Cordelia rummaged through a case in the back of her large closet, finding a pair of expensive jeans. They were the only pair she had left. Thankfully they had been saved from the great exodus of the servants. Still packed away in an overnight case she had taken to Harmony’s, a few of her personal items had been spared.
She pulled out the jeans, some undergarments, and a t-shirt, wondering at just how in a few weeks someone’s life could change dramatically. Three months ago she would have been tossing the jeans on the bed with a chorus of others, mixing and matching her overload of designers. Now the jeans were a need, not a luxury. Clothes to cover her back.
She finished dressing and grabbed the hairdryer and a brush from the case. The bathroom light seemed harsh somehow as she entered and plugged in the dryer. There were dark circles under her eyes that had not been there before and she seemed thinner, and not in the “I’m going to look great in that dress” thinner. But almost sick, sallow. She closed her eyes against the sight as the heat of the dryer chased away the dampness in her hair. Hearing a fluttering sound, she opened her eyes, noticing the wad of money that had lain on the bathroom counter strewn all over the tile floor.
Kneeling down, she scooped up the bills, trying not to think about how many nights the large amount could buy her in the Sunnydale Regency. After all, she was meeting with the bank tomorrow and somehow she didn’t think she had many days left in the rambling house. She swallowed a lump in her throat. She had to give the money back.
The new start.
Rely on no one.
Besides, she had already called Xander and asked him to come over. Letting him know that there was something she owed him.
All one-thousand, two dollars and fifty-eight cents of it.
God, that used to be a purse, had been a prom dress, now it could be a month’s worth of shelter.
She cringed a little when she thought of the looks on the girls’ faces behind the counter as she presented the dress for return. They had known of course. She had worked with them for goodness sake. Worked with them until she had been fired for refusing to work her scheduled hours on the night of prom. But they could not refuse the dress. It had tags, looked perfect. She had made sure of that.
But they could sneer, snicker, make her feel……well, probably like she had made other girls feel through the years. A twinge of guilt ran through her for that. She had been so terribly haughty at times. And now, now she wished she could take it back, apologize to every girl she’d ever judged.
What a change, in her life, in herself.
The doorbell shook her from her thoughts. She eyed the money on the counter, herself in the mirror. Oh well, change was painful. And this was going to hurt like hell.
Angel stood nervously next to Buffy, the chiming echo of the bell ringing in his ears. He checked his side, the bleeding had already slowed. Still, he had lost a lot of blood. Maybe that was why he felt a little off.
“We should leave, my wound’s fine. Her parents……”
“Will more than likely not be home. They rarely ever are. Xander said she has the whole place to herself practically all year. Besides, I need to check in with Giles. Let him know we spotted Mr. Slasher himself.”
Angel looked up at the big home, imagining Cordelia roaming around the big house by herself. Much like him, alone in his dilapidated mansion. “Seems lonely,” he murmured absently, about her, and maybe just a little about himself.
“Lonely?” Buffy’s eyes widened with surprise. “She has an army of servants, a palace, and every luxury a girl could wish for. Not to mention a normal life to go along with it all. Yeah, I’d give anything to be that lonely for a day.” Buffy rolled her eyes. She couldn’t believe the gall of Angel to feel sorry for Cordelia Chase, queen Bee, or rather C, of the town. The girl had everything while Buffy suffered under duty, a split family, a working mother. She exhaled an exasperated breath. Angel truly did not understand her, know her life, her suffering.
The door swung wide a little too quickly, as if Cordelia had been expecting them. But her fading smile let out the truth. She had been expecting someone else.
“Buffy,” she said only the slayer’s name with surprise, infuriating Angel.
She was doing that thing again. Averting her eyes, as if he didn’t exist. Why the hell wouldn’t she look at him? He was certainly looking at her, taking her all in. Had he thought she was beautiful at the prom? Had that been his thought? Because she was more than that now. Perfect toes peeked out from underneath the hem of her jeans. Jeans that flared and hugged in all the right places. Her t-shirt was simple, plain and white, showing off her full breasts. Her face was lovely as always, if not a little pale for her normally deep tone. Her thick mane of hair waved a frame around her face, the chestnut color resting against the stark white of the shirt. She was lovely, exquisite. Cordelia in her natural form.
He could tell she had just stepped from the shower recently and he inhaled deeply, taking in her scent of shampoo, body wash, and something else. Something entirely her.
“We were in the area and we need to use your phone,” Buffy was straight to the point, all business even though she seemed polite enough.
Cordelia’s look of surprise did not leave her face, but she stepped aside without question, shoving the wad of cash into her front jean pocket. Angel did not miss a move of it. The slight pinking of her cheeks, the shakiness of her hand. Cordelia Chase was off, not herself tonight. Her confidence gone. In its place he sensed something …….
Embarrassment? Angel thought.
Cordelia’s hand squeezed the money in her pocket for a moment. She had been expecting Xander, not the slayer and her lap dog trolling her neighborhood. She had to get rid of them before Xander showed up. The humiliation would just be too much.
Buffy’s steps slowed, she turned in a circle taking in the empty space.
“We’re remodeling,” the lie came quickly from Cordelia’s lips and she hated herself for it. Her pride taking over her good sense. She didn’t owe them an explanation.
“Must be nice,” Buffy muttered with a little too much contempt. Her sweeping eyes came back to the door. “He can’t come in until you invite him.”
“Who?” Cordelia asked.
Who? She knew goddamn well who. Angel’s temper was rising a bit. He was really getting tired of this little act.
“Angel, he can’t come in unless you invite him.”
Cordelia took a deep breath of annoyance that burned Angel even more.
“Come on in,” she seemed almost bored in her reluctant invitation, still not looking at him. She sounded as if she had given permission for Buffy to bring in her ill behaved dog. Like he wasn’t even a hum… well he wasn’t exactly a human being, and maybe that was it. The cold shoulder had started around the time when Cordelia had found out what he truly was. Maybe she was the only one of the “little group” of teens that didn’t try to fool herself into thinking he was human.
Angel’s eyes bore a whole in her, as if he could will her to look at him. Stepping across the threshold he vowed to himself that she would look at him before he left her home. Even if he wasn’t human, he certainly was no dog, no animal. And he wouldn’t be treated like one.
Cordelia, her back to both Angel and Buffy now, walked through the great foyer. “There is still a phone in the kitchen,” the cue for them to follow.
The marble flooring of the entrance gave way to a slick polished hardwood in the middle hall. All of it grand, expensive, and completely empty. Not a chair, a piece of art, nothing.
When they entered the kitchen toward the back of the home, Angel noticed it was the same as the other rooms they had passed.
He also remembered the overgrown yard.
“On the wall by the fridge,” Cordelia indicated the phone, clearly eager for them to be gone.
Angel wanted to tell Cordelia about the vampire he had found, but waited, as always, for Buffy to speak first. Besides, Cordelia wouldn’t want to hear it from him anyway. He stroked at the photos in the pocket of his coat. Waited.
“It’s dead,” Buffy punched at the buttons again. “There’s no tone at all.”
Crap. The phone bill. Cordelia felt sick. There were so many things she hadn’t thought of. Things that had always just been taken care of by others. She had no idea when it had been cut off. It had been working yesterday.
“Really?” she feigned surprise, acted as if it was not a big deal and took the phone from Buffy’s hands, punched at the buttons herself. “Guess you’re out of luck.” She placed the phone back in it’s cradle. “Shouldn’t your whole slayer package come with a cell or something now anyway?”
Buffy didn’t answer. Instead, she imparted the information she should have started with. “We were patrolling in the area and spotted a vamp in your yard. We ran him off.”
Angel was a little confused at the “we” part. But he still waited for her to finish, to tell her about the photos, to warn her.
“Don’t go out until sunrise if you don’t have to,” Buffy looked at Angel expectantly, ready to leave.
That was it? That was her warning? “Tell her about the pictures,” Angel said softly, unable to control himself.
It was the first time he had spoken since they had entered Cordelia’s house and the sound of his deep voice echoing through her parent’s kitchen sent shivers up Cordelia’s spine. Ugh! Why did he effect her that way? She tried to avoid his eyes. Tried to pretend to barely notice him. Why did he have to talk? He was usually quiet as a mouse, waiting for his master to say “Speak, Angel, speak.”
Buffy stayed silent.
“Buffy,” Angel prompted.
She took a deep breath. “Angel found photos on the ground by the vamp. He thinks maybe the vampire had them on him.”
Angel’s black boots sounded harsh on the tile floor as he walked to the bar countertop and placed the little torn squares on the granite.
Cordelia stepped over slowly, her fingers reaching out, spreading the photos for a better view. “These are from the trophy case in the school lobby,” she whispered, staring at her own smiling face. She looked up, fear in her eyes. “Why would he have these?”
Angel couldn‘t move, couldn‘t breath. For the fist time in a long time, Cordelia was looking at him. But not with a smile or laugh, not with annoyance or even anger. He wanted to take back his earlier vow of making her look at him. He had wanted her eyes on him but not like they were. Not with fear. She was terrified. And she should be. The photos meant more than either she or even Buffy realized. He looked down at her, wanting to take the worry from her, but owing her the truth. “It seems as if he’s found something he wants.”
Buffy, misunderstanding, took over the explanation. “I didn’t want to worry you. He’s just the latest in a line of Big Bads. He’s a nasty little bloodsucker who likes to……cut his victims as he feeds.” Even Buffy felt for Cordelia now. Voicing the danger made it more real somehow. And even Cordelia didn’t deserve what this vamp could do to her. “But don’t worry. Angel and I will find him. Soon he’ll be gone just like all the others. We‘ll find him and dust him. It’s what we do.” She assured her.
Angel didn’t correct Buffy’s assessment. He didn’t want to voice yet what he feared. And this show of solidarity, of them as a team was a little over the top even for Buffy. “We” ran him off, “we’ll” find him. It was as if she were trying to prove something to herself. Or to him.
“Are your parents gone again?” Buffy asked.
Cordelia nodded her head numbly.
“Good, no one will be in and out that he could use. And he can’t come in uninvited.”
Angel tried not to stare at Cordelia. This was normal life for Buffy. But for Cordelia…..she didn’t have the defenses that Buffy did.
“We’ve got to get back. Do you want to come with us?” Buffy offered. She didn’t know if she felt worse for asking, or for not really wanting Cordelia to say yes.
“No,” Cordelia was picking up one of the photos, staring at it again. She couldn’t go with them. Could she? Who would she stay with. Buffy?
Buffy hid her sigh of relief. “Take this,” she pulled out a little bottle of Holy water from her small jacket pocket. “You won’t need it, but it will give you some comfort. Don’t go out until tomorrow. I’ll send Xander or Willow to check on you with an update in the morning. We’ll find him.” She seemed confident.
Cordelia put the picture down and picked up the bottle, staring at it but not really focusing. “Don’t worry,” she answered softly, “I don’t have anywhere to go.” Of course Buffy and Angel would never know the true meaning of those words. But they truly hit Cordelia for the first time. She had no one. No where to go. No where to turn. Sure, Buffy would probably find the vampire soon and dust him. But not because he was specifically after Cordelia. It was her job, that is why she would destroy him. And Angel. Angel would help because Buffy told him to.
Buffy and Angel looked at one another, then back to Cordelia. Both unsure what to do or say. Cordelia’s strange, small responses were so unusual that it threw them both.
“Well,” Buffy finally offered. “We’ve got to go while there is still enough night to hunt him.” She turned to leave the kitchen, expecting Angel to follow. She turned to look at him and saw that he was staring at Cordelia.
“Angel,” Buffy called again.
He moved then, reluctantly, followed her through the house silently, leaving Cordelia in her kitchen. They reached the door, and still he followed her through it, to the front steps, the yard. Christ, no wonder Cordelia had treated him as if he didn’t matter, as if he were a dog to be let in the house. He was. The good, obedient dog that followed Buffy’s every order. He didn’t want to be that, didn’t want to follow her, not now. Not when Cordelia was dazed and confused in her parent’s empty house. Alone. He wanted to go back.
Angel stopped in his tracks.
Noticing, Buffy turned to him, “What is it? Do you sense him?”
“No. I’m going to stay and hunt around here. He might not have gone far and she’s all alone.”
Buffy swallowed down earlier feelings that were creeping up again. Maybe Angel had not been tracking the vampire before. “She’s not as dumb as she pretends to be. She’ll stay put. He won’t get her. Not tonight. Besides, we need to report to Giles…..”
“No,” he interrupted her, his voice quiet but strong. “You need to report to Giles.”
“Angel,” she walked back to him now. “Consulting Giles is the way I work, he provides the info, I slay. The others, Xander, Willow, and even Oz are extra eyes. We all help one another to accomplish our mission….”
“So, because your leaving soon you refuse to help?” She asked incredulously.
“No, I’m going to help. But in my own way. It‘s time I do things my way, not yours.” Angel felt a power within him at his own words. Not a vampire sense or something supernatural, but a sense of himself. He thought of all the times he had held back, fell into line with Buffy’s human friends, controlling his instinct, his power, so as not to alarm anyone. Blend in with the group as he did with the shadows.
Why? Why had he done that? For Buffy? He supposed. But that had been wrong. She wanted normal. And he was many things, but normal wasn’t one of them.
He walked a few steps to a nearby tree, leaning against the trunk. He had wanted to save her feelings. Let their goodbye at the prom be the end of things. But her following him to Cordelia’s and now this “we” business let him know she needed the truth. Needed to give herself the freedom to look for what she really wanted, what she needed.
Buffy was still as stone, her eyes the only thing following him to the tree. Here it came, the truth. The thing she had been avoiding, pushing away since he had returned from Hell. Things were different now, had been since he had turned evil and then been resouled. She waited. Quietly afraid. Afraid of the truth she already knew.
Angel paused for a few moments before he spoke, “You know, the first time I laid eyes on you I felt something stir inside me,” his voice was quiet. “I thought to myself, ‘There is my mission, my purpose. Save the girl, be the hero’. But the thing was, you didn’t need saving, Buffy. You were the hero. So I became an accessory. One of your group.”
“You were more than that,” the words came out over the knot in her throat.
He looked at her tenderly. This was the goodbye she deserved. “I hadn’t belonged to this world for a long time. But I was accepted by you, Giles, the others. Meeting you had saved me in a way. Made me want to connect again. I mistook that belonging, that closeness with love.”
Buffy was quiet and a thought came to him, a revelation. Had she ever really loved him?
“I’m not saying I don’t care about you, Buffy. But I’m not sure either of us really know what love is. Can you really look at me and say that you love me, all of me, beyond any doubt?’
Her blue eyes sparkled in the moonlight, looked straight into his. “Yes, Angel. I can,” she emphasized the last word.
He morphed then, his vampiric visage taking over his features. “Now can you?”
She became angry, “That’s not fair. That’s not you.”
“Yes, it is. To love someone you have to love all of them, Buffy. I’m not the only one that mistook feelings of belonging, of attraction, for true love. We care for one another, but we don’t love one another. Not the way we should.”
They were both silent for a moment, and then, slowly, Buffy walked to the tree, leaned against the trunk next to Angel. Both of them looked out into the night rather than at one another.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing any more,” she admitted softly. “Every time something goes wrong, when I’m feeling out of place or lost, I come to you. Why would I do that if I wasn’t in love with you?”
“Because I get it. Because I know what it’s like to be the only one of a kind. You’re the slayer. There is no one in the world that knows what that’s like. It’s why I think I felt such a strong connection to you.”
“So, this is why you’re leaving. You figured out that this isn’t it. And you want to find the real thing?”
“I want us both to find it.”
“Just not with each other.” She had real tears in her eyes now.
“No,” he whispered.
Angel was right. She knew it. Had known for a long time. But she had been unable to voice it. Unable to be the strong one.
“I need to find my own way, Buffy. My own existence. My own mission. And you need to find someone in the world who you love not despite their horrible flaws, but because you care about them so much that the flaws don’t matter.”
She looked over at him only to see him already looking at her. A tear slipped down her cheek. “What if he can’t see past mine. Can’t understand what I am?” she asked hopelessly.
“Then he wouldn’t be worthy of you,” he said as he reached over and wiped off the tear from her face.
Cordelia jumped as the doorbell rang for the second time. Hurrying down the large staircase, she held the money tightly in her hand. Quick. She would be quick and get it over with. That was how you pulled off band-aids and gave shots and set bones. All of life’s little pains were handled in that way. Quickly.
She’d give the money to Xander. Thank him for his lovely gesture. And send him on his way.
Grasping the brass handle of the front door, she opened it, ready to get rid of the quick pain of…….
“Angel?” she gasped.