would only make this worse. Angel did the only thing he could do - turned and ran, his feet pounding the asphalt as he tore down the sidewalk, making his way to the nearest dark alley.
"Stay on him!" That was Fred shouting, and if it hadn't been so damned useless, the sound of Fred in battle mode might have made Angel laugh.
Stumbling in his disorientation, Angel put his hand to his belly and pulled it away covered with blood - fresh blood of his own, stained over the dried flakes of Cordelia's blood still on his hands. His injuries would heal soon enough, so if he could just hide, he could -
--could what? Take another crack at convincing the others that Cordelia hadn't been Cordelia? If he just sang for Lorne, that would take care of it, wouldn't it?
Yes - if they ever gave him the chance. But even Lorne wasn't infallible, or unbreakable.
Ducking behind some garbage cans, Angel took a moment to consider his options. He could dig his way out of this mess, or -
He lifted up the device. Why the hell hadn't Chip given him an instruction manual?
Just jumping back didn't solve many problems - Angel had already realized that much. But as he saw Gunn's shadow at the end of the alleyway, he figured it would at least solve these problems.
The rest, Angel decided, as he gave the device another spin and felt the world glimmer into golden warmth -- he'd take as it came.
The world changed from gold to blue. And from warm to cold. And from - not wet - to very, very wet.
Angel blinked his eyes and tried to brush something from his face - but his hands were bound at his sides. In an instant he realized where he was: the box.
This was one of the hundred days he'd spent at the bottom of the sea, because of Connor's misplaced rage.
A sea crab scuttled past the small window in the lid. Angel clenched his fist and realized, to his relief, that the device was still in his hand.
Of course, he could wait. Wesley would tow him up again at some point - maybe 100 days from now, but maybe only a handful. His sanity might be a bit dicey at first, but then Angel would have a chance to begin again. Connor wouldn't be so hardened then, and when that thing returned in Cordelia's body -
--the wrongness of it revolted him all over again, nauseating him so that he shivered in the cold waves -
--he could stop it. No, he wouldn't mind killing that thing twice, not at all. This time he would explain to Fred and Gunn beforehand - Wesley too -- and Angel thought he might be able to convince them all. They wouldn't tip off the creature inside Cordelia. They could even warn Connor before he ever met Cordelia, so that confusion would never come to pass.
Yes, maybe it would be best to wait it out - again -
A fish swam by. Angel thought it might be a trout.
Fuck this, he thought. One more spin, and all of it, trout included, melted away.
Angel felt the pillow beneath his head first.
As the golden light faded, Angel realized that he was lying in bed - the bed from his suite at the Hyperion. He wore only a pair of boxer shorts, and the device lay on the mattress right next to him. His vampire's senses told him it was just past dawn.
Blinking in the darkness - even vampire eyes took a moment to adjust - Angel began doing some calculations. He knew that he was in a time before his months in the box under the ocean, but after their reclamation of the Hyperion Hotel. That didn't narrow it down too much, but soon he could collect a few more clues.
And then he heard the baby.
Angel whispered, "Connor?"
He sat up straight, staring toward the crib - and he knew which direction to look, because he still woke from sleep to look for it, years later, despite himself. But there it was - Connor's crib, with Connor inside it, pudgy fists waving in the air. He wasn't crying, just cooing to himself, soft little sounds of baby happiness that Angel had never thought to hear again.
Tears filled Angel's eyes, and he didn't bother to check them. He just got to his feet, went to the crib and picked up his son - the baby he'd never thought to see or hold again.
How had Connor ever been so tiny? These little hands - these little feet -
Overcome, Angel cuddled Connor close, breathing in the soft scent of him and rocking him back and forth. Connor's fingers splayed against Angel's chest, teeny fingernails scraping him lightly.
"Daddy's here," Angel whispered. "Daddy's here. And I'm never going to let you go. Never ever. Not this time."
His knees felt watery, and Angel sat on the side of the bed to steady them both. Connor, apparently well-contented with this arrangement, quieted and began breathing in and out more deeply, falling asleep in his father's arms.
I was never supposed to be here again, Angel thought, dazed with happiness and gratitude. This was lost forever.
Even one more hour - one more minute - to hold his baby in his arms was an unimaginable blessing. Angel realized, only now, that Chip had not simply cast him aside with a tool to right certain wrongs; Angel had been given a gift of such infinite promise, such potential joy, that it humbled him past words.
Thankfully, he didn't need words for his son.
This time it will all go better, Angel promised his son and himself. This time it won't all get screwed up beyond imagination. This time I won't lose you, not ever, not ever again.
When he and Connor both got up, Angel was in fine spirits and ready for a brand-new day - whatever day this might be. "Good morning!" he called as he headed downstairs, Connor in one arm.
"It's 1 p.m., chickadee." Lorne was sitting behind the front counter reading a Judith Krantz novel. "Not exactly morning in this time zone. But for you undead types, it's bright and early, so at least you're in the spirit of the thing."
"Just happy to start all over again," Angel said. "Isn't that right, Connor?" Connor gave him the rumpled baby frown that meant it was time to make up a bottle, and fast.
"Look who's on cloud nine!" Lorne studied him for a moment, an odd look on his face. "Listen, I gotta say, you're taking this like a champ. Most men would be a little more mopeful, when their shelia was off doing the comshuk with somebody else."
Comshuk? Oh. Groo. Angel readjusted his mental time clock, zeroing in a little more. "Groo won't be around forever," he replied as he headed toward the all-important fridge with formula. "Besides, as long as I've got my main guy, everything's all right."
Cordelia was alive, and herself. He hadn't just gotten another chance to be Connor's dad; he had another chance to make a life with Cordelia, and to keep her safe. The happiness in his heart redoubled, so dazzling that Angel quickly reminded himself to think of some bad memories and bring it down a notch. A couple trips through the trenches he made in World War I brought his mood down to acceptably happy levels.
"That's rather sanguine of you, no pun intended." Lorne put his book aside and leaned conspiratorially close as Angel walked up with Connor and bottle in hand. "Listen, call me crazy, but have you noticed Fred and Gunn acting a little, you know, glow-ish around each other? She was humming a little yesterday, but she stopped before I could get anything out of it."
Groo meant this was after the ballet. "Those two? They've paired off. They're probably making out right now, wherever they are."
"No kidding! Well, score one for Cupid. They told you this?"
"No," Angel said, because technically they never had. "I just - know."
"Look who's learning how to trust his intuition! I'm pleased as peaches. This goes down as yet another testimonial for my late-night infomercial when I finally become a life coach."
"Peaches are pleased?" Angel never had quite understood Lorne. But then Wesley came through the door - completely casual, obviously fully at home at Angel Investigations, as he once had been and, Angel decided, always would be. He smiled. "Welcome back, Wes."
"Ah. Yes. Angel. Hello!" Wesley's smile was uneasy. "And you've got Connor - he's eating - right. I've got some research to do." He ducked into the back office without another word.
Lorne clucked his tongue. "You think he's taking the Fred-Gunn love-o-rama pretty hard?"
"Yes," Angel replied, staring at the closed office door. Wesley had been so awkward, so uncertain. Nothing had happened between them yet, so why was he -
Oh, God. The prophecy.
Wesley believed that Angel would kill his son. He didn't yet know that the prophecy wasn't true - even now, maybe, he was talking to Holtz and making the plans that would turn all their lives to ruin.
Angel's first impulse was to take Connor and run - just run, through the sewers if need be, away from Wesley and Los Angeles and even the United States, to hide him as far from Holtz as it took to keep him safe. It wouldn't just save his son from a terrible childhood; it would also save Wesley infinite misery, and Cordelia's life, and the emergence of the Beast - countless miracles could flow from this one moment.
But that might or might not work. If Wesley was determined to find him, he would; Angel knew enough about Wesley's capabilities to be sure of this. Holtz couldn't be underestimated either. And Sahjahn was already on the loose. No, he had to stay here and resolve this, but how?
First of all, he would need an ally.
"Lorne," Angel said, "You've got the contact number Cordelia left, right?"
"Give it to me." He remembered now that he had purposely not let himself see it, for fear that he would call and say something stupid; after Connor's abduction, he had refused to call and inflict his pain on her one moment before it became necessary.
In other words, he'd screwed up. Not this time.
"You sure you want to do this?" Lorne's green face was clearly skeptical. "You were a lot more laid-back about it just a couple seconds ago -"
"Trust me on this." It would help, during his phone call, to be able to concentrate. Hating to do it, Angel slowly held Connor out to Lorne. "And take care of the little guy for just a few seconds, okay?"
"I had style, I had flair, I was there - that's how I became the nanny," Lorne sighed, taking Connor and bottle. Connor kept nursing, oblivious to anything but food.
The receiver clattered, and Angel heard a heavy bash against the plastic. He was alarmed in the split second before he heard: "What yowling beast dares disturb the rest of my princess?"
Then, in the distance: "Groo, it's a PHONE, will you chill?"
And that was Cordelia - really Cordelia. Angel smiled despite himself.
"Cordy. It's Angel. Hi."
"Oh, hey, Angel!" How could her voice sound so wonderful. "I didn't expect to hear from you."
"I didn't expect to call. But I need your help." Angel said the next words carefully, remembering both future and past. "I need you back."
Cordelia was quiet, and he could tell just from the silence that she had sensed his mood. "Is there trouble?"
"Not yet. But there could be. I don't want to get into it over the phone."
She hesitated a moment longer. "Groo and I - you know we're -"
Oh, to hell with beating around the bush. "You two are together, and I'm sure you're having a really great time. But, Cordy, you don't love him. You - I - well, you know, or you probably know, and, and - and the sooner we stop lying to ourselves about it, the better."
He smiled, looking up at the ceiling. He hated saying this kind of thing, but this time, dammit, he was going to get it out somehow. "We keep doing this crazy dance - this denial thing - and maybe you're better at it than I am - but it doesn't make any sense. You have to make every moment count, Cordelia. We didn't do that."
"You're asking me to come back -" The quality of the sound changed, as though she had cupped her hands around the phone, before she whispered, "-because you're - you feel - that maybe you're in -"
"No. I mean, yes, I'm -" Time to just say it and get it out there. "I'm in love with you, but that's not why I called." Angel glanced back out at the lobby, where his son was still a baby waiting for his daddy - for now. "I called because I'm in trouble, and I think Connor might be in danger, and you're the only person who can help me. The love part - we can deal with that later. But I need to take care of Connor now."
"I'm on my way," Cordelia said, hanging up before he could speak another word.
He spent that afternoon in suspense. It was difficult to act normally around Wesley; more than once, Angel considered sitting Wesley down and simply explaining to him. What was the technical term for telling someone they had a prophecy ass-backwards? Angel knew he could figure something out.
But what he hadn't counted on was his own reaction. Angel had long since learned to consider the terrible events of Connor's kidnapping a kind of tragic accident; everyone involved did horrible things, more horrible because they all rose from love instead of hate. It was all very clear in the rear-view mirror.
Now, though, he could look at it again; this time, he could see it unfolding, and it made Angel angry almost past the point of self-control. At this moment - even as they stood on opposite sides of the room from each other - Wesley was plotting to steal Connor, to take him away forever. At this moment, Wesley could ask Angel how he was doing, or tell Angel that they needed to work together to keep Connor safe. They had every choice, every option, every chance --
Instead, Wesley remained on the far side of the room, making small talk, watching Angel's hands, and saying nothing.
You don't trust me, Angel thought, vampire rage simmering deep within him as looked at Wesley. Maybe you'd be smart not to trust me all the time. But with Connor? You didn't even trust me with my own son?
Whenever the anger threatened to overcome him, Angel would look down at his son. Then the fury went to some other place, and he could just revel in the delight of having Connor back again. It was all he could ask for in life - holding out a finger for Connor's tiny fist to grab, or just watching his eyelids close as he fell asleep.
Still, it was not a moment too soon when Cordelia ran through the door.
"Where's Angel?" she cried, before turning and seeing Angel on the stairs. "Oh. Right. That was a little melodramatic, huh?"
"Works for me," Angel said. He smiled down at her, caught up in the sight of Cordelia, alive and well. Her hair was dark again - he must have reached her just before the salon - and her smile was more the smile he remembered: young and happy, if not quite carefree.
"Cordelia?" Wesley set aside his books, startled. Angel hadn't bothered mentioning that Cordy would be coming back, because explaining why would be complicated. "I - well - welcome back. Where is the Groosalugg?"
"He's on his own for a while," she said slowly. As her eyes met Angel's, he could see her confusion - why was Wes acting so casual? - and then her comprehension, understanding that Angel hadn't told Wesley anything yet. "I think Angel and I have some stuff to talk over."
"Definitely," Angel said. "Why don't we - I mean, do you want to go upstairs?"
"Sure." Cordelia set down her bags and started up after him. Wesley stood at the foot of the stairs, the light reflecting off the lenses of his glasses so that Angel couldn't see his eyes. "I'll give you your souvenir later!" she called to Wesley.
"Splendid," Wesley said, and Angel wondered if the others could hear the darkness within his voice.
No sooner had Angel closed his door behind him and Cordelia than she said, "Angel, if you said Connor was in trouble as some kind of half-assed seduction attempt -"
"He's really in trouble," Angel said, setting the drowsy Connor back down in his crib. For once, Connor seemed willing to go down for a nap without a fight. Taking Cordelia's elbow, he steered her into the bedroom area of the suite, where they could talk without disturbing the baby. "Also? My seduction attempts are never half-assed. You'll see what I mean."
Cordelia's cheeks flushed pink enough that he could see it even beneath her new suntan. "Angel - you and me - we're friends. I know that night at the ballet was kind of hot - okay, very very very hot - but do you really think we're -"
Angel took her shoulders in his hands and kissed her. She breathed in a startled gasp, but Angel just kissed her harder, took advantage of her open mouth to slip his tongue inside. Within an instant, her arms were around his neck as she kissed him back, deep and sweet and slow.
When their mouths finally parted, she whispered, "Okay, you might be onto something with this whole 'love' deal."
"Thought so," Angel murmured. The temptation to keep on kissing her was powerful; only his fear for Connor kept him focused. "I promise you - we're going to explore this, at length -"
"I remember from the ballet."
"-later. Right now, I need you to help me keep Connor safe."
"You keep saying that." Cordelia sighed in frustration as Angel let her go to walk nearer Connor's crib. It was hard for him to even let his son out of his sight. "But now that I've turned both my vacation plans and my love life upside down in the past two hours, I think it's past time for you to give me a few details here. Has Holtz tried something else?"
"It's not Holtz I'm worried about. It's Wesley."
Cordelia sat very still as Angel explained the best he could; a few of the details were fuzzy, this many years after he'd first experienced them. Her face was almost motionless with shock, though she grimaced with disgust when Angel revealed that Wolfram & Hart had been lacing his blood supply with Connor's own blood.
"I stopped drinking that stuff the second I got back - I mean, the second I realized. I don't think they'd done it for very long; I've got my control again, I promise you."
"Are you sure? Angel, if that baby's in any danger -"
"I would walk away. I promise you." Angel wondered if he could have made that promise with so much certainty if he hadn't actually done so before - in a future that, hopefully, would never reoccur. "Wesley obviously isn't listening to me right now. He's already started talking to Holtz. I can't convince him, but maybe you could."
"How am I supposed to convince him that the prophecy's wrong? What I know about ancient prophecies would fit inside Fred's bra."
"Just convince him to come and talk to me. If he thinks that you and I are willing to work with him, Wes won't feel like he has to turn to Holtz. At least, I hope not."
She folded her arms. "And what if he doesn't, Angel? Are we gonna fight Wesley?" The way she said it made it clear that she thought she was being ridiculous - not describing the way things might actually go.
"That won't happen," Angel said, willing himself to believe it. "Worst-case scenario - we'll leave. You and me and Connor, we'll pack up in the car and drive. We could get pretty far from Holtz, and I think we could hide for a good, long time."
"Holtz will never stop looking for you. Which means he'll never stop looking for Connor-"
"We just have to hide for a while. Long enough for Wesley to realize the prophecy's false, anyway. After that, we can beat Holtz together."
"And we have cash," Cordelia added. "Left over from the vacation fund -" Her voice trailed off, and her voice was softer as she said, "You gave me money to go away with Groo."
Had he? Oh, right. "Yeah."
"Even though you were - are - in love with me, you let me go."
"I wanted you to be happy," Angel said. "I still want that. But, Cordy - maybe we could be happy together."
She took his hand in hers, her touch soft - but then she frowned. "Not TOO happy."
Angel kissed her forehead gently. "I've learned ways to work around that."
"Oh, really?" That was definitely hope he heard.
"Really and truly. I'll prove it to you." And that was a promise.
Cordelia looked as though she might demand proof immediately - not an unwelcome scenario, Angel decided - but then she let go of his hand and straightened up. "I have to think about this. And I have talk to Wesley. Okay. You hang out here with the little guy, all right?"
"Wild horses couldn't drag me away," Angel said, moving back toward his son's crib as she went out the door.
"This is the craziest day of my life," Cordelia said. Angel only wished that were true.
The next hour was spent watching his son sleep. Angel had appreciated the joy of something so simple the first time around, but it was even more precious now.
As he gazed down at Connor's chubby face, he tried to picture Connor's teenage features; the eyes were the same, but the rest was difficult to see. Maybe it was because Angel had so often seen Connor as angry or desperate, never relaxed in total peace and happiness as he was now.
It's going to be better this time, he promised his sleeping son. You aren't going to grow up in Quartoth, and you're going to have your old man with you, not Holtz. You'll go to a real school, and you'll play hockey, and I will come to every single one of your piano recitals if it kills me.
A quiet rap on the door made Connor twitch once before settling back to sleep. Rather than call out, Angel got up and answered it, expecting to find Cordy there again. She was there - but Angel hadn't expected to see Wesley there too, his face grave. "Angel - we should talk."
NOW you say so, Angel thought, but there was no point in getting angry about the past - no, about something that could have happened, but now wouldn't. "Yeah. Good plan."
"Tell ya what," Cordelia said, pushing past them to walk into the suite. "I'll take Connor downstairs. Give you guys a chance to chat."
"He's sleeping-" Angel said, but Cordelia already had the baby in her arms. Connor was still fast asleep; she was the only one of them who had ever been able to pick him up without awakening him.
"Seriously, you two should talk. I'll take care of him, all right?" She was already in the hallway again.
"Thanks, Cordy." Angel shut the door behind her, leaving him and Wesley alone.
"You might've told me yourself," Wesley said. "That you knew."
"I could say the same thing."
Wesley breathed out, not quite a sigh. "If you'd learnt that you were drinking Connor's blood - good God, Angel, why didn't you tell anyone? We needed to know that Holtz was working with Wolfram & Hart, regardless of anything I might have learned. Your silence helped turn me into - into his collaborator."
Angel wanted to protest that he hadn't known the first time - but, of course, that would involve telling Wesley that he had leaped backwards in time in the first place. Then he wondered: Why not? Before, he had kept the device secret more out of instinct than anything else. Now perhaps it would be better to just share -
--that they'd been enemies, that they'd been suckered by Wolfram & Hart, that Cordelia and Fred and Wes himself had been doomed by all their mistakes -
--no. The device, nestled in his pants pocket for safekeeping, would be better left a secret.
"I was ashamed," Angel lied. "Not to have recognized it right away. To have done something so awful to my own son - without even knowing."
The lie worked. Wesley relaxed slightly, and his hand brushed against Angel's arm. "I only meant to protect Connor. I want you to know that."
"I do." And why had it taken him so long to see it? "But we can do that better together than alone."
For a few minutes, they discussed what Wesley had believed, and when, and why. Angel did his best to remember what he'd said two years ago, or a day ago, depending on who you were asking. If he had to bluff his way through the conversation, apparently he covered well enough.
At last, Wesley straightened up. "The prophecies are downstairs. If you've figured out what's true and what's false in the writings, clarification would be helpful."
"Let's go," Angel said, as the two of them left the suite. Already it felt as though an enormous weight had lifted from him. Now he and Wesley would never part ways. Connor would never be stolen. And instead of losing Cordelia before he'd ever found her, he could finally find out if they'd be able to love each other. "Cordy?"
"Cordelia?" Wesley echoed as they began going downstairs. "All's well." Then, with a laugh: "You can stop hiding now."
Angel looked at the counter. Connor's car seat was gone. In its place was a note. "Oh, no."
He ran the rest of the way, Wesley close behind him. Although Angel was the one who picked up the piece of paper, he and Wesley read it together:
If you've been drinking human blood again, you're not in control. I remember what you're like when you're not in control - and as much as I love you (there, I said it), I know that you'd want me to protect Connor first of all. Wesley's weird secretive thing isn't the way to go, obviously, so if you two are deep in strangeness, it's going to be up to me.
I've got Connor, and plenty of cash, and Holtz will never guess where I'm going. I'll call! Lots! Don't be mad. We're all going to be okay now.
When you've taken Holtz down, I'll bring Connor back, and everything will be fine. You can show me what you've learned. Hope so, anyway.
Love you - see, I said it again.
"Blast and damn," Wesley said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "She gave up on both of us."
"With good reason," Angel replied. "But she doesn't understand who she's dealing with. If Holtz isn't on her trail right now, he will be within minutes."
Wesley ran to the weapons cabinet to arm them. "How far do you think she's gone?"
Angel lifted his head and sniffed the air, damning himself for saying both too much and not enough. Again. Her scent, as well as Connor's, was far too weak. "Too far. We have to hurry."
Wesley drove; Angel took shotgun. They trusted that she'd head for the highway first, and they traveled as fast as they could until they saw the red-and-blue lights of the police ahead of them.
"There's been a wreck," Wesley said, moving to steer them clear. But Angel's sharper eyes saw through the gloom, and in one terrible, sickening moment, he realized that he recognized the car.
"It's her. That's Cordelia's car. Holtz already got to her."
Swearing, Wesley pulled them over and parked at the nearest curb. Angel banged the SUV's door against a fire hydrant as he stumbled out and ran toward the accident scene. There were at least three police cars - already an ambulance - God, it couldn't have been half an hour -
"Sir, we have to ask you to stay back." An officer held up her hands.
"The child in that car - that's my son. Let me through."
Her face darkened, and he saw real regret in her eyes. More gently she said, "Can you wait here? Someone's going to come talk to you."
Oh, no. No, it couldn't be.
"The woman who was driving," Wesley shouted. "Where is she?"
Still no answer. No answers were bad. No answers meant they were waiting to come break it to you gently.
Angel squinted through the flashing lights; he could make out bullet holes in the glass. Faraway, he could hear witnesses giving their statements: "It was like a gang of 'em! They had axes and arrows and guns and stuff - the Crips, maybe, I don't know -"
"Angel." Wesley's hand was on Angel's shoulder, though he seemed to be steadying himself as much as Angel. "Oh, God. This can't be happening."
"No," Angel said. "It can't."
He'd never meant to go even this far back. And it hurt to know that he had come so close to really and truly mending things - to making a real future with Cordelia and his son.
But if there was no other way to save them, then time would have to turn back once more.
As he put his hand in his pocket, Angel turned to Wesley and said, "Thanks for being my friend."
"What?" Wesley said, in the last moment before the world went gold, then went away.
"Are you all right?"
Angel blinked and saw - Kate Lockley. Good God. He hadn't thought of her in forever.
She wore a trenchcoat over her jeans; probably she was still with the police force. How far back had he gone?
"Angel? You don't look so good."
"I'm fine," he said, blinking hard. "How have you been?"
"Since five minutes ago? Just great."
He could feel her skeptical stare on him as he pushed himself up from the chair - which was in the police station, her office, late at night. The disorientation he'd struggled with during all of his background leaps seemed even stronger now; had he finally gone too far, too fast?
Angel breathed in, trying to place himself in time through the clues around him. Kate had moved away from Los Angeles not long after she left the force; he'd gotten a couple of awkwardly worded postcards from San Francisco, where at last report she was working as a PI and enjoying herself a lot more. She'd left town a month after his epiphany, so - it was before that. But he'd known her for more than a year and a half at that point. Could this be just after he'd moved to Los Angeles? Surely he hadn't gone quite that far. But how could he tell?
Then he breathed in again, realizing that the smells were just slightly off - his clothing hadn't been laundered in too long. His shoes were muddy, the way he let them get back in the days when nobody was around to care about how he looked. And normally, his clothes carried just a slight whiff of the people he spent all this time with, be that Fred or Gunn or Cordy or Wes. He couldn't detect any of them on him now.
Fred - God, she'd still be in Pylea. But the others -
This is after I fired them, he realized. After I fired them, but before my epiphany.
Okay, not the greatest time period to be in. But at least he knew where to start working again.
"Did you not hear what I said?" Kate tilted her head to one side, her cornsilk hair falling over one cheek. "I think the zombie cops might've gotten to you."
Zombie cops. Angel started doing calculations in his head. When had he fought the zombie cops again? "They didn't get to me. I'm just tired. What did you say?"
"Wesley Wyndham-Price - he's a friend of yours, right?"
"Yes, he is." Why would Kate be asking him about Wesley? Then Angel remembered: Zombie cops. The shooting, Oh, no.
"I'm afraid he's been -"
Her voice trailed off behind him as Angel ran out of the police station.
It took him no time to get to the hospital. Angel still knew the one to go to, still remembered the floor Wesley would be on.
He lingered outside the room for a while, hearing through the wall their muted conversation. Wesley wasn't speaking much, and his voice was weak when he did. But Gunn's laughter and Cordelia's gentle murmuring told the rest of the story. Wesley would recover. He would grow strong again. And then they would restart their own agency. Something investigations. They didn't know what.
Angel didn't interrupt them. He waited, as long as it took, for Cordelia to come out of the hospital room. She held a couple of soda cans, obviously destined for the trash, and the circles beneath her eyes were dark. Her hair was odd, or so it seemed to Angel; he hadn't seen much of her with that haircut, the shag sort of thing. Not that her hair was all that important, of course; Angel recognized nervous distraction, even in himself.
She only saw him after a few seconds. Cordelia was tired too.
"What do you want?" she demanded. Her voice was hard.
"To see if Wesley's okay."
"He is. No thanks to you."
This was not entirely accurate - Angel remembered destroying the zombies, even if there was no way for Cordelia and the others to know that - but he couldn't defend himself, not if he was going to make any headway, and not if he was going to be truly honest. "There's something I want to say to you."
"And what would that be?" She crossed her arms, clearly livid. Angel remembered how this conversation had gone before, and he remembered her anger well. But he hadn't ever seen the vulnerability that was in her eyes too - had he really been so blind? "This should be good."
"I hope so," Angel said quietly. "Cordelia, I was wrong about everything. I was wrong to fire you, wrong not to listen to you about Darla, and wrong to think that I didn't need you. Because I do. I need you back."
She blinked, clearly caught off guard. "It's too late," Cordelia said, but her response was automatic; Angel could tell her heart wasn't in it.
"It's never too late," he said, believing it not only because of the golden device in his pocket, but because he'd lived the truth.
"What, you want us to come work for you again? Well, you can think again, because -"
"That's not what I'm asking for." Angel had humbled himself before; he would be happy to do it again. Groveling on his knees would be a pleasure, if he could just be with Cordelia again. And Wesley. All of them. "I'll come work for you. Or - if that's too much or too soon - all I want is to know you again. Just to earn the chance to be your friend once more. You give me humanity, Cordelia. You make me whole."
Tears were welling in her eyes now, but she stepped backwards from him, wobbling on her platform shoes. "Don't. Just - don't. You say all this stuff that I wish you would say, but -- but I can't trust you."
Maybe he should have let her go. He had time for this reconciliation to occur more slowly, as it had the first time around; the others were reasonably safe for the time being, and Wesley would take a while to recuperate, so what was the point of rushing things?
But Angel had been forced to know that Cordelia was dead three times in the past four days. He couldn't let her walk away from him now, not without a fight.
"I'll do anything," he said. "Anything, Cordy. Name it. I'll sing for Lorne-"
"What, now you're threatening me?"
"-I meant, to test my sincerity." Would Lorne be able to see the leaps through time? Angel thought he probably would, and wondered how much of it he might share. "I'll clean your house. I'll buy you clothes. I'll do anything you want, please, just believe me."
She rubbed the back of her hand against her cheeks, angrily wiping away tears. "If you know all this now, why didn't you know it a few weeks ago? Why did you send us away? Why didn't you listen?"
"Because I was a fool." That wasn't the truth, though - not the whole truth, anyway. And Angel could tell that nothing but truth would convince her now. "Cordelia, when I saw Darla, and I saw that she was alive again - it was like something in me that had been dead for too long rose up."
"Yeah, I know what rose up." Cordelia snorted. "Men."
"That's not what I -- listen, okay? The question that I live with, every day, is whether or not redemption is even possible for something like me. When I saw that Darla was alive again, human again, I knew that she had that chance. Even if I didn't, she did. And if someone who had done just as much evil as I had done could begin again, then it was possible for me too."
Cordelia studied his face carefully. "You thought - if she could be redeemed, then you could too?"
"Yeah. And I fought for it - like I was fighting for myself." He remembered the too-brief hour he and Darla had spent in her cheap motel room after the Trial he had undergone for her; she had been willing to die then, a human being once more. If only he had recognized that hour for what it was: Her soul's redemption, complete. "It doesn't excuse what I did. But I wanted you to understand why."
"I don't understand," Cordelia insisted. "We tried to tell you - we kept trying to tell you -"
"I didn't listen. I wouldn't. I will pay the price for that as long as I have to, and I'll never stop being sorry." Angel risked taking a step closer to her. "But please don't shut me out of your life forever. Take as long as you want. Demand whatever you want. Just say there's a chance. Please, Cordy."
She started crying even harder, truly sobbing now, and Angel fully expected to be pushed away. But instead, she choked out, "I hate this, you know? I hate caring about you. It's not good for me."
"No, it's not." Angel knew Cordelia couldn't have known how painfully true her words were. But the many deaths she'd known because of her role as his Seer, his friend and his love were all fresh in his heart, and he felt his throat tightening. "I'll even leave you, if that's what you want, but not until you tell me -"
Tell him what?
Cordelia grabbed his hand so tightly he felt as though bones might break. He didn't care. It felt better than anything in the world. "You have to do better. You have to promise," she sobbed. "Promise, Angel-"
"I promise, I promise, I -"
Her arms slid around his neck, and Angel hugged her close. For a dizzying moment he longed to kiss her, then remembered that this Cordelia wouldn't necessarily welcome that. And God knew he'd thrown enough at her already. He'd asked so much of her - and, once again, Cordelia hadn't let him down. "I'm so sorry," he whispered into her shoulder. "I'll make it up to you. I'll spend forever making it up to you."
"You big dork," she said, and it was the most loving thing Angel had heard in a long time.
She let him apologize to Gunn next, while she explained the situation to Wesley. Gunn, predictably, didn't throw his arms around Angel's neck or weep; in fact, he seemed altogether unimpressed with the situation. "We were doing just fine without you. I want to be perfectly clear on that," Gunn said, but he added, "Still, I guess if you got your act together, we could do even better with you."
"The act is together," Angel promised. "You'll see."
Later, Cordelia led him to Wesley's bedside. Angel had seen Wesley in other hospital beds, for even worse reasons than this; it didn't ever get any easier. "Cordelia's relayed your - regrets," he said. "I admit, I'm surprised."
"You deserve your own apology," Angel said. Swallowing his pride seemed to get easier with practice.
"An apology isn't what I want. I need something far more demanding from you, not words, but time." Wesley's head sank back into the pillow, as though saying just those words had exhausted him. "I want to see you live this resolution of yours, instead of merely saying it."
"You'll see it," Angel promised. "Also, I want to talk to you guys about a vampire hunter called Holtz at our next opportunity. Very manipulative. We should go over this, seriously."
"Ohhh-kay," Cordelia said. "I think Wesley isn't the only one who's a little too tired to make sense. Wes, why don't we let you get some sleep, all right? Charles is going to stay here with you, and Virginia's coming by first thing in the morning."
"Charles must have drawn - the short straw," Wesley murmured, but the painkiller in his system was already winning out over consciousness.
"Come on," Cordelia whispered, taking Angel's arm and steering him out the door. "We should go."
"Where?" Angel said. "Do you want to go to the Hyperion?"
"No. I mean, maybe. Not now." She kept holding on to his arm as they walked through the hospital hallways, a nice sensation that gave Angel hopes for the future. Had his feelings for her already begun to change at this point? Had hers? They were both too good at the art of denial for him to pinpoint the beginning of their romance with any accuracy.
"Caritas, maybe," Angel suggested. "No singing, I promise. But we could get a drink. Catch Lorne up on the latest."
"So that guy's name is Lorne? With the horns?" She considered that. "Well, I guess it fits. But no, I don't feel like going out. It's been a long night, you know?"
"Definitely." Angel hadn't actually slept for any length of time since - how could he say it? Three days ago? Since just after he'd shut off Cordelia's ventilator? 2003? "I could use some rest."
Cordelia said, "So let's go to my place. I mean, you can drop me off at my place."
"Okay." He felt a smile spreading across his face. "I'll have to be sure to say hello to Phantom Dennis. It's been a while."
"Guess it has." Cordelia's gaze met his, but only for a moment, as though she still didn't trust him enough to look him straight in the eye. "I'm not done being mad at you. You know that, right?"
"I know that." After losing Cordelia so terribly, even being on the receiving end of her anger was a pleasure.
"But I'm glad we can finally start moving past this. And that you're never going to worry about Darla again."
Then it hit him.
He hadn't slept with Darla. Now he wouldn't sleep with Darla. But if they never had sex again, that meant that Connor -
--his son -
--would never be born.
"What did you say, Angel?" Cordelia looked up at him quizzically. They were standing just at the hospital door, the EXIT sign's glow turning her hair a rich red.
Angel shook off his disorientation; he knew what he had to do now, and the sooner he got it over with, the better. "Let me drive you home. Then I'm going to go back to the hotel, clean some stuff up, get it ready for you guys - if you want to come back, that is."
"Like we could ever afford that much floor space anywhere else in L.A." Cordelia studied his face for a moment. "Is that everything?"
Lying to Cordelia wasn't any easier when he had a good reason.
His fist slammed into the apartment door once, twice, three times. Before the fourth, it swing open to reveal Lindsey McDonald, every bit as smug as Angel remembered. "Well, well, well. Looks like I've got a visitor."
"That's not all you've got," Angel said, charging at him -
--only to bounce off the invisible barrier across Lindsay's door.
He fell solidly to the floor, Lindsey's laughter in his ears. "What the hell was that? Did you just forget the invitation rule? After three centuries? Angel, I must say, that's pretty pathetic."
That's right, Angel thought. I don't have an invitation yet. "I know Darla's in there," Angel said, climbing back on his feet and trying not to look as embarrassed as he felt. "You're hiding her from everyone, even the partners. But you can't hide her from me."
Lindsey's smile was a little less smug, now. "You're obsessed. You're out of your mind."
"I was. But not anymore. And I know Darla's in there."
"That's my boy," Darla whispered, appearing behind Lindsey. For his part, Lindsey looked appalled that she'd revealed herself, but he said nothing. She wore only a satiny red bathrobe, neck open almost to the waist, leg exposed up to the thigh. "I should have known you'd find me."
Her throaty voice held no more allure for Angel, but he took it as a good sign. She still wanted him. Of course. Good. They could get this over with faster. "Come out here."
"She's not going anywhere with you," Lindsay said, oblivious to the fact that he had no more to offer the conversation. Darla's black eyes were all for Angel now, and in the heat of her gaze he remembered the power she'd held over him.
And he remembered the woman she'd been at the end, illuminated by their son's soul, giving up her existence to save Connor -
--her red lips twisted in a smile that was as wicked as it was seductive. "I don't have to go anywhere," Darla purred. "You let me live here, remember, Lindsey? That means I have the power to invite anyone in." Her finger crooked toward Angel. "Come here, lover."
Angel barreled through the doorway, now free to plunge through and tackle Lindsey to the ground. Lindsey's fist smacked into his jaw - a weak, useless, human maneuver. In response, Angel slammed Lindsey's head against the floor, hard. The man's eyes rolled in his head, and he passed out cold.
"Do you want to drink first?" Darla whispered, brushing her fingertips along his shoulder. "Or shall I?"
"No drinking," Angel commanded. He got to his feet and kicked the door shut behind them. "I'm tying him up and putting him in the closet. And then-"
"Then what, my darling boy?" Her eyes sparkled with anticipation.
"I want you." It was true, if not in the way Darla thought. His body felt utterly uninspired at the moment, but Angel knew he could do it. To have his son again, it would be worth it.
Darla's smile was uncertain. "You're so strange," she said. "I would've thought - well. Maybe, without your friends, you're lonely."
"They're working with me again," Angel said. He wouldn't deny them, not even to her, not even now. "We've been putting this off since the first second we saw each other again. You know it and I know it. Let's do this, Darla."
"And get it over with?" Her displeasure was clear - but in another moment she relaxed. "You'll loosen up after we've banged that nasty soul out of you."
Angel set to work binding Lindsey's hands and feet; if Lindsey awoke in the closet, he would have both a nasty headache and an earful. Too bad for him. Remembering Lindsey's enduring nastiness, Angel gave him an extra-hard shove with his foot before he slammed the closet door shut.
Then he stalked into Lindsey's bedroom - maybe it was right, even just, that this would happen in Lindsey's bed instead of his own - shedding his coat as he went. When he stepped inside, Darla was already splayed out on the bed, already naked to his gaze.
Her body was so perfect - white and cold and hard, like a marble statue. In the dim light, the scars from the burning he'd given her barely showed at all. Memory served him well, reminding him of a thousand nights of lovemaking they'd shared; it gave his body the thrill he needed to begin.
"That's my boy," she whispered, licking her lips as he began pulling off his shirts. "Come to me."
And then he was on her, kissing her hard, palming her breasts with almost brutal strength. Darla cried out, half in pain, half in pleasure, as he pinned her arms down and forced her thighs open with his own. To hell with foreplay - she didn't need it, he didn't want it, and he just wanted to fuck her, to fuck her and make their child and be done with her, forever and ever.
Angel rammed himself inside her, ignoring her cries of delight, ignoring the coldness that surrounded him, so unlike a living woman's heat. He shut his eyes, trying not to see or to hear, not to do anything but feel, so that he could get it over with faster.
Darla pretended to fight him; she was laughing, so he knew she didn't mean it, but she wanted to see savagery from him once more. Angel gave it to her, slamming her against the headboard, holding her down, biting into her neck and shoulder and gulping in her blood. They knocked the lamp off Lindsey's bedside table; he could see the phone's receiver dangling loose. The sheets tore beneath his fingers as he braced himself far above, thrusting into her harder, again and again, seeking only oblivion, and the life of his son.
He slept longer afterward than he would've liked.
By the time he awoke, Darla was already up and impatient; when he proved to still have his soul, she was no more thrilled than he had been the first time. Angel, unconcerned with her moods and not blessed with the epiphany that had made the morning after bearable before, stuck to simple instructions.
"If you're ever - afraid -"
"Afraid?" Darla spat at him. "Who do you think I am? Did you gain a soul at the expense of your wits?"
"If you're ever confronted with something - unique, something you don't understand, come to me." Angel found his coat where he'd dropped it on the living room floor. From within the closet, he could hear a faint rustling; Lindsey had survived the night, then. He'd have to figure out what to do with that guy later. "I mean it, Darla. No matter how strange it is, or how confusing you think it will be, I'll be there for you."
"That's incredibly heartwarming," Darla said. "I'll contact the people at Hallmark. They might want you to issue a line of cards."
"Stranger things have happened."
As he went to the door, Darla said, quietly, "You used me."
"And you used me." Angel hesitated and looked back at her; what of the emotion there was real? He still remembered her, drawing him up from his grave; there was a place in his heart that only she would ever know. "This time I had a good reason. That's the only excuse I've got."
"You'd better practice making excuses," she murmured, and something about that sounded altogether too confident for Angel, But he didn't look back as he went out the door.
He made his way back to the Hyperion through the sewers, having a few rats as he went. The combination of having sex with Darla and this mode of transportation made him long for a shower, and he promised himself a long, hot one as soon as he got back to the hotel.
But as soon as he walked into the lobby, he realized he wasn't alone.
"Hello?" Angel called. "Who's there?"
As he walked to the center of the lobby, he saw Cordelia sitting behind the counter. There were tear tracks on her cheeks, but she wasn't crying, at least not any more. She was still and silent as he crossed the floor toward her.
"The hotel is filthy," she said.
He looked around, remembering the truth of her words even as he saw it. During the weeks he'd been on his own, he hadn't bothered cleaning up much. The banister was dusty, the floor dingy. "Yeah, I guess it is."
"You said you were coming back to clean up." Cordelia still wasn't looking directly at him. "You didn't clean up."
"I didn't think you'd be here so early," Angel said. He hadn't expected to see her here at all, not for a few days. But already, the fact that he'd have to explain where he was - that he'd have to lie again - had begun to weigh upon him, oppressive as her silence.
After too long a pause, Cordelia said, "No, I don't guess you did."
Angel waited for her to ask where he'd been, but she didn't. Standing there in front of her, with Darla's scent still on him, he felt ashamed despite himself. Maybe it had been necessary to give life to Connor once more - but it still felt wrong, even more now that he understood how he felt for Cordelia.
"Is Wesley all right?" he said at last. Memory told him that Wesley should be on the mend, but he couldn't understand why she'd come by.
"He was still in stable condition when I called this morning," Cordelia said. "I called, and I was going to go straight to the hospital. But when I woke up, I was just so - happy. Because you were back. And I couldn't wait to be with you again. I drove right over."
"I'm sorry I wasn't here."
Cordelia finally looked at him, the pain in her eyes overwhelming. "I am too, Angel. Especially considering where you actually were."
Angel stared at Cordelia, unwilling to believe. How could she know? Did she have a vision?
Then she reached over and snapped the MESSAGE button on the answering machine. The recording captured the moans of a couple making love - of him and Darla.
The phone had been off the receiver. Darla had done this on purpose, because he'd told her his friends were back with him - he'd told her that, and why the hell had he told her that, and oh, shit, Cordelia had listened to the entire thing -
"Cordy - I can explain."
"You don't have to, Angel. I'm a big girl." She pushed herself away from the counter. "You didn't show up all homicidal, so apparently you've still got your soul. Guess that's cause for celebration, huh?"
"Please - Cordelia -"
"Stop it!" Her hand closed over a bag that she'd apparently brought with her, but it tumbled to the floor; she was trembling too hard to hold on to it. Instead of picking it up again, Cordelia began running for the door, blinded with tears. "It's my fault for thinking that you'd changed. For believing in you."
"You don't understand." No, please no, he was so close, so incredibly close -
"If Darla's what you want, have her." She paused at the door, her hair wild, her eyes red. "But don't you ever - ever - come near any of us again. Or, I swear to God, I will stake you myself."
The door slammed shut behind her, and Angel was once again alone.
From the answering machine, the sound of his lovemaking with Darla continued to play for a moment longer until Angel shut it off. He still didn't regret what he'd done; if he had to do it for Connor to be born, then, well, he'd had to do it.
But why had he been so stupid about it? Why tell Darla about his friends, and give her both the knowledge she needed to hurt him and the motive to try? Why hadn't he just told Cordelia about the time-shifting device?
If he could explain it to her now -
No. It would be far too difficult to explain. Months or years from now, perhaps, his friends would listen to him again. But until then, Angel would be on his own.
Could he possibly hope to find Fred in Pylea by himself? What would happen when Holtz returned? Angel knew he hadn't been able to protect baby Connor on his own; without Gunn and Wes and Cordelia, Holtz would have finished Darla off in the last days of her pregnancy, no matter how hard Angel tried to stop it.
Slumping into the nearest chair, Angel pulled the device out and stared at its golden surface. "I never meant to go back this far," he said. "I didn't think I'd have to."
Expecting an answer was useless. Gritting his teeth, Angel held it up to his face and slowly, ever so slightly, turned the dials again.
When the world was visible again, Angel realized he was in an elevator. Going up.
Then he realized just which elevator he was in. He was leaving his apartment - the downstairs apartment, the one he hadn't seen in years, and rising up to -
"Angel Investigations!" Cordelia chirped into the phone. Her long, dark hair fell halfway down her back, and she twirled a strand of it around her finger. "We help the hopeless. Is that you?" She paused, then frowned. "We don't make pizza. And if we did, we wouldn't deliver." The caller apparently wasn't happy with this, because Cordelia retorted, "Well, if we did deliver, we wouldn't deliver to YOU."
"Cordelia," he whispered.
"Hey, Angel!" she said as she hung up the phone, smiling at him brilliantly. She had the most beautiful smile when she was happy and carefree - and Angel hadn't seen that smile in years.
He stepped out of the elevator, looking around the office as though he'd never really seen it before. Certainly he'd never appreciated just how beautiful it was: the weathered wooden boards beneath his feet, the battered desk Cordelia sat behind, even the way the shades let in just the minimal glow of sunlight he could bear.
And he'd never noticed the way the light made Cordelia's hair shine.
"Are you okay?" She cocked her head. "You're acting kinda weird. More weird, I mean, seeing as how weird is kind of standard operating procedure around here."
All he could say was, "Your hair is beautiful."
She laughed, flipping it not-so-casually as she did so. "I can't believe you noticed." Then she frowned. "Wait. I really can't believe you noticed. Are you SURE you're all right?"
"They said that Samson lost his strength when Delilah cut his hair," Angel murmured. "Not when she cut her own."
"And with that, you're definitely not okay." Cordelia stood up and put her hand on his forehead, gasped in alarm, then said, "Oh, duh, right. You're ALWAYS clammy."
"Don't think clammy, Princess," said a voice from the doorway. "Think cool."
Angel knew the voice instantly, but it still took him a moment to say the name. "Doyle."
"Yeah, I know I'm a bit late," Doyle said, tilting his hat further up on his head. "But I had a tip on a filly, and it would've been criminal to let it slide by. Criminal!"
"Is it just me, or does 'tip on a filly' sound dirty?" Cordelia asked.
Doyle grinned. "It does when you say it. Say it again."
The same garish shirt. The same beat-up hat. The same smell of cheap beer and bar peanuts. Angel hadn't thought the reappearance of anyone he'd lost could hit him harder than Cordelia, and Wesley and Fred and hit him hard enough. But Doyle - it had been so many years -
He pulled Doyle into his arms, wrapping him in a hug. Doyle, unlike everyone else, just hugged him back and laughed. "Is this a very special episode of Angel Investigations?"
Cordelia wrinkled her nose. "Since when does Angel have huggy moods?"
"He's learning to be more human!" Doyle said. "I figure that involves hugs sooner or later."
"It's more than that! Look at him, Doyle! People don't hug and get all mushy and talk about the Bible unless they're - they're - Tammy Faye Bakker! And, well, Angel's not."
How could he possibly explain this? Angel couldn't think of an excuse, but he knew he wasn't going to be able to hide his reaction, not for a long time. Right now he felt as though he wanted to do nothing more than sit in this room with Cordelia on one side and Doyle on the other for hours. Days. Maybe years.
"Say, now that you mention it, there is an uncharacteristically thoughtful look upon his brow?" Doyle squinted at him. "Angel, what's going on?"
And then it came to him - the solution, rushing in like sunlight that couldn't burn.
Angel blurted out, "I've just arrived here from the future, and I've spent the last few days traveling backwards in time."
Cordelia stared at him. Doyle shook his head like a cartoon character who'd just run into a door, then grinned. "Well, why didn't you just say so?"
They sat on the office sofa while Angel spilled it all out - every bit of it, every detail Angel could remember, relevant or not. He held nothing back. He told them about the explosion of the offices. He told them about the transfer of the visions. He told them about Darla's return from the dead. He told them about Connor. And he told both of them how they died.
As they listened, Doyle took Cordelia's hand, and for once, Angel didn't think the guy was looking for an angle. Cordelia blanched beneath her Santa Monica tan, but she said nothing.
"It doesn't have to happen this way again," Angel said. "We know when and where the Scourge is going to appear, and we can stop them. Doyle will keep the visions, and so Cordelia will never be in danger. We have to let Wolfram & Hart bring Darla back - Connor can't be born any other way - but we'll figure out how to handle it better next time -"
"Next time?" Cordelia shook her head. She started laughing, but it was a strange, quiet little sound, not like her laughter at all. "Excuse me, but what about the huge tremendous waste of all our lives you just described calls out for a 'next time' to you?"
"None of it," Angel said. "Except Connor. That's what I'm saying, Cordy. We can fix it -"
"Yeah, we can. I intend to fix my part of it by not showing up." She rose to her feet and began throwing her various knickknacks into her tote bag. "I am absent and unaccounted for. I am AWOL. I am something else vaguely military that means I am getting the hell out right now."
Angel had never considered this. "Cordy - the fight - it's our fight. Yours as much as mine."
"In some parallel universe where everything sucks!" she said. "But not here. Why? Because I have other options, thank you very much. I still have an agent. Did you know he called me for an audition the other day and I turned him down? Some stupid thing called 'CSI,' but you know, right now, I'll take it. Thanks for the cool apartment and everything, and it's not like I don't wish you luck with the whole do-over thing. I really do."
"You can't go!" The only thing more unthinkable than trying to live centuries after the year 2004 without Cordelia was trying to live centuries after the year 1999 without Cordelia. "I - I don't know how to do this without you."
Something in his voice made her hesitate, and as she paused there, his heart filled with hope. But tears were welling in her eyes as she said, "Angel, just answer one question for me, okay?"
"Anything," he said, and he meant it.
"Can you really tell me - knowing what you know - that I wouldn't be better off walking out this door right now?"
Angel looked down into her young, lovely face and remembered what it was like to see her crying, bleeding, even dying. "No. I can't."
"Well, okay." Now that the moment had come, she was hesitating. But Angel knew her well enough to know that she would go.
He put his arms around her for the very last time. "If you ever need me," he said. "Anywhere, anytime. Even if it's 50 years from now. Got it?"
"Thanks," Cordelia said, wiping her eyes. "But the whole point of this is for me not to need you." She walked toward the door, paused, then looked down at Doyle. "For what it's worth, I really hope you don't get killed by the demon Nazis."
"I appreciate that," Doyle said, tipping his hat as she walked out of Angel Investigations forever. As Angel leaned back against the desk, weary with exhaustion and loss, Doyle said, "Just a guess, but I think maybe you hit her with too much too soon. As in, any of that miserable crap you just told us, and ever."
"She deserved the truth," Angel said. "And there was a time when Cordelia wouldn't even have let that drive her away from our work. But - she's not that person yet."
"And now she's never gonna be. Ah, well. You know what they say about omelets and eggs."
"No, I don't."
Doyle started to explain, then said, "Honestly, you're not missing much." He spoke more gently when he rose from the couch. "Here. Let me see this Tardis doohickey you've got." Angel tossed him the device, feeling strangely naked without it in his palm or his pocket. Turning it over a few times, Doyle whistled. "Everything about this says expensive. And important. One-of-a-kind, I'm guessing."
Remembering Doyle's usual habits, Angel said, "No, you can't pawn it."
With a disappointed scowl, Doyle tossed it back. "Listen, you're flummoxed. You're poleaxed. You're possibly even flabbergasted. In other, shorter words, you shouldn't be trying to deal with this all on your own."
"That's why I told you."
"Flattered though I am, this is beyond my ken. But I have an idea who we could discuss this with -"
Doyle was clearly uncertain about the suggestion, but as memory kicked in, Angel smiled, knowing they'd just hit on a plan. "I bet I know the way."
"Powerful," said Sister, holding the device up and inspecting it as though it were some overripe fruit. Her metallic skin glimmered in the eerie, wavering light. "No small magic gave you this."
"Perhaps too powerful," Brother added as he stepped to her side. "Few could be trusted not to misuse such magic."
"I suppose that includes me," Angel said, thinking of every blunder he'd made since he began rewinding through time.
"You have tried to use this power for good." Sister almost sounded kind, at least for her. "That is more than some would do. But the use of such power requires - objectivity. And this you do not possess."
"You seek answers we cannot give," Brother said, taking the device and holding almost reverently for a moment, before giving it back to Angel. "And this is not your destination."
"What do you mean, this isn't my destination?" Angel glared at the device in his palm as though it had started all the trouble - which, of course, it had. "You want me to use this AGAIN?"
The Oracles shared a smug, knowing smile. "Your path winds in many directions, Champion. But it winds forward as well as back."
This just got more confusing. As a last attempt, Angel said, "Can you at least tell me how to use this thing?"
Sister lifted her chin haughtily. "The answers are revealed to those who seek patiently."
One corner of Angel's mouth lifted. "You mean you don't know."
"Your time with us is short," Brother said. "Go now. And never reveal the future to those in the past again."
Remembering Cordelia's flight from his life, Angel sighed. "Believe me, I won't do that again."
When he stood at the very brink of the portal, Sister said - more quietly than Angel had ever heard her - "We thank you for the warning about Vocah."
"Yeah. Good luck with that," Angel said, plunging back through to Los Angeles in 1999.
Doyle had taken a seat on a nearby crate and was scratching his Lucky Pix tickets with a quarter when Angel appeared beside him. "Any luck with the Oracles?"
"They were as clear and precise as they always are," Angel said.
"No luck at all, then." Doyle held up a Lucky Pix ticket, on which none of the numbers matched. "That makes two of us."
Something about Doyle in that moment - perpetually hopeful, always looking for luck in a horse or a lotto ticket or a garbage bin - struck Angel in a way it never had before. Why hadn't he seen it, this unquenchable belief in better things?
Hadn't he realized that nobody but an incurable optimist would ever take him on as a friend?
"You look funny," Doyle said. "Not funny ha-ha. What's going on?"
"They want me to go back again," Angel answered.
"Again? How far?"
"No telling. They don't know how to use it either." They both stared down at the golden sphere in Angel's hand.
"Well." Doyle shifted from foot to foot. "I suppose this would be a good time to mention that it's been nice knowing you."
After everything he'd been through, particularly in the past few days, Angel no longer had any time for awkwardness. "You were the first real friend I had in centuries, Doyle. Maybe ever. I made other friends later but - if it hadn't been for you - I'm not sure I would've remembered how."
"You did get better at the humanity part, didn't you?"
"Not much," Angel sighed. "But I wasn't going to get much worse."
"Well," Doyle said again.
"So," Angel said.
And then it hit him - he had a FUCKING TIME MACHINE.
"I'll go tomorrow," Angel said.
Doyle blinked. "Back in time?"
"Why not go tomorrow?" Angel was grinning now. "Same difference, right?"
"Which means that tonight -"
"Tonight, my friend," Angel said, feeling more relaxed than he had in - well, in years. "Tonight, we are going to go out and have fun and spend money like there's no tomorrow."
Doyle laughed. "Because there isn't!"
They started out at a steakhouse, where a $140 bottle of wine complemented both Doyle's sirloin and Angel's steak tartare. Then they went to the dog track and bet on every name that sounded good, that sounded funny, that made them laugh. They went bar-hopping afterward, sending drinks over to every girl Doyle thought was cute, which meant pretty much any female between the ages of 18 and 48.
A few of them - well, most of them - were more interested in Angel. It occurred to him that casual sex would never be easier than on a night without a morning after, but with the memory of Cordelia's face so fresh in his mind, the thought was no more than fleeting.
He knew where he really wanted to be. And he knew he would never be there again. The question was figuring out what would come next.
As Angel steered the Plymouth along the road, Doyle shouted over the radio, "This is the only place in the past - time in the past - pit stop, whatever, where you've actually taken a little time to hang out, yeah?"
"Yeah. I should've done that before." If only he'd had the time, he would happily have spent months with his infant son.
"So, what makes this time in your life so wonderful? Aside from yours truly, of course."
Angel glanced up at the brilliant city lights all around them. "I'd spent a long time trying to start over," he said. "But this was the first time it ever really seemed like it was going to happen. Like anything was possible."
"Except me hooking up with Cordelia, tragically." Doyle grinned wolfishly, and Angel managed not to add, me too.
They ended up at Doyle's place, watching old movies until Doyle passed out - or, more charitably, fell asleep - on the sofa. Angel watched him for a couple of minutes, listening to the adventures of Errol Flynn on the TV.
Waiting until morning was an option. They could hang out a while longer, and maybe he could even treat Doyle to breakfast before they said goodbye.
But then they'd just have to say goodbye.
Angel took out the device and walked to the window; it wasn't sunrise yet, but he could feel it coming on. He wondered if Cordelia was asleep and knew, suddenly, that she wasn't - that she was lying in her bed, hugging her pillow, wondering if she'd done the right thing.
He wished he could believe that she hadn't.
Then he closed his eyes, closed his fist around the device and gave it one more twist.
"Thanks," Buffy said. "For being here tonight, I mean. I wanted you to be a part of all this."
Angel blinked, trying to clear his eyes; the golden shimmer of the world around him faded to reveal Buffy's pale hair, the sheen of her dress.
Oh, God, Angel thought. I'm at the prom.
"I wanted to come," he said, filling in the gap as quickly as he could. "I know it was important to you."
If Buffy had noticed the shift in his mood - from the lacerating heartbreak Angel still remembered vividly to his current confusion - she gave no sign. Probably she was too caught up in her own misery to do much more than struggle to keep her composure. "Did you see me get the award?"
He remembered this. Good. "Class Protector." Angel gave her a little smile. "All this time, you thought they didn't notice - but they did."
Buffy nodded, but he knew the tears weren't tears of pride. "It's late," she whispered. "I should go."
It's prom night. Your mother won't expect you until sunrise. Angel knew that was what he'd said the first time; as a result, he and Buffy had remained together, talking and crying and wanting to kiss and not kissing for hours. He couldn't recapture that feeling - the desperation that made even such anguish a joy - and the cruelest thing he could do to Buffy would be to fake it. "Yeah. You should."
She hesitated. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I think so." He wished he didn't know for an absolute fact that answer was a lie. "Will you?"
"I think so too." Buffy smiled through watery eyes, and Angel hated knowing her answer was as false as his. She just didn't realize it yet. "I'm catching a ride with Xander. So - good night, Angel."
As many years as it had been - as sure as Angel now was that he had lost her forever even before the first time he'd attended the Sunnydale prom - it still cut him open to see her raise her hand and wave goodbye. "Good night, Buffy," he whispered, backing away until he could finally turn and walk out of the auditorium.
He walked slowly, reluctant even now to leave the last place he and Buffy had ever truly been together. Putting his hands in his tuxedo jacket's pockets, he felt the spherical device in one and his car keys in the other: two means of escape.
So. 1999. The battle against the Mayor was still brewing - and he'd have to remain in Sunnydale for that - but afterward, he could change everything. He didn't have to open a PI shop; hell, he didn't even have to go to Los Angeles. Alternate plans he'd had years before but disregarded reoccurred to him now: Chicago, Tokyo, maybe even Ireland once more - any place but Los Angeles, where he'd hurt so many of the people he came to love -
--but what about Connor?
Angel froze in place, ignoring the giggling, drunk teenagers nearby, as he realized how caught he really was. If he didn't go to Los Angeles, it was highly unlikely he'd run afoul of Wolfram & Hart. If he didn't run afoul of Wolfram & Hart, they wouldn't feel the need to bring Darla back from hell. And if Darla never returned, Connor could never be born.
And that was not acceptable.
At least he could avoid dragging the others down with him. He'd rescue Cordy from Russell Winters, but when Doyle showed up with his little song and dance, Angel would just say no. No doubt he could piss off Wolfram & Hart all on his own. But as soon as Vocah showed his maggoty face, as soon as Darla was back, Angel would -
--hell, he'd figure that out when he got there. None of the above sounded all that appealing, but there wasn't any way around it. No matter how lonely it became, Angel would just deal with it, rather than drag down his friends.
Come to think of it, it seemed as though he could hear those friends right now -
"You're a really good dancer!" Cordelia said brightly. Angel turned the corner to see her there in a coppery dress that hugged every one of her curves. That didn't attract his attention as much as the adoring gaze she was giving her companion.
"Really?" Wesley blushed so deeply that even a human could've seen it at night. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he said, "I thought - I mean, I'm quite sure I stepped on your foot a time or two. Or three. Or a dozen."
Cordelia's smile dimmed, but only for a moment. "I'm sure it's just because they dance all weird in England. Like - like driving on the other side of the street, right?"
He'd forgotten those two had a crush on each other, once upon a time. Angel began laughing before he could stop himself.
"Angel?" Cordelia stared at him. "What's so funny?"
He gave her the only explanation he could. "You two look - so - cute."
Wesley obviously didn't know what to make of having the Scourge of Europe tell him he was cute. Cordelia tossed her hair, basking in male admiration, even if she didn't quite understand the reason.
"Sorry to interrupt," Angel said, shaking his head. "I'll leave you guys to it." The sooner he got away from them, the better their lives would be.
"Leave us to - oh, no, no, no." Wesley stepped away, straightening his jacket. "Nothing of an improper - informal - nothing of any nature was happening. Not at all. No."
Cordelia looked stricken as Wesley got further from her. "Not yet! That's all."
"So, must be off. We have quite a bit of research yet to do before the Mayor's Ascension. Angel - Cordelia - farewell." And Wesley hurried away, both yearning and embarrassment warming his face as he left them behind.
"Excuse me, but what were you thinking?" She put her hands on her hips as she wheeled around toward Angel. "Are you, like, so bitter about the Buffy breakup that you have to go around wrecking other people's love lives?"
"It's a thought," Angel said heavily. Maybe he could spend a century or two that way. The Anti-Cupid. He'd need some arrows. "Sorry, Cordy."
"My parents dropped me off," she said, folding her arms. "Now I have no ride. You know what this means?"
"I'm driving you home," Angel said. As though he'd let her go off in the killing fields of Sunnydale without an escort. This Cordelia didn't know how to defend herself, though he remembered that she was pretty good at screaming.
"And how." They walked side-by-side, silently, for a few steps until Angel stopped in his tracks and groaned. Cordelia said, "What is it?"
He squinted as he studied the nearby streets and lots. "I don't remember where I parked."
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Great. Now I get to finish the night of my senior prom by doing 80 laps around a parking lot."
They found the Plymouth fairly quickly, in Angel's opinion, though Cordelia didn't stop griping. Then again, to be comfortable, Angel didn't have to do anything besides unfasten his bow tie; Cordelia was wearing three-inch heels.
"I never understood why you wore those shoes," Angel said as they drove down the street. "I always thought they had to hurt your feet."
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Since when do you worry about my shoes? Or, for that matter, anything remotely connected to me?"
Whoops. Well, the slip didn't matter much. After leaving Doyle and Los Angeles - now that he was so far back in time he wasn't sure how to get back again - Angel was finding it increasingly difficult to care. "I sometimes look around to see if anything in the room could be used as a deadly weapon. Your spike heels definitely qualify."
"That's either really comforting or really creepy. Which is pretty much you in a nutshell, come to think of it." Cordelia tried to smooth her hair despite the inevitable breeze in the convertible, then sighed and let it blow. "You're leaving town soon, right? What with the whole eternal-Buffy-love not being so eternal anymore?"
"I still love Buffy," he said - and it wasn't just a matter of maintaining the pretense, though he wasn't going to dwell on that too much now. "I thought you never learned anything about tact, but I was wrong. There was definitely progress."
"What are you on?" Cordelia didn't pay too much attention to what he'd said, though; there was a faraway look in her eyes. "Well, my point is, I'm leaving Sunnydale too. And I can't wait to get out of this hole. Can you? I mean, you've actually lived some interesting places in your life. You have to totally hate it here."
"I don't hate it," Angel replied. Something about the traffic seemed odd to him, about the shapes of the cars - ah, he thought, not so many SUVs yet. He realized, with a start, that they were very near the mansion - his home, for a brief time. Before he could stop himself, he said, "Listen, do you want to have a drink?"
"What? Like, a date? Wow, you redefine the rebound."
"Not a date. Just - two soon-to-be Sunnydale escapees. Toasting farewell to this place."
Maybe it was stupid, torturing himself with a pale imitation of the relationship that would never happen. He already knew that letting go of Cordelia, sooner rather than later, was the kindest thing he could do for her.
But it was just one hour, just one night. And he was almost positive he had a bottle of wine at the mansion. He remembered having a drink after he'd told Buffy goodbye.
"You know I'm only 18, right? Which makes me not legal?"
"Since when do you care?"
"You are so weird tonight." But either Cordelia's exasperation for everything in Sunnydale or her desire for a drink overcame her discomfort with Angel. "What the hell. It's not like you're really big on age limits anyway, huh? With the whole Buffy-underage-sex thing."
Angel started to laugh as he pulled up to the mansion. "You know, when I grew up, people drank wine or ale by the time they were ten. Most girls were married by the time they were 15."
"All this tells me is that you're from an entire race of creepy people."
"All it tells me," Angel said, stopping the Plymouth, "is that you're old enough."
"You don't think I'd look good as a blonde?" One of Cordelia's dress shoes slipped off her foot to the floor.
"You would look beautiful with any color hair," Angel replied, pouring himself a bit more wine. "But brunette is your shade. Stick with it."
"You're so savvy about hair for a straight man."
"Hey, if I tell you something, will you not laugh?" Cordelia sat on his sofa, leaning on her hand, already a bit tipsy. Angel had not tried to warn her nor to get closer to her - it was enough just to have a few hours to watch her.
"I promise not to laugh." Angel thumped his unbeating heart. "Scout's honor."
"Remind me not to join your Scout troop." She straightened up - unevenly, her hair a strangely attractive mess - and whispered, "I want to be an actress."
"You would be an amazing actress."
Her smile was so unbelievably bright. "You mean it? Really? I mean, duh, but you agree?"
"One hundred percent." He took another deep swallow of wine.
Cordelia wriggled happily, her usual sophisticated pose completely obliterated by the wine and her excitement. "I was thinking I might move to Hollywood. Get a little place in Bel Air, maybe."
Angel thought back to her first apartment in the city, and the fact that its squalor had managed to shock even Doyle - a man who changed his shirts approximately twice a week. "What you should do is - you should go to New York."
"New York?" She wrinkled her nose. "You have to ride subways there."
"There are subways in Los Angeles."
"That NO ONE goes on, ever."
"Manhattan is glamorous," Angel said. Most of his time there had been anything but glamorous, but he understood things were a lot better after Giuliani. "And you could take the stage. All the big stars train on the stage."
"Manhattan," Cordelia said, more thoughtfully.
Maybe it would all be that simple. Maybe it was that easy to let Cordelia go. It hurt, knowing she'd never even become his friend - but the thought of her, safe and sound, leading a life somewhere else, was consolation enough.
He heard something scraping around outside and wondered if he should check on it. The wine - and his reluctance to leave Cordelia on what would undoubtedly be the last evening they'd ever spend together - made him move slowly. "Be right back," he said, as he got to his feet.
"Sure." She shook off her big-city dreams and gave him another million-dollar smile. "You know, for a dead guy who's evil sometimes, you're surprisingly easy to talk to."
"I appreciate that," he said, rolling up the sleeves of his tuxedo shirt as he walked toward the door. "Means a lot."
Angel took a couple more steps toward the door - but then it swung open to reveal an old friend. He smiled. "Hey, Faith."
"Faith!" Cordelia yelped, jumping to her feet. Faith gave her a wicked smile.
Oh, shit, Angel thought. EVIL now.
"Well, well, well." Faith didn't try to walk inside, but Angel could see the stake in her hand. "I thought the best view I was gonna get of the Sunnydale prom was Willow getting some werewolf action in the backseat. But then I see Angel here ditching B to hang out with Queen C. Did they change the definition of 'soulmates' without telling me?"
"This is completely innocent!" Cordelia said. "Kick her ass, Angel! Kick it!"
"Easier said than done," Angel said. He tried to remember how Faith fought, how he'd managed to beat her before.
Then he remembered: The best thing he'd ever done for Faith was refuse to fight.
"She's still got her dress on, Angel," Faith said, taking one step inside the threshold. "You move slow these days."
"Faith, I want you to listen to me." He held out his hands, which had the twin advantages of being non-threatening while putting him in a good position for a quick defensive block. "Right now you think the Mayor's the only person who cares about you. You think that makes it okay to follow him, no matter what he's going to do. But he's using you."
"He cares about me more than any of you punks."
"That's not true," Angel said, his voice steady. "It may not seem like it now, but I am ready to fight for you. Even Buffy is ready to fight for you. You just have to give us the chance."
"So that's why you and B played your little mind game on me? Out of love?" Faith sucked on her lower lip, dulling the sheen of her dark-glossed lips. "Makes sense. Because ever since then, I've been thinking about the way your tongue felt in my mouth. Didn't seem a whole lot like hate to me."
That stupid masquerade - Wesley's stupid kidnapping attempt - why couldn't he just have jumped back a couple more weeks? Faith was possibly the only person whose worst experiences Angel felt sure he could have prevented. "Think about it. Why do you care that Cordelia's here? Because you think I'm cheating on Buffy."
"Which he is not," Cordelia hastily added. "Not only because we aren't doing anything - eww, dead much? - and also because he dumped Buffy yesterday."
Faith's eyes changed, though it was hard to say whether the situation was better or worse. Angel, hazarding a guess, said, "You're upset because Buffy's hurt. That means you still care about her. That means you don't belong to the Mayor - and deep down, I swear to you, you never will."
"I ain't doing B any favors," Faith spat. "Because I'm betting when you're dust? She's gonna cry."
She lunged at him, Slayer-fast, and Angel barely had time for a block, and no time to brace himself against the knee that slammed into his side. "Cordy!" he yelled, stumbling backwards until he could find a fighting position. "Run!"
"I'm getting Buffy!" Cordelia cried as she fled for the back courtyard.
Now he didn't have to worry about her - now he could just fight. Feint right, hit left, hit left again, duck and DAMN -
"You're getting slow, lover," Faith panted, giving the stake a pivot in her hand. "Wonder how slow you're gonna get?"
Angel didn't talk. He knew Faith's capabilities, how strong she was and how fast. The plan would be to keep her fighting - hopefully to tire her out - until Buffy could arrive. If they could apprehend Faith now, at least the poisoning and the blood drinking could be avoided; after that, they could get through to Faith eventually. That he knew for a fact.
So he dodged her next blow, ducked the one after that, hit her as hard as he could in the gut - Faith could take it - and grabbed her arm to -
Faith jerked back, far too hard, an amateur's error. The force of it whiplashed her body back toward him, just as she tugged back with her hand -
"No!" Angel shouted, but the stake was already in her gut.
She fell back, first to a seated position, then flat on her back. Angel knelt on the tile, trying to ignore the crazed instincts that rose up in him at the sight and smell of so much fresh hot blood. "Hang on," he said. "Buffy's coming. We'll call an ambulance." Why the hell hadn't he ever gotten a phone put into this place? Or even a cell phone? They had cell phones by this point, didn't they?
"You killed me," she gasped.
Technically, Faith had staked herself, but Angel knew that wasn't much of a distinction. Why had he forgotten that Faith wasn't yet as polished and controlled a fighter as she later became? Why had he forgotten how much she fought on instinct that first year?
"We're going to save you," Angel said. "I promise you."
Faith coughed, them smiled at him weakly through bloody lips. "Last time - you pretended to care - you did - a better job." Then her head lolled to one side, and the light in her eyes died.
She was gone.
Angel felt her blood soaking through the knees of his tuxedo slacks. He remembered the woman and the warrior Faith had become - her courage, and the purity of her strength. None of that would ever happen now. He hadn't just taken Faith's life from her; he'd taken her salvation.
His tux's jacket was just a few feet away; in his pocket was the time-turning device. He should just grab it, give it a turn, go back yet again and give Faith another chance.
But Angel hesitated. He's already gone back so far - years farther than he'd ever intended to go. The sheer number of variables he had to deal with was beginning to overwhelm him; as he went back, his responsibilities grew greater, not less. And above all, he would still have to make sure Connor was born - he couldn't give up his son, couldn't deny his son a chance at life -
Then he looked down at Faith's dead body, lying in its own gore on the tile of his mansion. Faith deserved her life no less than Connor deserved his.
Not again, something in him insisted. Not again.
Still, Angel walked to the jacket, took out the device and spun it once more, closing his eyes against the now-familiar swirl. "Again."
Angel heard the scream before he felt the human throat in his hands. As he blinked hard, he let go of -
--Jenny Calendar, who stumbled back, half-paralyzed by mortal terror. He'd jumped back into the split second before he'd broken her neck.
"Whoa!" Angel backed as far from her as he could go, which unfortunately was just a few steps until he was up against the staircase wall. "Sorry! Didn't mean to - I mean - whoa."
Panting, Jenny lifted a trembling hand to her chest. Her dark eyes were wide, but she couldn't even run. Sometimes humans got like that, just before the end.
"I'm sorry. I realize I - I just scared you - and you were right to be scared! Don't get me wrong. But I - Miss Calendar, I -"
"You -" Her voice broke, and she swallowed hard before she spoke again. "You regained your soul."
"How could you tell?" Angel always wondered if there were lights or sounds or something. Though it wouldn't have shown up this time, would it?
"I'm not dead."
"That's kind of a giveaway, huh?" There was absolutely no place to go with this conversation, Angel decided, and he started backing down the stairs. "Well, Sorry about the whole, uh, killing thing. Faux pas. Definitely. But I'm fine now, and you're fine now and - you know, I think I might've left some champagne chilling back at Giles' place. Drink in good health."
Jenny took one step toward him, then froze, as if unable to believe her own trust in Angel's transformation. "How did you - who did this?"
"You know, everybody and his Uncle Mike has an Orb of Thessula these days." Angel kept moving away from her. "Could've been a drive-by."
"A drive-by resouling?"
"Lots of gang activity in Sunnydale. Heaps." Then it hit him - really hit him - this was Jenny Calendar. The murder that had hurt Buffy and her friends the most, especially Giles, had been prevented. Angel felt a strange, sickening twist of guilt and relief that dizzied him, and he braced himself against one wall. "Oh, God. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
"You have your soul," she whispered, apparently unable to get any further than that. He saw tears start to trickle down her cheeks, and it seemed as though the only kind thing for him to do was turn away.
So many murders - so much devastation - all he could remember from this time was pain and misery and blood, none of it his own until after the worst. Nothing waited but death and hell.
As he tried to get a handle on his own extreme discomfiture, Angel decided to get the first and most important messages out first. "Listen, tell Giles I've got my soul back. I'm not going to hurt anyone, least of all Buffy. And -" He said the next almost before he thought it. "-I'll leave town immediately. Before dawn tomorrow, if I can manage."
"I - yes. Yes, go." She was agreeing only out of terror; though Angel could tell she believed that he had his soul, Jenny could not look at him now with anything but dread.
"I'm so sorry," he repeated, not to this Jenny but the one from the other timeline, the one who couldn't have heard. Poor Jenny just slumped back against the far wall, evidently too weak to argue, complain or do anything else. Slightly dazed himself, Angel wondered if he should offer to walk her home - then realized that this would be certifiably insane.
"Goodbye," he said, then got the hell out of Sunnydale High.
There was no place left for him in this entire town.
He could have gone back to the mansion - had he found the mansion yet? Angel wasn't sure - but then he just would've had Spike Classic and Dru waiting for him, which he could do as well without. Maybe he should've gone to the apartment he'd abandoned upon the loss of his soul; still, it was possible Buffy had the place under some kind of surveillance, waiting for his return. On the long nights when he'd stalked her as Angelus, he had seen her nearby sometimes, looking up at his darkened window as if waiting for a light to come on.
Out of the question. He wasn't going to fight Buffy, not even if he could be certain of surviving it - which, of course, he couldn't.
This precluded his going anyplace public, including the Bronze. He couldn't even go for a drink at Willy's; Buffy already knew the place, and she might stop by looking for information.
Best to get the car and drive out of town before sunrise. He could get a hotel room a few miles out of town, then really make tracks tomorrow night. If Jenny delivered her message, and he felt certain that she would, Angel didn't think it was likely that Buffy or anyone else would come after him.
Fortunately, this time he remembered where he'd parked.
Just after the loss of his soul, Angelus had determined that the car would provide too simple a means for Buffy to track him. So he'd put it in storage, waiting for the night after he'd murdered her, at which point he had planned to take it out for a long, leisurely drive. The storage unit's management automatically debited one of the bank accounts he kept, and it had continued to do so for all his months as Angelus - not to mention the four months / several centuries he'd spent in hell.
Modern technology, Angel thought. Maybe this time around, he ought to work harder at it. Buy a computer or something.
The Plymouth eased out of the storage area, and behind the wheel Angel felt at least the illusion of being in control. It made for a nice change. Now that his mind was clear enough to think, he idled on the driveway that led to the road and tried to think where to go from here.
Well, Los Angeles, eventually. He knew that the fragile chain of events that had resulted in Connor's birth would be nearly impossible to duplicate at this point - but Angel still intended to try. Less literally, there were other elements to consider.
Without his raid on the library, Kendra stood every chance of surviving past the time when she'd died. In fact, given that he would no longer be terrorizing Sunnydale, Kendra might not return at all. That meant Faith would probably never be called as a Slayer.
Was that good or bad for her? Angel could never know, but he smiled grimly as he reflected that it was definitely bad news for the Mayor.
Then again, it was through Faith that they'd learned much of what the Mayor was up to. How would Buffy find out what she needed to stop him this time? Angel wondered if a postcard would be well-received. Better wait a few months. At least. And mail it from a postmark he'd never visited before nor intended to see again.
Without his return, Buffy's subsequent deception and Faith's volatility, the Watchers' Council would be unlikely to consider replacing Giles. So Wesley would never even arrive in the States. Would he ever be assigned to a Slayer? Ever escape the oppressive disapproval of his father? Ever learn to trust in his own abilities?
That would be up to Wesley.
Cordelia's father would still cheat on his taxes; that meant Cordelia would probably still go to L.A. in pursuit of her acting dreams. No chance of a cozy chat about Manhattan this time, Angel realized. Note to self: Pencil in one trip to kick Russell Winters' butt, in about, oh, eighteen months.
Could Lindsey's soul be saved this time? What would become of Doyle? Should he try to find a way to warn or protect Gunn's sister, Alonna? And Fred -
--Fred wouldn't be in Pylea yet. And she wouldn't have any reason to be afraid of him; she was still innocent of the very existence of vampires.
Angel closed his eyes for a moment, knowing his first task. This was something he could do, something good, something hard to screw up, even for him.
He put one hand on the gear shift to take the Plymouth out of park - then heard a thump in the back seat and turned to see Drusilla.
"Are we going for a ride, Daddy?" She giggled, pushing down her lacy black skirts from the flounces in which they'd landed. "Vroom VROOM, ride me, Daddy. Get your kicks on Route 66."
"Dru." He should stake her right now. Of course, he'd had this idea virtually every time he'd encountered Drusilla in recent years; this time, though, he thought he could carry it out.
She frowned, her pale lips pursing into a pout as her senses told her the bad news. "Hanging on you like cobwebs. Nasty guilt. Nasty, stinking soul."
Was there a stake in this car? He seemed to remember keeping one in the glove compartment - bingo. "Funny how that happens."
He turned on her, ready to do what needed to be done, and ready for a fight. But Drusilla was curled into a sullen ball, pulling out strands of her hair, as if a tantrum might fix everything. "You're a very mean Daddy," she said.
"I'm sorry. You'll never know how much. You can't know -
Then it hit him.
Why not give Drusilla back her soul?
Angel hesitated, stake in hand, staring at her as he tried to do the calculations in his head. Receiving a soul again wasn't easy; who could tell what the impact would be on Drusilla, given the weight of her madness. But then, maybe her madness could protect her. Maybe her many crimes would only seem like nightmares. Once she had a soul, perhaps she could be treated - made whole again -
By whom? And how? The hopelessness of it hit him, but he couldn't bring himself to throw the idea away immediately. After all, Jenny Calendar was still alive, and she'd believe him if nobody else would. Liking him was another matter, but Angel didn't require that. They could find another Orb of Thessula easily enough, and then - and then -
"Mustn't cry over spilled milk," Drusilla crooned, easing herself out of the back seat and onto the trunk. "Can't put that milk back in the bottle, no, no. We'll be waiting until the cows come home, but the cows aren't coming home. No milk for Baby."
Wearily, Angel tried to page through his mental Drusilla Thesaurus. The spilled milk was certainly the soul; he understood that much. But the cow - something that gave milk, therefore something with the capability of giving a soul -
"Drusilla, what did you do?"
She laughed, that same unhinged laugh that sounded like a screen door swinging in the wind. "You went to find the gypsy girl, just like the last time, the time I only see in dreams. I followed you so that this time I could see. But Daddy didn't have a drink. He left all the treats for Baby."
Angel remembered Jenny Calendar's relief as she realized he wouldn't kill her - her slow, slow acceptance of the fact that she would survive. But he had only taunted her with false hope. Had Drusilla even given her another five minutes? He doubted it.
And he'd wondered whether or not he should see Jenny home -
He tucked the stake back in his coat, feeling around for the device. Saving Jenny Calendar hadn't been a task he'd set for himself; her very survival created more variables than he knew what to do with. But at this moment, surrounded by the death and insanity his soulless self had created, Angel only knew that if he were ever going to be able to begin again, he wouldn't be able to do it here.
"You've got a ticket to ride," Drusilla said. "But you don't care."
Angel stared at her. "You know what this is. What it does."
"Zoom, zoom, zoom." She folded her hands beneath her chin. "Back and back, Angel goes. Where he stops, no one knows."
"So tell me, Dru," he said, getting the device ready for the next turn. "How far back am I going to end up? The 1940s? World War I? Just tell me it's not the American Civil War again, because I don't feel like shooting Stonewall Jackson twice."
"Back and back," Drusilla repeated. "But forward again, before the end."
"Wait - what? This thing can take me forward in time, too?"
"It's pretty. Very pretty. A bauble for the Christmas tree. We shall hang it next to the brightest candle of all, and if the branch catches fire, the gold shan't burn." She tensed, and he could tell she was ready to pounce - and to steal the device for herself.
His hand made the twist a moment just as she jumped at him, and Angel took pleasure in watching her dissolve in a rain of gold.
"Excuse me, but are you deaf as well as lurksome? And, okay, kind of cute, but that won't save you."
Angel blinked at Buffy, knowing instantly that she was younger - very young, as early as he'd ever known her - and tried to place just when and where they were. The where became clear quickly enough; they were in an alleyway not far from the Bronze. But the when -
Buffy's hair was gathered up into sort of a ponytail, fuller than she wore it later on. She was wearing a soft blue shirt - he'd daydreamed about her like this, because this was a strong memory. And for some reason, his back really hurt. Finally, he realized what night this was and remembered his next line.
"I know what you're thinking," Angel said quietly. "But don't worry. I don't bite."
"You don't seem to talk much, either." She tilted her head, clearly unsure whether or not to be annoyed or titillated by their strange encounter. Seeing her here like this - beautiful and determined and still utterly fearless - reminded Angel of every single reason he'd ever fallen in love with her.
It also reminded him of every single reason he couldn't let this love affair begin again.
"Let me change that," he said. "Right now, trapped in the Hellmouth, is a powerful vampire known only as the Master. He's very old, he's very strong, and he's determined to rise again."
Buffy blinked, startled. Angel remembered his reluctance to tell her everything at once, the first time; back then, the hold that the Master and Darla had on him had still been powerful. There might have been some wisdom to it, though, as he saw the denial in Buffy's eyes. "Right. Did you not get the memo where I've retired from the whole Slayer thing?"
"Being a Slayer doesn't work that way. Unfortunately."
"What do you know about it?" She stepped closer to him, apparently as intrigued as she was unnerved. "Are you another Watcher? Ooh, are you taking over for that weird old guy in the library? Because he smells like mothballs."
Angel smiled despite himself. "I'm not a Watcher. And listen to Giles - he'll take good care of you."
"Wait, you know him?"
Time for the first lie. "Only by reputation."
"Well, he's the one you should be talking to about this Master sitch. Not me. From now on, I'm not spending all my time chasing after dead things."
If only that were true, Angel thought, and all at once it hit him that he was very tired. He hadn't slept in a few days now; during that time, he'd fought and run and watched people he cared about die, only to be reanimated by another leap backward. Soon he'd have to rest.
"So," Buffy said, in one of those agile twists of topic he'd almost forgotten about, "while you're telling me all this super-secret vampire info, are you going to tell me your name?"
He could think of no good reason not to. "Angel."
"That's a pretty name." She smiled, almost shy, and her foot made a soft semicircle as she studied his face. "I'm going to this nightclub in town - it's called the Bronze. Gonna meet up with some new friends I met at school today, Xander and Jesse and Willow. You want to come with? But you have to promise that there's not going to be any creepy vampire talk."
Who the hell was Jesse? Angel wondered. "Can't. It's been a long day. Besides, you'll have more fun with your friends." He remembered Xander's old jealousy, and added, "Xander seems like a nice guy. I think he likes you."
Buffy gaped at him. "What are you, the Mad Matchmaker of the Night?"
Even now - all these years later, knowing how much he'd hurt her and how badly it would end - it was hard to just let her go. But he couldn't have done anything else. This freedom was what she deserved. "It's a living."
"Am I going to see you again?"
Angel hesitated. "I'll give you some information about the Master, when you're ready. But I won't be in Sunnydale for long."
She shrugged, clearly giving up on him already. "You're going to be waiting a while to tell me about the Master," Buffy said, wandering away. "Trust me on this one."
He watched her go, her body turning into a silhouette in the streetlight, then finally passing into the shadows. Then Angel went home.
This small apartment had served him well; Angel hadn't missed it much in the years since he'd dwelled here, mostly because he'd never thought of it as "home," not really. But as he helped himself to a couple of bags of blood from the fridge and looked around, it struck him how efficient it actually was.
Okay, maybe not the window. That part was less useful. But the rest of it - the small bed, the fridge, the closets just large enough to hold his few possessions - was a good size. And he'd always liked this Taisho statue; pity he'd let Drusilla burn it.
Angel sat down on the corner of his bed, thinking of all the things that had happened here - the things that would never happen here.
Maybe this is where I needed to start again all along, he thought, though at this point mustering up any enthusiasm about his time-traveling was a determined effort. Maybe this is the only thing of real use I ever contributed, this information about the Master. I can go somewhere else after this and let everyone else fend for his- or herself. The evidence strongly suggests they'll all be better off that way.
At least now he was back before Darla had been staked in the first place. He wouldn't be making Darla jealous this time; if he took off quickly enough, there was every chance she'd follow, no matter what the Master said. Could Connor be conceived earlier than 2001? Angel grimaced as he realized he'd have to give it a try.
But then he remembered what Drusilla had said: Forward.
Was it possible he'd move back into the future? That the device had other powers that Chip hadn't revealed?
Then Angel wondered just what kind of a future he'd jump into, if he did get to move forward again. At this point, all he'd changed from the year 1997 was his relationship with Buffy - but that alone would be enough to completely transform his history thereafter.
His head felt heavy. Angel let his eyes shut for just a moment; the moment stretched out, long enough that he knew he'd better sleep before he collapsed.
Slowly, he took off his clothes - and God, they were terrible, how had he let Whistler convince him that this crushed-velvet stuff was in style? - and put them into the closet. In the blazer he'd been wearing was the device (which Angel put on the bedside table, the better to keep it in sight) and a small gift box. Angel opened it, then winced at the silvery cross inside. As he quickly replaced the lid, he remembered that, originally, he'd given it to Buffy; leave it to him to buy something she already had ten of. Sighing, he slipped between the sheets of his bed.
Angel hadn't realized what a relief it would be, to know himself utterly alone as he fell asleep, with no chance of being awakened either by need or laughter or love.
When Angel awoke late the next afternoon, his disorientation was nearly complete. When was he? Why was everything so familiar and yet so confusing? Only the gleam of the time-traveling device on the nearby table helped him settle himself.
1997: Get necessary information about the Master to Buffy - or, given her current mental block about being the Slayer, Giles might be more efficient. Giles, however, might recognize him as a vampire; an anonymous note should do the trick, as Giles would feel obligated to check out any clues, and the note's information would quickly bring him to a research gold mine. The note would seem especially credible, Angel decided over his B negative breakfast, if it arrived tucked between the pages of the Pergamon Codex.
Then he'd need to find Darla again. Easy enough - the two of them never fully lost their sense of one another, not even when she became human once more. He could hint about his next destination, someplace far from here, someplace isolated. She would follow. He could try for Connor. The rest would flow from there.
All in all, Angel thought, it was a pretty clean breaking point.
And yet - and still - he would like the chance to at least say goodbye. Not only to Buffy - though he meant that too - but to all the years that had followed, and flowed from, his relationship with her.
Angel realized he needed something - a conversation or an event or even a gift of a crucifix - before he could simply let go of it all -
--Caritas. Kyerumption. The Christmas it snowed. Phantom Dennis. Dingoes Ate My Baby. Nina. David Nabbit. Buffy's kiss at the ice-skating rink. Connor's first bath. Cordelia at the ballet. A business card with a drawing of a lobster on it. Doyle. Fred. Wesley. Gunn. Cordelia -
--He needed a chance to say goodbye.
So, at sundown, he set out for the Bronze. He was pretty sure he remembered something about Buffy having a major fight here this night; barring that, she might just drop by to hang out with Xander and Willow, and whoever this Jesse person was.
The crowd was as young and raucous as he recalled, laughing at nothing, barely listening to the music. Angel, who felt that popular music had taken a decided turn for the worse when Glenn Miller died, sympathized with them on that point. He sipped his club soda and scanned the crowds for Buffy, sure she'd appear soon -
"Haven't seen you here before."
Angel turned to see Cordelia, all of 16 years old, in a tight sweater and an unbelievably short skirt. The jeweled watch around her wrist and the crocodile leather of her shoes testified to her wealth; her flirtatious smile proclaimed the perfect confidence of a child.
Apparently Cordelia was used to having men stare at her, agape, because her smile only became wider. "So, do you go to UC Sunnydale?"
"I - the -" Bluffing was his best way through this, Angel decided. "I'm just visiting. From out of town."
"Ohmigod, you got stuck coming to Sunnydale on vacation? What a bummer." She tilted her head to one side, twirling a strand of her dark hair between two of her fingers. "I mean, my parents have dragged me on some totally unfun trips, like, to see paintings by old dead French people and stuff, but at least they never took me anyplace as bad as this. By the way, I'm Cordelia."
"Angel," he said. Now that he was over his initial surprise, he found himself glad that he'd run into her here; he needed to say goodbye to Cordy, too - even this version, who bore so little resemblance to the woman he'd come to love.
"Is that, like, Hispanic?" She smiled. "I'm WAY into other cultures. I drive through Taco Bell after every away game. I'm a cheerleader, you know."
He remembered Cordelia in her little cheerleader's outfit. Really, he should have bargained with her, later on, to get her to wear it once again. "I bet you're a great cheerleader."
"Should be squad captain next year. So, what's your sitch? Where do you go to college? I can tell you're not a high-school guy. You seem way too mature for that. I can tell just by the way you're looking around this place - you're, like, so over it."
"I'm about to start a year as an exchange student," Angel lied quickly. "In Ireland."
If he had expected Cordelia to be impressed by this news, he would have been disappointed. She wrinkled her nose. "Eww. Isn't it all potatoes and cows and clover over there?"
"I guess I'll see."
"Why did you sign up for that? When I study abroad my junior year, I'm definitely going to Paris, or Milan. Someplace where I can shop."
There was a reason, Angel reflected, that he and Cordelia had become friends later in life. "I'm interested in the history of Galway."
"So why don't you go to Galway?"
"I am," Angel thought, wondering if he would in fact try to go home again. "Galway is in Ireland."
"Oh." Already bored, Cordelia shifted her weight from foot to foot, then got a wicked gleam in her eye. "Is this why you're wearing the velveteen stuff? I was going to overlook it as a bad fashion choice by a hot man, which can always be fixed through forced shopping, but now I'm wondering if it's some kind of Irish peasant fad."
Somewhat annoyed - not as much by Cordelia's cattiness as by the dreadful clothes he was in fact wearing - Angel said, "That's it exactly. The Irish are crazy for shiny fabrics. Satin, velveteen, pleather, you name it."
"SO not going there." She gave him a very artificial smile. "Well, it's been just not amazing talking to you. Good luck in Goldway."
"Galway," he corrected her, but she was already moving on. Angel watched as she flagged her friends - including, of all people, Harmony - made a letter "L" with her thumb and forefinger and mouthed the word Loser.
Apparently sentimental goodbyes would not be the order of the evening.
From the corner of his eye, Angel saw the front door open; Willow, Xander and some boy he didn't know came in, all of them looking severely depressed. Slowly, without making it obvious what he was doing, Angel made his way closer to the small table they claimed for their own. Even his sharp hearing had trouble picking out their words from the din in the Bronze, but as he got near, their voices became clear.
"It's bad enough vampires are real in the first place," Willow said, playing with the straps of her overalls.
"Are you sure you guys saw what you think you saw?" said the boy Angel didn't know, but who was probably Jesse. "Because that sounds like you were hallucinating to me. Did you start using drugs and not give me any?"
"It wasn't drugs," Xander insisted. "There's a real live dead girl involved. What about that says hallucination to you?"
Darla had been in the prowl, Angel reminded himself. Perhaps she killed one of their friends -
"I can't think about it." Willow's round eyes filled with tears. "We were going to be friends. I could tell. Sometimes you can just tell, you know?"
"Buffy was the first-ever hot girl who gave me the time of day," Xander said, putting his head down. "This is not the main reason I mourn, but I think it counts as a valid cause."
Sickened, Angel stumbled backwards into -
"Excuse you!" Cordelia said, wiping her spilled drink from her sweater. "Clumsy much?"
"I have to go," Angel said, to nobody in particular.
He didn't even know where he was running until he'd almost gotten there: Sunnydale High. The library lights were still on.
As Angel pushed through the doors, Giles said, tiredly, "Official hours are over."
"Buffy," Angel said. "The Vampire Slayer. What happened to her?"
Giles stared at him, the lights reflecting from his round-rimmed glasses. "How on earth did you know -?"
"I know. Is she - did she -"
"She was killed last night." Giles slipped off his glasses and folded them into a pocket of his tweed blazer. "By a very powerful, very old vampire - the local lore has it that his name is Luke."
Luke. Angel remembered him all too well. He was old, and powerful, but either he or Darla could have snapped Luke in two like a twig. But how could his appearance last night have led to a fight with Luke?
"Buffy should have been able to protect herself," Giles said. "But she wasn't thinking of herself as the Slayer, not any longer, and I could not convince her in so brief a time." His sorrow had an abstract quality to it; this Giles had not known Buffy very well. "She wasn't carrying a stake or a cross -"
"A cross," Angel repeated. The small gift box in his left pocket felt far heavier than the time-traveling device. He had failed to give her that one gift, and because of that she had died on her first night patrolling in Sunnydale -
"Tonight I must break into the morgue and put a stake through her heart," Giles said. He seemed even older than the last time Angel had seen him. "Given that you - whoever you are - know what you know, I'm certain that doesn't shock you."
"It doesn't shock me," Angel said. "But it's not going to happen."
"I can still save her." He took out the golden device, despairing at the need to go back - again - but unable to leave Buffy dead because of his own foolish mistake.
Giles stepped closer, suspicion finally claiming more of his mind than grief. "I don't understand you."
"That's okay," Angel sighed, giving the device a quick turn. "I don't understand me either."
Angel opened his eyes, curious about what the cold, hard surface against his forehead might be. Apparently it was a garbage can.
He shifted his weight on the hard pavement, wondering how on earth he'd ever let himself smell this bad for such a long period of time. But back then, it had been easy; it had been just one more way to make sure the world hated him as much as he hated himself.
Is that the last good plan I came up with? Angel wondered. Possibly so.
From the nearby street, he heard music blaring from a tinny speaker, maybe one attached to a hot-dog cart. A cab driver screamed something obscene, probably at another driver. And, even for garbage, the local odor was particularly bad.
Angel thought: I'll make a brand-new start of it, in old New York. King of the hill. Top of the garbage heap.
Brushing off his filthy slacks, Angel got slowly to his feet. Even the flashy, Whistler-approved stuff he'd worn in 1997 would have been welcome now.
So, no money. That could be remedied easily enough; he had a few hoarding-houses of things that could be resold. Once he looked presentable, he could get himself an apartment; basement places were plentiful in New York. And then -
--and then, what?
"God, you are disgusting."
Angel turned toward the voice to see Whistler walking toward him, shaking his head. Last time, Angel hadn't known what to make of him; this time he did. "You've got the wrong guy."
"I'm looking for a vampire with a soul - so poignant. Though poignant is not the first word that comes to mind. Pungent, maybe. Vampire, soul, that would be you, right?"
"You'd think," Angel said. "But what you're really looking for is a guardian for Buffy. I agree with you - she's going to need a lot of help, But I am not the guy."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Whistler looked startled. "You're psychic? That wasn't in the file."
"I'm not psychic. I've just - been there and done that and screwed it all up. Find somebody else for her, okay? Somebody good. Somebody so much smarter and stronger and better than I am, because Buffy deserves that. If she has the right person taking care of her, maybe all the others will get to lead better lives too."
Whistler readjusted his hat, clearly unable to deal with a conversation going so differently than he'd planned. "I don't understand you."
"Nobody understands me," Angel replied. "That's my curse. One of them, anyway."
"See, I think you're MY curse," said a third voice, back in the alley. "Because anybody else could've figured out how to use that doohickey after screwing up the timeline just once or twice."
"Who the hell?" Whistler said as both he and Angel turned around. Then Whistler grinned. "Hey, it's my old buddy Flip!"
"I'm NOT Flip! I'm Chip! Humans and protohumans - what is it with you? If the demon's gray, stereotyping's okay?"
"Chip," Angel said, quickly feeling around in his ragged clothes until he came across the device, tucked into a chest pocket. "What are you doing here?"
"I figure that's a question you should be asking yourself, big guy," Chip said.
"Did the Powers send you, too?" Whistler said.
Chip gave him a withering stare. "I can't even start telling you how extraneous you are right now. Why don't you go do something useful? Like, get us some hot dogs."
"Hot dogs. Okay." Slightly dazed, Whistler started backing toward the street, then paused and said, "You want relish?"
"Yeah. And heavy on the onions." Once they were again alone, Chip folded his arms. "I knew you were gonna screw this up. But the stunts you've pulled? Unbelievable. I believe we are dealing with a vampire of very little brain, gentle reader."
"I did my best," Angel said. But it was never good enough. Story of his life.
"You think I'm talking about the mistakes you made, don't you?"
Angel held out his hands, gesturing at the filthy, garbage-strewn alley that surrounded them and all-too-perfectly symbolized his predicament. "What else is there? It's ALL mistakes."
"And this is different than anybody else's life - how?"
Caught short, Angel had to consider this for a moment. He'd never quite looked at it this way.
Leaning against the brick wall nearby, Chip said, "You've got at least a dozen friends who singlehandedly brought the world to the brink of apocalypse. Did you stop liking them? Hanging out with them? Thinking they were good people? No. Faith killed innocent people, by mistake and on purpose. Wesley kidnapped your kid, and you weren't happy, but let me tell you, most parents would've offed that guy for real, not made it up with him later. Willow tried to fry the planet, Gunn killed a man to make his girlfriend happy, and your precious Cordy fell for the oldest trick in the book and got herself possessed by primordial evil. Buffy? A LOT of red ink on that permanent record. They're ALL a bunch of fuck-ups, Angel."
"They're my friends," Angel said, wondering if it would hurt as much to punch Chip as it had Skip.
"We have at long last arrived at my point. Don't you get it, Angel? It's not the mistakes people make. It's how they respond to those mistakes."
"I tried to face what I'd done." This was true, wasn't it? Angel knew a century of guilt hadn't been for nothing. "I always tried to start over again -"
"Start over. Start over. Throw everything away and start over. Yeah, that's you." Chip held out his gray, leathery hands. "You never needed that device to go jumping around from place to place, Angel. You always kept trying to get to a place where the mistakes of the past didn't matter. You always tried to start over. You never just learned to live with all the wrong you'd done before. But that's what people have to do. They have to accept that their pasts go with them - no matter what."
Angel hesitated, then said, "I never forgot any of it. I never denied any of it."
"Well, a couple of white lies here and there, but if you mean you never denied it to yourself, yeah, I'll grant you that. But you never learned to live with it. You never stopped looking for that clean slate you were never gonna find."
"I just wanted to change some of the mistakes," Angel said tiredly. "I just wanted to - to hurt them a little less."
"You can't give people the good of yourself without giving them the bad, too. And they're the ones who decide if it's worth it. Not you." Apparently bored, Chip shrugged and pointed at the device. "The Powers are getting dizzy, watching you spin around like this. So pick a destination - any destination, forward or back - and go there. After that, I wash my hands of you."
"I choose again?" Angel said. "And this is the very last trip?"
"Until you get yourself killed again." With a frown, Chip added, "Definitely looking forward to that. Not."
Back to his turning? Forward to Connor's birth? Angel tried to balance all the variables, then realized there was no way. "You know how it will all turn out, don't you?"
"I have an idea. And no, I'm not telling you."
Slowly, Angel relaxed and said, "Send me where I can do the most good."
After a moment, Chip said, slowly, "Well, well, well. You might have learned something after all."
Then the alleyway dissolved into gold, into gray, into -
--Angel Investigations, in its first incarnation. Cordelia, carrying a feather duster and a box of supplies, walked from the front office into the area Angel was thinking of as his own; Doyle stepped closer and said, "She's a stiffener, all right."
"That's kind of crude," Angel said, automatically. When was this? What was - oh, wait. This was the first day Cordelia had come to work for him. This was the day his work in Los Angeles had really begun.
Doyle raised his eyebrows. "A bit possessive, are we? You don't say you fancy her yourself - do you?"
"We'll find you a nice girl," Angel promised. Relief swept through him, along with something that could only be called joy.
He patted his pockets; as he'd expected, the device was no longer with him. What was past was past. The future - he still wanted Connor, but the rest of it, he'd take as it came. It was enough of a gift to stand here again, enough of a gift just to try.
"Can't help noticing that you used the future tense there," Doyle said. "So, does that mean you're game?"
Angel let out a sigh and smiled. "I'm game."