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 afteryou’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 answer 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.
“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.