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AS TIME GOES BY (part two)

Cordelia took a sip of her wine, dark in the crystal glass. She smiled at Gunn over the rim of the glass. "Good to see you."

"You're lyin', but I forgive you," Gunn said easily, flopping down onto a chaise longue near the window. "Ain't much to respect in days like these except money and manners."

"Isn't that something of a problem for you?" Cordelia said. "You never had much of either."

Gunn just grinned up at her. "All that's about to change. With a little help from you, maybe."

"I thought this was something I was actually going to want to hear," Cordelia said, and her smile was a little more brittle now.

She moved toward Gunn, and he took a long, hard look at her. Her hair was dark again, and long, apparently, to judge by the elaborately braided knot at the nape of her neck. She was wearing a silvery dress that clung to all the right places, which on Cordelia was just about everywhere. Around her neck was a necklace the likes of which Gunn had rarely seen -- black pearls the size of grapes, strung three-deep around her neck, with an even larger opal, snowy and glittering, in the center. "One hell of a trinket you're wearing there."

"You've seen it before."

"Been a while. Forgot how damn big it is. Tell me, Cordy, what's a lady gotta do to get a necklace like that?"

"She has to be a very good girl, and do exactly what she's told." Cordelia fingered the necklace briefly, then turned her attention back to him. "And it sounds like you've got your own money-making scheme in mind."

"The work is done, baby," he said with a grin, patting his jacket just where the inside pocket would be. "All I need is a place to keep it safe, until such time as I can sell it to the very willing buyers."

Cordelia looked at him with something that was half-contempt, half-curiosity. Gunn grinned even wider and pulled out the Deburchan dagger. The jewels sparkled faintly, and Cordelia reached out one finger.

"Never thought I'd see one of these. Gunn, do you realize how much this is worth?"

"Ain't a curse it can't seal," Gunn said. "Ain't a spell it can't make stronger. And ain't a man, woman, child, demon, vamp or beast in the world that wouldn't pay through the nose to get it. And since I got no curses I want to lay down, or spells I want to cast, the money's my main interest."

"No doubt. You do realize that there's not a man, woman, yadda yadda, that wouldn't kill you to get it?"

"With one exception, and that's you." Gunn looked up at her with a touch of his old warmth. "I can't figure out what it is you ARE after these days, Cordelia, but you ain't after money. Just the fact that you're wearing rocks like that instead of selling them tells me that much."

"I heard something major was stolen from Wolfram and Hart yesterday," Cordelia said. "Wolfram and Hart, not so big on the break-ins. Could be trouble."

"I only need to buy myself a day," Gunn said. "I meet with the buyers tonight. And these buyers -- they're serious. They're players. They have plans for this thing." For a moment, he considered telling Cordelia the truth -- the full truth about what he was doing, and why. "I wouldn't sell it to just anybody." He studied Cordelia's face carefully for a moment, then said, "Never mind. I get the money tomorrow, hand off the dagger. Use that money to get myself outta here, all the way to Australia. Looking forward to Australia after this hellhole. Put another shrimp on the barbie and Crocodile Dundee and all that jazz."

Australia. He thought of it longingly for a moment, then pushed the idea aside.

"And where do I come in?"

"You just hide it for me. The Guards are searching everybody, Cordy, and it's getting ugly out there. I just want to know the dagger's in a safe place, is all. And I think it's safe with you."

"Because I like you so much?" Even if her words hadn't been so sharp, Gunn would have caught the sarcasm.

"Because you hate me," Gunn said. "Though I never was real sure just why you started hating me, Cordy. I think I just -- remind you, that's all."

Cordelia smiled coldly. "That's enough."

"If you still liked me, you'd try to save me from myself. But you hate me now, and you'd be just too happy to take a share of the money out from under my nose. Not too big a share, now. But enough to make it worth your while."

"And how do you know I won't turn you in, keep the dagger for myself?"

"Because you hate Wolfram and Hart way more than you hate me."

Cordelia laughed, and it was as close to a real laugh as Gunn had seen from her in a while. "I could get into trouble for this."

"But not too much trouble, huh? The Powers looking out for you and all. Taking care of the Seer, ready to destroy anybody who hurts her." Gunn shook his head. "Must be nice."

"Trust me, Gunn, nice is the one thing it's definitely not." Cordelia held out her hand. "Give it here. I'll hide it. But if push comes to shove, I didn't know a damn thing about it. Got it?"

"Solid," Gunn said, putting the dagger in her hand. He fought off a shudder of guilt; he'd just put Cordelia in terrible danger, and he hadn't even told her the reason why. Because she couldn't be trusted -- but weren't there people who still thought he couldn't be trusted? Was Cordelia any worse than he had been, most of the past four years?

He didn't know. But he couldn't afford to find out. And if Cordelia ended up paying the price -- well, it was unfair, but so was just about everything else, these days.

Cordelia tucked the dagger into the black folds of her evening wrap. Gunn frowned. "You're keeping it on you?"

"You wanted it safe, right?" She smiled. "Trust me. C'mon. I need to put in my evening appearance."

**

Cordelia looked down at the swirl and bustle of activity in the lobby. In a few rare moments, she felt proud of this; all these people and creatures, good and evil, rich and poor, drawn together and bound to keeping the peace in some capacity -- not through any spell cast by the Furies, either, just because she said so. All of them admired her, and none of them knew her -- in some ways, it was like high school, but with champagne.

Come to think of it, she was overdue for her first glass.

Cordelia put on her most brilliant smile as she swept down the stairs. She took it slow -- no point in just entering when you could make an Entrance. Gunn went past her, shooting her a half-amused glance over one shoulder. Women looked up at her in envy, men in differing shades of desire, and Cordelia basked in it. She'd almost forgotten how good that glow could feel, back when she'd been drudging away here every day -- well. No point in remembering that.

Several people got up from their tables, clearly meaning to come up and talk to her, but Lorne was quicker. Lorne had learned to always be quicker. "Evening, boss," he said easily, taking her arm.

"How's the crowd tonight?"

"A little more anxious than usual, seeing as how the Guards are going berserk looking for whoever was nutty enough to go roaming inside Wolfram and Hart today."

"And are they handling the anxiety as well as they usually do?"

"Yes, they're buying booze. And lots of it. Promises to be a profitable evening."

"Well, that gets a yay from me," Cordelia said. "Listen, when were you planning on doing your set?"

"The tribute to Ella? I was getting ready to take the mic --"

"Hold off for a bit. I feel a floor show coming on."

Lorne patted her shoulder. "Sure thing."

Cordelia snapped her fingers at one of the server-trolls; he was experienced, and good at his job, so it took him just a few seconds to have a glass of champagne in her hand. Cordelia swallowed it down, ignoring the way its bright taste warred with the tang of the dark wine she'd been drinking earlier. That would pass.

She unfurled her wrap, caught the dagger easily in one hand. A man was weaving his way up to her, unsteady with drink -- oh, what was his name again --

"Cordelia?" Carter, that was his name. The liquor license guy. "I expected you the other evening."

"Gosh golly, did I forget you? How did a guy like you ever slip my mind?"

Carter glared at her, the expression accenting every wrinkle on his face, the gray at his temples. "I thought we were friends, Cordelia. That's why I signed off on your latest paperwork -- the only reason why --"

"And next year, when we're due for renewal, you and I will be good friends again." Cordelia wound the wrap around her, nonchalantly hung the Deburchan dagger on the wall with all the other armaments.

"You might be up for review before then," Carter said. His eyes never rose to the level of her face.

"I'm alive with anticipation." Her head swam. She felt a low vibration begin inside her body. Cordelia waved him off. "Excuse me. Showtime."

Cordelia made her way through the crowded room toward the Eye. As she got closer and closer to it, the buzz in the crowd became louder. They reacted in every way imaginable -- excitement, dread, amusement, wonder -- but they reacted. Lorne saw her and went for his microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, please, your attention -- the Hyperion is about to present its world-famous form of entertainment -- you've heard about it, read about it, didn't dare dream that it was true, but it is, folks --"

Cordelia lifted the Eye from the pedestal as the crowed gasped. She held it up, almost in front of her face but a little lower, low enough to still see their reactions --

"-- Hang on to your hindquarters, those of you who have them, because you are about to witness the rarest of the rare, the purest of the pure --"

Cordelia forced herself to look into the Eye as the feeling swept through her --

"-- a actual, genuine, bona fide Vision from the Powers that Be!"

Light streamed out from the Eye -- from Cordelia through the Eye -- and flickered into shapes. Life-size, three dimensional shapes that moved and, yes, spoke. Into people. A young boy -- 16, maybe -- was running from a pack of vampires. The street sign floated conveniently into view; he wasn't very far away at all. The boy was screaming in terror. "Help me! Oh, God, help me!"

The light flickered out. The Eye went dim. Cordelia took a deep breath as the audience began to applaud.

She smiled at them all as she put the Eye back on its pedestal. Cordelia lifted her hand to snap her fingers again, but the troll was at her side with another glass of champagne even before she could do it. "Good job," she said. "Wish I'd had you around when these things used to hurt."

As she sipped and strolled toward the courtyard, Cordelia gave her usual glance around the room to see how people were reacting. The thrill of seeing something that was from the Powers themselves always got the crowd going -- but the curio value generally lasted no longer than the Vision itself. The table of vamps were laughing raucously, gesturing about what they'd do if they were there. That girl at the bar -- that was Anne, wasn't it? Gunn's old friend -- she looked upset. She kept looking at the door, as though she might go to help.

But she didn't. They never did.

And, as usual, most people didn't react at all. They were drinking, eating, carrying on -- perhaps with a little more gusto, having just seen a really great show. They'd tell all their friends they'd seen something straight from the Powers themselves, and probably never bother describing exactly what they'd seen.

Cordelia glanced back toward the door, saw the grandfather clock that stood nearby. She turned away and went outside as quickly as she could.

The courtyard wasn't empty, of course, but it was quieter than the interior of the hotel. She could smell smoke, both tobacco and a few substances that used to be regulated a lot more heavily. A few couples (and one trio) were nestled in corners, tight against each other, negotiating the terms under which they'd rent one of the Hyperion's rooms tonight. Cordelia thought, at a glance, that very few of them were under the impression that this might be love. These days, desperation would do. Certainly it lasted longer.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Lilah's voice came from behind her. "How you can see the stars now."

"Never could before," Cordelia said. "Unless you hung at the Viper Room."

Lilah came to stand beside her, and Cordelia half-smiled. Although she and Lilah were not friends, they had reached a certain understanding, these past few years. Cordelia used to have nothing for contempt for how Lilah had run her life; now she understood that sometimes, life ran you. "Great dress," Lilah said.

"Back at ya," Cordelia said. "I need to explore more options in satin, seriously."

"Took a trip to the Portal tonight," Lilah said.

"But not through it?" Cordelia said. "I honestly wonder, sometimes. Why you don't just throw yourself through, see what happens."

"Because I don't know what would happen," Lilah said. "And here, I do know what will happen. And it's pleasant as often as not, which is as much as you can expect, really."

"So if you weren't making your great escape, what were you doing at the Portal?"

"Welcoming back an old friend. Remember Lindsey McDonald?" When Cordelia snorted in amusement and contempt, Lilah smiled thinly. "I see that you do."

"What's he doing here?"

"Believe it or not, he's the new Emissary of the Underlords."

Cordelia's eyes were wide. "So we actually have to suck up to him. Oh, just when you thought the apocalypse couldn't get any yummier."

"The little joys of working at Wolfram and Hart are without number," Lilah said. "A temp gave me a paperweight that said something like that, once. I think they used her hide for one of the conference-room chairs."

"So not a great time to have a break-in, huh?"

"Tell me about it," Lilah said. "They got away with a Deburchan dagger."

"Major loot," Cordelia said easily.

"Not so major anymore," Lilah said. "Just between you and me, we went through a whole de-enchantment ceremony earlier this evening. That dagger's not good for anything anymore, except maybe as a really flashy steak knife. But the point is, we have to get the guy who stole it, because we have to find the people he's going to sell it to."

Inside the Hyperion, Lorne swung into his set, belting out the first verse of "Goody, Goody." The music wafted out into the courtyard.

"Anybody might want a Deburchan dagger," Cordelia said. "So you're looking at a long list of suspects."

"I don't think so," Lilah said. "According to Lindsey, the Underlords are looking out for two major Warriors. Not just do-gooders with stakes and holy water -- the real deal."

Cordelia shrugged. "Warriors come and go. Mostly go, these days."

"Word is they want to go to Sunnydale. To close the Hellmouth."

Cordelia stared at Lilah, who stared back at her. After a moment, they each burst into laughter. As soon as Cordelia could gulp in a breath, she gasped, "Go -- to Sunnydale? No human being's set foot there in years --"

"Except maybe as a to-go meal some vamp took with him," Lilah smirked. "But, seriously. According to Lindsey, these Warriors have a plan. A plan that requires a seriously high-level magical artifact."

"Like, say, a Deburchan dagger."

"Or a Eye, for that matter," Lilah said. "Though I know you well enough to know you'd never sell."

"You know me well enough to know I can't," Cordelia said. "Not without going to hell, straight to hell, not passing go, not collecting 200 dollars."

"As long as you remember that," Lilah said.

Cordelia swallowed some more champagne as she shot Lilah a glance. "That's why you're spilling all this info, isn't it? You're giving me a warning."

"Don't get me wrong, Cordelia. I have enough faith in your practical nature to know you'll do the safe thing. But you weren't always like that. There was a time when you were quite the crusader --"

"Don't remind me," Cordelia said. "That was a long time ago. I know better now."

"I know that. But Lindsey doesn't. And Lindsey -- well, the guy's always been a loose cannon. Girls like us can't be too careful. Besides, if something happened to you, I'd miss our little chats."

"You'd miss the fact that I comp all your drinks."

"That too. At this point, I can no longer put off telling you that Lindsey wanted to have a word. For old times' sake, no doubt." Lilah rolled her eyes.

"There's a lot of stuff we'd be more likely to do for old times' sake. Like, say, fight it out with axes." Cordelia sighed, thinking of the time Lindsey had sicced Vocah on her. Then again, Lilah had been in on that party too, hadn't she? Bygones. "I should be glad he just wants to chat."

**

Lindsey swirled his martini appreciatively before taking another sip. Like a cool, smooth cloud, he thought. Every detail of this place was perfect. He could appreciate that.

The captain of the Guards looked over in his direction, and Lindsey nodded slightly, without rising from his seat at the table. This was Lilah's arrest, after all; he hated watching her score a point with Wolfram and Hart. But it was unavoidable, and now would be as good a time as any.

Two Guards came up to where Gunn stood by the counter, stood at either shoulder. The captain said, "Sir, we're going to need you to come with us."

Gunn shrugged. "Sure thing. What's up?"

"We think you know," one Guard said.

"You guys are tearing up the joint looking for the thief, right? Hell, go on and search me --"

"We aren't interested in a search," the captain said. "We have our proof. You are to come with us."

Gunn's face went very still. But he remained casual as he spoke, "Yeah, whatever. Hang on while I finish my drink."

He insouciantly turned around to swallow the rest of his White Russian, then whipped around and slugged one of the Guards in the face. People began to scream, and Gunn vaulted over the barstool to run for it.

Lindsey didn't move, just watched.

The Guards barreled after him. Gunn had a head start, but there were a whole lot of tables and trolls between him and escape. Just as he lurched for the doorway, the Guards seized him. "No, don't!" Gunn yelled. "Cordy! Jesus Christ, Cordy, don't let 'em do it!"

Lindsey looked over his shoulder, saw Cordelia standing by Lilah's side near the courtyard door. He braced himself, waiting for her to cry out or take action. Instead, she stared at Gunn for a moment, then turned away to down the last of her champagne.

"Cordy!" Gunn yelled as the Guards towed him out the door. He was still screaming when the doors slammed shut.

After a moment's pause, Lorne motioned to the three-person band, which then swung into "A Tisket, A Tasket."

Cordelia came walking toward Lindsey, and he set his martini down to take her hand. "Very touching, Cordelia. Nothing like seeing that friendship never ends."

"Or in your case, never begins," Cordelia said. "Seriously, Lindsey, you're a lot less monstrous than the last Emissary the Underlords sent. Seeing you actually counts as a relief."

"Seeing you counts as something of a surprise," Lindsey said. "I mean, all those years working with Angel. All those years as the valiant Seer. Never giving up, even when those around you fell like so many dominoes."

"A whole lot more dominoes have fallen since then," Cordelia said. "Makes a girl wonder what she can rely on." Lilah strolled up behind Cordelia and smiled at them both. Cordelia was looking at her when she continued, "Turns out, she can only rely on herself."

Lindsey smiled. "Could've told you that a long time ago. Lilah here says you've changed your ways. That you don't go running around after lost causes anymore."

Cordelia gestured around the room; the light sparkled on the platinum rings on her hands. "I'm the only cause I care about these days. And I think I've served that cause pretty well, don't you?"

"Brava," Lindsey said, clapping his hands softly. "I just want to be sure of you, Cordelia. I need to know that the trust the Powers have put in you isn't misplaced."

He gestured toward the Eye; Cordelia's eyes followed the gesture, and to his surprise, she smiled a little. "They made the deal clear, Lindsey. The end of the pain, the end of my life being in danger from the Visions. All I had to do was make the Visions available to everyone -- good, bad, indifferent."

Lilah smiled slightly. "These days, the 'indifferent' group is so large that I wonder why they bothered."

"Just checking," Lindsey said. "I have to say, you've convinced me."

"Why are you checking up on this anyway?" Cordelia frowned. "The Powers are the guys in the middle. From the sound of it, you're with the Underlords now."

"The Venareth was all about balance, Cordy," Lindsey said, throwing out the old nickname to see if she'd react. She didn't. "About setting good and evil on the same footing. Seeing as how the Underlords were falling way behind before that -- well, the Venareth was pretty damn overdue, in their opinion. The Underlords like the balance. And giving the Visions back to the side of good -- that would upset the balance, wouldn't it?"

"Don't know how much difference you think the Visions made anyway," Cordelia shrugged. "As far as I can tell, they pretty much just gave me a serious Advil habit."

"I see you've moved up to more civilized painkillers," Lindsey said, as a troll brought Cordelia yet another glass of champagne.

"Civilization," she murmured as she brought the glass to her lips. "These days, I guess you take it where you can find it."

"Fair enough," Lindsey said.

Cordelia got to her feet. "If you'll excuse me, Lindsey, I make a point of not palling around with the guests. They get all grabby if I do."

Lilah waved her off, as though she had the authority to do so. "I'm sure Lindsey and I can keep each other company. Chat about old times."

Lindsey didn't laugh, just half-smiled at Cordelia as she turned and went back toward the courtyard. Lilah watched him watch her go. "See? I told you. She's no trouble anymore."

"Seems like it," Lindsey said. "Good. Good. Just one more test, then."

"Test?" Lilah's voice seemed to betray real concern, but when Lindsey glanced back at her, she was just smiling at him dryly. "So, Linz. How's that evil hand?"

"Much better, now that the rest of me caught up." He looked over at the door, and as if on cue, it opened, and they came in.

Lilah followed his gaze, and her eyes went wide. After a moment, she whispered, "The Warriors for good."

"Mmmm-hmm," Lindsey said, never taking his eyes from the door.

The damned thing about it was that he looked almost the same. The hair was a little longer, the build a little thinner, perhaps. But he was still tall, broad-shouldered, intent -- the image of a Warrior if ever there was one. And still wearing black.

Of course. Even the end of the world wouldn't make Angel stop wearing black.

On the other hand, the second Warrior didn't look it at all; she was a woman of little height and slight build, with hair an unnatural yet ethereal platinum blonde. But if word on the street, reports from the Underlords and several dozen tablets of prophecy were to believed, these days she was the more powerful of the two by far.

Though, as always, Angel was Lindsey's main concern.

**

"So this is the famous Hyperion Hotel," Buffy said. "What's it like to be back home?"

Angel put his arm around her shoulder, only just glancing at the clock beside the door. "It's not exactly a homecoming."

Continue on to part three...

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