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AS TIME GOES BY (part six)

"And so, she's trying to kick at me, right? But Vic holds her down, and I push her head back, and she's got the longest neck you've ever seen, and I hadn't eaten in about three days -- "

The vamps came through the door, bragging about their hunt, the way they usually did. Cordelia had heard it every night ever since she re-opened the Hyperion for business. Tonight, though, it turned her stomach.

Maybe that was just the hangover. Had to be.

Would Angel be in tonight? Would he have Buffy with him, or would he want to talk to her alone? She'd dressed for the latter contingency -- a white halter dress with a neckline as low as the skirt's slit was high. Put her necklace around her neck. Even pinned a white gardenia behind one ear. Tonight she'd be beating the guys off with a stick (any of the quarterstaffs hanging on the walls would do), and Angel was bound to notice. Whatever else was going on, Cordelia wanted him to notice.

She saw Lilah and Lindsey sweep in through the front door; Lindsey took the best table for himself without checking to see if it was reserved, but Lilah came her way. Cordelia nodded toward the courtyard, and they both strolled outside.

"Lindsey said you came by to see me today," Lilah said. "Nothing major, I hope."

"Just some woodwork I'll have to replace." From the damage when you dragged Gunn off to die. "I'll bill the firm."

"Do that. I'll expense it." Lilah sat on one of the concrete benches in the courtyard; this early in the evening, they had the space to themselves. "What did you want to talk about?"

"Lindsey. How trustworthy is he these days?"

Lilah laughed. "As trustworthy as he ever was. That is to say, not much."

"As opposed to you," Cordelia said dryly.

"I'm completely mercenary," Lilah said. "Which makes me the most trustworthy person of all, these days. You can absolutely rely on me to do whatever it takes to cover my own ass. Lindsey -- who knows what's driving Lindsey, these days?"

"The desire for money and unfathomable power?" Cordelia said.

"Hmmm. Good guess."

"What about me, Lilah? Do you think you could absolutely rely on me?"

Lilah looked up at her. "I guess I trust you about as much as I trust anyone."

"That is to say, not much." Cordelia smiled when she said it, and Lilah returned the smile.

**

As Angel and Buffy walked into the Hyperion, he forced himself not to look around the room for Cordelia -- only to look down at Buffy, who was nodding as she surveyed the lobby. "Seems like we beat the rush. Doesn't look like many people are here yet -- except some vampires having way too good a time, and our good lawyer buddy over there."

Angel rolled his eyes at the sight of Lindsey downing a martini. "Doesn't look like Cordelia's come downstairs yet either," he said.

"I'll talk to her soon," Buffy said soothingly.

"You want to be the one to talk to her?" Angel tried, without much success, to conceal his surprise.

"You guys are on the outs, right? Better let me have a crack at it first. When are Wesley and Fred getting here?"

"Any second -- wait, there they are." Wesley began walking toward them, but Fred excused herself and walked over to one of the trolls, then headed out to the courtyard.

"What's that about?" Buffy said.

"Could be anything," Angel said.

Wesley made his way to their table, sat down wearily in one of the chairs. "I shan't be able to stay out late tonight," he said tiredly. "Let's do what we came here for."

Angel glanced at Buffy; they'd made the decision earlier to leave Wesley and Fred out of their search for the dagger. Those two had enough trouble.

But Wesley was thinking of something else. "Let's drink a toast to the memory of Charles Gunn."

**

"Cordelia?"

Fred stood in the courtyard, wearing a dove-gray suit that was a little too big for her and looking about as awkward and out-of-place as she had when she first got back from Pylea. The memory of Fred as she had been then touched Cordelia. Then she was irritated at being touched. "What do you want?"

"I'll leave you two to catch up," Lilah said, with something surprisingly close to tact. As she wandered off, Fred walked up, actually wringing her hands.

"Cordy, I know it's been, like, forever since we talked, and that's the way you want it, and that's okay, really, because people move on. Behavioral studies show that the average length of a friendship is only three years; did you know that? So we were already nearing the statistical --"

"Point, Fred. Is there a point?"

Fred breathed out. "I know you heard about Gunn," she said quietly. "What happened to him -- it's made me do some thinking. I need advice. And you're the person I need advice from."

"Me?" Cordelia, intrigued despite herself, sat down on the concrete bench and motioned for Fred to sit beside her. "Why me?"

"Because you're ruthless." The honesty of it, the truth, hit Cordelia hard. For a moment, she wanted to object. Then she thought, if you can dish it out, you better be ready to take it. Fred watched her reaction, then continued, "You do what it takes to take care of yourself. Wesley thinks that's a bad thing. I don't, I mean, not necessarily. Sometimes you have to look out for yourself. For the people you love."

"When you say, people you love, I know we've stopped talking about me and started talking about you. What's up?"

"I have a decision to make," Fred said. "And it's a tough one." She looked into Cordelia's eyes for a long moment before whispering, "I'm pregnant."

Cordelia laughed before she could help herself. "You and Wesley decided to bring a baby into the world. Into this world. Just great. I guess hope springs eternal -- or Wesley does."

Fred ducked her head. "Please don't make fun."

"I don't mean to -- I mean, I think it's a bad decision. You and Wesley have enough problems as it is. But if that's what you two want --"

"We didn't plan it. It just kinda happened. And Wesley -- I haven't even told Wesley yet."

This surprised Cordelia more than the news of the pregnancy had. "And how exactly did you decide I needed to be the first to know?

"Wesley's dying," Fred said. "You know that. He has maybe another six or eight months left, if the Solonach runs its usual course. He -- he'd never see the baby --"

Cordelia dropped her eyes for a moment. "I'm sorry. I mean it, Fred. I am."

"But -- " Fred wasn't looking at Cordelia anymore; she was staring into a fixed point in the darkness, staring at it intently. "See, you can only get rid of a Solonach one of two ways. Either one of the people who attached it in the first place can remove it --"

"Not real likely, with Wolfram and Hart," Cordelia said.

"Or you can -- the Solonach just needs a life. Doesn't matter how strong or weak. Or how old or young -- just a life. You can attach it to another life." Fred was quiet for a moment longer, then blurted out, "Wesley wouldn't ever have to know. And Baby wouldn't even know to know."

Cordelia watched one of Fred's thin little hands spread over her still-flat belly as she whispered, "Cordy, I know I would've given my life if it would have saved my parents when the Venareth came. And I bet Baby would grow up to feel the same way, right? So if I just -- if I just went on and made that decision for them both -- I could tell Wesley I traded information to get rid of the Solonach, and he'd be so mad, but he'd forgive me sooner or later -- and at least there would be a later -- " Her voice broke off, and she choked back a sob. Then she managed to say, "I could learn to live with it. Couldn't I? I could live with it faster than I could live with letting Wesley die when I could save him. So how do I learn to live with it? Can you tell me how?"

"Fred, I -- Fred -- " For what felt like the first time in her life, Cordelia was utterly speechless. She'd always thought Fred fluttered above reality in a kind of happy intellectual daze; even the worst of their experiences always seemed to slip past her, leave her untouched. Maybe the daze was something she'd adopted to survive in Pylea. Maybe she'd always had it, and that was why she survived Pylea in the first place. But here she was, facing facts, gearing herself up to do something that was clearly going to rip her heart out -- because she couldn't deny the truth about Wesley anymore.

You can't deny it anymore.

"What?" Fred frowned at her, and Cordelia realized she'd spoken out loud. Then she realized something else.

"Fred -- Lilah told me some stuff about the Solonach ceremony. Gavin Park was one of the ones who attached it, right?"

Fred nodded. "But he'd never help us, Cordy --"

"He would if you had something he wanted. If you have the Deburchan dagger."

"You do have it!" When Cordelia glared, Fred shrugged. "That's the word on the street. I didn't believe it, though."

"Good to know. Yeah, I've got it. And I'm giving it to you. You two go there tonight. As fast as you can. Spend whatever you've got on a taxi, because it won't matter. Tell Park I sent you, that you'll only give the dagger to him at the Portal. Make him get rid of the Solonach, give you some money. Then hand it to him about five seconds before you two jump through to Australia. And don't ever even think about coming back."

Fred stared at her open-mouthed, clearly overwhelmed with surprise, joy and relief. Then, just as quickly, her face fell. She took a deep breath and said, "I can't."

"What?"

"Buffy and Angel need that dagger for something more important than my little problems --"

"The dagger's been unenchanted. It wouldn't do Buffy and Angel a bit of good. But Gavin Park doesn't know that, and you're gonna take him for the ride of his life. Understand me?"

Fred nodded so fast her hair flopped up and down. "What do we do?"

"The dagger's hanging on the wall, near the Frenketh combat axe --"

"Hidden in plain sight!" Fred's face was truly alight now. "Like Edgar Allen Poe! The Purloined Letter!"

"Let's do Honors Lit class some other time, okay? I'll tell Lorne to create a diversion. You know what the dagger looks like? Okay, then. While the diversion's going on, just get it, get Wesley, and get out."

"When?" Fred said breathlessly.

Cordelia shrugged. "No time like the present. Especially since the evening crowd is finally starting to come in."

"What do I tell Wesley?"

"Whatever it takes to get him through that Portal, I guess."

Fred got up and looked at her purse, clearly checking to see if it were big enough for the dagger. Then she looked back up at Cordelia. "I -- I don't guess we'll ever see you again."

"Guess not." Cordelia smoothed her dress, tossed her hair. "I don't think big goodbyes are in order here. Just -- remember me, I guess. I mean --" She paused, trying to think what she did mean. Finally, she said, "I mean, remember me like I used to be."

Unexpectedly, Fred put one hand to Cordelia's cheek. "I'm gonna remember you like you are right now," she said. "Right this minute."

And with that Fred was gone, strolling out into the lobby with what appeared to be nonchalance. Cordelia followed behind; fortunately, Lorne was only a couple steps away. She grabbed his arm and hissed, "Start singing something. LOUD."

"Her name was Lola!" Lorne sang at top volume. "She was a showgirl --"

Pretty much the entire lobby -- now much more crowded than it had been just ten minutes before -- wheeled around to see just why Lorne had lost his senses and begun belting out "Copacabana." Cordelia glanced around to see if anyone wasn't paying attention --

Lindsey. He hadn't so much as turned around. Instead, he was just sitting there, about five feet away from the dagger, still sipping his damn martini.

Time to test out the halter dress.

Cordelia walked toward him, putting a little of her old swing in her step. And that he did notice; he carefully set his glass down as she came and sat on the edge of his chair. Lindsey shifted slightly, enough to allow her to actually sit by him, though their bodies were pressed rather closely together. "Well, this is a surprise."

"You know what they say is the ultimate aphrodisiac," Cordelia purred.

"Vodka?"

She laughed a little more than the joke deserved, didn't allow her eyes to flicker back to see how Fred was doing. "Power."

"You expect me to believe that you suddenly find me irresistible," Lindsey said.

"No, not really," Cordelia said, cutting the act by about a third. "But let's face it, Lindsey. You have some serious guns on your side. You say you can get the Powers' hooks out of me. So I'm intrigued. I can't help wondering what else you might do for me. I've had to -- negotiate -- for a lot of favors, these past few years. Usually with men who don't have nearly as much influence. Or who aren't half as hot."

"Mutual use, huh? Well, you're honest; I'll give you that." She saw Lindsey's eyes take in her glossed lips, the curves beneath her deep neckline. "You're also damn sexy. I'll give you that too."

"What else might you give me, Lindsey?" Cordelia traced her fingertip along his jawline.

"That all depends on what you're willing to do."

Great, Cordelia thought. He's a pervert. Well, God knows I've done it all by now. "What do you mean? Be really specific. I want to hear it."

Lindsey leaned in really close, a small smile on his lips. "I want us to go upstairs right now. While Angel's watching."

Cordelia felt her body go numb, turn to ice. Angel. Angel was there, and she hadn't seen him, but he had seen her, could see her right now, hanging all over Lindsey --

"I want us to go upstairs and spend a good hour or so working out our -- arrangement. And then I want to come downstairs with you, with your lipstick gone and your pretty dress rumpled and your hair all over the place. And then I want to see Angel's face. If the expression he's wearing right now is any judge, I'm pretty sure he'll still be down here, waiting." Lindsey put his hand under her chin, held her so that she couldn't look away from his eyes. "Would you like that? Would you like to see what his face looks like then?"

Cordelia took a deep breath as Lindsey nuzzled her neck. That gave her a chance to look over Lindsey's shoulder -- and see that the Deburchan dagger was gone.

She pushed Lindsey's shoulders back, frowned at him. "You know I'm going to say no, don't you?"

"Figured I was pushing my luck," Lindsey said. "But I wanted to see how far you'd go."

"Not quite that far," Cordelia said. "I like my lovers' attention focused on me. Not Angel."

"Too bad. Just when I thought this evening might get interesting." Lindsey put one fingertip to her lips, then leaned away from her slightly. "But if you want to try some less public negotiations, you know where to turn."

Yeah, right, Cordelia thought. She got unsteadily to her feet, tried to look casually around the room. She caught a glimpse of Wesley and Fred going out the door and breathed out in relief. At least she'd accomplished what she set out to do.

Another glance around and she saw Angel -- and oh, God, the look on his face, anger and fear and hurt and want -- the shock that went through her when their eyes met --

"Cordelia." Cordy jumped, startled, to see Lilah standing right next to her.

"Oh, God. You surprised me."

"Not as much as you just surprised me." Lilah was frankly staring at her. "Listen, honey, if you're trying to make Angel jealous, you couldn't pick anybody better. But if you don't want to play with fire, and I was under the impression you didn't anymore, then you couldn't pick anybody worse."

"Lilah, chill. Just a momentary fit of insanity, okay?"

"I never thought I'd say this to anyone, but maybe you should cut back on the alcohol," Lilah said, shaking her head as she walked off.

Someone softly tapped Cordelia's shoulder; she turned around to see Buffy standing there. "Can I have a second?"

If Buffy tells me she's pregnant too, I am officially going to throw up, Cordelia thought. "Come on. Courtyard."

**

In preparation for this moment, Buffy had tried to call up her most positive memories of Cordelia. Then any positive memories of Cordelia. Then less annoying memories of Cordelia.

The final list was short, but there were a few moments worth summoning up: that time near Buffy's 18th birthday, when she was having that terrible fight with Giles, and Cordelia had given her a ride home, no questions asked. The days when Angelus was loose and Cordelia had, however begrudgingly, let Buffy come out with her and Xander to keep her mind off things. The way Cordelia had jumped right in and staked a vamp during the graduation ceremony.

Those were the things Buffy was going to remember. Because they represented whatever it was inside Cordelia that Buffy needed to come back out.

A few people, and another few non-people, were busily making out in the courtyard; Cordelia sighed, then drew Buffy back inside, into a small office behind the lobby counter. As soon as the door was shut, Cordelia said, "What's the what?"

"Angel and I need your help."

Cordelia smiled sardonically at her; Buffy had expected this reaction at first, and so was not discouraged. "What? The big valiant heroes need little ol' me? I'm just moved as all get out."

"You didn't always run this place," Buffy said. "Angel's told me what you were like when the two of you worked together. You accepted the visions even though they hurt you, because they helped other people. You made him teach you how to fight, even though you were up against things a lot stronger than you. Angel said you never flinched from any of it. He said you were the bravest person he'd ever seen."

"He said that?" Cordelia's frosty glare dimmed for a moment, but she had it back in place pretty quickly.

Buffy kept on. "He's talked about you a lot, Cordelia. Enough for me to know that you weren't always the spoiled brat we dealt with in Sunnydale. Enough for me to know that you're not as cut off from the world as you look right now."

"You don't know as much as you think you do," Cordelia said, her eyes cold.

"Cordelia, let's put it all on the table here, okay? Thanks to our charming mutual acquaintance Lindsey McDonald -- or maybe thanks to the stiff drinks you served him -- we know the Deburchan dagger's still on the market somewhere. And the word is that you're the one who has it."

"I don't," Cordelia said. "I did have it. But I don't any longer."

Her manner was so straightforward, so familiar, so completely Cordy, that Buffy immediately knew this was the truth. She breathed out, trying to control her disappointment. One chance gone. "Well, we do know you've got the Eye."

"You know I've got a huge shiny crystal in the center of my lobby everybody can see? Wow. Is that amazing Slayer superperception?"

"And it's time you knew that Angel and I need the Eye. We have a plan that might allow us to close the Hellmouth again. It's a long shot -- but it could seriously turn the tide again. I think it's worth the risk. But to have any chance of success, we need a majorly powerful magical artifact. The Eye would work."

Cordelia stared at her, then said, "You know I can't just give my Visions away. Not without taking on the wrath of the Powers. And considering the way they treat people they don't hate, I don't really want to find out what happens to people they do hate."

"So don't give it away," Buffy said. "Bring it with you. Come with us. Whatever price you pay, we'll help you deal with it. But you can come back to the fight."

And that surprised her, Buffy saw. For a few long moments, she just gaped at Buffy, obviously unable to think of anything to say or do. Seizing the advantage, Buffy said, "You have to be sick of this, Cordy. This is all so -- so fake. And you used to hide behind a whole lot of fake back in high school, but you always hated it. You have to hate it now. You fell into all this because you were freaked out and scared. I know what that's like -- I've been so down, so lost, that I thought I'd never come back again. But I did, and I came back stronger. I know that you don't have to end up here. Just walk away. Walk out of here with us. Come back. You know you want to."

"You're awfully sure of yourself," Cordelia said. "So sure you know everything about me."

"I think I know enough," Buffy said.

"Well, you don't know jack." Cordelia folded her arms across her chest. "First off, you think I'm gonna walk away from this to play wisecracking comic relief to the star-crossed lovers? Thanks but no thanks. Once was enough. Second, I didn't end up here because I was scared. I didn't end up here because I didn't know what else to do."

"So what did happen, Cordy?"

Cordelia's eyes narrowed. "Ask Angel."

"Ask Angel?" This made no sense. Unless -- unless --

"You heard me. Ask Angel." Cordelia turned on her heel and walked out of the office.

Buffy stood there alone for a minute, considering what Cordelia had and had not said. She thought back to the way Angel had behaved in those first awful months after the Venareth. She remembered the first night he had come to her as her lover once more, how long it had taken him to come to her.

Finally, she ran her hands through her hair and stepped outside the office. The Hyperion was back in full swing, tables crowded, people laughing and talking.

And not-people.

"So the girl's cryin', right, and she's saying, Just let me go, I'll do anything." The three vampires were laughing, braying over their blood and liquor. "And Nick says, Anything? And you know he's not plannin' on letting her go, but she don't know that, and the girl goes --"

Buffy stepped to the table and slapped her hands down on it, hard. The vampires jumped. Buffy said, "And the girl goes, Why don't I knee your balls up to your brain, assuming you have either?" When the vampires gaped at her, Buffy shrugged. "That's the way I heard it."

And then she grabbed one of the vampire's head and slammed it through the table, which splintered in two with a mighty crack.

People started to scream. Demons started to run. And the vampires came at her.

About time, Buffy thought.

She elbowed one in the face, kicked one in the crotch, then spun up into a roundhouse kick that caught the last vamp in the throat. He staggered back, which gave Buffy a chance to somersault backwards over one of the tables --

-- to stand next to the wall, covered in weapons. "Gotta hand it to Cordy," Buffy muttered, grabbing a scimitar from its mounting. "She always did know how to decorate."

The vampires ran back at her now, and Buffy spun one of them into the wall, held him there with a side kick to the kidneys. She swung the scimitar savagely into his neck, and instantly he turned into so much dust.

As the other vamps dodged her scimitar, Buffy heard something she hadn't expected to hear.

She heard cheering.

Buffy backhanded the vamp closest to her, then glanced at the room. Angel was pushing his way through the crowds to her -- but the crowds weren't running, or crying, or trying desperately to ignore the battle. They were cheering her, hands in the air, letting loose with all the rage and frustration and hope they kept pent up all the time.

"Break up the table!" she shouted. "Make stakes!"

To Buffy's delight, and the vampires' obvious dismay, the people started doing what she'd said. Buffy grinned. "You guys want it quick and easy?" She flashed her blade at them. "I know what I'm doing. They don't. Could take 'em a while to find your heart."

A vampire jumped her, and Buffy gave into the force of it, let it take them both into a backward somersault that she spun out of easily enough. As he tried to struggle up from the floor, she planted her heel on his chest. "Don't think so." One more slash into the neck -- one more vamp turned to dust.

"Get them!" somebody yelled, and Buffy looked up in time to see Angel slamming his fist into one vampire's face, while another was grabbed by three people she didn't know and quickly staked. So they did know where the heart was after all.

Other people were grabbing the weapons from the walls, setting upon the vampires and harmful demons in their midst. Even that guy Lorne was smashing a chair down over a Velga demon's head.

Buffy jumped forward to where Angel was pummeling the last vampire, apparently just for the fun of it. "Mind if I cut in?" she said. "I mean that literally."

Angel pinned the vamp to the wall, and she beheaded him with a slice. She smiled up at Angel, and he smiled down at her, and for one moment, it was just like high school, just like when they were falling in love.

BAM!

The gunshot echoed through the Hyperion, stilling the fracas and quieting the shrieks. In the center of the room stood Lindsey McDonald, gun in the air, a faint snowfall of plaster around him. "This kind of unprovoked combat is forbidden in this district. The hotel is closed for the night."

Angel grabbed her arm, began steering her toward the doors. "You were wonderful," he muttered, "but you broke district rules. They can arrest you now."

"I had to work out some female territorial aggression," Buffy said, tossing her hair. "Feeling much better now. Doesn't it feel good to be back in the game?"

"I bet it does," said Lindsey, who had sidled up near them. "But remember. I could have you incarcerated now, if I wanted. One more false step, and you're out of the game. Maybe for good."

Buffy shrugged it off. If I had a dollar for every time some black-hat made big threats, she thought, I'd have enough money to buy a less cliched phrase than "if I had a dollar."

But next to her, Angel's face was drawn as he slid his arm around her shoulder and tucked her protectively into his embrace.

Continue on to part seven...

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