Everybody Hurts


AUTHOR: CydneStorm
SUMMARY: The aftermath of Angel’s bleak revelation when Holland Manners showed him the scope of the Senior Partners’ never ending plans for the world. A provoking Challenge by Califi where Cordelia & Angel must find their way past a devastating interpersonal event.
RATING: NC17
POSTED: 21 Aug 2005
CATEGORY: Angst / Challenge Fic
CONTENT/PAIRING: A/C
WARNING: Non-Consensual Sex, Explicit Sexual Content
FICPIC CREDIT: Califi
AUTHOR’S NOTES:
1) This is Cali’s challenge and I know she wants a happy ending, but the initial event is too devastating for any thoughts of better times to come into play. So for now we have only the aftermath of Angel’s hard learned revelation…a seemingly door-closing epiphany you might say, but only time will tell what the heart already knows.
2) A big thank you to Cali for such a thought provoking challenge, I hope you’re not disappointed. And the beautiful picfic.
3) Title inspired by the song ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M.
4) Additonal notes at the end of the fic.


ficpic_everybodyhurts


PART 1

The almost silent screech of the elevator bombarded his over-sensitized hearing; steel grinding against steel as the private conveyance arrived at its destination. The doors slid open in a sibilating swoosh and Angel stood, frozen rigid in confusion as a homeless person pushing a loaded shopping cart across the plaza crossed the narrow path of his view.

“Welcome to the home office.”

“This isn’t…”

“You know it is; you know that better than anyone. The things you’ve seen, the things you’ve done. If there wasn’t evil in every single person out there, they’d all be angels. And you and I know…it’s just a word…a name to deceive those few humans that believe in you. Well…used to believe in you. They have a pretty good understanding now…of what you are exactly.”

Angel took a hesitate step from the elevator, stumbling forward under the weight of Holland Manner’s departing acclamation.

“Congratulations Angel, great victory; you should be proud. Shame you don’t have anyone to share the celebration.”

He heard the faint chime of the elevator doors closing but didn’t bother to look back; knowing the mystical transport along with its emissary would no longer be visible. Dumbfounded, he gazed at the unchanged landscape, eyes traveling the towering stretch of the Wolfram and Hart Building.

Everything was just as he had left it.

Angel walked the dark streets of LA, his downtrodden steps slow and devoid of purpose. A prostitute and potential client shouted in disagreement. Two men huddled around a small flame housed in a rusted, metal container, one shoving the other against the invasion of his space.

“So, what’s the big plan, Angel? Destroy the Senior Partners, smash Wolfram and Hart once and for all? Now tell me just what do you think that would accomplish? In the end, I mean.”

“It’ll be the end.”

“Well, the end of you certainly, but I meant in the larger sense.”

“In the larger sense, I really don’t give a crap.”

“Now let me see, there was something…in a sacred prophecy, some oblique reference to you. Something you’re supposed to prevent. Now what was that?”

“The apocalypse.”

“Of course, all those people you save from that apocalypse would then have the next one to look forward to, but hey, it’s always something; isn’t it?”

“You’re not gonna win.”

“We have no intention of doing anything so prosaic as winning.”

“Then why fight?”

“That’s really the question you should be asking yourself; isn’t it? For us, winning doesn’t enter into it. The world doesn’t work in spite of evil. It works
with evil. It works because of evil. Congratulations Angel, great victory; you should be proud. Shame you don’t have anyone to share the celebration.”

Nothing had been accomplished tonight. Nothing he had done these past months made a difference. That wasn’t exactly true, Angel hopelessly conceded. He had accomplished one goal, only it wasn’t his. “You need the words of Anatole to cure your friend. She’s your connection to the Powers
That Be. And since it is foretold that we sever all your connections, well…”

Angel considered the irony of his current paradox. “You don’t see anything. You don’t know what faith is.” Should he one day find the strength, Angel mused; he would laugh at that irony. Lindsey MacDonald was not the victim of recreant faith. That epithet he had salvaged from the wreckage and held to it with indomitable resolve. He had been a willing pawn in Wolfram and Hart’s quest; had presented Darla, again, with a vacuous clump of clay to mold into evil perfection.

The cold rain pelted against his face, its intensity fueled by the sharp whirl of icy wind that sliced into his dead soul. Looking up, the clear sky dense with twinkling stars rattled the small measure of sanity he struggled to hold onto. Angel observed the people around him. No one was seeking shelter from the frigid rain and the air was nothing more than a soft, warm breeze. He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head in acceptance. The layers of fabric could not protect him from the rising tempest that would freeze him from the inside out.

~~~ ~~~

Cordelia hesitantly stepped from the cab, turning back to extend an anxious, “wait here for a minute,” as the cab driver peeled from the curve. “Or if you can’t wait, just keep the change cause I’m rolling in unneeded twenties dumbass.”

The cab turned at the light, disappearing between the rows of buildings emptied by the late hour. Focus shifting to her purpose for being there, Cordelia turned to face forbidden territory. The hotel seemed mammoth in size, looming over the narrow sidewalk that led to its large double doors. She felt her body shiver, noting that the night wasn’t cold.

Taking a deep breath and releasing it with a sigh when she realized the air around her could not supply the courage needed, Cordelia stepped forward, determined but no less afraid. She was on a mission; The Powers had sent her a vision. The band of Blacknil, a ring, plain and simplistic in its design; something Cordelia would browse over if spied in a jewelry case. But the ring wielded a power to move its possessor between dimensions and the vision was crystal clear; Angel was not trusted to possess it.

Halfway up the stairs before realizing she couldn’t recall taking the necessary steps, Cordelia halted, once again rethinking her decision to do this on her own. Wesley was still too weak, lucky to roll around in his wheelchair without sprouting a blood spurt. Gunn, what could she say about her newest friend and ally? Gunn was angry and disillusioned by Angel’s unexpected descent into the dark side. He had only just begun to believe Angel was different, that a demon could be one of the good guys simply by virtue of a soul. Angel had pushed his way into Gunn’s life, but that was the way Angel did most things. Outrage or goodwill, his answer was always the same, high on action and low on forethought.

No, Cordelia shook her head as she continued her upward trek. It was best not to ask for Gunn’s help regardless of the peril her solitary quest presented. Gunn would have wanted to torch the hotel and its contents and for a brief moment, any argument against that particular idea escaped her.

~~~ ~~~

Though absent longer than Angel cared to remember, the sweet aroma was immediately familiar. His back stiffened at the thought of her being there; he considered the possibilities, quietly pushing the door shut and turning the bolt of the latch. Head cocked, he ascended the stairway; each silent step inspired by the unique redolence of her presence.

Muffled mutterings drifted from his room, her spicy scent swirling around him as he stalked closer. Pushing the door open, Angel watched as Cordelia carefully plundered his privacy, mindful to return each item to its exact location. He pondered the purpose of her search, deciding quickly the motivation to be in his territory irrelevant. Angel’s brief reunion with Darla had taught him there was either darkness or sunlight, and their thresholds unforgiving of foolish trespassers. Cordelia should learn that lesson, he surmised, if determined to continue the mission.

Angel stripped off his sweatshirt, a strategic toss sending it to land at her feet. Alarm prickled up her spine, and inwardly cursing the too late warning,

Cordelia cautiously straightened from her stoop, sliding the drawer shut.

“You shouldn’t have come here.”

Another prickle, this one reaching her neck as the graveled husk scraped across her skin. “I had a vision.”

“That means nothing to me.” Cordelia would only seek him out for the sake of the mission. The testament slapped across his face, and anger spewed up in searing ferocity. Horrified that the miniscule remnants of the man lingering within wanted to hurt her, Angel half-turned cloaking his view.

Realizing Angel had misunderstood, Cordelia quickly spun around to set straight his confusion; but faltered when thoughts were momentarily purged by the angled view of his naked torso. She had seen most of his body dozens of times, touching him had been innocent and natural; but now the intimacy of friendship and familiarity eluded her.

“The band of Blacknil…the ring,” she added with an insistent lift of a brow. “The Powers don’t want you to have it; they sent me to ask you for it.” Trying to mask the hitch in her breath was a waste of energy Cordelia couldn’t afford; she was afraid of Angel and he knew it. Better to ask him to give the ring freely than antagonize him with empty threats of taking it.

Angel turned towards the sound of her voice, but spoke not word. He guilelessly studied her, his penetrating gaze compelling Cordelia to search out a path of escape. It was almost impersonal, the casual way he looked at her. Long minutes of frigid silence passed, their only exchange the seething disapproval in his scowl and her revealing awareness of its instigator.

The words finally came, but only served to slice deeper into her faltering fortitude. “The mission; always the fucking mission.” The sardonic guff hissed through tight-pressed lips. “Don’t you ever need something besides the mission?”

“I need the ring.” Cordelia answered daring to hope if presented correctly her plea would open an avenue for a safe getaway. “If you’ll give it to me, then I’ll go and hopefully…for both of us, I won’t ever bother you again.” There, she’d said it; assured him that she wasn’t there of her own accord and would never willingly invade his personal sanctuary.

His slight nod garnered a relieved sigh, which transformed into a wrenching gasp as Angel’s hand drifted open. The ring slid from his palm, slipping down fingers dangling toward the floor and Cordelia watched as her hope spiraled down along side the shiny, silver hoop.

It landed with a clank, bouncing against the wooden floor before rolling to settle next to a heavy, black boot. Cordelia contemplated the possibility of Angel allowing her to scoop up the ring on her dash out the door, the echoes of their last confrontation battling against the urgency imploring her feet to move. “Don’t make me move you…I’m a vampire…Look it up.”

Calm, stay calm, no sudden moves; the incessant chant serenaded Cordelia’s ragged nerves as she took a tentative step, followed by a second. Angel’s rigid stance unmoving, she risked the few remaining footfalls spanning between her and freedom. Swooping down to snatch the prized target Cordelia flinched feeling the strike; grateful to realize it was her own heart billowing inside her chest.

She pinched the circle of metal between two fingers; ready to rise and make her escape when a heavy grip intervened, fingers tightened enclosing her upper arm. Cordelia looked up meeting Angel’s downcast gaze and laid a tentative hand on his arm. His eyes dark, pain hidden by the murky swirl of black clouds, he slapped her hand away and was on her in an instant.

In a fluid sling, Cordelia left the floor landing on the table, Angel’s weight following her down and stifling the completion of her terror-stricken scream. His fingers threading the soft, silky strands of dark hair, Angel agonized over the loss of long, sable tresses. Fisting the short locks, he jerked her head back exposing the flawless skin of her throat. His cool tongue slithered up her throat, stopping briefly to indulge on the tender, blood-swollen vein.

Cordelia’s larynx constricted, satisfied with the gush of a strangled gasp. “Angel…please don’t do this.”

“Stop pretending Cordelia. You’ve been begging me for years.” Angel purred, blunt teeth biting down on the soft flesh under her chin.

Fear struck, timed with concession. The man Cordelia loved and trusted was lost to her, and this monster would find no reason to resist its hunger. Survival instinct surged forward, but Cordelia naïve of its existence, gave a short-lived pause to the innate reflex, feral and primitive. Determined defiance quickly renewed, she fought back with an eruption of tumultuous passion. Impeccably filed nails, polished and buffed scraped across Angel’s upper arms stabbing with all their might into roughened flesh. Her body twisted and squirmed bucking against his weight. The spirited exertion unwittingly encouraging his heightening arousal, Angel pushed his hips down until Cordelia felt the hard proof of her encouragement.

A bewildered gasp, followed by a teary whimper and Angel stilled his movements except for gentle strokes of tear-moistened cheeks. “Don’t cry Cordelia, it won’t change anything. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.”

Cordelia felt the shift of Angel’s weight as his feet returned to the floor, but remained perfectly still, wary that any movement might again be misinterpreted. Angel hung his head, regret and shame beating against the gelid walls erected in defeated rage.

Reflecting on the influence of her panicked whimper, the power of a single tear, his anger swelled rising up from his chest in a guttural groan. “No,” Angel snarled, glaring down at the frightened young woman frozen against the table’s surface. Grabbing Cordelia’s wrists in a crushing clinch, Angel yanked stretching her up to meet his hovering face. “Nothing we do matters; why can’t you see that?”

Cordelia’s mouth fell open, heedless that she had no answer. But it didn’t matter because only seconds had ticked before her body was flung across the room. Landing in a crumpled heap, Cordelia scrambled to find her footing, tripping over her anxious movements as she scuttled toward the far wall.
In an effortless move, his body curled down, limber hands swiftly removing his boots before his spine straightened with an agile snap.

“You need to wake up, get your head clear. You might still be enjoying fantasies of Darla and the good ole days, but you’ve stumbled across the wrong girl.” Angel had plunged head first into his dark past without a life preserver and now he was drowning. Cordelia struggled to work her way past those drowning waves of emotions certain that Angel intended to take her with him. “I don’t want to play in your games. If you think I’m going to be the good little victim, help you out during your dark time, you’re wrong…the wrongest you’ve ever been.”

The heady blend of fear and defiance, and warm pulsing blood overpowering his senses, Angel’s chest rose and fell in heaving pants. Shutting out the hurt of Cordelia’s mordant accusations, he responded demanding the warmth and passion long denied. “Make me warm.”

Cordelia continued to retreat until backed into a corner; she didn’t reach him and her head slowly shook from side to side as reality etched its way through her denial. “I can’t…I don’t know how.”

“Yes you do.” He whispered, dark piercing eyes that had captured her own refusing to release her from their hold. “I’ve fought what I am for so long, but the sliver of sunlight that made it worthwhile is gone. I’ve lost everything…I accept that.”

The thaw of black ice, a flash of eyes tender and sincere ushered a glimmer of hope. Cordelia saw her friend for the first time tonight; fleeting, but an offer of hope they would survive the night.

“Angel-”

“But I won’t be denied this.” In an instant, the dark cold resurfaced freezing out the recognition of her friend. “Take your clothes off.” And Cordelia trembled as hope crashed against the ragged rocks, the shattered pieces of their life together swept away in the raging storm.

Nimble fingers worked his belt buckle, dipping to lead the slow slide of the zipper. The wispy sound followed by the even slower stride of a predator’s walk, the gape of his pants offering a hint of masculine hair provocative and dangerous.

He didn’t stop until he was pressed against her, large, muscular legs trapping long, slender ones inside their stance. His hands lifted toward her face but brushed past cheeks glistening with nervous perspiration to rest spread palms against the wall. Angel’s head dropped; his face nestled in her hair inhaling the alluring fragrance, sweet and spicy. Still lost in a world that didn’t want him, but this moment no one could take from him and he would hold her warmth inside until he found the courage to let go. “I just want to feel something besides the cold.”

“I know.” Cordelia whispered, the hot breath of his words still fluttering across her neck. She pushed her hands against his chest; but broad, taught muscles stood unmoving, harder than the wall against her back.

Angel slid down her body, his knees bending to kneel at her feet. He lifted his hands to her waist, expert fingers flicking the button on her jeans…and another cringing wisp of a zipper. Her jeans swooshed down her legs, skill and practice taking shoes and socks in its sweep. His face nuzzled against the dark patch easily visible through the lacy cover and Cordelia wrapped her arms snug across her chest cursing her silly, romantic choice of undergarments.

Inhaling deep, he savored the musky aroma, feminine and ripe. His mouth opened wide, ragged breaths dragging the mesmerizing flavors across his tongue. Arousal, the ingredient needed to complete his divine feast was missing. But his mastery of the female form, its tutelage started long before Darla lured him into her nebulous world, would seduce the shy spice to flow like a slow drip of honey. Fingers clutching around firm, round hips, his tongue licked a cool, moist trail up her lacy covered mound, a startle gasp enticing a wicked grin.

Angel lifted his gaze to her face, its expression blank and abandoned. Cordelia’s compliance wasn’t required, but Angel wanted to feel the complete surrender of her warmth flow into his soul. He reached up unfolding resistant arms, bringing her hands to rest at the hem of her sweatshirt.

“Take it off.” Cordelia shook her head in protest, thinking the movement passive and frail, and ridiculously delusive. Gentle pressure curled her fingers over the loose band pushing the fabric up until it bunched under her breasts. “Take it off, Cordelia.” Angel’s demand scraped across her bare stomach reminding Cordelia of his last implied threat when pride and anger made her foolishly deny him a book.

Arms crossed lifting over her head, the jerky sweep yanking the bundled fleece against the scrap of lavender lace incapable of covering full, round breasts. Rising up from his kneel, Angel gently took hold the coveted fabric and with a gentle tug pulled it from her grip, allowing it to fall to the floor. For long seconds he simply looked at her, her essence burning into every crevice of his memory.

His fingers lightly brushed across her nipples, but when her response pressed her further against the wall and away from his touch, hands boldly opened cupping her breasts and following her retreat. He leaned into her, the shift of his weight lifting her breasts and pushing up against the cleavage already spilling over the strained lace.

Cordelia gasped, renewing her struggle when fingers flicked open the tiny clasp between her breasts. Her arms pushed between them but were quickly taken away as the flimsy garment was ripped away and wrapped around the wrists now firmly held at the small of her back.

“Don’t do this. Ang-” His mouth captured hers, lips parted by a plea cut short, giving his tongue access to plunge inside.

Releasing her wrists, Angel tightened the wrap of his arms crushing Cordelia against him. He plundered her mouth, his hunger for her warmth and innocence making it impossible for him to pull away. Cordelia felt the rising burn and uselessly pulled from the hard clamp of his mouth struggling to draw air into her lungs.

Finally freeing her mouth, Angel’s hand snaked up catching her head as it dropped back. Desperate for air her lungs convulsed, sucking panted breaths through swollen lips already showing signs of the hard, bruising kiss. Suffocation avoided, Cordelia mulled over her next move immediately discarding any attempt to fight him off as a viable option.

Thoughts of a more practical plan were abruptly interrupted when she lifted from the floor, and her body tensed then quickly relaxed preparing for another angry toss. Instead of the hard floor, she felt the soft dip of the mattress against her back, and unhinged by the emotional roller coaster Cordelia screamed out the emotional torture and frustration she could no longer contain.

His large frame covered her instantly, its weight pressing her further into the mattress; cool lips descended attacking her mouth again, effectively squelching her screams. His hands roamed her body, rubbing and squeezing the hot flesh, touches urgent and rough, and uncaringly bruising.
Cordelia surrendered to the reality of their situation; sex, whether forced or consented was merely a by-product of Angel’s actions. He needed her to feel the soul wrenching pain of his desolation.

Eyes cinched shut, instinct pushed her emotions deep; what Angel couldn’t reach he couldn’t destroy. Thoughts concentrated on survival, Cordelia was barely aware of the last piece of lacy cover being ripped from her body or of his pants’ swift departure. His mouth continuing its assault, breaking for only fleeting seconds of gulped air, heavy knees pushed against her thighs. Cordelia twisted free of his mouth, turning her face away as her body tensed preparing for the brutal invasion.

Poised at her center, the absence of physical arousal weakening his resolve, Angel stilled. A gentle hand turned her face to him, and relieved but equally confused, Cordelia flinched when she felt the soft brush of his lips. The kiss remained tender, his tongue swiping across swollen lips. Her bottom lip quivered and Angel sucked it between his lips with a gentle tug, nibbling the abused flesh until he felt her body began to relax.

Easing his weight off her, a hand slipped between her legs, teasing her feminine lips with feathery strokes. A slight whiff of a spark and he eased a finger inside the soft folds seeking the trickle of moisture, his thumb stroking against the tiny nub enticing it to respond. The tickle grew to a reluctant flow allowing the entry of a second finger to massage the inner walls of her core. Cordelia’s body responded but her mind silently resisted, bewildered by the power of Angel’s touch.

Properly prepared, pain would not discourage her body from accepting his invasion; discomfort, Angel conceded, was unavoidable. He positioned the head of his shaft, now aching from its forced concession of her body’s needs, against her center and a slight push separated the moist folds.
Cordelia tensed feeling the pressure, her hands pushing against the hunch of his shoulders. “Don’t fight it Cordelia. It’ll only prevent pleasure for one of us.”

Not wanting to see her eyes when he committed his final violation, Angel lowered his face to rest against the side of her neck as he pushed his hips forward in a slow but steady thrust. Halfway inside the tight clinch of her heat he stilled, fighting back the urge to plunge into the hot core. Control momentarily regained, he gently rotated his hips enticing her body to relax against the stretching intrusion. Another thrust and he buried his shaft inside her warm depth.

They both panted, ragged breaths dispelled against fear and need, and the devastating revelation that going back to what they once were ended with one fateful decision.

He wrapped his arms around her holding Cordelia in place as his hips flexed uncontrollably driving his shaft in and out of her core. “Please make me warm Cordy, I’m so cold.”

Angel’s sobbed plea sliced into Cordelia’s heart, stripping away her frail detachment just as his carnal knowledge had stripped away her body’s reluctance. Fighting back her own sobs, she wrapped her arms around Angel’s shoulders pressing her fingers into the back of his neck. “I know.” Cordelia whispered into his ear needing to soothe the torment twisting his beautiful face.

His embraced tightened crushing her body to his, and with the release of a surrendering sigh his hips slowed, content to move in calm, rhythmic thrusts.
Their bodies moved in a harmonious dance, time seemingly endless. Thoughts of long awaited deliverance, of assurance for another tomorrow appeased, words gave way to languid moans and contented sighs.

Bodies entwined in a peaceful tempo, flesh enflamed by its sensual pulse incited the surge of carnal hunger. Thirsty groans rasping past parched lips, the slow slide of sweat-slick skin hastened, compelled to feed the earthy cravings.

Cordelia felt the raw burn rise from her center and spread across her belly fusing modesty and passion. Her hips flexed up taking the urgent thrusts deeper and faster.

Vaginal muscles contracted around his shaft and Angel growled both wanting and dreading the approaching floodtide that would too quickly ebb. His mouth slanted over parted lips, his tongue sweeping inside to tangle with hers. Angel groaned into her mouth, pressing Cordelia deeper into the mattress as his knees spread her thighs further apart. He pushed against bended elbows; the slight shift causing the slide of his shaft to rub across her enflamed nub, and he sucked in the warm breath of her mewls.

Cordelia opened herself to his driving propulsion, knees bending and legs lifting of their own volition. A scream choked within the constriction of her
parched throat as inner muscles spasmed, clinching tight to hold inside the hard length penetrating her.

Arms and legs wrapped tight holding their bodies close, their hips flexed and bucked joining in a fiery union. Cordelia’s body convulsed from the inside out, the rapid gush of heat forcing its way up the dry path of her throat as it sought release. Angel followed the rush of heat pushing further into the flames that could burn him into oblivion; one last frenzied plunge and he erupted, the cool release coating the scalding walls of her womb.

Their bodies collapsed, limbs fought against exhaustion refusing to release their hold. Cordelia gasped for breath, trapped beneath the body still crushing her into the sweat soaked mattress. Cold awareness seeping into the fantasy of everlasting warmth, Angel struggled to lift his limp weight only managing to roll halfway off her trembling form.

“Cordelia.” Hearing Angel’s intimate murmur of her name her eyes lowered unable to meet his needful gaze.

Angel had challenged Cordelia’s body respond to his and he had won, but in the dark aftermath, the heart and soul would pay the price for that hollow victory.

“Stay with me until sunrise.” Angel whispered as he moved off her rolling onto his side.

Cordelia wasn’t sure if the request was one of hope offering her a choice, but as Angel wrapped her in his arms, she realized the answer didn’t matter and snuggled into his embrace.

“We can pretend we made love.” A gentle tug rolled Cordelia onto her side and Angel eased her closer to rest against his chest. “We can pretend you still love me.”

The turmoil of the last hour, the raw emotions clawing their way to the surface was too much; and Cordelia gave into the heartbreaking sobs she no longer had the strength to contain. Sliding an arm underneath the stronger one holding her, she allowed herself to cry.

Tightening his embrace and draping a heavy leg to completely envelope her, Angel buried his face in the crook of her neck and joined Cordelia in his own release of retching sobs. Their bodies heaved, rocking back and forth; heart and soul forever entwined, they mourned.

~~~ ~~~

Cordelia drifted up from her hazy sleep; safe and contented until the cold knock of reality intruded. Her sleep-heavy lids fluttered open meeting deep brown eyes narrowed in pain and regret. The anger was gone but the chilling hold of darkness remained untouched. She shifted her gaze toward the densely covered window seeking evidence of the promised sunrise.

Sensing her anticipation, Angel reluctantly unlaced Cordelia from his embrace. “I asked you to stay with me until sunrise…and you did.” Cordelia simply nodded knowing words couldn’t change this moment and eased up from the bed clutching the smooth, red silk to her naked form. Not sure when her body had been covered but no less grateful for its veiling, she wrapped the sheet around her as she attempted to gather her scattered clothing.

Feeling the burn of his gaze, Cordelia risked a glance over a hunched shoulder meeting piercing eyes that quickly diverted to the ceiling. Spying the last piece, the ripped scrap of lace she had foolishly considered underwear, she snatched it up and hurried into the bathroom.

The door quietly closed and Angel’s heart flinched against the muted slide of the latch knowing no ordinary bolt could lock him out, but the symbolic gesture offered Cordelia a familiar comfort.

Only minutes passed before the door eased open and Cordelia returned to find Angel still in the bed, still naked. Ignoring her confusion, Angel eyed her intently, committing the view to memory. The woman wrapped in red silk, the one he had ravished in the throes of unrestrained passion was gone. This was Cordelia Chase, her body battered and bruised from the night’s events, but her resolve and determination had undeniably survived.

Cordelia slowly walked around the bed, edging closer to the now unblocked door that would allow her to leave. She froze mid step spying the ring, the catalyst that lead them to this juncture. What could The Powers had been thinking, they must have known, she wondered briefly before redirecting her thoughts to the task that had brought her here.

Angel watched as Cordelia pinched the metal between her fingers, his heart caught in another crushing clinch as she slipped it into her pocket. He had foolishly believed the band of Blacknil would guide him to the end of his quest…and it had, it had aided him in destroying the only light his lonely existence would ever know, sealed him inside a darkness that would never end.

Unable to watch her leave Angel turned away, his limbs drawing up against his shivering body as his head bowed in defeat. He waited for the sound of movement that would take her from him, his soul in agony wanting to look at her face again, hold her one last time.

“Cordelia,” he managed to choke out. “You don’t have to be afraid, I’ll leave at dusk…you won’t ever have to see me again.”

Cordelia nodded at the back of his head, her eyes glued to the quivering mass crumpled and curled on the bed. She took a tentative step toward him, her hand reaching out for a mere second before pulling back to her side. Her head dropped in acceptance and she turned for the door. They had helped each other survive the night, but in the light of day, their wounds were too deep; remain any longer and they would bleed to death.

~~~ ~~~

Exhausted legs tackled the stairs; sweat slick hands trembled, grappling to hold onto the railing. The air, thick and suffocating, suddenly dispelled in an agonizing wail; and faltering under her weight, Cordelia stumbled forward grabbing at the slippery handrail to brace against the impending fall. She shuffled down the remaining steps, crawling toward the door, desperate to escape the pleas of Angel’s tormenting sobs.

She was almost there, only a little further and she would know if a future was possible when the past refused to let her go. Cordelia battled with the lock and then the handle swinging the door open.

Fear of the answer would always prevent her from questioning The Powers, but stepping outside the hotel, most likely for the last time, Cordelia couldn’t help but wonder…

The light at the end of the tunnel may exist, but if their journeys remained separate would either have any hope of ever finding it?


PART 2

Three Months later…

“I can understand people who drink too much. I can understand people who put a note on the parking meter that says it’s broken when it’s not.” Cordelia passed her weapon to Gunn, freeing both hands to swipe at the goo soaked strands clinging to her face. “What I can’t understand are people who worship demons.”

Speckled with squirts of demon slime, their clothes disheveled, they turned into the alley leading to the back entrance of the office.

“Yeah, especially Lu-rite demons.” Gunn agreed scrunching his nose. “What kind of stink was on that thing? If you’re a prince of the underworld…bro, visit the Jacuzzi once in a while.”

“It’s sad actually. The only way some people can find a purpose in life is by becoming obsessed with demons. By the way Gunn, technically that wasn’t a Lu-rite. It was a Mu-rite, a sub-species of the Lu-rite. The male sports a small, tell-tale fin just behind the third shoulder.”

“So glad we’re not the sad people obsessed with demons.”

“We have to be a little obsessed,” Wesley offered in their defense. “We’re detectives that specialize in these things.”

“And we’re not sad. Nope, no sadness with this slaphappy trio.” Cordelia agreed, sarcasm rolling off her tongue.

“Exactly, we’re a happy and rambunctious lot if I ever saw one.” Wesley paused, hoping but not expecting a cheer of agreement. “Not going to humor me even a little, are you?”

“Hu-uh.” Cordelia and Gunn hummed in unity.

“I realize we sacrifice a great deal of our social lives, but we have to. Our work demands it.”

“You got that right. I mean, who has time for love when you’re out there doing it with the demons?” Wesley and Cordelia stopped in their tracks, casting Gunn a leery glare. “Didn’t that come out sad and wrong? Man, I need to get out more.”

“Perhaps that would be wise.” Wesley offered unlocking the back door and pulling it open for his partners to step inside.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have turned the lights on.” Cordelia suggested, rubbing a towel over her face and hair. “We definitely looked better in the dark…well at least I did.”

“Yea, but the dark didn’t cut the stink you’re wearin’ Barbie.”

“That’s true; I don’t think I’ve ever needed a bath as much as-”

A loud clang of snapping metal and the room fell instantly silent. They stood stock still glancing one to the other, three pairs of dark brows raised in anticipation.

“Go check it out.” Cordelia practically barked when the two men remained frozen in their steps.

“Cordelia, we discussed this, and agreed…you would be in charge of this particular project.”

“You guys amaze me. You’ll fight hell-beasts without a second thought, but threatened by a rat you two are the biggest scardies I’ve ever seen.”

“Man, I hate rats. With their little beady eyes…”

“…and let us not forget their beady teeth.”

“Ooo and little tails all swoosh, swoosh.”

Dumbfounded by the men’s fear of small rodents, Cordelia shook her head in apparent surrender. Having accomplished as much clean up as she could with a dry towel, she balled it into a wad dropping it into the trash can beside Wesley’s desk as she headed for the front door.

“I’m dirty, I smell, and I’m tired. If you two want to spend the rest of the night with a rat squished in a trap…fine; I’m going home.”

Cordelia spun around to unlock the front door but released a blood-curdling scream instead when the broad frame lunged through the dark entryway.

“Damn it; what are you doing here,” she hissed, muscles stiffened in a tight clamp threatening to send her tumbling to the floor.

Stilling frazzled nerves, Cordelia spun back around striking with a scolding bluster. “Which one of my brave heroes left the front door unlocked?”

“I wasn’t the last one out.”

“The office was secure when we left.”

Their denial rang out in a collective defense, one’s excuse clamoring over the other’s.

“Well, if that’s the case it begs the question-”

Her eyes drifted to their unexpected visitor. Matthew Ryan was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome; slightly messy waves of short ebony silk sprouted from his head, and cobalt eyes set deep in a perfectly chiseled face.

They had met at a most unlikely place, Caritas; when an informant suddenly turned hostile, he had intervened unaware of the club’s magical protection against violence, offering his own brand of protection.

“Matthew, why are you here?” Cordelia had known the man for barely two months, only recently feeling comfortable with their synthetic-friendly acquaintance.

“I was worried…I couldn’t reach you on your cell phone…” His explanation met with a squint of confusion he continued, “…we were supposed to chaperone Alex and Julia.”

Crap! Remembering their forgotten movie plans, confusion slid into regret. “Did they keep their date anyway?”

“No, Julia’s mother wasn’t comfortable with them going alone.”

“I’m so sorry. It’s just-we had to-”

I take it you had one of those…” He studied her disheveled state, his graze slowing to take in the odd colored splotches on her clothes and skin. “…visions.”

“Yea, it was one of those.” There was a time such an intimately personal embarrassment would have been a devastating blow; but that seemed like a long time ago, and Cordelia wasn’t sure she even remembered the girl that would have jumped through fiery hoops to avoid social humiliation. Matthew Ryan might be the real-life version of a romance novel’s paladin but his introduction in the story had come too late to offer a ride into the sunset.

~~~ ~~~

The cover of night freeing him to travel above ground, he had waited until the office was empty and jimmied the lock restricting his invitation. His unethical search failing to turn up useful information, he quickly picked up their trail in time to witness their surprisingly skillful battle with the demon.

Shadowing their weary retreat, he moved as a predator shrouded in darkness, until her scream threatened to reveal his presence. He had almost jumped, pulling back at the last second as relief and recognition doused the smell of fear.

The building across the street offered a clear view of the dimly lit office, and situated on the rooftop he watched and waited, and contemplated this stranger’s place in the reinvented Angel Investigations.

~~~ ~~~
He jolted upright, the incessant and irritating ring of the buzzer whirring around his head. Throwing back the covers, The Host bounced from the bed, grabbing his robe as he stomped toward the club’s main entrance.

“Alright-alright–Alright already! I’m not deaf, just not open. Come back tonight and I’ll let you in…even give you a drink on the house.”

Determined, the pestiferous intruder chimed a nauseating encore. “Jeez, keep your pants on!” Lorne wailed yanking back the locks and swinging the door open. “Well that bit of caution is about three months too late.”

Of the likely visitors his predawn, befuddled brain could conjure, this one hadn’t even made it on the list. “What do you want Angel?” Lorne asked; gold-socked feet firmly planted, his rigid form blocking the doorway.

“I need advice.” The words, low and gravelly crackled from his throat.

“I warned you for weeks you were taking the wrong path; not that you ever listened to my advice.”

“You’re supposed to help people that have lost their way.”

“You didn’t lose your way Mr. Nobody Knows My Pain. You walked away from your path, threatening anyone that tried to help you. So, I’ll ask you again; why are you here? Not just here, but in LA.”

“Please talk to me.” Angel pleaded, leaning his head against the doorjamb. “I don’t know what to do…and I’m afraid of what I might do.”

His back stiffened a notch tighter hearing the alluded warning, and Lorne relented thinking lives safer with the schizo vampire inside the violence-free sanctuary. “Come on in and take a load off.”

Lorne led the way, patting his hand against the slick surface as he rounded the table. Angel taking his cue lifted the chairs to the floor, taking a seat while his reluctant host busied himself behind the bar.

“I think you mentioned something about a drink on the house.”

“Keep your pan-” Lorne’s head jerked up, his eyes locking with the two bottomless, dark orbs darting in his direction. There was no need for further reference to the fateful event, not just yet anyway.

“I’m working on it, received a little something special with my last order.” The cork twisted from the bottle’s narrow mouth with a loud pop, and the smell of human blood, fresh and intoxicating wafted into the air.

“I don’t normally serve this particular bouquet, but I think you’ll enjoy it.” Lorne offered, plopping the glasses on the table.

Angel studied the dark, crimson liquid, cursing his watering mouth as he reached past his glass picking up Lorne’s and lifting it too his mouth. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass.”

“So Angel, what’s new with you?”

~~~ ~~~

Angel shoved against the basement door forcing the rickety lock aside. The air smelled stale and dusty, and unused, an invasive stench to unnaturally keen senses. His gaze lifted to the slightly ajar door leading into the hotel, and he trudged up the steps expecting the lobby to offer an equally suffocating welcome.

“Angel Investigations; we help the hopeless.”

“Doyle filled me in on your little mission.”

Exhausted, Angel slumped against the counter as the surge of memories washed over him and closed his eyes surrendering to the frail comfort of happier moments.

“Well, as vampires go, you’re pretty cuddly. Maybe you might want to think about mixing up the black on black look.”

“One of the perks of the job. After an all-nighter of fighting the lurking evil, we get eggs.”

“Astonishing, really. Mhm-mm. Did you say something about toast?”

“However he comes, he’s not gonna get them. These people mean a lot to me.”

“I’m getting that.”

“…The message didn’t come for Angelus; it came for you…Angel. And you have to trust that whoever The Powers That Be…be-are-is…anyway, they know the difference.”

His head swooshed from side to side in a violent shake; some memories too hard to face. Angel pushed from the counter, his eyes traveling to the staircase that would lead him to the hardest memories.

The walk upstairs was a slow surrender to his grief, and Angel wondered if this was the semblance of peace God granted to sinners facing the gallows. Too miserable to fear the next life, too tired to hold on to this one.

“The good fight, yeah? You never know until you’ve been tested. I get that now.”

Angel’s knees buckled and he grabbed the handrail stumbling over the next step. “Doyle sacrificed his life for the mission.” Angel whispered, breaths huffing in heavy pants, his chest heaving as stale air filled and left dead lungs. “His sacrifice was in vain, it only added to failures I’ll never atone for.”

“Cordelia, I’m gonna fix this…Promise. I’m gonna get you back. I need you back”

He had broken his promise, failed her in the worst way, forgotten he couldn’t protect her from himself.

“You’ve made a good choice. She’ll provide a connection to the world. She’s got a very humanizing influence.”

“It wasn’t Doyle’s fault.” Angel rasped, certain no entity of grace or forgiveness would listen to him. “How could he know he was leaving Cordelia in the hands of a monster?”

It looked like any other door, commonplace along side the row of doors lining the hallway; only those who had stood on the other side could understand why it was different. His hand reached for the knob, trembling uncontrollably; and Angel clinched it into a tight fist, pressing it against his chest.

He couldn’t go in, not yet. He was too weak, too alone to face the memories that waited on the other side.

“It’s gonna be a long while until you work your way out, but I know you well enough to know you will. And I’ll be with you until you do.”

“You have to be strong enough for both of us Cordelia.” Angel turned from the closed door and walked to the end of the hall. “You have to love me enough to forgive me…” He opened the last door, “…or hate me enough to kill me,” and walked inside.


PART 3

Cordelia slid further under the blanket staving the shiver of chills fluttering down her spine. It wasn’t the unseasonably cool night, but the return of dreams that robbed her of sleep and a comfortable bed. The couch was better, it offered refuge for one; and the flood of artificial light held the bumps and creaks at bay.

The fight had been brutal to say the least. Battle skills quickly sharpened by necessity dulled by fatigue as one vision trailed another. Her struggle could have ended; a faltered step moving her into the demon’s reach, until a cool band swept around her waist, lifting and spinning her from harm.

She had walked away, unwilling to ask, too afraid to listen, and too numb to care her unconcealed dispassion would raise questions.

Why had he come back? Maybe he never left. Had he remained in LA, hiding in the shadows…watching and waiting? The incessant murmurs droned inside her head until the sleeping pills pulled her into a fitful slumber.

~~~

Angel skulked in the shadows below, plans of watching from the balcony derailed by the bright illumination of her apartment. He had visited each night since returning to LA, spending the dark, lonely hours crouched outside her bedroom window…until tonight.

His head dropped in weary acceptance; she could find sleep only under the protection of synthetic sunlight, and he was the culprit. When Cordelia realized his intentions of moving out of the shadows and back into her light; would she meet him with acceptance or attempt to flee the city…and his pursuit?

~~~ ~~~

Eyelids fluttered open, quickly slamming shut as the shrill echoed into her drug induced sleep. “Dennis lights, too bright.” The answering machine clicked on, coaxing the phone into silence and freeing her head of its jingling ring.

“Cordelia, are you there? It’s half past noon; where are you?”

“Wesley, I’m here…sorry.”

“Cordelia, are you alright? You sound…ah-”

“No, I’m fine, just tired I guess. Are you and Gunn OK? Sorry I left last night, but-”

“No, that’s quite alright. Gunn and I are fine, just worried about you.”

“Wesley…is he gone?”

“That’s one of the reasons I’m calling. Angel has asked that we meet with him.”

~~~ ~~~

Cordelia cursed the eerie feeling of being watched. It was mid afternoon, she cursed again; no one was watching her, at least no one she needed to fear. She had been on edge for days; maybe some part of her had sensed he was close, the hair at the nape of her neck constantly bristling a warning.
Angel had shown up and she had fallen apart, proof of the small distance separating her from the past. In hindsight, stubborn refusal of counseling was probably a mistake.

“An ear for listening, a shoulder for crying…I come fully equipped.”

“You can’t help me. I have to figure out how to help myself.”

“It’d probably be easier if you would trust me?”

“Probably.”

“Then you’ll let me be your friend?”

“No.”

“Whenever you’re ready then…I’m here.”

It may have helped to tell someone, but Cordelia didn’t have to tell, he had known instantly. He had read her too easily, slipped inside her emotions and felt the suffocating death of trust and friendship. She had always considered Lorne to be Angel’s friend and advisor, and wasn’t willing to trust his pledge of confidentiality. There was one thing Cordelia had that she would now trust without question…her instinct.

~~~ ~~~

Cordelia stood inside the dimly lit club waiting for Lorne to sense her presence. She could be patient; it was only late afternoon, Caritas wouldn’t open for several hours yet.

“I’ve been expecting you.”

“Just wanted to drop off your key.” Cordelia responded, letting the small piece of metal slip from her fingers and clank against the table’s surface.

“Keep the key princess. Caritas is the one place you can come when you need to feel safe.”

“You knew he was back.” It wasn’t a question; it rode the edge of accusation.

“Yea, but not until two nights ago.” Lorne halfheartedly defended.

Cordelia hadn’t been ready to know of Angel’s return, and Lorne would deal with the guilt of keeping it from her; a small price considering he would have to tell her why Angel had returned to LA.

“So I guess safe is in the eye of the beholder. Gotta tell ya, I’m not really beholding any warm, fuzzy feelings about being safe.”

“Sit down princess and I’ll make us-”

“Stop calling me that!”

Old memories had been left behind, trapped in that room with the past; Cordelia wouldn’t allow a childish pet name to unlock the door.

“We do seem to be missing the ingredients for a good fairytale.” Lorne somberly agreed.

Past attempts at introspection blocked by a cancerous anguish so raw, pain could only reflect pain, leaving no room for anything else. Now layers of anger and obstinate survival stood like warring sentinels, and Lorne feared their breach were beyond his simple gift.

“Take a seat… princess …I’ll make us some tea and we’ll talk.”

“Tea? If I wanted to chat over afternoon tea I’d visit Wesley.”

“Shove a knife in my heart; why don’t you.” Lorne feigned a too hearty chortle. “Believe me, where my heart’s located sitting wouldn’t be an option.”

“I’ll take your word for it, cause I don’t want a Pylean anatomy lesson.”

“Fair enough. Now let me get you some of my special brew. This little specialty will blow the Brit’s high tea right out of the water.”

~~~

Angel flipped onto his stomach, hell-bent on recapturing the sleep that had cast him out. In slumber he could smell her perfume on his pillow, feel the warmth of her body on his sheets; and he could be aroused by their redolence and not be ashamed.

“What do you want from me Angel?”

“I want you to help me get her back.”

“I read and tell people what I see. I don’t interfere.”

Angel pushed from the bed and headed from the room in search of a working shower. It would be dark in a couple of hours. He could travel through the sewers, be at their office by sunset. The sooner he stated his case, the sooner he’d have their reaction; then he could decide his next move.

~~~

“I know Angel showing up out of the blue has scared the heebie-jeebies out of you, but if you’ll listen to me, maybe it’ll help make sense out of what happened…of what’s going to happen.”

“OK,” Cordelia gulped along with a big swig of her Pylean tea; obvious after her second cup the special brew was two-thirds bourbon.

“Angel left Sunnydale because he was convinced it was the right thing to do.”

“I was there for the maiming and the killing, Lorne; it was definitely an attention grabber.”

“I know Angel’s evil side-step in Sunnydale seemed pretty bad at the time. But looking back…does it even compare?”

“Lorne, you’re comparing what happened between Angel and me to his big love fest with Buffy…that doesn’t seem right.”

“Angel left because he could. He made a decision and he followed through.”

“So Angel’s made another decision?” Cordelia asked, confused by the muddle of information; but confusion gave her a break from fear, if only for a little while.

“No, it’s not that simple. Our brooding, and sometimes psychotic vampire has had an epiphany of sorts.”

“I can’t do that Angel. The Powers won’t allow it.”

“You don’t seem to be grasping the gravity of our situation Lorne.” Angel leaned down low, his mouth hovering a mere breath away. “If Cordelia can’t forgive me, if I can’t return to the fold, then I’ll leave; but The Powers need to understand…I won’t leave without her.”

Now was not the time to reminisce Angel’s ominous declaration and Lorne choked down the gulp caught in his throat, pulling in deep, slow breaths to calm his skittish nerves.

“Lorne, are you alright? Lorne?”

“Oh, sorry about that cupcake. Kinda faded out for a second.”

“So, Angel’s so-called epiphany?” Cordelia asked, dreading whatever answer Lorne might offer but refusing to end up with another wasted session.
“What does it have to do with me?”

“He won’t leave you princess…because he can’t.”

“What kind of sense am I supposed to make out of that?” Cordelia demanded pushing up from her chair; the hard shove sounding an eerie screech as it scrubbed across the floor. Hazel eyes dark with fury and only a glint of fear glared at The Host. She flicked a thick strand of dark hair from her face, leaned down planting her fists against the table and shook the telltale shudder from her voice. “Was that supposed to be soothing, help me get a good night’s sleep? Cause I gotta tell you, it wasn’t a warm milk moment.”

~~~ ~~~

“You gotta admit, it’s odd; the vampire showin’ up like that.”

“Yes Charles, I agree; but I’ve agreed the last three times you’ve said it. Now will you please stop pacing? It’s-it’s…making me tense.”

“It’s not the pacing that’s got you wired, it’s…”

Both men looked up, gawking at the large, stoic figure filling their doorway. Eyes dark, face emotionless; he stood unreadable, waiting for their response to tell him whether to seize or surrender control.

“…him.” Gunn choked out the last of his riposte, his gaze still glued to their ill-boding visitor.

Wesley cleared his throat, dislodging the trapped air threatening asphyxiation and breaking the ghostly silence. “Angel, we didn’t hear you come in; please, have a seat.”

Angel stepped inside the small office, three short strides closing the narrow space to Wesley’s desk. He loosened the fold of his arms letting the books slide into his hands, bringing them down to hover over the heavily scratched desktop.

“These books were at…” “Just give him the damn thing and let him get the hell out!” “Don’t make me move you.” “I don’t even know what you are anymore.” “I’m a vampire. Look it up.” “I thought you guys might could use these.” Angel nodded toward the books as he reached them to Wesley.

“Yes, well thank-oh, this is the book you took when you-oh my…” Wesley stuttered and stumbled, caught ill prepared for the instant recall of Angel’s threatening demands for the text.

“Yes, of course; one can never have too many demon texts when researching…well…demons.” Good God man, get a hold of yourself. You’ve turned into a blubbering idiot. “So Angel, what brings you back to LA?”

“I left most of my things at the hotel when I left.”

“So you’re just stopping by on you way out then?”

“Not exactly.” Angel asserted, lowering himself into the offered chair, but never breaking the lock of Gunn’s cold stare.

The young man had earned Angel’s respect when they first met. Charles Gunn was often too cocky for his own good but he refused to be led by fear; driven by it maybe, but Angel could relate to that impulse.

“Angel I’m not sure why you’re here, but I think you should know we continued with the mission in your absence.”

“But you probably figured that out with that lurking thing you do.”

“Yea, but it didn’t take much lurking to read the sign.”

“Yes, well, we really haven’t been able to agree on a new name; and things have been quite busy these past few months.”

“In case you missed it, the subtext is you ran when things got tough.”

The assertion may have come from anger, but its truth remained clear; and breaking from his staring contest with Gunn, Angel ventured the only acceptable response. “I know…I’m sorry.”

“Oh, well then-”

“Charles please, sarcasm won’t help.”

“Helped me feel better, bet Cordy would enjoy it too if she were here.”

“Wes, where is C-Cor–Cordelia?” Damn it, Angel silently hissed. Wes was blubbering, Gunn was ranting; calm would give him the edge he needed to stay in control.

“Since it was unclear why you asked to meet with us, Cordelia chose not to attend. She’s had quite a lot going on these past few days and taking a night off gives her a chance to catch up on some much needed rest.”

“She shouldn’t be fighting. It’s too dangerous.” It was out; the avower had been kicking at his gut since he stepped through the door. Better to say it now while calm was his foothold than risk succumbing to his own blubbering rants.

“You think? And just why do you think the girl is fighting? Could it be we came up a man short?”

“Gunn, stop it, this isn’t helping.”

“No let him talk Wes. He’s needs to get this out, so he can move past it.”

“Fuck you! You arrogant bastard; who the hell do you think you are telling us the girl shouldn’t be fighting?”

Angel felt the rage surge up filling his chest and pushed back hard. The young man was protective of Cordelia, it was second nature for him to protect his people. But as far as Angel was concerned, Gunn would have to accept that his need for Cordelia was the only thing that mattered to him. “You pretty much summed it up.”

“Man, we know she shouldn’t be fighting, but unlike some people she don’t leave her friends in the lurch. Cordy is fighting because she believes she has to.”

“Then let me help.”

“Excuse me?” Wesley practically yelped with astonishment. Worried that Cordelia would believe the brief encounter to hold promise of Angel’s return to the mission, he had suggested that Angel most likely returned to tie up loose ends before moving on.

“Oh hell no, don’t even try it man. Ain’t nobody gonna work for you.”

“I don’t want you to work for me, I…I just want to help.”

“Everyone calm down for Heaven’s sake! Nothing will be settled by all this yelling. Now Angel, why are you here exactly?”

“I want to come back…help you fight.”

“Man you trippin. You only get to play the white hat once with me.”

“Charles, sit down and be quiet. I know you’re upset; we all are, but you’ve said enough.”

“Angel,” Wesley tried again. “It’s been almost six months since you chose…other priorities; what has changed that you would want to rejoin the team?”

“What’s changed; you know what’s changed Wes. His girlfriend was blasted back to hell on the same broom she flew in on.”

Gunn rounded the desk; he’d had enough. He’d been staking vampires since adolescence; if Angel refused to leave, he’d be just another pile of dust to sweep up. “Rumor has it you’ve got another girlfriend you can go obsess over. My advice, take the interstate it’s quicker, and for you quicker is safer.”

“What are you talking about?” Angel asked, his façade of calm quickly failing. He looked at Wesley ignoring Gunn’s suggestion that he high-tail it back to Sunnydale or face the consequences.

Wesley’s jaw dropped, fearing the meeting wasn’t likely to end on a positive note. His glare jerked to Gunn then drifted back to Angel. “I…we thought you knew.”

“Knew what Wesley?” Angel hadn’t sensed Darla since his return, but he hadn’t been able to locate her before he left or in the dozen haunts he’d staked out since leaving LA.

“There was a secret meeting held at Wolfram and Hart…we assumed you were aware of it. Darla attempted to ambush one of the high officials and the firm put a contract on her head. Darla was assassinated within the week.”

Angel rose from the chair, eyes cast down avoiding the blended stares of sympathy and aversion. Their reasons may differ, but both men expected a reaction based on personal loss, and grief, and anger. “Tell Cordelia, she doesn’t have to see me. I don’t need to be at the office to help with the visions.
I won’t come here again unless you call me.”

“Angel, are you staying at the hotel?”

“I don’t know where I’ll be.” Angel turned toward the door, the space separating him from solitude now looming. “I’ll call you…let you know where I’ll be, and if you decide you want my help…” And walked out of the office onto the dark street.

~~~ ~~~

“I thought you might like to know we’re keeping the agency open. You may have turned your back on your mission, but we haven’t. Someone has to fight the good fight.”

In their eyes, he had placed saving Darla above anything else. How could he expect them to accept his misguided belief that saving her might validate his own salvation? He had offered his own existence that Darla might earn her rightful death of old age, and still he had failed to save her. Could he ask them now to believe that Darla had been merely another lost soul in his struggle for redemption?

“I’m not ready yet. Too many years spent sleeping in soft beds, living in a world where I don’t belong. I can’t fight them; not yet, but soon.

“Let them fight the good fight. Someone has to fight the war. It’s time.”

“Why so far away, my love? Why don’t you come over here and…stake me?”

“I can still feel her pain, her need, her hope. I’m too close to fight her. I’m not ready.”

He had fired them, pushed his friends away to keep them safe. Separated himself from the people he cared about so he could destroy the evil Wolfram and Hart had resurrected. At least that’s what he had meticulously convinced himself to believe. Angel wondered if given the opportunity, would he have staked Darla?

“When Wolfram and Hart take a life, they do it at a distance. I don’t have that luxury.”

“I’m not on their level. But I can get there. And when I do, I’ll be right up close. I’ll bring the fight to them.”

“But getting to the Senior Partners, that’s my destiny.”

“Is it? Because I haven’t actually featured a destiny with you in it lately.”

“If…” Angel chuckled at his still fractured perception. Instead of destroying Darla and Drusilla, he gave them free reign over the city he had been charged with protecting. Blamed Wolfram and Hart for his torment and indecision; and went after them with a bloodlust vengeance that would make his second creator proud.

Evil had consumed him for centuries, his glorified epithet as white knight often oppressive and unmerciful. Eyes wide shut, he had easily slipped, following Darla’s dark, wicked path again. But how could he have imagined the catastrophic repercussions of his orchestrated reprise?

He had trudged the dark streets and desolate alleys for hours, purpose and direction constantly deluding; and bone tired from his endless plod of haunting memories he sought refuge in the grim and lonely hotel.

Angel walked past the locked door, narrowed intent focused on the illusory asylum waiting inside the last room. He wouldn’t visit Cordelia tonight; discipline had been weakened by need, and need fueled by hunger.

“You need to wake up, get your head clear. You might still be enjoying fantasies of Darla and the good ole days, but you’ve stumbled across the wrong girl. I don’t want to play in your games. If you think I’m going to be the good little victim, help you out during your dark time, you’re wrong…the wrongest you’ve ever been.”

“Make me warm. We can pretend we made love. We can pretend you still love me.”

“I can’t…I don’t know how.”

Patience was Angel’s mantra now; he had survived a different hell to come back for her, and would not fall at the last steps of his journey.

“I’m not ready.”


PART 4

“I still say the vamp is trippin’-I mean look at the evidence man, he walked in there like nothing had changed.” His eyes remaining glued to Wesley, Gunn walked from the kitchen reaching out the glass clutched in his hand.

Cordelia stretched up and snatched the offered drink, pretending she had missed Wesley’s disapproving glance. Fatherly she didn’t need right now. Right now she needed alcohol and courage, and planned on satisfying both. Well maybe one more than the other, she reconsidered after taking a big gulp that made her eyes roll back.

“Even so, I think we have to consider Angel’s physical contribution. It would allow Cordelia the option of participating when we fight.” Wesley responded stroking his chin. An act Cordelia had witnessed a hundred times over, but found it suddenly irritated the hell out of her.

And what will I do with all that free time; practice manicures in the dark while huddled in the closet? Damn, where are the good ole days when all I had to worry about were sleazy casting directors and making the rent on a roach-infested apartment? “I think…I might agree with Wesley…maybe.”

“As long as you’re sure Barbie. Don’t jump to a decision.”

“Bite me Gunn, and this Long Island Tea is good; you might have missed your calling… maybe.” Cordelia added after a well timed pause, and flashing Gunn a wily grin.

“I believe Cordelia may be approaching the situation more realistically.”

“About me being a bartender?”

“No Charles, focus.” Wesley pinched the bridge of his nose, shifting his stance so both friends could witness evidence of his impending breakdown.

“Yea Charles, focus before dad puts you in time-out.”

“Half a drink and you’re sloshed girl.”

“That’s me, one drink Cordy.” No need to mention the two rum and cokes I had before they got here. “Every man’s dre…never mind.”

“So we’re agreed, a trial period to see if the arrangement will work.”

“No man, we ain’t agreed on anything.”

“Well you better decide quick cause I’m in no shape to be swinging deadly objects if a vision should…CRAP!” The ice clinked against the sides of the glass, her body shaking uncontrollably as the vision hit.

“Cordelia, a vision?” “Barbie, you OK?” The two men frantically questioned as they took the drink from her hand and helped her stretch out on the couch.

“Yes…and no,” Cordelia answered when speaking without drooling became possible. “That old factory near Gunn’s hangout. I don’t know what they are, but it’s happening now.”

“I’m calling Angel.” Wesley announced as he covered Cordelia with a blanket, quickly tagging on, “I’ll simply tell him of the vision, it’s his choice whether he accompanies us,” when Gunn cast him a disgruntled glare.

“Fine, just don’t expect me to roll out the welcome mat.”

“Wouldn’t consider it.”

~~~ ~~~

Angel leaned against the brick wall, lost in thought until the shrill broke through shattering the rare moment of peaceful meditation. Eyes squeezed shut, he slipped the intrusive mechanism from his coat pocket.

The uncomfortable clearing of a throat grunted into his ear, a clear indication of his caller. “Angel? It’s Wesley; are you there?”

“Wes,” husked into the phone. Vocal chords crusty from lack of use, Angel’s voice was gruff, the name sounding harsh in its delivery. Why talk when no one was there to listen? His short sessions with Lorne required little verbalization on his part, the anagogic demon nervously monopolizing the conversations, afraid of truths waiting to be revealed.

“Uh yes…Cordelia had a vision; demons breaking into a warehouse and attacking the occupants. Cordelia thinks it may be the old factory at Elden and Tenth. We’re headed there now, Gunn’s worried his people might already be there.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

“Very good then,” and with a click the line was silent.

His attention drifted up to the welcoming dark of the balcony, the dim glow from the small bathroom window conjuring images of a hot soak surrounded by flickering candles. Angel considered the lapse of minutes since Wesley’s call and leaped onto the platform, not even the air disturbed as he crouched down in his usual spot.

Swift elimination of the demon threat would aide his cause, but he couldn’t risk a violent display if raw emotions broke through. Unsure of his control, he had stayed away; but tonight, waning control had shifted direction and Angel needed to soothe the rising ache. Hunger needed to be appeased, as much as allowed; then he would face the demons, and old friends on the battlefield.

~~~ ~~~

Wesley hadn’t called, which meant Angel had agreed and Cordelia’s inebriated brain wouldn’t have to remember basic fighting maneuvers. More important, Angel’s whereabouts were not a source of concern…at least for a little while.

Cordelia sank into the creamy bath, her small mass sloshing the hot water and suds until completely submerged inside the velvety cocoon.

“This socializing thing is brutal. I mean, I was young once. I used to go to bars. It wasn’t anything like this.”

“It’s got to keep trying to make a connection. Because that’s what lonely people do.”

The bottom of the tub, warmed by the scalding water, felt slick against her bare bottom; and lifting the half empty glass to her lips, Cordelia slipped further into the therapeutic mixture.

“I scared her. Am I intimidating? Do I put people off?”

“It’s still in me, Cordelia. And sometimes they change back. If the day ever comes that I…”

“Oh, I’ll kill you dead.”

“Yea right, I just sent my friends out to play with a homicidal monster so I could soak in a hot tub without worrying where said homicidal monster might be lurking.” Cordelia mumbled as her eyes fluttered shut; a distant warning hummed inside her head, something about sedatives and alcohol making an unhealthy potion.

~~~ ~~~

“So, what’s the plan?” Angel asked joining Wesley and Gunn with a leap onto the loading dock, grateful dead lungs concealed his urgent rush for a timely arrival.

“There was no time for research. Cordelia felt the danger was imminent.”

“What’s to research? Demons, they’re bad, they’re ugly, and they need to die.” Gunn concluded, swinging his trusty axe over his shoulder and jerking the loading door up.

“Put a sock in it Charles.” Wesley quipped following Gunn’s lead.

“Whoa English, snark; I’m impressed.”

“Just didn’t want you missing Cordelia too much.”

“Still, that was a good one.”

Angel laid back, content to fill his allotted role as backup, a tinge of envy tugging at the camaraderie between the two men. He had given up any right to be included, walked away foolishly believing even with a soul his demon didn’t need it. And he could live without their trust and friendship, Angel surmised, quickly banishing the envious tug. There was only one thing he couldn’t live without and he wouldn’t allow less important needs to get in his way.

~~~ ~~~

“Just pull over here.” Cordelia barked at the cabdriver, throwing a twenty into the front seat before shoving the door open and lunging for the sidewalk. Interruption of sleep before the effects of alcohol and pills wore off blurring her focus, Cordelia gave her head a vigorous shake as she hurried toward the emergency room entrance.

“Charles Gunn was brought in a few minutes ago. He’s being treated for a stab wound.”

“And your relationship with the patient?” The nurse asked, not bothering to look up from her computer screen; years of emergency room duty numbing her to visitors’ anxious sputtering.

“He’s my brother.”

“I see,” was the reply when a glance questioned the truth of her statement, the light bronze of her skin obviously sun induced. “Your brother is in exam room seven, down the hall and to the left.”

“Thanks.”

Cordelia watched from the doorway, Gunn’s chest rising and falling with shallow breaths of peaceful sleep.

“It’s how you live your life. You don’t just face danger, you create it. You’re on a self destruct mission unless you get some help.”

“You need some serious saving. Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

The sentiment may have been true at one time, but not now. Cordelia had learned the real Charles Gunn under the best and worst circumstances. He was sometimes too brave but always cunning, and the fight must have been vicious for him to end up in the emergency room.

“I’m not leaving your side until I know you’re safe. Better plan on having me in your life for a while.”

“OK, so you’re feeling guilty. Suck it up girl, now is not the time for a pity party.”

“Barbie?”

“Hey. Somebody woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me my hero had a booboo…so I rushed right over.” Cordelia stepped inside but left the door open, assuming Wesley was probably dealing with doctors and release forms.

“Yea, sorry about that; I told Wes not to wake you. Nothin’ to fret over, hardly a scratch.”

“I can see that. It’ll take more than a pesky old demon to take down the mighty Gunn.”

“Uh, actually…the demon didn’t stab me.”

“Then who did? Oh my God, not-” Guilt-Guilt-Guilt

“It was Rondell.” Gunn reluctantly admitted. It had been bad enough, taking down the weird looking demons while keeping one eye on the distrusted vampire watching his back, but to be wounded by one of his own men was more than Gunn cared to confess.

“Rondell-it was Rondell! My beauty sleep was interrupted-I’m wallowing in guilt because Rondell got jab happy?”

“Calm down girl, my man’s feeling bad enough as it is.”

“Well he should be, upsetting me like that.” Cordelia smiled, leaning down to place a quick kiss on Gunn’s forehead and blow a soft sigh of relief.

“Whoo girl; did you drink a bottle of minty fresh?”

“I gargled, if that’s what you mean.” Cordelia defended, lifting up and tilting her face away. “I’d been sleeping; I wasn’t coming to the hospital reeking of morning breath.” …and stale liquor.

~~~

Angel waited across the hallway…watching and listening. He missed the softness of Cordelia’s touch when she would patch his wounds, the warmth of her hands gently patting his cheek then the whispered you’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep.

“Ah Angel, you’re still here.” Wesley announced, surprise evident in his voice.

“Just waiting for you to get back, make sure everything is OK.”

“Gunn is fine. A couple of cracked ribs but the puncture wasn’t deep enough to reach a lung.”

“That’s good. Guess I’ll be going then, if you don’t need anything else.”

“You’re welcome the join us Angel.”

“No…I’m not. This is for friends…family.” The concession stuck in his throat, threatening to cut off a lifeless breath. “I don’t want to intrude.”

“Very well then, I’ll see you tomor… Later then.”

“Yea, later. Goodnight Wes.” Angel abruptly turned making his way toward the exit. Sunrise was only a few hours away; and he needed to make a stop before going back to the hotel, otherwise Cordelia would be getting a late night visitor.

~~~ ~~~

Lorne struggled with his robe, a medley of curse words spewing from red lips when his toe rammed against the chair. He shook a green fist at the door, no need asking the frantic rapper to identify himself.

“Out for a moonlit stroll Angel?”

“I don’t trust myself right now.”

“Come on in.” Lorne ushered with a sweep of his arm. “I’ll get the bottle.”

“Have you talked to her?”

“We’ve had a couple of powwows. Shared a little teatime.”

“Lorne,” the growl rumbled up his esophagus pushed out by the urgent confession trailing it. “I need to touch her. I can’t be this close and not touch her.”

“Angel, that’s not going to happen any time soon. At least not in a good way.” Lorne advised, his warning rattling with panic.

“Talk to her Lorne.” Angel rasped, downing his drink in a long session of swallows before rising from the table. “I want to see her.” The force of his insistence slapped against the door rippling back into the room. “And without her entourage.”

“The first time Mr. Tall Dark and Rockin’ graced my establishment it was all about the coat. Oh, the good ole days; where did they go?”

~~~ ~~~

The chamber felt massive, dwarfing his generous height. He clutched the small, stone-carved figure, fearful the tight grip of his fingers would crush it.

“You dare to enter these sacred chambers without summons lower being.” The ominous voice commanded as the two oracles rose up from the center of the chamber floor in a mist of blue flame.

“Yikes! I am Lor…I am Kre…” I’m the ninny who thought this was a good idea.

“We know who you are.”

“I seek-”

“We know what you seek.”

Of course you do. You are the know it alls after all. “He’s no good to you like this. Angel’s a champion at heart, he’s just lost his way.”

“This vampire with a soul, he was sought out was he not; granted the scroll of Aberjian?”

“But the evils of his world move against him, their forces too strong for him to fight alone.”

“Alone? Was he not granted a connection to our realm?”

Holy Moly what was I thinking? “Look, let’s cut the toga dialect and get down to some good old fashion street lingo. Yes the jackass was told about his destiny, and yes you sent him a seer that was faithful and true, and-”

“The end of days have begun.” The male oracle lifted a hand silencing thought of further protest. “Soldiers of darkness stand ready. The balance shifts, and he is not a champion. We shall not convene on his behalf again.”

“But-”

“Do not come to us again, Krevlorneswath of the Deathwok Clan; your presence will not be greeted with compassion.”

And with the strike of his hand, the male oracle vanished amidst the fiery blaze of blue flames.

“You seek guidance for the one that has fallen?” The female oracle remained, the blaze dwindling to a iridescent mist.

“Yes! I seek guidance. Bless you sister gold.”

“And you have brought a gift?”

“A gift? Yes a gift!” Lorne shouted, shoving the rock-hard figurine at the female oracle. “Beowulf, a myth of the ancient human world. A king who defended his people from the fate of a dragon, giving his life that theirs may flourish.”

The female oracle studied the small statue, turning it over in her hand. “And there is a connection between the gift and that which you seek?”

“Maybe a tiny one.” Lorne answered scrunching his shoulders and gracing the female oracle with a sly grin. “Predestined fate does not a hero make. If you get my meaning.”

“I do not; but no matter, for the gift has meaning to you and those you care about. The curse imprisons the evil one, but the soul is without shackles.”

“As in not bound, but if Angel loses his soul…”

“The soul is without binds, only by choice can it be bound to this world. The vampire must choose or the darkness will devour.”

OK, Miss Solid Gold Dancer, I don’t think you’re getting the gist of our current peril. The vampire with a soul, bound or not, has decided and he’s gonna send the rest of us to hell in a hand basket if we get in his way.

“There is but one truth. Lead them wisely Krevlorneswath of the Deathwok Clan. Evil lives never-ending and strives to embrace those who hold the power to destroy it.”

The flames again blazed a fiery heat, the surge throwing Lorne free of the chamber. He tumbled onto the ground, yelping as knees and elbows scraped across the asphalt. “Heavens to Murgatroid, exit stage left.” Lorne yammered picking himself up and dusting off his gold lame’ suit.

~~~ ~~~

“Here,” Cordelia scoffed, shoving the cup of freshly brewed coffee at Gunn. “You’ve finagled all the TLC you’re gonna get from that little nip.”

“Little nip!” Gunn protested, grasping his side and feigning unbearable pain. “It’ s a gash, a deep, near-fatal gash.”

“Yea right; well that near-fatal gash didn’t stop you from bowling with the guys last night.”

“How did you know-Wes!”

“Leave me out of this.” Wesley quietly ordered, waving a hand in the direction of their squabble, but keeping his attention fixed to his book.

“Don’t blame Wesley. I know because I’m Cordelia Chase and I see all, know all.”

“You ain’t right girl.”

“Maybe not, but I’m leaving. I promised Alex and Julia I’d meet them at the movie theatre by eight o’clock, world annihilation notwithstanding.”

Grabbing her purse she rushed to the door before movie plans could be thwarted a second time. “So suck it up Gunn, you’re officially back on full duty.” Cordelia spun around charging though the doorway until a mishap with déjà vu brought her to a screeching halt.

“Holly crap!” Cordelia stumbled back into the office, the hulking form pursuing every step. Realization that the collision was not with Matthew Ryan freezing clenched muscles, locking them into place.

“Cordelia.” Angel whispered, hands cinching into tight fists as he willed them to remain inside his coat pockets. “I haven’t heard from Wes in three of days, just wanted to make sure everyone was alright.”

“We’re fine Angel.” Wesley answered, suddenly losing interest in his book. “And yourself?”

“Fine thanks,” Angel mumbled, dark eyes melting into Cordelia until she could feel the burn on her skin. “Gunn, you feeling better?”

“Yea I’m good, and I’m over here.” Gunn waved his hands in the air calling out, “a little to your right,” when Angel failed to actually notice him.

Heart pounding and head spinning, droplets of perspiration trickling across her forehead, Cordelia marveled at The Powers’ seeming determination to test her heart’s physical endurance.

The tilt of Angel’s torso descended another discernible degree but the position of his feet remained firmly rooted in place. “Did Lorne talk to you?”

Angel’s whispered breath blew against her cheek, releasing a flood of memories Cordelia was ill prepared to deal with. “Uh…yea…yesterday,” stammered past trembling lips.

“Then we’ll talk soon.” Angel whispered again. Remaining face-forward, he stepped back toward the door, careful to ensure she was beyond reach before slipping his hand out of his pocket and lifting it to flutter the warm air teasing her cheek. “It was good to see you…Cordy.”

And like a pulse of soft wind, a swirl of translucent smoke, Angel was gone; leaving the doorway empty and an unobstructed view of the dark blue jeep parked at the curb.

“Cordelia, what was Angel referring to?”

“Nothing important, I’m late; we’ll talk tomorrow.” Cordelia dashed out the door and jumped inside the jeep, willing herself to smile at her chaperone partner, semi-date.

~~~

“Uh Wes; what just happened here?”

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think I like it.”

“Well, let’s go then.”

“Go where?” Wesley asked suddenly even more confused.

“To talk to Mr. Green Jeans and find out why he’s having secret meetings with Cordy.”

“No one said anything about secret meetings, and we’re not sneaking behind Cordelia’s back.” Wesley insisted. “She’ll tell us when she’s ready.”

“And if she don’t.” Gunn asked not sure if Cordelia would confide in them, but more than sure he didn’t trust Angel.

“Then we’ll sneak.”

~~~ ~~~

“Sister, why do you torment your heart with matters of these lower beings?”

“It is not my torment that saddens my heart, dear Brother.”

“My patience grows weary with your dalliance in the lives of these ill-evolved creatures. Soon your indulgence in their meaningless existence shall find an end.”

“Dalliance, indulgence Brother; is the capacity to embrace the pains of heartache and sorrow our forfeiture for a higher existence in eternity? I think me unwilling to offer that sacrifice.”

“Speak no more of such blasphemies. You are a romantic my dear Sister and therefore allow your perfection to be marred by these mortals.”

“And you are ofttimes less than the vampire you so ardently condemn.”

“Very well, let me take care that I shall not copiously sweep the vampire and his human companions into oblivion. Salvation of the fallen one may be the seer’s gift; but should she fail, destroying the evil that dwells within shall be her duty. The seer has not yet proven herself worthy of our protection.”

“The warrior and seer seek enlightenment with The Delphian of the Pylea dimension, and I have placed in his heart the truth that shall light their path.”

“You are but a foolish girl Suadela, weakened by your love for these wayward creatures as I am weakened by my love for you.”


PART 5

“Will you trust me to love you?”

She smiled, lips parting as they met with his in a tender kiss. He felt the warmth of a soft mewl inviting his tongue to taste the sweetness of her mouth.
“Let me love you.”

Mouths nipping and sucking, he lifted her into his arms and carried her upstairs.

Hips thrusting against the hard mattress, Angel groaned as unwanted consciousness pulled him from his dream, stealing the warm, soft flesh and leaving him alone with only a cold sheet clutched in his hands. Disappointment meshing with anger, eyes flashed gold sparks and fangs itched from years of neglect. Another anguished howl and Angel rolled onto his back, cursing untimely physical needs. He had barely an hour before meeting Cordelia; his shower would have to be cold and hard, and purposeful.

~~~ ~~~

The sun loomed above the horizon, a large fireball descending day into twilight; colors, wild and bright, creating a magical hue. The last, warm caress of day sailed with the wind, fluttering dark tresses left loose and abandoned.

Cordelia browsed the elegantly designed boutique windows, scolding her inner child for grieving over frivolous days long past. Priorities had changed, her situation with Angel being in the forefront of those changes. He was probably on his way to Caritas by now, she reasoned, watching her lambent shield fade into moonlit vulnerability.

~~~ ~~~

Courage as fake as her calm façade, Cordelia pushed open the door and walked inside.

You’re late, Angel’s expression whispered, dark eyes with only a hint of emotion careful not to question why.

She sized him up; know your enemy, he had taught her that. The change was subtle, but easily detected by someone who had spent the better part of a year complaining of endless black on black.

Angel had taken great care in his attire. Too much color would present the wrong impression, not enough would affirm nothing had changed. His shirt was dark blue, almost black but not quite; and boots, a common choice, replaced with casual and uncomfortable dress shoes.

“Why don’t we sit,” a hesitant voice suggested, failing to dispel the blanket of tension. “I made coffee…I’ll go get it.” No response to his offer, a discontented sigh huffed from red lips and Lorne shuffled behind the bar, the chink of china and utensils resonating into the suffocating quiet. Lorne was out of his league and failing miserably to conceal his fears of inadequacy in handling this imposed position of mediator and counselor.

They set at the table, an illusion of friends sharing a drink, coming together by chance and catching up on times missed.

“How are you?” Angel finally spoke, the rasped query giving little indication of his fervent rehearsal.

“Good-fine-I’m good,” was the stammered reply.

“That’s good.”

“Knowing where to start is…”

“Impossible is the word you’re looking for.” Cordelia whispered tilting her head to the side, sitting so close to Lorne they were almost touching.

Cordelia knew the club protected her from unwanted attention; a simple demonstration, Angel surmised, that he should remember his place.

Muscles were more tone, evidence of her newfound need for self-defense. But she was slimmer, evidence that a healthy appetite and depression were not faithful companions.

Angel studied the curve of her face. Except for their brief moment at the office, opportunity for close proximity had been nonexistent. Her eyes gave up the biggest change; they were darker and steeled with resolve, clouding the glittering smile he had grown accustomed to before Darla’s intrusion.

“What I did to you was…”

“Reprehensible? Culpable? Criminal? Evil?”

The tone was accusing, the expression condemning; and unable to face either, Angel lowered his head, eyes burning into the cup in front of him.

“Yes.” He whispered, weary defeat reaching across the table in hopes of being embraced.

“Why did you come back?” Cordelia knew Angel had learned of Darla’s demise from Wesley, and considered the likelihood they were again a temporary substitute while Angel bided his time. “Sorry if you’ve found yourself momentarily short on purpose, but we’re no longer available; you’ll have to find some other poor slobs to use until something better comes along.”

Hope swatted away like the annoyance of a gnat, his head jerked up, determination anxious to deny.

“That’s not why I’m here. That was never the reason we were together.”

“The visions are for the mission, not you.”

“The visions aren’t why I need you, but the mission is mine.”

“Not any more, you walked away because other things were more important.”

“Our destiny was foretold; you know that.”

“Yours maybe, mine’s more likely in the closed accounts file at Tiffany’s.”

“Don’t do this Cordelia. You promised you’d help me find my way out of the tunnel.”

How dare you throw that in my face. I believed we were friends, you were a champion, and I trusted you. “I meant it when I said it. I just didn’t know you planned on dragging me into the tunnel with you. If you wanted to crawl around in the dark, you had Darla for that. Maybe you should have taken better care of her. After all, you were willing to give up everything, even your life to save her.”

The trial… how the hell does she know… Lorne… A low growl rumbled from his chest.

Angel was ready to tell Cordelia everything, no more secrets, no more going off to handle things on his own; but he had to get her back first.

“This isn’t about Darla, it never…” Useless denial was, well useless when dealing with Cordelia. He had pushed her beyond the perimeters her youth could handle and she was surviving the only way she knew how…with a brutal, detached honesty of the Queen herself.

Calm, stay calm; she wants me to lose control so this can be over. “I made a lot of mistakes, and what I did to you was the worst. I don’t expect you to forgive me, at least not yet.” Angel chose his words carefully. He had no right to demand anything and couldn’t risk Cordelia misinterpreting his request. “I’m just asking that we work on us. What we had is worth the pain if we can be like we were.”

“You’re still confused Angel. There is no us. There never was. And whatever we were like before is gone.”

“You don’t mean that Cordy; you can’t-”

“Cordy’s gone too. She grew up…the hard way.”

“I know you’re hurting, but I’m hurting too.” Angel countered; the response laced in a soft whisper, he concentrated on sipping his coffee, ignoring the cooling temperature.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. That soul of yours is suppose to punish you for your bad deeds. Too bad it doesn’t stop you once in a while. So what’s the penance for ultimate betrayal? Three Hail Mary’s and a side trip to Sunnydale for some Buffy lovin’?”

Eyes jerked up before shock could be masked, the rim of the cup clinking against his teeth; and Angel switched his concentration to swallowing the bitter brew before it could spew from his mouth.

“What? You didn’t think I’d know?”

Angel had heard of Buffy’s mother and stopped in Sunnydale on his way to LA. Staying all of an hour, he offered his condolences. His need for Cordelia overshadowing his ability to comfort, guilt of failing one because he was obsessed with healing his failures with the other almost more than he could bear.

“She lost her mother.” The condensed and safer explanation sounded feeble inside his head, and once spoken out loud quickly escalated to pathetic.

“I know Angel. I know exactly how she felt. A mother suddenly gone.”
Cordelia lost both her parents, not to death, but abandonment, which in a way is worse. Her parents chose to leave her. Did she deal with the loss on her own? I don’t know, I can’t remember us talking about it.

“Suddenly without the person you trusted most in your life.”

I know Cordelia has dealt with that alone. I’d be dust if Wes and Gunn knew and she’s not confiding in Lorne, he’s not a good enough liar to keep it from me.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. It just cheapens what you have with Buffy. She needed you, and that was the priority. God, it’s not enough you think I’m gullible, you think I’m stupid too. You may have chosen Darla over us, but you’d never choose her over Buffy. It hasn’t been so long that I don’t remember you staked Darla for Buffy.”

“Hey kiddies,” Lorne stepped in, unsure if diverting the flow of emotions was the right decision but certain of Angel’s reaction if Cordelia continued to push him away. “Why don’t we take a few steps back; give everyone a chance to breath.” He glanced at Angel, ignoring fidgety nerves and forcing a quirky smile. “Well if you breathe that is.”

Lorne’s interruption went unnoticed, unrelenting glares beaming across the table. Heavens to Betsy, if anybody up there is listening now would be a good time for heavenly intervention.

“Look Angel, I know you’re in a pickle, suddenly without a blonde to obsess over. Darla’s gone again and you can’t be with Buffy. You want me to be your friend; fine, here’s some friendly advice. No doubt Wolfram and Hart were impressed with you locking all those people in the basement with your two girls. It’s not like they grieve for the own, so I’m sure they’ll be glad to resurrect Darla again.”

Cordelia stood from her chair, one hand fisted against her hip the other wielding an insistent, pointing finger. “Then the two of you can ride off into the sunset and leave me the hell alone. Getting dumped the second you find a loophole in that pesky curse is her problem.”

“Cor?” The soft knock against the half-opened door filtered into the room; the welcome of its timeliness varying among the room’s occupants.

“That’s my ride.” Cordelia announced, and with an abrupt spin ended her participation, marching toward Matthew who waited quietly by the door.
Lorne followed Cordelia turning back to offer, “You stay here,” grateful for Angel’s unexpected compliance, but unnerved by his mask of eerie calm.

~~~

“I guess for a first session-”

“It was better than expected,” Angel finished, surprising Lorne with a hopefully honest view.

“Really?”

“Cordelia’s hurting, and turning that hurt into anger is the only way she can deal right now. She brought up every mistake I made because of Darla except the one thing we have to talk about.”

“And you’re OK with that?”

“For now. When do I see her again?”

“Uh, about that; there’s a stipulation to a next time…and it’s nonnegotiable. Angel’s head shifted slightly, his eyes veering to Lorne signaled him to continue. “Cordelia wants you to stay off her balcony.” Lorne revealed between worried gulps.

Angel sat stock-still, face expressionless and knuckles white as fingers unclenched seconds before shattering the cup and spilling its black liquid onto the table. “Fine. Whatever Cordelia needs to make this work, I’ll deal with it.”

~~~ ~~~

The table crashed against the wall, splintered kindling scattering on the floor; the stripped bare mattress followed close behind. The room was almost completely demolished, every piece touched while violating her innocence and trust hurled across the room as rage dominated control.

Red satin wrapped around his feet, Angel snatched it up, ripping the frail fabric. Fibers stretched and torn revealed their secret, and Angel pressed the sheet to his face drawing her scent into his spirit. Exhausted, he slumped on the floor; his face buried in a pillow, the faint aroma of her perfume surrounding his senses.

~~~ ~~~

Repose had been brief; haunting memories invading his dreams, Angel escaped to the dark streets. He changed course at the last minute, common sense warning him to stay away he decided instead to use the last hour before sunrise to reacquaint himself with patrolling the city.

The shout of familiar voices drawing his attention, Angel cut across the street and sped down the alley.

“What the hell is that thing?”

“I don’t know. I told you it was big.” Cordelia shouted in return, waving her sword at what she could only assume was its head.

“Forgive me for thinking elephant when you were implying dinosaur. Now get back!” Matthew ordered, steeling his nerves and stepping forward to join Wesley and Gunn on the front line.

“Excuse me!” Cordelia grabbed his shirt pulling with a hardy tug until their new ally gave up and returned to his position as backup. “See this,” Cordelia marked off the space swinging her blade out as she whirled around. “This is called a personal bubble. Unless you want me to carve a big C on your chest, never cross this line.”

“Why are you threatening me? I came to help; remember?”

“Perhaps you’ve both forgotten why we’re here. A little help would be appreciated.” Blaming the disruption for causing him to miss his target, Wesley cursed as his blade sliced through empty air.

“You stay out of this-and go for the throat. I think it might be a weak spot.”

“Any idea where the throat might be? This thing is just one big blob with claws.” Gunn jumped as he swung his axe hoping to reach what might be a neck.

Emotionally drained and physically exhausted, Cordelia struggled to let go of her resentment over Matthew’s concern and focus on the battle. “I’ve had more than enough of would be heroes telling me what to do. If you want to help me, help us kill this thing before it kills us.”

A vision of the strange looking demon must have brought them out at such a late hour, but no one had called for his help; and Angel stood on the sidelines watching the interaction. Though relieved by Cordelia’s refusal to accept the man’s protection, the quips and snarks were painfully similar to the feisty banter they once shared.

The demon let loose a vicious roar, a heavy limb more akin to a tentacle wielding razor-sharp claws whipped out, hurdling down toward Cordelia. Matthew raised his sword, ready to strike, until a powerful shove knocked him to the ground snatching his weapon from the air.

Angel straightened mid rotation, swinging the blade around to contact with the bellowing snarl’s source. The demon’s head hit the pavement with a heavy splat, Angel spattered with blood, landing only a second behind it.

“Why didn’t you call me?” Angel demanded, his snarl rivaling the demon’s.

“It-it-” Wesley stammered, cleared his throat and tried again. “It was almost morning when Cordelia had the vision. It made no sense to call you so close to sunrise.”

“We had an agreement Wes.”

“Nu-huh, no agreements,” Gunn stepped up to challenge, “only maybes and we’ll sees, nothin’ else.”

Angel spun around, standing over the man still lying on the ground; he cast a warning leer, tossing the sword to land with a clank beside his head.

“Take Cordelia home…then leave.” He advised, the muscles in his face twitching with tension, his voice a gravelly husk.

Dark, angry eyes seeking her out, Cordelia stepped back, only nodding a reply when Angel issued his final instructions before taking off. “I’ll see you tonight at eight, and not before. So go home and get some sleep.”

“Maybe you should stay with me until he has time to cool off.” Matthew suggested pushing up from the bloody pavement and wiping his hands on his jeans.

“No!” Cordelia snapped. “Just do what he said.”

Matthew Ryan may know about the evils that roam in the dark, but he was clueless about the pissed off vampire with a soul.

~~~ ~~~

Profanities spouted, but refusing to give up, the persistent knocker became even bolder. Wesley reached down from the bed snatching up clothes tiredly shed and dumped on the floor just moments before.

Jerking open the door, he ducked barking a loud, “Bloody Hell,” as the fist intending another hard knock lunged at his face.

“Top of the morning to you too.” An invitation not forthcoming, Lorne pushed past Wesley and stepped inside, anxious to avoid nosy neighbors likely disturbed by his boisterous arrival.

“Lorne? What the bloody blazes are you doing here?”

“My, aren’t we a grumpy riser. Your eyes are a little puffy too.” Lorne leaned closer inspecting the dark circles under Wesley’s eyes. “Cucumber slices work wonders, but with those bags you might need a miracle.”

“Yes, thank you for the beauty tip. Now if you could tell me why you’re here…then leave so I can get some sleep.”

“Everybody’s always in a hurry. No one stops to smell the roses anymore. Fine, short and direct,” Lorne added when Wesley directed him an agitated glare. “There’s something important in that scroll Angel heisted.”

“The scroll of Aberjian?”

“Don’t know its name, the image was fuzzy.”

“You had a vision?”

“No; more like a dream or a memo sent from up above.”

“Lorne, you’re not making any sense. Besides, the scroll isn’t here. As far as I know it’s still in the safe at the hotel.”

“Then get it Professor. There’s an important message, and The Powers want us to find it.”

“Alright, I’ll see what I can do; after I get some sleep.”

“Good, you sleep…and try the cucumbers. Now if you’ll excuse me,” Lorne flipped the hood of his cape over his head. “This gorgeous profile works best in moonlight.”


PART 6

Cordelia glanced at the clock…again. If she was going to be at Caritas by eight, she’d have to leave soon. The problem with that scenario, she was still in her pajamas, in bed and it was seven o’clock.

Hands rubbing hard over tired eyes, she released a loud huff hoping to blow the weary tension from her body. Nope, didn’t help, and if the muscles in her neck didn’t relax soon they would likely meld into one big clump. Maybe she’d been wrong; overzealous paranoia working overtime. Maybe Angel had actually told the truth and wasn’t outside her bedroom window last night.

Moot point, Cordelia reasoned. The threat of Angel showing up had given her an excuse to send Matthew on his way. Better than telling the man there were times she couldn’t stand the sight of him or that the slightest brush made her skin crawl. Besides, she reasoned again, if the wayward vampire had been crouched on her balcony; what would she have done?

~~~ ~~~

Angel eased the shirt onto his back, cringing when the fabric rubbed across the burned flesh yet to heal. A scorch by sunlight was always slower to heal, and the pig’s blood he was downing did not contain the medicinal boost of his first choice. The problem, his first choice also tended to induce behavior changes and with meeting Cordelia in less than an hour, anything less than total control was not an option.

He lied to her…again. But then, Angel reasoned, their relationship was based on lies and half-truths. Cordelia had trusted him, believed in him and his mission with pure, unadulterated faith, they all had. And being a selfish bastard, he had allowed that faith to go unchallenged and basked in the warmth of her love. At least until his past caught up with him, unmasking what really existed behind the celestial name.

It’s not the demon that needs to be destroyed, it’s the man; he had told Buffy once. One truth Angel discovered during his sabbatical; that night with Cordelia, the remnants of his humanity had gained absolute control, and desecrated the only thing, good and pure, fate had granted him.

~~~ ~~~

Cordelia blinked several times, giving her head a good shake before taking a second look. Angel was slumped in his chair, legs stretched out and his feet propped on the table. Ears perked, she listened, positive it was a hallucination. No, Angel was actually laughing. Not a big hardy har har laugh, but a definite chuckle when Lorne obviously said something funny. And a chuckle from Angel was like a belly roll from a normal person.

“Muffin, you’re here. Come, join us.”

“Celebrating?” Cordelia asked, taking a seat and sniffing the cup of tea waiting for her.

“I guess it’s reason enough to celebrate.” The nervous clatter in Lorne’s voice betraying his relaxed guise. “Making Mr. Stoic laugh has been a personal goal and well…” He trailed off sweeping his hand in front of Angel’s face.

“Well congratulations. Did you win anything other than that smug look on your face?”

“Oh Princess, don’t pop my glory balloon. I’m making pastries for my two dumplings, and speaking of pastries…” Lorne called out leaping from his chair and darting into the kitchen. “I hear the oven calling.”

Death by demon or skull cracking vision was no longer a concern. The strands of awkward silence wrapping around Cordelia’s throat would be her demise.

This is worse than going to the gynecologist, dentist and DMV all on one day. As much as you might need those people from time to time, you can always just say shove it and walk away. Not exactly the case here.

The one fact Cordelia was certain of was that Angel wasn’t offering a choice of yes or no, only how they would proceed. There had to be a way to make this work; logic told her Angel returning was a practical decision. Wesley and Gunn would benefit and she’d get to step back from demon duty. Maybe it could work; she pondered the rewards of simply turning over vision statistics and staying home while the men went off to slay. Not a bad scenario Cordelia decided, when manipulated into what was best for her.

“A penny for your thoughts.”

“Huh? Oh, sorry…kinda lost in thought.”

“I know…so?”

“So what? Oh; do you even have a penny?”

Angel reached into his pocket; and a penny pressed between the table and his index finger slid across the table until it laid in front of Cordelia.

Cordelia eyed the shiny copper coin. She hated idle small-talk, almost as much as she hated Angel thinking she was so easily cajoled.

“Maybe you should just keep it.” She flicked the coin, sending it back across the table. “If you hear my thoughts then ask for change, we’ll just have another reason to argue.”

“That won’t happen. Actually, I’d be getting a bargain…if you told me what you were really thinking that is.”

“Since when do I not say what I’m thinking?”

“Never, but what you’re thinking isn’t my concern.” Angel admitted, wishing other truths could be as easily confessed. “It’s what you’re feeling that I’m willing to pay for.”

“Well in that case…” Thoughts and feelings were as opposite as day and night, and if thoughts were begrudgingly shared, feelings didn’t stand a chance. “You can’t afford it.” Cordelia gave the chair a quick shove scraping it across the floor. “I’m gonna check on Lorne, well to be exact, his pastries. I’m suddenly in the mood for something sweet.”

Cordelia was being too civil. Not forthcoming with useful information, but the casual conversation, and change in her demeanor was too good to believe…or trust. She was working him, that much Angel was sure. He’d have to change tactics, but it would need to be handled delicately; if Cordelia felt pressured she’d strike back. Angel needed to let her move forward, confident in their casual we’re only getting along mode, while shifting their relationship in a more intimate direction. I can do that, he assured the cannonade of doubt.

Angel slipped into the kitchen undetected, quietly eyeing the hustle of activity and waiting for his opportunity. “I have a suggestion for our next meeting.”

“OK,” spit out; Cordelia gagging on the large chunk of apple turnover rolling around in her mouth, followed by a garbled “milk” and ‘high priority’ look to her snacking partner.

Lorne quickly delivering a rescue of cold, low-fat milk, dabbed a towel over Cordelia’s mouth and chin as he scolded her overzealous pastry scarfing.
“Jumping willagers princess, there’s plenty for everybody.”

“Thanks, and ewe.” Cordelia scrunched her face swallowing down the mishmash of fruit and skim milk. “Does someone think I need to watch the calories?”

“Not you my little non-fat latte, but this sleek, gorgeous body is my livelihood. Well that and the Judy Garland vocal chords.”

Angel sized up the situation; Cordelia was purposely ignoring him. The startled choke had been genuine, but now she was just dragging it out.

“So, how about it?”

“How about what?”

“My suggestion Cordelia.” Patience may be a virtue when dealing with Cordelia, but it was also a rare commodity.

“Did you actually make a suggestion or just suggest that you had one?”

Snark untempered; Angel missed that, and Cordelia had him with that one. “Right.” He’d never actually stated his case before the gagging and spitting, and fat debate. “I thought it’d be nice to go out, maybe have dinner at a nice restaurant. You choose and I’ll treat.”

And seeing doe eyes wide with fear as blaring headlights threatened to run her over, Angel quickly corrected his proposition. “All of us. If we’re going to work together, Wes and Gunn need to be comfortable having me around.”

Covert vampire watching was impossible Lorne decided, wall-eyeing Angel’s newest ploy as he stashed the milk carton inside the refrigerator. Patience and Angel do not good bedfellows make.

“Uh, what do you think Lorne; you coming with us?” Cordelia wasn’t sure how much of her confidence stemmed from Lorne’s presence instead of the club’s protection spell, but having at least part of that confidence was better than none at all.

“Would if I could pumpkin, but unless the big guy is planning a clandestine outing I’m afraid I won’t fit in.”

“Maybe we could just tell the gawkers to get over it. I mean there’s a lot of unattractive people running around, and they get to eat in nice restaurants.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned princess,” Lorne offered while sending Angel a conversant glare, “it’s that humans and demons alike are resistant to change.”

Angel felt the stinging flick of Lorne’s scorn, pushing resentment aside to concentrate on appeasing Cordelia’s discomfort. “We won’t be alone Cordelia. I wouldn’t ask for that. I just thought it’d be nice for the four of us to have dinner together.”

“Fine,” Cordelia snapped, throwing the small kitchen towel onto the counter. Angel had managed to maneuver her back against the wall and flight seemed her best option. “If you think stuffing me with a ten pound lobster will fix things; who am I to disagree?” Cordelia sprinted around the counter, spinning around as she crossed into the lounge. “In case you haven’t noticed, they don’t know…and I don’t want them to know.”

Fists firmly riding the curve of her hips, eyes squinted to narrow slits, and lips pursed warning she’d reached her limit, Angel glimpsed his Cordelia. The take no crap hellcat that would spit in an opponent’s eye before showing fear; and Angel felt the echo of a heart-beat.
“Idiot,” Lorne hissed, slapping Angel’s arm with the back of his hand. “Can you not understand the concept of good things come to those who wait?”

~~~ ~~~

“Am I the only one that sees the irony here? The dude’s a vampire, and unless this place is another demon hangout, it ain’t gonna have blood on the menu.”

“Gunn, will you please give it a rest?”

Wesley laid his head against the back of the couch, tightening the pinch on the bridge of his nose. This was actually making his time as a watcher and even life with his father look good.

“Cordelia, when did you and Angel discuss dinner plans?”

Great, Cordelia’s conscience groused, more questions meant more lies. “Angel called me yesterday, asking to talk…and I agreed to meet him at Caritas.”

After Angel’s descent into his dark past almost six months ago, they had decided to continue the mission, and in the process grown closer; but this newest development only served to confirm Wesley’s concerns. Cordelia was still clinging to her past with the Angel they once knew and trusted; and as the eerie shiver rippled up his spine, he couldn’t help but worry his friend would suffer further heartache and disappointment.

“Damn girl, I can’t believe you met with the guy without telling us; don’t tell me you feel safe around him.”

Damn Gunn, you don’t know the half of it. “Don’t look at me like that. If Angel wanted to hurt me…or any of us, he could pick us off one by one while we’re running around trying to figure out which way to go.”

“Gunn, I don’t believe encouraging Cordelia to retain a body guard service is the way to proceed.”

“Barbie don’t need body guards, she’s got us.”

“Yes, she does.” Wesley quietly agreed, gracing Cordelia with an encouraging smile. “Always remember that Cordelia, Gunn and I will always be here for you.”

~~~ ~~~

Cordelia had to admit, she felt calmer than expected. Even managing to enjoy goading Gunn into one of his Angel tirades, until Wesley threatened to turn the car around. The level of fear induced by Angel’s closeness seemed to have diminished…a little. Storming out of Caritas, fear had been pushed aside for anger; and not swallowing down a constant knot of apprehension felt good.

“Welcome to Spago. My name is Julio and I will be serving you this evening.” Dressed in a crisply starched white shirt and black trousers with distinctive tailored pleats, the waiter addressed the small table of four. “Would you care for a drink before dinner or perhaps a bottle of wine?”

“Cordelia,” Angel gestured with a slight lift of his hand. “Would you like a drink?”

A drink, the question resounded in her head; suddenly she was old enough, but pointless for Angel to quibble over age issues now…and a drink would make her newfound determination easier.

“Yes, I’ll have a hurricane please.” She decided, smiling at their attractive, if portfolio lacking, waiter.

Ignoring the scalding glare his gruff uhumm earned, Wesley interjected before Cordelia’s order could be scribbled onto the pad. “A hurricane, that sounds potent.”

“That hurricane drink sounds good, bring me one of those too.” Gunn had been taking care of himself and other kids on the streets for a long time, and the legalities of a little underage drinking just didn’t hold the same punch for him.

“Bring us a bottle of Amarone, something from the late sixties if you have it.” The command of Angel’s voice jolted everyone’s attention, rescuing Wesley from his impending tongue lashing.

“Excellent choice sir,” Julio acknowledged with a swift nod, making a hasty retreat to the kitchen and avoiding further discussion of an appropriate beverage for the young woman.

“Amarone? I don’t believe I’m familiar with that wine.”

“It’s a red wine from Italy’s Veneto Region. It’s stronger than most reds, made from a blend of partially dried grapes.”

If his expertise of history’s finer pleasures was all he needed, Cordelia would be firmly settled in his life by evening’s end. Pity, Angel’s subconscious grumbled spotting the glint of child-like fascination, that it wasn’t Wesley he wanted in his bed.

“So…Angel, have you decided to remain at the hotel?”

“For now. There’s a month left on the lease, but it’s too big for one person, and that’s a lot of money when only one room is being used.”

“I thought you liked a lot of space, you know the loner thing?” Gunn chimed in, throwing Cordelia a playful wink.

“You can be alone in a room full of people.”

“Very true,” Wesley whispered staring out at the crowd of patrons. “For most of my life I felt like I didn’t fit in.”

“But not anymore; right?” Cordelia slipped her hand over Wesley’s, remembering the pitiful geek that had joined her and Angel after they’d lost Doyle.

Don’t start remembering things even sadder than this. God, if I start blubbering in public I’ll have to kill myself.

“Not at all, and I’m very grateful for that.” Wesley placed a hand over Cordelia’s giving it a squeeze.

“Hey! What about me?”

“Charles, when I think of life with you…” Wesley fell silent for a moment, lifting his free hand to give his head a concentrated scratch. “…I am at a loss for words.”

“Quick, somebody call the Guinness folks; I’ve accomplished the impossible.”

The three laughed, Wesley meeting Gunn’s hand in a rowdy high five; and Angel felt like his chest was in a vice. Watching the camaraderie, listening to the easy banter was harder than expected. He had been a part of this family, and walked away because of Darla; but not before destroying the ties that could lead him back.

“You’re wine sir.” The waiter poured a sip into Angel’s glass, moving around the table when ushered a nod of approval. “Nineteen sixty-eight was a very good year for the Veneto vineyards.”

“Indeed,” Wesley offered, sucking air across his wine coated tongue.

“May I suggest an appetizer before ordering?”

Angel glanced at Cordelia, her anxious expression a signal best not ignored. “We’ll skip the appetizer this time. I’ll have a porterhouse, extra rare.”

The waiter’s head jerked up, “extra rare,” his complacent expression betrayed as he repeated the request. “You do want it cooked; yes?”

“If Bessie’s tied out back just lead her in.”

“Gunn, behave.”

“What? I’m just making sure the man gets what he wants.”

Cordelia almost choked on her wine, not sure which she enjoyed more; Gunn having fun at Angel’s expense or Wesley’s never ending effort to be the voice of parental reasoning…or maybe it was the wine.

“Angel is more than capable of getting what he wants Gunn, and let’s give Wesley the night off or next time he might get a sitter and leave you at home.” Moving the slow process of ordering along, Cordelia turned to their befuddled waiter, “I’ll have the veal parmigiana and a tuscany salad,” then offered to share her rarely used expertise of fine dining. “Gunn, do you need me to help you order something you’ll like?”

“No, I think I’ll go with Angel and play it safe, but I don’t want it to bleed when I jab my fork into it.”

“Very good sir, porterhouse well done; and you sir?”

“Oh my, everything looks so delicious it’s difficult to decide.”

Perhaps of chunk of Bessie before your friends scarf her down? Julio silently suggested behind his mask of polished decorum, relieved when the gentlemen thought it prudent to follow the young woman’s choice and praying lack of etiquette would be compensated with a hefty tip.

~~~ ~~~

“Lilly!” Lorne screeched. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

“My dear friend.” The woman greeted Lorne with a loving embrace. “It’s been much too long.”

“Miguel, mind the store for a while. I’ll be in the back if you need me.” Lorne called out, leading his guest toward his private quarters.

“Your club looks wonderful Lorne; just the way I pictured it.” Lilly offered, settling into the plumb chair as Lorne set her suitcase next the bed.
“This is a small bag Lilly; you must be planning on a short stay.”

“You sounded desperate so I packed quick; and yes, next week is booked solid so the weekend is all I can afford on such short notice.”

“Desperate huh; was I that obvious?”

“Enough that I hopped on the first plane out of Chicago. So tell me what’s going on and what I can do to help.”

~~~ ~~~

God, I hope the food comes soon. If I have to keep smiling my face will crack. Look at this place, this is gonna cost a fortune. All of a sudden Angel’s the big spender? Obviously the tightwad doesn’t know dinner is supposed to come before the sex.

How long does it take to wave a steak over the flame? Not that I’m anxious to eat a slab of beef, even if it is bloody. I hate that fake smile. It might fool the bumbling duo, but not me. If Cordelia doesn’t stop smiling I might just have to shake her, and touching without permission won’t help my cause.

Why is Angel grinning like that? He can’t think Cordelia’s smiling at him. She’s just glad that me and Wes are with her. The vamp alone with our Cordy, like that’ll ever happen; yea right.

Good Lord, this is uncomfortable. I need to say something, but what can we discuss that would include Angel, and more important, not encourage false hope for Cordelia? Look at her, poor girl; she looks so happy.

“So how about you guys bring me up to speed on what’s been happening while I was away.”

Oh, thank God. That’s a relatively safe topic. “Rather busy actually. The visions take up a large portion of our time, but we’ve managed to pick up a few cases here and there to cover expenses. We’ve even discussed-”

“Enough about us; don’t want to hog the limelight. What big adventure were you off on this time?”

Cordelia’s gasp whirred over the grunt of Wesley clearing his throat, and Gunn gulped, wide eyes burning under heated glares. Saved by the waiter’s return with dinner, Gunn considered making use of Wesley’s suggestion to think before he speaks. “Or just keep it to yourself.”

~~~ ~~~

“Wow,” Lilly blurted her professional response to Lorne’s story. “If you do manage a happy ending for those two, you’d make a fortune selling the publication rights.”

“Money I don’t need, and a happy ending I’ll pay for if that’s what it takes.”

“This doesn’t sound like a story with a happily ever after, but if anyone can do, it’s you. You helped me find a happy ending when my life was falling apart.”

“Then help me help them now; we’ll call it one of those paying it forwards gigs.”

~~~ ~~~

Dinner had proceeded without further controversy, peppered with occasional polite conversation, and their evening almost over, the four walked quietly across the parking lot.

He wanted to drive her home, knowing his offer would not be received well…by any of them. But Angel readily confessed well thought out plans were not his strong suit, and throwing caution to the wind reached for her hand.

“Cordelia, I was-”

“Gees, not now!”

Angel staggered back from the blow before honed senses picked up the familiar sensations; and knees buckling, upper torso lunging forward from the vision’s force, Angel caught Cordelia, lifting her up into his arms.

“It’s Ok, ssshhh,” the soothing croon filtered through the onslaught of flashing neon lights and blaring music as slender fingers curled down, nails digging into his silk shirt and the flesh beneath it.

Angel maneuvered into the back seat; Cordelia still nestled in his arms, and with a quick shove into his pocket tossed the keys onto the front seat. A gruff “you drive,” directed to either man that chose to respond.

They eyed each other for a brief moment, Wesley shifting into his uneasy role of leadership. “Grab a few weapons, we’ll leave the truck here for now.”

Engine revving and weapons safely stashed on the floor, Wesley glanced over his shoulders, a simple shrug gesturing need for instructions.

“What do we need to do Cordy?” Angel whispered into her ear, Cordelia’s stiff body hugging the contours of his chest.

“I don’t know,” wheezed through the pain crushing her skull, the visions had never been this excruciating before. “I just see lights flashing, and people laughing and dancing…and screaming. That’s all,” she hissed, exhausted from the barrage of useless information. “I don’t see anything else.”

“We’ll figure it out, just try to relax.” Angel tore his eyes away, giving a quick glance to the two men eagerly watching from the front seat. “We’re taking Cordelia home…now,” he barked when met with a glimpse of hesitation.

“Right; Gunn follow us in the truck.”

“But shouldn’t we-”

“I’m not moving Cordelia until we have to. The visions are always painful, but this isn’t normal.”

“I’ll be right behind you.” Gunn conceded, taking only a second to grab the weapons before sending Angel a warning glare.

Cordelia whimpered again, the lingering ache refusing to give up its torment; and Wesley slowed down, cautiously avoiding potholes and sudden stops.

Cool lips brushed across her temple, her body shivering inside his embrace, and Angel speculated whether the cool, night air or his touch could lay claim to the dense layer of goose bumps.

Angel cursed, realizing his leather jacket was locked in the trunk; it wasn’t totally inconceivable the night air was the culprit. “Gunn, toss me your jacket; Cordelia’s cold.”

The jacket was off in a flash, Gunn rising up on his knees and leaning over the seat to wrap the short coat around Cordelia’s upper body. “We could stop long enough to put the top up…but we’ll be at Cordy’s place in a few more minutes.”

“No, this is good.” Angel rasped, his hands briskly rubbing over exposed skin. He tightened the wrap of his arms, sadly aware the vision’s aftermath awarded the ephemeral luxury. Covered with the borrowed cover Cordelia’s body began to warm, and laying his forehead against hers, Angel reveled in the wave of warmth enveloping him.

Her body racked with pain, her heart ached for the comfort of this long missed shelter; and eyes clinched tight against the sting of tears, Cordelia snuggled further into Angel’s protective embrace, knowing it could only last for a little while.

~~~ ~~~

“Look, I know this girl is in a really bad place right now, but she’s not the only one hurting. A rapist doesn’t come back to try to make things right; he moves on to his next victim. Only in this case, the rapist was the next victim.”

“So you’re saying Angel assaulting Cordelia was a reflection of his own personal assault?”

“Not exactly, I know it’s hard to understand. Actually, I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around it myself.”

Lorne huffed a tired sigh, gulping down the remainder of his drink, and Lilly forged ahead with her piecemeal of facts. “Without counseling them, it’s impossible for me to understand the driving emotions, but it’s reasonable to conclude he was severing ties to what he believed he’d already lost.”

“But Angel’s back, and he wants to reattach severed ties…and he’s not real focused on the fact that Cordelia tossed her end of the rope months ago.”

“She’s obviously agreeing to these counseling sessions you’ve set up, so I have to wonder if she threw that rope away or merely buried it so she could pretend it no longer existed.”

“I did cover the part where Angel’s a vampire, right; prone to bouts of killing and maiming when he believes it’s justified…even hurting the people he’s supposed to care about.”

“We all have those tendencies, and soul or not, we don’t need to be a demon to act on them.”

~~~ ~~~

He had ignored the ramblings and suggestions of we can handle things from here, and strolled into the building. But now, standing on the outside of the open door, Cordelia still cradled in his arms, Angel had no doubt the invisible barrier would block the last step of his unexpected journey.

“Cordelia,” he whispered, leaning his head down until his lips brushed against her ear. “Invite me in, we need to get you into bed.”

Had she bothered to predict the possible endings to their night, Angel carrying her to her bedroom wouldn’t have been on the list. But then, Cordelia reconsidered, nothing about her life in LA had been predictable.

“Come in Angel,” she replied, adding on the conditions of his invitation, “if you promise to put me down; otherwise the guys are going to pass out from asphyxiation.”

~~~ ~~~

“Sweet dreams doll face.”

“Goodnight, my little red-horned devil.” Lilly giggled against Lorne’s shoulder.

“Is my lacy nightshirt tickling your nose?”

“No silly, I was just thinking about my ex’s reaction if he were here.”

“Kinky!”

~~~ ~~~

Endless replays of the vision invading her sleep, Cordelia tumbled back and forth across the bed. A strobe of colored lights danced across the floor as the small, lithe body whirled around, flaxen wisps bouncing around a face of opaline skin. Blood flowed across the scene as the speckle of lights faded to black; and lungs desperately sucking in air, Cordelia’s body lurched up, her knees folding into her chest. Arms wrapped around her legs, she rocked, her back tapping against the headboard as the desperate chant droned into her dimly lit bedroom.

“Oh God-oh God-oh God…Not again…It can’t be….Oh God-oh God-oh God…”


PART 7

Her pace was slow and methodical; walking a hundred miles in her simulated trek, and still no closer to arriving at answers. Gearing up makeshift detective skills, Cordelia replayed the scant fragments of her vision comparing them to her not so sketchy nightmares.

Always the same; flashing lights, blaring music, and the dancing skanky blonde led her to three possible conclusions. Her nightmares were simply escalating as Angel edged closer, Darla had again been summoned from hell, or she was in the midst of a full-blown mental breakdown and would soon be residing at the psycho ward; rubber-padded room number crazy-8.

Sharing this bit of news with her friends wasn’t Cordelia’s first choice. Not if the likely scenario included admitting what had happened with Angel. Wesley and Gunn’s biggest obstacle in forgiving the wayward vampire wasn’t the Darla fiasco per say, but that they couldn’t trust him to tell the truth. If they found out she had withheld the truth, would they feel the same way about her?

This was her own fault, Cordelia reasoned. She had pushed herself into accepting Angel’s return too soon, believing his help would keep Wesley and Gunn safer from harm, and hoping they could find middle ground satisfying both their needs. And now her back was to the wall, and Angel had put it there…again.

~~~ ~~~

“Three days Lorne.” His angry kick caught the underside of the chair, tumbling it over. The force of his heavy boot propelling a wild skid across the room until it stopped short of tensely scrunched toes. “Three fuckin’ days Cordelia’s been barricaded in her apartment. What the hell is going on?”

“She’s sick Angel. It happens; get over it already. The girl is sick and just wants to be left alone until she feels better.”

He had crossed borderline obsession two days ago as unanswered calls mounted; every waking minute consumed with touching her again. Cordelia had insisted she needed time to herself, citing human ailments as the cause; but his halfhearted promise of space quickly withering, Angel knew it was only a matter of little time before he forced Cordelia’s compliance.

“You’ve seen her-I can smell her on you!”

“So I took our little patient some chicken soup, it’s not like I can catch anything.”

“Neither can I, so pour me a cup and I’ll be on my way.”

“Jeepers big guy what has you so worked up-and it’s more than being cut off from the princess.” Lorne cringed at the thought, chillingly aware of the last time Angel was so agitated by an unseen force.

“I don’t know.” Angel slumped against the wall, stiff fingers making a jerky swipe through mussed hair. His skin pricked and tingled, raw nerves beyond taut, and ready to snap. “I’ve been on edge the last couple of days, like waiting for a big bang that never comes.”

“Go home Angel. Drink yourself into a stupor if you have to, but get some sleep.” Lorne ordered, handing Angel a bottle of scotch and shaking a warning finger. “Cause you go knocking down doors and you can give this reconciliation a big kiss on its tuchis.”

“You know I liked you better when you were just funny.”

“Yea, well stop beating up my furniture and I’ll tickle you pink.”

Angel snatched the offered bottle, content to let the angry growl rumble between them. He had laid back and followed Lorne’s rules, as far as anyone knew, but this was asking for more patience than he had to give. He and Cordelia should be sharing private dinners and conversations by now, but the vision had allowed intimate contact Cordelia hadn’t expected, and now her fears were shutting him out.

“I’ll go back to the hotel for now, but I won’t wait long.”

“Angel,” Lorne called out before the door could close between them.

Muscles clinched against the halt of his escape; not in the mood for Lorne’s good intentions. Anymore meaningful advice and The Host turned counselor would be taking a sabbatical…with his jaw wired shut.

“I have a friend who’s a couples’ therapist; she seems to think you aren’t entirely to blame for what happened.” Maybe Lilly’s opinion would offer the gloomy vampire a glimmer of hope. Because until he better understood the female oracle’s riddle, Lorne didn’t intend to share any glimmers of hope offered by The Powers. “I hope you don’t prove her wrong.”

“I don’t care what anyone thinks except Cordelia.” Angel growled, leaning his head against the doorjamb, shaky hands concealed inside his coat pockets. Tired from days without sleep, control was only a quick snap from being lost. “I’ll try not to prove your friend wrong.”

~~~ ~~~

The phone interrupting his concentration again, Wesley cursed as the ink-dry pen tore across his page of notes.

What’s the point of being in charge when your staff doesn’t bother to show up? “Angel Investigations.”

“Good morning my little lean-mean-researching machine. I’ve got a case of Boddingtons chilling in the cooler for all the tantalizing good news you’re ciphering.”

“Ciphering? Ah the scroll; Lorne, our caseload hasn’t actually allowed me time to-”

“Time! Make time! The big bad isn’t coming Kemosabe, it’s here!”

“Good Lord, calm down.” Wesley directed, the threat of impending evil surging watcher mode to the forefront. “Who was singing; did you sense something apocalyptic?”

“I don’t need to hear the big guy caterwaul to know it’s bad.”

“So this is about Angel… Lorne, I know Angel turning his back on the mission was a shock for you, it was to all of us; but his offer to help with the visions doesn’t change anything. Our priorities are no longer set by what Angel deems important…at the moment.”

“This isn’t about who’s leader of the pack. You want to be king of the hill, knock your socks off, but The Powers want those two back on the same path. So like it or not, their priorities are the same.”

“And how do you know this; other than Angel’s caterwauling.”

“I told you already, I got a-”

“Ah yes, a memo from above. Alright Lorne, I’ll drop by the hotel later today.” Cajoling Lorne would be easier than eluding his pestering; and besides, Wesley refused for Lorne to waste a case of Boddingtons on palates dulled by American beer.

“Good, now that that’s settled; why didn’t I get a we help the hopeless?”

“Lorne, we don’t always say it.” Wesley shook his head, positive he’d be the recipient of a good tongue lashing should Lorne tattle. “…when Cordelia isn’t here.”

“Wouldn’t sound as sweet with the accent anyway.”

~~~ ~~~~

“Angel,” Wesley called out entering the hotel lobby. The place felt strange, bigger than he remembered and in more need of a thorough cleaning than when they had first moved in. Ignoring the eerie tingles prickling his neck, he inched his way further inside, following the trail of snores rolling from the office.

Long legs stretched up resting bare feet on the cluttered and dust covered surface, an unbuttoned shirt barely hanging on slumped shoulders. His head lopped over the back of the chair and mouth wide, his chest rose and fell with each heavy snort; and Wesley pondered why Angel’s sleeping body would mimic breathing.

“What do you want,” husked from lips loosely pursed into two rumpled lines, and Angel inwardly grinned as Wesley stiffened, gulping down the stifled yip caught in his throat.

“Lorne suggested, quite adamantly…” his explanation almost drifting to indistinct mumbles while taking in Angel’s scraggly and disheveled appearance,
“…that I review The Scroll of Aberjian.”

“I was told to busy idle hands with this.” The bottle plopped onto the desk, revealing the sour stench assaulting Wesley’s nostrils. “A gift for being a good boy and following the rules.” Angel offered as explanation, fisted fingers slipping away and allowing the empty bottle to topple off the desktop.

“I see… The scroll; may I-”

“Take it,” Angel aimlessly pointed in the direction of the safe. “…but if I need to fight a coming apocalypse, we may be screwed.”

“Lorne simply insisted that the big bad was here.” Wesley corrected, layering a heavy dose of sarcasm on the simple euphemism.

“As long as he’s not overreacting to me being a little on edge…no harm done.”

“On edge…like with Darla?” Appeasing Lorne and earning the prized brew were no longer a concern. Darla’s resurrection had been accomplished once; there was no reason to believe a second time wasn’t possible. A quick session of strides and he was standing across the desk, back straight and in-charge persona sternly poised. This time Wesley did not intend to be caught unaware.

“Darla’s dead Wes and Wolfram and Hart got what they wanted.” Angel disregarded the man’s distress, refusing to be distracted by his jump to illusory conclusions; he had more important things to obsess over. “They don’t need Darla.”

~~~ ~~~

“Hello lover; miss me?”

Tense fingers gripped the doorknob tighter as the sultry greeting purred across the threshold. “What the hell are you doing here? Does anyone know?”
He asked, frantically glancing up and down the hallway.

Darla licked her fingers, casting her reluctant host a wicked grin. “No one that can tell.”

“Are you insane; the next contract will be on both our heads.”

“Silly boy, Wolfram and Hart won’t expect my head on a platter.”

“No, just mine, you’ll be scattered with the rest of the grit and grime. You gave me your word; I get you out of LA and you enjoy a long life of death and maiming in another country.”

“Not happy to see me Lindsey. There was a time you thought you loved me.”

“I never loved you Darla. I was obsessed with taking what was his.”

“And now?”

“And now I know. You were never the one he wanted…just what he got stuck with.”

Anger seethed beneath features trained to be soft and coquettish, contorting the seductive smile into a sneer. “My boy has always wanted me, and he will always come back to what he needs.”

“Stay away from him Darla.” The last thing Lindsey MacDonald needed was the crazed vampire waging war on Wolfram and Hart again, which could disclose his role in Darla’s escape. “Angel will likely blame you. Easier than blaming himself I guess.”

“Blame me for what?”

“She won’t take him back, and he’s not handling it well.”

“Who, his little friend from sunny town? Don’t be ridiculous; she doesn’t matter to him.”

“All I know is that Angel trailed you for almost three months before giving up…and it wasn’t a happy reunion he was after.”

“Forget about the seer. I’ll take care of her soon enough.” Darla hissed, skillfully shifting to a bewitching guise as crimson nails stroked down the front of Lindsey’s robe. “Now, going to invite me in so we can celebrate? Not that I need an invitation.”

“It’s not safe…for either of us. You can stay here,” Lindsey stepped back thrusting a card with an address scribbled on the back across the threshold, “until I figure out a way to get you out of the city…again. Just lay low and I’ll send someone for you tomorrow night.”

The door closed shutting out Darla’s protest, nervous fingers already punching memorized numbers. “I’ve got another job for you, the vampire Darla; yea she’s back in LA. No, I don’t want her smuggled out again. I want her gone once and for all. She’ll be at the usual place. Yea-yea, I know the rate. You’ll get your money. Just make sure the job is clean.”

~~~ ~~~

“Feeling better?” Wesley asked, his palm affectionately pressed across Cordelia’s forehead.

“Yep, almost good as new.” Cordelia appeased his concerns, deciding against her initial response of telling Wesley he had sweaty palms and his doting father routine was irritating the hell out of her.

“So that means you’ll be back at work tomorrow; right? Cause time alone with the boss does not a good time make.”

“I told you, we’re there to work not have fun.”

“Me and Barbie have fun.”

“Yes Charles, I’m all a tingle with your and Cordelia’s ability to turn demon research into a rousing game of strip trivial pursuit.”

“You’re just mad cause you lost your pants.”

“Yes well, as interesting as this discussion…is not.” Wesley beamed a satisfied grin, almost successfully using one of Cordelia’s infamous lines. “I’m afraid I have news that may be…well a bit distressing.”

The announcement of his pending news drawn out even longer than he imagined possible, Wesley took a deep, lung-replenishing breath. He had quickly rejected the prospect of closeting the information until convinced of its probability. Their friendship worked because of honesty and trust. Not telling them of his suspicion, regardless of its unlikelihood, was unacceptable.

“I believe…it may be possible…”

“Uh, spit it out English.”

“Darla may have been resurrected again.”

“The bitch is back?”

A brow twitched barely noticed, her silence more attention grabbing than a neon sign. Oblivious to her friends’ questioning stares, she sank deeper into the deluge of what ifs and what now. The dawning conclusion of Darla’s last visit catapulting her into action.

“You have to redo the un-invite spell!”

“Redo? Cordelia, Darla was never invited into your apartment.”

“No, not her…”

They had never seen Cordelia so timid and afraid. Even when Angel left LA, she had only taken a couple of days before returning to work, her usual dedicated and complaining self firmly intact.

“I could very well be wrong Cordelia.” Unnerved by the frightened expression, Wesley grasped her hands inside his. “My suspicions are based on nothing more than…” He hesitated briefly, deciding it best not to mention Angel’s disturbing behavior; a drastic change from the social skills exhibited just three nights ago. “It will only take a few minutes to perform the spell. Then no vampire will have admittance without your expressed consent.”
“I’ll stay over, if you want Cordy.” Gunn offered, settling next to Cordelia when she responded with little more than an unsure nod.

“No, I’m good.” Overnight guests required perky Cordy, and Cordelia doubted a single emotion was willing to perk up, even for Wesley and Gunn. As long as she remained inside the spell- protected apartment, she’d be safe; at least according to the feeble chant droning inside her head.

~~~ ~~~

Cordelia rolled onto her side and snuggled deeper under the rumpled covers, shooing away the faint tap invading restless sleep. The repetition escalating into a persistent knock and Dennis whirling franticly above her head, she stumbled out of bed, determined that whichever ex-friend had returned to check up on her would only live long enough to regret it.

“I’m gonna kick somebody’s-”

Wood splintering under a heavy-fisted whack, Cordelia stumbled back placing a mere breath of space between her and the door as it tore from its hinges.

“I’ve heard a lot of interesting things about you Cordelia, and just couldn’t wait to meet you face to face. Or is it fang to throat?” Bone and muscle shifted, soft, feminine features contorting into bumpy ridges and sharp, pointed weapons. “I always get those two mixed up.”

The scream suffocated in her throat, and survival instincts kicking in, she dashed behind the sofa. Unsteady legs threatening to buckle, Cordelia gripped the useless obstacle as her mind raced to find a more effective option.

Darla had been the catalyst of evil’s dark plan, set loose to lure the beast shackled and hidden. Victimized once by forces beyond her control, Cordelia refused to fall prey a second time to the evil synergy of Angel and Darla.

Her mouth dropped open, but the tempest of her reprisal reduced to a sibilating wheeze, Cordelia numbly berated giving up alert senses for the comfort of drug-induced sleep.

Trapped outside the protective screen, Darla could only intimidate, and common sense cautioned Cordelia to stay put while fear spurred her to take flight. Any plan of escape yet to form, she spun around jerking the drapes out of her way.

Palms pressed against the glass and knees bent ready to leap, Angel had waited impatiently, constantly mindful of the other vampire’s every move. His forehead rippled with stress-tight folds and narrowed eyes a murky swirl of brown and amber, the human face appeared forced, hinting of deceit.

“Cordelia invite me in.” The heavy downpour soaking his menacing form doing little to dilute the harsh and threatening demand.

Cordelia shook her head, staggering back until her hips collided with the sofa. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled as the thin glass wall shattered; and the intractable scream finally finding its voice as her world faded to black.


PART 8

Long lashes fluttered, drowsy eyelids reluctant to open against the small stream of light flowing from the adjacent room.

Where… How… “Wesley?” Cordelia whispered, scanning the familiar surroundings and refusing to believe heaven and Wesley would use the same decorator, decided she wasn’t dead.

“Did you and Gunn find me? Was…” It could have been a dream. It felt like a dream. Maybe they had found her passed out on the floor; but why bring her here? “What happened, why am I here?”

“Angel brought you here.” He paused letting the morsel of information sink in. “It was rather fortunate you invited him in before fainting.

“Yea, guess so.” She mumbled, turning her head away. Lucky to be alive maybe, but as fuzzy as the events were Cordelia was sure she hadn’t invited either vampire into her home.

“What did Angel say?” Simple questions were easier until she had a better understanding of just what was real. For all Cordelia knew at the moment, Darla had been nothing more than a hysterical hallucination.

“Hmmm…” Wesley procrastinated. Angel had been vague, even for Angel; volunteering only that Cordelia had fainted when Darla tried to break in.
Then insisting he couldn’t risk losing her trail again; he took off, Gunn nipping at his heels and muttering his own brand of death threats.

“How do you feel? Perhaps you should rest-”

“Wesley…” Cordelia sat up, and immediately regretting the rushed move grabbed her head until the room slowed its psychedelic spin. “Where is Gunn-oh God is he all-”

“I’m sure he’s fine.” The quickly ushered attempt offered little comfort in the absence of actual facts. “Gunn is with Angel…” Wesley briefly paused weighing his limited options only to decide he had none. “…tracking Darla.”

And there it was. Proof she wasn’t insane, well not totally. Both Darla and Angel had been in her apartment…without an invitation. The restrictive access of a psycho ward was looking better and better.

“How long have they been gone?”

“About two hours.”

“And you haven’t heard from them?”

“Cordelia, try to get some rest. I’m brewing tea.”

Why was she the only one worried about Gunn helping one psycho vampire track another psycho vampire? If his calm demeanor was any indication, Wesley believed their friend was safe; which meant Cordelia wasn’t alone in her down-slope to blissful delirium.

A muffled “oh good,” grumbled into the pillows as she settled back into bed. “Tea will help.”

~~~

They had been walking for hours, the cold and heavy rainfall little aid in their pursuit. Gunn was breathing hard, his legs aching under the strain of keeping up with Angel’s rapid maneuvers around and sometimes over the buildings standing in their way.

Angel was like a bloodhound, Gunn thought. Once the vampire caught Darla’s scent there was no stopping him.

“You know man, if you’d gone after your ex with this rabid tenacity in the first place…well we wouldn’t be doing it now.” Gunn shook his rain-drenched jacket, happy they were entering the next building instead of scaling it. “And in the freezing rain.”

“Not telling you again.” His voice was gruff. Tired from lack of sleep and the stress of his relationship with Cordelia deteriorating before it had a chance to start, Angel wasn’t in the mood for Gunn’s streetwise observations. “Darla is not an ex. Vampires don’t…couple.”

“Whatever man. All I know is this bitch is going down for the last time.”

“I don’t have a problem with that, but if you let your emotions get the best of you, you will.” Angel eyed his young companion. Breaths labored and heart racing; his nerves were raw and he was itching for a fight. “Darla will snap your neck before you even feel her hands around your throat.”

“You just worry about sniffing her out and let me worry about my neck.” Gunn huffed, almost unaware of the involuntary roll of his head.

~~~ ~~~

“What now,” Wesley hissed at the unexpected knock. Dropping the kettle back onto the stove, he headed to the door, certain Gunn would have called with news of Darla’s demise.

“Evening amigo,” Lorne offered to the surprised face greeting him. “Just thought I’d drop by and check on our little princess-and is that your famous tea I smell?” Lorne forged ahead; and ignoring Wesley’s dropped jaw, he marched into the kitchen taking a chair at the small table.

“Cordelia is sleeping, thankfully; and you knew she was here how?” Wesley asked, pouring two cups of his fresh brew.

“Why ask when you already know the answer?”

“Humor me.”

“The big guy called; riled about some big bad showing up unexpectedly.” His torso stretched up, leaning over the narrow width separating them. “But you and I know somebody was slack with their translating; don’t we?”

“Alright Lorne,” Wesley reluctantly admitted. “You were right. The scroll does refer to someone from Angel’s past with the power to derail his quest of shanshu.”

“What else? Come on don’t be shy.” Lorne coaxed, his grin stretching even wider at Wesley’s scowl.

Wesley settled into the chair, gulping down his tea and releasing a loud and weary sigh. The words of Anatole were clear on one point. The vampire with a soul would choose between dark and light; and that choice would bind his fate for eternity.

“The Serpentine is most likely Darla, but we have no way of knowing which choice Angel will make.”

“Angel will destroy Darla because he hates her, but she’s not why he’ll choose one path over the other.”

“Then we have to hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.”

“Denial is a nice little safe-house; but newsflash professor, the big bad wolf is about to blow your house down.”

The few pieces of cheap china clinked as he shoved from the table. Wesley abruptly stood, back rigid and neck painfully stiff; and he poured what he was certain would be a long session with the calming elixir.

Wesley had no doubt Lorne believed Angel and Cordelia were part of some cosmic plan to save Angel’s soul. His dilemma was accepting that saving Angel’s soul was worth risking Cordelia. Two nights ago he had glimpsed the old Angel, the one he had called friend and trusted unquestioningly. But the vampire he encountered at the hotel and the one that had brought Cordelia here was the same out of control, feral creature that had waged war on Wolfram and Hart, claiming anything or anyone else inconsequential.

“There is no reason for us to believe Cordelia is the Artemis. Her influence over Angel was of little consequence when Darla was resurrected.”

Regardless of Lorne’s intentions, Wesley refused to involve Cordelia until he knew if they would be staking one or two vampires tonight.

“The curse imprisons the evil one, but the soul is without shackles. Only by choice can it be bound to this world. The vampire must choose or the darkness shall devour. There is but one truth.”

Lorne smiled at the oracle’s voice echoing in his head. Even when the truth is scary, with absolute certainty came comfort.

“Whether you like it or not, Cordelia is the only one that can stop Angel from returning to the dark.”

“I was under the impression Angel had returned to the simplicity of his evil past months ago.”

“You haven’t seen the big guy evil, and believe me, you don’t want to.” Lorne stood from the table swallowing down the last drop of tepid tea. “Don’t look so glum, watcher of the crusaders, you don’t have to tell sleeping beauty. Cordelia gets a choice in this one, and worrying whether her prince is behind door number one or door number two will only make it harder.”

~~~ ~~~

The building smelled of waste and decay, but mostly it smelled of death. Gunn scrunched his nose, tucking his chin deeper into his wet jacket. The odor of his own clothes wet from rain and sweat was easier on the sinuses than the putrid stench of the gruesome hideaway.

“Can you tell if the stink we’re looking for is in here?”

“Darla doesn’t stink,” came the barely audible, but no less gruff reply.

Angel was hunting and the warehouse held too many scents to sift through. He couldn’t afford the distraction of annoying wisecracks. Catching the faint aroma of her perfume hadn’t been easy. In their hundred and fifty years together, Darla’s choice of fragrance had rarely changed. There was a time he would have smiled at that thought, but not now. Now that simple familiarity would lead him to his prey.

“Did daddy bring me a yummy treat?” The sultry lilt cooed from blood-red lips, belying its childish reference.

Her hair was long and dark, her shoulders petite and slender, and her skin as pale as the moon. She was beautiful, Gunn mused; if you were stupid enough to forget she was a wild animal with fangs and claws wrapped inside a pretty hide.

“Guess this one likes dark meat.”

“Gunn shut up-Drusilla, where’s Darla? I need to find Darla.”

“Daddy is angry. I like daddy when he’s angry.”

“Man this is getting us nowhere fast.” Gunn lunged only to be yanked back, his head bouncing with a painful jerk.

“Don’t be stupid, she’ll drain you in a heartbeat.” Angel commanded. His eyes cold and distant, Gunn questioned which vampire would be easier to take down at the moment.

Angel studied the young vampire. Slender fingers pinching the flair of her dress and pulling it away from her body, she swayed back and forth. Drusilla had performed the impish recital many times seeking his pleasure, and Angel struggled against the desire to close his eyes in shame. The girl had been innocent to the evils around her, and he had taken great pains in showing her all the glorious wickedness the world beheld. Only then did he risk the final transformation, making her a killer. Until a few months ago it had been his most unforgivable sin.

Her nails slid down his cheek. They were long and sharp, and painted blood red to match her lips. When had Drusilla moved and how had he missed her float across the floor? The answers didn’t matter, Angel needed information and he knew how to play his Dru.

“Dru baby, where’s mommy? Daddy needs to talk to mommy.” Angel purred, his head bent low so that his mouth nipped at her throat.

“Mmmm,” she thrummed to her maker. “Mommy said not to be naughty.”

“But it’s daddy that rewards you.”

Gunn felt sick, his stomach churning as he watched the disgusting scene unfold. “Fuck this.” He bellowed onto their private stage, lurching forward, weapon in hand.

Flesh cool and smooth crumpled, and Angel squinched his eyes tight as her fluid form sifted through his hands.

Angel’s eyes snapped open, the point of Gunn’s stake still hovering in the empty air in front of him. “What the hell did you do?” He snarled, a hand instinctively gripping Gunn’s neck. “Drusilla was our best chance of finding Darla.”

“Don’t try your crap on me. I ain’t buying it.” Gunn choked out from the tight restriction of his throat. “Looked like you forgot all about finding your other bitch.”

His fist hit against the wall next to Gunn’s flinching head. “You idiot, you’re all idiots. Playing superheroes when you don’t have a clue what you’re up against.” Moving closer, he shoved until Gunn was wedged between his body and the damp wall. “It’s a miracle you’re not all dead.”

“Then perhaps we should stop playing and get down to business.” His tone stringent, Wesley pressed the tip of his crossbow into Angel’s back, low enough to miss the heart but hopefully close enough to prevent any sudden moves. “Now I suggest you release my friend or join yours on the floor.”
Angel’s fingers slipped from their tight cinch, slowly lifting one by one until leaving only a burnished band in their place. He stepped back, freeing his captive and slowly turned to face a possible foe.

“This isn’t what it looks like Wes. I was angry…that’s all.”

“Yes well, when you get angry people seem to die.” Wesley challenged, his crossbow still aimed and ready. “Gunn what happened here?”

“You mean besides the nasty freak show I was forced to watch?” Gunn grumbled, rubbing his hands over the tender ring around his neck. “We ran into the crazy one. Guess Angel’s having another family reunion.”

Wesley peered at the clump of dust, feeling a slight pull on his emotions. Not sharing another’s pain didn’t lessen his understanding of their loss. “I am sorry Angel. I don’t presume it’s any easier for you to lose someone you care about. But this is about survival and making choices. I won’t risk sentiment influencing the wrong choice on my part.”

“You shouldn’t have left Cordelia alone,” was Angel’s simple reply. Forging ahead, he turned back, when instead of following Wesley knelt beside the lingering debris. “What are you doing?”

Not bothering to look up, Wesley muttered from amid his jumble of Latin phrases. “I didn’t, Lorne’s with her and I found an incantation that will thwart any attempts of raising a vampire from dust.”

“Good move English, but make it quick. One down and one to go.”

~~~ ~~~

Her face pale, hazy eyes half disappeared under tired lids. The stress of the last few months was taking its toll; but ready or not, Lorne doubted life would wait patiently while Cordelia hid under the covers.

“Wake up sleepyhead. How’s the noggin?”

The soft twill invaded her sluggish brain. Not even close to what I need right now. The inner voice that had become Cordelia’s constant companion grumbled at her self-appointed counselor.

Willing her eyes to focus on the room swimming around her, she reached up to inspect her questioned noggin. “Ouch! No wonder my head feels like it challenged a freight train and lost. Did somebody hit me?”

“More of a something instead of a somebody, kiddo.” Bare brows raised, Lorne leaned forward meeting Cordelia’s inquisitive and confusing squint. “The floor hit you.”

“The floor? Well that’s just great. I can’t even defend myself against the floor.”

“That’s OK princess, your champion was there to rescue you from the mean ole hardwood.”

Cordelia’s eyes rolled at the bold inference. It felt like a long time since Angel had been a champion of anything, let alone hers. He had left LA without a word, and the fact there was nothing he could have done to make things right didn’t make running away right. Add to that, Angel had abandoned them to deal with Darla alone, it was impossible to believe he could ever be her champion again.

No, it was time to stop hiding, she determined with a renewed resolve. Her friends had stuck by her even when she shut them out and now they were willing to risk their lives to take Darla down.

“Where’s Wesley? I need to find out what’s going on with Darla.”

“He went to join up with his troops. I can see why you made the professor leader; not only high on the brain meter, but he probably has more brawn than meets the eye.”

Cordelia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It was official, they were all crazy. What were they thinking banding together to form their own superhero club with a vampire as their leader? They had been alone, that’s what. Each abandoned by a life that had turned its back, they had found each other and through their misfortune had found their greatest fortune…friendship.

Now wasn’t the time to reminisce about the past or reflect on what might have been. Angel had fallen into Darla’s trap once, quickly dismissing their importance in his life. Regardless of his recent efforts to make things right with her, she couldn’t risk trusting him again, at least not where Darla was concerned.

“I’ve got to find them-and you’ve go to help me.” She ordered, struggling against her body’s determination to remain in bed.

“Whoa-Whoa-Whoa, princess. Let’s not go off half cocked. Let’s leave that to the professional. You know, the king of act now regret later.” Lorne warned in the most playful tune he could muster. The last thing Angel needed right now was Cordelia caught in the line of fire, and worst, giving Darla the perfect ammunition against him.

She’d had enough and was past tired of holding all the crap inside. Tired of pretending everything was normal when her life was beyond falling apart, Cordelia decided it was time to let the world in on her and Angel’s dirty little secret.

“Reality check Lorne,” Cordelia yelled as she scrambled from bed and began a frantic search for her shoes. “I’m not a princess. I’m a has-been cheerleader slash may queen voted most popular three years running-who got stuck with visions I can barely handle. And you…you’re a nightclub entertainer who does a little spiritual guiding on the side.”

Shoes now laced and snuggly tied, her only immediate dilemma was a missing sock. “Where the hell is my sock-and in case it slipped by you; a marriage counselor you’re not.” Snatching the hiding sock from beneath Wesley’s bed, she scrubbed it through a clinched fist ridding it of attacking dust bunnies. “But that’s good because I’m not married. I’m a victim; at least I was, but not anymore.”

“Well its about time!” Lorne shrilled to the high heavens. “If you’d wallowed in pity much longer I was gonna slit my wrists.”

“What?” Cordelia blared as she shoved her foot into the dust-nappy sock. “What was all that feel the pain princess, the pain is real…embrace it? I ought to embrace your ass with my foot.”

“That’s my girl.” Lorne gulped at the fiery heat flashed in his direction. “The one that scares the heebie-jeebies out of me.”

“So the bitch is back and all is right with the world-now either help me or get out of my way.”

“But I have been helping you prin…” Gulp “Uh sweetie, but your fight is not out there.”

“Not out there! Are you crazy? I can’t hide out while my friends risk their lives.”

Lorne was in over his head and sinking fast. Maybe Cordelia was right; he was only a glorified barkeep that happen to have a knack for cryptic readings. How could he help Cordelia understand what he barely understood himself? How could he make her believe The Powers hadn’t abandoned them when he had his own doubts?

“Sometimes Cordelia blind faith is all we have; and sometimes that’s enough to get us through the rough patch.” It was worth a shot, and Lorne was rather proud of his delivery. “I know you’re worried about your friends…all of them. So what do you say we have a little faith in our three champions?”

“Enough with the half-ass messages Lorne. If you have something to say then say it. I don’t have time for truth or dare.”

He was losing her, and if that was the case he had nothing else to lose. Should have known, Lorne inwardly groused, Cordelia Chase would never be satisfied with anything less than the whole enchilada. “You’re place isn’t out there sweetie. Let Angel do his job; it’s hard enough without you distracting him.”

“Distrac-”

Lorne cut her off with a frantic wave of his hands. “Geesh, glad I only have to satisfy you with information.” Then pinching his lapels between his fingers, he straightened his jacket with an exasperated jerk. “Now, as I was saying; the first battle is almost over, but the second is just beginning…and that’s where you come in.”

“Fine!” Cordelia threw her jacket on the chair then settle into it herself. Legs crossed and finger darting threateningly in his direction, she issued her own brand of ultimatum. “You have thirty seconds to tell me everything you know before I rip your pea-green head off.”

GULP!

~~~ ~~~

Concentrating on the unique scent of his target, the menagerie of odors filling the old warehouse had been sufficiently block out. Angel was close; which meant Darla had caught his scent as well.

He had instructed his reluctant hunting partners to flank left. Their objective; a sneak attack from behind while he approached head on. The fact that this maneuver would move them further away instead of closer to their goal made it the perfect plan.

It was fitting that they would finish this the way it had started…alone. Darla had made him what he was. Not a killer or even a monster. That accomplishment, Angel had no doubt Liam would have achieved on his own.

Darla’s intervention in his life had simply made certain the bad in him would never die; and for that Angel would destroy her.

“Hello Lover. Miss me? I missed you.”

The sultry drawl floated across the dark surface, its wicked hold shivering up his spine. His breath hitched, and Angel marveled at the absurdity as he choked on the stale air trapped in the back of his throat. Death faces death and he had an uncontrollable compulsion to breathe.

“I’ve been missing you for months. You’ve been a bad girl Darla, always a step ahead of me.”

“Couldn’t teach you all of my secrets; now could I.”

“Dru is dead.” He deadpanned.

His eyes cold and dark, Angel watched for even the smallest reaction. But like him, Darla had been incapable of love; a shortcoming rarely corrected by death, natural or otherwise.

“You don’t seemed moved by our loss. Tsk, tsk; not a single tear for our Dru. You are a cold bitch.”

A heavy boot slid forward, the other sliding in its trail. A skilled predator, not even dead-still air fluttered as black leather floated over the concrete surface fading into pitch dark cover.

“The boy will pay for taking our Dru.”

She shifted her stance, and with a fluid motion turned to face him again. Jaw clinched and brow furrowed, eyes black as night glistened, betraying her secret.

“You expected more than revenge? My dear boy has been pretending to be human for too long. I can still fix that nasty little problem; if you’ll stop being stubborn.”

Her voice willful, it carried the slightest tremor, lost to one not waiting for it. Darla was afraid. It was an emotion Angel wasn’t accustomed to witnessing. Only slight, but it was there; and that was enough. If she doubted her ability to stop him or his need to deliver her final death then he had a chance.

“I don’t pretend to be something I’ll never be. I just decided to crawl out of the sewer and leave you behind.”

“Oh lover, you are confused. You were in the sewer when I found you. I showed you the way out; remember?”

“I remember. I’ll always remember the evil we perfected…long after you’re gone.”

His arm swung out, the back of a clinched fist striking its blow across her cheek. Back arched, her head lobbed in the direction of his swing, the sound of bone crushing under the force of curled knuckles filling the eerie silence.

Caught unprepared for the first attack, she was helpless against the shove of his boot into her stomach. Scrambling for only a second before her feet lost their footing, her body flung into the air and slapped against the wall before slumping onto the floor with a heavy thump.

Darla sucked in a breath, gagging on the stench pulled into her lungs. She needed to distract her opponent, buy time to regroup. A hand cupped over her mangled cheek, she gasped out her most vengeful threat. “She’ll never want you. To her you’ll always be a monster.”

“Maybe so, but I’ll have her just the same.” Angel hovered over her crumpled form, his breath hot and wet spewing into the cool air. “The only difference…you won’t be around to mess it up again.”

She had found her opening. Thoughts of the girl needing him but not wanting him, hating that she needed him made Angel weak. And that would be his undoing.

He hunched lower, his hand reaching out to circle her throat; and Darla waited until she felt the sweep of his fingers brush against her skin.

“My dear boy doesn’t need me for that. You’ve had two hundred and fifty years of practice…watching what you can never have slip through your fingertips.”

Kicking out, her foot landed against the side of his leg just above the knee, the narrow spike of her heel slicing through flesh and cartilage until it was embedded behind his kneecap.

Angel threw his head back, his grunt echoing into the cavernous space as his legs buckled and he landed in a heap on top of her.

Ripping her heel from the jagged wound, Darla drew her leg back and prepared for another strike; this one aimed at the heart she was determined would never beat.

A large hand closed around her ankle, and with a twist the slender bone snapped; her cry keening into the night.

Feminine features morphed, the strength of her true nature forcing back the pain rifling through her body. Nails, elongated and razor sharp, ripped up his throat then plunged down, tearing across his face.

Desperate to escape his heavy weight, Darla wriggled frantically shoving against the massive chest pinning her down.
His hands reached out to capture her fumbling fists, instead knocking them aside and targeting her throat again. Angel squeezed, feeling her larynx crush under a hundred years of anger and regret.

“Can’t strangle me,” choked from her constricted passage, “but then you always did forget not to breathe.”

Anger ebbed as a wave of remorse washed in. Angel hated her, hated what he believed she had made him do. He needed her to feel all the pain he had forced on Cordelia, but none of it was Darla’s fault. She had never taken his right to choose, that was never within her power. She had simply shown him an easier way, and he had taken it, reveling in its freedom until he had to pay the price.

Angel rolled back onto his knees and shifting as much weight as his uninjured leg could hold, brought the two of them up. His hands still wrapped around her throat, Darla’s limp body dangled above the floor like a worn out rag doll.

There was no measure of pain one could inflict on the other to make up for their sins. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save us.” He whispered.

His grip wrapped tight, Darla struggled helplessly against his intentions. Bone and flesh fell victim to his strength, tearing away as her neck twisted inside the trap of large and determined hands. Demon form fading to soft, feminine features, Angel closed his eyes as her agonizing screams blew against his face. And with a final snap it was over. Flesh shattered into dust, sifting through his fingers still clinched around empty air.

Already knelt beside Darla’s remains, the incantation gripped inside nervous fingers; Wesley’s voice drifted up from the floor. “Angel?”

“It’s done.” He whispered, his sight still fixed on the black void in front of him.

“I can see that.” Wesley waved a dismissing hand toward Gunn, shushing any remark before it could fall. “Are you alright?”

“No.”

Angel slowly turned from the scene finding Gunn blocking his departure, stake in hand and ready.

“We have a right to know. Why didn’t you take her out the first time?”

Ignoring the question he didn’t know how to answer, Angel stepped to the side prepared to move around the young man. “Get out of my way.”

“He’s right you know.” Incantation complete, Wesley rose from the floor wiping the clinging dust from his pants. “We deserve to know why you were so determined to destroy Darla now…without any witnesses.

His eyes were dark and cold, as empty as his soul. Angel had his truth, and it was unbearable. Darla was gone, yet the pain and regret remained. Lost for an answer, he moved forward, intent on hiding behind the dark cover of night.

Darla wasn’t to blame, and neither was his father. Angel and Liam had always made bad choices because they were easier. The penance was always the same; he would live with his choices for eternity. How could he help them when he couldn’t help himself? What could he say to make them understand he had finally turned from the easier path, taking the harder one instead?

“I raped Cordelia.”


PART 9

Eternity passed, or maybe time stood still as their crumbling world faded into oblivion.

Wesley shuddered as the unbelievable declaration crawled up his spine. Impossible, was his knee-jerk reaction. Even taking into consideration recent events, the thought was inconceivable. The only explanation, he had simply heard wrong.

“What did Angel just say?”

Unmoving, Gunn stared at the dark, empty space. Jaw clinched and body tense; his fingers absently stroked the length of his weapon. The wood, smooth and cylindrical, it felt comfortable in his grip. The vampire had just signed his death warrant.

“Angel said…” Stake aimed and ready, the young man charged toward the exit. “…he was gonna bite the dust tonight.”

Shaking free of his mental fog, Wesley lunged forward. The grip on his friend’s arm did little to slow his pursuit. And desperate to prevent an act impossible to undo, he swung around, a loose fist striking across Gunn’s chin.

“Will you just stop for a moment…and think.”

“Think about what?” Gunn stumbled back, rubbing the slight sting of Wesley’s punch. There wasn’t reason to dwell once a decision was made.

“That this may be exactly what Angel wants; but more important, the exact opposite of what Cordelia needs.”

Cordelia… His heart ached thinking of his friend. So young and innocent, she had dealt with her plight alone. Cordelia was his first priority. Then Wesley would take great pleasure in administering the death Angel desired and so rightly deserved.

“You cannot be telling me we have to let him go.” Gunn shoved past the weaker frame blocking his way. This man was one of his own, their trust intuitive, but now… “No way man.”

“Only until we talk with Cordelia.” As difficult as it was, Wesley tried once again to be the voice of reason. “Or do you prefer facing Cordelia after you’ve staked Angel?”

Slowing his pace, Gunn’s stride faltered until implausible became a bare thread of possibility. “Fine, we’ll do it your way. Talk first then stake.”

Wesley had spent his life reacting to the will of those around him, beliefs and desires yielding to other’s ambitions…but not this time. People depended on him now. He had a responsibility to friends that trusted him, and he would not fail them.

“Thank you. That’s all I ask.”

~~~ ~~~

Triumphs and defeats, a man’s hope rotting away inside a wasted life. Memories are cruelty in its purist form.

Doyle had seen the life-force that existed behind expensive taste and youthful indifference. He had believed the young spit-fire that charged into their lives possessed a heart and soul that could lead a displaced vampire to his destiny. Even more miraculous, the reluctant hero had begun to see it too; but fearful of more disappointments that he couldn’t survive, he had turned from his fate.

Squinting against the yellow glare of the light bulb, Angel snatched the bag from the small refrigerator. His throat began to spasm, his stomach churning in protest of the red swill. Had he embraced dark yearnings and left with Darla, the hemic substitute would have been given up for a more savory cuisine. And had he possessed the conviction to defy his dark past, he would be basking in the warmth of his friends.

He had done neither, and now waited in the lonely hotel for a final death that may never come. A master without dominion, a king smothering under the ruins of his fortress; Angel’s hope was as barren as his existence.

~~~ ~~~

Impatience taking charge over usual decorum, Wesley called out his urgency. “Dennis, open the door.”

The faint light from the hallway streamed inside, silhouetting the small form staring past the large, glass pane. Cordelia tensed for only a second before the comforting familiarity of her intruders washed through her body.

“Darla?” She whispered, her sight remaining pinned to the dark LA skyline.

“Gone…and this time her death is irreversible.”

Cordelia hated that her breath was still trapped, needing proof that Darla’s demise was at the hands of Angel. She wouldn’t ask, because she couldn’t allow herself to need it that badly. Asphyxiation was an easier fate.

Petrified by the eerie calm and looming quiet, Gunn stood stock-still. And waiting for Wesley to take the lead, dealt with his own threat of suffocation.

Wesley tentatively stepped forward, closing the narrow space separating them. Cordelia in turn shifted her stance as his hands brushed across her shoulders. Their eyes met; and the obscure light reflected off the glass, unveiling her secret. They knew. The truth lifted a heavy burden, and simultaneously delivered one even more unforgivable to take its place. She had lied to her friends.

Wesley’s face somber and filled with concern, steel blue glistened under pooling moisture. And afraid that understanding wouldn’t be granted a second time, Cordelia hesitated before finally glancing in Gunn’s direction.

Still rooted in place, he met her questioning gaze with pain and uncertainty that almost matched her own, then finally…compassion.

Her sight drifted back to Wesley, her pain almost more than he could bare. A time for killing may come in the days ahead, but tonight was about healing. His arms slipped fully around her, pulling Cordelia inside a tight embrace.

“We should have known,” he whispered. “We should have protected you.” He gently kissed the top of her head. “Forgive us.”

~~~ ~~~ Two Weeks Later ~~~ ~~~

Senses attuned to the scrutiny of his body language, Angel’s descent was slow and deliberate. He stopped just short of the lobby floor settling on the third step, and ever mindful of infringing personal space clasped his hands on his lap.

“I didn’t expect you to come here.”

Cordelia remained near the door. She knew its connection to the outside world was misleading, but even illusionary lifelines had their use. Arms tensely aligned with the rigid contours of her body, and her teeth nervously nipping at her bottom lip; she studied the calm facade lounging in front of her.

“Believe me, no one is more surprised than me.”

Quiet minutes passed; only the soft whish of her breaths breaking into their silent standoff. They stared, each seemingly content to wait for the other, until anxiety threatened composure.

Angel could either allow fate to creep into his wasteland or force it to deliver a swift and final blow. “Then why are you here?”

Still searching for that answer, Cordelia turned around shifting her attention to easier contemplation. Fingers spread, her hands moved up to rest at the curve of her hips as she studied the sunlit activity beyond the large, double doors framing her escape.

“I’m not sure where we go from here.” The words came easier with her attention fixed on the strangers outside. “The guys know everything, but then, you already knew that.”

Content to simply have her within arm’s reach, Angel remained silent as Cordelia watched the life she had left behind. Before either could understand the consequences he had pulled her into his life; the black eclipse of his restricted world shrouding her sun in darkness. There was a time Angel would have returned her to the daylight, but now, weak and greedy where Cordelia was concerned, he resisted any choice that shut him out…even the right one.

“I would let you go if I could. I tried.” He stopped, waiting for hands to fold into fists and her spine to stiffen in resistance, but when her stance remained unchanged… “I can’t.”

A woman stepped off the bus, a little girl jumping out behind her and dashing to the ice cream cart cleverly set up in the perfect spot. True bliss is ignorance, Cordelia almost spoke out loud. For all those people, tomorrow was just that; another tomorrow.

Sometimes, some people don’t get to have that. She would never have that. Cordelia was only beginning to understand the full impact of Doyle’s fateful decision. Doyle and Angel had been her first real friends. One had taught her the greater good, the other had ensured she would never forget.

“I know.” Her answered came with a resolved voice. “And in a weird-ass sort of way, I’m OK with that.”

Cordelia turned back into the room, and Angel felt his thin veil of calm rip as determined eyes met him head on.

“Me running and you chasing might not be an option, but this playacting we’ve been doing has to stop…now.” Taking a small step from the door her action spoke of confidence, but her voice betrayed the apprehension rising to the surface. “I know Lorne means well, but he can’t help us. Maybe no one can.”

Whether stemmed by desire or acceptance, Cordelia’s avowal not to flee granted more hope than believed possible, and Angel latched onto the meager offer. “We don’t need anyone. This is about us. And we can get through this as long as we’re together.”

“Together? I’ve had sex twice. Both times because of demonic forces, and neither was about me.” Hazel irises freezing into black ice narrowed their gaze. “There is no us Angel. So let just concentrate on getting through this…period.”

“Don’t do that. Don’t compare what we have to him.” His guise of calm forgotten, Angel sprang from the step, and with two long strides towered over Cordelia. Their bodies cringing in unison as Cordelia instinctively moved beyond his reach, Angel backed away from the imaginary line separating them.

Relieved that her bid for space had gone unchallenged, Cordelia concentrated on relaxing frazzled nerves and turned back to the outside view. Making peace with her fate had been the easy part. Now it was time to follow through and make peace with Angel. “I need to talk to the guys first. Then we’ll work something out we can all live with.”

Her offer had filled him with false hope. Cordelia was suggesting the same restricted visitation as before. And deliberating the consequences of pushing her too hard, Angel quickly concluded there weren’t any. Because Cordelia’s evasion of his attention remained whether he accepted or rejected her terms. “That’s not enough.”

Her head jerked over a tense shoulder, and earlier cautions against confrontations were pushed aside. An indignant scowl twisting her face, “excuse me,” snapped from pursed lips.

“I know you need time and I’ll give you that.” Angel eagerly clarified, giving up the space of a step he’d taken to make his point. Assuring her safety was critical, but Cordelia reconciling with the limitations he was willing to accept was equally imperative. “But the no-touching rule is gone; and your boys will have to deal.”

Cordelia hadn’t expected his reaction, and Angel watched the emotions flicker across her face as she worked out a response. He took a hesitant step, quickly giving it up when her back pressed against the door. “I regret how it happened…” Struggling with restraint that was reaching its breaking point, his words trailed to a whisper. They had reached an impasse. One wanting to ensure a slow journey to their fate, the other anxious to see fate become reality. He had everything to gain at this moment and nothing to lose. “…but I’m not sorry it happened.”

Angel’s confession rang of honesty and conviction, neither characteristic of the man she had come to know. And believing his sincerity only diluted the severity of his demands, making it harder for Cordelia to work through her mounting confusion.

Regardless of his intentions, none of that matter now because this wasn’t about that night. Not anymore. Cordelia had already made her hardest decision. She wouldn’t leave. Not because of the mission or the hopeless, but because she needed Angel as much as he needed her. Hating him with equal fervor only gifted her a slight advantage.

“Alright. We’ll make the rules together…but there will be rules.”

“Then you won’t try to leave me?”

His voice was a bevy of emotions; disbelief, shock, and finally relief. And Cordelia couldn’t help but be pleased with the narrow shift of control. Turning around, she took a step forward. It was small and tentative, but it was a beginning.

Heart thumping fast and hard, her chin tilted up until their eyes joined in shared clarity. “Where would I go that you couldn’t find me?”

Holding her gaze, Angel simply nodded. Lies were no longer needed and truths were no longer feared.

~~~ ~~~ Six Months Later ~~~ ~~~

“Spread your mouth over it and suck. Now take a big bite.”

Angel scrunched his nose, eyes snapping shut as the foul-tasting liquid oozed down his throat. He had thought the grape flavored snow cone to be a safe choice. Wine was made from grapes. How was he to know Kool-Aid was a synthetic rendition the fruit? It was a bad decision, but one with welcomed repercussions.

Cordelia giggled uncontrollably as the artificial color dripped down Angel’s chin, staining his pale skin with purple streaks. “Just give it up Angel. Obviously carefree and lively aren’t for you.” Taking pity on her dopey companion, Cordelia held out a napkin already damp from overuse.

“Is that another dig about me being dead?” Angel feigned a soft huff, tossing his half eaten snow cone into the garbage. Then wiped the soppy napkin across his chin and sent it to join the syrupy treat that had decimated his persona of cool.

“I told you, it’s not a dig if it’s true.” Her mouth latched onto the mound quickly disappearing from her snow cone, an enthusiastic melody of slurps and gurgles sounding into their quiet night. “Let’s go. It’s getting late.”

It was the dread that shrouded every moment he was allowed to share with her alone. Ultimately the moment would end, its conclusion always coming too soon. “Not yet Cordelia. It’s not that late.”

“Angel, we had dinner and we saw a movie.” Cherry-stained lips stretched into a smile, mischief dancing in her eyes. “And I got to watch Mr. Kool-Aid kick your butt. All in all, it was a fun night.”

“Just a little longer, then I promise to take you home. And no one kicked my butt.”

Cordelia took in the shy and subtly guarded demeanor of the old Angel that had first become her friend. She missed that boyish grin and the way he shoved his hands inside his pockets just to give them a place to be. Not everything she had loved about Angel had been a deception. There were bit and pieces of her stoic champion that had been real, and the important ones, the ones that deserved her love and trust, had survived.

Stepping down from the curb, Cordelia turned back and held out her hand. “Come on big guy, we’ll take the scenic route.”

An outstretched hand was a seemingly simple gesture, but to a man that had lost the right to touch and be touched it was more than words could describe. There had been touching. Angel’s refusal to accept any rule denying it had ensured that, but Cordelia had never offered. And touches that even hinted of intimacy had been received with apprehension.

Honestly, things hadn’t turned out exactly as Angel had planned. Everyone was getting along. Sometimes better than expected with Cordelia doing what she did best. Leading by example. She had worked through her emotions and reached a place where forgiveness was possible. And like forever friends do, Wesley and Gunn had followed her lead.

This new relationship was far different than Angel had first hoped for. Lorne had told him months ago that through time and forgiveness they would reach a new place. And they did. His friendship with Cordelia was healthier than it had ever been; proving what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But with each passing day, the possibility of something more grew further from reach.

If not for the gravity of their situation, Angel might enjoy the irony of his predicament. He and Buffy had easily become lovers; it was friendship that always eluded them. But then, he had waited until her youth and innocence had accepted him as a lover to show his true face.

At first, it seemed his fateful decision almost a year ago was the catalyst robbing them of what might have been. Tonight, under the harsh light of reality, the true culprit was clearly visible. It was Angel’s undeniable need for her friendship that would doom them as lovers. Cordelia would never refuse him the forgiveness and trust he had worked so diligently to regain; but the absolute faith intimacy required had been lost that night. And only time would tell if that faith was waiting patiently in their future.

Angel stared at the small hand, slender fingers waiting to entwine with his. He stepped from the curb, his large hand reaching over and closing around hers. Simplicity in the making? Maybe; but for them, it was monumental step. Not to where they once were, but to a new place they were ready to journey together. And hands clasped together, they walked in contented silence.


…THE END…

COMPLETED SERIAL FANFICTION


ADDITIONAL AUTHOR NOTES:

PART 1:
Summary: This is Cali’s challenge and I know she wants a happy ending, but the initial event is too devastating for any thoughts of better times to come into play. So for now we have only the aftermath of Angel’s hard learned revelation…a seemingly door-closing epiphany you might say, but only time will tell what the heart already knows.
Title inspired by the song ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M.
A big thank you to Cali for such a thought provoking challenge, I hope you’re not disappointed. And the beautiful picfic.

PART 2:
Title inspired by the song ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M.
A big thank you to Cali for such a thought provoking challenge, I hope you’re not disappointed. And the beautiful picfic.
Cali and I briefly discussed the possible conclusions such a story could have…happy endings come in many forms.

PART 3:
New Note: This chapter mainly covers the emotions of the characters. But considering Angel’s return takes place three month’s after his night with Cordelia, I felt their emotions had to be explored before attempting their first meeting. So please bear with me and hopefully the next post will include Angel and Cordelia’s first conversation.

PART 4:
New Note: Beowulf is an ancient epic poem, Danish origin, author unknown. The twist to the tale is that though Beowulf, was brave and faced the dragon to save his people, it was his nephew Wiglaf, a young court noble with little fighting skill that refused to leave Beowulf’s side; attacking the dragon when he captured Beowulf’s throat in his jaws.

New Note: Honestly not sure if I can write Lorne strong enough to handle his part in the story. But dealing with so many emotions, I didn’t want to risk a new character. Also want to explore The Powers and their role in the fight against evil. Seemed odd after S1, there was so little communication other than the visions and other than Voca killing the two oracles, no reason was given – or one that I can recall.
New Note: Here it is, the dreaded first contact. Brief, but hopefully satisfyingly emotional.

PART 5:
Title inspired by the song ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M.
A big thank you to Cali for such a thought provoking challenge, I hope you’re not disappointed. And the beautiful picfic.
Cali and I briefly discussed the possible conclusions such a story could have…happy endings come in many forms.

PART 6:
Title inspired by the song ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M.
A big thank you to Cali for such a thought provoking challenge, I hope you’re not disappointed. And the beautiful picfic.
Cali and I briefly discussed the possible conclusions such a story could have…happy endings come in many forms.

PART 7:
Title inspired by the song ‘Everybody Hurts’ by R.E.M.
A big thank you to Cali for such a thought provoking challenge, I hope you’re not disappointed. And the beautiful picfic.
Cali and I briefly discussed the possible conclusions such a story could have…happy endings come in many forms.

PART 8:
New Note: Why I chose Artemis and Serpentine
Artemis – The daughter of Zeus, Artemis gives divine protection to the wild beasts. She rides her silver chariot across the sky and shoots her arrows of silver Moonlight to the earth below. Unlike her brother Apollon, Artemis is not skilled in warcraft but she can punish and kill.

Serpentine – Of or resembling a serpent (of course), as in form or movement; sinuous. Subtly sly and tempting.

PART 9:
New Note: After months of struggling with and rewriting the final chapter, I ended up choosing my original version. Hope it doesn’t disappoint, but the timeframe of the story set this as a realistic level of forgiveness and trust achieved.


 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s