Subject: [glass_onion] Fic: Reconciliation (AtS/BtVS) Date: Monday, July 15, 2002 4:38 PM
Website: http://www.imjustsayin.net/jennyo Rating: NC-17
Warnings: AU Futurefic with character deaths and slash.
Pairings: Cordelia/Angel, Wesley/Lilah, Fred/other, Connor/other, Anya/Xander, Buffy/Xander (past), Anya/Giles (past), Anya/Spike (past), Fred/Gunn (past)
Summary: 2022 in Los Angeles. Cordelia returns for a month's romantic vacation with Angel and finds out the world is going to end if they don't join forces with their worst enemy--Wesley. What's it gonna be?
Higher beings don't get old. At least not in body. I used to think that was the coolest thing, but I wasn't so sure these days. Now I wondered if I wouldn't rather be my age in face and body as well as heart and soul.
"Ghosts don't get older, either," my companion informed me with a smile. "We just get harder and harder to see."
I'd never met Tara Maclay while she was alive. She'd been after my era (as she sometimes joked, there had been Cordelia's Sunnydale, and then post-Cordelia Sunnydale), and the part where she'd died and I'd ascended at approximately the same time had cut off any chance of a face to face meeting. But I could tell that she'd been a damn cool woman while she was alive, and she was an even cooler ghost, even if she did get harder to see as time went on. We got along well. I glowed, she faded. It was sort of a balance thing.
We were waiting to go back to Los Angeles after an extended trip through New York, London, and the Chaos Dimension of J'llyrth, where I'd spent the better part of the year liberating people from something that looked and smelled an awful lot like Angel's old hair gel. That was pretty funny until I had to kill it. I mean, how do you kill hair gel?
"So what year is it?" I asked Tara, looking at myself in the mirror. The pinned-up French braid would do for a hairstyle. I just needed to get the last traces of hair-goo off my face. "What year? What world? What city?"
Tara rolled her eyes slightly at the dramatic monologue.
"You know we're almost in Los Angeles," she said dryly. "It's 2022, and the world is the same one we were born in. And yes, Cordy, the hotel's still standing."
"Really?" I asked, pleased. "Sometimes I'd think--"
"Well, it's like your friend Lorne said," Tara replied. "Certain places are required to be, no matter what the outcome of the war. I guess the Hyperion's one of those places."
"Besides, Wesley? Demolish a piece of historical architecture?" I asked with a certain gallows humor. "He may be evil incarnate, but he's still a big old historical nerd at heart."
Tara nodded, not that she'd ever met Wesley while alive, either.
"He knows you're coming, by the way," she said calmly. I made a face. Damn Wes anyway--he always knew more than he should. Plus, I wasn't going to LA for business. I was there for personal reasons, which he might cheerfully screw over to satisfy that twenty-year grudge match with Angel.
"I will fuck him up if he gets near me on this trip," I announced. "You hear me?"
Tara flipped her hair out of her face and grinned at me wryly.
"I always hear you, Cordy," she said. "It's Wesley who can't hear you."
I sighed and looked around the 'room' suspiciously, getting the last bit of hair tar off my nose. No, he couldn't hear me. But you never knew with Wolfram and Hart.
"I hope not," I muttered. "But just in case--if you can hear me, Wesley, I will fuck you up if you bug me. Okay?"
We both paused. Utter silence echoed back.
I laughed (not a happy laugh, a bitter laugh) and finished cleaning myself off. Damn hair gel thing was worse than beach tar. I pulled open my wardrobe and looked at what I had to wear. I was dismayed to realize I had no idea what current fashion looked like.
"Hey, Tara?" I called. "What's everyone wearing in 2022?"
"You'll be happy to know that natural fibers are in again," she said with a teasing smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "It's very simple styles. Do you still have that cream dress? The raw silk one?"
I looked back from the depths of my wardrobe. "The sleeveless ankle-length or the shift I put under the long black jacket?"
"Totally the ankle-length," she replied without blinking. "Dress it up with a nice black shawl. Black's the signal that you're on the right side of this conflict. Then some sandals, and--"
"Voila," I said, looking at myself in the mirror, in exactly the described outfit. I looked good. I looked young, not at all like the Warrior who'd just done five years of quality work for the Powers without a single break. It seemed rather strange that I was still so unscarred and pretty. I wasn't going to complain, though. "Ready to go, Tara?"
"Ready, willing, and waiting," Tara replied. "There's nothing better than an LA vacation. At least I can talk to the Dead around there without wanting to cry. LA Dead are way more accepting of their state than most. It's like, 'Dude, I'm dead? Oh, well, least I don't gotta work tomorrow.' Then they move on."
"The Dead are strange," I told her, shaking my head slightly. Tara smiled back. Her eyes were suddenly that filmy, milky color that I only see once in a while on her, but much more often on other Dead types. She was a little faded, too.
"Truer words were never spoken," she informed me, blurring back into normal ghost-Tara.
I closed my eyes. I opened them.
We were there.
The lobby wasn't empty, which I thought was sort of tacky of me. Usually I have better timing. But I was tired and excited, and it had definitely been a while since I'd been to the Hyperion.
They'd redecorated again. Everything was buffed to a high Art Deco shine. The "check-in" desk (now an info kiosk, really) had chrome accents buffed to gleaming, and the material of the chairs was cherry-red and complimented the inlaid marble of the floor. The directory had Art Nouveau lettering gleaming at me. All I could think was that the nightclubs and office rentals were doing pretty well for Angel.
I was standing five feet from a tall girl that I'd never seen before. She looked extremely familiar, though. The girl was pretty, with short, dark brown hair that framed her face in light waves, bright blue eyes and glasses, and a strong mouth. She was wearing a pair of worn jeans and a beige-y shirt cut in a new style I wasn't familiar with. She was also barefoot and looking very comfortable.
The girl blinked at me. Clearly she hadn't expected me to be there.
"Hello," she said. The slightly British accent gave her away. I knew exactly who she had to be and I had no joy in the knowledge. "Do you need some assistance?"
"I'm here to see Angel," I said. "Cordelia Chase."
She brushed back a stray hair and nodded dispassionately. Then she put out her hand with something that might have been a smile.
"Victoria," she said, conveniently omitting her last name. "Are you that Cordelia? Nice to meet you."
"I--yes," I said, thrown by Victoria's casual attitude. "I'm that Cordelia. And you--"
"Live here," she said calmly. "My parents are assholes, so I ran away. Angel said I should go home, but I told him I'd much rather not live with evil parents. He finally said yes to the whole thing, so I--live here now."
"Good for you," I said. "Is Angel here?"
Victoria, who was pretty damn poised for someone who'd run away from her parents to live with a vampire they hated, nodded briefly.
"He's upstairs," she said. "Would you like me to fetch him?"
I laughed. She was such a little daddy-clone!
"I can go get him," I told her. Victoria shook her head. "Why not?"
"We've got detectors on the way up to the private wing," she explained. "Only someone authorized can get through. Um, we've had a spot of trouble recently with security--mostly people from Mom and Dad, but you know--people are weird. It's no trouble for me to get him, really."
"Oh, it's not that, hon," I said. "I just wanted to surprise him myself."
"This is the first time you've been here in five years," Victoria said. "I'm sure Angel will be--"
I never got to hear what Angel would be, because he was there suddenly, grinning like an idiot. I noticed that he had changed his hair (sort of) and he was wearing a lot less black. My stomach did one of those funny flips it did when I saw people I used to know really well.
"Cordy," he said, wrapping his arms around me. I could still smell him, the same old eau d'Angel. It was comforting. "It's been too long."
"I know," I said, kissing him on the cheek. "Seems like forever."
"How long are you here?" he asked, rubbing his hands up and down my back. "I missed you."
"At least a month this time," I answered. "And I always miss you."
I tilted my head back. His lips brushed against mine, exploring rediscovered territory. I pulled his head to mine and we started to kiss, one of those long, delicate make-up kisses you enjoy the most after--
"Oh, ew, gross!" said Victoria Morgan-Pryce, daughter of two of the most sexual people I'd ever met. Angel sighed and pulled away from me just a little.
"Tor," he said mildly. "Don't you have homework to do?"
"Already done," she parried in a remarkable imitation of her mother. "I've also cleaned my room, called my social worker, and had a snack with Aunt Fred. And you know today's no-bandwidth on this side of LA, and that Dad's been really psycho with those 'security patrols,' so I can't go anywhere."
"Toria," Angel said fondly. "Give Cordelia and me some privacy."
Victoria thought about it a moment and apparently decided to relent.
"Okay," she said, finally sounding fifteen and Californian. "I'm gonna go grab a book from your room. I'll be real fast, speed-fucking-monkey, okay? I'm not sniffin' your biz or anything, just, you know, you've got the best analog library."
"I catch your drift," Angel replied, sounding as ridiculous using her slang as he had using mine. "Okay?"
"Yeah, I dig," she muttered, finally walking away. We watched her go and then I burst into chuckles when I was sure she was out of earshot. Angel smiled and we sat down next to each other on one of the excellent couches.
"Well, she's--" I said. "Fairly stoic, considering."
Angel lit up. "Toria's great," he said enthusiastically. "Well, she's fifteen, which means she's a pain in the ass. But underneath it all--she kind of reminds me of Wes. Like he was. Before--"
"That's good," I said, snuggling into Angel. "I didn't come here to deal with Wes. Or his daughter, no matter how great she is. This is my vacation. My first real vacation in twenty years. If anyone screws that up, I'll go after him Warrior-style. Especially Wesley."
Angel stroked my neck slowly. "Toria would like that," he said, brushing the back of his hand against my cheek. "You're so beautiful, Cordy. Did I ever tell you that?"
"Not nearly often enough," I said, leaning over and kissing him. He pulled away from a split second and then kissed back, his lips pressing against mine with just the tip of his tongue tracing my teeth.
"Oh my God! Cordy!" someone screamed. Angel and I jumped away from each other and then I was on my feet in two seconds flat, sure that it was Tara calling me with an urgent assignment. I was going to kill her. Fortunately, it turned out not to be Tara.
"Fred?" I said, covering my face with my hands. "Is that you?"
"Hey, girl," Fred answered, standing in the doorway with her hands firmly on her hips. "Sorry to scream, but--it's been five years! Give me a hug, silly!"
I ran over and did what the lady asked. My stomach ached again, hurting to see Fred so--so--so--damn middle-aged. She was still as skinny as a rail, of course--I could feel her bones under the skin when I hugged good and tight--but she was more salt-and-pepper. There were wrinkles. There were stiffer joints and slower steps. But for forty-seven? She looked fabulous.
"You haven't changed," said Fred, pulling back and smoothing my braid. "Well, except your hair."
"Do you like it?" I asked, spinning around to show off the braid.
"It's great," she said. "Angel, you're going to have to go back to underground suppliers for blood for a while. You-know-who's banned it again this week. Of course, I couldn't figure out why 'til just now."
"He can ban blood?" I asked, incredulous. "How?"
"He claims it's mad cow or some other epidemic," Fred replied with a shrug. "And no, not him personally, but he kinda owns Los Angeles, Cordy. And he's really super pissed off at Angel right now."
"We've all been super pissed off at each other for a while now," I replied tiredly. "Maybe we should get some hardcore family therapy. Like that episode of Simpsons with the wiffle bats and the electroshock?"
Fred snickered. "Don't I wish," she said. "Anyway, I'm interrupting your big reunion scene. Which isn't--upstairs?"
"Toria's in there for a second," Angel explained. "She wanted to borrow a book because it's no-bandwidth today."
"And I'm sure also so that she can put that picture of you two at the Pier front and center," Fred said, clicking her tongue. She looked at me apologetically. "Tor's a little, you know, jealous about Angel. She doesn't like to share."
"Not enough attention at home, I guess," I said. Fred rolled her eyes.
"Too much attention," she replied cryptically. "Anyway, I'm gonna go grab that spoiled brat and make dinner. You're welcome to join us later. If you're not too, um, busy."
"That sounds nice," I said with a smile. "It's so good to see you."
"It's wonderful," Fred said. "Anyway, you two go upstairs and chase Toria out already!"
We nodded, she waved, and left, and Angel laughed.
"She's right, you know. If we stay down here, everyone will keep interrupting and I--" he looked me up and down and I suddenly got a nice warm shiver down my spine-- "Think that it's time you enjoy this vacation."
"Ooh," I said, linking my arm around his waist as we walked toward a private staircase. "Angel, did you just proposition me?"
He went blank-faced. "Might have," he said, trying to look innocent. "Is that all right with you?"
I leaned over and kissed him a few times in a suggestive trail that ended with a nice long tongue-massage of his earlobe. Then I pulled away and looked straight ahead.
"I think it could be," I said, deadpan.
Whether by Fred's intervention or by divine dumb luck, Victoria was gone by the time we reached Angel's bedroom, though there was that damn picture facing the bed very pointedly as well as a large pile of books on the middle of the bed. I ignored the pranks as Angel pushed the books aside.
"I love you," I told Angel, kicking the door shut behind us. Then I turned around and locked it. "I love you, I love you, I love you."
"Once more," Angel said, shucking off his shirt. "This time with a little enthusiasm."
"I--" I said, reaching around and unzipping my dress. "Love." I let the dress fall to the floor and showed off my very minimal underwear. "You."
Angel laughed and moaned at the same time, which was far sexier than I thought it would be. He started undoing the buttons of his jeans while I sidled over to the bed. Angel liked taking off my underwear, so I kept it on and smiled as his hands shook from trying to get his pants off so fast.
"I love you, too," he murmured, lying down next to me on the bed.
"Good," I said. "Make love to me, or I'm going to scream."
"I thought it was a little different," he said, tracing his finger across my jaw and down might neck, his other hand already on my hip. "Make love to you, and you're going to scream."
That particular statement went straight to my crotch and I tried to guide his neck-tracing hand to my bra strap. Angel shook his head, instead making swirls and loops over my neck and collarbone.
"You're so mean," I said, stroking his arm and shoulder as his more daring hand slid down the crease of where hip and thigh met and back up again. "I want you so much--"
"I want you, too," he said, bending close and giving me a kiss on the forehead. "But I want to torture you first. It's been so long, Cordy. I wasn't sure you were coming back this time."
Tears pricked at my eyes for a split second. "I'll always come back," I murmured, pulling his face next to mine. "Always."
"I know," he said, teasing his way down my arm. "But I want you to feel exactly how long it felt for me. How hard it was for me. I want you--I want you to be squirming when I finally give in. I want you to be so wet for me that you can never use those panties again."
I'd already soaked the crotch. Angel rarely tried to talk even mildly dirty. But it had been five years with no word. The higher being gig was sometimes an incredible pain in the ass, I thought as Angel finally slipped my bra off and began to slowly worry my shoulder with his teeth and tongue. His hand was tracing a spiral from my belly button, edging ever closer to my underwear. I whimpered.
"Shh," he said, his free hand reaching up to cup one of my breasts.
He meant the torture part, I realized. I was going to have to suffer for a while, even though I could see that Angel was more than ready to end the pre-show. He had been truly worried I wouldn't come back.
My skin was feeling like it was made of tingles and heat, and Angel kept sweeping his hands and mouth over different exposed areas, stopping for a moment to lick a nipple into a sore, anxious peak, and then sliding his hands over my hips and my ass and back up to my waist while I tried to get a few touches in. He seemed very disinterested in me flirting with his body the way he was coaxing mine. All the while I kept getting wetter and wetter--and he wouldn't touch the panties at all.
"You smell like wanting," he murmured before biting down on my exposed upper thigh. "Tell me what you want, Cor. Tell me how you feel."
"I'm hot," I said, feeling like my brain had seeped into my skin and evaporated at his touch. "I feel like--I feel so hot--I--"
"You what?" he asked calmly, looking into my eyes. I melted a little more.
"Take off my panties, please," I whispered, feeling completely cliche and too hot to care. "Angel, please--"
"You need me, don't you?" he asked, hooking a finger into the waistband. "Say it."
"I need you," I gasped. "Angel, please. I need you to fuck me now."
He literally tore the underwear off and plunged two fingers inside me hard and deep. I moaned, which seemed inadequate to explain how incredible it felt.
"Oh, God," I cried, barely able to remember my own name. "More. Angel. More."
He ignored me, pumping those fingers in and out, in and out while I started to writhe, my own hands moving involuntarily over my own breasts. I was so--I was gonna--oh. More.
"Is this enough?" he asked, his fingers deep inside me. "Is it?"
"No--" I gasped, twisting my nipples under my fingers. "Oh. God. Angel, more."
He leaned over and crushed my mouth with a rough kiss, still probing me with those fingers. I wailed into his mouth as he pulled away.
"Mine," he said, sliding his fingers out and taking off his boxers. "Yes?"
"Yours," I gasped. "Always."
I could feel him pressing against me, slowly--always so damn slowly!--and finally pushing himself inside of me. I started whimpering as he pounded into me, all his restraint gone.
"Mine," he said between thrusts.
"Yours," I replied, overwhelmed by how much he needed me. "Yes."
"Come for me," he said, sliding his hand between our bodies to rub my clit. One hard rub and my overloaded nerves gave. I came for him.
"Yes," I said. "Yes. Yes. Oh, yes."
He kept thrusting through the orgasm, pushing for another. I was going to scream.
"Oh oh oh OH OH OH OH OHohohohohohohpleasepleaseOHHHHHHHHHH, GOD!" I heard echoing over the room. Angel pushed a few more times and finally came, making his own special moan.
He fell against me and for a couple of minutes, we were too tired to do anything except lay there and pant. Well, I was doing the panting, at least. Finally, I nuzzled my head against Angel's.
"Feel better?" I asked, pushing against him. He rolled over and I could breathe again.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah."
He suddenly got that thinking look on his face, which meant he was probably going to apologize for being so pushy.
"Don't apologize for the sex," I said. Angel blinked rapidly, meaning that I had so clearly grokked his train of thought.
"Look," I said, leaning over and giving him a peck on the cheek. "We have a month. I'll have plenty of times to play out my dominant side. And we needed this."
Angel thought about it. Then he smiled.
"Good," he said. "Now I can feel a little less bad about it."
"But still a little bad," I said.
"I can't be perfectly happy, now, can I?" he said with a wink. I punched him in the arm.
"Guess not," I said, stretching happily. "Guess not."
The moon was starting to fade and there was a gleam in the air that told us both that morning was coming. It wasn't there yet, though. We had time, and it was still cool and dark and star-flecked on the balcony. So we sat there, watching morning creep in.
"Do you ever think it's funny?" I asked Angel, his head resting on my thigh. "You know, that things turned out the way they have."
He stared off at the skyline, silent and cold.
"Funny's not the world I'd use," he said, turning his head to watch the disappearing stars. "Strange, maybe. Terrible, definitely."
"But funny, too," I insisted. "I mean, Wesley bans blood to annoy you? You stage anti-capitalist protests and vandalize his estate? And then there's the whole issue of Victoria--"
Victoria, who had made sure to flush the toilet six times during my shower, I thought but didn't say.
"Protecting Toria has nothing to do with anything else," Angel said fiercely. I snorted. Sure, that was believable. "I took her in because she needed someone to keep her safe."
"Not what I meant, lamebrain," I said fondly, ruffling his hair. "Don't you think it strange that of all of us--the Scoobies, our people--only you and Wesley had children? I think that's funny."
Angel shrugged. "It was apparently a prophecy," he said. "Wesley sent me the original and the translation when he found it, two or three years ago."
"Prophecy?" I said. "What, that he'd end up taking care of your kid and being the only one to have one of his own?"
"You'd be surprised how close you are," Angel murmured, the words tickling my skin. "It doesn't make any of it right--or any easier, but it was interesting that he wanted me to know."
I nodded, staring at the hills and houses that were starting to appear in the pale, pre-dawn almost-light. The rush of the traffic was slow, almost a soft murmur that reminded me of wind in other places. I had been to so many other places that my own world seemed strange.
"Things are funny," I said again. "I'm the Warrior with a ghost for a personal assistant. You're a respected local businessman who also seems to help run a resistance. Wesley, former Watcher, runs Wolfram and Hart, and is married with a kid."
I thought about it and shivered. "It's not really all that funny, I guess."
"Not really," Angel said.
"That's not what I heard," Tara said, suddenly half-visible. Angel and I both jumped and Angel sat up, stunned. "Sorry. But I've got some information, if you're in the mood for it."
Angel stared at Tara, apparently surprised that he could see a ghost, and having that same feeling of half-recognition I'd had when I first saw her.
"Excuse me," he said. "Have we met?"
"Not really," Tara replied. "I'm Tara--I used to--I was Willow's--when I was alive, I was--"
Angel nodded. "Right," he said. "I've seen pictures of you. You look the same."
"Goes with being Dead," Tara said with a quiet smile. "Nice to meet you, Angel. Cordelia talks about you all the time."
Angel perked up. "Really?" he asked, looking at me.
"Yes, dumbass, really," I answered. Angel didn't say anything, but he had the look of extremely happy, very validated Angel guy. I rolled my eyes--men!--and turned to my ghost. "What's the word from the Dead? What's so funny?"
"Oh," Tara said abashedly. "Um, it's private. And sort of mean."
"Tara," I said. "Tell."
Tara shrugged with a certain resignation and sat down.
"Well, there's this Dead security guard who's in love with Lilah," Tara explained. "He kinda stalks her, and she's not happy about it. She's not happy anyway--she and Wesley have been fighting a lot since their daughter ran away. Did you know they have a daughter?"
"Yeah," I said. "She's fifteen."
"Damn," Tara said. "Anyway, the Dead security guard follows her. And she's tried to get rid of him. She paid some psycho with a two-headed duck a hundred thousand dollars to exorcise the Dead guy."
"Did it work?" Angel asked.
"No," Tara said. "Lilah fed the duck to her golden retrievers and they spit up feathers for the rest of the day. The psycho wasn't happy. Neither was Wesley."
"That's funny?" I said.
"The Dead guy thought it was hilarious," Tara admitted. "I mean, he just wants her to answer his phone calls."
"But he's Dead," I pointed out. "He can't call her."
"Yeah, I know," Tara said. "So does he. But that's what he wants."
Angel and I looked at each other and I admit it, we had to laugh. The Dead are in a very strange world of their own and sometimes they just don't deal with it too well. Tara smiled at us patiently, and then gave me a very bored look.
"Anyway," I said. "What do you have for me?"
"The Dead here are freaked," she said. "Something big is brewing and it doesn't taste like Wolfram and Hart OR the Resistance. It's ugly, it's evil, and it's pure chaos. Of course, it's rising out of the Valley, so it's par for the course."
"Of course," Angel said, concern evident in his eyes. "You know where?"
"Calabasas," Tara said. "But the funny thing is, none of you people have a clue about it, while the Dead have been getting out of LA for the last six months. We even have this one top-secret guy--they call him the Walker--trying to figure it out. From you guys, though? It's hiding itself real, real well. The Dead don't know what it is, they just get the tinges of its aura. But it's not good."
Angel nodded tersely. "Anything else about it? Prophecies, names, associated words?"
"No," Tara said. "Seriously, most of the Dead are calling it, 'that scary ass motherfucking thing,' and I went to some pretty calm Dead folks. I got told to find the Walker--easier said than done, because no one has talked to the guy, despite the fact he's seriously power. They're all freaked out--and to tell you the truth, so am I."
"Get a feel of it?" I said, while Angel started to furrow his brow and pace. Tara nodded.
"It's cold, Cordelia," she said. "And it's dark. Powerful, too. I mean, it was a two-second memory contact and I felt knocked flat on my ass. And I'm Dead, Cordelia. The Dead don't feel things like this. I felt like--I felt like I was alive and scared so bad that--"
She shook her head. I swore she was about to cry and that's the one thing the Dead do not do.
"I've got to make a few calls," Angel said, looking at Tara and me apologetically. "If this is true, we needed to be on this six months ago. And I shudder to think what Wesley will do if he gets a hold of this thing."
He walked back inside, Tara still shaking her head after him. I looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
"What?" I asked.
"He doesn't get it," she said. "This thing, it's no more interested in Wolfram and Hart than it is his people. It'll take both of 'em out and not blink. And it's not your usual half-hearted End of the World. The Dead don't leave places, Cordelia, not en masse."
I tried to understand what Tara was trying to say. It was coming together at the edges and my stomach was sinking along with it. At the very least, this meant the end of my "vacation," not that I actually thought I'd get a month in the first place, but--
"We're going to have to call Wesley," I said, hearing the words fall into the air like dull thuds of clay. "Aren't we?"
"Call Wesley, call the Slayer, call the government, call the heavens and earth," Tara said. "You're going to need it if we're going to survive this."
Cold and suddenly very, very tired, I walked back inside. There were things I had to do.
The room was full of fluttering chaos and loud shrieks. This was not among the things I had needed to do, but that was life, wasn't it?
"No!" Victoria screamed, throwing another book at Angel. "You told me they'd never come here! Not ever!"
"Tor," Angel said, dodging her extremely good aim. "Tor--Toria--Toria--Victoria Louise Morgan-Pryce!"
Victoria froze and then slumped into a nearby desk chair, next book still in hand. Her eyes narrowed to slits and she looked at us with profound disgust.
"What good are you people anyway?" she asked, hair still unbrushed and eyes bleary. "You should have known about this how many months ago? I bet my dad's already got people talking to it. He's going to laugh at you."
"As a matter of fact, he doesn't know about it, either," I said flatly, extremely tired of the temper tantrum. It had way not been my idea to involve Victoria in anything, but Angel being Angel, he'd insisted that she know before we called Wesley in on the whole thing. I was getting extremely sick of the fact that dealing with players in Los Angeles was twice as tough because the divisions in the city began and ended with one family drama. Our family drama.
"Are you sure?" Victoria asked.
"Yeah, I'm sure," I said. "I've got someone Dead working for me who told me so. The Dead can't lie."
Victoria's head tilted in a way very reminiscent of her father's. "Really?" she said. "That's--cool."
"Not if you've ever asked one for fashion advice," I replied sourly. Tara, who was standing behind Victoria, snorted. "Anyway, you don't have to come downstairs if you don't want to."
"Of course I do," Victoria replied. "Steven--Connor will come with them and I'm not letting them throw that in Angel's face. If you guys are all about this, be all about it, and don't play stupid."
"She's right," Fred said apologetically. "This meeting is going to set the whole city on edge, and we're going to have to play it with as much verve as they do."
Fred then glanced over at Angel. "Want me to call the boys? You know that Xander and Mike have a suitable number of people ready for us whenever."
Angel smiled. "Yeah, call that Mike of yours," he said. "But minimal flirting. This is a serious situation."
Fred gave Angel a serious look. "Mike and I aren't flirtin'," she said with mock outrage. "I'm shocked and surprised you'd make such a suggestion."
"Mike should marry you already," Angel replied. "Go, put the guys on call."
Fred gave Angel another very strange look and flounced out. Victoria got the giggles--though not before sticking her tongue out at the departing Fred--and I was left utterly confused.
"Who's Mike?" I said. "And why is Victoria laughing?"
"Mike is Aunt Fred's 'significant other,'" Victoria explained, sitting down on her bed. "They're massively in lurve, but Fred promised Charles she'd love him forever and she thinks marrying Mike would be a breach of that promise. Hey, can your friend find Charles and get him to tell Fred to marry Mike already?"
I looked over at Tara. She shrugged amiably. It would give her something to do--and hell, maybe Gunn knew the Walker.
"Maybe," I replied. "Thanks for the rundown."
"Aunt Fred's crazy about Mike," Victoria said. "It's so cute. Isn't it, Angel? Angel? Angel! Are you listening? Angel!"
She started to bounce on the bed, doing everything but say look at me, Angel! I smiled internally, and finally, Angel looked up.
"What? Yeah, they're cute," he said. Victoria pouted. "Cordelia, um, can you come with me for a minute?"
"Sure," I said, following him out into the hall as we narrowly missed another book to the head. "What?"
"Are you sure you'll be ready for this?" he asked with surprising concern. "I mean, it's been a while since you've seen Wesley and everyone. You looked a little sick when you saw Fred, and it's been fifteen years since you've seen Wes--and twenty since you--"
"I'm the Warrior, Angel," I said. "I've fought things I can't even begin to explain. A tense meeting between two rival gangs will be a piece of cake in comparison."
Angel lifted an eyebrow. "Oh, that's right, hmm?" he said.
"Yeah," I said. "I'm tough, mister. I can kick your ass. I could probably kick the Slayer's ass--who is the Slayer these days, anyway?"
"Her name's Niobe Tenga," Angel said. "Lives in South Philly. New to the job--about four months or so."
"What about the rest of the old gang? I mean, Gunn--" and I paused, remembering quietly just what had happened to Gunn. "What about Lorne? Groo? Any of the old Scoobs--not Buffy, obviously, but--"
"Most of them are out of the game, Cordy," Angel said gently. "Giles is a bit old for this. Willow's in and out of it ever since--well, for a long time. Dawn's in New York and she won't come. Xander will be here and he'll do his damnedest, but he's slowing down, too. He never really accepted that Buffy was dead."
"Anya?" I asked. "I wouldn't do this, Angel, but like Tara says, this thing is big. Big enough for us to put twenty years of infighting out of the way and work with the enemy."
"I'll try to get a hold of her," Angel said. "All right? She's pretty busy with the shops, but--"
"Get her on the phone. And Lorne. And whoever isn't dead or totally incapable of chanting a spell or holding a sword," I said. "Okay?"
"Okay," Angel said, taken aback. I smiled ruefully and kissed him quickly.
"That's my man," I said. "Love you."
"Love you, too," Angel replied.
"Are you two DONE with grown-up time yet?" Victoria snapped from the other room. Before this was all over, I was going to have to put a muzzle on that girl. Also, if we were going to meet with Wesley, I was going to give him what-for on raising such a spoiled brat after his whole evil father experience.
Then again, if I did that, I'd also have to give him what-for on marrying Lilah freakin' Morgan, and if I did that, I'd have to berate him for getting involved with that evil fashion-impaired lawyer bitch, and if I did that, I'd finally have to ask him what the HELL he'd been thinking taking Connor in the first place.
And that would be twenty years of yelling at Wesley. Not that he didn't deserve it, but we might not have time for the whole gory business. Tor would enjoy it, though. She obviously loved the moron, enough to hate him as much as she did.
"Shut up, kid," I called back, pulling Angel in for an impromptu kiss and hoping we'd miss the neck bibliographic missile. Twenty years. God. It might be harder than I thought.
"They said yes," Fred said, staring at the newly remodeled lobby cum conference room. "I cannot believe that he said yes. I mean--you know--I mean he hasn't been here, not himself--since the night that--"
"I know, Fred," I said, dragging another table into position. "Dammit, Tara, why aren't you helping?"
"What?" Tara asked. "I spent all morning trying to find this Dead guy. He's somewhere in the city, but word on the street is he doesn't want to be found."
"Sounds like him," I said. Fred blinked.
"That's so uncanny," she said. "The ghost is really here? And you can see her and everything?"
"Even when I don't want to," I said wryly, giving Tara a slightly sour look. She yawned and sat on one of the couches. "So where's Xander and this Mike person?"
"They're coming," Fred said, pushing another couch section into the elevator, where Victoria was waiting to shove it at Angel. "They're headquartered out in Fontana and sometimes it takes a while."
"Ew, why Fontana?" I asked, making sure the tables were all equal and heading to the supply closet for a cloth to cover up the fact our conference table was a little less than ritzy.
"I don't know," Fred said. "Mike says it's Xander's call and I guess it's cheaper--I think they should be a little closer, myself--"
She blushed. I really wanted to see what this guy Mike looked like. He had to be pretty special to make Fred so giddy.
"You're seriously crushing," I teased. "You know he's going to have to pass my examination--"
Fred paused. "Cordelia--" she said awkwardly.
"I know, I know, I'm not here, it's not my business, but I'm your friend and he's gonna have to--"
The door swung open and my heart almost dropped through my chest. My God, it wasn't possible. It wasn't freakin--
"Cordy?" Xander asked. Oh, God. It was Xander. I almost burst into tears, and I weren't sure if they were tears of joy or tears of sorrow.
"Hey," I said weakly, staring at him. Time had not been kind to Xander. He had something of a gut on him now, and there was a scar on his right cheek that looked red and puckered. He was missing a couple of fingers on his right hand, too, and he stood like someone with a bad back. But his eyes were still kind and he still had that beautiful smile, I reminded myself, forcing me to smile.
"Long time no see, babe," he said, opening his arms. I ran to them, giving Xander a long, rough hug. He felt good, and he smelled good, too. Slightly sweaty, but human. And very Xander. "You're looking good."
"Thanks," I said, giving him a peck on the cheek. "You, too."
An extremely attractive blonde woman in her early thirties was standing next to him. She was in awesome shape, too. I bet she worked her ass off every day with a sword or at least a personal trainer. I looked over at her and smiled.
"I don't think we've met," I said, patting Xander on the shoulder and turning to the woman. "I'm Cordelia Chase. I'm--I work for the Powers."
"Michele Kaminowski," she replied. "But everyone here calls me Mike."
My jaw dropped.
"Mike?" I said. "Um--"
Someone started to laugh. I turned my head slightly and discovered that it was Victoria (of course), looking dusty and amused as hell in her overalls and tank top.
"You didn't know that Mike was a chick, did you?" Victoria asked, laughing her head off. "Oh, damn."
"Tor," Xander said, giving her a disapproving look. "Don't gloat. It makes you look like your mother."
Victoria bit her lip and swallowed back her laughter in a fit of teenage disgust.
"That's just mean," she said to Xander. "That's just waaaaay freakin' mean."
"Behave yourself," Fred said, swatting Tor on the bottom. "And go clean up. The last thing we need is for your father to make some comment about you lookin' like the maid or something and you gettin' hysterical in front of all those people."
Victoria started to pout. "You guys are so mean," she said. "I'm going to my room."
She stomped away and Xander laughed. "Fifteen year olds," he said with a grin. "Can't live with 'em, can't lock 'em in their room 'til they're thirty."
"Sadly," I said, turning back to him with a grin. "Why are you way the hell out in Fontana, dork boy? You're keeping Fred from her true love over here, and what if you're needed on short notice? One good traffic jam and the world's doomed."
"Yeah, you try getting a training space around here, Ms. Higher Being," Xander retorted. "I don't think divine intervention could get us a box on the sidewalk here with Wesley in charge. Speaking of which--could you kill him for us, Cordelia: Warrior Princess? That is your job, after all--getting rid of the bad guys."
"Would you be satisfied with a twenty year giving of what-for?" I asked while Mike sidled down to Fred and gave her a sweet little kiss. "I was going to yell at him for raising a spoiled brat, but then I'd have to start in on his taste in women."
"Give him a break. The man likes smart brunettes with attitude," Xander replied. "It's not that bad, except for the part where he picked the evil one to spawn with."
Mike, who had been cuddling with Fred, looked up with a grin. "Yeah, I have to give Old English props for his taste," she said. "He's got a thing for perfect women."
With that, she swooped down on Fred and starting raining kisses on her face and neck. It was so cute I forgot the part where Fred was in love with another woman. Almost. I'd have to ask Fred about it later.
"Hey, Harris," someone said behind us. It was another buff guy--which certainly made me feel a little better. The more buff people on our side, the better. "You need us to get to work or what?"
Xander turned around slowly. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "Get the guys in here, Wayne. Make sure it's ready to go. Mike and I are gonna go upstairs for a while. Call me if you need anything, all right?"
"Five by five," Wayne said, nodding at Xander and me. "We'll get the job done, Harris."
Xander smiled. "I know," he said. "Come on, Cor, let's get us ready to meet the very well dressed evil that is Wesley's entourage--to say nothing of the man himself."
"Wesley learned how to dress?" I asked, linking arms with him as we headed toward the private suites. "Wow, it has been a while."
"I look six," Victoria complained, tugging at her collar. "I fuckin' hate pleated skirts, too."
"Watch your language," Angel said easily, putting his hand on the small of my back as he guided me toward the grand staircase. "And behave yourself. You know your father."
Victoria straightened herself up and sneered superciliously.
"Victoria," she said in a prim accent. "Do stand up straight. Victoria, have you practiced the piano today? Your Latin tutor has told me that you're having difficulties with the subjunctive, Victoria. You ought to be working on that instead of playing that ridiculous video game. Victoria, help me pour your mother into bed--yeah, I know dad."
Tara looked my way and mouthed, "daddy's girl" at me. I nodded slowly. This just got more and more fun with every step. I wished I could go back twenty years and snatch that baby back from Wesley. That would have changed everything. Probably.
We reached the top of the stairs. There were three figures standing at the base of the staircase. I recognized all three of them, with a lump in my throat. But at least Connor didn't look any happier to be wearing a power suit than Angel did.
I led the group, keeping my eyes directly on Wesley. I noticed the first thing he did was look at Victoria briefly, and then he turned his attention completely on Angel and me. Fred didn't even come into his range of vision.
He looked extremely good. Someone had taught him how to dress, it was true. Lilah looked--Lilah had a good plastic surgeon and a hangover. She kept looking at Victoria, Wesley, and the floor in a well-worn path. I would have felt for her, but she was Lilah and thus not worth having sympathy for.
Connor didn't look at anyone. The pattern of the floor was apparently much more interesting than actual people. He was remarkably boyish for someone who was almost forty and who ran a nice chunk of Wolfram and Hart.
We reached the bottom of the stairs. And there was complete and utter silence for a good minute as we all stared at each other. Our flunkies, gathered around the makeshift conference table, got tense while the nine (ten if you counted Tara) of us all gazed at each other slowly and wordlessly.
Wesley finally broke the silence, looking straight at me for the first time in fifteen years. "Cordelia," he said politely, in measured tones, sneaking a glance at Victoria before looking back at me. His voice was raspier than it had been, even now. "You look remarkably well. Thank you for calling us."
He extended his hand and I shook it, noting that somewhere in there, Wesley'd picked up a good handshake, too. Could he have finally become a man after all these years?
"Thanks for coming on such short notice," I replied evenly, feeling Angel's hand tremble against my back. I knew who he was looking at. "Would you please sit down? We have so much to discuss and not a great deal of time."
"Of course," Wesley replied. He ushered Lilah to the table with the same gentlemanly flair that I'd had a massive crush on back in the 1990s. She smiled at him and I was a little taken aback. They looked like--well, hell. She loved him. He was at least fond of her and if I didn't hate Lilah so much, I'd admit that he loved her back. Behind me, I heard Victoria make a weird noise.
"Nicely handled," Xander murmured, brushing past me and Angel and sitting down between Mike and one of his guys.
"Thanks," I said, sitting down in the seat directly across from Wesley. Angel sat on my right, Fred on my left, Victoria on Angel's right. Tara didn't sit down, but I could feel her standing behind me.
"You've got a ghost," Connor said slowly, flickering his glance up at Tara. "Did you know that?"
"She works for me," I said. "Would you prefer she not be present?"
"It's Tara, right?" Wesley asked. I nodded. "In fact, I'd rather she stay. One honest witness in this partisan crowd would do us well."
"What you said," I said. "I didn't know you were sensitive to the Dead, Steven."
"You can call me Connor."
"Connor, I didn't know you were sensitive," I said pleasantly, watching Lilah pour herself a glass of water and drink it with a sour face. "It's relatively rare."
"I'm at least latently endowed with most paranormal talents, given the nature of my birth parents," Connor replied. "I can see them, but I can't always hear them. She's pretty, though."
"Yes, she is," I agreed. Connor nodded and looked at the table. I turned my attention back to Wesley, who'd been looking Victoria-ward again during the entire interlude. He straightened up and looked at me, eyes completely devoid of emotion.
He loved that kid. I choked back a wave of sympathy. Wesley was the enemy. He had Angel's son to protect him, and Angel was protecting his daughter. Poetic justice, as far as I was concerned. It wasn't why we were here. I was not the Warrior of internecine custody issues.
"I suspect you're wondering why we've asked you to meet here," I said.
"There's a hostile chaotic energy rising up from the earth," Wesley replied flatly. "You're not the only one with a connection to the Dead, Cordelia. I have my own sources."
Sympathy gone. "All right, so you know," I said. "And you know that it's not going to buddy up with you people."
"No, it's not," Wesley said. "Our connections were terrified of this thing--which is most unusual for the Dead, I don't have to tell you."
"Yeah," Lilah said. "The Dead are usually a little more stoic. This one was about to wet his pants."
Wesley glared at Lilah. She lifted an uncaring eyebrow and shut up.
"What she said," I replied. "Tara was practically in tears over the memory of the contact."
"We need your help," Angel interrupted. "And you need ours. Unless you want this thing to destroy the world and not even leave behind a memory trail."
"You need my help?" Wesley asked, a snotty tone creeping into his voice. "Me? I thought I wasn't good enough to spit upon. I thought that I wasn't worth the energy it took to kill me and rid the world of my presence. At least that's what you told me the last time we spoke."
"Wesley," Angel said. "This isn't about spitting on you. And that conversation still stands, by the way, you son of a bitch. We just need a truce to take care of this thing, and then we can go back to the way things should be."
"Of course," Wesley said, the sudden bile in his voice bracing. "And why should I accept your terms? I have more power, money, and resources at my fingertips than you'd be able to scrape together in a lifetime, even if you sold your soul to six different entities. If we are to work together, it's only sensible that I set the terms. I have the power, I'm the one doing the favor--and I'm the one who makes the decisions."
"Or we could just have the Warrior kick your smarmy British ass," Xander said angrily. "Accept that term."
"Yeah, her and what army?" Connor said. "Wesley's not exactly undefended."
"Well, neither are we!" Mike and Fred replied in unison.
I glanced over at the silent major players, looking for the assist. Lilah was rubbing her temples, and Angel was glowering at Wesley, who was glowering back. It was now a question of who was going to pick up a weapon first.
"Excuse me," Lilah said, looking up suddenly. Everyone shut up to look at her. "I have something of a headache, so I might not be the most coherent, but don't we sort of want to help each other?"
"No," Angel and Wesley said together.
"Speak for yourselves, kids," I said. "You have a point."
Lilah smiled. "Thank God you're back," she said. "You should be here more often. The boys are usually worthless at negotiation and this is rather delicate, of course."
"And then there's the unfortunate mutual child-stealing issue," I said, relaxing slightly and looking at the woman carefully. Lilah was slimy and evil and dangerous, but she knew how to get things done. I could at least trust her to negotiate in full faith. "But of course, that's not the point."
"No," Lilah said. "Not at all. So does Tara have any insight on what this thing is?"
"No," I replied. "The Dead don't have a name for it. It's just fucking scary."
"That's pretty much what we've got," Lilah said. "Obviously, you need our library as much as we need yours. Called the Council yet?"
"An hour ago," I said. "They're on it. We're going to need a substantial force to defeat this thing."
"You've got it," Lilah said. "We'll need full access to your data guys, though. And your rank-and-file will have to work with ours, of course."
"Of course," I said.
"Under our commanders," she said. I thought about it.
"All right, but your sorcerers have to stay out of action. We can't risk dark magicks being used near this thing," I replied. "And you find any independent operators on the dark side and put the beat down on 'em at your expense."
Everyone was staring at us slack-jawed except Tara, who was terribly amused. The Dead are like that sometimes. Lilah nodded.
"You're in charge of this thing," she said. "That's fine by me. However, if we make major decisions outside of crunch situations, we make it in council, and the council is going to be you, me, Angel, Wesley, and an unbiased fifth party in case of ties. And in minor things, we respect the other's prerogatives and methods. No breakdowns of the agreement if we kill an innocent bystander in a training exercise, or if you kick the hell out of one of our people in retribution. Obviously our orders will be aimed to minimize incidents, but minor incidents won't result in breach of contract."
"Agreed," I said. "I choose the unbiased fifth party--and I'm leaning toward the Dead. Say, the Walker. And the entire issue of Victoria is completely left alone until this is over."
Wesley started, looking ready to disagree. Lilah looked at her daughter and her man and then at me.
"I like the idea of the Walker. As for the other part--I'm good with it if I have to be," she said. "Ditto for Steven, of course."
"Of course," I said. "We should really seek counseling about the whole thing, you know. There are twenty years of issues here that are putting the whole world at risk."
"Don't get me started," Lilah replied. "I have some things I would love to say to you about self-righteously abandoning friends, but we've got a deadline."
"That reminds me. Last rule," I said. "No petty bullshit on either side until it's over. No banning blood, no low-grade vandalism and mischief. No deliberate attempts to piss the other side off. And we're going to need an exemption from no-bandwidth days here, too."
"You think we have something to do with that?" Lilah asked smoothly, with a sly and slightly flirtatious smile.
"Sorry," Lilah said. "I have that perverse streak in my character that sometimes pops up. But yeah, I agree, Mr. Grouchy next to me agrees, so if you and Mr. Broody agree, we can sign this agreement and preserve the world for a lifetime of petty infighting."
"Oh, that made me want to not sign," I said as the agreement rather magically appeared on the table.
"I know, me too," Lilah said, pulling a face. "But then I remembered I hate you and you know, what's life for if not for dreaming about pasting higher beings to a wall over dumb things done twenty years ago?"
"Exactly," I said, taking a pen and signing the form. "Or telling skanky hos like you exactly how much their reign of terror is going to be beaten down like the aberration that it is after we're done?"
Lilah took my pen and signed the form. "I've actually missed you."
"I actually haven't," I said, handing pen and agreement to Angel. He signed it as fast as he could and shoved it at Wesley, who looked at Victoria again (and oh, that kid and me were going to have a talk about not using two-decade battles to manipulate daddy) and signed.
"Are we done, then?" Wesley asked.
"For now," I said. "Our people will be in contact."
"As will ours," Connor said.
"Good," Angel said.
"Good," Lilah said.
"Then we'll go," Wesley said. "I like what you've done to the hotel, Angel."
"Thanks," Angel said tensely. They shook hands as quickly as they could and stood up. Connor helped Lilah up and our people got up slowly. Victoria didn't stand up. She had her arms folded against her chest like every sullen fifteen-year-old ever born, and God, I was getting too sensitive to the kid.
"Victoria," Wesley said suddenly. "You look--you look nice."
Everyone froze. I closed my eyes and started counting.
"Thanks, dad," she replied almost civilly. "I like your tie."
"It's the one you got me last Christmas," he replied. "Are you doing well?"
"I'm fine," she said. "You okay?"
"Tolerable," he said. "Well, then."
"Yeah," she said. "Bye."
"Yes," he said. "See you soon."
Then they left. And I could breathe again.
"So you've GOT to be kidding me!" I gasped, laughing at Xander's latest share. "Devon? And Aura? No freaking way!"
"Four kids," Xander replied with a wheeze, taking another sip of his soda. "The oldest, his name's--get this--Oz. And then their next kid is Harmony. It's scary. Devon still gets the occasional gig, embarrasses the hell out of the kids."
"I bet," I said, laughing my ass off. "Devon and Aura. Damn, yo."
"You should have been there," Xander said. "At least you could have shown off the whole not-aging thing and really upset some of the ex-Cordettes."
"I was busy," I said. "I think I was leading a rebellion somewhere against a despotic dictator guy with green hair and ten arms."
Xander nodded, fiddling with his glass. "Yeah, that's your thing, hmm? Rebellions against evil dictators."
"Yeah," I said, not quite sure I liked what he was saying (or more honestly, what he wasn't saying). "I do a good job, Xander."
"Everywhere but here," Xander replied. "I guess it's good enough for a booty call, but not good enough to actually liberate."
"That's harsh, Xander," I said. "I don't get to make as many choices as you think. I don't get a lot of time here."
"It doesn't need a lot of time, Cordelia," Xander replied. "You take that big sword you've been hiding, you find that son of a bitch Wesley, and you slide your sword through his heart. Then you and Angel can have as much happy time as you want."
"It's not that easy, Xander," Tara said, sitting down. Xander blinked. So did I. It took a lot of hard work for Tara to get this visible. She'd be out of it for days. "Why didn't you ever kill Spike? Wait 'til he was asleep during the day, and pull a Riley? Grenade, boom, no more Spike?"
Xander glared at her. "That's not fair."
"Neither is telling Cordelia she should kill Wesley," Tara replied. "He's pretty easy to read, even now. And he's not half as dangerous as his wife. If you killed him, she'd be in charge, and she's not always rational. Particularly about him."
"Yeah, but how often is Lilah sober?" snapped Xander.
"Oh, so now you want me to take on scary bitchy drunk widowed Lilah?" I asked. "I'm starting to agree with Tara. Wesley's better off alive--and Victoria better be asleep. God knows the last thing I need is to have a fifteen-year-old hear someone plan the assassination of her father."
"That girl has serious daddy issues," Xander groused. "Of course, I want to know what he did--"
"Nothing," I replied. "Weren't you paying attention? She's a spoiled brat--and she's Daddy's spoiled brat. I wanted to wring her neck for bringing Angel into what's clearly a play for attention."
"But he's also an evil guy, Cordelia," Xander said in exasperation. "He does bad things. Every day. I know you don't know so much about Wolfram and Hart's day to day petty evil schemes, but I do. We're not dealing with the nicest person on earth, you know. He deserves to die."
"To quote your favorite movie ever," I replied wryly. "Many that die deserve life, and many that live deserve death. Would you give it to them, Xander?"
"That movie was robbed at the Oscars," Xander snarked. "All four of those movies were robbed!"
"I know, Xander," I said, rubbing his shoulder. He looked old and sad, and I wondered how he would look if we'd gotten back together after our breakup. What it would have been like to be Mrs. Harris, not Cordelia the Higher Being.
"I miss Buffy," Xander said abruptly. "Things have never been right since she died. If she were here--"
He looked at me and shook his head. "I don't know how I got to be the one who survived, Cordelia," he said. "Willow--she's not more than half there, she hasn't been for years--Dawn's selling her plays on Broadway and pretends we don't even exist--and you're never here--and Giles, he's not doing so great, and Anya's never really forgiven me and it's like--I'm old, Cordy."
I closed my eyes. "You're not--"
"I am!" he snapped. "I know that you don't want to see it, but I'm a tired old guy. I'm only forty-one, but I might as well be a hundred. I don't even know what I'm living for."
I looked at him, looked beyond all the prejudices and hatred and attitude, and I saw him--and I put my arms around him.
"You're living because you should live," I said, trying to find the broken part of his heart. "Buffy would want you to live, Xander. She loved you. We all love you. I love you, Xander."
He looked at me and I could see the Xander I loved best, trying to break through. "Thanks. I love you, too, Cordy."
I smiled. "I'm glad."
He smiled back. "You just did your higher being mojo on me, didn't you?" he asked.
"Yeah," I admitted.
"Wow," he said. "It's great, except for the part where you sound like a motivational speaker."
"I know," I said with a rueful laugh. "But it's the mojo, you know?"
Xander burst into laughter. "So now we know that higher beings all come from the planet Hallmark," he said, trying to be serious. "That's useful."
I tried to be offended. I failed. We laughed for a long time after that and for a while I forgot that it might not be funny at all.
Wesley's assistant was waiting for me at eight in the morning the next day. She was short, redheaded, with mild grey-green eyes and a very neat navy suit. I smiled at her and she smiled back wanly.
"I'm Margaret," she said. "Mr. Wyndham-Pryce thought it best that I work with you, rather than chance--well, unpleasantness."
I smiled at her, bleary-eyed and still a little wooly. "Isn't that nice of him?" I said, taking a drink of my coffee. The best thing Angel had ever done was get a Coffee Bean franchise in the building. "Come with me to the office, Margaret, and we'll get down to business."
"Of course," she said, following me meekly. I noticed that she had awful, plastic shoes that were clearly from Payless, but that otherwise, she seemed pretty sharp. "Um, what should I call you? Miss Chase? Warrior? Mr. Wyndham-Pryce didn't specify."
"Cordelia's fine," I said. "Wesley's so priggish sometimes."
"I guess," Margaret said, blushing. I rolled my eyes. What was it about that man? The girls were always falling for the accent and the manners. "He--he's a good boss, though. Best I've ever had. He's been really fair, even though he's--well, I'm not supposed to talk about that."
"It's okay," I said, taking another slug of my coffee. "He's torn up about Victoria?"
"Yeah," Margaret said shyly. "They were pretty close."
"Figures," I muttered, closing the door and firing up our computer. "Why doesn't he just buy her a car or whatever she wants?"
"Oh, it's not like that," Margaret said. I had to get her a nickname, stat. "Vic found out the full extent of Wolfram and Hart's activities and had--well, little Vic had a little freak scene, let me tell you. I had to clean up Mr. Wyndham-Pryce's office afterward and there were eight hundred year old books everywhere, torn to pieces and drenched with cola."
"Great," I said. "Anyway, what do you have for me, Meg?"
"Not much," Margaret replied, not blinking at the nickname. "We've eliminated what it can't be--which ends up being 97.2% of all demons known, as well as 40% of all energy manifestations currently on record. Ms. Morgan has a team of scientists looking into it being something enviromystical."
"What?" I asked. "What the hell is enviromystical?"
"Well, you know how pollution is bad?" Margaret said. "It's doubly bad, because um, the primal spirits of elements and earth have been getting infected by our pollution and our cavalier attitude about it."
"Dammit," I muttered. "We shouldn't have backed out of Kyoto."
"At the very least," Margaret replied dryly. "Mr. Wyndham-Pryce has been stepping up his support of environmental groups since about 2013, when the first major enviromystical disaster happened in Saudi Arabia. That was bad enough--the oil took on consciousness and it was something out of the X-Files, but anyway."
"So you guys think it's enviromystical?" I asked.
"Not for sure," she said. "But this is usually the kind of thing that's prophesized and decoded in advance when it's purely mystical. Also, there's the attitude of the LA Dead. The Dead don't leave places, and particularly not the Dead around here. In fact, the last time the Dead took off en masse, it was a World-Sucker in 1274. But World-Suckers give off massive mojo, so we're thinking it's not that."
The door banged open. "I don't want to know what a World-Sucker is," Fred said. "Hi. You're Margaret, right?"
"In the flesh," Margaret said. "Victoria warned you?"
"Who else?" Mike asked, sliding her arm around Fred for a moment before flopping down in a chair in the corner. "We got a name for this thing yet?"
"Not a World-Sucker," I said. "Possibly a spirit of the earth corrupted by pollution."
Fred grimaced and sat down, closing the door partially.
"Enviromystical, then?" she asked. "That's all I needed to hear. How bad?"
"It'll make Saudi Arabia look like a picnic," Margaret replied. Fred groaned and covered her eyes briefly. I really needed to find out what had happened in Saudi Arabia.
"Suck," Mike said. "We'll need some serious Druids, then."
"At the very least," Fred said, pulling out her palmtop. "Plus, we'll need healers, Gaians, spiritualists, mindfulness types--I hate enviromystical problems! I always feel like I'm stuck in the plot of an anime movie."
"Agreed," Margaret said with a brief laugh. "A really bad one, too. We have scorned our precious earth and it rises against us! Oh no, what shall we do? We must pray to the spirit of Gaia to save us!"
Fred snorted. "Okay, you're funny," she said. "Tor was right."
"I try," Margaret said. "Anyway, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce told me I was to help you in any way necessary until noon, and then I have to report back to him and bring one of you along for the afternoon. That all right?"
"Works for me," I said. "Margaret?"
"Yeah?" she asked, absently pulling out her laptop and a huge file folder.
"How long have you worked for Wesley?"
"Twelve years," she said, firing up the computer. "Why?"
"No reason," I replied. "Just curious."
There were too many new people these days, I thought as I rubbed my temples in my room after lunch. I liked them--even cold-blooded little Margaret--but there was so much to process that I couldn't even begin.
"Hey, Cordy," Angel said, poking his head in. "You feeling okay?"
"Yeah, I'm good," I said. "Just a little tired."
"It's a lot to do on vacation," he said, slipping in and closing the door behind him. "C'mere."
I scooted to the edge of the bed and Angel sat down behind me and started squeezing my shoulders and neck muscles. His hands were a little cold, but I didn't mind so much. They'd warm up and he was doing a good job working on the knot in my right shoulder blade that I'd nicknamed Wes.
"I feel bad that I spent all morning down there without you," I said. "I miss you, you know."
"It's all right, Cordy," he said. "I spent most of the morning fighting with Faith about bringing Niobe here. She's pissed that the Watchers are forcing them to come."
"Why?" I asked, relaxing my shoulders into Angel's grip as he kneaded the tension away in slow, powerful squeezes.
"She thinks Niobe isn't ready for this," Angel said. "It's apparently Niobe's first apocalypse, which is a big Slayer event, of course."
"I can't believe Faith is a Watcher, anyway," I said, closing my eyes and enjoying the sensation. "It's strange."
"She's a good Watcher," Angel said, kissing the back of my neck. It tickled a little. "How much time do you have before someone comes looking for you?"
"Mmm," I said, moving Angel's hand from my shoulder to my waist. "Enough time."
"You sure?" he asked, kissing the side of my neck down to where it met my shoulder. I turned around and started kissing back passionately.
"Very sure," I said, tugging at his shirt. "Did you lock the door?"
"No," Angel said. I sighed, kissed him again, and then pulled away and locked the door. "I thought you had enough time."
"Doesn't mean that we shouldn't lock the door," I said, taking off my shirt and bra. "You never know who's about to have a crisis."
"Fair enough," Angel said. "And you deserve your privacy."
I snorted. "We're really terrible at coy," I said.
"You think?" Angel asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I do."
"I agree," Angel said, grabbing me by the hips and pulling me down atop him on the bed. "If I don't get you naked soon, I'm going to go insane, end of the world be damned."
I laughed and started kissing my way down his chest. "You know just what to say to a girl, don't you?"
"Huh?" Angel asked as I started to undo his fly.
"Nothing," I said, pulling his pants away. "I want you, too."
"Oh," Angel said. "Yay."
I shimmied out of my skirt and pushed it aside. Then I started crawling up his body, making sure to take my time to linger on the parts I liked best until I was staring him in the face, my body straddling his.
"Hi," I said, kissing the tip of his nose.
"Hi," he said, licking my chin. "Those your hips down there?"
"Might be," I said, lazily pushing them into his while I dared him to do something, say something, touch something--
Angel leaned up and kissed me, pulling my head down towards his lips-first. I continued to rub my hips against his slowly, feeling his hands drift down my back towards my ass.
"Mmmf," I said, kissing his jawline.
"Hmm," he replied, playing tic-tac-toe on my spine and turning it to jelly in the process. I retaliated by raking my fingernails down his side lightly. He arched up underneath me and I smiled.
"Much as I like this," I murmured, finding the waistband of his shorts. "I think that--" and I hooked my fingers into them, pulling them away-- "We might have to--"
"Mmm," Angel replied, stroking my back. "Okay."
"You're gonna make me do all the work, aren't you?" I asked, sliding away just long enough to get rid of my panties. "Lazy."
"Mmm-hmm," Angel said with a smile. "I think I'm just gonna watch."
"Oh," I said, raising an amused little eyebrow. "You do that."
He did, too. He watched me all the way, me guiding his cock inside, me starting a slow, comfortable screw--he watched. Everything else was me, too, riding him at a leisurely pace at first while he watched, this smug little smile on his face.
I didn't like the smug little smile so much. So I dropped the show, the leisurely touching, and the half-closed eyes. I stopped making love and started fucking, which turned out to be a good idea. A very good idea, as Tara appeared about two minutes after--
"I'm interrupting," she said, looking at us with the flat eyes ghosts sometimes get when they don't want to see. "Um. It's important."
I looked up at Tara and smiled. "I know," I said. "Shoot."
"It sort of manifested just now," she said, blinking. "Um."
"It," I said. "What happened?"
Someone started beating on the door. "Cordelia!" Fred screamed. "Cordelia, the earth just broke open and spewed blood."
"Hell," I muttered, looking at Angel. "You heard that, right?"
"Blood?" Angel asked.
"And fire," Tara said. "Anyone who tried to touch the blood sort of burnt up, too."
I groaned and got out of bed. "Great," I said, reaching for my clothes. "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I just don't feel fine."
"We cannot tell the public what this actually is," Wesley said firmly, slamming his fist on the desk. "There's panic already. If we tell them it's the manifestation of the very angry earth spirit who wants them all dead, there will be panic in the streets."
"Blood came out of the earth, Wesley," Angel said. "What can you tell them?"
"Spontaneous oil upwelling, which explains the fire," Wesley replied. "We've got teams out there trying to get samples of the material and fight the fire. Fucking drought, anyway."
Our first emergency meeting was sucking as mightily as I'd imagined it would. Wesley and Angel had spent the whole thing waving their masculine authority around while Lilah filed her nails and I rolled my eyes.
"We're not telling the public," I said. "Obviously. But we should have a timeline, just in case. They should have time to set their affairs in order."
"If we lose, they're probably not going to have time," Lilah said diffidently. "So, we called this meeting why?"
"Blood and fire came out of the earth, Lilah," Wesley said acidly. "Try to be a little awed."
"I'm awed," she said blandly. "But we're all pretty much agreed we need to stop the blood and fire, cordon off the area, figure out what the blood and fire are, and as always, how to stop this thing. Without letting the public know, of course."
She was extremely focused on the actualities of the situation, I'd give her that.
"Darling, please don't do this," Wesley said tightly. "We need to discuss contingency plans."
"I understand, Wesley," Lilah replied with an angry smile. "But the main plan's a go, right? I can tell my people in the Valley to get to work?"
"Yeah, go ahead," Angel said. I rolled my eyes. "So what next? What are you people good for if we've got bleeding earth and fire?"
"I know what kind of spirit it is," Wesley replied. Everyone perked up, even Lilah. "It's not particularly good news."
Lilah sighed and pulled out her cell phone. "I guess it's too much to hope it's the kind of earth spirit that goes away if you sprinkle flowers on the ground and chant to the Goddess?" she asked, dialing her people in the Valley.
"Sorry," Wesley said. "Not this week."
"Damn," she muttered, turning to her phone. "Okay, we're a go. Set plan alpha five niner into play. You got it. Thanks."
She ended the call. We all looked at her.
"I like to be prepared," she said calmly. "So. Contingency."
We all kept looking at her. "Lilah," I said. "They didn't have orders to go--"
"Not without my authorization," she said sullenly. "I'm sorry, when did I become stupid?"
"It was a touch presumptuous, Lilah," Wesley pointed out.
"I'm efficient. I have to be," she said. "But I'll try to be more inefficient if it gives us all nice warm fuzzies."
"Try for us," I said. Lilah froze. I realized that she was actually sort of afraid of me. Maybe not normal me, but Warrior me. "What's wrong?"
"You're looking at me like I'm sword-bait," she said. "It's one of those things I do when I think someone might try to kill me. Especially someone who's a Warrior."
"Sorry," I said. "I'm trying to balance the fact that you're massively useful and efficient with the part where you're the evil lawyer thing I really hate."
Lilah nodded. "And then there's the part where I married him," she said, using my exact tone. "No one ever seems to get over that part."
"Well, I--" I said. "There's no way to finish that thought politely, so let's get back to this spirit. What's it called, Wes?"
"It doesn't have a name," Wesley said, looking strangely strained. I realized belatedly he must have gotten a great deal of grief from everyone over his choice of lover and that it was pretty damn insulting to bring it up every time we saw him. "Well, not technically. It's of a genus known as manetuwak, which is Leni Lenape terminology but it works for our purposes, but anyhow, according to the mythology, everything has a life spirit."
"And the manetuwak's decided to get revenge?"
"It doesn't precisely have consciousness, Cordelia," Wesley said patiently. "Somehow, the manetuwak was poisoned and now it's a death spirit. We think it was a slow poison, though. Things have been dying very slowly around here--the drought, the strange tides and algae blooms that killed the jellyfish for a good two years--we've had twenty years of portents."
Angel blinked. "Twenty years of--what are you saying, Wesley?" he asked suspiciously.
"Sahjean's original rend into Quortoth started a cataclysmic decline for the manetuwak of this region. This was something that was exacerbated by the second rend into Quortoth, the return of Connor and Holtz, any number of battles fought in this city between our two factions, the industrial pollution, to say nothing of what Willow tried to do to the world twenty years ago. But it all begins with Sahjean," Wesley said. "Which means that we four are personally responsible for all of this."
"Which means you are personally responsible for this most of all," Angel replied quietly. "If you hadn't taken Connor--"
Wesley shook his head. "Don't say it, Angel," he said. "You don't want to hear the truth about that situation, and I don't want to tell you."
"Besides, it's breaking the rules," Lilah said. "No discussion of Connor or Victoria, remember?"
"Also, Wesley sort of jumped a logical fence for me," I said. "It doesn't have consciousness. Why is it going to kill us? Why does it want to kill us?"
"It doesn't want to do anything. It's a death spirit. Death spirits kill. More precisely, they give the absence of life--any sort of life," Wesley replied. "That's what happened to those poor bastards in the Valley. They touched a small portion of the death spirit and their lives were instantly extinguished. Not even their souls survived, and it's questionable if their memory will, either. It's as though they never lived at all."
I paled. "That's horrible," I said, swallowing hard.
"It is," Wesley agreed. "It's also why all the boundaries between our two factions have broken down. Hell perishes along with Heaven if the spirit succeeds in its purpose. My side doesn't want that any more than yours."
It was the first time Wesley had acknowledged that he was working for the other side. My stomach took the impact of that statement and started churning it around loudly. I looked at Angel, who was giving Wesley a look of pure hatred, which was being matched by Lilah's glare at Angel.
"How do we stop it, Wesley?" I asked. He looked away.
"I'm not sure," he replied. "I've called in as many trained or untrained meteinuwak as I can find, but they might not know. This is something that's never happened in recorded history, Cordelia."
I looked away, letting that statement give my stomach another churn. We had done this. We had started it in all ignorance, and then we'd kept it going, petty battle by petty war, and now--
"We pretty much suck, don't we?" I said.
Wesley smiled half-heartedly. "I'm afraid so," he said. "And we have no idea how much time we'll have to stop this."
Angel stood up then, his eyes unreadable. "Well, then," he said flatly. "We'd better get started."
Connor was waiting for us at the hotel with Margaret when we arrived. He looked much more comfortable in a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt than he had in a suit. Angel immediately speeded up when he saw him.
"You're here," he said, fumbling around. "Um. And who's your--"
"This is Margaret," Connor said. "She's the family's personal assistant."
I smiled at Margaret, who almost audibly rolled her eyes at Connor's introduction.
"Margaret and I met this morning," I explained to Angel. "Do you know about the manetuwak yet, you two?"
"Unfortunately," Margaret replied. "Damage control on this thing has been hellish. And I imagine the briefing up top sucked even more than trying to pretend that there's no reason to panic in the Valley."
I nodded. I wasn't going to share the information that the people up top were responsible for this disaster, though Margaret probably knew. She had the look of someone who always knew, no matter what.
"It's really bad," Connor said. "We can't touch the thing. We lost two people already and we've decided to more or less put a four-mile radius between other people and the upwelling."
Connor bit his lip. He looked tired and stressed, and Margaret looked faded and rather frayed around the edges.
"I need a drink," Angel said suddenly. "Anyone else? I'm buying."
Connor looked up, thought about it, and nodded. "Sure," he said. "Upstairs at the Key Largo?"
"Where else?" Angel said with a half-smile. "Margaret? You're welcome to come along."
"All right," she said. "I don't drink so much, though. I get talkative if I have more than one and that's no good."
"Loose lips sink ships," I teased.
"More like, loose lips send Margaret straight into the middle of the burning blood pool," she replied. "I may have a lot to say."
I patted her on the shoulder, and then linked arms with Angel. "Well, let's see if we can find something useful in your lot to say, Meg, because we need anything we can to help."
She sighed. "Then lead on, Macduff," she said, slouching a little. "And damned be he who tells my secrets to the family."
We walked up to the Key Largo and I marveled at the number of people who shared the hotel with Angel and never seemed to cross our path during the day. I suspected there was a little magical insurance to that effect, though I'd never ask or tell about it. After a quick snuggle with Angel, I dropped back beside Margaret, who didn't look happy.
"How long you been in love with Wesley, Meg?" I asked. Margaret blinked, flushed for about two seconds, and regained her composure.
"Twelve years," she replied. "How'd you know?"
"Trade secret," I told her. "That what you scared about?"
Margaret snorted. "Please," she said. "That's got to be an open secret. No, I mean I know some things that Angel and Steven cannot know about Mr. Wyndham-Pryce and in particular, about why it's extremely unfair to blame him about this entire mess."
I lifted an eyebrow. "Is that love talking?"
"It's the truth talking," Margaret replied. "I shouldn't have even told you that much, but you're sort of detached from the whole business."
"Excuse me?" I asked.
"Well, once this is over, you'll move on, right?" Margaret asked. "That's what you do."
Margaret gave me a look. "Yeah," she muttered. "Sure."
"What do you know?" I asked, realizing that Connor and Angel had already managed to walk into Key Largo and Margaret and I were having a private argument. "I'm interested."
"I can't tell you," Margaret replied. "I'd like to, but I can't. I've told you everything anyway."
She broke away from me and hustled toward the bar, leaving me to watch her hair flap behind her slightly. Strange woman, I thought, following along. I'd have to ask--hmm, I'd have to find someone to ask about her.
I walked into the bar. Angel and Connor were each having a Bass and Margaret was looking over her shoulder at me before ordering something pink and on the rocks. I sat down next to Angel and put my head on his shoulder.
"Hey," I said. "Can I get a tequila sunrise?"
"Sure thing," the bartender said without turning around.
"What were you and Margaret talking about?" Angel asked.
"Nothing big," I said, looking over at Connor. "You and Connor?"
"Celtics vs. Spurs, who's going to win the NBA final," Connor said. "Angel here thinks the Celtics have a shot, when San Antonio's clearly the stronger team."
"That's blasphemy," Angel said. "You're Irish. You have to root for the Celtics."
"Not when Derek Dawson's got that jump shot, I don't," Connor replied flippantly. "Isn't that right, Margaret?"
"Derek Dawson's going to take out his knee before the series is finished," Margaret said wearily, sipping her pink drink. "San Antonio might end up as fucked as we are."
Connor raised an eyebrow. "Someone's grouchy."
"Someone's a precognitive," Tara murmured, sitting down next to me. "Margaret can see the future sometimes."
"Oh," I said. "Really?"
"Is the ghost talking to you?" Connor asked.
"He can't hear me, can he?" Tara said. "Hmmph."
"No, he can't hear you," Margaret said. "I can, even though I can't see you. And how'd you know?"
"It's in your aura," Tara said, surprised. "You're pretty talented."
"Mr. Wyndham-Pryce wouldn't have hired me otherwise," Margaret replied. "What else do you know?"
The bartender handed me a drink, clearly confused. "There's a ghost? Why can't I see her?"
"Cuz you're a null, honey," Margaret said with a smile. "Be happy. It's much easier."
The bartender shrugged. "I guess."
"You know a lot of things you shouldn't, and you hate keeping lies from others. You'll keep the truth to yourself, but you hate to lie," Tara said. "You know what set off the final poisoning of the manetuwak."
Margaret spilled her drink. "No, I don't."
"Yes, you do."
"Order of inhibition," Margaret replied. "Do you really want me to drop dead right here?"
"Wesley did that to you, didn't he?" I said. "What an asshole."
"What did Wesley do?" Angel asked.
"It was for a good reason," Margaret said, sounding panicked. "Look, you don't understand. I can't explain it. Connor--"
Connor glared at his father. "Leave Margaret alone. Both of you," he said.
"If she knows what triggered this, we have to know," Angel said. "You understand that, don't you? We're not trying to pry into whatever dirty little secrets Wesley has, like those girls he buys. We want to--"
Margaret stood up, shaking. "I have to go," she said. "I'm very sorry, and thank you for your hospitality, but I have to go."
She backed away, staring at Tara in what had to be absolute fear, and almost knocked over another woman who had just walked into the bar, wearing a simple black suit, a lovely necklace, and an extremely dour look. I recognized the woman after a moment.
She hadn't aged, either.
"Anya," I said, looking at her smoothly. "Nice to see you."
"Yeah, it's great," she said. "We need to talk and we need to talk now."
"Well, you certainly know how to make an entrance," I said dryly.
"That's An for you," Xander wheezed, jogging up behind her. "Where's Margaret?"
"She freaked out and left," I said, sliding off my barstool. "What's up?"
"You're working with Wesley, that's what's up," Anya said. "That's nuts. He's--well, first of all, he's a Lord of Hell, and second of all, that's his nephew drinking with Angel."
"No, that's Angel's son," Xander said.
"No, that's Wesley's adopted nephew, Steven," Anya said sharply. "Trust me. I've worked with Mr. Lord of Hell a lot more than you have, and I know Steven pretty well."
"He really is Angel's son, too," I said. "Estranged."
Anya glowered and sat down in the nearest booth. "He's an ass, whoever he is," she said. "Xander, get me a cosmopolitan. Cordelia, sit down and let's talk."
Xander went and got Anya a drink. I sat down. "You look great. How'd you stay so young?" I asked.
"I went back to vengeance," she said. "But that's not important. What's important is that Wesley will use you and make you thank him for the using. Also, I just don't like him. He doesn't play fair."
"Yeah, we know," I said. Xander handed Anya her drink and sat down next to her. "We don't have a choice. He's got resources and we have a poisoned manetuwak bringing death to the world that we have to defeat."
"Yeah, unless Wesley wishes us all into a different reality again," Anya groused. "He's such--"
"He wished us into a different reality?"
"Realities. Multiple," Anya said. "Mostly it was years ago, right before that pain in the ass kid of his was born."
Something fell into place with a dull thud. I was going to kill Wesley. Possibly Victoria, too. I growled and took Anya's drink, tossing it back in one gulp.
"Hey!" Anya said.
"The last time was six months ago, it involved the daughter, and it was trying to stop something majorly fucked up," I said. "Am I right?"
Anya blinked. "Well, yeah, but."
"But nothing," I said. "Tell me what happened."
Anya rolled her eyes at my denseness. "I would," she said. "He put an order of inhibition on me, and as I'm a demon, I'm technically loyal to a Lord of Hell over you."
"What's the Lord of Hell business, anyway?" Xander asked, looking over at Angel and Connor. "And what are they talking about?"
"Basketball," I said. "They have a strange relationship. It's a estranged supernatural father and son combo."
"Oh," Xander said. "Been there, done that. Anyway, Wesley's the Lord of Hell? Shouldn't he have horns?"
"A Lord of Hell, not the Lord of Hell," Anya replied snarkily. "See, hell is an aristocratic meritocracy. Which means you can earn or buy your way in if you know how. Wesley knew how, and so he's in charge of Wolfram and Hart. He's the Senior Senior Partner, and trust me, it sort of threw all the dark forces for a loop, because no one thought he had the balls."
"Least of all us," I said. "I was there for that. It was intense. I can't believe Lilah forgave him for what he had to do to her."
"Yeah, well, love makes women do stupid things. So does having a Lord of Hell for a mate," Anya said. "Xander, get me another drink."
"Get it yourself," he said. "You're running the huge chain of magic emporiums, not me. You can afford to buy your own drink."
"You have me stuck in here with your huge gut," Anya replied. "I told you to lay off the malt beverages and the snack cakes, you know. But do you listen to me? Ever?"
Xander choked. "Me?"
"You married Spike, Anya! Married! Spike! Two months after Buffy died! Why would anyone listen to you?"
"I divorced him six months later," Anya pointed out. "It was so he could get a green card, Xander."
"You wanted to help a vampire get a green card? An--" Xander said helplessly. I sighed, threw up my hands, and stood up.
"I'll get you a drink. Cosmo, right?" I said.
"Yeah," Anya said, crestfallen. I rolled my eyes and strolled over to the bar, where Connor and Angel had moved on from basketball into what was the best way to behead a Fyarl demon.
"I hate to break this up, but after I get Anya a cosmo, I need to talk to Angel privately, Connor," I said.
"I understand," Connor said. "I need to get back, anyway, if there's no new information to share."
"You don't have to go," Angel said. Connor shrugged.
"I need to report back. Besides, Margaret shouldn't be out alone," he said. "She's--she can take care of herself, but sometimes people think that she's an information gold mine waiting to be opened up."
Connor looked down shyly. Well, the soap opera on the dark side went on. Connor was into Margaret, who was secretly pining for Wesley. Meanwhile, there was the father-daughter-vengeance demon drama with more inhibition than at a typical high school dance. I hoped that Wesley hadn't gotten to Victoria yet. Because that would mean I'd have to confront him on this, and I didn't need to run and accuse Wesley of something vague. He'd get snarly.
"It's good you care about her," I said with a smile. "Come on, Angel."
Angel put a hundred dollar bill on the counter and walked off with me, touching Connor briefly on the shoulder.
"Think about my offer," Angel said. "Any time you want to come work with me, you come work with me. No questions asked."
"I'll do that," Connor said, fiddling in his pockets for his cell phone.
"He'll never work for you," I said, walking down the hall with Angel. "Not as long as Margaret's working there."
"Who?" Angel said. "Oh, the redheaded girl."
"Yes, the redheaded girl," I said. "Besides, Connor feels a personal loyalty to Wesley. They're family, too. It's more complicated than wanting to work with you."
"It doesn't need to be," Angel said stubbornly. "What do you want to talk to me about?"
"Victoria triggered the event six months ago," I said. "I'm pretty damn sure, anyway."
Angel blinked. "Victoria? Our Victoria?" he said. "Why would she do something like that?"
"You're going to ask her," I said. "Anya's involved, too, and Margaret."
"So why not ask them?" Angel asked.
"Wesley sort of shut them up permanently on the subject," I said. "I didn't know that could be done."
Angel nodded. "Order of Inhibition," he said. "Wesley's very good at them. He has one on the head of all major news companies so whenever one of their minions report news Wesley doesn't want out--"
I shuddered. "That's awful."
"What do you expect from him?" Angel said, palming us into his apartments. "He's evil."
"So everyone says," I replied. "I don't know if you're entirely right, though. There's something going on that I think is very complicated."
"What's complicated?" Fred asked, popping her head out from her room.
Her face darkened. "I guess so," she said. "He's runnin' harsh drills in the Valley--one of our boys called, hacking his guts out about how close they have to get to that soul-destroying sludge."
I nodded. "Tell him to suck it up and deal," I said. "We'll take care of it later."
"Sorry," I said, worried. "Where's Victoria?"
Fred furrowed her brow. "She's not with you? She said she was going talk to you two about something or other."
My eyes widened and I spun on my heels, ready to go track her down. "That little brat!" I snapped. "Come on, Angel. Let's go find little Miss Morgan-Pryce."
Finding Victoria was a lot easier than I thought it would be. There are benefits to dealing with a spoiled rich girl who wants to hang out with her friends as compared to someone who's out to slay monsters and vamps. Angel had her scent memorized and from there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the coffee shop she was hiding at. I sent Angel back to the hotel and walked into the place. It was smoky (very against California state law), small, and dingy. I still spotted her immediately, the pretty girl wearing a beret and a pleated skirt smiling at a blonde guy wearing a turtleneck.
"Cute hat," I said casually, sitting down next to her. "Victoria Louise, what are you doing?"
Victoria, more horrified that I knew her middle name than anything else, turned and stared at me, gulping with annoyance.
"What the hell are you doing here?" she snapped.
"We need to talk," I said, taking her arm. "Angel wanted to be the one who did the talking, but I think you and I need to have a little chat about manipulating people who love you and what I'm going to do to you if you do it to Angel or Fred ever again."
Victoria paled, but she managed to keep up the snotty act, aping her mother way too well. "Don't you fuckin' touch me," she growled, yanking her arm away. "Don't you know who I am? Don't you know who my father is?"
"I know exactly who you are," I said, standing up. "You're the girl who's going home to her real parents. You're the girl who's going to stop jerking my boyfriend around right after you tell me what happened with a vengeance demon and your precious daddy six months ago."
Victoria practically leapt to her feet, eyes narrow. "I don't have to say a goddamn thing to you," she hissed.
"No, you don't," I said. "But unless you want me to physically drag you out of here kicking and screaming, you're gonna talk a walk with me and tell me everything."
"Fuck you, Cordelia," Victoria said. "I didn't do anything! I just needed to get outside. I was going crazy in there. And you're not my mother anyway."
"Be very, very glad that I'm not," I said. "Of course, there is your mother. I could call her right now and explain what the whole running away thing was about. Because I know Lilah, honey. And Lilah doesn't know what you did, did she?"
Victoria's eyes widened and the bravado sank. Well, at least there was one person in the spoiled little monster's life she feared. Two, now.
"Don't tell Mom," she pleaded. "Please don't tell Mom."
Oh, I was so right. I knew how much shit Lilah Morgan would put up with in her own home, because dammit, it was Lilah. I smiled, sort of cruelly.
"Come on, Victoria," I said, offering my arm. She took it slowly, walking beside me out of the cafe. "Let's find a way not to let your mom know you're a colossal pain in the ass."
"Please don't tell her," Victoria said as we walked toward the hotel. "Mom told me if I ever fucked around with dark magicks without her express knowledge and consent, I'd end up in a Bulgarian convent scrubbing bidets with a governess slash drill sergeant named Greta making sure I got up every morning at three to run five miles and do five hundred sit-ups before breakfast."
I held back the laughter, because that was not an idle threat. Lilah probably had the convent and the governess waiting, complete with daily schedule.
"I totally believe that," I said. "For all that I don't like your mom, I also know that she loves your dad beyond all measure and doesn't put up with bullshit."
"Pretty much," Victoria said soberly. "She loves me, too, but one time when she caught me trying to curse this one girl I didn't like, she took me on a four day vacation to Bulgaria and showed me the convent. Complete with the bucket and toothbrush I'd use to scrub the bidet. She also told me that if I pulled any adolescent pain crap on Dad, she'd find a smaller toothbrush and a meaner governess."
Damn. "So how is it that you're here and not in Bulgaria?" I asked. "Why did you run away? What happened?"
"I thought you knew," Victoria said with a sigh. "You knew that Margaret was involved, and that vengeance bitch. Hell, you knew that my dad freaked out on my ass, and my dad never freaks out on me."
I nodded grimly. "I would know, but your dad put an Order of Inhibition on Margaret and Anya. You know what that means, right? With the imploding heads and the incredible pain and fear?"
Victoria rolled her eyes and shook her head. "I so told him not to do that," she said. "See? My dad's evil! I mean, how could I live with a guy like that? I mean, yeah, he's pretty cool as far as dads go. He was like, you can tell me anything, I love you no matter what you do, call me immediately if you ever need anything, totally there for me--but I found out what he does. I mean, it's so messed up. Like Angel's son? How fucked up was that! And then what happened was like, my friend Jake's dad--he died. His head did the imploding deal because Dad did the inhibition deal on him and he ran his story anyway and I found out and like--"
She bit her lip, eyes suddenly tear-bright. "It's so fucking messed up. And all he told me was that it was more complicated than that. Which is such bullshit."
I suddenly got a glimpse of where this was going and it did not bring a smile to my heart.
"You found a Wish demon," I said. "Or you met a lady with a necklace who made you feel better and encouraged you to make a wish."
"Too fucking right," Victoria said with a sniff. "You know her? Real bitch. She totally tricked me."
"What'd you wish?" I asked.
"It was incredibly dumb," Victoria answered. "I mean, it was really fucking stupid. If that bitch had given me a second, I would have wished my dad was a good person again, but instead, the stupidest shit comes flying out of my mouth."
"I wished that he'd get what was coming to him," she said, kicking the ground. "I was like, 'dude, I wish he got all the karma that was coming his way and it hit him in the face,' and she's all, 'done,' and I'm totally like, 'what the fuck do you mean?' and she's all, 'done. He's getting what's coming to him.' And I'm like, 'bitch, that wasn't what I wanted' and she's totally, 'well that's what you wished.' Stupid vengeance demon."
"Did you tell your dad?" I asked.
"Well, duh," she replied. "Okay, first I went and told Margaret because I was afraid Mom would find out first and then, boom, convent? But Margaret freaked--well, sort of--and went right to Dad."
I smiled, imagining a Margaret freak scene. "That's very her," I said.
"No kidding," Victoria said. "Dad got kind of--he was not happy with me. He summoned the vengeance demon and they had an incredible row. She told him that it stood and she wasn't repealing it. He tried to force her, but apparently it was better that I made the wish than not. Dad told me not to worry about it."
"He threatened you with the convent, too, didn't he?"
She shook her head. "He doesn't threaten. He said he was terribly disappointed in me for making poor choices. And that I'd completely betrayed the trust between us by not talking to him about my concerns. It was worse than a thousand bidets. I freaked. I couldn't stay there."
I was going to strangle Wesley. Possible Anya, too.
"Do you think he'll ever turn good again?" she asked suddenly. I didn't want to hear her ask that, not while I was planning to kill Wesley.
"Maybe," I said. "Maybe the karma hitting him in the face will teach him something."
"That would be cool," she said. "Cordelia?"
"I'm really sorry." Pause. "I didn't realize that I was going to make all of this happen."
I nodded and began thinking of all the unpleasant things I was going to do to Anya, Wesley, and anyone else involved in this entire wish mess. Then I glanced over at Victoria. She was shivering and in tears, big fat ones rolling off her perfect little nose. I could hear her trying not to sob, choking back the apologetics.
I felt--well, I felt sorry for her. Not completely sorry because she was a spoiled brat and her outfit was totally designer, but I couldn't blame her for what she tried to do. Hell, I'd brought Anya into our lives in the first place, so I could blame myself for this whole mess if I really wanted.
"No one did, sweetie," I said. "Come on. Let's go back to the hotel."
I had to find Wesley and figure out what the hell was going on.
"Mr. Wyndham-Pryce isn't available," the man at the gate informed me for the seventh time. He was tall, clearly not too bright, and looked something like Gunn, actually, but with less sparkle and wit in his eyes and posture. Besides, he was wearing all black, like a bad guy security outfit. I didn't like him.
"I don't care if he's not available. I'll wait," I said sharply. "But he and I need to talk."
"I have my orders, ma'am," he said. "You're not allowed in after ten, no matter who you are."
"Even if I were Victoria?" I asked. The guy snorted.
"You're clearly not Victoria," he said.
"I'm here to talk about her, though," I said. He looked at me and shook his head. "No, really. I'm Cordelia and I want to--"
He stiffened. "Cordelia? The Warrior?" he whispered reverently.
"The very one," I said. "Now can I go in?"
"I guess," he said. "Don't tell them I let you. Tell them you made me."
"Okay," I said with a bit of a smile. "Thanks."
Mission finally accomplished, I walked up to the extremely nice Mulholland Drive house that Wesley and Lilah owned. It was actually much more modern than I could ever imagine Wes being comfortable with, and the glass was sort of unnerving. They had a great pool, though, and I could imagine Lilah lounging by it, pretending to be a movie star, or Miranda from Sex in the City.
I prayed that Wesley and Lilah weren't having sex against any of the glass. I didn't think I could deal with it, not with everything else, too. Besides, Wesley and Lilah having sex still upset me, even though I refused to comment on it anymore. The Sunnydale gang had been super-commenty on me and Angel until I'd made some threats, so I knew how they felt, but I couldn't deny the ew and okay, front door. Made of blonde wood, metal, and glass, and very swank. I pressed the little plastic doorbell.
"Hello, nurse," Wesley said as he opened the door, wearing his pajamas and looking fairly ridiculous in them. "To what do we owe the pleasure of this very inconvenient visit?"
"Your rotten kid told me about your deals with Anya," I said. "Let me in, get me something out of your legendary liquor cabinet, and spill."
Wesley groaned, turned around, and left me to let myself in as he headed for a cherry and glass monstrosity of a liquor cabinet. I'd been to bars with less alcohol.
"Jeez, Wes," I said. "Twelve-step-candidate much?"
"You'd be surprised," he replied, pouring me a whiskey sour on the rocks. "We entertain continually here, and obviously Mrs. Pryce has something of a fondness for the stuff."
"Where is Lilah, by the way?" I asked.
"Watching the Tonight Show and trying to sleep," Wesley replied. "I was on my way to join her after I'd had a sandwich, but I'm sure you want the entire story and that's quite long."
"I'm making the time," I said. Wesley nodded, and waved me toward a black Italian leather couch. Evil lived well, dammit. I sat down and Wesley sat across from me in the matching recliner and set his glass down.
It was milk. I almost wanted to cry. Damn Wesley. Every time I was sure I had him pegged on a side, he would do something or say something and I wasn't sure. Good dad, bad dad, good husband, drunk, Order of Inhibition guy, protective guy, and now?
Older British businessman who watched the Tonight Show with his wife and drank milk before going to bed while wearing really ugly older man pajamas. Hard to hate, actually.
"What do you know already?" Wesley asked. "I've served Margaret and Anyanka with orders of inhibition, so I know you don't know all the details, but I couldn't do the same to Victoria."
"She'd blow her head into pieces before the day was out, and her mother would be quite angry at me," Wesley replied dryly.
"Yeah, that she didn't get to ship her off to a Bulgarian convent to scrub bidets," I said.
"Cordelia," Wesley said. "That's an idle threat. Victoria's terribly capricious."
I almost made another snide comment, but we didn't have the time.
"You guys triggered this," I said. "Well, Victoria, with Anya's help, triggered this six months ago when you had the fight about you being evil and her being surprised and wishing this would all hit you in the face. And from what Anya and Margaret couldn't say, this is that. Also, you've done this before. The wish thing. Which I'm assuming is why you buy young women. You scorn them--probably with your lovely wife--and they wish for you, as per a sudden lucrative agreement."
Wesley's face was expressionless and emotionless. I'd gotten all of that part right, obviously. He didn't want to talk about the rest.
"That's all correct," he said politely.
"What did you wish for, Wesley?" I asked.
"I don't want to discuss it."
"Discuss it or I whip your ass warrior style," I said brutally, pulling out my sword. "This is the kind of thing that poisons manetuwaks and is generally just sketchy, Wes."
"It's private, Cordelia," he said. "And it didn't fucking work anyway."
"Wesley," I said. "I'm not kidding about the sword."
He looked down at his slippers. "I wished that I'd never taken Connor," he said. "The first time. With Margaret. I wished that I'd never taken Connor from Angel."
My breath caught in my throat. Oh, God. No wonder Margaret had said--oh, God. Why hadn't--oh, God. From the expression on Wesley's face, I knew that it had to be worse than the time I'd wished us all into the bizarro universe where Willow and Xander were vampires and Buffy was from St. Louis.
"I don't know, honestly," Wesley replied. "The minute it happened, I was long dead. Margaret was alive, though, and what she told me was enough to make me glad that Anyanka willingly dissolved the spell."
"Oh, God," I whispered. "Like what?"
"Holtz gets Connor every time, Cordelia," Wesley said with deadly calm. "Anya and I actually ran tests. No matter what I do, what you do, what anyone does, Holtz takes the baby and jumps into Quortoth. It is fated in every universe where there is a Connor and a Holtz. And universes without either--they are hell dimensions worse than you can possibly imagine. I wished once that Darla let the baby die instead of herself and Angel goes completely mad and rips Darla's heart out in the street, eats it, and becomes Angelus. He joins Wolfram and Hart. We all die. And then it gets worse."
I didn't want to hear this. "You're trying to buck responsibility for your mistakes. There had to be a way--"
"I am telling you, Cordelia, in any universe where we all exist, this is the best of all possible worlds," Wesley said. "God help us."
It was too funny. He was so serious about it. This! The best of all possible worlds! I couldn't stop laughing at first. He had to be joking. A world like this? Drought and poverty and all of this stupid fucking fighting?
"You're nuts," I said. "This world--"
"It could be a better place. Best does not necessarily mean good in this context," Wesley said. "In the future, perhaps we can make this world good. But not by changing the past. There's no way to force people to make the world a better place."
I took a very long drink of my sour and glowered at Wesley. He was right, of course. I'd been a thousand thousand places with my sword and superpowers and higher being-ness and it was never me who really won the day. It was always the people of the dimension, having their shining moment. Their choice, not mine, saved the day.
Well, this was my universe when it came right down to it, and I was making a choice. I was going to make this a better place or I was going to die trying. Wesley was going to help me, too, or I was going to make him older gentleman with my foot up his ass.
"Except that's what I'm going to do to you right now so I can get your smart-ass kid out of my hair and all of this ridiculous family drama taken care of so we can whip the scary poisoned earth spirit. Did you actively teach Tor to ew like that?" I said, standing up with a flourish. Wesley gaped at me.
"Cordelia?" he said.
"You're a Lord of Hell, I'm a Higher Being, Angel's Prophecy Vamp, and Lilah is the most efficient evil person on earth. Between the four of us, we can figure out how to kiss, make up, trade back kids, and save the planet, thus doing this 'the world is a better place' thing," I said. "Also, like I said, Tor? Makes ew noises any time I kiss Angel. That's tremendously annoying."
Wesley's hands actually trembled as he reached for his glass of milk and took a tremendous swig. "Indeed," he said, looking very tired. "Indeed. I suppose, then, it's time I tell you the truth about defeating the manetuwak and how I discovered it. If you're so damn sure you want to make this world a better place, that is."
"Yeah," I said evenly. "That might be a place to start."
Angel was waiting for me when I crept back into the hotel at two-thirty in the morning. He didn't say anything. He just had his arms crossed across his chest, waiting.
"Wesley and I had a little talk," I said, dropping into the chair across from him. "It couldn't wait."
Angel didn't answer. I decided to ignore the little sulk, because I was bigger than that.
"We broke all the rules," I said ruefully. "We talked kids, back-room deals, and he's been keeping information back."
Angel didn't move. I was going to kill him. I hadn't exactly meant to end up in Wesley's house talking about how I was the one who had to defeat the manetuwak single-handedly no matter how many forces of good and evil helped out. It had just sort of happened.
"In other news, Lilah wandered out of the bedroom at about one in the morning and we had a wild threesome," I said dryly. "Complete with lube and toys."
"Cordy?" Tara said. "Angel's asleep."
"Oh," I said. "I thought he was ignoring me because he was mad."
I leaned over and shook Angel's shoulder. "Angel? Wake up. I'm back."
Angel yawned. "Cordy?"
"Sorry I was late," I said, kissing him on the cheek. "Me and Wesley had to have a little fight. But now I know how to defeat the twisted earth spirit, so bonus."
"Oh. Good," Angel said, standing up. "Let's go upstairs. There was supposed to be a late night snack first, but I think you probably ate at the manor."
"They have a good kitchen," I said with a slightly ashamed smile. "Cook made us chocolate crepes at midnight."
"Oh," Angel said, slinging his arm around me. "Cordy?"
"When I'm awake tomorrow, I think I'm going to be a little grouchy about this," he said. "But right now all I can think about is getting into bed with you."
I smiled. "Are you sure you'll be able to stay awake?" I asked, resting my head on his shoulder. "You were out pretty cold right there."
"I was dreaming," Angel said without the least bit of a grin. "About you. I didn't want to wake up."
"That's very flattering," I said.
"Isn't it?" Angel replied, kissing the top of my head. "So tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow is going to be depressing," I said, running my hand up and down his back. "Tonight?"
"Tonight I'm going to lock our door," Angel murmured. "Then you and I are going to do things that were once illegal in most states in this fine country."
I giggled and kissed Angel. "You've gotten playful."
"I've had lots of time to get creative in my head," Angel said, palming us into our section of the hotel. "I thought you might appreciate it more than brooding."
I pushed Angel against the nearest wall and pressed my lips against his hotly while he groped around until he found the zipper on the back of my shift and started unzipping, all the while kissing back. I groaned, feeling his slightly chilly fingers against my surprisingly warm skin.
"We have to get into your room," I said, trying to keep my dress partially on. "We'll get busted."
Angel nodded and then without warning, picked me up. I was so surprised that I didn't say anything, just settled back with a contented little sigh and braced myself against his nice shoulder/chest combination with a naughty little smile.
"Ooh," I said when we entered Angel's bedrooms. Candles, flowers, incense, satin sheets? Damn my luck for being late. "This must have been even sexier a couple of hours ago."
"It might have been," he said, laying me down on the bed and tugging off my dress with a lot of help from me. "But I'm looking at the sexiest thing in this room."
I almost blushed. He was being way sweet, which meant he was going to do wicked things to me and probably keep up our talking dirty bit. But I was game. Of course I was game.
"What are you going to do?" I asked as Angel and I took off my bra. He smiled at me, the sort of slow, wicked intentions smile that went straight to my pussy. Oh me, oh my.
"You remember the time at the ballet?" he asked, leaning down and licking my breast casually.
"Oh yeah," I said breathlessly, dizzy on the spiced smell of the air and the way Angel was methodically sucking on my nipple. "Who could forget?"
Angel, never moving away from my first breast, reached up and started caressing the other while I squirmed and whimpered under the sensation.
"Forget the ballet," he said, dipping down and tracing a path down my stomach with his lips. I giggled a little.
All right, I would forget the ballet, I thought as he edged his way down my torso. I would--ooh.
Funny how the simplest things get to being the most erotic. For example, Angel's tongue is not inherently erotic. It has tasted far too much animal blood to be sexy on its own. And in fact, that's a thought Never to Be Thought Again. But Angel's tongue writing the alphabet on my thigh? Wet-making.
Angel's hand stroking against the outside of my folds, the sort of move intended to drive me crazy. Slowing down the brain and speeding up my breathing, sending my pulse into racing. He tickled. In a good way.
I laughed. Maybe giggled is more accurate. My body was slowly overloading on all of the sensations. I loved him. I loved fucking him. I loved everything.
"Happy?" he rumbled.
"Getting there," I said as Angel's tongue continued its journey into the center of Cordelia, which made me yip like a spoiled Pekinese and what was with all of the random metaphors? Here I was with Angel's mouth on my pussy doing all sorts of orgasm-making things and I was cracking internal jokes.
"Ooh, keep doing that," I said in a voice that was detached from my brain. "That feels amazing--"
I was so lucky, lucky, lucky. I got to keep this one.
Angel threw my legs over his shoulders roughly and thrust into me deep. I swear to God my eyes rolled back in my head at the sensation. He hadn't been rough in a long time and suddenly all the cheerleader reflexes were being pushed again.
I remembered bragging when I was thirteen that I could put my legs behind my head. Who would have guessed that would be a good thing this many years later?
He had me moaning and trembling like a damn schoolgirl, why not think of cheerleading?
"Mmm, I'm gonna--ohhh--'m gonna--"
Yeah, I was gonna. Oh, I was--
"Yessssss," I hissed, feeling it hit me. "God, yes."
Angel laughed. "Like that?"
"Oh, yes--" I said, realizing he wasn't slowing down. "Oh, yes."
Somewhat later, I found myself warm and guilty against Angel's chest. He was out cold--he probably would have been snoring if he were human--and I was left wondering what I was going to tell him in the morning.
I loved him. What was I going to do if I had to leave him behind for good?
With no good answers to the question, I fell asleep fitfully, waiting for the inevitable to show up and ruin everything.
It didn't disappoint.
A very subdued and downcast Victoria brought us all coffee before being sent to her room for the duration of our morning meeting. She had clearly not slept, and every time she looked at me, she'd shiver the tiniest bit. I refused to smile at her, which might have been a little harsh, but Fred and Angel were being nice enough to her to make up for it.
I admit that I was still thinking about telling Lilah about Victoria's spectacularly unfortunate foray into demon wishes. For a while, I was almost savoring the thought of the little brat in a Bulgarian convent, but I decided it was me being petty about the end of the world when she finally walked out and closed the door behind her.
"Okay, so what's going on?" Fred asked, bleary-eyed. Yet another non-sleeper in our mix. "What's the emergency?"
"Wesley held out on us," I said bluntly, taking a slurp of coffee. Pretty damn good coffee it was, too, though it needed some serious sweetener. While everyone grumbled about Wesley, I quietly located the dish of sugar substitutes.
"Goddammit," Mike said bitterly. "I knew we couldn't trust him! What are we going to do?"
I tore open a package of almost-sugar with my teeth and poured it into my coffee before answering.
"Nothing," I said. "He told me everything last night. It was actually kind of noble--he was trying to save the world without harming any of us. Probably would have worked, except he's a Lord of Hell and he can't do something like that by definition."
Xander snorted skeptically. I stirred the sweetener into my coffee and took a sip, pulling a quick face. Now it was a little too sweet, but there wasn't anything I could do.
"Run that by us again?" he asked. "I don't get it."
I yawned and stretched a little ruefully. I wished I'd gotten a bit more sleep, but then I glanced over at Angel and decided that every wakeful moment had been worth it. I winked at him before looking back over at Xander.
"Healing the manetuwak requires a higher being with a great deal of accumulated power," I said. "That means a higher being. Wesley, as a Lord of Hell, is technically one. Unfortunately, he's an evil higher being, so it's not in the scope of his powers to do true healing. Only someone on our side can do true healing."
"Good for our side," Fred said. "Unfortunately, I can see where this is going and I don't like it, Cordy."
Neither did Angel. His heavy brow had knitted and his lips were set to ultra-brood. Not that I blamed him--when I'd figured out what I had to do, I was extremely upset. Wesley hadn't flat-out said I would have to die, but he had pointed out that I had to immerse myself in the ravenous death spirit.
In other words: chances of survival? Not high.
"I can't," Anya said, gulping her non-fat cappuccino with gusto. "What don't you like?"
Fred looked down at her jeans, bit her lip, and flickered her eyes over at Angel and me apologetically. I sighed dramatically and Angel continued to brood.
"Cordelia has to heal it," Fred said slowly. "Which means Cordelia has to directly interact with it, which means--"
Xander let out some sort of grunt as his eyes widened with understanding. Shaking his head violently, he started crushing his half-full coffee cup while pressing his lips together.
"No," he said. "That's not happening. Angel, tell her that's not going to happen."
"Who else, Xander?" I said. "I'm the higher being with the white hat. Besides, I don't want to involve anyone else in this mess."
"Yeah, because you haven't involved the world for the last two decades or anything," Mike said bitterly. We all turned and looked at her. She didn't look the least bit happy. "What? It's true."
I nodded. "It's true. Though I've noticed no one's been so upset until now that they did the practical thing and overthrew us," I said. "After all, this is the best of all possible worlds with us in charge of it."
"What?" Angel said. It was the first sound I'd heard from him for a while and I realized he was more than a little pissed off at me.
"Um, well," I stammered. "As Anya hasn't told us, she and Wesley have done a lot of wishing in their time."
All eyes were suddenly on the bad one. Anya, who was munching on a powdered donut to go with her cappuccino, shrugged diffidently.
"It wasn't my idea," she said.
"An--" Xander said, clearly about to start another fight, which we so did not have time for. I interrupted.
"Hey, Xander? Before you get too grouchy," I said. "Turns out that most of the things we imagine? Are much worse than where we are now. Particularly wishing Wesley hadn't taken Connor."
Anya gulped. "Yes, that was an unpleasant version of reality," she said. "I still can't talk about it."
"I have details," I said. "It's okay if you can't share them."
Mike, who had been getting a little more grouchy-faced with each comment and half-revelation, almost stood up at that one, but Fred pulled her down.
"I'm getting pretty damn sick of secrets, Fred," Mike said angrily. "Why can't you people just fucking talk to each other? Even now, you're having a secret meeting so that the 'bad guy' doesn't get to hear--even though the bad guy? Told you everything so that Cordelia could save the world. And so we start another vicious cycle. Fuck that, babe. You and me, we need to get out of here and not look back."
Fred bit her lip and I realized that not only did Fred agree with Mike, she wanted to go. She felt bad about wanting to leave, but she was as tired of the fighting as any sane person would be. The only thing keeping her with us was her promise to Gunn. At least that's what it looked like to me.
Angel's phone rang. He took it out of his pocket and pressed the button casually, reminding me that it had been too long since I'd last been here, since I could have changed anything. Angel could use his cell phone now.
"I see," he was telling the caller. "Of course we're coming right over. We'll bring everyone. No, it won't be a problem. Thank you for calling."
He ended the call and looked at me with that empty, brainless look that suggested he was either floored or he was so upset he couldn't actually produce an emotion to share with the class.
"It was Wesley," he said. "Gunn wants to talk to us. All of us. Apparently today's the day."
"Gunn!" Fred said in the elevator for the eleven thousandth time. "Why would he talk to Wesley before me?"
"I don't know," I said automatically. "We'll find out in a minute, won't we?"
She nodded and went back to fidgeting, and I cursed internally about being the one who needed to comfort Fred. I needed to talk to Angel, except Angel was being seriously overprotective of Victoria and avoiding me like the plague. I hated when he avoided me, and I was starting to realize that Mike had a point about how incredibly stupid and cruel we were.
Most people, after all, did NOT get to end the world over private quarrels, and in any case, we should have talked long before this. But it had been so easy to let it go, to say that it was Wesley's job to come to us, that we weren't responsible for his choices--and suddenly, one of Lilah's jabs was ringing in my head.
God damn it, the bitch was right. I had self-righteously abandoned Wesley. I hadn't even asked him his side of the story. Nobody had. We'd found his notes, we'd made our conclusions, and we'd told him to go to hell. If it hadn't been for Lilah, he'd probably be dead because we were too right to care and too busy to listen.
"Just figure that out?" Tara asked. I nodded. "Wesley calls it Faith Syndrome, because it's pretty much what Buffy did to Faith. It seems to be something we do."
"Yay us," I said sadly. The elevator came to a gentle halt and the doors slid open to reveal Wesley, Margaret--and Gunn.
He looked different. And when I say different, I mean I could only sort of see him. He was gaunt and thin, except for the eyes. The eyes were unlike Dead eyes. They glowed--and when they noticed me staring, they glowered. Then he smiled and the glow calmed. It was Gunn, all right.
"Jesus," Tara said. "You didn't tell me he was a meditator."
"A what?" I said as everyone streamed out of the elevator and carried me along with their momentum. Gunn smiled.
"Well, the Dead don't get to do much, you know, that affects the world," Tara said. "It takes a lot of effort, and your friend there took the effort. Hello, there."
"Hey," Gunn said. "You're Tara?"
"I am," she said. "You're Gunn?"
"Dead and in person," he replied. "Let's get these livelies into the boardroom, okay? Red can hear us, Steven can see us, and Cordy's vibed to our plane, so I'd rather we did this in one big session."
"Lively?" I said, amused. "Is that what you call us?"
Gunn turned and nodded. "You call us Dead, don't you?" he asked. "Turnabout's fair play, Cordy. Hey, did I miss Fred?"
"She's over there with the blonde," I said. "Speaking of, please tell Fred she can marry her."
Gunn blinked. "Uh--"
"After the world is saved, of course," I said, breezing past him into the boardroom.
The last time I'd been in the Wolfram and Hart boardroom had been during Wesley's successful grab for power where he'd behaved like a total ass and stabbed Lilah once or twice. At least, that's how I remembered it, but I was trying to save Angel at the time, who was about to be shishkabobbed by Connor. Margaret was--oh, thank God, that was before Margaret's time.
It was less chaotic and more tasteful. The table had one of those very expensive built in SLCD screens that resisted fingerprints and ejected dirt into the air. The chairs were ergonomic and as I sat down in one, I noticed that the table was playing a scene for us.
Ground zero. I could see the ground churn. It wasn't red anymore; it was an orangey brown that was tinged with greenish black that looked sickly. There were also the occasional bursts of pus yellow that bubbled up like lava. I could almost smell the venom coming off the ground. Was it ground? I wasn't sure. It didn't look like a puddle. It didn't look like anything I'd ever seen before.
"Pretty, isn't it?" Lilah said lightly, sitting down with a bottle of water.
"It looks sick," I said.
"Well, yes," Lilah replied, tracing a swirl in the miasma. "But the colors are really--unlike anything I've ever seen. It's fascinating."
I looked up to look at her. She was staring at ground zero like it was the only thing in the room, avoiding Wesley's gaze with all of her strength. Something hit me in the stomach. There was a problem between the two of them, and that should have made me happy, but the only thing that had changed was--Gunn.
My head snapped over to where Gunn and Tara were standing, communicating silently in the Dead fashion. I stared at Gunn, trying to figure out what secret he'd told Wesley, what secret Lilah was trying to suppress.
I couldn't let the secret keep. Secrets and lies had taken us to here, the thought I couldn't quit thinking. Right here, staring at the swirling death-spirit thing waiting for us.
"Are we all here?" I asked, aware that my voice sounded brittle and hysterical in the air. "Who are we waiting for?"
"Just Angel," Wesley said. "Ah, there he is."
I looked over at him, heart in my eyes. There he was indeed, and he hadn't forgiven me yet. I suddenly felt Lilah's pain and when I looked at her, she gave me an almost-sympathetic smile.
When had she become almost-sympathetic, dammit?
"Woo-hoo, the gang's all here," Anya said. "What's going on that we needed another meeting between here and our inevitable death scene with this thing?"
She tapped her finger on the glass. Wesley winced slightly and nodded.
"Indeed," he said nervously, looking around for the ghosts. "Cordelia, are Gunn and Tara here?"
"Yes," I said in unison with Connor. I looked over at Connor, who blushed. "Um, yes, they're here."
"Good," Wesley said. "Charles, I'm sorry to have to do this, but I have to explain the circumstances--"
Gunn sighed. "In other words, he wants to have it out in the open that we had a mutual crush on each other, which is why we acted as stupid as we did. And that we were trying to make it up right before I died."
Silence. But that was to be expected. He was Dead, after all. We usually can't hear them. I sure as hell wished that everyone could see-and hear--this. Some things just don't transfer well between planes of existence.
"Wow," Tara said. "That's something I didn't know about."
"Nothing happened, that's why," Gunn said defensively. "But we had--mutual interest--but we were dumbass straight guys. And then there was all the shit that went down. That made it even more fucked up."
I blinked. "You and Wes?" I said aloud. "Wes, what is it with you and coworkers?"
"Pathology," Lilah said sagely. "Victoria, be a good girl and go to my office for a few minutes. I need something to take the--"
"Bulgarian convent," Lilah replied idly. "Go."
Victoria scrambled out of the room and the ghost of a smile touched Wesley's pale mouth. "Thank you, dear," he said with genuine relief.
"She's already going to be in therapy for years; I decided to save us a little money," Lilah said, still not looking at him. "You were saying?"
"Um, yes," Wesley said, clearly thrown. "Relationship issues aside, Charles was the one who informed me about the way to fight the manetuwak and he told me via Margaret that he thought we should meet before throwing ourselves into battle."
"Oh! He's the Walker," Tara said. "I didn't realize that. You are, aren't you?"
Gunn nodded. "I wanted to come talk to you when they said you were looking for me, but I was busy," he told Tara. "It was about Fred, wasn't it?"
I looked over at Margaret, wondering what it had to be like to just hear the show. She grimaced. Meanwhile, Fred looked utterly bewildered and somewhat heartbroken. Mike was holding her hand, giving us all the look of death.
"Yeah," Tara said. "I can't believe you're the Walker. I should have figured it out when I didn't find you, but--you're a legend."
"It's not what it's cracked up to be," Gunn replied. "But I guess we should be letting the living continue--"
It was then I realized that no one had said a word for a good three minutes. I looked around the room and everyone was standing still, hardly daring to breathe. That was when I realized that everyone could at least hear them and probably see them.
"Can you see them?" I asked Lilah. She nodded. "Um, guys?"
"This is fucked," Fred said in a trembly voice. "Or Wesley has some sort of device in here that makes them manifest in our slice of perception."
True to form, the audience of heads turned his way and gave him a disapproving glower. It was starting to become cliche, every last gesture of it. We'd played out our grand battle, and damn, it was said.
"It's ten years away," he said. "I have no idea what's going on here, but at least we don't need translators."
"True," I said. "So--what now? It's icky, Gunn's been doing something with it, we're all mental sixteen year olds and Wesley's a slut. I'm going to go kill this thing, we'll have a party, someone else brings the snacks."
"Thank you, Buffy," Xander said pointedly. "Haven't you picked up on the part where this isn't a you kill it and we party situation?"
"Yeah," Gunn said. "It's already Dead, actually. Or it's anti-life, like antimatter. You can't kill it. You have to save it."
I nodded. "Fine. Not killing, just saving," I said. "I'll do it, even though I'm not sure how and no one here's going to be able to help me."
Gunn groaned. "Cordelia--"
"I'm helping you," Wesley said very quietly. "I told you last night that everything that I had power to give you I would give you. If I could take your place, I would."
"But you can't," Angel said irascibly. "So that's not much help."
"It wasn't meant as braggadocio, Angel," Wesley said gently. "It's simple fact. However, what I'm offering is more than moral support. The whole Lord of Hell thing is more than just a title and a lot of work."
He looked directly at me and I suddenly noticed his eyes had turned black. What was it with dark magicks and dark eyes? You'd think they'd be a little more creative, but that was maybe just me.
"Whatever you need, Cordelia," he said.
"Wesley," Lilah said helplessly. "They'll kill you."
"Not if I kill them first," Wesley said. "And if we all die in Calabasas, it won't be our problem anyway."
That was enough to get Fred to jump to her feet, with Mike right behind her. Add in the sudden sound of someone squeaking from her hiding spot behind the door and there was suddenly minutes of chaos which ended with Fred yelling at Gunn and Victoria sitting besides her mother sheepishly.
"I can't believe you," Fred said loudly while the rest of us slowly started staring at the table. "You ignore me for years and now you spread doom and gloom! Couldn't you have--well, dammit, Charles, you should have said, 'Fred, baby, I'm happy for you and Michele' and that would have been that. And Wesley? You were trying to patch it up with Wesley! That's so it! Me and Mike are moving back home to Texas after this to open a steakhouse and you guys can just--suck on a lemon!"
"Fred, baby?" Gunn said.
"I'm sorry I didn't get in touch with you before now. You deserved better. I'm happy for you and Mike," he said. "I think we need to look at Wesley's kickin' table now."
The ground had gone nova. Wesley hit a couple of buttons on a remote and we realized that the manetuwak was moving. Moving fast. And we didn't know where it was going.
"I am not going to fight that," someone muttered. I think it was Anya, but it might have been Mike or even Fred for that matter. We were having slight unity issues.
"Seconded," Connor said.
"Seriously?" Margaret asked. "I thought we did this together."
"Do you really want to be obliterated without a trace?" Connor asked. "Because that's what's going to happen. And I'm not sure I want to stand around and watch."
He stood up and looked directly at me and like the pack of wolves everyone else seemed to have become, I was suddenly the target of lots and lots of eyes, all of them asking me what we were doing next.
They had to be kidding me.
I looked at the table.
Maybe not. Could I really all of these people to die along with me and Wesley and Angel and probably Lilah? Was that fair?
I looked at everyone and I couldn't stop looking at Victoria. She was only half-looking at me, but more at the table and she was afraid. She wasn't angry, she wasn't even obsessed about the psychotic family drama. She was looking at her first genuine Apocalypse and feeling the way I probably had when the Sunnydale High School library became the Hellmouth.
That's when I made my decision.
"We are all fucking going!" I shouted. "We don't have time for this. If we go, we go together, like the ridiculous dysfunctional family that we are. I am tired of this. If we screw this up, you might get an extra fifteen minutes if you sit here and hide."
Everyone was silent for a moment.
"Okay," Margaret said. "We're probably going to need a couple more cars. And some sort of sun protection for Angel, right? Because unless I'm very, very mistaken, it's high noon."
The boardroom suddenly darkened. Margaret pursed her lips and walked to the window, pulling the blinds open. Angel flinched for a second, but he soon joined us in the gaping at what was going on outside. The sky was dark, though the sun was still out. Strangely. There were roiling clouds (probably not clouds) and where the darkened sun touched the edges of clouds, everything was orange-gold and dark brown. There was something deeply unhealthy about those clouds.
"I'm very, very mistaken," Margaret said, dazed. "Oh, and--we've got the stretch Explorer, don't we? That'll fit me, Connor, Cordelia, Angel, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, Vic, Ms. Morgan, Ms. Burkle, Ms. Kaminowski, Anyanka, and Xander. Plus our assorted ghosts. Who's driving?"
"I'll do it," Mike said brusquely. "Fred's got shotgun, and the rest of you bizarre psychos can work this out in the backseat."
"Mike," Fred said.
"I didn't realize they were that nuts, babe," Mike said. "I mean, did we really deserve this shit over their issues?"
"I'm not sayin' we all couldn't use a few centuries of therapy, honey," Fred said, rubbing Mike's arm apologetically. "I'm just sayin' that now is really not the time for anything other than lots of I love yous."
Mike glowered at everyone, particularly me, Wesley, Angel, and Lilah. "Fair enough," she said. "Let's go."
And we did.
The car ride over was more or less a preview of hell at first. Everyone was dead silent on opposite sides of the limo, glaring at the other side while Margaret fiddled with her Palm Pilot. Tara was having an intense but silent conversation I couldn't hear with Gunn, but that was it for talking.
"Are we going to die?" Victoria asked out of the blue. Everyone's heads swiveled to her. "I know that's sort of a dumb question, but if we're gonna die, I wanted to say, that, um, I'm really sorry. Like, really, really sorry."
"It's not your fault," Angel, Connor, Wesley, Lilah, and I said in unison. "It's mine."
"I made the stupid wish," Victoria said. "I mean, I should take responsibility."
"Is someone coaching her?" Anya asked.
"Anya," Xander said. "Be nice."
"Why?" Anya said. "Every time I try to nice, it blows up in my face. I was nice to you and you ditched me at the altar. I was nice to Giles and he left. I was nice to you again and you ended up ditching me the moment Buffy said jump. I was nice to Spike--I married Spike--and he ditched me to make out with that wench Harmony. Screw nice!"
"Nice usually screws pretty well, though," Lilah said. "I would just like to point that out."
"Mo-om!" Victoria wailed.
"Victoria, considering that we're all going to die today, I don't think it matters whether or not you know that I rather enjoy having sex with your father," Lilah replied. "And if we survive, we'll just pretend it never happened. You'll forget by the time I finish with you about the whole messing with dark magicks discussion."
Victoria winced. "Now I want to die."
"Watch your mouth, young lady," Wesley said tiredly. "I've pretty much had it up to here with you. It's been a terribly difficult week. No one should wish themselves dead. Especially over people they love."
"Speaking of," I said. "Is there anyone in the world you haven't put a move on? At least in this car?"
"Technically, Angel put the move on me," Wesley said, resting his head against Lilah's shoulder. "And then there's only you, Gunn, Fred, and Lilah. It's not my fault that there were sparks. Do you know how many office crushes I've had to discreetly discourage?"
Margaret blushed and Connor turned his head away and coughed. I blinked. Connor too? I wasn't expecting that one. Tor's eyes were bugging out of her head.
"Ew," she whimpered.
"Is this how we're going to go to the end of the world?" Xander asked. "Talking about how much our lives were shaped by unrequited sexual tension and love gone sour? Because that makes us sound so sad and not much like the heroes we're supposed to be."
"Fat boy's got a point," Anya said.
"Stop calling me fat boy!" Xander snapped. "What is it with you? Look, I treated you badly. I screwed up ten billion times. Why does it bother you so much? You're going to be young and pretty and rich forever. Let me chow down on my cheese fries in peace."
"You don't have to look like this!" Anya raged back. "Giles was pretty hot for a guy in his forties, and you were hotter when you were twenty than he was. You could still be hot. You could still be--you."
"Again, I don't get the point of you caring?"
"Dammit, Xander!" Anya snapped. "Hello. I'm still in love with you. I tried other guys. I married other guys. I tried other girls, and you know, no one ever lived up to you. Even though you're a jerk who ditches people at the altar. Twice. I love you, moron!"
Xander shut up.
"About goddamn time," Tara muttered. "That was about ten years overdue."
Connor started fidgeting. Oh, God. He was going to tell Margaret--man, there really was nothing like the end of the world to inspire understanding and disclosure. But I actually might get to see Margaret genuinely discomfited in a non-Order of Inhibition way, and that would be good. No one should be as composed as Margaret in the face of apocalypse.
"Wesley," Angel said suddenly. "Um. Cordelia told me about the wishes you made."
Wesley looked up. "She did, did she?"
"Yes," Angel said awkwardly. "I just wanted to say that--I wanted to say thank you. For trying."
"I'm sorry it had to happen this way," Wesley said. "Well, parts of it."
He smiled at the evil lawyer-beast. She smiled back and dared us all to say something. It was the end of the world, so Xander took up the dare.
"Okay, see, that's the part I don't get," Xander said. "You guys are really in love? But I mean--you've tried to kill each other. I mean, Wes, you were going to sacrifice her to--"
"If we could explain it, it wouldn't work," Lilah said. "Let's just say that--um." She looked over at the horrified Victoria. "It's love. In all of its full, perverse, and real glory."
"Dad tried to kill you?" Victoria whispered.
"Long time ago," Lilah assured her. "Don't worry, Victoria. I tried to kill him back for it. A couple of times. It was before we got married."
Victoria burst into tears. "Margaret!"
"It's okay, Vic," Margaret said. "I booked you--and Mom and Dad--a good family therapist next week. If we live."
"Good thinking," Connor said with a goofy smile. Angel looked at him and then at Margaret and his eyes went big.
"I suddenly feel inspired to sing Kumbaya and have a group hug," I said dryly.
"Hell, no," Lilah replied. "No, no, no. If I'm going to my death, I want to go with good memories, not cheesy song time. And now I'm talking like you people."
"Sooner or later, we'll assimilate you," Xander said. "It'll be fun. Just like when we made Spike part of the gang. He got in on the 'person we don't like fucking person we do' exemption, too."
Lilah's eyes widened. So did mine, and we caught each other doing it.
"That's...great," she said. "Then I guess we'll have slumber parties and talk about old times."
"Yeah, and then we'll take Angel out dancing," I said.
"Angel dances?" Anya asked. "That must be frightening."
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Actually--"
"Margaret, I'm in love with you," Connor blurted out, apropos of nothing. The limo got quiet again. "You're the most wonderful woman in the world."
Margaret, who'd been comforting Victoria, gaped. So did Victoria. "Excuse me?"
"I love you," he said. "I've been in love with you for the last ten years. Ever since the time you and I went to France on the business trip."
"Steven," she said, blinking. "Well, isn't that news? And the France trip? Really? That was a terrible trip. I ended up covered in slime. That was attractive?"
"You're not like other women," Connor said, a very father-like stupid grin on his face. "I can't imagine a world without you doing all that you do."
The vehicle suddenly came to a screeching halt. Mike, who'd been listening without talking in the front compartment of the stretch Explorer, opened the partition and looked at us with wide, terrified eyes.
"Oh, God," she said softly. "We're here. And I don't think we're coming back from it."
Wesley and I looked at each other as Connor threw open the door, letting the stink and the enviromystical fumes in. Someone started to choke while someone else started to cry, but I didn't look at them.
"Now," Wesley said softly, offering his hand, blood flowing from a reopened scar. I took his hand in mine and everything began to shimmer. He wasn't quite a higher being, but certainly he was no longer pure human.
"Now," I replied. Wesley closed his eyes.
"Whatever grace I have, whatever power I've taken, let it be yours. I give it to you freely, without restriction, and without end. Let it be yours to heal with, let it be yours to conjure with, I bind it to your cause."
The power hit me like a speeding truck. I almost felt like I'd gotten a double boost, but that was also the rush of combining powers, like the heat from a chemical reaction. I looked over at Angel, who had a sad smile on his face.
"Wow," I gasped. "I think I'm girded for battle. Or for saving. Whatever you want to call this one."
"Good," Wesley said, falling against Lilah again, grey-lipped and white-haired. "I've given you everything. Now--"
Angel pulled me into his arms and kissed me and I devoured the touch, trying to take something of him with me before I left. I couldn't do this without feeling that bond.
"Go," he said. "You'll do this. I know you. I love you. And you will do this."
I nodded and pulled away, turning into the world that awaited me. I would do this. Even though I was terrified.
It wasn't a manetuwak. Not anymore. Now, like Wesley had said, it was a brainless, mindless bringer of death and agony and eternal void. I was standing fifteen feet from the end of the world and it smelled like blood and oil and fire and dying.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to hide. I wanted to make Mr. Lord of Hell do this, but he was right. This was not a magic he could do being what he was. He had the power and legions, but he couldn't even heal himself without help. I had the healing mojo, I had the sword, I had the Higher Being gig, and it was time that I finally--
"Cordelia," Tara said. "You're not moving."
"I'm afraid," I whispered.
"You have to move, Cordy," Tara said. "We're all screwed if you don't move."
Everyone was so quiet, I thought, pushing my foot forward and managing a shaky step. Why weren't they screaming? Why wasn't it loud and noisy the way all final battles are supposed to be? Even one that was basically us and the spirit?
"It's so quiet," I said, taking another step. "Aren't they afraid?"
"You can't hear them screaming?" Tara said, surprise coloring her voice. "Never mind. Keep walking. Keep moving. Good girl. Remember what Wesley told you. This is the best of all possible worlds."
I could smell the poison. Why were human beings so stupid? We were all stupid, pigheaded, stubborn, rotten things. We had wounded this being, this thing, this life for idiotic reasons.
I wanted to abandon us to its revenge.
The best of all possible worlds? This hellhole, this monstrosity, this joke?
"Keep walking, Cordelia," Tara said, a murmur in my ear. "Please keep walking, Cordelia. Don't listen to that."
"But it's so terrible," I said. "It hurts so much."
"It hurts so much," someone's voice echoed back. "I want to make it stop hurting."
I looked to my left. Willow. Willow's ghost, anyway. I didn't realize the living could be ghosts, but there she was, wailing her way across my path.
"That's--" I said.
"Don't look," Tara said, something very alive and raw echoing in her voice. "Keep going, Cordelia!"
"You think you're going to change something, girl?" someone else asked. It sounded like Angel. It sounded like Principal Snyder. I didn't know who it sounded like. "You? You're a spoiled rich girl from California. You're no champion!"
I closed my eyes and pulled my sword out of its sheath. "You're not real," I muttered, holding onto the handle of my sword. "You're trying to distract me."
"Keep going, Cordelia," someone else murmured. I think it was Buffy. It might have been Gunn. It could have been my mother. I kept going.
I opened my eyes. I was about two feet from the spewing, sweltering mass. I realized that sweat was pouring down my cheeks, drenching my clothes and hair. How did it get so hot? Was everything else so hot? I felt like I'd walked into ground zero.
I didn't dare look back. Above me, the black clouds were getting thicker, darker, and angrier. I couldn't tell the difference between the clouds and the thing before me. There probably wasn't any.
"I'm afraid," I whispered. Nobody said anything. I don't think they could see me. I was standing on the edge of this abyss and I was alone. I couldn't look back. I couldn't go back, I couldn't wish it away.
So I did the only thing I could do.
I thrust my hands into the darkness and the heat. It screamed. So did I, feeling it try to suck the flesh and bone away from my body, but there was more than normal girl there.
"I'm sorry," I said to the former life-spirit. "We messed up."
It didn't answer. I didn't think it would, but you never know with primordial spirits. I squeezed my eyes closed for a moment and let loose with the mojo.
Suddenly, I could hear someone talking. I opened my eyes, elbow-deep in primordial spirit and I saw him (or maybe her) sitting on a rock in the middle of the screaming, poisoned sludge.
"No more pain," she repeated over and over, tears of flame running down her cheeks. I could see the bone beneath his skin. The tears had burned away the skin and muscle. "No more. No more."
"You're right," I said, forcing every ounce of healing I could into the sludge. "This has got to stop."
He didn't hear me and I pushed my arms in deeper, up to the shoulder. Everything was still black, death black and ready to end it all. I couldn't let that happen. I couldn't let it all go.
I wanted to live.
"No more pain!" she screamed, gobs of himself falling into the goo. I realized that I couldn't just heal the manifestation of what was wrong. I had to go to the source, which looked like her, the crying man. I stepped into the sludge, feeling the burn and disgust envelop me. I was waist-deep in the nothing, feeling parts of me evaporate with every step. I was being melted away in all of this death.
I fought to keep going. Every time I paused, I would sink a little deeper. I couldn't go under or it would be the end. I couldn't drown. I couldn't. I dragged myself through the agony and didn't look back.
The rock was so little and the screams were so loud. I was never going to make it alone. It got harder to move with every step.
"Help me," I called. "Someone please help me."
I closed my eyes, dragging myself forward another four or five steps. I was submerged up to my chest in this stuff. I wasn't going to make it. But I had to. I had to live so that I could see Angel again, so that I could tell Fred to marry Mike and live happily ever after, so that I could watch Anya and Xander get back together, hell--I wanted to know things. And do things. I wanted to know why Wesley loved the evil Lilah-beast, I wanted to know what Margaret thought of Connor.
I wanted to wake up tomorrow morning and do nothing more ambitious than do a load of laundry and eat cookies.
I had to make it to tomorrow morning.
Then something truly weird happened. I hit something solid. I opened my eyes and realized that I was neck deep in the goo and I was finally at the rock. I looked up, pulled my arm out, and clasped the rock.
"No more, no more, no more," the spirit-thing was chanting. I dragged myself out of the goo, listening to the mad chatter, feeling bad for the former manetuwak. It hadn't meant for this to happen. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, poisoned manetuwaks gotta kill.
"Hey," I said, finally within reach of the man-woman-thing. "Hey there."
He didn't pay any attention to me until I touched her toe, and then she suddenly shut up and stared at me.
I didn't say anything. What was I going to say? Sorry? I'd said sorry a million times. It wasn't enough. I'd blamed myself, Wesley, Angel, Anya, Buffy, Lilah, Wesley, Connor, Holtz, Margaret, Wesley--and it wasn't enough.
I reached up precariously and touched the sores on her cheek. He wailed.
"I want to help you," I said, trying to see the skin and muscle fixed. I didn't account for the part where touching him made me want to die. I wanted to sleep, suddenly, to sink into the goo and feel nothing.
I pushed. I had to do this, no choice, even if it killed me. I was strong enough to do this.
I got a toehold on the rock, took my other hand, and covered the rest of the bleeding, burning face of the manetuwak.
Anything I could do, I would do. I closed my eyes, tightened my grip, and let it all go.
Anything I could do.
Anything I could.
I came to slowly, with a massive headache throbbing at the base of my skull. I regarded the being awake as a good thing. It suggested that I'd healed the manetuwak and saved the world. However, the headache was a bad thing. I hadn't felt anything as painful as that headache since I'd been fully human and dealing with the visions.
"I think she's awake," someone murmured. "Cordelia? You awake?"
"I need an Advil," I replied, refusing to open my eyes. "I have a low-grade migraine screaming for relief."
"Of course," someone else said. "Xander, get Cordelia a painkiller, please?"
"You got it, Wes," Xander replied. I blinked. Wes? Really? I had to open my eyes now. I rolled over slightly and half-opened my eyes.
Angel and Wesley were standing next to each other, both looking worried as hell about me. It was like I'd gone back a couple of decades or something. Cool.
"Hey," I said, smiling at them. "Did we win?"
Wesley smiled back. He looked--wow, he looked. Like old Wes. Like our Wes. I felt the smile getting bigger.
"We won," he said. "You healed the spirit and it responded in kind."
"Yeah, that was pretty intense," Xander said, returning with a glass of water and a couple of little white pills. "We've had that twelve-year drought, you know. And it's been raining--like real rain--ever since the spirit did its thing."
I took the water and the pills and downed them easily. "Good," I said. "This is all really good."
"It's great," Angel said, leaning down and lifting me up. "It's--come on, you have to see."
"Angel, you oughtn't just haul her up like that with a migraine," Wesley said prissily. "She'll throw up."
"She's my girlfriend, Wes. And she'll be fine," Angel said, but he was a little gentler after that. "But she should see."
"Well, of course she should see," Wes said, sounding fussy. "But gently!"
"Worry about your own wife," Angel said, walking us over to the balcony. I realized that we were in the hotel, in Angel's private suites, which was definitely good. "Where is she, anyway?"
"Having a row with Victoria," Wes said with a smile. "Something on the line of, 'don't exploit your father ever again or I'll have you stuck in a sack and drowned,' I believe. And quite rightly. I'm going to--"
"Buy her a new car and take her to Europe for the summer," I said. "Come on, Wes. We know you."
Wes smiled with only a little embarrassment. "Don't you want to see what you've done, Cordelia?" he asked. "That's the real achievement of the day, after all."
Xander opened the door and I blinked.
"Wow," I said. "Not to sound like Pollyanna or Sound of Music or anything too Planet Hallmark, but does the air smell cleaner or what?"
"Yeah, there's been an 80% decrease in the amount of air pollution in the last couple of hours over a two hundred and fifty mile radius," Xander said. "People are freaking out. In the good way. Plus, the rain. Then the fact that the amount of mercury in the groundwater just dropped by half. And you don't want to know about the good ocean stuff."
"Okay, I'm dreaming," I said. "No way. I mean, no way. This is too much. Angel and Wes have made up, I saved the world, and now the environment's suddenly all magically unpolluted? I hit my head too hard after getting my ass kicked."
"Aren't we a little cynical?" Xander said. "The world isn't magically all-better. It just got a little shot in the arm. We could still screw up all over again."
"Good," I said.
"Besides, I'm still more or less a Lord of Hell, even after the ritual," Wesley said. "That's not changing any time soon."
"What?" I said. "Uh-uh. Not after this. We'll drag you to therapy if we have to, but you're not skipping out on us again. We are family and we will go tough love on your ass if necessary. Tough love, Wesley!"
Wesley snorted. "One doesn't quite resign my position and live, Cordy," he said. "However, we're thinking about the old fashioned method of destroying the place from the inside. Margaret's claiming that she knows how to do it in six weeks."
I laughed. "She probably does," I replied. "Your assistant is a resourceful and devious woman. With an incredible crush on you."
Angel put his arms around me while Wesley spluttered a little. "That's rather--unprofessional--of her," he said. "She's a very nice woman, and I--I--and Steven!"
"Don't worry, Wes," Angel said as I snuggled against him. "We won't tell Lilah."
"No?" Lilah asked. "Well, look at the happy little elves out here. Told Cordelia yet?"
Everyone sobered up a little. Told me? Told me WHAT?
"Not yet, darling," Wesley said. "And thank you for making it that much harder."
"You know me," Lilah replied. "I live to kill your joys with love."
"You say that like it's a good thing," he said dryly. Meanwhile, I was freaking out. Seriously, deeply freaking out. I knew that it was too good to be true. "Cordelia--"
"Cordy," Angel said. "You lost your powers."
I blinked. "Lost?" I said. "Like, which powers? What?"
"Everything," Angel said, holding me tight. "You're 100% normal human again. You'll probably start aging again, too. Tara told us before she disappeared."
I had been wondering where Tara was. Now I knew. She was probably right next to me and I couldn't see her.
"Oh," I said. "Everything? Even the visions?"
"Everything's gone," Wesley said. "I'm terribly sorry, but you did give up your powers for a good cause."
"Normal, everyday Cordy?" I said, still not quite believing it. It was all gone. Everything that I'd had thrust on me for the last twenty years, finally gone. I was powerless. Power-free. Normal. "Hey, does that mean I get to stay here?"
Angel perked up. "You know," he said. "I think you might be on to something there. You get to stay."
"Nice," I said. "I always kind of liked being human better anyway."
"You're not upset?" Angel asked.
"I'm sad," I said. "A little stunned, I think. Probably going to cry later. But what was I going to do to top that? I healed a primordial earth spirit, Angel. My best friends have finally made up a fight that's lasted nineteen years too long. And I finally get to stay with the guy I love. I mean, as far as it goes, losing my powers is kind of minor in comparison. Or at least it's a decent trade-off. I lose my powers, but I get to be happy."
"When you say it like that," Angel murmured, nuzzling my neck. "Sounds like a great deal."
"Yeah, it does, doesn't it?" I asked archly. "Mmm. So when's the 'we saved the world' after-party, guys? I feel like munchies and sparkling punch drinks and dancing and fluffy kittens and love."
"We are big with the triumph," Xander pointed out. "It could be all end of Return of the Jedi with the hugging and the Ewoks dancing and Luke seeing Dad and Yoda and Ben Kenobi and boy, I'm still a geek and I've only been out of high school for twenty years."
"That's how we like you, Xander," I said. "Anyway. Party yay."
We all looked over at Wesley expectantly, even Lilah. Who I was apparently going to have to get over if we were serious about the reconciling. Wesley looked at us blankly.
"What?" he said. "I think it's a fine idea."
"They want you to pay, Wes," Lilah said.
"Me?" Wesley asked. "I--"
"Make more money than Bill Gates?" Xander asked. "Control most forces of evil, including the Dow Jones?"
"Well, yes, but--"
Lilah gave Wesley a dark look. "Wesley. Pay for the party, you cheap bastard, or I'll tell Victoria she can have that private helicopter and the concert with her two thousand closest friends."
"She wanted a helicopter?" Wesley asked. "Dear God."
"You can afford a helicopter?" Xander said. "Can you be my daddy, too?...And boy, that came out wrong."
We laughed, even Xander after a minute. It was funny, and it was sad, and it was us. Sooner or later, we'd have to deal with things again, the ways that we could screw up, the people who'd still need help, the people who would always need help. But frankly, now wasn't the time to care.
"Hey," I said, tilting my head back to look at Angel. "We saved the world."
"Again," he said, smiling back.
"We did, didn't we?" I asked. "And I got the guy. The guy whose curse we're going to have to renegotiate soon."
"What's that?" Angel asked.
"Well, okay, you know the part where Wesley's the Lord of Hell or whatever? He's got to know a better soul curse than yours. Cuz yours is the discount bitter ex-girlfriend curse," I said. "And you know, I intend on making you very happy."
He looked at me, very surprised. "I--" he said. "You know, it sounds like a plan."
"It does at that," I said, leaning back with a contented sigh.
Life was going to be interesting all over again. It wasn't going to be happily ever after, but what is? And who wants it to be? I had a chance to do it right in this world--and that was what I was going to do. Come hell or high water.
Not perfect. Never perfect. But I could live with that.
"He blings for the Lord!"
Oh yeah, I'm a freak: http://www.imjustsayin.net
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Jennifer-Oksana
|Home/QuickSearch + Random + Upload + Search + Contact + GO List|