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AS TIME GOES BY (part five)

"She's got it," Lindsey said, watching Lilah's reaction carefully.

Lilah laughed and shook her head, as though she could barely be bothered to respond to such a comment. "She hasn't got it. If she had it, she'd have gotten rid of it as fast as she could."

"That's what I'm wondering," Lindsey said. "Would Cordelia get rid of the Deburchan dagger right away? Give it to Buffy and Angel, to help them?"

"Doubt it," Lilah said. "You missed Angel and Cordy's big reunion last night."

Lindsey raised an eyebrow. "Not friendly."

"I had the icy-cold sensation of biting into a York peppermint patty," Lilah said dryly.

"Still, those two -- they had their fallings-out before. Never stopped her from joining the fight," Lindsey said.

"First off, I think four years of total bitter silence constitutes more than a falling-out," Lilah said. "Second, what do you even care? If Cordelia gave them the dagger, it wouldn't do them any good. Remember the big de-enchantment ritual?"

"Of course. But we need Buffy and Angel to be desperate for a bit. We need to find out just what they'll do. Just who they'll go to. If they get the dagger, they run to Sunnydale, try their big routine, and fail. Which has a certain ring to it, but doesn't tell us nearly as much." Lindsey sipped his black coffee for a moment before continuing, as casually as he could, "Then again, I guess if Cordelia had been warned about the dagger, she wouldn't bother giving it to them."

Lilah's back stiffened -- almost imperceptibly. But Lindsey hadn't survived several years at Wolfram and Hart without learning to read such signs.

Lilah had warned Cordelia. Interesting. Might make a difference in how he dealt with Lilah, in the near future.

Before she had time to recover, Lindsey followed it up, "Unless, of course, she really wanted to help them. In that case, she could give them the Eye."

"The Eye?" Lilah was looking at him in honest amazement and contempt now. "Cordelia give up the Eye? It'd be a cold day in hell."

"I hear the weather down there is more unpredictable than you'd expect," Lindsey said.

"Listen, hang around here a little longer and you'll see -- there is no way Cordelia would put herself on the line like that. If she gives up the Eye, she's giving up the visions. And the Powers -- well, nobody knows what they'd do, but everybody knows they wouldn't like it. At all. Cordelia would never risk that. And to help Angel run off with another woman? Not a chance."

We shall see, Lindsey thought.

**

The day was unexpectedly bright and sunny, like Southern California used to be more often, Fred thought. Taking advantage of the good weather -- and the lack of vampires -- even more people thronged the streets than usual.

She'd hoped the sunshine might do Wesley some good, but the difficulty of their trip -- fighting through crowds, the unaccustomed heat -- seemed to be tiring him all the more. Still, he was determined, and she couldn't blame him.

By the time they'd reached Wolfram and Hart's offices, Wesley's steps were halting, but he was able to speak to the guard in a firm voice. "Gavin Park, please."

"Mr. Park sees clients by appointment only --"

Fred reached in her purse and pulled out a bill that would have fed her and Wesley -- and better than they usually ate -- for weeks. "We're not clients," she said. "We're friends of Mr. Park's." That was probably true, she figured, given that Gavin Park probably had no friends in any sense of the word that didn't involve bribery.

The guard ushered them into a small side room, the sort of place where clients would usually be searched and questioned. The walls were gray, there were no windows, and one sign read, "Breathe deeply and calmly." Fred motioned Wesley toward the one chair, and it was a measure of his exhaustion that he didn't argue before taking it.

He's getting worse, she thought. The weaker he gets, the faster that thing can suck the life out of him. It won't be long before --

She realized some of her fear had to be showing one her face, because Wesley was looking at her, clearly concerned. "I'm antsy," she said, drumming her fingers against her arms as she hugged herself. "Wolfram and Hart makes me antsy."

"Can't say I blame you," Wesley replied.

Gavin Park came in the door, his expression proclaiming the combined pompousness and desperation of a lower-level worker at the firm. "Well, what's this?" Park said. "Hadn't ever expected to see you again after the Solonach ceremony --"

"Spare us the stroll down memory lane," Wesley said, a little too quickly. "We're here to ask about an old associate of mine. Charles Gunn."

"Charles Gunn. Didn't think you two were such close friends anymore."

"We're not," Wesley said. "But we were once. And that's enough for me to find out what's become of him. And -- and to get him out, if possible."

Fred's eyes went wide. She and Wesley had little money and less influence; the only thing Wesley could have to trade was information. And Wesley had given up his life rather than give up information --

She remembered a long-ago Christmas season when Gunn was juggling Christmas ornaments, and put a comforting hand on Wesley's shoulder.

"It's your lucky day," Park grinned. "As it happens, I don't have much use for hanging on to Charles Gunn. And I have a lot of use for something you might know." He leaned forward, and all his pride was gone as he asked, in a desperate whisper, "Where is the Deburchan dagger?"

Wesley stared, and Fred was sure her face looked the same. Of all the things he might have asked, this was the least painful for them to reveal. But --

"We're not certain," Wesley said. "I can only tell you my suspicion." When Park nodded, he said, "I think he must have given it to Cordelia Chase. He would only have taken it to someone he knew very well, and he didn't bring it to us. I know of nobody else to whom he was so close. Had been so close, I mean."

Park pursed his lips, considering that. "Reasonable assumption. It's not information, exactly, but I think it'll do."

"Really?" Fred said. She knew she should feel happy and relieved, but she didn't. "You mean it? You're saying we can take Charles and go?"

Gavin Park smiled. "That's what I'm saying."

**

The intercom buzzed. "Your 11 a.m. is here."

"Send them in," Lilah said. Lindsey took his seat beside her, at one end of the conference table.

Buffy and Angel came in, looking for all the world like the firm's clients used to in the old days -- nicely dressed, well-coiffed, quiet and intent. The deep, glowing hatred that used to radiate from Angel like waves of heat had either ebbed or become far better concealed; he looked at Lindsey with only the faintest disdain.

"Good morning, you two," Lilah chirped. "Want some coffee? Blood? Oh, wait, that's right -- you're off the liquid diet now." Angel frowned.

"Cut the chit-chat," Buffy said, sitting down at the other end of the conference table as Angel did the same. "I know this district's rules. And you know I haven't broken any of them."

"So far," Lilah said under her breath.

"So what is it you want to know?" Buffy said, as if she hadn't heard.

"Just wanted to talk with you, really," Lindsey said, leaning back in his chair. "You hear a lot about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just about the longest-lived Slayer in history, at this point, I think. Certainly the most effective. You've been up against some heavy batters in your day. The Master. Glorificus. Your significant other's even more significant evil half. And you struck them all out. Like I said last night -- it's impressive."

"If you just wanted an autograph, I would've been happy to sign your cocktail napkin last night."

"Your abilities are extraordinary," Lindsey said. "Even the Underlords admit that. And they wish they had such abilities on their side."

Buffy screwed her mouth up in a poorly stifled grin. "Are you actually deluded enough to ask me to work for them?"

"Not quite that deluded yet, no." Lindsey looked at her for a long moment, then at Angel, before he spoke again. "Slayers work hard. And they die young. Even at age -- what is now, 26? -- you're young to die. And tired of fighting, I imagine. Very, very tired."

Unconsciously, Angel moved a little closer to Buffy. Aha, Lindsey thought, this is where he's weak. Buffy was a little less glib as she said, "That's kind of the deal of being a Slayer. No vacations, no retirement. I know the drill."

"Retirement. Interesting word. What if I told you that the Underlords sent me here to offer you just that?" She didn't immediately react, so Lindsey plowed on. "They have means of transferring your abilities into someone else -- a candidate of our choosing, naturally. The line of Slayers since Faith has still been Watcher-trained, by and large; we'll break that cycle in another couple of years, but in the meantime, it would be nice to have a Slayer on the payroll. You, meanwhile -- you'd be free. A human woman like any other -- and don't knock the transformation. I'm sure Angel there could tell you it's nice. We'll send you both to Australia, put together enough money for you to live reasonably well. It's safe there, you know. You could rest. Live easy. Have children, maybe. Enjoy all the things you can't enjoy here. Lead a normal life."

Buffy and Angel were each quiet for a few moments, and Lindsey had difficulty not letting his surprise show. Surely it wasn't going to be this easy --

Finally, Buffy leaned forward slightly and said, "I'd need more."

His voice almost a whisper, Lindsey said, "What's that?"

"A gold watch. And a farewell luncheon. And, ooh, one of those little engraved plaques." She grinned, and Angel breathed out slowly.

"I see sarcasm is your specialty," Lindsey said. "Never mind. Didn't seriously expect you to take us up on the offer -- but I figured you deserved to hear it."

"You picked the wrong carrot to tie to the stick," Buffy said. "Babies and puppies and white picket fences? Get real. We gave up even wanting a normal life a long time ago."

"Is that so, Angel?" Lindsey said, turning his attention at last to the real subject of his interest.

After a pause so short it was almost unnoticeable, Angel said, "That's right."

I almost believe him, Lindsey thought. "Then I guess our business here is done," he said.

"Not quite," Angel said. "Last night, you arrested Charles Gunn. Can we see him? Talk to him?"

"Looking in on old friends?" Lilah purred. "That's touching. But I'm afraid you're a little late. Charles Gunn was released from custody about an hour ago -- that is, his body was released to some friends."

"His body," Angel said. "Gunn's dead."

"You know Hrunta demons," Lilah said with a shrug. "Overzealous. And sometimes, human life is cheap." She smiled softly up at Angel. "You used to know that."

**

Once the brutal hangover had dwindled into a dull ache, Cordelia pulled herself together to face the day. She made it a point not to let anything on the inside affect her polish on the outside, and so made up her face with eyeliner and dark lipstick, picked out a black cotton sundress and brushed out her hair so that it fell free. She rarely wore it that way anymore. After a moment's reflection, she put her necklace in a strongbox and decided not to take it out until the evening.

As she came downstairs to see the trolls busily straightening up for the new day, Cordelia heard the clock chime once, marking that it was quarter 'til 12. She remembered last night with fresh pain -- and a different clarity.

"I'm not angry anymore." Last night that had only seemed rich -- how dare Angel, how dare he claim to be angry? He was the one who abandoned her, after all.

But now she realized -- it really didn't make any sense. And Angel, King of Guilt, was unlikely to admit being mad at anybody if he thought he owed them something.

There's something to this I'm not getting, she thought. Something more.

Back in those first terrible days after the Venareth, she'd come up with a hundred explanations, a hundred excuses. Since then, she'd rejected them all as a stupid girl's wishful thinking -- but they floated up to the surface now, demanding reconsideration. Could the note have been a forgery? Lorne had never met Oz, after all; somebody else could have shown up, pretended to be him. Or could Angel have thought better of it when the panic cleared, tried to contact her, been unable to find her? She'd moved out of her apartment pretty quickly afterward; without Dennis, there was no reason to stay.

She'd brought her things -- and the clock, which she now hated but couldn't quite give up -- to the Hyperion. Lorne had needed a place of business, and she had needed a way to make money, so setting up shop here had worked out. Wesley and Fred had still wanted to fight the bad guys; apparently they'd somehow failed to catch on to the fact that the Powers they'd served had just screwed them all over. Gunn got the point, though; from the moment when Cordelia had told him about Faith's death, the way she'd been asking for him even as she bled her last, he hadn't wanted any more to do with the Powers, the good fight, or anything besides his own safety. He'd taken off about the same time Cordelia had finally gotten Wesley and Fred to stop coming around, bothering her. So it had just been her and Lorne --

Well, that killed the "couldn't find her" theory. If he had seriously been looking for her, he certainly would've known to look in the Hyperion, she told herself as she headed out into the all-too-bright sunshine.

But something was definitely not the way she had thought it was. And Cordelia intended to find out what.

She flagged a taxi to Wolfram and Hart, trying all the while to think of exactly the right excuse to drop by Lilah's office. Maybe something about the damage the Guards caused while arresting Gunn --

When she breezed through the Wolfram and Hart lobby, one man suddenly wheeled around and came to her side. Cordelia saw, to her displeasure, that it was Gavin Park. "Miss Chase. Just the person I hoped to see."

"The feeling's so not mutual," Cordelia said. "What do you want?"

"Heading to Lilah's?" Park said, all consideration. "Come on. We'll take the elevator up together."

"I didn't think they allowed you on those floors anymore," Cordelia said, and had the pleasure of seeing the muscles in his jaw tighten.

As soon as the elevator doors slid shut, Park whispered, "You have the Deburchan dagger. Don't you?"

"Like I'd tell you," Cordelia said, too startled to deny it outright.

"I need to find it," Park said. "I have to be the one who finds it."

"Aren't you the eager beaver? You gonna search me?" Cordelia smirked at him, some calm restored. "Or is that just an excuse?"

He ignored her banter; when he leaned in close, she could see the real desperation in his eyes. "I'm on the way out here. Lilah's been grinding me down, year after year. And Wolfram and Hart -- they don't just fire people. You know that."

"You knew it when you signed up."

Park ignored that, too. "I'll give you a better deal than the firm ever would. No questions asked, no blame. I still have access to some magic, some money. I could get you out of here, you and anybody else you wanted. Give you all the money you'd ever want to take with you. We could grab it, go up to the roof, get you out of here before anybody could stop you."

"And you return the dagger to the firm, get to be the golden boy again?"

"Return it? Are you crazy? Any idea how much power a Deburchan dagger carries? I can do whatever magic I want, go wherever I want after that. That's better than getting in good at the firm again."

Poor bastard, Cordelia thought. So far out of the loop, he doesn't even know the dagger's useless now. "I have nobody to travel with," she shrugged. "And no desire to leave, really."

"There's something you want, Miss Chase," Park said with a snarl. "Let me know what it is. I don't have much power left but - - I might surprise you."

The elevator doors slid open, and Cordelia left Park behind without a second glance. But she could hear that he didn't get off with her -- sure enough, he wasn't allowed on these floors anymore.

She let herself into Lilah's office, saying, as casually as she could manage, "You've got to find goons that do a little less property damage."

"I'll take it under advisement." Cordelia, startled, looked up to see Lindsey staring out the window. He grinned. "Lilah's talking with some of the senior partners. Those seances can last hours. Coffee?"

Cordelia opened her mouth to say no, then felt some of the throbbing in her temples start over again. "Good idea. Make it black."

He handed her a steaming mug, leaned up against Lilah's desk as Cordelia sat on one of the chairs. "Here to talk about Angel and Buffy? See what they were up to?"

"Not hardly. I just want your Guards to pay for some of the damage they did to the Hyperion."

"Ah. I see. Well, you can take that up with Lilah later. I'm glad you stopped by, actually. I was hoping we'd get a chance to chat."

"Hoping we could fondly recall old times? Like that once you had Vocah send horrible visions until I nearly died?"

"I was thinking about the future. Your future. And the Eye."

"The Eye?" Cordelia was honestly surprised. "What about it?"

"As I understand it, the Powers gave it to you to channel your Visions. And you can't get rid of it without facing some serious consequences."

"And this interests you because --?"

"My clients -- the Underlords -- they'd be interested in having those Visions for themselves. And they're equipped to make sure you don't suffer any of the consequences. Not to mention to make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams, safe, et cetera."

Really, Cordelia thought, I am having one hell of a morning. But Lindsey's offer demanded to be taken a lot more seriously. "I thought the Venareth was all about balance."

"Sure it was, for the Powers. But for the Underlords, it's just one more chance to tilt the odds in their favor. The Eye would help with that." He was looking at her very strangely. "I told them I didn't think you'd sell. But you should think it over and let me know. And, by the way, don't mention it to Lilah. Ever."

**

Cordelia's mind was humming with possibilities when she walked out of Wolfram and Hart; almost on autopilot, she began going toward a bar she knew nearby. Hair of the dog, yadda yadda. And besides, she had a lot to think about.

Gavin Park's offer was barely worth considering -- she had no doubt he could come through, but in order to avoid the wrath of the Powers, she'd have to take her Visions with her, and that meant the normal life he offered was no life at all. Case closed.

Lindsey's offer, though -- that was more tempting. She knew that, deep down, she wanted to really be rid of the Visions -- of the last reminder of the mission she used to have, the life she used to lead.

But that would mean giving the Visions to the Underlords. Actually working for the other side. She had trouble imagining anything that could make that worthwhile --

As she turned the corner nearest the bar, she stopped short -- there, staring into a shop window, was Angel. Right there in the sunshine, light pouring down on him.

Of course, she told herself. He's human now. And she'd seen the sight before -- the Gem of Amarra, Pylea. But it was still surprising, which of course explained why her hands were trembling as she walked to his side. "Angel."

He turned around, surprised in his turn; apparently the vampire hearing had gone with everything else. He did not look happy to see her. "Cordelia."

Unable to think of what else to say, she looked at the window of the store with him. She didn't see what was inside; she couldn't take her eyes off Angel's reflection beside hers in the glass. "Didn't expect to see you out here."

"I don't guess you did." Angel said. After a pause, he continued, "Gunn's dead. Did you know that?"

Charles Gunn dead. And it was a bright, sunshiny day. "No," she whispered. "I didn't know."

"Your good friend Lilah's good friends at Wolfram and Hart killed him in custody."

"She's not my friend," Cordelia said. She looked at him, sucked up her courage and said, "Angel, about last night -- I'm sorry. I'd had too much to drink."

"Would you have heard me out if you'd been sober?" Angel shook his head. "Hearing people out was never one of your strong suits."

"I remember doing it a couple of times," Cordelia said. "Give me another chance, and I might surprise you."

Angel finally met her eyes then, but he still looked distant, a little sad. "I thought about it all morning, and I realized it's no use. What's the point of reopening old wounds?"

"Understanding," she said quietly. "Angel, whatever else we were or weren't, you and I were friends, once upon a time. I don't know what the rest meant, but if our friendship ever mattered to you -- then you'll come. And we'll talk."

"The woman who was my friend -- I wish I could talk to her again. I wish that more than you know," he said. He breathed in sharply, then continued, "But last night I realized she doesn't exist anymore."

Angel turned on his heel and walked into the bar. Cordelia needed a drink worse than ever, but she decided to have one at home.

**

Angel stepped into the bar, blinked as he got accustomed to the darkness. It still felt strange, to have to get used to darkness.

In a corner booth, Buffy and Anne were still talking. He'd gone outside to keep watch, but it seemed fairly obvious that they weren't being followed, at this point. And he couldn't bear to see Cordelia looking up at him again, questioning --

He slid into the seat beside Buffy; she looked up at him with a smile. "Good news, I think."

"You've found the dagger?"

"No," Anne said. "But we searched his apartment, did some asking around. Pretty much the only person he had the opportunity to give it to was Cordelia Chase."

"And the only other magical thing we can possibly use is that Eye she's got in the hotel lobby. If she won't give up one, I bet we can get the other. Who'da thunk it?" Buffy said with an uneven smile. "Cordelia, our savior."

Angel hesitated, then said, "Are you sure she'll help?"

"Aren't you?" Buffy looked amazed. "Angel, you guys obviously had some kind of falling out. But Cordy -- I mean, she could go off the scale on the Bitchometer, sometimes, but she always ended up doing the right thing in the end."

Anne looked doubtful. Angel wondered if he looked the same way.

Continue on to part six...

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