They hit another pothole and Gunn’s swearing gets more colorful. But it distracts them from the thunderous pecking of what must be thousands of woodpeckers in the forest around them.
“Oh, my, God!” Fred covers her thumping chest as a bird slams into her window.
“Okay, I know I sound like a five year old, but are we there yet because I need to kill something now.” Gunn twists the stake in his hand, any splinters finding it impossible to penetrate the one big callous that makes up this man’s palm.
“We’ll be there soon,” Connor’s voice is calm. “Killing sounds good to me.”
“No!” Cordy twists in her seat to face them, her eyes true and fierce. “Connor, you will stay in the car. Gunn, you will make sure he stays put.”
Cordy breaks from Connor’s glare during Gunn’s objection.
“What? You want me to baby sit? Huh-uh. I didn’t ride in this lumpy back seat without the necessary and legally required rest stops this long to stand by and watch.”
“You rode all this way to save Angel and you will be doing that if you keep Connor safe.”
For a moment she thinks Gunn will give in. Be the soldier he’s always been and take his orders. She begins to turn back around when he proves her wrong.
“I don’t know who put you in charge, but I didn’t have a vote.”
She settles back in her seat and faces forward before she speaks.
“Neither did I.” She hears a small derisive snort from the back but nothing more. Maybe he remembers the involuntary Jasmine possession and feels guilty or maybe he remembers all the years she suffered as a seer. It doesn’t matter what triggers it – guilt or respect – but she knows Gunn will do what she asks.
It’s not that she has faith in him or any of them; they’re just predictable.
They make one more right turn at Connor’s instructions driving another mile or two into a forest that feels as thick as the sap from the pines surrounding them. The car slips and grinds as if the dirt road has absorbed the blackness and morphed into hot tar.
The air inside the Plymouth is heavy with sweat and silence, everyone busy peering into the dark looking for a sign.
It comes at a crossroads.
A wolf – stark white in the pitch – faces them unflinching. Gold eyes flash red and they stop.
“This is it.” They expect the words from Connor but it is Cordy who sounds sure.
“How do you know?” Wes’s gaze remains fixed on the wolf.
For the first time since her return, she looks at Wes as she speaks. “I’m Cordelia.” Her old voice surprises even herself and she smiles. It’s that picture – one from a past almost forgotten – that Wesley sees as he finally turns.
“Of course,” his smile almost creaks from neglect as it widens. “You don’t think –”
“I know,” She finishes for him. For a moment, their eyes lock and dance with memories of the people they were. People they liked and loved. People they would have both died for.
Then Connor speaks and the present crashes back.
“What happens now?”
Cordy dips her head, breaking the contact with Wesley, and clears her throat.
“Well, what happens now is that you all stay here and don’t follow me.”
At once, the car is filled with voices, one over the other with protests and questions.
Finally, Wesley hushes them all with his straightforward manner. “Cordelia, you can’t seriously expect us to sit back and do nothing.”
Cordy can’t believe he left himself wide open with that one. She wants to say something like “Why not, it’s what you do best,” or “It’s what you did all last month, you should be experts at it by now.” But even though these people are not her family anymore, she doesn’t want what could be her last words to them to be cruel.
For old time’s sake. For the people they all once were.
“Listen, I know what I’m doing. I’ve had some visions, okay? I know what needs to be done, and, lucky me, I’m the only one that can do it. It’s a piece of cake. As creepy as this place seems, it’s all show, guys. Kind of like the Wizard behind the curtain.”
She hopes that her old Cordy voice will assure them. And it does, except for Connor. He doesn’t really know the old Cordy so she isn’t that successful at pulling one over on him.
“You’re lying,” he says.
Part of her wants to smile and tell him, “Smart boy. Don’t trust anybody.” But it’s too late for motherly lessons and reassuring praise. It’s just too late.
“I’m not lying. It’s a test for one and I’m the lucky one. If anyone else interferes, Angel could be lost forever. Now everyone just stay here. If everything goes as it should…well, you’ll be heading home with a full load very soon.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Fred asks.
Cordy knows that Fred really doesn’t want the truth. She wants the kindness of a lie so she doesn’t have to feel guilty about surviving. She knows a thing or two about survivor’s guilt so Cordy does the kind thing.
“That’s not an option.”
The moment she opens the car door the earsplitting pecking stops. One second the woods are alive with a noise so loud it could wake the dead and the next it as silent as a tomb.
Cordy finds the large stone sitting off the road past the crossroads just as her vision said it would be. As she approaches the fork in the road, the wolf leads her and pauses by the rock just before disappearing into the vapor to make sure she doesn’t miss it.
Now she can barely make out the shadow of the Plymouth down the road but only because there’s an occasional thinning of the fog. Most of the time, there’s nothing but an inky spot in the already dense black night.
“Okay, here goes. But I warn you, I can’t sing.”
She begins to hum the music that was burned into her brain during the last vision. Even to her almost tone deaf ears, it sounds like the saddest song ever created. It feels like the music of lovers who will never be allowed to touch or kiss or even know how much they’re loved.
She closes her eyes and concentrates. Her body begins to rock side to side to the lazy rhythm. A wind gusts through her insides, hallowing out anything left. Without knowing it, she begins to cry from the loss of something she never had.
“Enough already. My ears are bleeding.”
Cordy’s eyes open and she blinks repeatedly. “Angel?”
He smiles. No. Not Angel. Just another false god.
“Oops, sorry to disappoint. I just thought you might want something nice to look at while we negotiate.”
Still, she wishes it hadn’t taken Angel’s form. But she should have guessed. It did slink around in her brain seeking her weaknesses and found her biggest one.
“Thanks for that. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself by vomiting all over your cloven hoofs.”
“Ha!” It cackles, throwing back Angel’s head and bearing Angel’s teeth. It really has his fake laugh down pat.
“Good one, Cor.”
“Word of advice, Beelzebubba. Don’t use that name again,” she grinds out.
“Oh, touchy.” Instantly, the form hardens, the eyes shifting from Angel’s warm brown to hot red. “But maybe you should remember who you’re dealing with, Lucia, and why you came. I think it’s you who wants something from me.”
“Now who’s touchy? And what’s with the Lucia crap? The name’s Cordelia Chase.”
“Yes, I know. Forgive my waxing poetic with the ‘Lucia crap’ as you put it. Comparing you to the saint of visions was a huge error on my part.”
“Damn skippy. I’m no saint and apparently never really meant to be a seer. So strike two for you.”
Fred had told her the yarn Skip wove about her life basically not being her own from who knows when. But she doesn’t buy it. She knows that even if she was somehow manipulated to be in the right place at the right time, she remembers making the decisions. She blames no one but herself for the course her life took.
But she’s not sure it knows this. How deep did it go inside her mind?
It is beginning to look less and less like Angel and more like Angelus as the smile becomes slimy and contemptuous. “Yes, that whole hijacking your life thing really sucked for you. But look on the bright side. It all led you here to me and you finally get to do what you’ve always wanted – save Angel’s soul.”
Disdain colors its voice and she’s glad the words make him a little sick. She’s happier still to find out it doesn’t know everything about her.
“Saving Angel’s soul is a perk. But you should know better than that. What I’ve always wanted is to be rich and famous. You planning on helping me out with that?”
A course tongue licks the lips she has longed to kiss for what seems like years, but this thing isn’t preparing for an emotional reunion. Avarice obviously appeals. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One bargain at a time and the one on the table is your soul for Angel’s.”
“I thought that one was already done. I’m here aren’t I? Although I’ve got to ask why you’d want me in place of Angel. He’s a champion of The Powers. Gotta be a coup for you.”
That noise coming from Angel’s face almost makes her laugh, but she’s determined not to give this thing an inch in its favor.
“Angel’s a demon, soul or no soul. He’ll be back. The Powers,” it says mocking their name, “have no intention of granting him humanity. He’s a sucker.”
“So why take him at all?”
“I didn’t plan it. Just a happy little coinkydink. His son goes bonkers over killing his own daughter and losing all that ‘love and acceptance'” it air quotes, “and daddy dearest comes to me with an offer. Take all the anger and pain from the boy, make him forget it all, and he’ll gladly join me in hell.”
Cordy isn’t surprised by this. She had pretty much figured out why Angel had come once she saw that Connor truly seemed concerned about his father. It was too much of a personality change to be natural.
“I gotta tell ya, at first I didn’t see any advantage for me,” it continued. “But I imagined the natural progression of events and voila! Here you are!”
It almost claps its hands in glee which is a disturbing image coming from Angel’s body.
“I’m still not following. How am I a better catch than Angel? I’m nothing.”
“Oh, you really are down on yourself, aren’t you? Tsk, tsk. You’re a former higher power! Think about it. I get a higher power who happens to be a seer and the champion of The Powers – eventually – without even lifting a finger. I call that a homerun.”
It’s right. She really had forgotten all about the higher planes. Well, not so much forgotten as passed it off as not real. Just a way to get her into Jasmine’s world so she could hitch a ride. That made her a fool but nothing resembling a higher power as far as she could tell.
But if this thing valued her stupidity that highly, she wouldn’t argue with him since that seemed to be the only thing she had to negotiate with.
“Well, aren’t you the lucky little devil? Since I’m so valuable, I don’t guess you’ll object to a few conditions of my own.”
“I think I just said too much, didn’t I?” It feigns a sigh and flicks a limp wrist. “Oh, well. Go ahead, make your demands. But…”
It circles slowly coming to a stop close behind her and lays Angel’s hands on her shoulders. She feels its fingers begin to clamp and dig into her bones. Her knees shake as it leans in, Angel’s mass like an anvil on her back, to whisper in her ear.
“…Be careful what you wish for.”
Cordy immediately regrets making this request. She hadn’t wanted to remember Angel like the beast she’s just been bargaining with. She wanted to see the man she knew – the person she loved more than she hated herself – one last time.
She thinks she must be desensitized to the body that was a moment ago inhabited by evil or maybe she realizes only at that instant just how much loving him has destroyed her, because all she can muster up for the man who stands in front of her now is rage.
“Cordy?” Angel’s voice is weak and matches the sag of his shoulders and sunken chest. He reaches for her but she stops him with a slap across his shocked face so hard he staggers back.
“This, Angel?” Her arms sweep over the deserted road as her eyes scan the vast darkness around them. “Really? Stupid doesn’t begin to cover it. Moronic, retarded, the actions of an imbecile? Still not even close.”
“Wha…why? I’m…I don’t remember.” He tries to shake off her hit as well as his muddled thoughts.
“Oh, that old gem! I think we’re all up to here with the ‘amnesia’ excuse.”
When all he does is look at her with that wet, glazed stare that says he’s truly as ignorant as he looks, she crumbles and falls back limply onto the rock behind her. Her body finally feels as tired as her soul.
“God, Angel. I know why you did it, but damn it! There were other options. And I thought you’d learned with Darla that you aren’t alone. You have us! You have…me.”
He can only shake his head, still confused, and her chest fills with dank air tinged with sulfur as she heaves a sigh and drops her head in her hands.
A lone woodpecker machine guns its beak into a pine somewhere out there – in the dark.
He moves forward slowly, a kicked puppy with its nose and tail down begging forgiveness. For what, he’s not sure at the moment, but he trusts Cordy enough to know whatever he’s done probably wasn’t the best idea he’s ever had.
“I…I’m sorry. I really don’t know what happened. Cor…” His arm stretches toward her once more, tentative, still weak and shaking. He straightens suddenly and stops. “Connor,” the word gasped as if his final dying one.
The forest stills and she tilts her head up at the sound of the name that blasts at her as if from a bullhorn.
Funny, she thinks, how much it hurts that Connor is the first thing he remembers. Not her. Not what he did to her. Not that he abandoned and bled her or that he even for a second believed she could betray him like that thing did.
No matter what she ever was or ever could be to him, she would never come close to the place in his heart he has for that boy.
Connor – the son who tossed him in an ocean to live an eternity alone and insane. The child who has done nothing but revile and curse his father since he stepped out of hell. A being whose every waking thought for the past 18 years has been revenge upon the man who gave him life.
Cordy laugh-grunts low in her throat. It amazes her that she is only now realizing something so fundamental.
No matter what he does, Angel will always put Connor above all others – even her. She knows this intellectually. His child should be first and last in his thoughts always. And once upon a time, that deep, unconditional love Angel had for his son made her go soft in her belly. To see someone so strong be made weak by that love was beautiful and, she thought, proof of Angel’s growing humanity. What she’d always wanted for him.
But now, she admits to herself, she’s not a person who can stand coming in second. She doesn’t like watching the man she is willing to die for not look at her with even half the desperate love she sees in his eyes as he franticly seeks a glimpse of his son
No, she isn’t cut out to be a second love or a second thought.
She fleetingly wonders if that’s the real Cordy in her surging forward or remnants of Jasmine still sleeping in her veins.
It doesn’t matter. It’s who she is now.
Watching Angel twirl around in place, she feels a jealousy so strong she has to fight the urge to rush at him and pull the stake from her back and split him open with it.
Her mind and body are ice cold hard – like the stone beneath her.
“Cor, where is he? Is he here? Is he okay?” Angel touches her arm.
Nothing. She feels nothing. His touch used to make her spin inside – used to set her on fire. Make her feel like a jumbled up puppet of a woman hungry for his arms to hold her up on wobbly knees and pull her close. His massive hands to steady her while he torched her mouth with those lips.
The same lips that she once ached for are now mumbling the name Connor over and over again, worried and anxious, and not her name with the passion and need she craves.
Then it hits. The epiphany she wasn’t aware she needed courses throughout her body. The frigid layer holding her blood still cracks – like a marble left out in the desert sun suddenly tossed into ice water – and the truth flows through her flushing her skin pink.
And with the transformation comes the peace of acceptance. This is right. She has no desire to be this pseudo Cordelia and she also knows there’s no going back. She is beyond the point of returning to the life they had – the people they were.
But even still, there is a niggling hope – a tiny flicker of light and heat as she looks at the man she once imagined spending the rest of her life with and knows she loves even now somewhere in her core.
She has to know for sure or squash it forever.
She stands and speaks loudly, not wanting to ever wonder if he heard her or not. “Angel? Do you ever wonder…do you ever think about that night…?”
Angel stops his motion but doesn’t look at her. His eyes remain focused on the edge of the darkness – seeking his son. “What? What are you talking about? Where’s Connor?”
That’s it then. She has no regrets and the evil below was wrong. She wished for the right things after all – to see Angel one more time and as for the rest…
“Connor’s in the car, Angel. Straight down the road about 30 yards.” She points him in the right direction. “The rest of the guys are waiting for you, too.”
He hesitates for a moment, as if it’s too good to be true. And then he begins to run.
Cordy watches him and feels the pain lessen with each step he takes away from her. He stops after a few seconds and turns around.
“Come on. Let’s go home.” He waves her forward. The last thing she sees is that smile.
“Go ahead. I’m right behind you.” She smiles back and he believes her.
He hesitates one more time but only to say, “Thank you.” Then he turns and before she can blink he disappears past the knife’s edge between dark and light.
She whispers, “You’re welcome,” and closes her eyes.
“Connor!” Angel can see a glint off the Plymouth’s bumper and speeds up.
The passenger door opens. A large bulk of a man unfolds from the back. Instantly Angel knows it must be Gunn. Behind him, Connor – agile and fluid – steps out and faces him. Even from a distance in this pitch darkness, Angel recognizes the blue of his son’s eyes.
It only takes a few seconds before he is there. He stops inches away, aching to wrap his arms around him, but knowing it’s not what they do – yet.
Angel sees the hesitation in his son’s awkward shuffle. There’s always a pain in his chest at the sight of his child so unsure. But his heart lifts along with the quirk of Connor’s lips as they turn up slowly and he says softly, “Dad.”
Connor says the word as if each time they meet he has to avow their relationship to make it real.
“Son,” Angel returns, to confirm and assure Connor of his place in this world and his life.
“Great!” Gunn claps his hands once and pushes Connor into the backseat. “Now that the touching family reunion is over, let’s blow this burg. Angel, you get in the back with Connor. I’m shotgun.”
For once Angel has no complaints – even when he sees Wesley driving. He simply nods and settles next to Connor as Gunn jumps in and slams the door.
“Pump it, English. I’m hungry, dirty, cold and I’ve gotta pee.”
Wesley turns the key. The Plymouth’s engine roars to life waking up every living creature in the forest around them. Flickering lightening bugs, croaking tree frogs and the whishing wings of crows surround them as the car slowly begins to turn around.
“Wait!” Wesley instinctively brakes at Connor’s voice.
“What now, kid?” Gunn swivels in his seat to face him. “We came, we rescued, time for the leaving portion of the mission.”
“What about Cordy?”
Gunn looks questioningly at Angel and Fred on either side of Connor and lastly at Wes. In sequence they all shake their heads just as confused.
“Who’s Cordy?” Angel asks Connor. “Did you get a concussion or something in the fight?”
Gunn lets out a puff of air and turns back around in his seat. “Let’s go. The kid must be losin’ it.”
Wesley sagely agrees and turns the wheel sharply and eases them back on the road home.
In the back, Connor twists around and peers out the window toward the crossroads as it fades in the dirt and gravel swirling from their tires.
A part of him wants to scream at them to stop and turn around. They’re leaving the best part of them in all that dust and they don’t even know it.
But something bigger – something that says he has all he’s supposed to have – all he deserves – makes him turn back around and away from the empty road behind.
He feels a hand squeeze his knee and looks to his right at his father’s strong profile. He knows he can’t give him up again. Not one more time. Not even for Cordy.
He bites his lip and concentrates on the one-way path ahead.
The moment Angel disappears from her sight, its presence sneaks into her brain like a sidewinder.
And the wolf is back.
She is suddenly scared. It’s so quiet except for the hiss in her brain.
She’s been on her own for so long now, this desolation should feel like snuggling under an electric blanket at bedtime.
But she doesn’t want to be by herself. Not really. Not for eternity.
“Will there be others like me there? Is there a place in hell for people who loved too much?”
It laughs the same ominous rattle that she heard not long ago from Connor. The sound should give her chills, but all she feels is redeemed.
“Trust me. You won’t be alone.”
– The End –
Thanks, once more, to Samsmom for the wonderful prompt that inspired me to write.
Angel’s soul is taken from him and Cordelia must find the devil to get it back. So she goes to the crossroads at midnight in some dusty little county in Oklahoma or Arkansas (because it wouldn’t be the same as California) on Halloween and makes a bargain.