"Another Life"

 by Rheanna

I

 

 

Sunset at sunset.

 

The Strip's busy tonight, jammed with cars, the young and the beautiful partying like tomorrow the world's gonna end. She stands on her patch and watches the cars sail past. She makes up stories about faces she glimpses as they rush past at fifty miles an hour, going places while she stands in one place, waiting for business to come to her.

 

Life is literally passing her by. Somebody somewhere must be laughing at that joke. Maybe whatever forces are in control of her life these days, now that she isn't anymore. The Powers That Be.

 

A classic black Chevy glides past, the young woman in the passenger seat pawing the driver, a much older and not particularly attractive man. The story -- she's a Model/Actress/Whatever, he's something low-down in television, she thinks he can get her in the door. The ending -- three fucks, max, and the poor dumb bitch will be looking for another ride. That's how it works.

 

She wishes she'd known that before she came to this city.

 

She pulls down her skirt, a pointless action as there's barely enough leather to cover the lacy tops of her stockings. The chill wind whips her hair into her face, mixing dyed platinum strands with her natural chestnut brown. Two months ago, Frankie decided she'd bring in more business if she turned blonde; she told him no, then spent a week covering up the bruises his powers of persuasion left all over her rib cage. She'd been right, of course -- her regulars didn't like the change, and new clients preferred the natural blondes. Her takings had fallen, and that had earned her more bruises. Now the blonde is growing out, and she can't afford to cover it up with something approximating her natural color. She looks cheap and she knows it.

 

Another car goes past, this time bearing a well-dressed young woman, an executive on her way home after a late night at the office. It halts for a few seconds at the intersection; the woman dabs at her lipstick, then glances out of the car. For the briefest of moments their gazes meet and the contempt in the eyes of the woman in the car is undisguised. Trash, she's thinking. Hooker. Whore.

 

Cordelia stares right back at her, unflinching. The other woman looks away first. Then the car accelerates down the street, out of Cordelia's life and into a better one.

 

Cordelia can't follow her, but she closes her eyes and wishes she could. She makes a wish to be transported to another life -- maybe the life she used to have, when she had money and a future and the toughest choice she faced was whether to go to college at UCLA or Duke. Even now, she finds it difficult to believe that this is real, that this is her life, this is who she is now.

 

And the worst part is, as much as she wants to blame Cameron or Frankie or everyone else who's let her down or screwed her over since she came to L.A., she can't. She made every decision along the way that brought her here all by herself. And now there's no way back.

 

Cordelia blinks fast, her chest trembling with gasps that aren't -- quite -- sobs.

 

"Are you okay, honey?"

 

Cordelia's glad to hear Val's familiar nasal New York accent, and the genuine concern in her voice. Val has left her patch to make sure Cordelia's all right; she's walking over to join her, unsteady in black thigh-length boots with four-inch heels. Cordelia's clothes are scarcely less ridiculous -- a leather mini skirt, a blouse with studs instead of buttons, for easy removal, and fishnet stockings. Fishnet stockings, Cordelia thinks. She's a walking cliché.

 

"I'm okay, Val. I'm gonna take ten minutes, get a cup of coffee. Can you cover for me?"

 

Val nods. "If Frankie drives by, you're with a client."

 

"Thanks, Val."

 

Cordelia ducks into a side alley and starts walking quickly in the direction of the closest McDonald's. Once, she would have died before sullying her reputation or her shoes by venturing into nasty, dirty back streets like this one. Places like this were for junkies, muggers and whores, not nice, rich girls like Cordelia Chase. Now, these streets no longer frighten her -- they belong to her as much as to the druggies and thieves -- but she still picks her way through the used needles and soiled condoms, being careful to keep her feet clean.

 

"Going somewhere, sugar?"

 

Cordelia looks over her shoulder, disinterested. "Just taking a break, Ray."

 

She doesn't know what his real name is, but the shabby, greasy guy standing in her path is known to all the working girls as Sugar Ray due to his habit of addressing all of them in the same way. He has one lazy eye, and always appears to be staring at a point just above and to the left of the face of the person he's talking to. Depending on his mood, he either tries to save the girls' souls with his unique brand of hellfire and damnation religion, or he comes on to them. Which is rich, Cordelia thinks. As if any of them would give it up for free.

 

"Where to, sugar? Can Ray come?"

 

His habit of talking about himself in the third person is more than a little creepy, and always an indication that Ray's link with sanity is that little bit more tenuous than usual. "To answer both your questions -- none of your damn business, and no."

 

Some nights a sharp put down is enough to make Ray shamble off again to wherever he goes between times. But tonight it only seems to raise his ire. "Little tramp. Little whore. You're damned, you know. Your soul's all black, all black inside. Ray knows. Oh yes, hell yeah, Ray can see you're on the way down." He starts to laugh at that, a nasty, gurgling cackle that's thick with catarrh.

 

"If I'm going down, it sure as hell isn't on you. Get lost, Ray."

 

He takes a step nearer to her, and Cordelia moves back. Ray's undernourished, but he's a big guy, and he's got at least five inches and a hundred pounds on Cordelia. For the first time, she starts to feel a little threatened. His eyes brimming with tears, Ray says, "But YOU'RE the one who's lost. Can't you see it? Don't you, can't you? Ray can help. Ray's gonna put you back on the righteous path, sister sugar."

 

Then, with a deceptively fast movement, he reaches into his shabby gray overcoat and pulls out a knife.

 

Oh, fuck, Cordelia thinks.

 

Distract him. Keep him talking.

 

"Hey, Ray. I'm going to the McDonald's on the next block -- why don't you come with me? I changed my mind."

 

Ray shakes his head sadly. "It's too late to change your mind, sugar. Decision's already made."

 

He lunges at her.

 

Cordelia turns, and runs.

 

She's careering down the alley, screaming for someone, anyone who might hear her -- but it's dark and she's just finding out she doesn't know the back streets as well as she thought she did, and she can't run in the stupid stilettos she wears when she's working and ohshit she's tripping and sliding and falling down into the crud into the gutter, hands out to save herself but nothing's gonna save her now and she wishes more than anything things had been different --

 

She crouches down, curls up, and waits for the pain to start.

 

Nothing.

 

She stays still, perfectly still, for twenty seconds, a minute, two minutes. The part of her mind that isn't huddling, terrified is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The only explanation she can come up with is that Ray blundered past her in the dark, somehow overlooking her after she fell. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but neither does the fact she's still alive.

 

Whatever happened, she has to move. Get somewhere safe.

 

Come on. MOVE.

 

Cordelia makes herself get up. The first thing she sees when she turns around is Ray's body lying on the ground behind her. His head is pointed in one direction and his chest in the other. The look on his face is one of dumb, stupid surprise.

 

Her first thought is: Talk about dumb luck, he slipped and fell too --

 

Then she feels her skin prickle and go cold. No one ever tripped and twisted his neck around the wrong way on the way down.

 

Now she realizes she isn't alone.

 

The figure in the shadows is standing absolutely still, blending almost perfectly with the surrounding darkness.

 

In the distance, Cordelia can hear the noise of traffic on the Strip, horns beeping, distant voices, the sound of human lives being lived. It's never sounded so precious or desirable. If she bolts, she might just make it back to the street --

 

She tenses, gets ready to flee again.

 

"Don't -- don't run. Please."

 

The voice from the shadows is hesitant, and the last word feels artificially tacked on, as if the speaker is having trouble remembering the finer points of polite conversation. But that isn't what stops Cordelia from bolting.

 

It's the fact that she recognizes the voice.

 

"Come out of there," she says. When the shadow doesn't move, she injects a note of the old haughtiness into her tone. "Come out where I can see you or I'm leaving on the count of three. One, two --"

 

As her tongue begins to shape the word 'three', the figure comes forward, into the reflected glare of a neon sign.

 

He looks a little different than she remembers him -- which is crazy, because he's the last person she'd expect to change. But there is a difference, one she can't quite isolate. Black shirt and pants, leather and hair gel -- these things are the same. Maybe he's lost weight, if vampires can do that. Maybe his eyes are a little more sunken, his cheeks a little more hollow. Maybe he's just tired.

 

"Angel. Hi." Cordelia is quietly amazed at her ability to keep her voice so steady, her tone so casual. And they said she couldn't act.

 

"Cordelia."

 

If he's as surprised to see her as she is to see him, there's no indication of it in his voice. Or, for that matter in his face, although it's more difficult to tell, there: he has one hand raised, as if to hide his yellow eyes, ridged forehead and fangs. Just this once, Cordelia's grateful for the Sunnydale upbringing that makes this sight less frightening than Sugar Ray with a knife.

 

Angel lowers his hand; slowly, his face smoothes and his eyes darken. Cordelia isn't sure, but she doesn't remember the change taking this much time or conscious effort. "Still a vampire, then?"

 

He nods.

 

This established, Cordelia moves on to the other important question on the Angel checklist. "Are you evil?"

 

"I don't think so."

 

It's hardly the vigorous denial Cordelia would have liked to hear. She points at the body on the ground. "You killed him."

 

"He was going to rape you and then murder you."

 

Angel says it with as much feeling as if he were telling her that the capital of France is Paris. But it's true, and that knowledge -- how close she came to being Jane Doe on an autopsy table -- slams into Cordelia like a physical blow. She feels something inside her turn to water; her insides are sloshing around and suddenly she can't stay on her feet. She sinks down and stretches out on a bed of empty fast food containers and cigarette butts, and shuts her eyes.

 

"Oh God. Oh God. He said I was dirty -- that my soul was black --"

 

She doesn't know why this, more than the fact that Ray was ready to slash her open with a knife, pushes her over the edge, but it does. Cordelia hears her voice dissolve into incomprehensible sobs, and hates herself for buckling like this. But she can't stop crying.

 

"Cordelia --" When she opens her eyes again, Angel has moved a step closer. He's holding his arms out from his sides, as if he wants to help her up but can't or won't touch her. "You are dirty." He swallows, then tries to make awkward amends, "I only meant -- your clothes are filthy. Maybe it would help to -- would you like to get cleaned up?"

 

Hot water and soap and skin that isn't sticky with dried cum. Yes, Cordelia thinks, she would like that a lot. But -- "I share a place with some of the girls. I just don't -- I don't want to be there, right now. Maybe a motel somewhere, a room with a shower --"

 

Angel hesitates, as if what he's about to say is difficult. "I have some extra space. You could come with me. Just for tonight."

 

Leaving her patch early for Frankie to drive past and find deserted, going with a vampire back to his lair -- rationally, Cordelia knows that accepting Angel's offer is deeply stupid on every level there is, plus some levels that haven't been explored at all yet. But right now the idea of being lifted out of this life, just for one night, is irresistibly seductive.

 

"Have you got a spare room?" she asks.

 

***

 

Angel has sixty five spare rooms.

 

"You have got to be kidding me," Cordelia says as he pulls up his car -- a vampire with a convertible, how the hell does that work? -- outside the back entrance of what seems to be a deserted hotel. "When did you move into real estate?" Then she remembers the mansion on Crawford Street, back in Sunnydale. Angel does seem to have a talent for finding desirable, vacant property; in another life, he would have made one hell of a broker.

 

Angel doesn't answer, just gets out of the car and pushes open the rusting iron gates. After a second, Cordelia follows him through a weedy, overgrown courtyard and past a dried-up fountain, and into a cavernous space that might once have been the hotel's lobby.

 

The lobby is dark; dust sheets cover the furniture, and there are no obvious signs of life. But then, Cordelia thinks, when the sole resident is a vampire, signs of life are the last thing you should expect to see.

 

"This is the Hyperion," Angel says. And then, as if it explains everything: "I live here."

 

"Sure. Right," Cordelia mutters as he walks past the reception desk and up the grand, creaking staircase. Angel doesn't look back once he starts climbing, and it seems to Cordelia the available options are either follow him or stand in the lobby all night. She follows him.

 

She catches up with him on the second floor hallway, where he's standing outside one of the bedrooms. As she draws near, he opens the door for her. The room inside is cluttered with boxes of junk and smells musty, but the bed is made-up.

 

"This room's plumbing works," Angel says. "The pressure comes and goes, but there should be enough hot water for a shower. Do you -- want a T-shirt?"

 

He's looking at her outfit -- the blouse that shows everything, the little leather skirt, the fishnets and the come-fuck-me heels -- as he says it. It's the first indication Angel's given that he knows or cares what she was doing when he found her, and Cordelia feels herself starting to flush. Sometimes, the only thing that lets her survive her new life is the knowledge that no one from her old life knows about it. As grateful as she is to Angel for getting between her and Ray tonight, he's a Sunnydale face, and seeing him is bringing back memories of high school and better times.

 

Suddenly, she doesn't want to look at him anymore. She doesn't want him looking at her.

 

"I don't need anything else," Cordelia says shortly, and walks into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.

 

The water that comes out of the shower nozzle is hot, although the pressure's so low it's hardly more than a dribble. Cordelia makes do as best she can, and as she washes off the night's grime she feels the warmth suffusing into her muscles, relaxing them. Mechanically, she scrubs between her legs, then washes her hair, behind her ears, between her toes, and every other part of herself she can reach. By the time she's ready to towel herself off, she feels pleasantly weak and raw.

 

Her clothes are lying where she dumped them, in the middle of the floor, and she can't bring herself to put them back on. Standing here, naked, she's herself; it's the clothes that push up her tits and squeeze her ass that turn her into the girl on the street-corner. She pushes the soiled heap to one side with her toe and sits down on the bed, still wrapped in the faded blue towel she found hanging on the rail in the bathroom.

 

The bedroom is cool, and she can see moisture evaporating off her skin, rising in faint clouds before dissipating into the air. Her arms and shoulders are rising in goosebumps, and she's starting to get cold, so she lets the damp towel fall to the floor and gets into the bed.

 

Initially, this isn't much of an improvement -- the bed is frigid, the mattress cold underneath her. She scissors her legs between the blankets, trying to build a little heat by friction, then curls her arms around herself. Her last conscious thought before she falls asleep is to wonder whether it would be rude to go and find Angel and ask him if he owns an electric blanket.

 

She dreams that she's back in Sunnydale, hooking outside The Bronze in the snow, shivering in her little leather skirt while Xander and Buffy and Willow and everyone she ever knew take it in turn to sneer at her. So when Angel drives up in a black convertible and offers her a ride anywhere she wants to go, she smiles at him and gets in.

 

***

 

Cordelia is woken up by a sound unlike anything she's ever heard before.

 

She sits up in the bed, momentarily confused about where she is and how she got here. She remembers Angel, the hotel and Sugar Ray, in that order, then looks at her watch. It's the cheapest one the drugstore had -- the DeVille she loved, her sixteenth birthday present, got stolen months ago. The glowing digital numbers tell her it's just after two o'clock, and the darkness outside the bedroom curtains indicates that means two in the morning. She's only been asleep for a couple of hours.

 

For a moment, Cordelia wonders if the noise that woke her was just traffic passing in the street below. Then she hears it again. No way is that traffic.

 

Half way between a howl and scream, it sounds like an animal being tortured. The hairs rise on the back of Cordelia's neck, and she remembers that no matter how happy she was when Angel showed up tonight, right now she's alone in a big empty building with a vampire who has a nasty habit of turning evil at the drop of a soul. Cordelia barely knew Angel in Sunnydale, and she's only just starting to realize she doesn't know what's been going on with him since he left. No more than he knows what's happened to her.

 

She can stay in here and cower, or she can get out of here as fast as possible. Cordelia has never been a big fan of cowering.

 

She throws off the blankets and reclaims her clothes from the crumpled heap in the corner of the room, leaving the stockings but pulling on the skirt and blouse, for the modicum of modesty they afford her. The clothes are crumpled and dirty, and they're no one's idea of a fantasy; Cordelia wishes she'd taken Angel up on his offer of a clean T-shirt.

 

She pushes the bedroom door open gingerly, trying and failing to remember if the hinges squeaked last night. They don't, and a moment later she's standing in the hallway. The stairs leading to the lobby below, the exit, and escape are within sight.

 

As quietly as possible, Cordelia tiptoes along the corridor, barefoot, holding her stilettos in her right hand. She's passing room 217 -- is right outside the closed door -- when she realizes this is the source of the noises.

 

But it's not an animal she hears. The screams and whimpers are human.

 

Or, more accurately, vampire.

 

Cordelia bites her lip, and looks toward the door of 217. If she left now, she'd never see -- or have to see -- Angel again. And, really, what is he to her? The ex-boyfriend of a girl she went to high school with. Someone her own ex-boyfriend didn't like much. A weirdo with odd dietary requirements and limited social skills. No one important.

 

But Cordelia isn't anyone important these days, either. What is she to Angel, that he was there when Sugar Ray decided to pull a knife on her? She owes him this much.

 

"This is so stupid," she says out loud. "This is SO stupid." But she goes to the door of room 217, and tries the handle.

 

It's open; the room beyond is dark. Cordelia takes a breath, and goes in.

 

"Angel? It's me. I mean Cordelia. Not wanting to barge in, but it sounded like you'd cut yourself shaving or, or --"

 

He's not in the bedroom; the bed is rumpled but empty.

 

From the bathroom, Cordelia hears a whimper. It sounds almost like a child crying.

 

Angel's huddled into the space between the shower cubicle and the sink unit. He's naked, but he's folded up on himself so tightly that all Cordelia can see right now are arms and legs. Nevertheless she keeps her gaze firmly focused front and center, on his face.

 

Which is difficult, too. Angel's crying.

 

Tears stream down his face, brimming out of vacant dark eyes. He's about as far from the leather-clad vigilante who saved Cordelia tonight as it's possible to get. Cordelia can't figure out what the hell is going on here, but she's sure it's not healthy. And somehow she's landed in the middle of it.

 

"Angel? Angel, are you hearing me? C'mon, Angel."

 

Can vampires develop drug dependency? Cordelia considers that idea, then rejects it quickly -- there's no sign of any drugs paraphernalia, no tell-tale marks on his arms (and if he did shoot up, how could he get a hit without blood circulating to his brain?) She thinks she can smell alcohol off him, but she's never seen liquor produce this kind of effect, no matter what quantity it's taken in.

 

Angel doesn't respond and Cordelia, growing braver, leans forward and gently slaps his cheeks. His face remains dazed and void; wherever he is, he's not coming back anytime soon.

 

"Let's get you back to bed," Cordelia says. She takes his hands in hers, and tries to pull him to his feet. She's not strong enough, and on the first attempt he barely budges. But when she's pulled again, harder, several more times, the small part of his brain that's still responding to external stimuli starts to get the message. Clumsily, he gets up, and almost immediately falls forward on to Cordelia's shoulders.

 

He's still naked, and now there's no way of avoiding it. In two years working the streets, Cordelia's seen enough examples of male genitalia to rid her of any residual embarrassment at the sight of a penis, but this feels different. He probably doesn't even know she's here, and even glancing down there feels like taking advantage.

 

Walking backwards and almost bumping into the door, Cordelia leads him back into the bedroom, and somehow maneuvers him into sitting on the edge of the bed. She was right about the smell of alcohol -- there's an almost-empty bottle of whiskey on the dresser, a tumbler beside it. But somehow she doubts that's Angel's problem.

 

She pushes his shoulders, and he goes down without resistance. Then she lifts his legs and turns him so he's lying flat on his back. Throughout, his face stays fixed in that same, eerie blankness, except for the quiet tears that won't stop running down his cheeks.

 

She pulls the sheets up to his chest, then stands for a moment, looking down at his dull, dead eyes.

 

There's nothing more she can do here. She starts to turn away.

 

"Don't go. Please."

 

His voice is fragile, like it might crack open any second and everything inside him come pouring out. He sounds just like he did in the alleyway last night, when he asked her not to run away. She wonders how many people just run away from him.

 

He reaches up and takes hold of her wrist with his hand. His grip is strong, but he's disoriented; if she really wanted to get away, she could. The look in his eyes is distant, but it is a look.

 

"What can I do?" Cordelia asks.

 

"Are you real?" Angel asks.

 

"I'm real."

 

He shuts his eyes. "Sometimes I can't tell -- for hours -- or days -- what's real --"

 

Vampires aren't real, Cordelia thinks. Everyone knows that. Well brought-up girls who go to the big city and slip between the cracks into a life they never even thought about -- they stop being real, too. Just like vampires, the rest of the world walks on by and pretends the things that do exist, don't.

 

"We're both real," she tells him. "I'll prove it."

 

Taking his face in her hands, she leans down and kisses him on the mouth. His lips are cool -- it feels weird, but not unpleasant. Just when she thinks he's not going to respond, his mouth opens, and the tip of his tongue brushes her lips, as if seeking permission to come inside her mouth.

 

He's tentative, uncertain. But that's okay. Cordelia knows what she's doing.

 

She locks her lips around his tongue, then squeezes and releases it, over and over. She can feel his body tensing as he raises his head, letting her take his tongue deeper into her mouth. His face and mouth are growing warm, and when she moves, he moves with her, as if he can't bear to break the contact.

 

Firmly, she places her hands on his shoulders and pushes him down. Angel gives a small moan as she forces him back, but he's still disoriented enough to let her set the pace. Cordelia knows that will be better for both of them.

 

Cordelia moves on to the bed, straddling Angel but not touching him. Supporting her weight on her knees and elbows, she positions herself directly over him, her hair falling down into his face. "Take off my blouse," she says.

 

His hands fumble as he obeys. Cordelia's still not sure how much of his response is automatic. If she has to walk him through this, step by step, she will.

 

The last stud pops free and her breasts spill out. Gently, she lowers herself on to him, allowing them to brush against his face. At first he's passive, eyes shut; then his lips part a fraction and he gently massages each nipple in turn, his tongue caressing the darker skin that surrounds them. A second later, and they're hard between his lips.

 

Last night he broke a man's neck. And now he's gentle, so very gentle --

 

Cordelia sits up, leaning back and resting her weight on his thighs. She shrugs off the blouse and throws it to one side. Then she tugs away the sheet, the last barrier between them.

 

Now it's okay to look.

 

His cock is already half-erect, flushing as it hardens. She takes his balls in her hands and massages them lightly, rolling them between her palms. Angel's soft groan is enough to tell her her touch is having the desired effect.

 

When he's as hard as he can be, she stops. Angel raises his hands over his head and grips the bars of the bedstead, bracing himself as he raises his hips, trying the find something to thrust against. This is what she intends to get from him -- a response. A connection.

 

She lowers herself on her elbows, and kisses him lightly, first on the inside of his thighs, and then along the shaft of his cock, working her way from the base to the head. Once there, she flicks out her tongue, barely touching it before alighting somewhere else. He's as cool here as everywhere else, and he tastes clean, a faint flavor of salt and nothing else.

 

Angel lets out a wordless cry and bucks under her; he can't tell where she's coming from next and it's making him crazy.

 

Cordelia slips the head of his cock into her mouth and runs her tongue around it. She sucks, again, and again, building a rhythm, allowing him to find and follow it. Now she's holding the shaft in her hand, sliding along his length and back again, in time with the other motions.

 

He's working against her with a kind of desperation; she's sure he should have come by now, but he's holding back. Between thrusts, he gasps, "Is this -- this is --"

 

Cordelia lifts her head, lets his cock slip out of her mouth. He's so hard he must be in near-pain. "What?"

 

"Is this real?" Angel whispers.

 

"This is real," Cordelia affirms. "This is happening. This is real."

 

She adjusts her position, supporting herself on her arms and leaning forward so his cock rubs between the fullness of her breasts. When he comes, with a shudder and a shout, it spills on to her and runs between them.

 

Angel's grip on the metal bars of the bed's frame slackens as his arms relax. He gives a final sigh of lingering pleasure, and slides down on to the pillows, spent. Cordelia uses the edge of a sheet to wipe her chest clean. This was just another transaction, she tells herself, no different to what she does every other night of the week. Angel saved Cordelia's life this evening; he asked her for something in return and she paid him in the only currency she carries these days. Now they're even, parting on equal terms again.

 

But then there's the way he's looking at her now. Most of Cordelia's clients won't look at her at all when they're through -- if they do, it's with contempt, and an ugly superiority. But Angel's gazing up at her with something like gratitude, or even wonder, and it touches Cordelia in a way she can't explain.

 

So when Angel says, quietly, "Stay," she does, climbing into bed beside him, and allowing him to wrap his cool arms around her. At first, he feels as cold as the bed in her room did when she first got into it, but it isn't long before his body begins to trap her warmth, reflecting it back at her. Angel is better than an electric blanket, Cordelia decides as she falls asleep, and she doesn't dream about snow.

 

***

 

Cordelia wakes up cold and alone.

 

There's a space in the bed beside her; at first she thinks Angel must be in the bathroom, but the door to the en suite is sitting open and he isn't in there.

 

She pulls the curtains open and winces in the bright sunshine; the old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock on Angel's dresser tells her it's almost noon. She searches his closet and helps herself to a plain white T-shirt and a pair of gray drawstring pants. They're musty but clean, and they smell like Angel; his scent is earthy, a little metallic, and Cordelia's surprised at how much she enjoys being surrounded by it.

 

She gives the room the once-over, but there's no note, no indication of where he's gone, when he might be back, or if he expects her to be here when he does return. She could go back to bed -- the idea of luxuriating longer in the novelty of uninterrupted rest is tempting -- but Cordelia's never made a habit of sitting around waiting for something to happen. She goes downstairs, to the lobby.

 

She finds the money sitting on the reception desk, where she can't fail to miss it.

 

It's sitting by itself, a neat pile subdivided according to the bills' denominations. There's no accompanying note or card -- nothing to indicate it's intended for her -- but Cordelia knows what it is, knows what it's for.

 

Just a transaction, she reminds herself harshly. Stupid to imagine it could have been anything else. Anything more.

 

She doesn't want his fucking money.

 

She's out of the hotel and half way down the street when her inner pragmatist cuts in. As her steps slow, then stop, Cordelia remembers a saying she heard first from one of her mother's maids -- one of the ones who didn't stay long, one of the ones whose name Cordelia never bothered to learn. Beggars can't be choosers.

 

Beggars can't be choosers, Cordelia tells herself as she retraces her steps to the hotel. The money is still sitting on the reception desk; she lifts it and counts it into her purse, her eyes blurring. One hundred dollars is food until the end of the month; being able to take cabs home for a week instead of walking alone; her portion of this week's rent. It means a lot. It makes last night mean nothing.

 

Beggars can't be choosers, Cordelia thinks, and walks out of the Hyperion. She doesn't expect she'll ever be back.

 

 

 

II

 

 

 

 

Angel is following Cordelia.

 

She hasn't seen him. In fact, she hasn't seen anything, unless you count a shape perched on the roof of the building opposite, or a shadow that's a fraction too dark -- but she knows it's him. Who else would it be?

 

She thinks it started a couple of weeks after the night she spent with him at his hotel, although it's possible he was following her before that, and she just didn't notice.

 

She knew for certain when she left the purse containing her night's earnings -- five hundred dollars in cash -- on the bus. She opened her bag as she walked up the street to the apartment building, and felt a yawning, gaping panic begin as she remembered setting the purse on the seat beside her as she rode home. She was ready to run all the way to the bus depot, if she had to; anything to avoid Frankie's fury. Then she heard a light thud and the chink of loose change behind her, and when she turned around her purse was lying in the middle of the sidewalk. There was no one in sight.

 

Her takings slumped: she couldn't perform, knowing that he might be somewhere close, watching her kneel with her face in a gasping stranger's open flies. Somehow, she managed to pull herself together in time to bring business back to normal levels before she incurred Frankie's wrath. She was lucky -- lately Val has been his victim of choice, and he's been noticeably easier on the other girls. Cordelia is ashamed of herself for the relief she feels that the bruises are on Val and not herself, but it doesn't stop her wanting it to continue.

 

Then Frankie -- in one of his frequent and inexplicable policy decisions -- shuffled the girls' patches and Cordelia found herself working Sunset again for the first time since the night Sugar Ray tried to kill her. She walked past the entrance to the alley where she'd fallen as she fled from him, and she thought -- although she wasn't sure -- she felt a cool hand brush against hers as she passed. After that, slowly, she started to find the constant shadowy presence trailing her a kind of comfort. She began to associate Angel's presence with safety, a feeling she hasn't enjoyed in too long.

 

After a month, Cordelia has settled into an odd but increasingly not unwelcome routine. She works the streets and buys her groceries at the All-Nite and walks back to the apartment where she lives with Frankie's other girls just before dawn every day in the knowledge that he is there. Sometimes she even calls, "See you tomorrow, Angel," as she goes inside, half-wondering if he'll respond. Cordelia thinks this strange equilibrium benefits her more than him, although she's a little disappointed that Angel -- Buffy's noble, heroic, vampire-with-a-soul -- is just another voyeur, getting his kicks by watching Cordelia turn tricks for cash. But then, no one is the way you like to think.

 

Angel watches Cordelia, which she doesn't like, but he keeps her safe, which she does. It doesn't seem an unfair exchange, although Cordelia doesn't think she would always have felt this way. It's a strange equilibrium but, while it benefits her, this is one boat she doesn't intend to rock.

 

It's Angel who does that.

 

 

***

 

Cordelia recognizes the car before its driver: one of the few things she ever shared with her father was an appreciation of classic automobiles. Her overriding emotional response as the Plymouth rolls up to her is surprise mingled with amusement -- how can Angel have the nerve? A month and a half of lurking in alcoves and doorways, and now he thinks he can just drive right up to her?

 

Apparently, that's exactly what he thinks.

 

The Plymouth pulls in off the street and stops right next to where Cordelia's touting for business. "Hi," Angel greets her awkwardly.

 

"What do you want?"

 

Cordelia starts walking along the sidewalk, away from the car. After a moment, Angel gently eases the convertible forward, crawling along beside her. At the other end of the street, Cordelia sees Val look around, then nod and go back to working her own patch, satisfied that Cordelia's not in trouble, just negotiating with a potential client. And, from a distance, that's exactly what it must look like. For an instant, Cordelia wonders if Angel's worried about his reputation, then thinks -- What reputation? He's a *vampire.* Reputations don't get worse than that.

 

"Are you busy?" Angel asks.

 

"As it happens -- yes. I'm not out here taking the night air for my health."

 

"I know," Angel says.

 

"Then why'd you ask?" Cordelia says harshly. She doesn't mean to snap, but it comes out sounding raw and ugly.

 

Angel is silent for an unnaturally long time. He never was particularly good at conversation, Cordelia remembers, and now it seems he's lost the knack completely.

 

"What do you want?" she asks again. "Because time is money, and you're wasting mine."

 

"I want -- I'd like to talk. To you."

 

"Come back tomorrow," Cordelia says. "During the day."

 

He looks stung by that, and for a second she thinks -- she hopes -- he's going to drive away. But he doesn't. Instead he takes one hand off the wheel for long enough to dig out a battered-looking wallet. "I'll pay for your time now. How much does it take?"

 

Cordelia almost says, You should know, but something makes her bite the words back. Partly it's the genuinely hopeful look on Angel's face. Mostly, it's simply that Cordelia's worn out and, right now, a break sounds too good to pass up on. Especially a paid break.

 

Cordelia sighs.

 

"Fifty bucks gets you a hand job or a coffee at McDonald's," she tells him as she gets into the car. "Your choice."

 

 

***

 

 

It's not good coffee, but it's not bad coffee either. It's hot, and that's almost enough to make up for the flavor and aroma deficit. Cordelia sits at the plastic table with her hands wrapped around the cardboard beaker, allowing the heat to suffuse through her fingers. "So, do you keep up with any of the Scoobies?"

 

"The what?"

 

Angel's looking at her blankly; Cordelia can't believe he never heard any of them use the term bestowed on Buffy's immediate circle by Xander. Then again, maybe he never did -- like Cordelia, Angel was always on the fringes of the group, one Slayer ex-girlfriend notwithstanding. It may be a tenuous link, but it's the only thing she has in common with him, and they have to talk about something: the silence is getting awkward and Angel, despite his stated intentions, doesn't look likely to break it anytime soon.

 

"You know." Cordelia makes a vague gesture with one hand. "The Sunnydale people."

 

"Oh. No. Not really." Angel looks down into his own coffee, which he hasn't touched. The liquid's cloudy gray surface is perfectly still, and Cordelia can't help but notice that he doesn't even reflect there.

 

Exasperated, she says, "C'mon Angel. If you wanna talk to me, talk to me. But make it fast, because I need to be back out there in -- " Cordelia looks at her watch -- "Twenty minutes."

 

Angel nods, then takes a small (and unneeded) breath, like a diver preparing for a long submersion. "I was thinking -- about how we ran into each other. It was at a party, about two years ago. Just after I came back to L.A."

 

It's the longest speech Cordelia's heard Angel make since the night he killed Sugar Ray. She notes, too, that he said, 'back to L.A.', meaning he's lived here before, another new Angel factoid.

 

"You don't remember it," Angel says.

 

Cordelia hasn't forgotten. She remembers that party too well -- it was the night she met Angel but, more importantly, the night she met Cameron. Cameron, who was briefly her agent, and even more briefly her lover, and without whose influence Cordelia is pretty sure she wouldn't have begun the long slide down to where she is now. Hell, yes, Cordelia remembers that party.

 

She shrugs, feigning indifference. "I went to a lot of parties."

 

There's another long silence.

 

Finally, Angel decides to try again. "So, how are you -- how are you doing, these days?"

 

It's an innocent inquiry, but it pushes Cordelia right over the edge. Gripping her beaker of coffee so tightly the scalding liquid sloshes dangerously close to the rim, she snaps at him, "How am I doing? Well, gee, Angel, I'm doing great. I'm just peachy. I live with eight other girls in an apartment with space for four, for the past six weeks I've been stalked by a vampire and, oh, did I mention that I'm a WHORE?"

 

Angel actually winces on the last word. "I'm sorry."

 

"It's not your fault," Cordelia says. The moment of anger has passed; now she's just tired. "It just is. Look, I gotta go. If I'm away from my patch much longer, Frankie will notice."

 

"Who's Frankie?" Angel asks.

 

"My fencing instructor. Who do you think?" Cordelia gets up, pushing her half-drunk coffee away from herself. She starts to walk away; half-way to the door, she stops and looks back. Angel is sitting at the plastic-topped table, shoulders hunched, eyes almost closed. A grinning poster of Ronald McDonald hangs right above his head. "Angel."

 

Angel half-turns on the plastic seat. "Yes?"

 

"Stop following me. I've got my own problems without being your obsession of choice. And why'd you have to pick me, anyhow? Did you get tired of fixating on Buffy twenty-four seven? Or is that on-off thing you two have finally just off?"

 

Cordelia may not know Angel well, but she knows him well enough, and Buffy's name produces the effect she wants -- his head dips again, and he swallows in something which is almost physical pain. Cordelia feels a moment of pleasure -- she's hurt him the way he hurt her with the cash on the reception desk -- but the sweet feeling sours when Angel says, "Buffy's dead."

 

"I'm sorry," Cordelia says automatically. She guesses she is, a little. Cordelia never especially liked Buffy and her own special brand of I'm-the-Chosen-One angst, but now she looks back, she's starting to realize Buffy only played the hand she was dealt the only way she knew how. Just like Cordelia's doing. "How'd she die?"

 

"Saving the world," Angel says, as if it couldn't have been any other way. Which is probably right, Cordelia thinks. Irrationally, she feels a stab of jealousy that Buffy got to die a hero as well as live as one. Buffy died saving the world, and Cordelia can't even save herself.

 

"I'm sorry you had to see that."

 

Angel's reply, when it finally comes, is low and hollow, like wind in a graveyard.

 

"I wasn't there."

 

Cordelia doesn't know what to say -- Buffy and Angel might have split up, but she'd always assumed -- had never doubted -- that somehow her life and his unlife were intimately entwined, yin and yang forever swirling together, no beginnings or endings. It seems incomprehensible that Buffy faced whatever it was that finally beat her without Angel at her side, fighting with fangs and fury to save her until she fell. The only thing stranger than Buffy being dead is that Buffy is dead and Angel is sitting in front of Cordelia in a McDonald's just off Sunset Boulevard.

 

"I'm sorry," Cordelia says again, and this time she knows she means it.

 

Angel nods.

 

"Look, I -- I really gotta go now."

 

Cordelia is almost at the door when his voice, heavy and slow, calls her back.

 

"I'll stay away from now on. I promise. But if you ever need help -- if this man Frankie ever does anything -- you know where to find me."

 

Cordelia nods. Then she leaves Angel, sitting alone in the almost-empty McDonald's, and goes back to work.

 

***

 

"What's the matter, honey?" Val asks Cordelia.

 

They're walking along the street where Frankie's girls' apartment is, heading out to work for the night. Cordelia's wearing a spandex miniskirt, the bright pink top with the velcro fastenings that comes off in less than a second, too much make-up and heels so high the arches of her feet are cramping already. She feels, like she always does, as if she's an actress wearing a costume. Then she remembers, like she always does, that this isn't an act. This is who she is.

 

"Cordy, sweetheart? You okay?" Val asks again.

 

The door of the apartment building is only half a block away but Cordelia realizes with some embarrassment that she's already glanced over her shoulder a dozen times or more.

 

"I'm fine. It's just -- you remember that guy I told you about? The one I thought was following me?"

 

Val's eyes narrow. "Is he still doin' that? You should tell Frankie. He'd get some of his guys to fix that real quick."

 

"No -- he's stopped. I haven't seen or heard anything in a couple of weeks."

 

"Well, that's good, right?"

 

"Yeah, it's good," Cordelia agrees. Angel's kept his promise and his distance, and Cordelia knows she should be relieved she's got one less problem to deal with. But when she looks back over her shoulder, these nights, she almost hopes to see his familiar shadow lurking close by, and she's a little disappointed when he's not there. How screwed up must she be, she wonders, that she misses being stalked by a schizo vampire? "I guess he got bored and moved on to something else."

 

They've arrived at the bus stop; while they wait for the MTA number 302, Val pulls a compact out of her bag and touches up her make-up in the streetlights' neon glare. She's dabbing extra foundation around her eyes, Cordelia notices, trying to cover up the blossom of blue-black left over from Frankie's last fit of temper. Cordelia knows this is a bad sign -- Frankie's left his mark on all the girls, at one time or another, but he's always been careful not to bruise faces or breasts or places that might lose clients.

 

"Val, about Frankie --" Cordelia begins.

 

Val snaps her compact shut and smiles an old-timer's smile. "He'll get bored and move on to something new, too, honey. They always do."

 

***

 

The first thing Cordelia notices is that the apartment is too quiet. With nine girls sharing, there are always at least a couple of people about. Cordelia doesn't think she's ever been alone while she's been living here.

 

Opportunism rapidly overtakes her surprise. For the next ten minutes, or half an hour, Cordelia can walk from room to room, indulge a fantasy in which this is her space and no one else's, where she has somehow regained the independence she never knew was so precious until she lost it.

 

Cordelia stands in the middle of the living area, next to the battered couch, halted by indecision. What should she do first? She could make herself a sandwich, watch TV, read a magazine, take a shower --

 

A shower. She wants to take a shower, and then sit in the lounge with her hair wrapped up in a towel and drink coffee made with milk and sugar, the way she used to do on Sunday mornings when she was at high school.

 

Cordelia is humming to herself as she walks into the bathroom.

 

Val is there.

 

She's lying in the bath, legs and arms floating, buoyed by the water. Cordelia almost apologizes for walking in on her.

 

Then she sees that the bath water is red, that Val's eyes are open and glassy, and that the handle of the best kitchen knife -- the one Cordelia used to slice the meatloaf she ate for dinner last night -- is jutting out of Val's chest, just beneath her right breast.

 

Val stares up at Cordelia, her empty gaze asking for something that no one can give her now. Somewhere on the floor below, a door slams, and the bath water laps around Val's body, making her limbs sway in an obscene parody of life.

 

Val's body slips in the bathtub, and her head falls to one side. There's a dent in the side of her skull, and her hair is a sticky mess of dark blood and fragments of bone.

 

Cordelia turns around and walks out of the bathroom. She throws up, and then she screams, and then she leaves.

 

***

 

Cordelia is banging on the door of the Hyperion so hard the glass is rattling in the pane, and her hands are starting to bruise. It's the middle of the day, she thinks desperately: he's a vampire. How the hell can he be out?

 

Changing tactics, she presses her face to the window, squinting as she tries to see past the glare and the dirt-encrusted glass into the lobby. There's an old-fashioned coat-rack beside the reception desk; the only item on it is a black leather coat. He isn't out.

 

Cordelia starts banging the door again, until finally a blurred figure descends the stairs. Angel is pulling a bathrobe around himself as he cautiously opens the door, making sure he stands well back, out of the sunlight. He winces, partly at the unaccustomed brightness and partly, no doubt, at the unexpectedness of having a visitor. "Cordelia?"

 

"He killed her," Cordelia blurts. All the way here, that one phrase has been playing over and over in her head, like a meditation mantra in reverse. "He killed her. He killed her, and I can't do it anymore. I can't. He'll kill me next."

 

"He --?" Angel steps back, and Cordelia stumbles over the threshold and into the lobby's cool and welcoming gloom. "What's happened?"

 

Cordelia dumps her worldly possessions -- the backpack that holds them is pitifully small -- by the reception desk and sits down on a sofa which is well-camouflaged beneath a grimy dust-sheet. "Frankie killed her, Angel. He killed her. Who's he gonna kill next? He can replace any of us. We're worthless."

 

She's crying as she says it, because she knows it's true. If she were the one floating in that bathtub, would anyone care? Would anyone miss her?

 

Angel stands against the reception desk, his arms folded across his chest, and listens in silence as Cordelia spills her story out in fits and starts. When she begins to sob, he doesn't move to comfort her, or sit down beside her, or put his arms around her. Instead he vanishes for a moment into the office behind the desk, and when he returns he's carrying two glasses and a half-full bottle of whiskey.

 

"Did you call the police?" he asks as he fills the first of the glasses and hands it to Cordelia.

 

Cordelia wipes her eyes, blows her nose, and accepts the whiskey. It scours her tongue and throat on the way down, but after a few seconds she feels a faint warm glow begin to grow in the pit of her stomach. "Of course I didn't."

 

Angel pours a drink for himself, his face thoughtful. "Is it possible anyone saw you leaving? Could anyone have followed you?"

 

Cordelia thought until now that no one saw her entering or leaving the apartment building -- but when she arrived, she wasn't on guard for trouble, and when she left she was panicking and desperate. Suddenly she's not so sure. "I don't -- I don't think so."

 

Angel doesn't appear to register the uncertainty in her tone or, if he does, he dismisses it. "Then no one knows you're here. That's good."

 

Cordelia finishes her drink in two gulps. Angel drains the last drops of his, puts down the empty glass, then vanishes into the office behind the reception desk again. This time, when he returns he's carrying a blanket. He places it around Cordelia's shoulders, barely touching her -- as if he thinks she's made of spun glass, she thinks, as if he's afraid his touch might shatter her.

 

"You're safe here," he says as she curls up on the sofa, and the crazy thing is, she believes him. Maybe it's just neat whiskey on an empty stomach, or maybe it's the knowledge that for the first time since she came to this city, someone else actually gives a damn about Cordelia's problems, but whatever the reason, in less than a minute she is sleeping soundly.

 

***

 

But Frankie is everywhere, even in Cordelia's dreams; she twists and puts her hands over her ears, but can't muffle his hoarse, high-pitched whine. "Go away," she tells him sleepily. "Angel's gonna take care of you."

 

"You get religion, Cordy? That why you run away on me?"

 

Frankie sounds amused, patronizing, and close. Very close.

 

This is no dream. He's found her; he's here.

 

Cordelia jerks upright on the sofa, presses herself against the upholstered backrest, as if retreat can help now. Frankie is leaning against the pillar by the door, his squat, thick body relaxed. He has his hands in his pockets; the sleeves of his white linen jacket are marginally too short, and the tattoos that cover his arms down to his wrists peek out from under them. Frankie has cash, but he's never had class, Cordelia thinks. He was never more than one step up from trash.

 

Frankie pulls his hands from his pockets and saunters across the reception, taking in his surroundings with curiosity. "Wow. Look at this place. Musta been empty for years. How'd you know about it?"

 

Cordelia feels cold as she realizes how stupid and naïve she was to think she could just walk away, unnoticed and unmissed. "You saw me leave. You followed me."

 

Frankie shrugs. "Actually, one of my boys saw you. But I woulda found you sooner or later, you know that."

 

The street outside is dark, and Cordelia realize she's been asleep for several hours, at least. Over Frankie's shoulder, she can see that Angel's jacket is gone from the coat-stand beside the door. Angel's jacket is gone, therefore Angel is gone. She's alone with Frankie.

 

"You've come to kill me," she says. Her voice rings hollowly in the suddenly cavernous lobby.

 

Frankie looks genuinely amused. "Jesus, baby, no. Why would I do that?"

 

"You killed Val."

 

"Val had an accident," Frankie says. "We're all real sad about it. I'm upset, the girls are upset -- you're upset too. That's why you went off by yourself. But all you gotta do is come back now, with me, and we'll forget it ever happened. How does that sound?"

 

"You couldn't risk it," Cordelia says. "That I'd go to cops, tell them everything --"

 

Frankie smiles. "You could tell 'em anything you liked, baby. But the other girls will all swear they didn't see nothin'. I already got an alibi that's tighter than a five year old's pussy. And by morning there won't be a body, either. Give it up, Cor. Come home."

 

Cordelia swallows, half chokes. Incapable of speaking, she shakes her head,

 

Frankie spreads his hands in a placatory gesture. "What? Are you scared? I'd never hurt you, Cor. You're one of my best girls. You've got class. There's at least twenty guys won't even look at any of my other girls."

 

At that, Cordelia does start to cry, finally feeling the one emotion she's fought against so hard and for so long: despair. Because, for a few brief seconds, she thought she could be a threat to Frankie. But she can't threaten him and he has no need to threaten her. You don't threaten a chair, she thinks, you just sit on it. He'll sit on her like he sat on Val, and if, one day, she breaks, he'll shrug and get himself a new chair. And there's no escape; no way out. There never was.

 

"Come with me, baby," Frankie says, and holds out his hand.

 

Cordelia takes a step toward him.

 

Then, from behind her, Angel's voice. "Do you want to go with him?"

 

When Cordelia looks around, Angel is standing in an open door at the back of the lobby. She hadn't noticed it -- or him -- until now. The steps behind him seem to lead up from the basement.

 

Frankie's equable manner shifts suddenly to irritation. "The fuck are you?"

 

Angel ignores him. Looking at Cordelia, he repeats, "Do you want to go with him?"

 

Cordelia looks back at Angel. Then at Frankie. "No."

 

Angel doesn't break away from her gaze as he says, "While you're here, you don't have to do anything you don't want to."

 

"I don't know who you think you are, but this is none of your fucking business, man."

 

Angel finally looks at Frankie. "You're wrong about that in two important respects. Firstly, this is my business and, secondly -- I'm not a man."

 

Angel vamps out and makes a sound that's more like the guttural snarl of a wild animal than anything that should come from a human throat. Frankie doesn't have time to do more than stare before Angel takes hold of him by the lapels of his nasty white jacket. Angel lifts Frankie's two-hundred-and-fifty-pounds-or-more mass and hooks the jacket's collar over a brass light fixture set into the wall.

 

Frankie hangs suspended by his shirt collar, legs kicking helplessly against the air. His hands scrabble at his throat as he tries to undo the top button, but the collar is cutting so deeply into the excess flesh under his chin that he doesn't have a hope in hell. His face is slowly turning puce, and the look on it is one Cordelia's never seen there before. Frankie's terrified.

 

Angel stands back and watches Frankie's futile efforts dispassionately. His voice, when he speaks, is calm. More than calm, it's toneless, almost entirely empty of emotion. "Do you know what I am?"

 

Frankie can barely draw enough breath to speak. "Shit, oh, shit. Jesus and Mary -- You're a -- fucking -- MONSTER --"

 

"That's right. And you know what monsters do to people, don't you?"

 

"Oh, God. Oh, God," Frankie whispers. As Cordelia watches, a dark patch appears on his pants around his crotch. Liquid trickles off the bottom of his shoe and on to the carpet.

 

"Cordelia," Angel says quietly, without turning around. "What do you want me to do with him?"

 

Cordelia can't speak. She can't breathe. Her heart's thudding so hard inside her ribcage she can't even think. She knows what Angel's offering her; knows how easy it would be to accept.

 

"You don't have to stay to watch," Angel says. "Not unless you want to."

 

Cordelia thinks of Val or, more accurately, of Val's body, naked and limp. The worst thing about her death -- in a strange way, almost worse than the fact that Frankie murdered her -- was that it was squalid and cheap, and utterly without dignity. She looks at Frankie.

 

"Angel," she says softly, "Just -- let him go. Okay?"

 

Angel hesitates. Then he reaches up and with one hand -- Cordelia knew he was strong, but she never realized how strong -- lifts Frankie down. As soon as Angel removes his support, Frankie collapses on to the floor, a blubbering, wheezing mess. For the first time since she became one of his girls, Cordelia realizes she isn't frightened of him.

 

"Get up," Angel says. When Frankie doesn't move, he reaches down, grabs his shoulders and hauls him to his feet. "I said, GET UP." Angel pulls Frankie toward himself, so they're nose to nose. Cordelia can't see Angel's face, but she can see the effect it's having on Frankie. His voice quiet again, Angel says, "You're gonna get up now and walk out of here. If you come back, I'll kill you. If I see you again, I'll kill you. If Cordelia even thinks she sees you again, I'll find you and kill you."

 

Frankie's openly weeping now. "You won't -- you won't see me again."

 

"Go."

 

Frankie doesn't need to be told again. He gets up and half-falls, half-runs toward the door. He's fumbling, trying to get it open, when Angel calls out to him, "Hey, Frankie."

 

Frankie looks around slowly. Cordelia wonders if he's ever been frightened before. Really frightened.

 

"You're lucky she's better than either of us," Angel says quietly.

 

"Goodbye, Frankie," Cordelia says.

 

Then she watches her pimp stumble out of the hotel, and out of her life.

 

Angel doesn't move for a long time. When he does turn around, his face is human again, although Cordelia thinks she can still detect traces of yellow in his eyes. "If you change your mind, I can go after him," he says, matter-of-factly.

 

Cordelia takes a breath and says, "What -- what am I gonna do now?" She doesn't know why she's asking Angel -- if she doesn't know, there's no good reason why he should -- but he's the only person here she can ask.

 

"Whatever you want," Angel says.

 

She can do what she wants. It's been so long since Cordelia had choices or options that the concept is almost too immense, too wonderful to grasp. Ever since she came to L.A., her life's path has narrowed, branch routes becoming less frequent and desirable, until finally she found herself on a narrow dirt track, stumbling toward a dead end. And now, suddenly, amazingly, she's back on the highway, limited by nothing except the distant horizons.

 

"Cordelia?" For the first time, there's something other than dull anger or raw fury in Angel's tone. He sounds concerned. "Are you okay?"

 

Cordelia wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand. "I'm okay." She looks at Angel and smiles at him; to her immense surprise, he smiles back. "It's just -- he owned the place I was living -- I can't go back and I don't know -- "

 

"Stay here," Angel says. "For tonight, anyway."

 

It's a bad idea, Cordelia's sure, to jump straight from being controlled by one man to depending on the protection of another. And the switch from pimp to vampire isn't exactly a step up. But she's tired, more exhausted than she's ever been in her life; she has no money and no place to go, and the only real alternatives she has to staying at the hotel are a homeless shelter or a doorway.

 

She wants a bed, with sheets and a pillow and a mattress under her. It doesn't seem like too much to ask.

 

"Okay," she says.

 

***

 

Angel leads her to the same room she slept in that night almost two months ago. But it's changed since then -- there are clean sheets on the bed, and the boxes of junk that cluttered the floorspace are gone. Cordelia wonders if Angel has been expecting her return, or hoping for it.

 

She lies in the bed she wanted so much, and stares up at the ceiling, watching the lights of cars passing on the street below bend the shadows into strange shapes. She can hear Angel moving about, in the lobby, on the landing outside her room, doing whatever it is that vampires who live alone do all night.

 

Two o'clock. Three o'clock.

 

She should feel safer, she thinks, knowing he's there, but somehow she doesn't. Every time his footsteps approach her room, she tenses, expecting the door to open.

 

Four o'clock.

 

Angel said she could stay; he said she'd be safe here, with him. A part of Cordelia -- the old part, left over from the girl she was when she came to L.A. -- wants to believe it could be that simple. But that's the attitude that got her where she is now, and she's not going to accept anyone's charity again, now that she knows charity has a price.

 

Angel saved her tonight -- again -- which means she owes him, again. That's how it works. If she stays here, Angel will protect her, sure, but he'll want something in return.

 

And maybe, Cordelia reasons as she lies alone and cold in the bed, that's a fair exchange. Back in Sunnydale, Cordelia thought -- when she thought about it at all -- that sex was enough to trigger the escape clause of Angel's curse. Now, she recognizes that belief for what it was: naïve and adolescent. Sex isn't rainbows and violins and a single, searing moment of bliss. It's insert tab A into slot B, grab and grunt then do it all again for the next guy. If all Angel wants from Cordelia, in exchange for his protection, is a little physical relief, well, she can live with that.

 

By five o'clock, Cordelia has made up her mind.

 

Angel looks up, surprised, as she walks unannounced into his room. He's sitting up in the bed, an open book propped against his knees, modesty preserved by a sheet pulled up to his waist, and nothing more. "Hi."

 

Cordelia sits down on the end of the bed. "I wanted to say thanks for what you did for me tonight."

 

Angel doesn't move; the book he's reading remains open in front of him. "That's okay."

 

"I'm very grateful."

 

"That's okay," Angel says again. He looks uncomfortable. "Cordelia --"

 

"Do you remember the first night I was here?" Cordelia asks.

 

Angel hesitates. "Yes. I remember it."

 

Quickly, Cordelia leans forward, so her body is on top of his. She pushes the book down and kisses him, cutting off whatever he was going to say. Angel doesn't respond, but he doesn't push her away either.

 

Cordelia pulls back. She wets her finger, and draws it slowly down Angel's chest. "Do you think about it a lot?"

 

Angel closes his eyes, tips his head back, exposing his throat. Cordelia leans in and brushes her lips, then her tongue, over his Adam's Apple, working down into the hollow just above his breast bone. The noise he makes in response is something like a low growl, and Cordelia thinks she should have guessed this before. Of course vampires have a thing about necks.

 

"All the time," Angel whispers. "I think about it all the time."

 

Slowly, Cordelia works one hand under the sheets, using the other to balance herself while she continues to kiss and lick Angel's neck. She hears a thump as the book he was reading falls off the edge of the bed and on to the floor, forgotten.

 

Her fingers stroke his stomach, then the tops of his thighs. At the same time as her hands find his cock, her mouth reaches the side of his neck, where the pulse would be in a human. Cordelia makes an informed guess, and gently nips his skin with her teeth at the same time as she starts to work him underneath the sheets. The result is immediate: Angel gives a small wordless cry and pulls her closer to him, so that their bodies are locked together.

 

Cordelia raises her head long enough to whisper in his ear. "Look after me," she says, "and I'll look after you. Deal?"

 

She goes back to kissing his neck, but Angel's eyes snap open as he sits up and pushes her off him. He pushes her so hard that Cordelia almost falls over the side of the bed. "Hey!"

 

"Do you want to do this?" Angel asks.

 

Cordelia's used to telling her clients what they want to hear. "I wouldn't have come in here if I didn't."

 

"You didn't want to go with Frankie tonight," Angel says, "but you would have gone."

 

"I didn't have a choice."

 

"You do now," Angel says. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to."

 

Cordelia used to want a lot of things. A cute and devoted boyfriend, a great career, a black American Express card and those new Gucci loafers and Hermes bag. Now all she wants is to be safe, and she's stopped caring what she has to do to feel that way.

 

"Oh, God," she says. "Oh, God. I'm a prostitute."

 

Angel shakes his head, and looks confused. "I know. But you don't have to be, now. Frankie's gone."

 

"I don't need Frankie. I'm my own pimp." The look of bewilderment on Angel's face deepens, and she can see he doesn't understand. Haltingly, she tries to explain. "You saved me and you made me feel safe, and I want to stay safe and the only thing I've got to give in return is sex. It's supposed to mean something and I can't tell anymore if it does or not." She swallows back her tears. "I always told myself -- even if I worked as a hooker, that wasn't me. It wasn't who I was, underneath. I'm scared -- I'm scared I'm different, now. I'm a whore. I'll always be a whore."

 

"Cordelia, I think -- I think you should go now. Please."

 

Cordelia swings her legs off the bed and stands up. The bitter taste in her mouth as she makes her way to the door isn't just tears. "Right. Because if I stay any longer, I might try to jump your bones again. And we couldn't risk that happening."

 

She's in the hallway outside his room, about to pull the door shut, when he says, "You're not a whore. I've known whores, and you're not one."

 

Cordelia doesn't reply. She closes the door behind her, and goes back to her room, and her empty bed.

 

 

 

 

PART 2


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