As Faith slowly emerged from the warm, comforting blanket of sleep, she tensed, waiting for the inevitable cold to overtake her aching body. Much to her surprise, the familiar arctic chill from the Orb’s possession didn’t occur, and it took a while for her frazzled mind to figure out why. When things finally clicked into place, it all crashed in on her in a rush – last night, the Orb, the fight with Angel and B, drinking the potion and … oh god, Wesley!
The slayer’s eyes snapped open and she gazed up at the ceiling, struggling to come to terms with the nightmarish events of the past few days of half-wakefulness. Naturally, she was relieved and thankful to be free of the Orb’s control, but heavy remorse for the things she had done under its influence caused a wave of negative emotion to swamp her initially optimistic reaction to that fact.
As she turned her head, her troubled gaze settled on a slumbering Angel and Cordelia, and she couldn’t help being warmed by the picture of loving contentment that their intertwined pose portrayed. The vampire lay on his back with one leg stretched out along the length of the sofa cushions, while his other leg was bent at the knee so that his foot was flat on the floor. Cordelia lay sprawled atop of him, her face tucked into the crook of his neck and her hand curled against his bare breastbone.
The covers had slipped off the couple onto the floor, and Faith grinned to herself as she spotted the position of Angel’s hands. The vampire held his girlfriend close with his left arm looped around her slim waist, and his other hand firmly clasping her right butt cheek. His hand was unashamedly down the back of the shorts of the sleepwear set that the seer wore, the intimate grasp a clear demonstration of his ownership of the woman sleeping contentedly in his arms.
As if sensing the slayer’s eyes on her, Cordelia began to stir, her slight movements bringing her boyfriend into wakefulness as well. Faith watched as she drowsily lifted her head and proceeded to trail a path of soft, butterfly kisses along the column of Angel’s throat and up over his chiselled chin.
As their lips met in a series of gentle kisses, the vampire swept his hand up the length of Cordelia’s spine until his fingers tangled in the silky strands of her hair. To the slayer’s amusement, his other hand maintained its firm grip on the seer’s bottom, his long fingers gently massaging the softly rounded flesh there.
“Ahem!” Faith deliberately cleared her throat, reminding the couple that they had company before the embrace threatened to push the boundaries of acceptable public behaviour.
“Good morning,” Angel greeted the brunette slayer with a small smile, his voice still gravely from sleep.
“Actually, I think it’s probably afternoon,” Faith replied, one eyebrow raised skyward as she pointedly inclined her head towards the intimate position of his hand on his girlfriend’s person.
“Good afternoon then,” the vampire grinned back unrepentantly at the slayer, seemingly unfazed at having been caught copping a feel. Nevertheless, he was finally forced to remove his hand when Cordelia made a move to sit up.
Swinging her legs to the floor and rising to her feet, the seer padded barefoot across the room to perch on the edge of the bed, next to her friend. Faith was rather astonished to see unshed tears glistening in her hazel eyes, but Cordelia engulfed her in a tight hug before she was able to question their meaning.
“Oh God! I was so scared we’d never get you back. I missed you so much, Faith.”
Resting her chin on her friend’s shoulder, Faith’s arms automatically rose to encircle the seer’s back as she returned the hug with equal warmth. Angel had been reasonably tactile with her last night, but it felt good to be held so completely in this way; it was something that the slayer really needed right now.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Angel rise from the couch and retrieve some clean clothes from the closet and chest of drawers. He then retreated into the bathroom, respectfully giving the two girls some privacy. As the door shut quietly behind him, Faith rested her forehead against Cordelia’s collarbone, and held onto the life raft of her close friend’s unconditional support for all she was worth.
When they eventually drew apart, Cordelia shot the slayer a watery smile as they wiped away their tears with the tips of their fingers. At first, Faith smiled back, but then her eyes fell on the yellowing bruise on the seer’s cheek and the significantly shorter length of her dark brown hair, and a stricken look descended over her features.
“Don’t,” Cordelia said emphatically. “It wasn’t you, I know that.”
“But I …”
“I said don’t,” Cordelia quickly interrupted, placing her fingers over the guilt-ridden slayer’s lips to silence her unneeded apology. “You can’t blame yourself for things that were out of your control.”
Besides,” the seer added with a bright smile. “I needed a hot new look anyway, so really the enforced restyle was a blessing in disguise.”
More than aware that her thick, glossy mane of hair had been her pride and joy, Faith knew Cordelia was lying through her teeth, but gratefully received the untruth in the spirit in which it was intended.
“You’re the best, you know that, C.”
“I’m still sorry though,” she added softly, needing to express her regret over what had happened nevertheless.
“I know,” Cordelia replied, reaching out to squeeze her friend’s fingers in understanding.
Their fingers locked affectionately together, the two young women sat in silent contemplation for a short while, before a loud grumble of hunger from Cordelia’s stomach rudely disturbed the poignant solemnity of the moment. They both dissolved into uncontrollable giggles at the growling sound, the noise puncturing the tension between them like a pin would a balloon.
“I think that’s my cue to go and find us something to eat,” Cordelia said, once she’d gotten her laughter under control. “How does coffee and waffles with maple syrup sound?”
“Like complete heaven,” Faith replied expansively, patting her washboard stomach as the seer tugged on her robe and slipped her feet into a pair of big blue slippers.
“Well that’s a good thing, cus my repertoire doesn’t extend any further than coffee and waffles, despite Angel’s repeated and tireless efforts to teach me how to cook,” Cordelia admitted with rueful candour.
“Tell Mr Salty-Goodness that I’ll bring him up a cup of O-pos, ‘kay?” she said over her shoulder, as she walked towards the door.
“Sure thing,” Faith replied, running her fingers through her wavy cascade of dark hair. Linking her fingers together, the slayer raised her arms above her head and stretched, working the kinks out of her lithe body.
Cordelia stepped out onto the landing and pulled the bedroom door partially to behind her, leaving it slightly ajar. Crossing to the top of the spiral staircase, she slowly began to descend the steps, wary of her less than practical footwear. The huge slippers adorning her feet kept her cold-prone toes warm and toasty, but they were unfortunately severe tripping hazards as well.
As she rounded the corner to take the second flight of steps, she unexpectedly came face to face with Buffy, who was nimbly ascending the stairs in the opposite direction. Not having heard the other girl’s light footsteps, the seer let out a startled yelp and had to grab at the banister to prevent herself from tumbling headlong down the stairwell.
“Geez! I thought it was only Angel, who did the stealth thing,” Cordelia exclaimed, bringing her hand to her heart in reaction. “I suppose it’s kind of an advantage to be able to sneak up on the bad guys, being slayer girl an’ all, but couldn’t you stomp your feet just a little when you’re not in Little Miss Like-to-Fight mode? You could just, you know, like this…”
The seer exaggeratedly walked on the spot to illustrate her point, the rubber soles of her humongous slippers making heavy thuds each time they connected with the polished wooden step under her feet.
“It’s not that difficult surely?” she appealed to the bemused slayer, her hazel eyes wide and earnest as her chin-length dark hair bounced in time with her energetic movements.
Someone who knew the seer better would have played along, but Buffy, unaccustomed to Cordelia’s quirky character traits, just stared back the dancing brunette in utter bafflement.
“Umm – I take it Faith’s awake?” she asked instead, “And Angel?”
“Yeah – go on up and say hi if you want. I was just going to get us all some lunchfast.”
“Yeah – breakfast at lunchtime – lunch-fast,” Cordelia explained her bizarre terminology.
“Isn’t that brunch?”
“Duh! Brunch is breakfast and lunch combined. And, it’s eaten late morning, not at one in the afternoon. No, this is definitely lunchfast.”
“Okaaay,” Buffy rolled her eyes at Cordelia’s light-hearted jesting. “I’m going upstairs to see Angel and Faith now,” she said rather patronisingly, as she moved past the seer and continued on her way up the flight of steps.
“Geez! Get a sense of humour why don’t you?” she heard Cordelia mutter under her breath, just before she was out of earshot.
The slayer shook her head in mystification; she couldn’t fathom out why a man, as sensible and serious as Angel, willingly put up with the vacuous, flighty creature that was Cordelia Chase. The woman must constantly drive him up the wall, so what was the attraction? She just didn’t get it.
When she reached the landing area, Buffy crossed to the second door on the left, lifting her hand to knock on the wooden panel before she entered. Noting that the door was slightly ajar and hearing the quiet murmur of voices from within, the slayer lowered her hand back down to her side without knocking. She lingered outside the door, her curiosity getting the better of her – Faith’s voice reached her first.
“She went to get us some breakfast.”
“Cordy?” Buffy could tell Angel was lifting his eyebrows from the amused tone of his voice. “Be afraid, be very afraid.”
“Angel!” Faith’s rich laugh rang out. “You are so bad. It’s only waffles and coffee – she can’t mess that up, surely?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t better on it,” the vampire replied with a warm chuckle.
“While we’re on the subject – C is alright, isn’t she?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, she seemed okay in herself, but she looks like one of those anorexic Hollywood chicks. I remember her saying she wanted to go into acting – some bastard director didn’t tell her she was too fat, did they?”
“No – at least, I don’t think so. I know she’s lost some weight, but anorexic might be going a bit far, Faith,” Angel softly reproved.
“Maybe – but you know what I mean. Surely you’ve noticed the change in her appearance?”
“Yes, of course I have. Cordy’s recent weight loss is mainly psychological though. We… um… had a major falling out a few months ago, and things were very rough between us for a while. I think she stopped eating properly due to the stress of it all.”
“But earlier, on the sofa…”
“Yeah, I know,” Angel’s tone noticeably softened, the slight tension leaving his deep voice. “We’re coming out the other side of it now. We still have a few issues to work through, but we’re back on track, I swear. That’s mainly thanks to Wes – he walked back into our lives at exactly the right moment. It really helped to have his outside perspective on things, and he got us communicating properly with each other again.”
“So what happened?”
“It’s a long story – some other time, yeah? Cordy’ll be back soon, and I don’t want to drag up the painful memories again. She’s eating properly now, I promise, so there’s no need to worry about her.”
“Alright, I believe you. I guess I have a lot of stuff to catch up on, huh? Wolfram and Hart, the Powers That Be, not to mention the fact that you’re a bona fide PI now.”
“Bona fide might be stretching it a bit,” the vampire replied with a self-depreciating grin. “How do you know all that anyway?”
“The Orb knew all about the Powers That Be and Wolfram and Hart, and your lawyer friends filled me in on all the rest. You’re a major thorn in their side, you know.”
“Glad to hear it. It’s my aim to piss them off on a regular basis.”
“Well, I think you’re succeeding,” Faith replied with a conspiratorial wink. “Angel Investigations was C’s idea, right? Getting paid for saving the world and helping people – wish I’d thought of that.”
“She ganged up with Doyle to persuade me it was a good idea.”
“Part of the ‘lot to catch up on’” Angel explained. “He was my seer – the PTB’s sent him visions of the people they wanted me to help.”
“You’re talking about him in the past tense,” the slayer quietly noted.
“Yeah – he died a couple of months ago,” the vampire’s voice dropped in volume. “He sacrificed himself to save a tribe of Lister demons from a light beacon that had the capability to kill anything with human blood.”
“I’m sorry,” Faith said with genuine regret. “So now you’re seer-less?”
“Umm, no – Doyle passed his visions onto Cordy before he died. I don’t think I’ve entirely forgiven him for that yet.”
“The visions are a heavy burden to bear, Faith. Cordy accepts them as a gift from Doyle, and sees them as her destiny. They cause her so much pain though, and that makes it extremely hard for me to view the situation in the same way. The visions are my link to the Powers That Be, so it feels like everything she suffers is my fault.”
“Well, I can definitely relate to that,” Faith said in a subdued tone, the vampire’s words immediately making her think of the horrors she had watched Wesley go through the previous day. “Oh God Angel – how am I ever going to be able to look him in the face again?”
Through the gap between the door and its frame, Buffy saw Angel cross to sit on the bed by Faith’s side. The vampire lifted his arm to run a soothing hand up and down the distraught slayer’s back, as she buried her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking with silent sobs.
“You don’t honestly think Wes will blame you for what happened, do you?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that the Orb became so much a part of me; that it was as if its enjoyment of his suffering came from some, previously hidden, part of myself. It feels like that evil is still there, lurking somewhere deep inside of me, and that really scares me.”
Buffy hadn’t heard the majority of the second half of Angel and Faith’s conversation; she was too busy rejoicing over her discovery that Angel and Cordelia’s relationship wasn’t quite the bed of roses that it appeared to be. Shaking herself out of her silent exultation, she decided to make her presence known, not realising she was interrupting an important tête-à-tête between the vampire and her friend.
Knocking sharply on the door, and then pushing it fully open, the blond slayer stepped over the threshold and smiled brightly at the two occupants. “Hey!”
“Hey B – how ya doin’?”
“Good, I’m good,” Buffy leaned down to give the brunette slayer a quick hug. “Are you feeling better now?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Faith shot Angel a warning look before she smiled reassuringly at her blond friend. “Nice moves last night, by the way. You go girl – that back-flip was way cool.”
Buffy puffed up with pride. “It did turn out rather well, didn’t it? But then, me an’ Angel always did work together like a well-oiled machine. It was just like old times, wasn’t it Angel?”
The petite slayer leaned over Faith and laid a warm hand on the vampire’s knee, smiling up at him with a soft twinkle in her sapphire blue eyes.
“Err, yeah sure.” Angel said, his tone distinctly non-committal.
Frowning slightly, the vampire rose to his feet, pointedly moving away from his ex-girlfriend’s gently caressing touch. What the hell did Buffy think she was playing at? He did not need the hassle of constantly having to fend off her unsubtle come-ons, on top of everything else.
He had more than enough on his plate helping his closest friends come to terms with the terrible ordeal that they’d just been though, as well as re-building his relationship with Cordelia. He was going to have to have words with the annoyingly persistent slayer if she continued with this unacceptable behaviour.
“So how are things in good old SunnyD?” Faith asked Buffy, while Angel paced agitatedly back and forth across the carpet.
“Great! Me and Will share a dorm room together at college. My first roomie turned out to be a bit single-white-female-y in a demon-y kinda way. Xander is well Xander, and Giles – he’s big with the mid-life crisis right now. You know – jogging, dressing up as a Mexican on Halloween, coming to the Bronze to see a gig – you know the kind of thing. I think he just doesn’t know what to do with himself now he has no musty books to play with. I’m sure he’ll find something to occupy his time soon though.”
“Oh, he left, and came back, and left again, and Willow – well she’s gay now, has a girlfriend called Tara.”
“Okay,” Faith took that revelation in her stride. “And how’s it with you on the love-life front?”
“Well, there’s Riley… he’s… um… downstairs, so you’ll get to meet him.”
“All right, so who’s for up for waffles?”
Cordelia’s cheery voice interrupted the slayers conversation, as she shouldered open the door and came into the bedroom. The seer was carrying a large tray with three mugs, two plates, and a jug of syrup balanced on its surface. Placing it on the bedside cabinet, she turned and handed a plate, and a knife and fork, to Faith.
“You want syrup?” she asked, holding up the small jug.
“Yep,” the slayer replied, lifting her plate.
“Okay, say when,” Cordelia instructed, as she drizzled the sweet, sticky liquid over the food.
Her breakfast served, Faith folded her legs up underneath her and balanced her plate in her lap. Holding her utensils in her hands, she paused, eyeing up her food with trepidation.
“What?” Cordelia asked, noting her friend’s hesitation.
The slayer shot a quick glance over at Angel and the seer’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, as she caught her boyfriend trying to suppress an amused grin.
“Oww!” Angel exclaimed when Cordelia punched him hard on the arm. “What was that for?”
“I can make waffles!” the seer protested, her full mouth settling into a dramatic pout.
Chuckling at his girlfriend’s exaggerated huffiness, Angel reached out and hooked an arm around her waist, pulling her closer. He dipped his head and dropped a soft gentle kiss on her upturned lips.
“You’re so cute when you get all pout-y,” he said, his rich voice vibrating with warm affection.
“These are pretty good, C,” Faith commented, around a mouthful of waffles and maple syrup.
“See – at least *someone* appreciates my cooking, Mr I’d-Be-A-Cordon-Bleu-Chef if I wasn’t an Ex-Evil-Vamp seeking redemption,” Cordelia said, scrunching her nose up in mock indignation, and poking her boyfriend in the ribs with her forefinger.
Angel nuzzled affectionately at her temple, breathing in the sweet smell of her hair before stepping back and releasing her from his embrace. He tapped her lightly on the bottom, and pushed her towards the tray of food, reaching around her to pick up the cup of warm blood that she’d prepared for him.
“Eat up,” he quietly instructed.
The two of them sat, side by side, on the sofa and, for a short while, the only sound was the clink of cutlery against crockery and the slurp of liquid being drunk from mugs.
Buffy sat in silence on the bed next to Faith, glowering at the couple seated close together on the couch. Why did they persist in acting as if everything in the garden was rosy? Now that she knew that their relationship was in trouble, this fake display of togetherness totally grated on her nerves.
“I rang the hospital.” Cordelia eventually broke the, mostly companionable, silence. “Wesley’s doing okay – he said they’ll probably discharge him later on today. That’s provided that they’re happy that he’ll have someone to take care of him at home, of course. I told him he’d have no worries on that score.”
“You spoke to him?” Angel asked.
“Yeah – he was awake so the duty nurse put me through to his room.”
“We’ll go and see him in a bit – the hospital has underground access. Probably best not to overwhelm him with visitors though – just you, me and Faith’ll go.”
“Um… I might stay here – make his room nice for him,” Faith said, her eyes firmly fixed on her near empty plate.
Cordelia shot Angel a concerned look, but he placed a gentling hand on her arm and shook his head. The vampire could understand the slayer’s reluctance to face her watcher. In hindsight, it was probably best that that unavoidably painful reunion happened away from the public eye. Wes would understand; he was sure of that.
“Okay,” he agreed in an easy tone. “Me and Cordy’ll go and keep him company, and then bring him back here with us later.”
“Well,” Cordelia said brightly, setting aside her clean plate and getting to her feet. “I think I’ll go have a shower and get dressed.”
Buffy watched in growing annoyance as Angel’s eyes affectionately followed his girlfriend’s every move, as she retrieved her clothing from the cupboards before vanishing into the bathroom to get ready.
Wesley lay in the narrow hospital bed, his head fuzzy from the strong painkillers that he’d been given to numb the agony from his many injuries. There was a light tapping on the door and he opened his eyes, wincing at the pain this slight movement caused him.
“Come in,” he croaked through a parched throat.
Cordelia and Angel entered the room with smiles on their faces, but were unable to conceal their twin looks of shock as they took in his bruised and battered appearance.
“Hi,” he said as the worried couple sat down in two chairs, positioned on opposite sides of the bed.
“Hey you,” Cordelia said softly, reaching out to curl her fingers around his. “How you feeling?”
“I’ve been better, but I think I’ll survive,” Wesley replied. “Is it just you two?”
“Yeah, ‘fraid so. I don’t think Faith is quite ready to face you just yet.” It was Angel who answered his question.
Wesley nodded. “She’s otherwise okay though?”
“She’s been better, but I think she’ll survive,” the vampire replied, echoing the ex-watcher’s earlier statement.
Wesley closed his eyes with a sigh. “Sorry guys, I don’t think I’m going to be very good company. I’m still groggy from all the drugs that they’ve given me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Cordelia assured him, stroking his face lightly with a soothing touch. “You just rest – we can amuse ourselves.”
“Just make sure your amusements are G-rated, ‘kay?” the ex-watcher mumbled, as a wave of drowsiness overwhelmed him.
His weary body succumbing once again to sleep, Wesley was only vaguely aware of Angel and Cordelia’s quiet laughter in response to his teasing remark.
Faith sat in the centre of the bed, her arms curled over her head as she sobbed out her anguish. Image flashes of Wesley’s torture at her own hands, the horrible feeling of emptiness inside, and the evil she was sure she could feel hovering just below the surface of her skin, all combined in a whirlwind of horror and confusion that only added to her growing distress.
Facing Wesley later on tonight was rapidly becoming the stuff of her worst nightmares, and she didn’t know how she was going to handle it. She wanted to run away from the approaching encounter, but the thought of dealing with everything alone filled her with dread. She just wouldn’t be able to hold it together without her friend’s, and especially Angel’s, help.
The slayer felt like the souled vampire was the only one, who could really understand what she was going through, and she desperately wanted to cling onto his solid support and never let go. Angel had his own troubles to deal with though and, after what she learned today, there was no way she could justify monopolising his time, twenty-four seven. He and C needed time to themselves to work through their problems and, as their friend; she had to give them that space.
Faith raised her head, blew her nose and scrubbed her face clean of its tears, somehow finding the strength to steel herself for the inevitable. She could do this, she could. She knew she had too. It was sink or swim; do or die, and she was not the type to quit. Taking the easy way out was simply not part of her genetic make-up. If the Orb of Ravaclesh thought it had the power to destroy her, then it was severely mistaken.