A deep sigh broke the silence of the penthouse as Angel closed the large front doors behind him. It took him a moment to realize that the sound had come from him. Not needing to breathe meant that he wasn’t generally given to extensive bouts of sighing, and yet stress had always drawn him back to unnecessary, yet ingrained human habits.
And the day had indeed been stressful. Cordelia had been back with him a mere 24 hours and it had yet to settle in his mind that it was real; she was real and not some hallucination created by a desperate mind drowning in waves of crushing loneliness.
His hungry gaze clung to the figure gazing out the large wall of windows. Although her back was to him, she was still the most arousing thing he’d ever seen. Her figure, far too lush and tempting to belong to a woman so recently roused from a coma, was draped in a cascade of ivory silk and, for a moment, he allowed himself to imagine his hands in place of the glistening fabric.
He abruptly halted his wayward thoughts. The night was going to be about romance; about showing Cordelia just how perfect they were for each other. That would hardly happen if he jumped her as soon as he entered the room. Over a century with a soul forcing him to the heights of self restraint, and yet all his hard won control was nearly undone by a young woman who had vehemently declared that she couldn’t stand to be on the same continent with him.
He felt like sighing again. He knew that she was angry with him; furious about being kept here against her will. But what else could he do? He couldn’t let her leave him. God only knew what would happen to her out in the world alone and completely unprotected. Even if she went and took up residence with Buffy and the new slayers she wouldn’t be as safe as she was with him. They didn’t love her; hadn’t died inside a little more each and every day she’d laid silent and unmoving in her hospital bed. No, Cordelia wouldn’t be going anywhere until she finally accepted that her place was by his side. Always.
But what was truly frustrating wasn’t her insistence that she didn’t care, but the fact that he could clearly see that for the lie it was. That morning when he’d woken her with gentle caresses she’d come apart under the soft, reverent touches. He’d like to think that if she’d honestly hated him that he could have let her go. Deep down he doubted he could ever be that selfless. But she didn’t hate him. When he’d caught her without her characteristic defenses in place she unable to deny how much she still desired him. It wasn’t everything that he wanted from her, but it was a start.
And he was certain that, with time, he could make those feelings blossom into a love as deep and abiding as his own. After all, he wasn’t the same poor fool he was before and he wouldn’t make the same mistakes. He would never again risk her precious life; never let her risk it. Nothing was worth that. Not the good fight, not some mission, not some imaginary redemption for his soul. She was worth so much more than that; so much more than the pain and anguish she’d been given.
Cordelia was young, beautiful, intelligent, polished, with a luminous spirit that outshone the sun. She could have had a charmed life and she’d sacrificed it all for him. Now he finally had a chance to make things right and give her the existence that she deserved. She was never going to have to worry about anything again. Wolfram & Hart had thrown unbelievable amounts of money at him; placed endless amounts of power at his fingertips. All this simply for leaving an illusory destiny behind.
And he wasn’t sorry; couldn’t be sorry. Although his heart broke with missing Connor, he’d been able to give his son a wonderful life which, despite the poor example of his own father, he knew was a parent’s true duty. And now he’d be able to provide the same for Cordelia. Only he wouldn’t have to let her go to do so. This was all that had kept him going while she’d hung tenuously between life and death.
“I see you have a romantic evening planned. If you’ll just undo the mojo keeping me here I’ll get out of your way before your blonde du jour shows up.”
Angel laughed as Cordelia’s words broke into his thoughts of happily ever after. He should have known she wouldn’t be impressed by beautifully set table lit by candlelight or the dozens of roses that filled the room. Luckily dinner was merely the prelude to the main event. She could reject these tokens of affection all she wanted but she wouldn’t be able to deny the responses he coaxed from her later when he finally granted them both the release they had wanted for so long.
“It won’t work, Cordelia. There won’t be any fighting. That’s not what this night is about.”
He felt his mouth go dry as she finally turned towards him. If she’d been arousing from the back it was nothing compared to this stunning picture of perfection he was presented with.
Although he was sure that she had chosen yet another floor length gown for the added coverage it provided, she must not have been able to truly appreciate that what it hid of her legs it more than compensated for by highlighting everything else.
The shimmer of the ivory material served as a startling contrast to the burnished copper of her skin and the mahogany waves of her hair. Bands of lace crossed over her heart and drew the eye to the lush swell of her full breasts; one of her many attributes that needed no assistance in commanding one’s attention. The gown went on, clinging to her figure, emphasizing the petite span of her waist and the gentle curves of her hips.
Of course, he wasn’t sure there was anything she could wear that would downplay her natural beauty. Even tromping through a sewer, filthy and bloodied after one of their many battles, he’d found her as glorious as he did at that very moment. Cordelia Chase had a beauty that was transcendent; defying, at every turn, that which would try to disguise it.
The familiar sound warmed Angel’s heart and pulled him back to the discussion at hand.
“As if I need your help to have a fight. Believe me; I can have a perfectly good argument without your participation.”
A small smile and a rueful shake of his head was his only answer as he inwardly acknowledged the truth of her statement. In their time together most of their disagreements constituted her ranting at him in righteous indignation and him waiting for her to take a breath so he could apologize for actions that he was always pretty sure weren’t that bad. After all, pride was nothing if he was left with an unhappy Cordelia. Her brilliant smiles when he pretended to understand his trespass and apologize for it profusely were addictive, and if he’d ever been able to pin down what it was he’d done wrong he sometimes wondered if he wouldn’t have done it more often just to see her joy when her lectures were over and to feel her in his arms as she graciously forgave him with a warm embrace.
“Why don’t we at least have dinner while you engage in your solo dispute?”
She didn’t move an inch.
“I think I’ll pass. Humoring your delusions will only encourage them.”
Seating himself, Angel smiled at her and spoke in pleasant tones as if discussing the weather.
“Cordelia, you can either sit in the chair and eat your dinner or I can sit you on my lap and feed it to you.”
Fuming, she stomped over to the table, sat, and began picking at the food he had placed on her plate.
Stupid vampire, she silently screamed as she pushed her dinner from one side of the plate to the other. But she wouldn’t let the words escape; wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of her attention, even if it was just her anger.
Unfortunately that didn’t seem to put a damper on his enthusiasm and Cordelia was subjected to something even more excruciating than the pain of the visions had been – Angel attempting to make small talk.
Most people would talk about movies or politics or, God forbid, even sports. But no. Everything had to be difficult with Angel, she thought as she listened to stilted, awkward talk about mystical axes and an unstable dimensional portal to a world where everything was a variation of purple. Oh how she longed for her coma. Sure, she’d still have to watch Angel, but at least he’d be silently brooding instead of nervously babbling.
Suddenly, Angel’s social awkwardness seemed less annoying and more endearing as it called forth those tender instincts deep within her. There was a familiarity in the situation that curved her lips in a gentle smile. This had always been a glaring difference between them – her ability to blossom in the limelight in contrast to Angel’s wilting wallflower routine. At first she’d believed that it was a sign of incompatibility between them, but over time it just seemed to be one more indication that she was destined to be with Angel; to be his bridge back to humanity and help him to find the joy in life.
Angel’s words trailed off as he caught the softening of Cordelia’s expression. She hadn’t looked at him like that since that first moment after she’d awoken and wasn’t coherent enough to remember all of the anger she’d been building courtesy of the Powers, and it moved something deep inside him, just as it had then.
He could literally see the moment that she became aware of whatever wayward thought had possessed her and ruthlessly stomped it out. The coldness crept back over her face and she threw her napkin on a plate containing a meal hardly touched. Mimicking her motion, Angel also abandoned his pretense of eating and pushed back his chair.
“You’re done so quickly, Cordelia. Don’t worry; I don’t want to drag out dinner any longer either. Not when the night holds so many more enjoyable experiences.”
Angel wasn’t sure how Cordelia was going to respond to his innuendo, but the look on her face certainly didn’t bode well. It was the look that she reserved for beheadings, demon slime, and people who abused the use of polyester.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the guy who only got happy once in an entire century shouldn’t have much of a grip on the concept of joy, so let me enlighten you – attending a funeral, even my own, would be more enjoyable than a bedroom romp during your oh so temporary Buffy deprivation.”
He felt his anger swell and forced himself to smooth out his expression. This was not a night for anger.
“Cordy, we’re not going to keep going through this when I know that you know the truth. I haven’t been anywhere near Buffy since that night. Hardly the actions of a man in love.”
The soft light of the room caught the arc of her lustrous hair as, in one fluid movement, she rose from her seat and spun around, moving back to her place at the windows where he’d first found her that evening. She was breathtaking against the luminous backdrop of the L.A. skyline and, despite the unpleasant subject matter, Angel found himself almost painfully hard; so caught up in the erotic picture Cordelia presented wearing a veil of silk, a mantle of anger and nothing else, that he almost missed her rebuttal.
“Well of course you two can’t be together until Betty Crocker finishes up with the snickerdoodles.”
Angel’s teeth ground together and he vaguely wondered if, between the sexual frustration and the actual frustration, he’d have any left by the end of the night. Although at that moment, only half of his ire was reserved for the brunette before him. The rest was for Buffy and her need for inane metaphors to avoid having a straightforward, adult conversation. He had a sinking feeling that he was going to hear about Buffy in conjunction with dessert foods for years to come.
“There was no relationship with Buffy then, there’s no relationship with Buffy now, and there will never be a relationship with Buffy again. There’s only you and me – forever.”
“Ha!” The harsh sound broke free from her throat. “There’s not even a right now for us, much less a forever, Angel. ‘Cause in case you haven’t noticed – human here.”
She took a step forward and gestured gracefully towards herself.
“I come with an expiration date, so I’m not really built for eternity.”
Although he quickly turned away, the gasp he heard behind him told him that Cordelia had caught the look that crossed his face. She’d always know how to read him all too well.
The soft rustle of silk alerted him that she had moved closer.
“Oh God; please tell me that you aren’t planning to turn me!”
Horrified, he spun around to face her; to erase that profane thought from both their minds.
“No! God no, Cordelia.” His shout of denial transformed itself into a whisper. “Apparently I won’t have to.”
His hesitancy communicated itself to her for Cordelia’s voice took on an uncharacteristically timid tone.
“What does that mean?”
His silence was his only response and her voice rose, crackling with the demand for an answer.
“Angel! What did you mean?”
He sighed again. He’d gotten more oxygen that night then he had in the last two centuries. This was not what he’d planned for their romantic evening. In fact, he hadn’t planned on discussing this with Cordelia for quite a while. He was hoping to have more time to prepare; had hoped that by the time they’d had this conversation he would have eased them into a relationship and that this news would bring her the same indescribable joy that it brought him. In retrospect Angel could see how hopelessly stupid and optimistic he’d been in hoping that he could hide something from Cordelia when he hadn’t been able to for years.
Rubbing a hand wearily across his eyes, he took a seat on the sofa and waved at her to do the same. Her stubborn expression made obvious that she had no plans to join him and so, in response, he leaned back against the cushions and stretched out his long legs in a clear message that he could wait as long as she could.
With an absolutely adorable “humph” Cordelia plopped onto the other end, crossing her arms and pinning him with a mulish expression.
“The first month of your coma I was frantic with worry for you. That’s half of why I ended up here at Wolfram & Hart. As time went on I moved from terror to despondency at the thought that you might never come back to me. You must have seen that Cordelia, you have to know it’s true.”
Cordelia could clearly see the sincerity in his gaze but she was too angry and too worried and too…everything to care about anything else but unraveling this new way the universe had most likely screwed her over.
“Oh please. For all I know you were just brooding ’cause Buffy upgraded to a newer Aurelius model.”
He felt his anger flair but he wasn’t going to let it distract them.
“Dammit Cordelia! Why didn’t you ever see any of the good things?”
Okay, maybe he’d let it distract him for a minute.
But something tickled the back of his mind, making him replay his last sentence until he’d identified the inconsistency.
“You saw everything that was happening while you were gone. That’s what you said. Why don’t you know what the doctor’s discovered?”
Suddenly all the things Cordelia had seen, both as a prisoner in her body and then in the higher realms, spun through her mind like the fractured glass of a kaleidoscope. She stopped for a moment to swallow the tears that threatened to choke her. She wouldn’t cry in front of him.
Pulling in a deep breath to calm herself, she focused on the matter at hand.
“I remember, back in high school, when we were preparing for the soul restoration. We were worried because we thought that we’d have to be with you to cram it back inside, and let’s face it, without your soul it’s life threatening to be in the same zip code much less the same room with you. But Giles said that the magic was just to retrieve your soul from the great beyond. He said that once it was in the same reality as yours it would naturally be drawn back to its home.
Because I was in the Higher Realms I was safe from being pulled back in. But when they started showing me what was going on…I don’t know quite how to explain it, but it almost seemed like the barrier between the two planes bent; like they weakened somehow. It was like standing in a doorway; able to view two rooms but not really in either.
At first, when that thing was in my body, I felt like I was being pushed back towards the great beyond just like I was when was shoved out of my body. It wasn’t that strong, but I could definitely feel its presence repelling me.
Then, when it left I felt a pull. It was as if some force were reaching into the very core of me and pulling me back towards the empty shell my body had become. All of a sudden everything went dark and, for a moment, I thought I might actually have come back. But when things came back into focus I realized I was still trapped on high. When the show started up again I never even had a cameo. I think that the Powers kept me away from myself to keep me there. I just can’t figure out why.”
Angel wasn’t surprised how much of the situation Cordelia had been able to work out. People, himself included long ago, were always underestimating her agile mind, assuming that a beautiful face meant an empty head. Unfortunately, even as he acknowledged her sharp intellect he recognized her deep-seated, optimistic naiveté.
“Don’t you see it yet, Cordelia? The Powers, they’re not the not the benevolent force you seem to think that they are. They’ve been playing with our lives like it’s a game; trying to convince us that we were fighting the good fight while they maneuvered us around like pieces on a chess board for their own sick purposes.”
“And so you aligned yourself with the Senior Partners, Angel? If you think that the Powers had less than stellar intentions, what in the hell do you think the law firm of Evil, Wicked, & Sadistic have?”
Angel fumed. Couldn’t she see the difference?
“Of course Wolfram & Hart has its own motives. I’m not stupid.” He quickly held up his hand to stop Cordelia’s obvious rebuttal to his assertion. “But the difference between the Partners and the Powers is that the Partners don’t pretend that they’re anything but self-serving sons of bitches. They don’t try to convince me that there’s some grander purpose in what I’m doing or some kind of redemption awaiting me. The fact is, Cordelia, that either way I’ll be working for a group of bastards who don’t give a damn about me other then how I can serve their agenda. So I might as well work for the people who are going to be up front about how they’re planning to use me…Besides, they pay much better.”
But Cordelia was too angry to appreciate Angel’s poor attempt at humor.
“Great; how mercenary of you. Look; if we’re going to have an unpleasant discussion can we at least go back to the one I actually care about? What – happened – to – me?”
The fight left him as the strange tingle of excitement that ran through him every time he thought of the changes in her took its place.
“At first the tests showed exactly what we all expected – you were in a coma and the prognosis was that you would remain that way until your body gave out.”
Even as furious as she was, Cordelia couldn’t deny the absolute despair radiating from the vampire. No matter what she thought about the state of his relationship with Buffy, it was clear that her months of unconsciousness had truly been as difficult as he said. Refusing to let that idea touch her, to weaken the walls surrounding her heart, she held her tongue, waiting for him to continue.
“After a few months it became clear that, far from the deterioration that had been predicted, you were actually regaining your health at an ever increasing speed. Your body practically rebuilt itself from the ground up on a cellular level.”
Uncharacteristically quiet, Cordelia tried to wrap her mind around what Angel meant. Individually, she knew that she understood the definition of each word; but the way in which Angel had put them together seemed more than her over taxed mind could take in.
“What does this mean, Angel? Wasn’t it enough that I became some kind of demon? What the hell am I now?!?”
He wanted to reach for her, to comfort her, but Angel knew that, at this point, his touch would only accelerate the onset of any hysterics instead of preventing them.
“Nothing.” At the shocked and angry look Cordelia shot his way, he knew that that had sounded terribly wrong. “I don’t mean nothing nothing. I mean – Damn it! You’re human. The doctors have run every test known; medical and mystical. You’re one hundred percent human.”
Anxiety coursed through her veins, pushing her to her feet as she paced restlessly.
“I know it’s been a long time since you’ve actually been a human, Angel; but one of the things that clues you in to who is and who isn’t is that we take time to heal. No one just bounces back from months in a coma. People’s cells just don’t start completely overhauling themselves at the speed of light for no discernable reason. And, in case you were wondering, the biggest clue to picking out the human in a crowd – we die! There’s no way around it. You live, you get old – gracefully in my case – and then you die. End of story.”
Before Cordelia could even spin and begin to pace in the other direction, Angel was in front of her, grasping her arms and pulling her tight against him.
“Well expand your definition of human. Because you are human, you are going to stay young, and you are going to be with me for what looks to be damn near eternity. You need to start accepting that, Cordelia.”
And suddenly she did. She’d known Angel too well and for too long to believe that he was lying to her; no matter how badly she might want to. No, he was telling her the absolute truth – she was going to live forever…with Angel.
And that’s where the problem lay. True, she loved Angel; the thought of being with him forever wasn’t the problem. No, the problem was that it would be an eternity only with Angel. Everyone she knew and loved; everyone that she would love in the future, all of them would die. She would watch them grow old and fade away while she remained behind – destined to permanence in an impermanent world.
Cordelia squeezed her eyes tight as the edges of her vision began to gray. It was suddenly all to much – Where she’d been, what she’d seen, the constant recreation of her body by whatever fates where guiding her life on any given day. And, for a moment, she hated them all; hated the “good” Powers that protected people, the “evil” Powers that people needed protection from, her friends who were mortal, and the vampire before her who wasn’t. She hated all of them; everything and everyone. It was a feeling so contrary to who she was, who she’d always been, even when she’d had to hide it from the world, that she felt she’d go crazy if she couldn’t escape from it; replace it with something else.
Angel was surprised at the lush body that suddenly crashed into him, but his ingrained instincts to protect Cordelia had him closing his arms and steadying her despite whatever harm she intended. But as the soft form burrowed deeper into his embrace he realized that she wasn’t looking for some kind of retribution, she was looking for comfort. From him. And because he loved her so desperately that he couldn’t ever stand to see her hurt, and because he needed her so badly that he couldn’t even think to turn her away, he gathered her closer to his body and, tilting her head up with one gentle finger, captured her lips in an effort to ease both of their pain.
As their tongues met in near desperation Angel knew that he wouldn’t have enough control to make it all the way to a bed. Pushing her gently towards the large sofa, he lowered her down, following to cover her body with his own.
He reached a long arm down to grasp the hem of her gown, leaning up just enough to give her room to lift while he whisked the silk over her head. His groan rang in his ears as he drank in the sight of her bronze curves fully exposed to his view. He knew that, despite this interlude, she was angry with him for what she considered his desertion of the Powers. What she didn’t understand was that if this – having her here, with him, under him – was the result of his betrayal of his “mission”, then he would do it again, a thousand times over.
Gazing down at her, Angel acknowledged that, while he’d never thought of himself as being a breast man or a leg man, preferring to take the package as a whole, with Cordelia, whatever part was currently on display was his absolute favorite – until a new part came into view. He knew that he’d never done anything in his life that would entitle him to possess such a goddess. But he also knew, without doubt, that he would never let her go. He needed her more than could ever be expressed. And because no other man would ever, could ever, truly understand how precious she was, how amazing, she needed him, too. Which was a good thing because he’d never let her leave again.
Balancing on his forearms, he bent his head to press his lips to the swell of her breast. Shifting down a few inches, he enveloped a dusky pink nipple in his mouth. The action elicited a groan from them both as her back arched and his tongue laved at her taut, burning flesh.
Cordelia heard moaning filling the air and realized that much of it was coming from her. Angel was being gentle and tender, worshipping her body with a surprising reverence. And although her body loved it, her mind couldn’t stand it for one moment more.
Grasping his shoulders, Cordelia tugged him upwards. She knew that she must have caught him off guard because she certainly couldn’t have moved him if he hadn’t allowed it. Taking advantage of his movement, she leaned forward, pushing his body down to the cushions as she rolled herself on top of him.
She didn’t want soft touches and caring words. She was angry and hurt and all she wanted was just a small measure of control in her hijacked life. Leaning down she slammed her lips into Angel’s in a fiery kiss, her tongue thrusting against his, demanding that he follow her lead.
She brought her hands to the collar of his shirt and, with one swift tug, popped the buttons, listening to the soft clicks as they fell to the floor. Tearing her mouth from his, Cordelia sat back to run her hands down Angel’s smooth, hard chest, watching the ripple of his muscles follow the descent. She reveled in the sounds coming from the vampire beneath her as he lost himself to her touch.
Sitting upright, she felt Angel shudder as her hot core pressed firmly against his straining shaft. Separated from the rough rub of his pants only by the thin silk of her underwear, she could feel the entire hardened length and wiggled her hips slightly, enjoying the new sensation. This was something that she’d only ever done once while she’d had control of her own body, and that idiot Wilson certainly hadn’t felt like Angel did. Drunk on the mixture of sensuality and brazenness, she slid further down his legs, determined to satisfy her curiosity.
Cordelia paused with her hands over Angel’s belt, suddenly unsure. She slowly dragged her gaze up his body to catch his eyes. The wild pleasure she saw burning there soothed her nerves and restored her sense of confidence. She made short work of the buckle and the fastenings of the dark dress pants, and began tugging them down Angel’s hips. He seemed to be as ready as she as she felt him jerk up, raising both himself and her a few inches off of the couch, and push his pants and black silk boxers down as far as her seated position would allow.
As he came fully into view, Cordelia felt a gasp fly from her lips. She’d been right – Wilson Christopher was nothing like this. Good Lord, if he had been she probably would have thought twice, maybe three times about doing anything with him that night. But on this night, with her pain and anger wrapped round her like a cloak, the hard, pulsing shaft in front of her was less frightening and much more fascinating.
Angel hissed as he felt Cordelia’s small, warm hand close around him. With soft, tentative touches she explored him, and a heat unlike anything he’d ever felt before rushed through him. He wanted to tell her that it had never been like this for him; like it was with her. He needed her to know that her light strokes were more arousing than any touch he’d ever felt in all of his hundreds of years. All that and more stood waiting on his tongue, but all that came out of his mouth was a deep, feral growl.
Even as he felt the rumble build in his chest he knew that he could remain passive no longer. Before the sound had even finished its escape he had Cordelia back underneath him. The throbbing heat against him beckoned and, with a jerk of his wrist, the fabric of her panties gave way and left her bare to his questing fingers.
Another growl sounded as her scent hit the air. He looked down at her, her eyes clenched, her cheeks flushed, her skin glowing with a light sheen of sweat, and his heart swelled with his love for her. No matter how fanciful it seemed, at that instant it was as if his whole life had been designed to lead to this; being here with Cordelia.
Her cries of pleasure as Angel entered her swirled with his lingering rumbles creating a sensual symphony that only added to the sensory overload that each was experiencing, and Cordelia, too, felt a sense of destiny swell within her.
As he began to move within her, she felt her whole body tighten; her arms tugging him closer, her legs pulling him deeper, and her warm, throbbing center grasping him tightly, never wanting to lose the feeling of fullness and completion.
Centuries of disciplines of all kinds fell by the wayside as Angel lost himself in the perfection of the woman who had become the meaning to his existence. Not able to get deep enough, wanting to crawl inside her and never come out, he grasped her thighs and moved them higher, pulled them tighter. It was all he needed to fill her wholly, bending reality until the two of them became one.
It was spiritual and transcendent and it was so close to bliss that he almost gave thanks for the horror that had been his life if it allowed him, even for the briefest of moments, to be a part of her.
With a soft, keening sound, Cordelia arched off the couch beneath her at the deepening thrusts. A warmth started to seep into her that she hadn’t felt since she’d awoken. It was him; Angel. It was their sleeping connection bursting back to life. And while she wanted to, planned to leave him, she couldn’t deny that, no matter what had happened between them, no one had ever been a part of her in the way that Angel was. And she suspected that wherever she ran it would never truly separate them.
Desperate to quiet her disturbing thoughts and lose herself, once more, in the pleasures of the flesh, she rose to meet the hard body above her, moaning her delight as the slight change in angles caused him to slide against that secret place deep inside.
The muscles in Angel’s arms clenched as he fought to keep the majority of his weight off of the soft form beneath him. He could feel that Cordelia was teetering at the edge of oblivion and he surged forward needing to join her there, to burn to ashes in the fires of their passions together, in this if in nothing else.
Forcing open his eyes he saw that she had done the same, each searching, needing to know what this meant. As amber and hazel clashed and then cleaved on to the other. And then the clinging gazes clouded over with starburst of pleasure as they were hurled past the tension in their bodies, beyond the agonies of their minds, to a plane where naught but exquisite rapture existed.