“Then what the fuck are you saying, man? She doesn’t trust any one of us right now and you know that…”
Gunn gave a sigh, running a hand over his head. What the hell was he supposed to say, that Gio was right? Cordelia didn’t trust any of them and it was a lesson she’d had to learn the hard way.
“It’s not just you,” He tried to explain, make the guy see reason, but that too was out of the question. Gio was pissed.
“So how come you get in on the goods,” Gio asked, voice dangerously low. “Unless you’re getting some goods on the side we ain’t hearing about…”
Gunn was off his chair in an instant, the front of his former friends shirt balled up into his fist. “You wanna watch what you’re saying, man. Start a rumour like that and you might get hurt…”
“Off you, Charlie? Nah…” He laughed, “Rumour has it, you gone soft in your old age.”
“Try me and find out…”
“The both of you, back off.” Wesley’s voice came from the top of the stairs; looking down into the corner of the lobby Gunn had taken Gio into. It had been his decision to tell Gio and a few of the others of Cordelia’s plans.
He’d been fighting alongside these few for over three years. He figured he owed them as much to explain what was going on, why certain things were changing around here lately.
“You heard about this too?” Gio asked, glancing up at Wesley. “It’s bullshit…”
“Actually, it’s not.” Wesley disagreed, “Until we find out who the traitor in our midst is, Cordelia has no other option but to do this. Perhaps now, whoever’s dithering between both sides will see what they’re doing. We can’t go on like this.”
“So what, you punish all of us?” Asked another team leader, frowning.
“It’s not about punishment, it’s about keeping our team alive. And right now, that’s what’s important. We can’t go up against Giles if he keeps picking off our team one by one.”
If there was a protest, no one got to voice it.
A burst of sound spread through the hotel, sending the inhabitants scattering into position. Years of practice had honed this very moment in as near to perfection as they could get it. There was a place for everyone, should this moment occur – and everyone knew what that place was.
The two-mile radius gave them a five-minute head start on whatever was coming towards them, give or take a few seconds.
Within that few small moments, they were ready.
The doors burst open, a loud noise in the silence that reigned since the alarm had stopped sounding.
A girl entered, hands held high in the air, being pushed forth by a rifle pressed into her back.
“She asked to speak to Wes. Found her outside with this guy…” Said her captor, gesturing backwards.
Behind him, a dark-haired man was being led in, hands twisted behind his back, stake shoved up to his throat. It mightn’t kill him if his captor struck – but it’d hurt like hell.
Wesley stepped out from behind the counter, eyes squinting to see who it was. “Who the hell are you?”
Michelle’s eyes blazed as she glanced up angered at being caught again. “Michelle Blake. I’m the Slayer.”
Hope dared to spark within Wesley but he pushed it down, frowning. “And your friend?”
“Nice to see you again, Wesley.” Angel murmured, finding it difficult to speak with a stake shoved into his throat. “Course, it’d be nice if I could actually see you…”
“Let him go.” Said the ex-Watcher immediately.
“I said let him go.”
The stake lowered, but his captor shoved him forward, eliciting a growl from Angel. Almost immediately, a collection of crossbows and other weapons were pointed at him.
“Put your weapons down, damnit!” Wesley growled, “He means no harm. Angel, please…”
Slowly but surely, Angel lifted his hands up, eyes flitting over the inhabitants of the hotel. “He’s right. I’m not here to fight. Not you guys, anyway…”
“How? When?” Asked Wesley, walking slowly forward to gaze at Angel.
“This afternoon. Michelle…” He gestured to the slayer who’d been allowed to join him down into the lobby.
“I went to the office. She’d been there. Is she…?”
Angel faltered and in him, Wesley saw the same desperate hesitation. The wanting to believe; yet not daring to.
“She’s alive.” Said the ex-Watcher and found himself smiling. “I can’t tell you how many times…”
The scream that rang out ended the brief moment of reminiscing. Angel could feel its presence before he saw it.
It burst into the hotel through the basement door, attached to someone that Angel knew only too well.
He recognised the demon instantly. A few months ago, Giles had sent a bunch of Cathixol demons after them, effectively wiping out one of their twenty men teams.
One had got away. It seemed it wanted more tonight.
Cordelia rolled backwards with the force of the blow, using her body weight to her advantage. Driving her knee upwards, she flipped the demon over her head and away from her, sending it spinning into one of the stone pillars of the hotel.
The demon leapt for her again, claws outstretched. Blue spittle dripped from its teeth, its red eyes burning into Cordelia.
“Boy, you really are the poster boy for the ugly stick,” Cordelia growled, “Were you born that way, or did it take years of grooming?”
Damn. Usually, her bantering caught them off guard, years of practice helped.
But this demon – this one was all business, Giles had seen to that. He’d hired one of the most ruthless, most calculating groups of mercenary demons he could find. Once they had their target, they didn’t stop until they were all dead.
People were filtering in from the floors they’d been waiting on, moving down into the lobby where Wesley and the others had collected. They tried shouldering their weapons, but in a fight of such close proximity, they were useless.
The demon slammed Cordelia into the wall, raising its arm to rake its claws down her face as red spots danced in front of her eyes.
Angel didn’t waste a second. Letting loose with a snarl, he leapt forwards, ready to defend what was his.
The Cathixol demon let out a screech of pain as Angel drew a flurry of fists into its sides.
His last punch went right through its stomach, his eyes blazing golden, demon rejoicing inside as its blood spilled.
Not five seconds later and the demon was dead, Cordelia sitting hunched over, one arm wrapped around her waist, the other pressed against her head.
God, was it just her or did every vision take more out of her lately?
“Cordelia, are you all right? You blacked out for a…”
“I’m fine, Wesley.” Came the expected response. “It just… Took it out of me, is all.”
“You saw that, didn’t you?”
Angel looked at Wesley, puzzled. What did he mean by that?
Cordelia nodded. “Someone left the sewer hatch open. There were two of them, I managed to kill one… I was nearly too late.”
The Powers had never been forthcoming with the visions, at least, not lately.
Blinking as if to clear the cobwebs, Cordelia looked up, “Thanks, I—”
Her breath caught in her throat as she saw him, her world teetering all around her into a tailspin.
He reached for her and Cordelia pulled back, pressing herself closer to the wall.
“You’re not real.” She told him, shaking her head.
“You always say that.” She looked around her then. There was a crowd gathered around them, waiting for Angel’s next move, waiting for hers.
“Cordelia, it’s me.”
“You always say that too.” She frowned.
She winced as if the name hurt, hearing it spoke like that.
“Don’t call me that.” Bracing her hands flat against the wall behind her, Cordelia pushed herself up, regarding Angel wearily. “You’re here?”
He nodded, once.
“Giles put Michelle in with me. We escaped together.”
Cordelia’s gaze skipped to the slayer, regarding her with cool, professional eyes, before she looked back at Angel.
“You want the details?” He half-growled, frustrated.
“Don’t get snippy with me, Angel. I just find it a little hard to believe that after five years of thinking you were dead, you’re standing here now.” Her words came out harsh, brittle.
“I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Of all the things I am right now? Pleased isn’t one of them,” She said quietly, “Scared? Yes. Shocked? Maybe. But pleased is so very far down the list right now.”
“How do I know it’s you I’m looking at, and not Angelus?” She asked, so softly that only Angel could hear.
“Because the only chance I had at perfect happiness got taken away from me five years ago.”
“Buffy.” Said Cordelia, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice and failing, miserably.
“No.” He replied. “You.”
She sat in her room in the Hyperion, legs pulled up to her chest, her hair hanging wet against her back.
In her hands, she held an Angel. Tiny. Silver. The one she’d left back in amongst the rubble at their old offices.
“How did you find it?” She asked, quietly.
“I could smell you. Where you’d been.”
“Are you… Mad at me?”
“For what?” He asked, gently.
“I dunno, leaving this…”
He seemed to understand what she meant by that and shook his head, “Five years is a long time to wait for somebody, Cordelia.”
“There’s no one else.” She told him, softly, her words showing implicitly that there’d never been anyone else – never would be.
They lapsed into silence for a while, Cordelia turning the tiny angel over in her fingers. “I know you’re waiting for me to explain everything. I just have no idea where to start.”
He didn’t speak again, just watched her in silence, waiting.
“A few weeks after you left, Doyle had a vision. We went to help. They were a bunch of demons, hiding from the Scourge. They wanted to rid the world of half-breeds, Doyle stopped them.”
“Sacrificing himself. He saved us all.” Pride shone in her eyes and her voice, far surpassing the pain she still felt over Doyle’s death.
“And you got the visions.”
“I cursed his name for about a month until I realised what he’ d given me.”
“What?” Asked Angel, bitterly, “Mind-numbing pain? A shortened life sentence?”
“No.” She paused, “A part of you. Don’t get me wrong, they hurt and I’m so not a fan of the pain but they’re part of me, just like they were a part of you and Doyle. It was all I had left of you two.”
“So much has happened,” Said Angel shaking his head. “And yet… You’re just like I remember you.”
“I’m not. Everything changed when you went away. The world got, I dunno… Darker.”
The world had got more painful; she knew that for sure.
“But you learned to live without me. What you’ve done, all the people you’ve helped over the years, I’m proud of you, Cordelia.”
This, she accepted with a nod of her head. “I’m proud of me too,” She told him, “I’m proud of us. But what you said? I didn’t learn to live without you. I learned to survive. I had to. I had to tell myself – even if I didn’t believe it – that you weren’t coming back. I had to come to terms with it, or else…”
She paused then, biting down on her lip and looking away. Her emotions were boiling just beneath the surface. Just one little tug and they’d all come tumbling free.
“Or else what?”
Cordelia sighed, “Do you know how many times I saw you? Every time I turned, I thought you were there. Every person we helped, you were there. I kept expecting you to turn up one day and it was killing me.”
It would be so easy to take comfort from him now. Cordelia knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if she so much as sniffed the wrong way, he’d have his arms around her – he’d keep her safe.
Instead, Cordelia spoke with a clarity that both stunned Angel and broke his heart at the same time.
“I lit two candles and sat waiting for them to burn out. When they did, I told you both goodbye. Every year since then, I’ve lit two candles, one for you, one for Doyle.”
“What are you saying?” Asked Angel, his voice choked with emotion, “Are you saying you’ve made your peace with me? Is that it?”
“No,” She turned away so he wouldn’t see the shake in her shoulders. “I’m saying I can’t handle another goodbye. Angel, what you said downstairs… I know you meant it. I could see it in your eyes without ever having to hear your voice. Giles broke something in you, Angel – and you sit there and… You might never say it? But you think that I can fix it. I can’t. I’m not the same girl I was five years ago.”
“I know that…”
“Do you?” She asked, softly. “I don’t think you do, Angel. I think you came back here expecting to find same old Cordy – and this is what you’ve been left with.”
“You think that’s not enough?”
“I don’t know what I think. But what I do know is that things just can’t go back to the way they were, not to get all Barbara Streisand on you. Things aren’t okay. You know that, right?”
Angel let out a breath of air and sighed. “I do.”
He stared at her for a long time, watching as her gaze slid slowly away from his. It was like she couldn’t even bear to look at him any more…
“What happened to you?” He asked softly.
She didn’t look up. “I got older.”
“Angel, please.” She spoke in a shaking, pain filled voice. “I know you want answers. I know you want to know what happened. But not tonight, please?”
“Do you want me to go?”
That got through. Something inside Cordelia shifted and she looked up, alarmed. In that moment, he saw the girl that he’d rescued from Russell Winters. He saw the girl who’d captured his heart…
She was afraid.
“Go?” She whispered, voice choked. She was trying desperately not to let her heart rule what was in her head. But… He’d just come back. She couldn’t face his going away again.
“No,” He told her softly. “I just…”
“It feels like I’m hurting you by just being here.”
“Don’t you dare,” Cordelia whispered, hurt flashing through her eyes. “Don’t say you’re leaving just because you’re hurting me. It’s not me you’re doing this for.”
“I don’t know how to talk to you.” He frowned.
“Newsflash, Angel, you never did. It was me who did all the talking and what, now it’s not the same you’re going to walk out?”
“That’s not it at all and you know it.”
“Then what is it, Angel?!”
He didn’t speak. Avoiding her gaze, he looked at the floor, listening to the little sounds he’d taken for granted five years ago. The sound of her breathing, the sound of her heart thumping against her chest.
“I’m sorry that I can’t make this right with a few well placed words. I’m sorry that I can’t be sarcasmo-girl and make you feel comfortable again. I’m sorry that for every time you dreamed of this, I was the girl you remember. I’m sorry it’s so different. But for every tear I’ve shed, there’s been a reason. Every time I’ve looked back at the past, there hasn’t been a moment gone by when I didn’t wish you were here, by my side. Everything changed, Angel and I can’t make it right again.”
“I don’t want you to!”
“Then what do you want?!”
“You.” He yelled, before his voice softened into a whisper. “Just you. I don’t care if you’re not the same person you were then. I don’t care if you’re scarred and battle worn. You’re you, Cordelia. Underneath it all, you’re still you.”
“You don’t know me at all, Angel. Not any more.” Cordelia snapped, getting off her seat and walking away from him, standing looking out of the window and onto the darkened streets of LA.
“I know you more than you think I do.” Angel growled, “I know that it’s killing you standing in front of me and pretending everything’s okay. I know that it’s not the—”
“You don’t know anything!” Cordelia spun round, “You don’t know what it was like watching Doyle jump onto that stupid light thing and seeing his skin melt away! You don’t know what it was like fighting this fight of yours day after day, knowing that you weren’t coming back. You don’t know what it’s like, getting a vision and waiting for Wesley to come back, to tell you that half the people that trust you to take care of them are dead or… Or worse.”
“Then tell me.” He pleaded, moving towards her, “I hate seeing you like this.”
Cordelia sighed. “Forgive me if I’m not share my pain gal, Angel, but I’ve seen enough of it to know that opening your heart to someone just gets it ripped out. I can’t afford to lose it all right now.”
“You mean you haven’t already?”
“Damnit, Angel, what’s your problem?” She cried, “You don’t get to come in here and insert yourself back into my life like nothing happened, it doesn’t work like that.”
“And you think what, that this is the answer? This, what you’re doing? Absolving yourself from pain because you refuse to let yourself feel any of it? You’re dead inside Cordelia, and that not only affects you, it affects the people around you.”
“Y’know what? I’m done apologising for something I’ll never be. I am who I am, Angel and if that doesn’t suit you, then don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”
Shoving her way past him, Cordelia walked away – slamming the door to the bathroom behind her so hard it made the windows rattle.
Bracing her hands on the edge of the sink, Cordelia hunched forward, eyes squeezing tight shut. Damnit, she wouldn’t cry.
She stood there for what seemed like forever, shaking, head bowed, chin tucked into her chest.
When she looked up into the mirror above the sink, she didn’t recognise what she saw. She recognised a couple of fading bruises here and there. The small scar above her right cheekbone, that was hers.
But the eyes, they were haunted. The look so scarred and jaded that for a moment, Cordelia found herself wondering who she was, how she’d got here.
She was staring at her own self-destruction… And Cordelia couldn’t bring herself to keep watching.
He was at the door when he heard it. Hand poised over the handle, ready to leave.
A second later, he smelt the blood.
If he hadn’t smelt it, he might’ve just thought it was a glass crashing, something dropping to the floor.
That smell was distinctly Cordelia.
He ran to the bathroom, bursting through the bathroom door in time to find her sinking to the floor beside the bathtub, fists balled, glass biting into them.
There was blood everywhere.
“Cordelia,” He cried, sinking fast to his knees. “What the hell did you do?”
Her eyes raised to his, slowly, the movement almost sluggish. “Why couldn’t you just leave it alone?”
Angel reached for a towel, wrapping it around her blood-soaked hands.
“No shit, Sherlock.” She laughed, but the sound was empty.
He could still remember her laugh. It was nothing like it was now. Helping her to her feet, Angel got her seated on the edge of the bath, before grabbing the first aid kit from the top of the bathroom cabinet.
Usually, his demon would have rolled inside at the smell of so much blood – battling for dominance.
For once, he stayed silent.
The white towel was now blood red round her hands. When Angel unwrapped it, she hissed a little, but didn’t move otherwise.
“This’ll sting a little.” He told her gently, grabbing a piece of tissue and some antiseptic spray to clean the cuts.
“I hate that. ‘This’ll hurt a little’ –” She mimicked him, quietly. “—Why not just say it’s going to sting like a bitch and get it over with?”
“Who for? The person inflicting the pain or the one getting it?” She asked, her entire body shivering.
When Angel applied a little of the antiseptic spray, Cordelia jolted upright, her back snapping straight.
“Sorry.” He winced, removing the glass from her hands with gentle fingers. “You should go to a hospital.”
“No hospital. It’s not critical. I’m fine.”
“For once, can you not argue with me?”
Angel sighed and looked down, she was in no fit state to be going anywhere, unless by some miracle a paramedic arrived and whisked her away to hospital.
Time for other tactics. “Why’d you hate the mirror?” He asked, gently.
“I had nothing against the mirror, I just didn’t like the person looking back.”
She was trembling now, tears welling up in her eyes. “For five years, I’ve avoided looking in the mirror. A glance here and there, fine. Checking for bruises and stuff – part of the job. But I’ve never just… Looked. You come here and everything changes… I looked because you still see something in me and I…
Cordelia faltered and looked down at her hands. “I just wanted to see what you saw. I want her to be there, Angel, not just for you but for me too. I wish she was…”
“Listen to me, Cordelia.” Said Angel softly, slipping his hand under her chin and bringing her gaze up to his. “I fell for you because you’re you, not because of what you can give me, what somebody you used to be meant to me. When I came back to LA I had to face up to the fact that you might be dead or… Worse. Underneath all of this hurt and pain, you’re still you. And you’re still who I love.”
“Angel…” The tears ran down her cheeks then and Cordelia’s mouth opened in a scream that never left her lips.
He winced as she grabbed his shirt with still-bloody hands, sure that it was hurting her – Cordelia didn’t seem to notice as she buried her face into his chest, her body heaving with the sobs that were wracking her body.
He didn’t tell her it was okay. He didn’t whisper tired promises in her ear. Angel held her until the sobs had subsided and Cordelia was lying curled up in his arms.
Gently, he scooped her up in his arms, taking her through and into her room, placing her on her bed.
“We’ll talk later. Get some sleep.”
“Oh, sure.” She smiled, tiredly. “The one time I wanna talk, you decide you don’t want to.”
Reaching over, Angel pressed his lips against her forehead. “You need to sleep.”
“I wasn’t… I was just…” Cordelia flushed, eyes filling with uncertainty again for a moment. “Stay with me?”
“You want me to…”
“Stay.” She nodded, “Just stay with me.”
He sat down opposite her in the wicker chair she had by her bed, watching as she drifted off to sleep.
There were things he noticed, little things. The fact that Cordelia slept with a variety of weapons by her bed. The fact that she slept facing the door, so that if someone should get in, she’d be able to defend herself.
The fact that the full time Cordelia slept, she never relaxed once. She was primed for fight, ready should someone get in.
Angel sighed, resting his head on his balled up fist as he watched her sleep…