“Your little blonde slut is dead.”
Pursing her burgundy lips, Lilah paused to let the news sink in. Lindsey sent her a scathing glance over his shoulder that only spurred her on. “Would you prefer to think she left you? It’s been two weeks and darling Darla hasn’t even bothered to write.”
“Screw you, Lilah.”
Rich laughter poured from her throat as Lilah relaxed into her chair, fingers strumming against the padded arms. When she’d gotten all of the enjoyment out of that moment, she leaned forward to pull a memo from her desk. Holding it out to him, “Would you care to see the latest report?”
Lindsey walked over, snatching the report from her hand to quickly review it. “There’s no trace. Even the psychics can’t pinpoint her.”
“Yes, it’s rather strange. They all think she, ah, bit the dust,” Lilah smirked at her own little joke. She’d already been lambasted for her part and now it was her turn to make Lindsey pay for dragging her into it.
“What about him?” Apparently Lindsey couldn’t even say the name.
Lilah didn’t really want to talk about it. Even if Darla’s involvement hadn’t been her own idea, anything that involved bringing out the dark side of Angel was her business, especially if the plan failed to work. Their Intel was sketchy, but the psychics had made a strong statement that Angel’s future as a player and a champion was even more likely to cause problems for Wolfram & Hart. What that meant precisely was still to be determined.
“There was no sign of him up until two nights ago,” Lilah explained. “I was beginning to think Darla succeeded in turning him and they’d run off together.”
Leaning forward on the edge of the mahogany desk, Lindsey looked like he was about to blow a gasket. It was such fun pushing buttons when he made his vulnerabilities so obvious. “After all, Lindsey, you don’t really believe she’d choose you over him.”
He threw the report down scattering papers everywhere, his face a twisted angry mask. “Just tell me where to find them. They must be together. Angel would never kill Darla. She’s his sire.”
“You forget that he did once before,” Lilah reminded. “Besides, it’s clear that he’s no longer under anyone’s control. Angel’s back on the streets again.”
Making her point, Lilah informed him, “Night before last, two interns spotted him at Caritas singing Manilow for the Host. They didn’t get the full details of their conversation afterward. Those two friends of his came in looking sour-faced, but left with smiles on their faces.”
Lindsey said, “That could mean anything. Where was the girl, his seer?”
“Not there,” reported Lilah with a shrug. “Still locked up in her own apartment from what we can tell. She doesn’t go anywhere on her own and hasn’t set foot at work since before Darla went missing.”
“Maybe I should pay Ms. Chase a visit,” Lindsey muttered more to himself than to Lilah. She could see where he was going with this and while she didn’t care if he got himself killed in the process, she didn’t want anyone to think it was her idea.
Lilah pushed her chair away from the desk, stood, leaning forward with both hands pressed against the edge. “You don’t go anywhere near her without my say so. If the drugs are out of Angel’s system, then it’s a good bet that sooner or later his little crackpot team of investigators is going to track down the source.”
If it wasn’t already too late, she thought. “Yesterday, he took out one of our ops down at the docks.”
Even Lindsey looked surprised. “Wait— weren’t we expecting a new shipment in from Hong Kong?”
“Precisely,” Lilah’s face tightened as she remembered the chewing-out she’d been given. When it came down to it, Angel and his actions affecting Wolfram & Hart were her responsibility. Damned if she wasn’t going to make sure Lindsey got his share of the blame.
“If he knows,” Lindsey’s voice fell, a look of pure anguish on his face, “then chances are that Darl—”
A knock sounded at the door and Lilah, already bored with Lindsey’s show of grief, called out, “Come in.”
It was an inter-office messenger carrying a package wrapped up in brown paper. “This was hand-delivered, ma’am. I was told you’d recognize the sender.”
Lilah took the box with a vein of impatience, waving the young man off. He took a hasty retreat, not bothering to close the door behind him.
“Wait!” Lilah yelled as she saw the dark scrawl across the top of the paper. She set it down on the edge of the desk, backing away. The office boy returned, peeking in around the edge of the door. “Did you follow protocol and have this examined before bringing it?”
A nod followed. “All clear, ma’am. One hundred percent checked out and cleared. The x-ray machine, bomb-sniffers, and the psychics all had a turn.”
“What is it?” Lindsey picked it up from the desk. Then he saw, “It’s addressed to the two of us.”
“Open it and find out.” Despite Lilah’s curiosity, she didn’t want to be the one to open that package. The upper left side of the box was emblazoned with an inked stamp from the Hyperion. If she needed any more proof that Angel knew Wolfram & Hart were involved, this was it.
Lindsey ripped the brown paper away. Taking the letter opener from Lilah’s desk, the slit open the tape holding the box closed. When he opened up the flaps and looked inside, Lindsey staggered back with a look of horror. He stumbled, falling backward into a chair.
“Oh, my, now I really have to look,” Lilah gingerly stepped up and took a peek inside the box.
Wrapped up inside a sheaf of wax paper was a pile of blue-flecked dust. Lilah’s eyes widened at the sight of what she presumed were Darla’s ashes, and then narrowed again upon seeing the note tucked inside. She carefully extracted it.
Shaking off a bit of the dust, she paused at Lindsey’s fixated gaze. “We can vacuum your girlfriend up later. Listen to this…”
Lilah read him the note written in Angel’s distinctive scrawl. With Darla’s involvement, Wolfram & Hart’s involvement had been suspect from the first. Angel Investigations not only identified the substance they were using, but tracked down the company’s ties with the pharmaceutical manufacturer.
Angel was holding both Lilah and Lindsey personally responsible for Darla’s resurrection, her subsequent death and everything that had followed. Further interference that placed Cordelia Chase in danger would mean he’d take it out directly upon them.
“He’s slain his own sire,” Lindsey slowly rose to his feet and went back to the desk gazing into the box. “What could have possessed him?”
“You did, you moron,” Lilah propped a hip on the edge of her desk. “You and your crackpot plan to drug him into submission.”
Lindsey put his hand in the box, running his fingers through the powdery ashes. “Maybe we could—”
“Forget it,” Lilah snapped. “We’re not bringing her back again just to improve your lousy love life. Besides, do you really think they’d send back Darla’s ashes without fixing it so that it would never happen again?”
“No,” he gave them that much credit. Lindsey picked up the box, holding it close to his chest as he headed for the door.
Suspicious, Lilah warned him, “Make a move against Angel or his little seer and I’ll see to your termination— permanently.”
Angel was her territory. If anyone around Wolfram & Hart was going to counter this action, it was going to be her.
Forty-three days, 15 hours and a handful of minutes had passed since Angel last touched Cordelia. Not that he was obsessing over the idea. It was only natural to remember how long it had been since screwing up the best thing in his long and undeserving existence.
He’d spent the first days coming down from the effects of the drugs, when all of his dreams were filled with her. So real, too real, they left lingering traces of her warm touch across his skin as he awakened aroused and alone. Anger instantly followed the realization of his body’s betrayal. It obviously had no clue that it wasn’t supposed to want Cordelia that way.
Missing everything about her, it was the simple things she used to do that he longed for. The way she could make him feel human again, even if only for a minute, always amazed him. Just the way her bright smile would drag him out of the depths of his own tendency to brood. God, he needed that now.
No matter how many times Angel tried to fit his feelings for her back into the safe, comfortable zone of platonic friendship, he’d failed. Wesley’s carefully constructed explanation of the drug’s effects left him wondering if he would’ve ever made a move without them. Sitting here in his rooms had afforded him the opportunity to think back on every memorable instant of their time together.
He wanted that back.
It had taken another week for the dreams to fade, though he dreamed of her still. Only now he could tell the difference. That’s when he’d allowed Wes and Gunn to release him from his imprisonment in his rooms though they weren’t quite ready to give him the freedom of the streets. The training room became his only outlet. Angel had welcomed the activity, which gave him a respite from thinking about Cordelia.
How she must hate him.
Angel scrubbed a hand over his face at the thought of it. He tried to ignore the deep hurt flaring in his chest because he knew he deserved it. The trust that had built up between them— he’d shredded it into irreparable pieces. Despite that, he clung to a thread of hope because he knew he would do anything fix this, to get back to what they had before, even if he wanted more.
The thought annoyed him. He had no right to want more. No matter how many times he told himself that Cordy seemed to want him, too, he remembered that he’d forced her response. So he tried to convince himself that he could settle for less, even if it was only seeing her.
Two days ago, he’d gone to her apartment. Angel had rationalized that it wasn’t stalking, exactly. He was just checking up on a friend. Having suggested to Wes that he turn their routine video night into a trip to the movie theater, Angel had followed behind unseen by either Wesley or Cordelia.
He had lurked in the darkened theater, watching the two of them sitting side by side munching popcorn from a bucket as they laughed over the comedy on the screen. There would’ve been a time when Cordy would have tried to drag him along to see the show. He’d have given anything to be there beside her with the light from the screen flickering over her beautiful face.
Angel felt an empty ache as he remembered her smiling, her head thrown back, eyes crunched closed as she laughed. He missed that, missed her so much. That night, he had left the theater, determined not to follow her again without a good reason. If Cordy needed time to resolve what happened between them, he was going to give her the space she needed.
Soon enough, she’d come back.
Plagued by doubts, Angel headed out of his rooms with a plan of taking it out on the punching bag in the training room. He reached the top of the landing when the conversation going on in the lobby finally sank in. He stopped short, listening carefully as he realized Wesley had just returned from Cordelia’s place.
Gunn asked, “Any change?” before Wes had hardly got in the door. Whenever one or the other stopped in to visit, the question was asked. It had become a ritual between them the past few weeks, Angel noted, having heard it many times before always with the same negative response.
“Only to my thoughts on future wardrobe purchases,” Wes replied wearily, slipping off his jacket and flopping down on the couch next to Gunn who eyed him with a lifted brow. “Apparently, wearing plaids with stripes is ‘total sacrilege’.”
Having eavesdropped a time or ten, Angel gleaned every bit of information he could from their conversations to assure himself that Cordelia was doing okay. He told himself that her refusal to return was temporary. That next time the answer would be different. Apparently, whenever Cordy didn’t want to talk about him or the date she planned to come back to work, she would steer the conversation to a subject as far away from that as she could get.
Angel’s mouth quirked and he shook his head at her ability to completely disarm a man with just a few words. He watched Gunn nod in wholehearted agreement, hearing him ask, “Have you told him yet?”
Then grunting at the equally weary shake of Wes’ head, Gunn added, “Not like it matters what he thinks. Dude’s only got himself to blame.” Absently scratching his bald head as he spoke, “Hell, I wouldn’t wanna come back if I was our girl.”
Angel tensed at those words, anger flaring. Of the two of them, Wesley had been the most supportive. He understood the science behind what was done to him. Lucky for Gunn that he acted as the peacemaker because there had been three occasions early on when Angel nearly took his head off for daring to talk about Cordelia.
Fortunately, the drugs had worn off and he understood exactly where Gunn was coming from. Had their roles been reversed, Angel was certain that he would’ve done the same. His interests were in protecting Cordelia and Angel respected that.
From the landing above stairs, Angel could see the frown clouding Wesley’s face. “Whilst I understand your reservations, at the end of the day we need Cordelia back with us. The visio—”
“Like Cordy said before,” Gunn harshly cut him off, “she don’t need to be here to do her bit.”
“If you’d let me finish,” Wes sat up straighter, turning to face the younger man. “The visions are only a small portion of it. Before this dreadful occurrence we were…” a slow breath escaped, the tension stiffening his shoulders fading as he slumped back down.
Angel swallowed hard, listening; waiting to hear what Wesley had to say next. “Cordelia and Angel were- are the closest thing to a family unit I’ve ever had the good fortune to experience, and I’m loathe to lose that connection.”
Wesley’s words might have been an echo of his own thoughts and feelings. When it came to family, Angel hadn’t experienced that in a long time. As a vampire, he knew a far stronger connection to family than he had ever known during his days as a human, but that had been twisted by pain, lust and death. It wasn’t a real family, just a connection by blood.
Knowing Wesley felt that way gave him hope that he would continue to press for Cordelia’s return. It would be wrong to make his own appeal, Angel knew. He had picked up the phone and dialed all but the last couple of numbers on more than one occasion. He didn’t know what to say to make it better, because there was nothing he could say or do to erase what happened between them.
Below, the hard light in Gunn’s eyes softened in understanding as they rose from the couch to turn towards the stairs. “So… whose gonna tell him?” he asked, all earlier aggression now absent from his quiet tone.
Angel slipped further back into the shadows as they approached the bottom of the stairs. Despite Cordelia’s efforts to evade the subject, she’d always managed to give them the same impression. She had no plans to return. None, at all. To date, neither Wes nor Gunn had broken that news to him, but Angel knew. He just didn’t want to believe it.
“I’m hoping it won’t come to that.” Wes followed Gunn’s eyes, his troubled gaze rising higher to sweep the shadowed landing beyond.
Only twenty short minutes ago it had all seemed clear in Cordelia’s head. She’d come to the decision that minds had to be made up- or to be more specific, her mind. Now, staring up at the once elegant facade of the Hyperion, doubts began to resurface.
Was this what she really wanted? Would she miss it if she continued to stay away like a scared rabbit too timid to face the big bad wolf? That last thought had her head shaking in wry amusement picturing Angel as a large sleek and predatory wolf. Somehow that fitted him to a T, but putting herself in the role of a timid little rabbit—no way in hell. Her mouth thinned in self-disgust at the thought.
But still she hovered outside, caught between running back to the safety of her apartment and facing her fears. Cool moisture flecked Cordelia’s upturned face and she realized it had begun to rain. The gentle shower developed into driving drops that pelted her mercilessly, and its ferocity did what no amount of internal arguing could manage.
Her shoes click-clacked against the rain-slicked sidewalk as she hurried towards the hotel’s entrance. Before doubts could reassert themselves the door had been pulled open and already shut soundlessly behind her.
Finding the lobby deserted brought all her misgivings rushing back to the surface. Has she heard wrong? Wes had definitely said he’d be returning to the hotel for the remainder of the day, even giving her a rough time of his departure home afterwards. 6 pm. It had only taken her about an hour, two at the most after he’d left for her to decide to stop avoiding the hotel and Angel. 4:15 pm.
So where the hell was he?
Biting her lip fretfully, Cordelia eyed the shadowed stairs to her right. This needed to be done. One way or the other she had to know whether spending day in, day out side by side with Angel was ever going to work again. But facing him on his territory with no one around to at least quell some of the unease she felt at being here? Well that was a whole new level of confidence she doubted she had right now.
As her eyes darted from the stairs to the exit, the muffled sound of laughter drew her attention and she tracked the sound and saw a figure move past the office window below the mostly drawn blinds. Cordelia sagged in relief. Hearing the cultured tones of Wes seconds later evaporated the twinge of fear that bugged the hell out of her and she moved further in to descend the steps on her way over and then stopped dead.
Tilting her head to the side, Cordelia peered more closely until she saw that there were two distinct figures in the office and neither of them belonged to Angel, which meant he had to be upstairs. The fact that they hadn’t rushed out to greet her meant that they’d obviously not heard her enter the building.
It took two seconds of internal debate for her to decide against telling them she was there. With Wes and Gunn’s overly protective behavior of late, Cordelia knew when she told them of her decision to confront Angel they would instantly demand to accompany her. Visions of them arriving at Angel’s door, her looking like a filling in a sandwich as they flanked her had shaking her head and backing up.
Cordelia didn’t want Angel thinking she was too scared to face him alone… her mouth twisted at that. Duh! Like he probably hadn’t guessed already. But that wasn’t really why the thought of them by her side made her uncomfortable. Some things she had to say weren’t for their ears. She still had some dignity left. Okay, so yeah, them knowing she’d bumped uglies with Angel was mortifying enough.
Taking a deep breath to steady her skittering nerves, she turned towards the stairs and resolutely ascended, her hand gripping the rail until her fingers whitened from the pressure. It hadn’t occurred to her that their first meeting would be in his rooms. Thinking of what she was about to do set off every alarm system in her brain, but in a way it would be a catalyst. It was, after all where it had all started to change between them.
Rounding the corner at the top of the stairs, Cordelia began her trek down the dim corridor. Her step faltered as it hit her that the last time she’d been in Angel’s suite he’d pulled her down and kissed her. Oh god.
She could feel her resolve weakening with every step until her forward momentum stopped altogether. Maybe it would be better after all to have Wes go get Angel and then they could talk somewhere a lot less volatile? Then another thought hit her. Darla had been dusted in those rooms too. Staked by the man she had turned into a vampire over two hundred years ago. They had history, boy howdy, Cordelia’s lips curled in disgust at that. Angel had staked Darla once before for threatening the love of his unlife: Buffy. He’d done it again for her. That had to mean something, right?
That thought firmed her jaw and raised her head high as she began to walk, this time more confidently, eating up the last few feet until she faced his door, her knuckles rapping the hard wooden panel briskly. The harsh sound caused her to flinch. Maybe she had knocked a little too hard? Maybe he was asleep?
She gulped. Great. Pushing aside that unsettling thought she concentrated instead on the loudness factor, berating herself for not taking a second to temper her assault on the old dark wood, then the door opened and there was Angel, all tousled and damp, clad in a black muscle shirt that displayed rippling sweat-sheened muscles and a strip of bare skin above low-slung loose but molding black sweat pants that seemed to cling to lean hips by will alone. Her mouth dropped open. Thoughts of loudness vanished from her mind as she stared at the vision of salty goodness in front of her.