Cordelia stared at Wesley.
She had seen what Adam had done. She understood the repercussions. She could see the room around her — an Initiative chamber, sterile and cold. Everything around her — the pale blue dust that had been Naiura, the sleeping form of Acathla, even the long fall of her own uncut hair across her back — told her that she was trapped in the world of Winter. But she couldn’t quite believe it.
“There has to be something we can do,” she said. “You have to tell me, if there is.” Wesley didn’t want the realities to change, so he might not tell her the truth — she knew too well that Wesley could lie if he thought he had to.
But when Wesley slowly shook his head, she knew he was telling the truth. “Adam’s blood sealed the portal,” he said. “That makes his reality senior to the one you remember. And without Acathla, I know of no other way to restore your reality.” His voice was softer as he continued, “I’m sorry, Cordelia. But this is your reality now.”
This is reality, Cordelia thought. And everything that matters to me in my life — my visions, my mission, the Angel I know — it’s all gone.
Dust and ashes.
She raised a shaking hand to her mouth, trying to hold in the scream, because if she started screaming, she didn’t think she would ever stop.
“Cordy?” Angel put one hand on his shoulder. “Cordy, I’m sorry. I — I wanted it too.”
Angel had wanted a reality he never knew. Cordelia had destroyed the only reality she ever wanted.
A thousand precious moments, so mundane, so simple — all gone forever, slipping from her life like an hourglass’ sand, leaving her hollow: Holding baby Connor in the sunlight of the Hyperion courtyard, Angel watching them from the shadows with a smile on his face. Giggling with Fred over strawberry daiquiris at Caritas. Riding along the Sunset Strip on the back of Wesley’s motorcycle. Dancing with Gunn in a parking lot, lit by the headlights of his truck, running down the batteries as they listened to the radio —
It hit her like a rush of cold water. “Gunn,” she gasped. “He’s hurt. We have to get to him.”
“Let’s go,” Angel said. Wesley said nothing, but instantly, all three of them were running their hardest, back toward the elevator shaft. Cordelia didn’t look back at Acathla, just ran.
I have to get to Charles, she thought. I can get to Charles, I can save him, I can fix it, I have to fix it —
The elevator shaft hadn’t been very easy to shimmy down, but Cordelia realized she didn’t have the first idea how to get back up. She hadn’t thought she would have to get back up. Angel leapt onto the cables, clasping them in his strong hands. “Grab onto my back,” he said. “Come on.”
“I’ll take the stairs,” Wesley said. His voice sounded so far away. Cordelia didn’t turn to acknowledge him, just took a running leap and grabbed Angel. Her arm went hard around his neck, and she grimaced before remembering that Angel didn’t have to breathe.
Angel began climbing, preternaturally fast, hand over hand. If her weight troubled him, Cordelia couldn’t tell. It felt almost as if she were floating up through the darkness, almost as if she could fly once more.
But she never would, never would —
At last Angel swung out through one of the open doors, sending them both sprawling onto the floor. Gunn lay there, silent and still.
No, Cordelia thought, unable to come up with anything but that one word. No.
Then she saw, ever so slightly, his chest rise and fall.
Angel said, “I hear his heartbeat — it’s weak, but it’s steady.”
She let out a sob she hadn’t realized she was holding in. “We have to get him to a hospital, Angel. Now.”
Angel began gathering Gunn up in his arms; Gunn didn’t stir. Cordelia touched his brow briefly, feeling how cool and clammy his skin was. She whispered, “You’ll go faster without me.” Angel only nodded and ran, so fast he was only a blur in the darkness, carrying Gunn away to help.
Cordelia sank back down to the floor. She’d wept so often since she first awoke in this reality, but now, when her grief was greatest, she had no tears. No feeling. Nothing.
Gunn’s blood was in a pool on the floor. Her hands were still stained red.
“Cordelia?” She half-turned to see Wesley standing there, out of breath. “What’s happened?”
“He’s alive.” Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper. “Angel has him.”
Wesley took her arm and began steering her toward the stairs. “We must leave, and quickly,” he said. “The Initiative troops will attempt to reclaim their compound soon.”
Of course. This world she’d made had a future. It had consequences she’d have to live with. “All right,” she said slowly. And she let Wesley lead her up and out, into a world of ice.
“I wish we’d figured out the world wasn’t ending just a little sooner,” Buffy said as she tromped out into the snow. The others all followed her, making the best time they could through the snowdrifts.
“Lemme guess,” Faith said. “You wish we’d figured it out before you cried and told me I made you a better person.”
“Also before I hugged Riley,” Buffy said. “Way before that.”
“You figure the Powers will give me credit for good intentions?” Doyle said. He seemed more relieved than not, Buffy realized; why had she assumed that it was easy for him to give up his life? He was braver than she’d thought. “Then again, you never know with the Powers. They might be furious, or this might be what they’d intended all along.”
“It wasn’t,” Jenny said quietly. She trudged along, far behind the rest, looking down at the snowy ground.
“I was kinda counting on not getting court-martialed,” Riley said. “I’m gonna need to lay low for a while.”
“No prob,” Buffy said. “We can hide you. Besides, I have a feeling they’re gonna be too busy trying to figure out which way is up for a while to worry about coming after you.”
Lorne looked up at the sky — graying with the coming dawn — and quirked his mouth. “Hey, guys, I was just wondering. Does it feel any warmer out here to you?”
Buffy frowned. She had been feeling a little overheated in her parka, but she often did right after a fight. But now that Lorne mentioned it — “It is warmer. I mean, not warm — but it’s warmer.”
“Look,” Doyle said, pointing to a palm tree nearby. Frost and ice still coated it, but at the tips of the fronds, water droplets were forming. As Buffy watched, a drop fell into the snow, melting a tiny patch. “The ice is melting. I got the idea it wasn’t much in the habit of doing that, not in these parts.”
Jenny finally lifted her head. “The spell that created the Winter — it was tied to Adam. If Angel and Cordelia succeeded in killing him –“
“The spell would be broken,” Buffy said. She stared at the water now dripping from the palm and felt a wide, silly grin spreading across her face. “Does this mean what I think it means?”
“Winter’s over,” Jenny said, and even she had to smile.
“Better than that,” Riley said. He stopped in his tracks, staring at the dissolving snow beneath the palm. “The spell — it linked Adam and the Hellmouth. Permanently, I think. So if Adam’s dead — then –“
Faith’s jaw dropped. “You don’t mean — holy shit, Lee, do NOT get our hopes up about this if you’re not sure.”
“I’m not sure!” Riley said quickly. “But I think that — just maybe — potentially — the Hellmouth is closed. Forever. Maybe.”
Buffy began to laugh from sheer joy, and she jumped with all her strength into the air, far above the others’ heads. It felt like it was just her, soaring in the morning light.
She’d thought it was the end of the world, when it was just the beginning.
Wesley was relieved to learn that Charles Gunn was expected to live: Though he had lost a great deal of blood, he’d escaped severe injury to any major organs. He was mostly relieved for Cordelia’s sake; she was pale and shaking, a shadow of the vibrant woman he’d come to know in so short a time.
Apparently Angel had stayed long enough to learn about Gunn’s condition and no longer; he was gone before Wesley and Cordelia arrived. To Wesley’s surprise, Cordelia agreed to go back to her hotel room and get some rest. This left him on his own — before two days ago, not an unusual circumstance for him. But Wesley felt somewhat lonely as he made his way back through the slushy streets. Even the evidence of the thaw and the potential for the Hellmouth’s end didn’t quite cheer him.
This is the reality I wanted, he reminded himself. Jenny’s still alive, and Adam is dead; the Initiative cannot long survive without him. So why do I feel so — hollow?
In the world Cordelia had known — the world that was lost forever — Wesley had been a man with a mission of his own. And he had to admit, he still wanted to know what that felt like.
Then you’ll just have to make it happen here, he told himself. He hadn’t the slightest idea how to begin, but even the resolution made him feel a little stronger.
The uplifted feeling lasted all the way back to Sunnydale High, through the corridors and into the library. It dissipated in an instant, as he walked through the door and saw Jenny Calendar. The memory of what he’d done during their last moments alone together flooded through him, flushing his cheeks.
But the pained, faraway look in her eyes quickly erased his embarrassment. Jenny was hurting. Nothing else mattered. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
“No, you’re not,” she said, her voice devoid of anger. “This is the world you wanted.”
Only because you are in it, he wanted to say. Instead he replied, “I’m sorry you’re in pain. I know how badly you wanted to give Giles another chance at life.”
“I know a thousand kinds of magic,” Jenny said. “And not one that truly reverses death. So I should have known better than to believe in all this.”
“You were right to believe. It was real. We just — failed.” Wesley remembered Adam’s body, silhouetted against the unnatural light of Acathla. “Adam understood what was going on far better than we did. He died to preserve the last few years of the life he’d had.”
They were quiet together for a while. Wesley finished peeling off his cold-weather gear, perhaps, he thought for the last time. No doubt it would take a few weeks for Sunnydale’s climate to return to normal, but perhaps they’d seen their last snow. He felt his hopes unfurling again, gaining strength despite his exhaustion and Jenny’s melancholy.
“I guess that’s one reason I was willing to die,” Jenny finally said. “I haven’t really had a life worth preserving, since Giles died.” She looked over at Wesley, straightening up as she did so. “And that’s not because Giles died. That’s because of me.”
“Jenny — you mustn’t blame yourself.”
“I don’t,” she said. “What happened was horrible. I did my best. But my best of two years ago doesn’t have to be the best I can do forever.”
Wesley wasn’t quite sure what to say. His face must have betrayed his emotion, because Jenny frowned at him. “This does NOT mean I’m about to come move in with you.”
“Oh. Heavens. No.” Wesley found himself thinking about the damp towel he’d left on the bathroom floor — so sloppy —
“But, you know, if a certain person were to ask another person out for coffee sometime — we could see.”
Jenny went out the door without another word. Wesley wasn’t sure whether to feel shocked, worried or happy. Probably, he thought, a little of all of the above.
“Oh,” Buffy said. “You’re home.”
Angel was sitting in the small chair at his desk; he still had on his leather coat and looked more like a visitor than someone who lived there. She closed the door carefully behind her, mostly because it gave her something to do besides meeting his eyes.
Buffy sat on the edge of the bed — gingerly, as though she’d never slept there before. She and Angel were both silent for a while. At last, she said, “So, do you feel as weird as I do?”
“At least,” Angel said. She did look at him then, and his faint smile helped, just a little.
“Winter’s over,” Buffy said. “The Hellmouth might even be closed.”
“I’m glad,” Angel said. “I mean it.” When she raised an eyebrow, he added, “I wanted that other reality, because I wanted the mission I had there. That doesn’t mean that walking away was easy. It was anything but easy. If we made this reality a better place, then we must have done the right thing.”
And wasn’t there some truth to that? Buffy realized that, if they hadn’t tried to shift realities in the first place, they’d never have killed Adam and ended the Winter. She sighed, half-relieved and half-surprised. “Things never turn out the way you think, do they?”
“Not in my experience,” Angel said.
“What went wrong?” Buffy asked.
“Adam wanted this reality. Even if he wasn’t going to be alive to see it — he wanted to exist longer in its past. He wanted his memories, I guess.” Maybe it was the mention of memories that made Angel’s face shift slightly. “I don’t think Cordelia’s taking it very well.”
“Not every day you blow your own reality and lose your boyfriend all at once,” Buffy said.
She meant it only as a jibe; for all the raging jealousy that had torn at her when she’d discovered the other reality’s Angel was involved with Cordelia, she realized she’d never truly doubted this Angel’s love. That made it all the more jolting when Angel ducked his head and said, “Buffy — about Cordy — I mean, Cordelia and me –“
“I don’t want to know,” Buffy said quickly. She thought about it for a moment, then repeated. “No. I don’t want to know. The last day or so has been — weird. Beyond weird. People do strange stuff when they think the world is ending.”
Whatever it was Angel was about to confess, she’d said enough to silence him. He just nodded, and they sat without speaking for another few moments.
Buffy saw two paths in front of them. One led back toward the past. The other led toward a future that was more uncertain, and yet warmer than any she’d expected to see. Choosing between them was one of the hardest things she’d ever had to do — yet her path was clear. “Angel, I’m sorry if I hurt you yesterday. But what I said — I meant it. I have to learn how to live without you. So I guess that means — ” Buffy looked at the ceiling, trying to keep tears from spilling. “I think we should split up. I mean, stay split up.”
“I think you’re right,” Angel said. “I hate it. But I see it too.”
Buffy closed her eyes tightly shut. “That’s not what you’re supposed to say, you know,” she said, feebly trying to joke. “You’re supposed to be all upset. Maybe put your fist through the wall. Something like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Angel replied. She looked down to see that he was attempting to smile. “I don’t know my lines.”
“I know why I need out,” Buffy said. “I have to make my life work on my own, or it’s never gonna work with anyone else. Even with you. But why do you need out, Angel? I know I’ve been harsh with you sometimes — I hate it when I do, you know that, right?”
“I know. I do know. Buffy, you’ve been doing your best. It’s been tough. I understand that. Never think I don’t understand.” His voice was kind.
“Then why?” Buffy hated the break in her voice, but the old, terrifying weight was on her again, the same plaintive refrain in her heart: Don’t go, don’t go, don’t leave me. Even now, when she knew she’d sent him away, she couldn’t stop herself from being frightened that he was going. “Do you — just not want me to love you anymore?”
“No. God, no.” Angel covered his face with his hands for a moment, then said, “Buffy, I don’t want you to hate me. And if we keep going on like this, you will.”
He was right, and she knew it. Buffy couldn’t hold back the tears any longer; she wiped at her cheeks as she said, “I know it has to be over. But I’m so glad, Angel — so glad — that it happened. If it hadn’t been for you, I never would have made it.” She’d always known that. But she hadn’t thought about it in so long.
Angel was crying too, now, something she’d rarely seen; the sight of the tears in his eyes tore at her, made her sob. He said only, “You saved me.”
Buffy couldn’t stop crying for a while after that; she didn’t think Angel could either, although she was weeping too hard to be sure. The world was hazy before her tear-clouded eyes. As soon as she trusted herself to speak, she said, “So now what do we do?”
“I guess — I guess I should leave.” Angel stood up, as awkward as he had been the first few times they’d met. “You can have the apartment, if you want it.”
Buffy started to protest; she still thought of the apartment as his, not theirs, and certainly not hers. Then she tried to think where else she might go, and she couldn’t come up with anyplace. The house on Revello Drive had been sold years ago. “I don’t want to throw you out on the street,” she said.
“You won’t,” Angel said. “I can always find a place. There’s this old mansion on Crawford Street — I’ve looked at it before. It’ll do for a while, anyway.”
“Then I guess you’ll go to Los Angeles,” Buffy said. “With Cordelia.”
She said it without bitterness; to her, it seemed like the logical next step. Angel blinked, then shook his head — in confusion rather than anything else. “I don’t know. I can’t think about that yet.”
“You need to get your stuff,” Buffy said. She got up from the bed and smoothed back her hair. “I’m gonna clear out of here for a few hours. So — take your time. Do what you need to do.”
“Okay.” They stared at each other for a moment. Strangers once more. She remembered a long-ago night at the Bronze, when they’d kissed each other goodbye. Buffy hadn’t really known what goodbye felt like then. She knew now.
She slid her arms around him and hugged him tightly. Angel returned the embrace, burying his face in her neck. For one instant, she felt her resolve waver — felt how easy, how familiar, how sweet it would be to kiss him, take him back, smooth it all over. She knew she could do it, even now.
But it wouldn’t be fair to Angel. And it wouldn’t be fair to herself.
“Goodbye,” she said. “Goodbye.” And before he could answer her, before she even had time to look in his eyes, Buffy darted out the door. She ran down the steps, through the slushy streets, her tears shielding her eyes from the brilliant sunlight on the melting snow.
Riley woke up slowly; at first, he was only aware that the sheets he was sleeping on were scratchier than usual, which was saying something, considering that he was used to army-issue. Then he smelled tobacco — not so recent — and sex — very recent. He grinned and opened his eyes.
Faith wasn’t lying next to him. He could still see the dent in the pillow where her head had been.
She’s probably enjoying the sunshine, he told himself. Given the enthusiasm with which she made up for lost time in other areas — he stretched and felt the soreness in his back and thighs — she was no doubt sunbathing nude on the roof of the hotel.
They’d toasted the survival of their reality, as well as Adam’s death, with a bottle of cheap champagne at noon. Then they’d had sex for the fourth, fifth and sixth times before Riley had finally fallen asleep. He glanced at the clock; it was still only 6 p.m. Plenty of time for more celebrating. He laughed as started looking for his clothes; between hiding from the Initiative and staying with Faith, he was pretty sure he didn’t need them. But it was fun letting her take them off.
Right around the time he found the first sock, Faith came swinging through the door. She grinned at him. “You’re not gonna believe what I just bought,” she said, by way of greeting.
Riley smiled. “Is it flavored?”
“Get a load of Captain Cornfed. Beneath that vanilla exterior is a core of pure — French vanilla,” Faith said. “Get a shoe on and get into the parking lot. Don’t worry. I figure even the Initiative ain’t desperate enough to hang out at this dump.”
He got dressed enough to step outside the door, where he saw — “It’s a motorcycle,” he said.
“Check it OUT,” Faith said, grinning as she circled it. “I had some money in a bank account Giles made me start way back when. Turns out if you don’t make a withdrawal for two years, interest can really build up. Bought this baby with a roll of cash so big, you’d’ve thought the salesman was gonna choke when he saw it.”
She would have had a few dollars left over, Riley realized, looking at her clothes. They looked like thrift-store stuff — faded jeans, battered boots, a flannel shirt big enough for someone twice her size. But they were hers now, chosen and paid for, which was surely the point. “Looks dangerous,” he said. “Like its owner.”
“Sweet talker.” Faith said. She gave him a smile that had to be half-responsible for the ice that was still melting all around them. “I’m gonna get on this baby and fly. Just head to the coast and take it from there.”
“Are you taking any passengers on this ride?” Riley said. He’d assumed the invitation would be forthcoming; that was the only reason he’d asked. But when her smile fell, he felt the bite of the cold air once more. “Oh.” “Lee — I ain’t been alone for years. Not alone for real. I always had people watching me, telling me what to do, where to go. I’ve been locked up. I don’t want to be locked up for a while.” Faith shifted on her feet. “You run a real sweet jail. But I can’t deal with any keys for a while. You know?”
Riley thought back over the past 48 hours and wondered how much of it was real, and how much of it was desperation — the crush of one world about to end, the exhilaration of sudden and temporary freedom. For himself, he didn’t have to ask. But he had to remind himself that making love to Faith didn’t mean he knew her. Apparently he hadn’t known her at all.
“I’ll miss you,” he said. She shrugged, trying very hard to look nonchalant as she straddled the bike. “I might come back,” Faith said. “Sometime. You never know.”
“No,” Riley said. “You never do.”
Cordelia sat in the cast-iron chair at the Bronze, staring at her wineglass. She’d thought she wanted a drink, but one sip reminded her why that was a bad idea, at least at the Bronze. Instead, she just stared at the way the lights reflected on its pale golden surface.
The Bronze was jumping tonight; it wasn’t as packed as she remembered it in the old days, but at least a decent portion of Sunnydale’s population realized that their luck was changing along with the weather. In another few days, she imagined, they’d be partying in the streets — as soon as they trusted the new world they saw in front of their eyes.
She remembered a different world, one nobody had ever seen or would ever see: Angel pressing a roll of money into her hand, so she could go be happy with Groo. Gunn spilling out his heart to her as they paced in a hospital waiting room. Wesley sipping coffee drinks with her on a park bench in the sunshine. All those moments existed only in her own heart now. There and nowhere else.
“Hey there.” Cordelia looked up, startled, to see Buffy standing there, beer in hand. “Didn’t expect to see you here.”
Cordelia couldn’t think of any response besides, “Where did you expect to see me?”
Buffy shrugged. “Don’t know. Just hard to imagine anybody hanging at the Bronze who had another choice.”
“So true,” Cordelia said. “But hey. Any port in a storm.” She forced down another swallow of the wine.
“Cordelia?” Wesley was standing there too, now. It hurt worse, seeing him, but Cordelia forced herself to smile a little. He said, “Buffy and I were having a bit of a drink, talking about the day’s rather, ah, extraordinary events. What the future holds for us both.”
“More demon slayage,” Buffy said, “just probably not in the new, Hellmouth-free Sunnydale. So, what are YOU going to do?”
“Got a phone call from my agent a couple hours ago,” Cordelia said. His voice, tinny and familiar and brand-new all at once, had been surprisingly dictatorial coming from a cell phone the size of a sausage patty. “He’s about to blow a gasket. Apparently I missed a photo shoot today. The fine people at Cosmopolitan will never forgive me — unless I show up tomorrow.”
“You’re gonna go from saving the world to posing for Cosmo?” Buffy wrinkled her nose. It sounded even weirder when Buffy said it.
Cordelia sighed. “I didn’t save the world — at least, not the one I meant to save.”
“That’s no reason to punish yourself,” Buffy said. “I mean, those dresses they wear? Skanksville.”
“Some of them are really quite comely –” Wesley caught himself and shut up.
Cordelia studied Buffy for a moment before saying, slowly, “You’re being really nice to me.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Cordelia. You still drive me up the wall, not only because you tried to end my world to take my man, but also just on general high-school principles.” Buffy glared, but the wrath soon faded. She spoke softly as she continued. “It’s just — I’m not gonna pretend that I’m not happy things went down they way they did. I am. But I know what it’s like to lose everything. You don’t think you’ll ever learn to deal. I think maybe you do learn, though. I’m trying, anyway.”
Cordelia just nodded. Buffy sat down on the table, and the two of them were quiet together for a while. At last, Cordelia said, “I keep trying to make all the pieces fit, you know? I keep trying to see every way the one change in this universe changed everything I remember. Like, how come I won Homecoming Queen in this reality? Why didn’t Xander cheat on me with Willow here?” When Buffy started, Cordelia sighed. “Seriously. They totally had this hot-and-heavy thing going on behind my back, in the other reality.”
“Umm — they did in this reality, too,” Buffy said. “You just didn’t find out about it. Sorry.”
Am I stupid enough to get mad about that again? Cordelia thought. Maybe so.
She leaned back in the chair, staring at the ceiling. I am Cordelia Chase, she thought. I am a star. I make $300,000 an episode, and I am this close to signing to costar with Ewan McGregor and Hugh Grant in a romantic comedy. I hate it. I hate every single bit of it.
“Look who’s moping.” Cordelia opened her eyes to see Lorne standing there. “Cheer up, sweetcheeks. You’re having a better day than Adam, right?”
Adam got what he wanted, Cordelia thought. “Are you guys hanging out with Buffy and Wesley too?”
“Nahh,” Lorne said. “You’ll find that, in this reality, neither Mr. Doyle nor myself need much excuse to go into a bar.”
“You didn’t in my reality either,” Cordelia said. Absurdly, even this made her depressed; she hung her head.
“Now, now. None o’that, Princess.” Doyle sat down on the table too. “Can’t have the loveliest lady in the place cryin’ in her wine. No offense,” he said quickly to Buffy.
“Some taken,” Buffy replied dryly.
Doyle. Allan Francis Doyle, alive and well, smiling at her. Cordelia felt tears prick at her eyes even as she smiled back. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “I needed to see you.”
“Is this goin’ to touch on the hot, sweaty, desire stuff? Because I’m bankin’ on it.” Doyle grinned. “You can’t suppress it forever.”
Cordelia shook her head. “I just needed to remember that some things about this world are better than the reality I remember.”
“How’s our friend with the automatic weapons?” Lorne asked. “Wesley here said he was on the wrong end of one, and I’m far too fine a person to point out that this bears a resemblance to cosmic justice.”
“Gunn nearly died to save my life.” Cordelia scowled at Lorne. “Have a little respect, okay?”
“Sock it to me, sock it to me,” Lorne sighed. “I’m glad he’s going to be all right. Really. I could be moved to send over a fruit basket.”
“So, where’s the undead fella?” Doyle said. His eyes were full of mischief as he said, “Don’t tell me at least one of you ladies doesn’t know.”
In a flash of memory and sensation, Cordelia remembered making love to Angel — had it only been one day ago? It seemed so faraway, almost as though it had happened in the reality she’d destroyed, not the one she’d created. She shrugged uncomfortably. “Ask Buffy,” she said, admitting defeat in only those two words.
“Can’t help you,” Buffy said, and her voice was brittle. She met Cordelia’s eyes with a glare as she said, “Angel and I are no longer an item. And no, Cordelia, not because of you.”
“Sorry to hear it,” Doyle said, leaning closer to Buffy. “So, just speakin’ generally, what do you think is a decent interval before a newly-single woman should date again? Me, I think you shouldn’t put it off longer than two, three hours, tops. You need to get back on the horse.”
“Put up the saddle, cowboy,” Buffy said, getting up. “You’re not riding anywhere. I’m gonna go find Faith, see what she’s up to.”
“Make sure Riley survived?” Lorne said. Despite everything, Buffy smiled; Cordelia was surprised how glad she was to see it. “Bring back the biggest piece of him you can find. See you later, sweets.”
“I’ll come with you,” Wesley said to Buffy. Cordelia saw the look that passed between them then — they looked like partners. Confidantes. That was new for any reality.
Doyle jabbed his thumb in Buffy’s direction as they walked off. “That girl is in need of some serious fun, if that’s not an oxymoron, and even if it is. Buffy looks as though she could use a few laughs.”
“Give her a while,” Lorne suggested. “Nobody’s turning that frown upside down for long today. But after the snow’s melted, I think the sun might be shining on her again. Which just leaves the TV star to worry about.” He turned his attention back to Cordelia. “How are you doing?”
She opened her mouth, then shut it again as tears filled her eyes. “Hey, now,” Doyle said softly. “It’s gonna be all right. You’ve got your friends and you’ve got your health, and accordin’ to the National Enquirer, you’ve got a hot-and-heavy thing going on with Brad Pitt behind Jennifer Aniston’s back.”
“Do not!” Cordelia said. For a moment, she hesitated and searched her new memories. Then she sighed in relief. “Do NOT.”
“Our Irish friend has a point to go with his personal aroma,” Lorne said. “You lost a lot, hon. I’m not even going to pretend I know what that feels like. But you’ve done a lot of talking about having a mission to just walk away from it now.”
“I’m not the same person I was,” Cordelia said. “I don’t have the visions. I’m not part-demon.”
Lorne smiled. “But you know what it means to have those visions. You’ve got what it takes to sacrifice a little of your own humanity to help other people. You may not have the superpowers and the utility belt, sister, but you’ve still got you.”
Is that going to be enough? Cordelia thought. Then she realized how that sounded — worse, how that felt. “I let everybody down,” she said. “I destroyed that reality. I blew it. The Powers have got to be more than just a little bit P.O.ed.”
“You never know,” Doyle said brightly. “Maybe this is what they meant to happen all along. Maybe this is why they wiped your memory out. Who knows? I don’t, that’s for sure. But I’m inclined to think that things happen for a reason. They happen the only way they can. The way things are is the way things have to be.”
“That’s pretty fatalistic,” she said.
“See, I think of it as being optimistic,” Doyle said. “The only glass I ever see as half-empty is the one with my lager.”
Cordelia laughed despite herself. No superpowers, she thought. No utility belt. Just me. She straightened up slightly in her chair and lifted her chin.
Encouraged, Doyle nudged her arm. “No time for carryin’ on. You’ve got a demon-fighting, do-gooding task force to slap together. Can’t do it if you’re weepin’ in your Kleenex.”
Cordelia stared at him for a moment. “You mean — start over? Just start up Angel Investigations like we did before?”
“Angel Investigations. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” Lorne said, holding out his hands as if envisioning it on a marquee.
“It always did,” Cordelia said. She felt a smile begin to tug at her lips. “I guess it still does.”
Angel left Buffy all the furniture. He didn’t want to put her through looking for new things, and besides, he didn’t really think he could manage a chest of drawers in the sewer tunnels anyway.
The Crawford Street mansion was enormous and handsome; only in Sunnydale could a place like this be left abandoned, he thought. The aesthete in him appreciated its beauty. The rest of him appreciated other things — its coldness, its darkness, its separation from the town.
Most of the day, he could do nothing but sit in the daze of extreme grief. Sometimes the hours slipped by in a weirdly disjointed rush, morning running into noon with the speed and force of collision. Sometimes the minutes crawled by, agonizing in their slow torture. Angel’s thoughts ran in the same few grooves, painful the first time they lashed his mind and worse ever after, but he couldn’t break out of them.
He had lost Buffy forever. He had failed to stop Adam. He would never have a son. He would never have a mission. What little reason he’d ever had to think he deserved to exist was gone.
Angel tried to escape such thoughts, to push himself past thinking or feeling at all. He cleaned the mansion as best he could without brushes or soap. He put his books on a shelf that looks as though it might be steady enough to hold them. He chose the mattress that seemed least moldy; it had some mice as inhabitants, but a few lunches would take care of that well enough.
After dusk, he dragged the mattress into the room that apparently got the least sunlight, Angel flopped down on the mattress, physically and emotionally exhausted. In a flash of sense-memory, he saw Cordelia, naked and golden, collapsing atop him in bed, while his body sang with pleasure and his soul remembered what it was like to have heaven all around —
Angel pushed the memory from him; he couldn’t begin to think about Cordelia now, to wonder what she had meant to him. Or what she might mean. He couldn’t do much of anything, for anyone. Not today.
Then he realized who might need him.
The nurse smiled politely. “Are you Mr. Gunn’s — well, I guess you’re not family.”
“We’re related by marriage,” Angel said quickly.
“His family has married some interesting people,” the nurse said. Before Angel could ask what she meant by that, she added, “Third floor, suite E. Visiting hours end in 30 minutes.”
He hurried upstairs, wishing he’d thought to bring something. Weren’t gifts appropriate for something like this? Gifts or flowers. Gunn didn’t seem like the flowers type. He’d just have to bring something tomorrow.
Angel knocked quietly on the door; a voice answered, “Come in.” The voice was Cordelia’s. He hesitated for a moment, then entered Gunn’s room.
Gunn was awake, though clearly drugged. Tubes in his nose and his hand made him look frail, despite the muscled arms that lay dark against the white sheets. Next to him sat Cordelia, her hair tugged back into an indifferent ponytail. Angel was surprised to see her at all, but he was far more surprised to see that she was smiling. To cover his discomfiture, he said to Gunn, “How are you feeling?”
“Deader than you,” Gunn rasped. “Plus — got a crazy woman — tellin’ me crazy stories.”
“They’re not crazy,” Cordelia said, gently patting Gunn’s arm. “I mean, not crazy by the standards of people who spend their lives fighting demons.”
Gunn coughed. “Like I said — crazy.”
Was Cordelia trying to revive Gunn’s hopes in that other world? Now, even after the door was shut forever? Angel hoped not — but he knew too well what grief and shock could do to the mind. Trying to change the subject, he said, “Ah, nice room you have here.” Real wood furniture, nice paintings on the wall, a TV with a VCR. “Really nice.”
“Now — that you — mention it — ” Gunn said, squinting. “I’ve been in — the charity ward before. This — ain’t the charity ward.”
“Hell, no,” Cordelia said. “I’m paying for this. Nothing but the best for Charles Gunn.”
“Still — charity –” Gunn said, looking more uncomfortable than he had before.
“No, it isn’t,” Cordelia said, more firmly. “You’re going to work this off, buddy. As soon as you’re up and around again, you had better consider yourself an employee of Angel Investigations, Mark 2.”
“Angel Investigations?” Angel stared at her.
“We had a detective agency, which never made a dime, but profit wasn’t exactly the point,” Cordelia said. “That was how we set it up for people who needed help to come through our door. If it was a small problem, and the client had some money, we got paid. But the big stuff — the stuff that mattered — that was on the house. Of course, this time we have my TV salary footing the bill, which means less charging the clients and WAY better coffee in the mornings.”
“The mission,” Angel said suddenly. “You want it back.”
“I never lost it,” Cordelia replied. “It looked that way for a while — but it’s still here, Angel. It’s just waiting for us to come back.” Their eyes met for a long moment; Cordelia was the first to look away. “And you too, Charles. Doyle and Lorne are on board — even though Lorne freaked out when I told him we have to go back to Pylea. That’s where he’s from, and a girl there named Fred is in some serious need of rescuing.”
“A girl — named Fred?” Gunn looked skeptical.
Cordelia smiled. “You want us to find this girl. Trust me on this.”
Gunn smiled a little. “Ain’t got — nothing better to do.”
“You’re in?” Cordelia clapped her hands together. “Now all Angel Investigations needs is — an Angel.”
Angel held up one hand. “Wait. I can’t — I have to think.”
“Take your time,” Cordelia said, maddeningly sure of herself.
“You’re gonna do it,” Gunn said. “This girl — can talk you — into anything.”
“I’m getting that,” Angel said, shaking his head.
The drugs in Gunn’s system got the better of him not long after that, and Cordelia and Angel watched him sleep for the few minutes remaining in visiting hours. They sat together in a silence that was more comfortable than Angel would have imagined, walked out of the hospital into the cool night. The skies were clear, and the only sound was the slush beneath their feet.
Angel spoke first. “You think we could do it? Make the agency work?”
“At least as well as we did before,” Cordelia said. “Honestly, the bar hasn’t been set that high.”
“You really think you can balance being an actress with fighting demons?” Angel raised an eyebrow.
Cordelia shrugged. “I always used to think I could. Guess it’s time for me to prove it.”
“The Powers haven’t given us a mission,” Angel said. “Not like they did before, at least not the way you said they did.”
“Not yet,” she admitted. “But you know what? We’re going to take the mission for ourselves. The Powers will just have to catch up.”
Angel chose his next words carefully. “I think you sound braver than you are.”
She ducked her head, not denying his words. But she said only, “Fake it ’til you make it, right?”
“Sunnydale is the only place I ever felt like I had something to give,” Angel said. “It’s going to be hard to leave.” He realized, surprised, that he’d used the future tense.
“Angel, you’ve got a lot more than this to give,” Cordelia whispered. “Let me prove it to you.”
The tone of her voice, the nearness of her beautiful face in the darkness, stirred up his memories of their lovemaking. Angel said, quietly, “Buffy and I split up. For good.”
“I know. Buffy told me.” She looked at him sideways. “And wouldn’t you love to know how that conversation went?”
Angel was torn between the burning desire to know and the burning desire not to know. “That doesn’t change the fact — Cordelia, I still care about her. It’s over, but if I go to Los Angeles — I’m not just going to turn into the Angel you lost. I’m not instantly going to feel the way he felt.”
He was astonished to see her smile. “Give it time,” she said, then began doing a little dance on the sidewalk. “You’re gonna looo-oove me. You’ll wanna daaaaa-aate me.”
“Cordy!” Angel used the nickname without thinking, realized he was smiling back at her. He forced himself to come back down to reality. “We’ve both had our hopes torn up too much the last couple of days. I don’t want to see it happen to you again. Or to me either.” Some of the pain of the day flowed back into him as he looked into he dark eyes. “You’re a beautiful woman. I like you. I know I care about you. But I can’t promise you’re going to get back what you lost. And you can’t promise you’ll love me the same way you loved him.”
“No,” Cordelia said. She was still now, quiet and uncertain. But there was still a faint smile on her face. “Angel — before we fell in love, we were best friends. Just being your friend meant more to me than almost anything in my life. I want to fall in love with you. I want you to fall in love with me too. But I can wait for that.” She laughed, a little sadly. “God knows I made you wait long enough. So it’s only fair. And for you — Angel, I’d wait forever.”
Against his will, against all odds, Angel felt his spirits lifting, his torn hopes mending in the soft night breeze. “You amaze me.”
Cordelia brushed her hand, ever so gently, against his arm. “All I’m asking for is a chance. I want to try and bring the agency back. And I want to be your friend again. If I’m your friend, Angel — then I can handle the rest. Whatever happens. Whatever doesn’t happen.” She looked up at him, heart and hope in her face. “Do you want to try?”
Angel felt himself smiling back. “I think we could manage that.”