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AS TIME GOES BY (part four)

Cordelia had imagined this moment a thousand times in the past four years. In some of her fantasized meetings, she was imperious and cool; in others, she broke down in tears. Sometimes she was in the arms of her beloved -- who never had a name or a face, but was possessed of many vague-yet-sterling qualities. Sometimes Angel had aged poorly in his years of humanity, and was wearing coke-bottle glasses and a comb-over, albeit a heavily gelled one. There were a few variants of the fantasy that involved weapons.

None of them had anything to do with her being tipsy and tired and coming down from a vision. Or with Angel looking even better than he ever had as a vampire. Or with Buffy walking toward the two of them through the decadent fray, clothed in white, pale hair like a halo, untouched by it all. "Cordy," Buffy said. The smile on her face was genuine, and she held out her hands to grasp Cordelia's. "Angel's friends made it through the Venareth a lot better than mine did. No, don't look like that -- I'm happy for all of you. I'm glad you're okay."

"And you," Cordelia managed to say. And it was true, wasn't it? "I've heard rumors about what you were up to. Kicking ass, taking names, like always. That vamp hideout in the north --"

Buffy lifted her chin and smiled. "Ass was kicked," she admitted. "Names were taken." She looked over at Angel then, all lit up, the way she always had been when she looked at Angel back in high school. Cordelia used to laugh about it, then. "You were going to introduce me."

Angel found his tongue. "Right. Buffy, this is Lorne. Lorne, this is Buffy."

"Pleasure to know you, chica," Lorne said. "Anybody who's smacking the bad guys around is okay in my book. And trust me, my Book Of The Okay is a lot shorter than it used to be. You should be proud to be included."

"I am," Buffy said. She grinned at him, and he smiled back at her, and Cordelia was terrified that Lorne might just ask Buffy to sing right there.

Lilah sauntered up and smiled at Lorne. "Do I get a footnote?"

Lorne rolled his eyes. "If you'll excuse me, I'm sure there's some woodwork that needs polishing."

He wandered off, and for a moment Cordelia envied him the ability to do so. Lilah was looking at her very closely, through half-lidded eyes that, Cordelia had learned, took in far more than you might first expect. And Angel was there, he was RIGHT THERE, and they weren't talking to each other, weren't looking at each other, and Buffy was taking his arm --

"I just wanted to remind you two," Lilah said to Buffy and Angel. "Wolfram and Hart, tomorrow, say, 11 a.m.? I know that unpleasant errands sometimes slip people's minds --"

"I'm not likely to forget about Wolfram and Hart," Angel said.

"What's happening at Wolfram and Hart?" Cordelia blurted out, well-aware that it was none of her business, and even more aware that Lilah knew this.

After a moment's pause, Lilah said, "Routine questions, Cordelia. The firm doesn't look very kindly on people in Buffy and Angel's line of work. As I think you remember."

Cordelia straightened up. "It's all about balance, right, Lilah? Even you guys need Buffy and Angel. You need the side of good." She managed to look squarely at Buffy, to give her her due. "We all do."

"We like the side of good to be fairly weak," Lilah confided. "And you two are just Energizer Bunnies of do-gooding, aren't you? You keep going and going and going --"

"As a matter of fact, we were going," Buffy said, clearly ready to be out of Lilah's sight. "Cordelia, where do you live?"

"Here," Cordelia said. "I live here." Angel reacted to that; she knew what he wanted to ask, knew he wouldn't ask. And he didn't.

"Well, great," Buffy said. "We'll come see you again tomorrow night. Maybe we can talk about old times."

And wouldn't that just be the most fun ever? "Yeah," Cordelia said weakly. "Great."

Angel put his arm around Buffy's shoulders to guide her out the door. But he paused and said, "Good night, Cordelia."

"Good night," she echoed.

She watched them go out the door, watched it swing shut behind them. The clock continued to tick away, completely undamaged by four years of non-use. Still perfect, still working, as though it had been preserved for just this moment.

"Touching," Lilah said. "Though I have to say, you and Angel -- you used to be such good friends. I would have expected a hug, at least."

"Your bar tab's running out," Cordelia said curtly. "You might want to head on home."

"My bar tab? You don't even put my drinks on a tab!" Lilah's outrage lasted just a moment, and was quickly replaced by a too-knowing smile. "Have it your way, then. But I'll want some answers tomorrow."

Tomorrow. He would be coming back tomorrow.

**

The Hyperion's last nightclub guests were shooed out by the serving trolls a little after 1 a.m. This was rather early for them to close, and more than a few of them grumbled. But Cordelia had commanded it, and in the Hyperion, Cordelia's word was law. If she said the guests stayed, they stayed. If she said they went, they went.

And if she told the trolls to bring her a bottle of champagne, and then another, they did it.

Cordelia sat at one table in the darkness of the lobby. Their overnight guests were either asleep or, more likely, busily engaged in the clandestine encounters they'd come here for. They wouldn't be coming downstairs, and so she could sit alone, drink her champagne, and survey her kingdom.

Even the darkness, she could see the Eye. The clock ticked more loudly than she'd realized -- than she'd remembered. She put one hand to her chest, felt her necklace heavy around her neck, like a slave's collar. In contempt, she tugged it off, tipped her glass back to drain it, then poured herself another.

"Getting a little extreme with the bubbly there, boss."

She didn't turn around. "Go home, Lorne."

"First off, I live here, in what has to be this hotel's least elegant suite, even counting the one we set aside for Velga-demon use. Second, I'm not sure you need to be down here on your own, brooding in the dark."

"If I went upstairs, I'd still be on my own. Brooding in the dark."

"This is true. But you wouldn't be running through our entire store of Veuve Cliquot."

Cordelia knew she should smile, say something comforting. But it wasn't in her, not anymore. Not even the pretense. "I always thought if I saw him again, it would be because he came to see me. To apologize, or to -- to -- because he came to see me. Not because he was doing something else. Just passing through."

Lorne rested one hand on her shoulder. "I know it's hard, pumpkin."

She shrugged him off. "Go home, Lorne."

He sighed and turned to go upstairs.

And the clock began to chime --

One --

"The merriest Christmas Eve ever," she had said. And the world had seemed more open and alive than ever before --

Two.

December 22, 2003

Wesley folded his arms, looked at them all sternly. "People. Please. Two days from the Venareth, and instead of preparing, you're all --"

"Preparing," Cordelia insisted, tossing another handful of tinsel on the Christmas tree.

"Check it out," Faith said She laughed as Gunn began juggling some of the shiny ball ornaments, then tossed another one toward him. He fielded it deftly, kept juggling.

"Where's your Christmas spirit?" Fred said, hugging Wesley around his waist.

"I am replete with the Christmas spirit," Wesley said dryly. "For instance, I am wearing this ridiculous novelty tie --"

"What's ridiculous about tap-dancing reindeer?" Cordelia said, as though she meant it.

"-- because Fred bought it, and I've done all my gift-wrapping, the same as the rest of you --"

"You're done?" Gunn said, somewhat dismayed, either by Wesley's promptness or the fact that Faith was tossing him two more ornaments at once.

"You've started?" Faith said, shaking her head in amazement as she began looking for more baubles to throw at Gunn.

" -- but -- the Venareth --"

"The Venareth's not a marching-band performance," Angel said. He was sitting on the circular booth in the center of the hotel, attempting to untangle the lights Cordelia wanted on the banister. "It's been prophesied since the eighth century. Thanks to your brilliant translations --" Angel paused as the others applauded, save for Gunn, who was still juggling. "-- we all know where we're supposed to be, and what we're supposed to do. But the outcome's fixed, right?"

"Well, yes," Wesley said. He relaxed slightly, rubbed Fred's arms as she squeezed him more tightly. "I just want to be certain that all goes well."

"We all do," Gunn said, tossing each ornament back at Faith one by one, and grinning as she dived to get them all. "But we know it's gonna happen. And we've been going over our plans for four months now. We are totally, 100-percent Venareth ready. Can't you just take it for the big ol' Christmas present it is?"

"One day early," Cordelia said. She peeked around the side of the tree to see Angel scowling down at the lights; though she kept herself from laughing out loud, she couldn't help grinning. Then, as if he sensed her watching, he looked up and smiled.

The Venareth. The word was even a beautiful word -- like something in one of those Latin texts Wesley and Fred were always poring over. It could be part of a song, a chant, a prayer. But it was better than any of those things -- it was their deliverance. Their victory. Their reward.

Wesley had read them the final prophecy often enough, connected it with the other writings of Anatole and Aberjian, so they knew what was coming. The powers of good were becoming too strong to be denied. They wouldn't be fighting in the shadows any longer. The Powers were going to give her a way to have her Visions without suffering the usual skull-crushing pain, or the weakness that had plagued her more and more as the years went on. And Angel --

Angel would receive his shanshu, and become human.

In short, everything any of them had ever wanted was arriving, and on Christmas Eve. There would be one more battle, one that would require them to split up and face different dangers -- and there was always the risk of any of them dying, if not all. But Cordelia didn't think much of it; they'd done too much for the Powers not to be rewarded now. They'd make it. And the Venareth would come to pass, as long as they were all there to fulfill the prophecy.

She glanced over at Fred and Wesley, who appeared to have forgotten his Venareth worries as Fred drew him near the mistletoe hanging over the counter. Meanwhile, Faith and Gunn were clowning around in a corner; ever since Faith's parole five months before, those two had hit it off fast. Gunn was pretty much the only one Faith had hit it off fast with; though whatever weirdo ex-murderer bond she and Angel shared was still in place, so was Wesley's memory of what she'd done to him. Not to mention Cordelia's memory of what Faith had done to him. (Fred, of course, didn't remember it -- but just the PG-rated version Wesley had shared with her had guaranteed that Faith wasn't one of Fred's favorite people.)

But Gunn believed in taking people at their deeds -- and Cordelia had to admit, Faith seemed to genuinely ready to do the right thing. And she lapped up Gunn's attention as though she'd been thirsty for it for years. It wasn't a romance, Cordelia thought, but it might be something better: a friendship between two people who each needed to start over, who needed to give trust as much as receive it. Of course, the effect on Angel Investigations was roughly the same as having two large, hyperactive Labrador puppies on staff. But they had so much fun together that it was fun just watching them.

Finally she looked back at Angel, who had somehow managed to create a Gordian knot of lights. In just a few days, he would no longer be a vampire. He would be human once more.

What would Angel do then?

To her surprise, and joy, and deep, heartfelt wonder, she thought she knew.

"Cordelia?" Startled from her reverie, she turned to see Wesley at her shoulder. "I wondered -- could I have a word?"

Cordelia glanced around, saw that Fred had commandeered Faith and Gunn to hang the wreath on the door. "Sure thing. What's up?"

He took her arm and led her toward his office. "Oh, I only wanted to go over this one bit of the prophecy --"

She snorted as he shut the door behind them. "God, Wesley, it is SO past time to lighten up already."

"I don't want to talk about the prophecy," Wesley said. "I wanted to talk about -- well -- my present for Fred."

"You said you were done wrapping!"

"I lied. I have this one gift left." And Wesley pulled out a small black-velvet box.

Cordelia gasped, then took it and pried it open. She squealed with delight as she saw the engagement ring sparkling inside. "Oh, my God! Wesley, this is beautiful!"

He took it back and stared at it as if doubting her words. "And you think she'll say yes?"

"Oh, how do you know what I think?" Cordelia teased him.

"Because you're hopping up and down and making silly little flappy hands," Wesley said. "Which means -- I hope it means -- you think she'll say yes?"

Cordelia forced herself to calm down and put her hands on either side of his face. "She's gonna say yes. And smooch you on the mouth, and be Mrs. Wyndham-Price. Or would you be, I don't know, Burkle-Price? Wyndham-Burkle?"

Wesley looked doubtful for a moment. "I hadn't considered -- do you think she'll want to --"

"Oh, relax already. You can be Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head for all it matters. Wesley, I'm so happy for you. For both of you."

He smiled down at her, and for a moment she saw how hard his natural reserve was warring with his happiness. And she thought back to a hundred occasions when she and Wesley had shared confidences, most all of them tragic -- high time they had some joy, she thought. Wesley, and Fred, and me too, dammit.

She hugged him tightly around the waist, and he returned the embrace. "Thank you, Cordelia. For everything."

"Right back atcha," Cordelia said. "I just want you two to be happy. And no bridesmaid's dresses in yellow, okay? Washes me out."

He laughed. "I hope we will be happy. And you, too -- I mean, you and Angel --"

Cordelia started, then leaned back from him. She felt like she ought to be denying what Wesley'd said with all of her might; after all, she and Angel weren't dating. They'd never even kissed. Never so much as said anything that would suggest that the two of them were anything but the closest of friends.

But with Wesley smiling knowingly, and her own suspicions and hopes so close to the surface, this close to the Venareth -- well, it was hard to deny.

During their four and a half years in Los Angeles, her relationship with Angel had traveled down a hundred different paths, almost all of them unexpected. They'd been friends. They'd been enemies. They'd gone months without speaking, either out of anger or, sometimes, simply from being caught up in other quests, other people. Sometimes she'd been so crushed out on him that she got swoony just smelling his leather coat, and he'd been oblivious. Other times, he'd been following her around, obviously adoring, and she'd felt nothing but awkwardness and a hope that he'd get over it, and soon.

The last few months, though, the admiration was undeniably mutual. And with his shanshu fast approaching, for the first time, Cordelia felt like they might be able to do something about it. Maybe Angel felt the same way. After all, he came to her house most evenings, when she didn't hang out at the Hyperion; they didn't do anything special, really, just rented movies or listened to music or talked about anything in the world. Then again, maybe for Angel, that was special -- just being able to be a guy, with a girl. They made up all kinds of stupid excuses to drop by and see each other, found different ways of touching each other that didn't actually constitute making a move. (She'd rest her feet in his lap as they watched television, or sometimes her head. He'd always guide her through doorways, letting his hand linger on her shoulder or her back.) But they'd never actually discussed the future, at least not their future -- at least, she thought, not directly --

A week ago, she'd dragged him to the mall for some Christmas shopping. They'd had a great evening, ducking in and out of shops, watching children visiting Santa, taking each other's hands to draw each other into displays that looked interesting. Cordelia had enjoyed herself thoroughly; as far as she was concerned, flirting plus shopping equaled a good night.

Finally, they'd gone into a furniture store; Gunn was still using folding chairs around his kitchen table, a state of affairs Cordelia intended to rectify one chair at a time. And that was when she'd seen it -- a grandfather clock. Not just any grandfather clock, either -- one with wood darker than dark, with silvery, filigreed hands, with numbers in the same curliecued font she remembered from childhood.

"Angel, this is it. The grandfather clock that used to be in the hall outside my bedroom when I was little. I mean, this is IT. Or so close I can't even tell the difference."

"It's beautiful." Hand on her shoulder. "You want it, don't you?"

"Oh, yeah," she had breathed. She'd fallen asleep to the clock's ticking every night of her childhood, until the IRS hauled it off like so much junk. It was only one of the many things she'd lost, back then, and probably one of the least -- but it was amazing how much she'd missed that comforting sound as she lay in bed at night. How she still missed it, sometimes. Cordelia had picked up the price tag and frowned. "It's a lot."

Angel had looked at it too, then said, "Yeah, it is. But --"

"What?"

"Cordy -- I couldn't buy the whole clock for you for Christmas, but maybe we could, you know, split it."

"You mean, buy it together?"

"Why not?"

Cordelia couldn't immediately think of a reason why not, except that men and women who bought furniture together were usually, well, married. And bringing that up hadn't seemed at all the thing to do. And besides -- "Angel, I'd love it."

He had smiled at her as he gestured to the salesman. "You know, we could put it against the wall near the kitchen. You think Dennis would mind?"

And that was the moment that sealed it for her -- because she had realized, in that instant, that Angel wasn't just trying to decorate her house. He was imagining living there.

With her.

Of course, it was kinda nervy to start planning such a thing without even asking her, not to mention without giving her some serious smooching action, but Cordelia had found she didn't care at all. "It's gonna look great," she'd said, leaning against him.

"Coming back from dreamland anytime soon?" Wesley said.

Cordelia realized she'd completely fugued out in front of Wesley. And realized something else -- "Oh, God, Wes, I'm sorry. I just remembered something."

Wesley cocked his eyebrow, but she ignored him and leaned out of the office door. "Angel! They're delivering the clock in, like, 30 minutes!" As Angel set aside the impossible tangle of lights, she looked back at Wesley. "If you tease me, I'm totally going out there and telling Fred you bought her a Crockpot."

"Don't you dare." Wesley hugged her again. "Have fun feathering the nest."

**

They put the clock against the wall near the kitchen, brought up the weights to wind it up, set the pendulum in motion. Cordelia even ran into her bedroom to see if she could hear the ticking from her bed, and she could. Dennis either approved or had no opinion; he was unusually quiet that evening, doing no more than lighting some cinnamon-scented candles, perhaps to celebrate the season in his own way. For their part, she and Angel alternately wrapped presents and discussed Venareth plans.

"I just think Faith and I are not the ideal team," Cordelia said. "I mean, don't get me wrong, she's backup with bite. But I'm convinced we're gonna kill each other on the drive back from the canyon."

"You two have been left alone before," Angel said, but he looked worried.

Cordelia shrugged; compared to everything else that was going on, the annoyance of a long car trip with Faith was minor. "Okay, but if only one of us comes back alive, you have only yourselves to blame." She carefully measured out the ribbon to go around the books she'd bought for Wesley, than asked, hoping she sounded casual, "You guys all set up in Sunnydale?"

Angel didn't react. "We're going to meet up at the Magic Box, make our move to the Hellmouth during the eclipse. Buffy and Xander and I went through it pretty thoroughly last month."

Buffy and Xander. Now, that was a pair Cordelia was still having trouble wrapping her mind around. But they'd hooked up about eight months before; when Angel had found out about it, instead of being crushed (that Riley guy) or aghast (Spike, for God's sake), he'd been perfectly calm. Though there was still no love lost between Angel and Xander, Cordelia knew Angel respected Xander's courage, his loyalty to Buffy. And now, apparently, Xander's love for her.

Cordelia knew, without asking, that Angel would not go to Buffy after his shanshu. But she didn't know if that was because he honestly didn't want to anymore -- or if it was just because he wouldn't interfere with her relationship with Xander.

As the clock tick-tocked comfortingly nearby, Cordelia asked herself: Does it matter? If he's coming home to me, what does it matter, what would have happened if only?

It did matter, of course, and she was dying to ask Angel about it. But, Cordelia figured, maybe she should wait to ask where she stood, vis-a-vis Angel's eternal love for Buffy, until after they'd actually been on a date or something.

Still, though, it was making her crazy, not knowing --

Angel was staring at Gunn's new chair and shaking his head. "There's really not any way to wrap a chair and not give away the surprise."

"No, guess not," Cordelia said. "Angel?"

"Yeah?"

"--- are you excited about being human?"

"Of course." Angel looked at her curiously. "We've talked about this."

"Not really. I mean, we have -- but mostly we joked about it. You know, plaid shirts, hamburgers, Venice Beach, ha ha. But I mean really. Down deep. What are you thinking about?"

Angel was quiet for a few moments, considering. Finally he said, slowly, "Starting over. Living life like a normal man, with a job and a home and -- and a family, and no vampires or ghouls or demons to deal with. Knowing what it's like just to live in this world. And not taking it for granted this time."

Cordelia nodded. Well, that was thoughtful and heartfelt and totally not specific enough, dammit. She started measuring out the paper to fit around the new running shoes for Faith. "Angel?"

"Mmm-hmm?"

"-- when you say starting over, what does that mean to you?"

Angel finished tying the ribbon around Gunn's chair -- not particularly well, either, but dainty bows weren't exactly his specialty. "Not letting my life be run by the past. I mean, I don't want to forget it -- any of it, even the worst. But I figure the Powers mean for this to be a gift. Not just, you know, a shorter time for me to brood."

Cordelia managed to smile and nod; really, she should have asked some of these questions when she was in a state of mind to hear the answers. "That's great," she said, knowing it was a little lame. But Angel didn't seem to mind. He just smiled and handed her the scotch tape.

Oh, yeah, she thought, and taped the edges of the paper around the shoebox. As she looked for a name tag, she said, "Angel?"

"Yeah, Cordy?"

Then, just because she couldn't think of anything else to ask, "--- why don't you kiss me?"

She'd said it. She actually said it aloud, put it out there, where he could look horrified or laugh or deny it all. The spell was broken, and from here on out, she was gonna have to stop dreaming and deal with reality --

-- whatever reality was --

Cordelia managed to look up and meet Angel's eyes. He was staring at her, surprised, but not shocked. He seemed to be thinking his answer over very carefully. Her heart was pounding wildly in her chest, but she forced herself to take a deep breath.

Finally, Angel said, "Because I don't want to start until I know I don't have to stop."

"Ohh," Cordelia said, sighing softly. Her entire body seemed to be melting, in the best possible way, and Angel was smiling at her a little. "Good answer."

Angel took the shoebox from her, then clasped one of her hands in his. His hands were so large and strong and cool; she twined her fingers with his, and for a long moment they both just stared down at their hands, touching for what seemed like the very first time.

"I didn't want to say anything," Cordelia whispered. "It was like I'd jinx it, you know? If I admitted it was really happening."

"I know. It was the same for me." She thought she'd seen every expression Angel had, but nothing like the way he was looking at her now -- desire and happiness and hard-fought restraint. But they didn't have to restrain themselves, not any longer, and surely any moment now they were going to be caught up in the most amazing kiss of all time --

Only they weren't. Instead, Angel looked away and shook his head. "Cordelia, we can't. I mean -- it's two days to Venareth. This would be a bad time for Angelus to go free, don't you think?"

His light tone didn't fool her; she could hear in his voice all the impatience, all the desire, that was beating throughout her body. She wanted to protest that stopping after a kiss would be safe, but then she tried to imagine stopping after that kiss. She couldn't. "Okay, good point. Thank God this shanshu is gonna be here soon, before I spontaneously combust or something."

Angel laughed, and she smiled, and all the tension and eagerness settled just the tiniest bit -- like champagne that had stopped foaming over, but still fizzled and bubbled in the glass. "We can wait two more days," he said. "Tonight can just be -- tonight."

They sank back into the sofa, curled around each other, still holding hands as though they'd been bound together, and began talking the happy, disjointed, understandable-only-by-two language of new lovers -- confessing moments of attraction, describing physical beauty, making jokes. Their conversation followed no logic, no pattern, and Cordelia didn't need for it to; it was enough that they were there, together at last. Sometimes -- when Angel smiled a slow, lazy smile at her, or when he traced along her hairline with one fingertip -- it felt more like afterglow than anticipation.

When the clock struck eleven, they were laughing.

"Nobody's ever known me like you do," Cordelia said. "That is, and known me and still liked me. Which is the miracle part."

Angel smiled and pulled her hand to his chest. "I could say the same," he said. "Sometimes I feel like you're the only who's ever seen me just for myself. Not a vampire or a warrior or a villain or a hero or anything like that. Just the man. I used to think there wasn't anything in that man worth caring about. But if you see that -- you see that, and you still want me -- well, I must have been wrong."

"Angel admitted he was wrong," Cordelia said, her lips quirking in a grin she couldn't quite suppress. "God, where is a tape recorder when you need one?"

"I've admitted I was wrong before," Angel insisted, his face so stern that Cordelia thought her teasing might have made him mad -- until he held up three fingers. "At least three times."

When the clock struck twelve, they were planning.

"Cordy, if this is what you were asking -- when I think about starting over, I think about starting over with you. I mean, really starting a life together. If that's what you'd want."

"Oh, yeah," she said, breathing out softly. "I want."

"I realize we're starting something new here, but - well, we'd talked about selling the hotel before --"

"Yes, you can move in," Cordelia said. "Just try to leave, once you get here."

"We could get a nice price. I mean, technically, you could --" To better disguise Angel's lack of legal identity, Cordelia had legally assumed ownership of the Hyperion a year before. "-- and that would make a nice nest egg. For the future."

Cordelia remembered a baby boy who had not lived very long, remembered how long it had taken for the dull pain to leave Angel's eyes. She'd thought, back then, that he would never have the will to have children ever again, shanshu or not. But looking at him now, she knew what "future" truly meant. "You really mean it. You're ready to live your whole life, right now."

Angel nodded. "I don't want to rush you --"

"We met, what, seven years ago? If this is your definition of rushing me, thank God you didn't take your time."

"I'll take my time," Angel said slowly, and Cordelia was suddenly quite sure that he had switched subjects slightly. She felt herself flush with warmth again, caressed his hand.

When the clock struck one, they were confessing.

"I don't know what I'd be without you in my life," Cordelia said softly. "Everything that's happened to me these last few years -- none of it could have happened without you."

Angel couldn't meet her eyes for a moment. "That includes a lot of terrible things."

"But more good," she insisted. "And I wouldn't trade any of the bad if it meant missing the good. Especially if it meant missing you. I wouldn't change anything."

He ran his hand through her hair. "I'm so glad that I have you. That I love you."

He said it. He said the word, the L-word. The Buffy-only word, except it wasn't Buffy-only anymore, was it? He loved her, he really loved her, and this was all really happening -- "I love you, too," she whispered at last.

For one second, she was sure their resolve not to kiss one another would break; Angel grasped her hand so tightly it almost hurt, and they each leaned forward, and she knew he could feel her breath on his skin. Then he said, "Cordelia -- we could --"

"No," she whispered, pulling him down into the sofa cushions to snuggle by her side. "No, we'll wait. I kind of like the waiting."

They stayed like that for a long time, not looking at each other but at their hands as they touched -- brushing fingertips against wrists, placing their hands palm to palm, massaging the fingers and the deep muscles of the thumb. His skin warmed slightly from her touch, and she realized that this is how he would feel in a couple of days, when they could touch each other without fear of a curse, without any need for stopping.

Finally, Angel said quietly, "I should go."

"I know it," Cordelia said with a sigh. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."

Without letting go of her hand, Angel rose from the sofa, pulling her with him. Together they went to the door, none too quickly. Cordelia wished idly that she could somehow take this night and store it up, stay in it forever. But that would put off the future forever, and Cordelia was more eager than ever for that future to get here.

As Dennis slowly swung the door open, Angel said, "I guess we won't be alone again until after the Venareth."

"When we all meet up at the hotel for the merriest Christmas Eve ever," Cordelia said. She smiled up at him; in the soft light of the candles, with his eyes bright with happiness and desire, Angel looked more boyish than any 240-year-old vampire should have the right to. "We'll unwrap our presents, and we'll congratulate each other on ridding the world from evil, and we'll do more hugging than any fully-grown people should do. And then you and I will come back here and -- and we'll spend Christmas together. Just the two of us."

"That would be wonderful." Angel lifted her hand to his mouth and slowly kissed each fingertip in turn. And just the feeling of his lips on her skin -- Oh, Cordelia thought, when we get into bed, God help me. Finally, reluctantly, he let her hand drop. "Good night, Cordy," he whispered.

"Good night, Angel." He backed away from her into the night, still smiling as she closed the door.

Cordelia sank against the door and slid down until she was sitting on the floor. "Did you hear that, Dennis? You're gonna have another roommate. Good with that?

Dennis floated the bag of Christmas bows over her, then shook them out so they fell like so much confetti -- then swooped and spun through the air, metallic stars in her own private sky. Cordelia laughed as she got to her feet. "You sure know how to celebrate."

The clock struck two, and Cordelia thought chimes had never sounded so beautiful. She looked at the silvery filigreed hands, and she imagined that the clock was just counting down the hours and minutes and seconds until Angel would come back, human and happy and ready to be her lover, her love, forever. She laughed from pure joy and flung her hands out; to her surprise, Dennis "took" them and spun her around in gentle circles.

Not caring how bad her voice was, Cordy started singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as she and Dennis danced amid the twirling ribbons in the candlelight. And though she'd lived in her apartment for more than four years, never before had it felt so much like home.

**

The Venareth

Cordelia screamed and swerved as a pillar of fire collapsed in front of the car. "Faith!" she cried, trying to look in the backseat and keep her eyes on the road at the same time. "Faith, can you still hear me? Can you talk? Faith!"

No response, damn, damn, damn.

In the canyon, the place Cordelia had expected to stand in the eclipse and be delivered from her Visions, they had instead been set upon by too many demons to resist. Cordelia had managed to get back to the car without getting wounded -- because Faith had fought them for her, had taken a blow meant for her that drove claws deep into Faith's gut. She'd been able to swear vehemently when they got into the car, had been able to answer Cordelia until only a few minutes ago. But now she was quiet, except for her ragged breathing.

A Cuzfau beast leaped in front of the car, and Cordelia screamed and swerved yet again. All around her, the world was going mad. Large sections of the city seemed to be ablaze. People were rioting, shrieking, running madly from this creature or that. And, in denial of all the laws of astrophysics, the eclipse hadn't yet ended -- in the hours of darkness, vampires were seizing their chance, running through the streets.

There were too many to even think of fighting them herself. She had to get to safety, had to take care of Faith -- Wesley had worked up a healing potion just in case, she just needed a safe place for the ritual --

As it turned out, the roads leading to her apartment complex were relatively clear. Cordelia slammed the pedal down -- odds were the cops weren't spending a lot of time on speeders today.

What happened? she thought through the haze of panic. This isn't the prophecy. What happened?

Finally, she screeched to a halt in the parking lot, got out, pulled open the passenger-side door -- and gasped. Faith was lying in a pool of her own blood, far too much blood for anyone to lose and live.

Faith opened her eyes and looked up at Cordy. So faintly that Cordelia could barely hear, she rasped out, "Gunn?"

"He's not here," Cordelia said, kneeling by Faith's head. "I know he's coming --"

Faith didn't seem to hear her. "Tell Angel -- " She gasped in one more breath, then whispered, "-- tell Angel -- thank you --"

Faith's head lolled to one side; her eyes dimmed. And Cordelia began to sob, knowing that she'd just watched Faith die.

She managed to pick up Faith's body -- a limp, dead body was so heavy -- and bring her to the door. Dennis didn't open it, but she managed to get it herself. "Dennis," she gasped as she staggered in the door. "Help me --"

No response. Cordelia laid Faith on the sofa, looked stupidly at her answering machine to see if anybody had left a message that might explain this. Nobody had. She grabbed up the phone and clicked "talk" -- but there was no dial tone. She'd already discovered, in the car, that her cell phone was useless too.

And without any word, any friend, any idea of what was going on, Cordelia just shut and locked the door.

"Very wise." Cordelia jumped and spun around; in the center of the room stood a man, perhaps in his late fifties, smiling at her in a maddeningly paternal manner. "Think of your safety first, Miss Chase. In the long run, it pays off."

"Who the hell are you?" Cordelia went for the taser at her belt.

"No weapons are necessary," he said, walking toward her -- and through the sofa. "More to the point, they're not very useful against the dead."

"I know some vampires that would argue with you," she said desperately. "What have you done with Dennis?"

"Nothing at all," he said. "In case you hadn't noticed, Miss Chase, a lot of exceptional events are occurring today -- including the Escape of the Spirits. Dennis has finally, as we say in the business, Gone Into The Light. Believe me, he's better off there than sticking around here. Because things around here are changing rather dramatically for the worse. And that much I suspect you did notice."

"How come you didn't escape? Because I definitely think you need to be moving on to the other side." Cordelia's hand was clamped around her taser so tightly her bones hurt.

"I'm held here, Miss Chase, by contract. I still have some work to do for my employers, Wolfram and Hart. My name is Holland Manners; Angel might have mentioned me. Then again, he might not have." The ghost's -- Holland's -- eyes glittered at her strangely in the gloom. "And my final task today brings me to you."

"Wolfram and Hart," she whispered. "Of course. Of course. They messed it up -- what did they do? How did they stop the Venareth?"

"Miss Chase, this is the Venareth." As she stared at him, disbelieving, he smiled at her. "People can be so gullible, sometimes. So quick to believe what they want to believe. Think about the prophecy for a moment. The forces of good DID become too strong to be denied. Too strong for the balance between good and evil to stand. So the balance -- has been reset."

"But -- but -- the shadow battle is over --" Cordelia parroted, unwilling to believe what Holland was saying.

"Oh, yes, that's very true," Holland said, nodding. "The forces of good will be doing more fighting than ever, I expect. But from now on, the battle's going to be far too large to be fought only in the shadows."

"You mean -- we fought all these years -- we did what the Powers wanted, and we worked, and we suffered, and some of us died -- and the whole city is being punished because of it?"

"More to the point, because you were so good at it." Holland cocked his head as he looked at her. "You upset the balance. You, and your friends, and our mutual acquaintance Angel. The whole city has you to thank. Actually, the whole world. I don't guess any of the major networks are capable of broadcasting right now, but as you'll soon discover, the Venareth didn't just happen to Southern California."

"This can't be real," Cordelia said, putting a shaking hand to her temple. "This just can't be real."

Holland clucked his tongue. "I hope you're not a betting woman."

Someone knocked on the door, and Cordelia jumped. Angel! her mind said, and she ran to the door -- but even as she put her hand on the knob, she realized, today of all days, she'd better check. "Who is it?"

"It's Sonny and Cher! Who else would you expect?" Lorne's voice came through the door. "Let me in now before this Hrunta demon notices me, will you?"

Cordelia quickly fumbled with the lock, let Lorne slide in. He looked at Faith and closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and saw the ghost. "Oh, you must be Dennis --"

"Not quite," Holland said. "Why don't you two finish up your business?"

"Do you know what's happening?" Cordelia said, clutching at Lorne's suit jacket.

He shook his head. "The world went crazy. I think any more details are going to be largely beside the point. But I do have this." Lorne held up a folded square of white paper. "Someone from Sunnydale dropped it off -- Oz, was that the name? Quiet type."

Cordelia saw her name on the note, recognized Angel's handwriting. "Gimme." She unfolded it and read:

"Cordelia --

I'm alive. Nothing else is like we thought.

Xander is dead. Buffy's hurt, and she's hurting, and she needs me here.

Be careful.

Angel"

And that was it.

No "I'm sorry," no "I really did care about you," no "I need some time to think about this." Xander was dead, and Buffy needed Angel, and Angel wasn't coming back, and tomorrow would be Christmas Day.

Cordelia's eyes blurred with tears as she crumpled the note in her fists. Lorne and Holland were each staring at her -- Lorne in sympathy, Holland with a nauseating satisfaction.

She'd dared to hope, dared to fight, dared to become so much more than she had ever been before. And she'd been wrong about her cause, wrong about her love. Could everything she'd struggled to build these past four and a half years have been a lie?

Cordelia thrust the note back at Lorne, who discreetly set about reading it. She turned back to Holland. "I want you out," she choked. "I don't want to have anything to do with Wolfram and Hart ever again."

"We're almost there," Holland said. "If you'll excuse us, sir?"

Lorne turned toward the door; from the parking lot came the sound of a roar and a crash. He looked back at Cordelia, who waved him into her bedroom before turning back to Holland. "What?"

"Surely you haven't forgotten the full prophecy so soon? We still have to settle the matter of your Visions. You can keep them as they are -- painful and difficult and, eventually, fatal -- or you can experience them without any pain or harm whatsoever. The only price is that you make these Visions available to all -- good and bad alike. Balance, Miss Chase. That's what the Venareth's all about."

One day before, she would have sworn at him. Found the ingredients for an exorcism (she kept them handy), performed the spell, kicked his undead ass out of there. Told Wolfram and Hart what they could do with their balances.

But now that she knew what the Powers really were -- what a terrible, ghastly trick they'd played on her and on everyone -- what was the point of suffering for them?

She remembered the time the Visions had actually burned her, seared the skin from her body, and she had despaired of living to see the winter. She remembered Angel grabbing her up in his arms as they fled Russell Winters' mansion, the way his body shook when he took the bullets meant for her. She remembered Xander Harris giving her a heart-shaped pendant and looking up at her with all the hope a 17-year-old's eyes could hold.

Something inside Cordelia seemed to harden over, go cold. She looked down at the sofa where she and Angel had held hands and talked about the future, saw Faith's corpse dark with blood.

"Do it," she'd said.

Holland Manners snapped his fingers, and in his other hand appeared a jewel that glittered and caught the light. "I'll leave you with this in just a moment," he said. "We just have a few rules to go over first --"

**

Inside the Hyperion, Cordelia forced herself to take yet another swallow of champagne. She stared at the Eye for a moment. What a lie, she thought. I live in a world made of lies.

What else is new?

As she tried to push herself to her feet, the door swung open. "We're closed," she slurred.

"Cordelia."

Startled, she peered into the gloom -- Angel was walking toward her, rumpled, as though he'd left Buffy's bed to sneak out to see her. The thought of that -- Angel in Buffy's bed -- turned her stomach, and she sneered, "What's the matter? Nice 'n' Easy won't let you off your leash to talk to me, so you have to slip out while she's sleeping?"

Angel stared at her. "Cordelia -- we have to talk. I'm not angry anymore. I just want to understand why."

"Why? Good question, that one. Why." Cordelia saw him taking in her drunkenness, tried to toss her head as if she didn't care. The room spun unpleasantly. "Why does a man say he loves you when you're really only second-best? When he's only interested in the one that got away?"

"That's not true," Angel said. "You know that's not true --"

"I don't know anything except money in the safe, champagne in the cellar and a place where people will leave me the hell alone. Speaking of which, why don't you leave me the hell alone? Go off to your big hopeless quest, sacrifice yourself like the fool you are. You talked a nice game about wanting a normal life, about wanting somebody to see you for who you really are. But let's face it. In your heart of hearts, you're glad about all this, aren't you? Because you're finally invisible again. You've finally got a fight so big it can swallow you right up."

Angel's face went blank, then iced over in the chill she remembered so well -- better, sometimes, than his smile. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry? Sorry for what?" she laughed. But something in her wanted to hear the answer.

"I'm sorry for the woman you've become."

Cordelia drew her head back as though she'd been struck. The room spun again, and she whispered, "Well, I'm sorry for the man you never got to be."

And that hurt him -- she could see the flash of pain in his eyes. She'd been hoping to hurt him. It was less satisfying than she would have thought..

Quietly, Angel said, "Good night, Cordelia."

She was able to hold back the tears until after he'd slammed the door shut behind him.

Continue on to part five...

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