PART 1

III

“Another Life”

 

 

 

"Cordelia."

 

Cordelia's hand is on the hotel's front door, about to push it open, when Angel's voice makes her stop. It isn't ten a.m., yet, and she hoped that by leaving this early, she wouldn't have to see him again.

 

She counts to ten silently, then turns around and tries to act natural.

 

"Hey, good morning. Thanks for everything, but I gotta run. Busy, busy, you know?"

 

She gives him her perkiest, most upbeat smile, as if her diary is full of exciting appointments and lists of things to do and she has to hurry if she's going to squeeze everything in. She isn't fooling anyone. Angel's frowning as he says, "Do you have somewhere to go?"

 

Cordelia figures Angel knows enough about her life by now to make lying a pointless exercise. "No. But I'll work something out. It's not your problem."

 

Slowly, Angel says, "When I said you could stay here, I meant, for as long as you needed to."

 

"I don't have any money. I can't pay rent. So, thanks for the offer, but I can't do that."

 

It has nothing to do with cash, but there's no doubt in Cordelia's mind that Angel knows just what she's talking about. The discomfited look he's wearing, the awkward way he's standing too far away from her -- these details tell Cordelia more than enough.

 

"You need to earn your way," Angel says suddenly. "I understand that. Maybe -- maybe there's another solution. You could work for me."

 

Cordelia stares at him, and he pulls a small white card from his pocket and hands it to her. He seems almost embarrassed as he tells her, "I have a kind of business."

 

"Angel Investigations," Cordelia reads out loud. She looks up at Angel in disbelief. "You're a P.I.?"

 

Angel shuffles on the spot. "Yes. In a way. I mean -- that's the idea."

 

Cordelia takes in the dust sheets in the hotel's lobby, the non-ringing telephone on the reception desk, the lack of filing cabinets or employees or, indeed, any evidence of productive, income-generating activity taking place in Angel's immediate vicinity.

 

Clearly, he needs help.

 

"I could file things," she says.

 

Angel seizes on the suggestion and runs with it. "Yes. Absolutely. I've been thinking lately -- I really need someone to file. To file -- things," he clarifies. "So, you'll stay?"

 

Cordelia doesn't answer immediately. This is Angel, who saved her life at least a couple of times in Sunnydale, who came between her and Sugar Ray's knife, and to whom she owes her brand-new, Frankie-free future. But this is also Angel, who followed her at a distance without showing his face for six weeks, who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people Cordelia never knew and several she did.

 

There's a lot, she reminds herself, that she doesn't know about him.

 

But Angel is less of a stranger to her than any of the gray faced people who walked past her and looked away while she was working the streets. And sometimes, Cordelia figures, better the devil you know.

 

"What do you want me to do first?"

 

***

 

Cordelia learns more about Angel than she expects to, and sooner than she expects to learn it. She's been living at the hotel for less than a week when she finds out about the visions.

 

She's on her hands and knees at the bottom of the stairs, polishing the last of the thirty-six brass rails that hold down the stair carpet. It's taken her all morning, but the effort has been worth it -- when she started, the rails were so dull they were barely visible, but now they gleam attractively, the way they must have done back in the days when the Hyperion had a small army of cleaners and domestic staff. Cordelia is just one person, but she intends to make her presence felt.

 

She straightens up and admires the rails, and the other changes she's been making since she moved in. The dust-sheets are gone; the lobby furniture has come out from hiding, a little musty but in surprisingly good condition. Red velvet upholstery and the newly-polished reception desk (Tuesday's task of the day) show that the hotel's class never really went away. It was just well hidden.

 

Cordelia likes the Hyperion already.

 

She's trying to decide whether her next priority should be to clean the windows or beat the dust from the rugs when Angel comes downstairs. He looks grouchy, she thinks, and wonders if that's because he's changing his routine to accommodate her -- already she's noticed he's getting up in earlier in the afternoons.

 

"Hey, Angel, check out the stair rails. Isn't that a one hundred per cent improvement?"

 

Angel grunts a reply that sounds less than enthusiastic, and walks straight past Cordelia and into the office behind the reception desk. He returns with the whiskey bottle and a single glass. When he's bolted back his third straight shot, Cordelia starts to feel a little concerned.

 

"Uhh, Angel? Technically, it's the afternoon, but since you only just got up it's really kind of morning for you, and do you think it's a good idea to start drinking before you have breakfast?" Cordelia thinks that through, and frowns. "Although for you, breakfast would also involve drinking, so -- "

 

Before she can finish the sentence, Angel gives a cry of pain, and collapses.

 

Cordelia's on her feet in an instant, rushing around the side of the desk to find him writhing -- she's never seen anyone actually writhe before -- on the floor. His limbs are thrashing uncontrollably; there's no way she can restrain him, and all she can do is stand back and wait until the fit, or whatever the hell it is, is over.

 

It seems to go on forever. When it's finally finished, Angel stays on the floor, eyes closed. He's lying as limp and still as an overdose victim, and is about the same color.

 

Cautiously, she inches toward him, and says his name. When this produces no immediate response, Cordelia kneels down at his side, puts her hand on his shoulder, and rolls him over. He tumbles on to his back, face up. His eyes are open, but blank and distant; Cordelia is reminded of the way he was when she found him crouching naked in the bathroom on that first night.

 

Then she remembers what he said. About not being able to tell what was real.

 

"Angel," Cordelia says firmly. She grips him by his arms and pulls him into a sitting position. "Angel, listen to me."

 

He looks at her like he's never seen her before. "Who --?"

 

"I'm Cordelia, remember? I'm real. This is real. I'm telling you what's real."

 

"You're real," Angel says. He repeats it: "You're real. This is real. Oh, God --" He squeezes his eyes shut again.

 

"What? What is it?"

 

"Drink," Angel whispers. "Get me a drink."

 

Sensing that right now would be a very bad time to say no to him, Cordelia retrieves the glass from where it rolled to when he dropped it, and fills it to the brim with cheap whiskey. His hands are shaking so hard she has to hold it to his mouth while he drinks.

 

"Is this gonna help?" she asks doubtfully.

 

"Helped Doyle," he says between gulps.

 

The whiskey gone, Cordelia sits back on her heels, and appraises him critically. "Are you on drugs?"

 

"What? No."

 

"Then what?" Angel is silent for a long time, but his gaze is growing more alert, and it seems to Cordelia that the effort he's making to focus on talking to her is bringing him out of the weird fugue state he seemed to be in. "Angel, talk to me."

 

"I -- saw --"

 

He squeezes his eyes shut. Carefully, Cordelia asks, "What did you see?"

 

"A gang of vampires. Near Union Station. Killing a man."

 

"You mean you had an hallucination?"

 

"A vision," Angel says. "But more than that. There's noise, and -- pain --"

 

Slowly, Cordelia starts to understand. "What you saw was real."

 

"Not saw," Angel corrects. "Felt. I feel them -- everything -- the pain -- but more than that -- the terror -- I thought I knew, but I didn't --"

 

He's becoming less coherent again, and Cordelia tries to think of a way to keep him lucid. She asks the first direct question she thinks of: "Who's Doyle?"

 

"Who told you about Doyle?"

 

Patiently, Cordelia says, "You said a name. Doyle. Just now."

 

For a second, Angel's face clouds with a grief so deep Cordelia's afraid she's only pushed him deeper into himself. But he answers her.

 

"The visions were his -- gift, curse, I don't know. I thought they were giving me a mission -- to make things right." Angel shakes his head bitterly. "The last thing he ever said was that I didn't know what I was asking for. And I thought I did, but it's too much and I can't tell what's real anymore --" He breaks off, and when he speaks again, his voice is barely a whisper. "It was never a mission; they meant to punish me. They wanted me to know what it feels like to be a victim. Over and over and over --"

 

 

Cordelia doesn't understand everything, but she thinks she understands enough. Suddenly, she remembers how Angel appeared just as Sugar Ray turned on her; how he'd been so flatly certain about what Ray intended to do to her.

 

"You saw me, didn't you. You had a vision of Ray attacking me, and you came to stop it."

 

Angel nods. He sees the future, Cordelia realizes, and then has to stop it happening. Cordelia still wakes up sweating at the thought of what Sugar Ray wanted to do to her; Angel, she realizes, experienced her rape and murder first hand. The way she would have if he hadn't been there.

 

That's not punishment, she thinks. It's torture.

 

"The vampire attack at the station -- has that happened yet?"

 

Angel shakes his head. "Tonight. After dusk." He smiles without humor. "They don't send me ones I can't change."

 

"But you can change them. You can change people's lives. You changed mine." Cordelia starts to help Angel to stand up. "I think we should go out tonight. I hear the station's nice after dark."

 

***

 

In time, Cordelia learns other things about Angel.

 

A week after Angel reduces the Union Station vampire gang to a large pile of dust, another vision leads to a small horde of Velga demons (big claws, bad breath) living in the subway tunnels and preying on hapless commuters. Angel suffers a gash on his back that he can't reach, and Cordelia dresses it. Her gaze lingers on the tattoo on his right shoulder blade, some kind of winged creature, holding an 'A' in its talons. She's curious, but she doesn't say anything, just hands him his shirt and watches the intricate pattern of blue and red disappear underneath a layer of dark cotton.

 

She discovers Angel gets cranky -- although he won't admit it -- if he doesn't have at least three glasses of blood and five hours sleep a day, so she makes sure he gets both. The first morning of her first period since she moved into the hotel, Cordelia looks at the smudge of blood in her panties and wonders whether staying in her room until it's over is an option. It isn't, and the next four days are strained -- Angel stands either much too close to her or unnaturally far away -- but on the fifth day, he visibly relaxes again. Cordelia thinks it won't be so tough next time, for either of them, but she takes the precaution of sealing her used Tampax in plastic bags and walking five blocks to a dumpster outside an apartment building to dispose of them.

 

On the day she makes cheese and crackers for lunch, and finds Angel polishing off the leftovers, she finds out that he can eat as well as drink. He has no appetite for the way food tastes -- he says it's like forcing yourself to eat when you're not hungry -- but sometimes he craves textures, wants to bite and chew. Dry, crunchy things are a particular favorite, and now Cordelia always adds a packet of crackers or potato chips to her grocery basket. Celery for a treat.

 

She learns he will let her tell him what to do, up to a point, and where that point falls; she learns how to draw him out of himself when he gets moody; she learns he likes old Charlton Heston and new Jet Li movies, that he's good at cards but terrible at board games, that he has no idea about money, that he speaks fluent French but can't ride a bicycle.

 

She learns that she likes Angel because he is Angel, and that's the most surprising discovery of all.

 

***

 

Sometimes Cordelia thinks she's like a wind-up toy -- those chattering teeth, maybe, the ones that hop on little feet across a table top. She was wound up over and over again, springs always coiled tight, never at rest. Now, finally, she's stopped, and she doesn't know when she'll want to be wound up again, or if she ever will.

 

In the first weeks after she moved into the hotel, Cordelia scoured the neighborhood second-hand and charity shops and bought herself a new wardrobe. She chose long-sleeved tops, high necks, loose pants and ankle-length skirts, clothes that cover up as much flesh as her working wardrobe used to expose.

 

She spends her days weeding and painting and cleaning, face bare of make-up, fingernails broken, the curves of her hips and breasts hidden beneath sloppy T shirts and baggy sweat pants. She works hard, until she is physically worn out, and collapses into bed every night in exhaustion and the knowledge that she has earned her rest.

 

She showers two and sometimes three times a day. It's a habit she picked up from Frankie's other girls, when she was living with them; there was always someone in the apartment's cramped bathroom, scrubbing off a stranger's odor and stains, and the creak of the hot water pipes was a constant element of the background noise. Cordelia washes herself efficiently, scrubbing between her legs without ever glancing down there. She's turned the mirror in her room at the Hyperion toward the wall so she can get dried and dressed without having to look at herself.

 

She doesn't think about sex and, when she does, she feels sick. She's stopped reading Cosmo and Marie Claire; she flips to another station if a couple in a TV show so much as kiss.

 

Maybe, she thinks, everyone begins their lives with a kind of sex quota, and she's used up all of hers by twenty one. She imagines herself living the rest of her life in a bubble, isolated from all invasive physical contact. She finds this idea comforting rather than upsetting. She can't imagine she'll ever want to be touched by anyone again.

 

The only exception she makes is for Angel.

 

Often, after the visions, he folds his arms around her and then just holds her for anything from a minute to half an hour. Cordelia thinks that holding on to a warm, living person, a real person, helps him pull himself back from the cold, dark places the visions send him to. She tolerates his embrace, but the knots of tension that form between her shoulder blades don't relax until hours after he's recovered enough to let go of her. She's glad he seems to sense how she feels, and that he only reaches out to her after the visions; the rest of the time, he takes pains to avoid so much as brushing the sleeve of his jacket against her arm as he walks at her side.

 

They haven't spoken again about what happened the night Frankie came looking for Cordelia, and Cordelia thinks it's better that way. She knows where the boundaries between her and Angel lie, and she's beginning to trust that he won't cross them any more than she will.

 

The tacit mutual understanding she and Angel have reached is working, so far, and Cordelia can live with that.

 

***

 

It's a sunny afternoon, and Cordelia is surprised to return from a trip to the grocery store to find Angel in the Hyperion's courtyard, sheltering from the daylight underneath the awning. "I didn't think you went in for tanning," she says, setting down her bags.

 

"I got locked out."

 

Cordelia looks pointedly at the open door right behind him. Angel shrugs, and puts out a hand -- at the threshold, he is blocked by an invisible, and apparently solid, barrier.

 

"If anybody asks, you can tell them you started thinking of this place as home at twenty past two on a Thursday afternoon in September." Angel looks around. "The courtyard looks great, by the way. Have you been weeding out here?"

 

"Some," Cordelia acknowledges. "So, you're gonna need --"

 

Angel nods. "An invitation, yes."

 

Cordelia picks up her bags again and walks past him, into the hotel. "Come in," she says, and thinks how strange it is to have to invite Angel into his own home. But it is her home, too, even if the weird paranormal forces that keep the universe ticking along realized it before Cordelia did. Looking around the lobby, Cordelia sees evidence of her presence, and her hard work, everywhere. She's in the gleaming brass rails on the stairs, the shining banisters, the newly painted walls and the rugs placed strategically to hide the patches where the carpet is worn. She thinks of the whole hotel as her home, not just her room on the second floor. Or, at least, she has since twenty past two this afternoon.

 

"Sorry about that," she says to Angel. "Is there etiquette for this kind of thing? There oughtta be."

 

"Not that I ever heard about." Angel is rummaging through her groceries. "Did you get any celery?"

 

***

 

A week later, Cordelia shares Angel's bed for the first time since the night Sugar Ray attacked her.

 

A little before eleven, she says goodnight to Angel and goes upstairs. She falls asleep almost straight away. Just after five, she wakes up with a start. A low, keening wail is echoing through the hotel's empty hallways. It sounds as eerie as it did the first night Cordelia was ever in the Hyperion. The difference is, now she knows what it is.

 

Vision.

 

She gets up and pulls on her robe over the loose T-shirt and drawstring pants she sleeps in, and pads barefoot down the hallway to Angel's room. She stands shivering in the drafty hallway for several minutes before deciding what to do next. Cordelia hasn't been in Angel's bedroom since the night Frankie came looking for her, the night she offered herself to him and he asked her to leave.

 

She knocks on the door. "Angel? Angel, it's me. You okay?"

 

There's no answer, except the desolate lament of a soul in pain. Cordelia ties her robe tighter around herself, opens the door and goes in.

 

Angel's crouching in the far corner of the bedroom, rocking forward and backward on his heels, clad in boxers and a T shirt (that first night, he was sleeping naked. Has he changed that on Cordelia's account, too?) His face is twisted in confusion and distress, and he doesn't seem to recognize Cordelia immediately. The first time she saw him this way she was freaked; now, she knows exactly what to do.

 

Cordelia lifts a notepad and pencil from where they sit on the table by the door, and crouches down beside him. "Angel," she says clearly. "It's me, Cordelia. You were asleep; you had a vision. You're awake now."

 

"Chinatown," Angel says. His voice is shaking; she can tell it's an effort for him to force the words out. "North Broadway. Claws and scales and fire -- a dragon -- someone -- conjuring -- oh, God, a restaurant, they can't get out -- they're all burning --"

 

"Angel, this is important. Has it happened yet? When is it gonna happen?"

 

Angel squeezes his eyes shut. "Full moon. Full moon."

 

Cordelia relaxes -- that gives them a couple of days, at least. She scrawls the salient points down on the notepad and sets it to one side.

 

"Are you real?" Angel asks. "Is this real?"

 

"I'm real," she tells him. "You're back, now. This is real."

 

Angel reaches for her; Cordelia tenses as he puts his arms around her, but she doesn't push him away. She can feel him trembling against her. She hasn't seen him this deeply shaken since the night she spent at the hotel after Sugar Ray attacked her -- he must have had a vision that night while he slept, too. Cordelia makes hushing noises and pats him on the back. "I guess it's even worse getting one of those things mainlined into your head when you're asleep, huh? Vision plus dreams plus memories equals mucho confusion. Must be pretty bad."

 

"Pretty bad," Angel echoes.

 

Cordelia stands up, pulling him with her, and leads him back to his rumpled bed. When she tries to make him lie down, he won't let go of her. "Don't go. Please."

 

He looks exactly the way he did the first time he said those words to her, fragile and desperate. Cordelia remembers that first night, and thinks how far they've come since then. How much better she knows Angel now; how much better he knows her.

 

"I'm not going anywhere," she tells him, and climbs into the bed beside him.

 

He makes a small, relieved sound and turns on his side, his arm over her body, a strange mixture of restraint and protection. She'll stay until he falls asleep again, Cordelia decides, and then she'll go back to her own room.

 

But by the time Angel is still and relaxed beside her, Cordelia is warm and comfortable and half-asleep herself. Angel is lying against her; she can feel his weight on her back, her hips, her thighs. She'd know if he were hard for her, and he isn't. This sensation -- touching for comfort, not desire -- is entirely new, and Cordelia decides she likes it. Except for one thing.

 

"Angel."

 

"Hmmm?"

 

"You're crushing me, move your arm."

 

"Mmmm."

 

The last knots of tension in the muscles of her neck dissolve, and Cordelia drifts into sleep.

 

***

 

Cordelia still has several showers a day, but she's started taking baths as well -- two or three times a week, she fills the tub to the brim with water as hot as she can stand and soaks until her fingers and toes wrinkle. She likes to take this time to think -- about what she's going to do tomorrow (finish weeding the courtyard, start clearing out the junk in the basement), about what she might do next year, about Angel. Lately, she thinks more and more about Angel.

 

She thinks about the way his back feels under her fingers when she bandages him after he's fought vampires or demons. She thinks about the tattoo on his shoulder blade. She thinks about the way his body feels next to her as he sleeps, solid, like a wall protecting her. She thinks about the way he holds on to her after the visions, like he's afraid he won't be able to find her again if he lets go.

 

One night, in the tub, these kinds of thoughts about Angel make Cordelia slip her hand between her legs, under the water's surface. Gently, she touches herself, there and there, and there. She closes her eyes and imagines he is caressing her. She comes with a tiny gasp and a spasm of pleasure that makes the water ripple around her.

 

She thinks, maybe, she's ready to be touched again.

 

***

 

"His name was Cameron," Cordelia says.

 

She's lying on her side in Angel's bed; he's behind her, not-breathing against her neck. Tonight's vision was particularly vivid, and Angel is holding on to Cordelia more tightly than usual. He wants to talk -- or, more accurately, to be talked to.

 

Cordelia has told him how she thinks they ought to tackle the damp problem in the basement, has reminisced about Sunnydale without mentioning Buffy's name and now, running out of things to say, she finds herself saying things she didn't mean to share. But Angel's listening and, now she's begun, she finds she can't stop.

 

"I met him at that party. The same one I met you at. You remember?"

 

His voice is muffled. "I remember."

 

"He was an agent. He was smart and funny and sophisticated, and he acted like I'd be doing him a favor if I let him represent me. He told me I was special. And I wanted so much to be special."

 

She blinks hard, remembering how she hadn't doubted for a moment what Cameron told her. Of course she was special. She was Cordelia Chase.

 

"Anyway. I made a tape for him, and he said I was the next Julia Roberts. He took me to dinner, and he was so good to me --" Cordelia exhales. "I moved in with him. I had auditions, and he bought me things, and it was great, for a while. But he had this friend, this TV producer. Cameron said his friend needed a date to take to some industry party. He said it'd be good for me, I'd make contacts. So I did it. And then, a month later, there was another friend who needed a date. Then another. The fourth time, the guy didn't just want someone on his arm."

 

Angel doesn't say anything, but he holds Cordelia more tightly.

 

"I didn't like it. But I figured, everybody does this. If you want to get on, you gotta play the game, right? I thought I could play it better than anyone else, but I couldn't. Cameron set me up with another of his friends for the Emmys. This friend got drunk and when he took me back to the hotel room --" Angel's bed, which was cold when Cordelia slid between the blankets beside him, is slowly warming. Cordelia concentrates on how cozy she feels here, how safe. It makes it easier to tell the story. "It wouldn't stand up in court, I guess. I mean, he didn't make me go back to his room, and I didn't say no until it was too late... But I did say no. I said no and I meant it. You believe that, right?"

 

She feels Angel's nod; his nose rubs behind her ear.

 

"I told Cameron. I figured he'd be furious, and he was. He was furious with me, for making trouble. So I left."

 

"You did the right thing."

 

In the dark, Cordelia smiles sourly. "That's what I told myself while I was waiting tables all day and spending all night in the one-room hole I had to rent after I moved out of his place. I used to look forward to Val coming in to the diner so much. I mean, I could tell from her clothes what she was, but she always smiled when she saw me. She was nice, she wasn't a bad person, and she talked to me. I missed talking to people. I never knew being lonely could actually hurt, like something sticking into your chest, all the time."

 

Very quietly, Angel says, "I know."

 

"Even then, I was so sure I could make it on my own, but to get in the door you need to live the life -- the parties and the clothes and the jewelry -- and you can't do that when you're earning ten bucks an hour." Cordelia shakes her head. "I never had to worry about bills, before. And then, suddenly, I didn't know how I was gonna pay the rent, or eat, and I was so scared of ending up on the street -- so when Val said I could stay with her -- it was only gonna be for a little while, until I was back on my feet, and I promised myself I'd only do it as long as I absolutely had to, and -- "

 

Cordelia's voice is starting to shake. She knows how this sounds. "You know what it was like? It was like, the day I arrived in L.A, someone started cutting slices off me. Just little slices, really thin, like parma ham. So with every slice, there was a little less of me, but I thought it was okay, because I was still mostly there. By the time I finally realized what was happening, it was too late. I was sliced so thin the light shone right through me." Cordelia makes a sound half-way between a sob and a bitter chuckle. "I was so stupid, Angel. I thought I was so smart, but I wasn't. I was dumb."

 

Anyone else, Cordelia thinks, would say something banal right now like, 'It's okay' or 'It wasn't your fault'. Angel doesn't, and Cordelia is grateful. Instead, he says, "You want to hear about the most stupid thing I ever did?"

 

Cordelia swallows, and concentrates on keeping her voice steady. "Hit me."

 

"I met a girl in a tavern. She took me out into the alley and said she could take me places and show me things I couldn't imagine. And I asked her to show me her world."

 

Cordelia tries to imagine Angel, with old-fashioned clothes and old-fashioned hair, gasping his last living breaths in a dark alleyway that was probably knocked down and built over generations ago. It's not fair, she thinks. It's not fair that so much -- the course of lives -- depends on such tiny decisions. Like who to talk to at a party. Which pretty girl to buy a drink for.

 

"Angel? Can I ask you something?"

 

"Mmmm."

 

"Do you believe in fate? I mean, do you think the choices we make send us spinning off in new directions all the time? Or do we wind up in the same place, no matter what we do?" He's been around a lot longer than she has, Cordelia figures: maybe he knows more about this kind of thing.

 

Slowly, Angel says, "The visions show things that should happen. But if we step in, change things, I guess that means everything is mutable. Paths aren't set."

 

That's not what Cordelia wanted to hear. "It could have been different. If I'd been luckier, or smarter --"

 

Angel moves the hand he's resting on her hip up to her mouth. Gently, he lays a finger across her lips. "Before you came, I was -- losing myself. It was getting to where I couldn't tell the difference between the visions and reality. Now, when I see you, I know what's real. I'm sorry for the path you had to take to get here, Cordelia. But I can't be sorry you're here."

 

For a few seconds after Angel falls silent, Cordelia lies perfectly still beside him. She isn't even breathing. Then she makes her decision.

 

She rolls over, so she's lying nose to nose with Angel. In the dimness, she sees him blink in surprise -- this is something new. Cordelia places her mouth on his and kisses him.

 

For a second, he doesn't respond. Then he begins to kiss her back, mouth pressing hungrily against hers. Cordelia extends her tongue into his mouth, experiencing his taste, exploring his lips and the jagged line of his teeth. She feels a surge of raw joy as she realizes that no matter how long they kiss, how deeply, it won't be enough; she wants Angel; she wants to touch him and let him touch her. Cordelia didn't think she could ever want that again; she feels as if something glacial is thawing inside her, melt-water filling dry stream beds and running down into parched valleys.

 

Then Angel pushes himself away from her and gets out of the bed. He tries to stand up, but he's still a little disoriented from the vision and he ends up sitting down again on the edge of the mattress, facing away from her.

 

Cordelia pushes herself up -- the mattress's old springs creak under her -- and walks around the end of the bed. She sits down beside Angel. "The night Frankie was here, you said I didn't have to do anything I didn't want to. I didn't know what I wanted then, but I do now. I want you."

 

"I want you." Angel repeats the words, but with the tiniest of alterations in inflection that make the declaration his own.

 

"You're not making me do anything I don't want to," Cordelia tells him. "This isn't payment, or a deal, or anything like that."

 

"I know."

 

Cordelia puts her hand on his knee. "So why not?"

 

"It's because it's not just a deal, not just payment. It's okay if it's just a transaction." He shakes his head. "That's how the curse works. That's why it's a curse. Cordelia, the night I asked you to leave, it wasn't because of you. It was because of me."

 

Years ago, in another life, Cordelia briefly took ballet lessons. She gave it up quickly -- the really popular girls were cheerleaders, not dancers -- but not before she learnt that professional ballerinas soak their feet in alcohol, numbing their toes to the pain of performing. For a long time, Cordelia thinks, she did the same, soaking her heart in alcohol, letting it get small and wrinkled and tough, so that she could believe that what people did to each other's bodies didn't matter. It had worked, too. But now she's sitting beside Angel, unliving proof of how flawed that reasoning is.

 

He only let her touch him that first night, when they were strangers to each other. And even then he made sure he paid her.

 

"The night Sugar Ray attacked me and I came back here -- that's why you left the cash on the reception desk the next morning, wasn't it? So there wasn't any doubt. For either of us."

 

Angel nods. "That, and I figured you probably needed it."

 

Cordelia scowls. "I was so mad at you."

 

Now Angel looks at Cordelia, for the first time since she sat down next to him. "Why?"

 

Cordelia blinks. She's never really thought about that. "Because I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to mean something. I guess I wasn't as pickled in alcohol as I thought I was."

 

"You had a drink problem?" Angel asks, confused.

 

"I'm talking about ballerinas."

 

"Oh," Angel says. "Okay."

 

They sit in silence for some time, side by side on the edge of the bed, getting used to this new clarity, this openness between them. Cordelia finally breaks the silence. "It's not fair," she says, and waves a hand up and down herself. "I mean, there must be a thousand guys out there who've had their fifteen minutes of fun with this body. And now there's one I actually WANT to enjoy it, and I can't give it to you."

 

Angel pushes himself off the bed, turning around at the same time, so that he's kneeling on the carpet, in front of Cordelia. He lifts his hands and places his cool palm against Cordelia's cheek. "You don't have to give me anything. I'm the one who owes you. I owe you so much."

 

Suddenly, something changes in his face. Cordelia's used, by now, to seeing Angel become less human. What she didn't know was that he could become more human, too. There's a gentleness in his eyes, a playfulness in the way he's smiling, as if he's just had an idea that's too good not to share. "All those men -- did any of them ever make you feel good?"

 

"No," Cordelia says quietly.

 

Angel puts his left hand on her other cheek and draws her face down to his. She feels his lips brush her forehead and his fingers run through her hair as he murmurs, "Then let me give you something."

 

His fingers work their way over her scalp, toward the back of her head. She feels a cool pressure in the hollow at the nape of her neck, and she shivers as he touches her just beneath her hairline. A warm glow radiates outwards, down her back and arms, and she arches her back involuntarily. She's pushing her chest forward, and Angel's ready, his free hand making contact with her breasts, massaging each in turn through the fabric of her T-shirt.

 

Then he kisses her, and it's almost too much -- her tongue, her breasts, the back of her neck; she doesn't have time to get used to one sensation before the next threatens to overwhelm her.

 

Angel leans back long enough to whisper hoarsely, "Lift your arms." For a second, Cordelia is torn -- he's going to undress her, and that means he's going to have to stop touching her like this for longer than she thinks she can bear. But once she's naked, she'll be able to feel his skin next to hers, with no barriers between them.

 

She raises her arms. "Quickly."

 

Cotton brushes her face; a second later, she feels him nuzzle the hollow between her breasts. Lazily, his tongue traces a spiral around each breast in turn, finishing at the hard, sensitive nubs of her nipples.

 

Angel's fingertips caress her sides, starting underneath her breasts and tracking down to her hips. His thumbs hook into the waistband of the loose pants she's wearing. She knows what he means to do, and so she puts her hands on his shoulders and raises herself up, just far enough to let him slip them under her, down to her ankles and off over her bare feet. Her panties come off, too, and now she's naked in front of him, her arms around his shoulders, kissing the back of his head and neck.

 

"Tell me what you want," Angel says. "Tell me what feels good."

 

Cordelia thinks of cold alleyways, of motel rooms and the back seats of cars, of all the men who knew what they wanted and didn't give a damn whether she liked it or not, as long as she let them do it to her. "It all feels good," she says. "Don't stop. Don't stop."

 

Angel has no intention of stopping. His kisses sink lower and lower; when they pass her belly button, Cordelia spreads her legs and, letting go of his shoulders, leans back on the bed, putting her arms out behind her to support her weight. At the same time she lifts her legs and rests them on Angel's broad shoulders.

 

His head dips between her legs. The anticipation is making her crazy; she knows any second now she'll be able to feel him --

 

Then his lips are on her, his tongue gently massaging her. She cries out, and her fingers dig into the mattress; he responds by going deeper, building a slow rhythm that makes her gasp as she pushes against him. Part of her is desperate to come; part of her never wants to stop feeling the way she does right now.

 

And then she can't hold it back any longer, and ecstasy explodes through her, white-hot, all-consuming. She gives a shout of pleasure and gratitude and triumph and collapses back on to the bedclothes, taking deep and shaky breaths.

 

She's still lying in that position as Angel stands and pulls the sheets over her. Cordelia closes her eyes and waits for the dip and creak of the mattress's springs when he joins her. But when she opens them again, she's alone in the bed. Angel is sitting in the armchair by the door, watching her. The armchair is low and comfortable; he should be relaxed, but his body is hard, tense.

 

"Come back to bed."

 

He shakes his head. "I can't."

 

Cordelia sits up. "We can't sleep together, I get that. But we can SLEEP together, right? We've been doing that for weeks."

 

"We still can," Angel says. "Just not tonight. Or any night we do this. I couldn't lie beside you right now feeling -- this way -- and not act on it."

 

"Oh." Cordelia thinks about that, about what it means for them. "Some stuff's gonna have to change, isn't it?"

 

"Yes." There's a note of worry in Angel's voice as he asks, "Are you sorry?"

 

"Yeah, I'm sorry," she tells him. "I'm sorry I can't make you feel the way you make me feel. But I'm not sorry that when you touch me, it means something. It's real." She lies back on the bed, and pulls the blankets up around her. "Is there anything else I can do for you? I mean, anything ELSE."

 

Angel sits back in the armchair, and his posture relaxes a fraction. "I'd like -- just to watch you sleep. That'd be nice."

 

Cordelia stifles a yawn; that request isn't going to be difficult to fulfill. Her eyelids are drooping already; she's comfortable and warm and, just like in the songs, there's an Angel watching over her. She snuggles deeper into the bedclothes, and lets her body and mind relax into the beginnings of a contented fuzziness.

 

When she hears Angel speak again, the words are barely a murmur, whispered so quietly he must think she's already asleep. But Cordelia's just the right side of conscious, and her hearing has always been sharper than most people's. She doesn't open her eyes, so she doesn't know if he's surprised or not when she answers him.

 

"I love you, too," she says, and falls asleep.

 

 

 

IV

 

 

 

 

The sun feels good on her back and her legs. Cordelia shifts her position on the towel she's lying on, and props herself up on her elbows. Around her, the Hyperion's courtyard blooms with the flowers she's planted, and the sound of city traffic is distant and muted.

 

She turns the page of the community college prospectus she's reading. "Ooooh. They do fashion design, too."

 

"A couple of minutes ago you wanted to take web programming."

 

Angel is sitting in the shadows under the awning, right back by the wall. He's wearing sunglasses against the glare and -- at Cordelia's insistence -- the strongest sunblock the drugstore sells. She doesn't want him to get accidentally frazzled.

 

"Well, I'll do both, and start an internet fashion label. How does that sound?"

 

Angel smiles. "Like you could do it and make a million dollars."

 

Cordelia smiles back and rolls over on to her back, so her bare midriff is exposed to the afternoon sun's warmth. Her new bikini cost twenty bucks from Wal-Mart, and she couldn't love it more if it were a Prada original. Only one thing is spoiling the afternoon. "I wish you could enjoy this with me."

 

"I like the view from here just fine."

 

A compliment like that, Cordelia decides, deserves a reward. She moves back into the shadows, and hands Angel her bottle of tanning lotion. "My back's starting to burn. You mind?"

 

He puts down the book he's reading, and a moment later she hears the soft squirt of lotion coming out of the bottle, and feels his hands begin to work it into her back and shoulders. His touch, as always, is cool, and her skin rises in gooseflesh under his fingers.

 

"Sorry."

 

"I'm used to it," she says, which is true. "I like it," she adds, which is also true.

 

Angel inclines his head, and she feels his face close to the back of her neck. He inhales her scent. "Tell me what I smell like to you," Cordelia says.

 

"Sunlight," he says straight away. "Summer flowers. Apples and peaches. Uh, also tanning lotion."

 

She giggles. "Well, duh. Yeah."

 

Without warning, Angel's hands tense against her back. "Cordy, I think you should get yourself tested."

 

She turns around to look at him. Angel's come a long way from the guy whose idea of a relationship was stalking her, but he still has no idea how to change conversational tack with subtlety. "Say what?"

 

"I've been thinking," Angel says. "There are clinics. Free ones, I mean. Places that don't charge or ask for names. You could go to one of them, get tested. Then you wouldn't have to worry about it anymore."

 

Or Angel wouldn't have to worry, Cordelia thinks. It's sweet of him, but Cordelia's made up her mind on this point. She knows the life she used to lead puts her in a higher risk category than most other people; few of her clients were willing to wear condoms, and as for the rest -- well, splits and tears were common enough. She shakes her head. "There's no point. I don't have health insurance; I couldn't get it now it even if I had the money. Besides, I feel fine."

 

"Cordelia --" Angel begins.

 

"No," Cordelia tells him. She gets up and walks back out into the sunlight, where he can't follow her. "There's no point, Angel. Now leave it, okay?"

 

***

 

But Angel, being Angel, won't leave it, and Cordelia learns something she really should have figured out by now: Never start a war of attrition with someone who's going to live forever.

 

They argue; or rather, Cordelia argues, while Angel stands with his arms folded across his chest and says, "Yes, but --" a lot. Eventually, he doesn't even say that much, just stands and listens patiently and looks at her while she tells him exactly what she told him in the courtyard that day, again.

 

It's starting to seem likely that things will go on this way until Angel dies of old age or Cordelia runs out of breath (both, she admits to herself, only slim possibilities), when a gang of vampires decide they've had enough of being hunted by one of their own. There's no vision to warn of the ambush, and when Cordelia answers the phone and hears Angel's faint and fading voice, she is gripped by a terror she hasn't felt since the morning she walked into the bathroom and saw Val's corpse bobbing obscenely in the tub. "I need you --" Angel whispers before the line goes dead, and Cordelia clings to the memory of those words as she searches the sewer tunnels for the rest of that night and the following day, because a part of her is afraid this is the last thing she will ever hear him say.

 

When she finds him, he's unconscious. One hand is clasped, vise-like, around the cell-phone she made him buy; the other is resting on the stake that protrudes from his chest, an inch or less from his dead heart.

 

Cordelia takes him back to the Hyperion before she does anything else; once Angel is lying safe in his own bed, she gathers her strength and her nerves and pulls the stake out of his ribs. She half-expects him to disintegrate then and there -- she can picture the bedclothes collapsing inwards on the sudden space. She wouldn't even have a body to mourn, she realizes. Strange that she always knew this, and never really understood until now what it meant.

 

Cordelia holds the stake, and her breath, and waits. Angel makes a low sound of pain, but he doesn't crumble away to dusty nothingness. Not this time.

 

Three days later, he's sitting up in bed, chest bandaged, gulping down the blood he needs in larger quantities than usual in order to heal. "You're an idiot," Cordelia tells him as she refills his mug.

 

"Hey," Angel says mildly, "They jumped me, not the other way round. Besides, I won. Don't I get points for that?"

 

But Cordelia's in no mood for joking. Tightly, she says, "I thought I was gonna lose you. Do you have any idea how scary that was?"

 

Angel takes the full cup from her, but doesn't drink from it right away. Instead he looks up at her and says, "Yes. That's what I've been trying to make you understand for the last month."

 

Cordelia gets the name and address of a charity-run clinic from a flier she picks up in the local hospital. She sits in the waiting room with gaunt-faced addicts and girls whose cheap clothes and dull stares are unpleasantly familiar. More than anything, it's the deadened quality in their eyes that shocks her -- was she ever that numbed, that defeated? Then she remembers walking out of the McDonald's off Sunset Boulevard, telling Angel he couldn't save her. She'd thought no one could save her.

 

When she's finally called, it's over in less than a minute -- the prick of a needle on the inside of her elbow, a syringe-full of blood that would barely whet Angel's appetite. The nurse seals and labels the sample, then swabs and dresses Cordelia's arm and gives her a slip of paper which is blank except for a six digit number and a check letter. The nurse explains that Cordelia can collect the results in five weeks; her last instruction is a reminder not to lose the piece of paper with the code on it. The clinic provides an anonymous service, which means that Cordelia doesn't have to give her name or address -- but it also means her results will be given to whoever presents her number.

 

Cordelia shows Angel the slip of paper, holding it up with a flourish before putting it back in her purse. "Happy now?"

 

"As close as I can get to it," Angel says, deadpan. "Thanks."

 

***

 

As close as Angel can get is pretty close. And pretty close is pretty good, Cordelia tells herself. But, increasingly, it's not enough.

 

Angel has learned how to touch her so that the merest brush of his fingertips can make her beg him not to stop. He can kiss her so deeply that the memory of his mouth stays with her for days. But the nights when they are together always end the same way, with Cordelia alone in bed and Angel sitting in the chair by the door, watching over her as she falls asleep. Often, lately, he won't even let her see him naked. A lot's changed since that first night, when they were strangers and her touch was just a way of discharging a debt.

 

If Cordelia ever wondered the best way to guard against perfect contentment, now she has an answer. It turns out frustration is a really effective method.

 

Angel hasn't said anything, but he hasn't needed to. Cordelia can hear him pounding the punch-bag in the basement training room every afternoon; she's felt the way he tenses when she touches his arm or lightly kisses him goodnight before she goes to bed. She loves that he loves her, and at the same time misses the casual intimacy they used to have more than she thought possible. She dreads the day she knows is coming soon, when he has a vision and won't let himself reach out to her.

 

More and more, when she looks at Angel, Cordelia thinks of a boulder poised on the crest of a hill, ready to plunge at the gentlest push in any one of a thousand directions. But she doesn't know where the push will come from, or when. All she can do is wait.

 

In the meantime, at least, there's plenty to keep her occupied.

 

The visions often lead to long hours of researching the weaknesses of what Cordelia has come to think of as the demon-of-the-week. At first, Cordelia found this merely a boring necessity -- research was one of the few things about her old life in Sunnydale she was glad to leave behind when she left. She re-acquires the skill almost in spite of herself, and is surprised -- and a little smug -- when she can remember references faster than Angel, knows just where in his expanding collection of books on magic and prophecy to find the relevant information. It feels good to be good at something again and, more than that, Cordelia discovers there's a satisfaction in working at a puzzle until she arrives at a solution she knows is the right one. She's been talking about taking classes at the community college for months, but now feels like the right time to do something about it.

 

"Did you sign up for art and design, or web programming?" Angel asks when she tells him about her application.

 

"Both," Cordelia says. "Also European history."

 

"History?"

 

Cordelia shrugs. "Well, yeah. I figured, I live with a guy who remembers when the Battle of Waterloo was CNN headline news -- how can I not ace that class?" She unpacks her new textbooks on to the table. "Besides, I like the idea of knowing more about where you came from."

 

Angel doesn't reply, but he smiles that little smile of his, the one that takes forever to emerge on his features but which, once in place, remains for hours. Cordelia loves that smile.

 

It's at times like this Cordelia dares to believe they can do it. Somehow, they can preserve this delicate equilibrium indefinitely, make these moments stretch and stretch until time stops entirely, leaving them safe in a perpetual present, with no past to define them and no future to change what they have right now. But Cordelia has always been a realist at heart, and she knows that fantasy is just a fantasy.

 

Cordelia goes to classes at the community college, nurses Angel through vision hangovers, researches demons and assorted nasties, and tries to make her memories of the increasingly rare occasions when Angel allows himself to touch her carry her through the times between. And she waits for the delicate balance of their lives to shatter again.

 

 

***

 

Cordelia knows as soon as she walks into the Hyperion's lobby that something terrible has happened.

 

Everything breakable is broken; everything that can be shattered or smashed or torn has been attacked with vicious fury. For several seconds, it's all Cordelia can do to stare, numbed, at months of hard work reduced to wreckage. The reception desk that took days to polish has a deep gouge running along its length; the vases of flowers she arranged and displayed proudly on the tables and shelves have been toppled, the blooms squashed. And every last one of the stair rails Cordelia spent so long cleaning in her first week at the hotel has been pulled up.

 

Her hands slacken around the straps of the bag and the file she's carrying, and both fall to the floor at her feet. The file bursts open as it hits the tiles, scattering her notes from today's class around her, adding to the chaos and devastation. Cordelia hardly notices; she steps on the pages as she walks through the lobby, leaving shoe prints all over her neatly handwritten notes on the development of modern art.

 

Angel's habit of killing evil things has made him a lot of enemies in L.A. Vampires, of course, couldn't get into the hotel without an invitation. But, Cordelia thinks suddenly, not all Angel's enemies are vampires.

 

"Angel? Angel, are you here? Angel!"

 

Increasingly frantic, Cordelia checks the office behind reception, the staff cloakrooms, the industrial-sized long-unused kitchens, Angel's training room in the basement. They are all equally devastated. They are all equally empty. Now she's searched everywhere.

 

Not quite everywhere.

 

Angel's room.

 

Cordelia runs up the stairs, two, three at a time, becoming dizzy as she follows the rising spiral. She throws open the door of Angel's room without knocking. If he's here, everything will be all right; if he isn't --

 

He isn't. There's no one here, either.

 

Several seconds pass before Cordelia notices anything more than that. Then, it hits her --- there are no signs of the battle downstairs up here. Angel's room is perfectly neat, perfectly tidy. The bed is made, the books are shelved by order of height, a pair of shoes sits under the chair by the window. Everything is just the way Angel likes it. Except for one thing.

 

A typed letter is lying in the middle of the bed, a ripped-open envelope next to it. Cordelia can't read the writing from where she stands, but she can see that most of the first page is taken up with a kind of table. Two columns, writing in the left hand column, nothing in the boxes on the right of the page. No, wait, that's not strictly correct -- one of the boxes is checked with an X.

 

She lifts the letter.

 

"Don't."

 

She'd thought Angel couldn't sneak up on her anymore, make her jump like that. Back in Sunnydale, and in the first weeks at the Hyperion, she'd believed his stealth was supernatural -- but months of closeness have attuned her to his noises, the swish of his coat, the way his feet fall in a very slightly irregular rhythm on the floorboards. She'd thought he couldn't surprise her anymore; but when she turns around, he's standing inside the doorway, and Cordelia has no idea how long he's been there.

 

Angel can't get breathless, but there's a weariness in his stance that tells Cordelia if he were alive, he'd be winded, exhausted. His shoulders are hunched, and there are scratches on his face, bruises on his fists. A splinter of wood protrudes from a cut on the back of one hand.

 

The look on his face: she hasn't seen that look -- half-desperate, half-blank -- for almost a year. Not since the first night she met him, when he killed a man for her and asked her not to run away.

 

"What happened downstairs?"

 

"Don't read it," Angel says. He isn't looking at Cordelia, but at the paper in her hand. "Don't read it, please."

 

It takes a second to fit the pieces together. The wrecked lobby. The look in Angel's eyes. The letter.

 

She lifts the paper to the light, lowers her eyes, almost expects Angel to snatch it from her with that impossible speed of his before she can read a word. But he doesn't.

 

She skims the introductory paragraph, skips straight to the important part. Eight lines of black text, matched against eight black boxes. The first seven boxes are clear, empty, void, safe. A cross, stark black ink on a white background, fills the last box.

 

Funny, Cordelia thinks. She always thought only vampires could be harmed by crosses.

 

There are more words, after that. A reminder that the tests give the wrong results in two to three per cent of cases. A date and a time when she can go and give another sample. An offer of free counseling, advice about what her options are.

 

Options, Cordelia thinks. That's a joke. That's funny. Options and choices are for other people, now. Her path just narrowed down to that one dirt track to nowhere, again. The one she'd thought she'd escaped for good. The broad highway, the limitless horizons -- they were never more than shimmering illusions.

 

Everything's been a lie; nothing has been real. The whole time she's been with Angel, remembering who she is, who she wanted to be -- the small dreams she's been quietly nurturing, along with the flowers in the courtyard -- all empty, all hollow. The small cross in black ink she's looking at is the proof of her immutable, unchangeable destiny.

 

"You were wrong," she says.

 

Angel's mouth opens a little, then closes again. He had a reply prepared for whatever he thought she was going to say, but she surprised him and now he's at a loss.

 

"You said that paths aren't fixed," she explains. "That everything can be changed. But that's not how it is, is it? Fate fucks us and leaves us."

 

He blinks at that -- Cordelia never swears, didn't even pick up the habit after a year of living with Val's fruity language and Frankie's constant stream of foul-mouthed invective.

 

"I told you," she says. She's blinking, now, as well, but for a different reason. She holds up the letter, waves it at him like one of the weapons in the cabinet downstairs. "I told you I didn't want to know."

 

"I'm sorry," Angel says. His voice is quiet, loaded with regret. "I'm sorry. The slip fell out of your purse. I just picked it up -- the date was weeks ago, I knew you'd forgotten. And I thought -- I thought it would be good news. I didn't think it could be anything except good news."

 

Angel takes another step into the room, but stops at the foot of the bed, hanging back. "I'm sorry," he says at last. "I'm sorry -- about the lobby."

 

The wrecked lobby; the tears in Angel's clothes, the cuts on his face, the splinters in his skin. Cordelia tries to imagine the force necessary to bring about that level of destruction. He must have hit and clawed and kicked and punched for a solid hour or more, a more prolonged and violent rage than a human could ever sustain.

 

Dully, she says, "Did it make you feel any better?"

 

"No," Angel says. "Everywhere I looked, I saw you. I couldn't stand the idea of a day when everything you'd done was still there, but you weren't --"

 

He can't finish the sentence, so Cordelia nods, to show she understands anyway. And she does. Words have never been Angel's forte; he's so much more comfortable with actions. He can't articulate how he imagines life without her, and so he showed her instead. Wreckage and splinters; the lobby's not just the way it was before she came, when the furniture was whole but hidden under dust sheets. It's shattered and broken, irreparable.

 

"I'm sorry," Angel repeats. "I'll fix it, I'll fix everything."

 

He won't. He can't.

 

Cordelia looks at the letter again; she can't stop staring at that little black cross. Black on white. Things aren't black and white, she thinks, except sometimes when they are. No gray areas, no half way houses or reprieves. You're either clean or you're infected, you're damned or you're saved, you're an angel or a whore.

 

She thinks about the endless stream of clients, so many strangers on so many nights. They rarely gave names; she didn't try to remember their faces and she certainly never kept count. One of those strangers is walking around in the city, and she'll never know who he is, or if he knows what he's carrying and that he passed it on to her.

 

Whoever he was, she took his money when she let him kill her.

 

Cordelia lifts her head from the letter, and meets Angel's gaze. "Tell me it's not real. Please."

 

Angel doesn't say anything.

 

"It can't be real," Cordelia says. "It can't be. This whole world is so stupid and messed up it's got to be somebody's bad dream. Cameron still lives in his mansion in Bel Air, and you can bet he's still preying on stupid little girls who should know better. And when Buffy died to save the world, she died to save him, too. How crazy and screwed up is that?"

 

"Cordelia," Angel says softly. But Cordelia isn't done yet. Hell, she's barely started.

 

"And you love me but you can't even let yourself touch me. And I love you and I'm going to get sick and die, maybe not right away, but it's gonna happen, right? Tell me it's not real. Angel, please, tell me it's not real, it's not real --"

 

And now Cordelia's crying, because she knows he can't.

 

And then Angel is holding her.

 

One second she's alone; the next, his arms envelope her. He has one hand on the back of her head, the other on the small of her back. Cordelia closes her eyes, buries her face in his chest and breathes him in, lets that now-familiar scent -- earth and metal -- fill her up and surround her.

 

"The best thing you ever did for me," he says, "was show me the goodness in what's real. All I could see, in my head, was the very worst of reality. And it's all out there, but it's not all there is. This is real, too."

 

He starts to kiss her, and she lets him. Lightly, his lips brush her forehead, her cheeks, her eyelids. The first time his lips meet hers, it's so brief it might be accidental. Then it happens again, and by the third time, Cordelia is certain of his intentions. The next time she feels his mouth against hers, she catches his lower lip lightly between her teeth, stops him moving away.

 

He doesn't pull away. Instead, he presses his mouth on to hers, runs his tongue over her top lip, then her lower one, leaves her tingling.

 

She's so hungry for him she aches with it.

 

He moves his hands around her body and cups her breasts. There are layers of fabric between them; his touch should be muted, barely perceptible, but the light pressure of his fingertips only reminds her what it feels like when his skin is directly against hers.

 

She pushes him away. "No. Angel, no."

 

He leans in to kiss her again. "It's okay. It's okay, I promise. I love you and it's okay."

 

"That's why it's not okay. Hasn't today been bad enough already without letting Angelus out?"

 

Angel says, "Look at me."

 

Cordelia does; his dark eyes meet hers in love, and tenderness, and desire. And something else. There's a new quality in his gaze, and when Cordelia names it, she understands what is different now. There's grief in Angel's eyes. Grief for her.

 

No danger of perfect happiness for Angel, she realizes. Not anymore.

 

Angel smiles at her, and it's the saddest smile Cordelia's ever seen. "You did it. You broke the curse."

 

Then, before she can speak or react, he lifts her and carries her to the bed, lays her down on it with such gentleness, such reverence, that Cordelia feels like a princess in a fairy tale. Not tainted or diseased. Pure.

 

Angel joins her on the bed, begins to undo the buttons of her blouse at the same time as she pops open the ones down the front of his shirt. He shrugs off the shirt, then leans down; Cordelia raises her body, just enough to let him slide his hands underneath her and unhook her bra. Now she's bare from the waist up; Angel takes a moment to look at her, just look, and Cordelia feels a wild pleasure and pride that she can provoke this intensity of love and wonder and desire.

 

"Hurry," she says. It's the only thought she has that can be expressed in words. In the past months, the physical contact they have allowed themselves has been so rare and restrained that Cordelia has learnt to savor moments of intimacy, to wring every nuance from the experience. Now, she only wants to plunge ahead, because however good this feels, now she knows there's better to come.

 

Angel lowers his head and kisses her, once, on the mouth. While her lips and tongue are occupied with kissing Angel, Cordelia's hands feel for his belt. She loosens the buckle, unzips his pants and makes a low sound of eagerness when she feels him, already hard. She runs her hand quickly up and down the shaft of his cock, and Angel gasps in need and delight.

 

Cordelia is wearing one of the first pieces of clothing she bought after she moved into the hotel with Angel, a jade green wraparound skirt with ties at the waist. She isn't certain, but Cordelia thinks she feels Angel's hands shaking a little as he pulls out the tied bow that secures the skirt. They've come this far many times before; this time, they're not stopping.

 

Cordelia takes her hand off Angel long enough to wriggle out of her panties. It feels intoxicating, to be this close to him and naked -- her skin feels a hundred, a thousand times more sensitive than normal, the lightest caress is enough to make her convulse with pleasure and she needs -- she NEEDS -- to feel him on her, around her, in her. Now.

 

"Hurry," she says again, this time with an edge of desperation. Hurry, she wants to say. Hurry because time is running out. Hurry because nothing lasts forever.

 

When she looks up, into Angel's eyes, she sees reflected in them her own fervor, along with something she is startled to identify as hunger, the ravenous appetite of death for life. That's the bargain between them, Cordelia realizes: by this act she will prove she is alive, and bring Angel as close to it as he can get. And her life is precious because of the certain knowledge that it will end. The time left is finite.

 

His arms are on either side of her shoulders, his body is over hers. They are chest to chest, belly to belly, and she has never felt this safe, this connected.

 

"Hurry," she says, and welcomes him inside her.

 

Cordelia lifts her legs and twines them around Angel's hips; at the same time she hooks her arms around his shoulders. He rests his forehead against hers as he pushes deeper inside her, grunts with the satisfaction of resistance. He pushes hard, then harder, consumed by overriding urgency.

 

Hurry, she can only think. Hurry, hurry, hurryhurryhurry --

 

Angel gives one last thrust and, with a cry of release, comes; Cordelia can feel his cool essence entering her. But he isn't finished yet, and as he pushes again, and again, she feels a slow explosion go off inside her, a chain reaction that starts somewhere below her pelvis and sends shock waves of euphoria rippling throughout her body, down to the soles of her feet and out to her fingertips, overtaking her consciousness and carrying it along for the ride. She shouts and then laughs and then cries with relief, and says his name over and over, as if it is the only word she will ever need again.

 

Angel relaxes, and gives her a lingering, languid kiss before gently withdrawing from her. For the first time since Cordelia has known him, he is entirely relaxed as he lies against her. At rest.

 

"Angel," Cordelia says again.

 

His hand runs through her hair. "Right here."

 

Softly, Cordelia says, "I'm going to die."

 

Beside her, she feels every muscle in Angel's body tighten, like he's just turned from flesh to granite. "You won't," he says. "Because I won't let it happen."

 

Cordelia loves him for this sincere belief that he can take on fate and win, and hates that he can almost make her believe it, too.

 

"No," she says, and rolls over so that she's facing him. "People who live, die. Sometimes they get sick, and sometimes they walk on a Don't Walk sign when a bus is coming, and sometimes, if they're lucky, they just fall asleep and don't wake up again. But they all die. I'm going to die, Angel. Not tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that, but one day. That's what you sign up for when you love a human being."

 

Angel doesn't say anything, but he kisses her. His cheek brushes against hers; she feels the cool wetness of his tears, and she understands that he knows this. Maybe he's always known it. Finally, he asks, "And until then?"

 

"I'm going to live," Cordelia says, her voice solid with determination. "I'm going to live until I die. Every single day. And, you know what? All those bad and unlucky choices I made -- I'm not sorry about any of them. Because the path I took brought me to you, and I can't be sorry I'm here." She smiles. "And my wish came true."

 

"Your wish?"

 

Softly, Cordelia says, "The night I met you -- the night you saw Sugar Ray attacking me in your vision -- I made a wish. I wished I could close my eyes and wake up in another life. And here I am."

 

Angel doesn't say anything for a long time. Then he pulls Cordelia closer to himself, clings on to her so hard it's an effort to breathe. When he speaks, his voice is barely above murmur, but she can still hear every word he says.

 

"That night," Angel says, "I made the same wish."

 

She returns Angel's embrace, so that their bodies are entwined so closely she can't tell where she stops and he starts. She warms his cold flesh; he protects her fragile life. It's strange, she thinks: all this time, and she never realized she needed to be held by him just as much as he needed to hold her.

 

And maybe, if there's another place where souls go afterward, this is what it's like -- an endlessness of waking up feeling warm and loved. An eternity of being held.

 

Cordelia decides she can live with that.

 

 

 



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