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AS TIME GOES BY (part seven)

From the bed in their shabby little hotel room, Angel watched Buffy peering out the window. Her eyes went wide as a flash of light came through the blinds. "Hey, somebody made it through the Portal. Lucky ducks," she said as she glanced back at him. "Between the late hour and the light show, I'm pretty sure we aren't being watched."

"You don't know that," he said. "They have things that can watch you without using their eyes, you know. Mind readers. Heat seekers."

"Amazing X-ray specs," Buffy said. He knew he should smile, but he couldn't quite work up the will. "Hey," she said gently, coming to sit by his side. "Somebody's going into his patented worry mode."

"You're cutting it close, Buffy," Angel said, brushing her pale hair from her forehead. "I have no idea why Lindsey didn't arrest you tonight. But he could have. Going out to meet up with Anne's group the same night -- you're cutting it close."

"If we didn't do stuff because it was risky -- well, we wouldn't do much at all, would we?" Buffy slipped her arms around his waist. "Angel, I have to do this. Cordelia's not going to help us. So we have to find out what other artifacts we could use. There's this Mirror of Whatsomething that might work, but we'll have to get hold of it. We have to move as fast as we can."

"We don't know for sure that Cordelia won't help," Angel said. "I know you talked to her, but -- Cordy and I -- she might talk to me. It might be different. Maybe she'll help us after all."

"Don't think so. She already gave away the Deburchan dagger -- she told me that much." Buffy sighed. "According to her, you're the reason she won't help."

Angel felt his chest tighten painfully. "What?"

"When I asked her why she wouldn't work with us or give us the Eye, she said I should ask you." Buffy looked up at him, her eyes free of suspicion or anger. Softly, she said, "You and Cordy -- when you worked together in L.A. -- were the two of you lovers?"

"No," he whispered.

"I mean, hello, curse time, of course you weren't lovers lovers. But you can be lovers without having sex. You and I knew all about that, before." She hugged him gently. "Do you want to talk to me about it?"

"No," Angel repeated. Then, because it was as truthful and as clear as he could bear to be. "I don't want to talk about it."

That alone was enough to tell Buffy the truth. He waited for her outburst of anger, of betrayal, of hurt. Instead she just leaned her head against his chest.

After a few moments, she said, "For the longest time, after we were apart, I didn't let myself fall in love with anybody new. I thought that if I loved anyone else, it would mean somehow that I didn't really love you to begin with. And I knew -- if I didn't know anything else in the world, what was true or fake or right or wrong, I knew that I had loved you."

"Buffy --"

"But when Xander and I started falling for each other, I realized -- it's not like that at all." She leaned back and looked into his eyes. "Once you've truly loved another person -- it's like your heart learns what that really means. How important it is, how good. It gives you strength. Makes you know who you are, and who you want to be. And all those things make you more able to fall in love again, not less. A person who could only feel love one time, ever -- he wouldn't be worth knowing." Buffy put her hand over Angel's chest; he felt her palm against his heartbeat. "Wouldn't be worth loving."

Angel put his hands beneath her chin, turned her lovely face up to his. "I don't deserve you."

"Too bad. Because I deserve you." She smiled up at him. "Sometimes I think you're my reward. Sometimes I think the Powers must not be so bad after all. I mean, on the very darkest day in all the world, they at least gave you back to me."

Angel's throat was too tight to even think of speaking, but he gently kissed Buffy on the forehead.

Buffy slipped away from Angel, peered out the window again. "Okay. Time for me to go."

"You're sure you don't want me to come with you?" Angel said. He'd asked Buffy this often enough earlier in the night. Now, though, he was hoping she'd insist that he stay behind.

"I'm sure. One is always stealthier than two. Just stay here." She raised her eyebrows, pursed her lips in mock seduction. "Warm up the bed for me."

"Be careful," he said as she left.

Sometimes, Angel thought, he felt like he spent his whole life saying those words.

He waited long enough for Buffy to be safely clear of their hotel. Then he got what he needed, put on his coat and slipped out the door.

 

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"How much did we lose?" Cordelia said, surveying the wreckage.

"Three tables, eight chairs, two swords, almost all of what looked to be a busy night's profits and one of my cufflinks," Lorne said. "And these were spiffy cufflinks, I have to tell you."

"If you thought this was fun, you should have seen her at a school dance," Cordelia said. But she couldn't even bring herself to put any energy into the snide remark. Hadn't she been repelled by those ghastly, bragging vampires herself? Hadn't she wished she could shut them up for good?

Hadn't some part of her cheered for Buffy too?

Lorne said, "Sweetie, I know from experience that nothing drags you down like having your nightclub get blitzed, but I have to go."

Cordelia looked sideways at him. "This one of those meetings I'm never supposed to ask about?"

"The book club," Lorne said. "Wuthering Heights. That's it exactly."

"Tell your buddies to come up with a more credible cover story," she sighed, waving him off. "Like anybody in L.A. reads books. And tell the trolls to go home too."

Lorne gestured at the mess. "I think the trolls have a bit of spit and polish to do."

"I don't think I can deal with troll spit tonight. I just -- I need some space."

"Women are always telling me that," Lorne sighed as he sauntered off.

Cordelia took the Eye and stored it for safekeeping -- which involved stuffing it in an old gym sock and stashing it under the bar. Then she began the trip back upstairs. It felt as though she had been awake for days, alive for centuries. She didn't exactly dance through most days as it was, but it seemed as if all the misery and bitterness and confusion of the past four years were concentrating together, descending upon her all at once. Well, she thought, this can go one of three ways.

One, I can do what Buffy asks me to do. I can take my Visions and my favorite stake and go along as Angel and Buffy's wacky sidekick. I can ask for my hotel room to always be on a different floor than theirs, so I don't actually have to hear their headboard thumping against my wall. The Powers will hate me and hunt me down and probably do something that makes Vocah look like a day at the spa. But it will all be worth it, because I will do so much good, and we see where that got us last time.

Two, I can do what Lindsey asks me to do. I can sell him the Visions, and just live with the fact that helping the bad guys did more for me than helping the good guys. I can get money and freedom and a nice place on the beach near Sydney, and if I drink enough gin I can probably manage not to think about the fact that, every day, people are dying because I gave the Visions up.

And three, I can just go on like I am. Keep my Visions. Let Buffy and Angel do whatever the hell they do, which should take them away from Los Angeles sooner rather than later, and probably be heroic and stupid enough to guarantee I never see Angel again. I'll keep on serving drinks in my bar and buying favors on my back and hanging out with Lilah as my closest companion.

My life is full of choices and possibilities.

Cordelia trudged into her rooms, shut the door behind her as she headed into her bedroom -- then stiffened. "Who's there?"

"It's me." Angel stepped out of the shadows with something of his old stealth.

"How did you get in here?"

"The back fire escape. I used to use it all the time. And something told me you'd be in this room."

"Well, you know me. Sentimental to the core." Cordelia folded her arms across her chest, unconsciously shielding herself. "Here to talk over old times at last?"

"You have to help us. We have to get the Eye. That's all there is to it."

"Nope," Cordelia said, almost to herself. "Here to talk over new times. I don't guess old times count for much anymore, do they?"

"I guess not, if you've forgotten everything Lindsey ever did to you."

Cordelia looked at Angel's eyes quickly. "Jealous?"

"More like disgusted." Angel took a deep breath -- it was so odd to see him doing that -- and said, "I'm sorry. I guess it's none of my business what you do."

"Or who." Cordelia tried to relax, to look as though she didn't care that Angel was here, in her bedroom, late at night and alone. "Buffy already made me her offer. But I said no. Never was much into being the third wheel."

"She's in danger," Angel said. "She's out there now trying to find another way. But every time she puts herself on the line in this district, she runs the risk of being arrested. And what are the chances she'd come out of custody alive? What chance did Gunn have?"

"Buffy's strong," Cordelia shrugged. Her stomach was churning uncomfortably. "More to the point, she's fast. They won't get her."

"You don't know that. And if she can't find anything else that works -- you know Buffy -- she'll want to go to Sunnydale anyway --" Angel's face was drawn now, truly desperate, as Cordelia had seen it only a handful of times before. "She'll go anyway, even though she doesn't have a chance of surviving. She won't stop. Buffy never stops."

"Well, bully for Buffy." Would she do that? Cordelia didn't doubt it -- and Angel wouldn't let her go off to die alone, no way -- Oh, God --

"Cordelia, please. Do you want me to beg? I'll beg." Angel stepped closer. "If what we had meant anything to you --"

Cordelia shrank from him. "Bad move. 'What we had' -- turns out that wasn't worth much, huh?"

Angel stared at her for a long moment. "And you won't even think about Buffy --"

"I don't guess Buffy thinks a lot about me." They remained there, in silence, for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, Cordelia said, "Maybe you should go."

Cordelia wanted nothing now except for Angel to leave her alone, so she could cry in peace. But for a few seconds, he didn't move.

Then he drew a gun.

She stared up at him, so dumbfounded that she could only focus on her first, strange thought -- "Since when do you use a gun?"

Angel looked as shocked as she felt, but he kept the weapon pointing at her. "Since I started needing one."

Oh, Cordelia thought, chills washing through her as the reality of the situation set in.

"Don't make me do it, Cordelia," Angel said. "Because I will."

"Will what? Kill me?"

"If that's what it takes to get the Eye, yes."

Would he? Cordelia thought. For Buffy? Hell, yes. So it's come down to this. The man I love is going to kill me to help the woman he loves. I'm just one more corpse for them to step over.

Angel took a shaky breath. "Just give it to me, Cordelia. The Powers will know you didn't give it up willingly. You'll be safe."

"But you won't." Cordelia wanted to look at his face -- wanted to see if he really meant it -- but it was hard not to keep glancing down at the gun. "The Powers will get you for this, you know. You'll be punished by them."

"Oh, yeah, and they've been so great to me so far," Angel said. "They took my soul, took my son, twisted up every good thing I ever tried to do and made it work for evil. I don't think I've been on their list of favorites for a long time now. And frankly, after a few centuries of hell, I don't think the Powers have much to frighten me with anymore."

"Can't argue with that."

Angel relaxed ever so slightly. "You mean -- you'll give me the Eye."

Cordelia took a deep breath. So this is the fourth option, she thought. This is my final choice. "No, I won't." When Angel stared at her, she unfolded her arms and held them wide. "You want to kill me, Angel? Then do it. Just do it."

She waited for the blast of sound and pain, for the convulsive movement of his hand that would kill her. It didn't come. "You think I'm bluffing?" she said.

"I know you're not," Angel said.

"Then you know I haven't got any reason to stay around here anymore. I haven't got any reason to go on. I'm sick of my life, so just end it. Kill me. Save your precious Buffy. I don't blame you. At least you have a reason -- I don't even have that anymore. I'm a drunk and a whore and the world's better off without me. And you know it, too."

She was shaking now, less from fear of what was about to happen than from the terrible realization that she honestly didn't care. "Do it, Angel. Please, just get it over with. Do it."

Angel stepped back, still pointing the gun at her, and Cordelia thought that now, at last, he meant to finish her. She closed her eyes, felt her last hot tears trickle down her cheeks.

Silence.

She opened her eyes slowly. Angel was shaking his head as he let his arm drop, then tossed the gun on the bed. "I can't do it," he said, his voice hoarse. "I can't. Not even to save her. I couldn't ever hurt you."

Cordelia stared at him as his face twisted in anger and frustration. "You say these horrible things about yourself, and you play this role out front for all the world to see. So we'll all see somebody we can hate, and never see what's inside. And I'm trying to play your little game, but I can't. I don't want to see you -- the real you, the one that's hurting like hell. I don't want to know that she's still in there. I want to take what I need and get away from you, and instead I see that you're lost, and you're afraid -- I don't want to see it anymore, and I do --"

She stepped forward hesitantly, lifted a trembling hand to his cheek. "Angel?"

Something in him broke as she touched him; the hard light in his eyes gentled as he looked down at her now. "I see you, Cordelia, no matter how hard you try to stop me. And I want to hate you, I want to fight you, but I can't. I still love you so much -- "

Cordelia's arms slid around his neck, and his hands pulled her close, and Angel kissed her -- hungrily, desperately, as though he could never have enough. They clutched each other tightly, their bodies pressed close, as his hands slid down the curve of her waist to her hips to pull her against him. She opened her mouth, drew him in, as though she could make him her lover through this kiss alone, this one, precious, long-denied kiss --

Just at the moment she thought he would push them both onto the bed, Angel pulled away, gasping for breath. He closed his eyes for a moment. "No," he said.

Cordelia's heart began to sink -- of course, it was only a moment's passion --

And then Angel said, slowly, "I know I have to hurt Buffy. I know I have to leave her. But I won't betray her."

"Leave -- Buffy?"

Angel looked even more miserable than he had a moment before -- but there was a resolve in his voice now that hadn't been there so short a time ago. "I have to leave her, or I have to leave you. And I'll never have the strength to leave you again. Never again, Cordy. Never." He held her head to his chest, and she felt his heartbeat against her cheek.

Cordelia hung onto him, afraid that if she let go he would vanish -- only a dream, it could only be a dream. But he was real, true, warm and human and alive and back in her arms. Loving her.

After a few moments, Angel whispered, "The front room --"

He wanted to get away from the bed, she realized. Cordelia walked with him -- their arms still twined around one another, clumsy in their arousal and distraction -- into the other room. In a daze, she saw the gardenia she'd pinned in her hair earlier as she stepped on it, crushing the petals beneath her heel. Angel must have brushed it from her hair as they kissed.

They fell onto the sofa together, and for a long, quiet time, Angel simply held her, stroked her hair. Cordelia couldn't stop staring up into his face, couldn't stop asking herself how this could all be happening. For now, though, it was enough to know that it was.

Finally, though, she collected herself enough to ask, "Angel, why now? Why didn't you come back to me at the Venareth?"

"Oh, Cordy." Angel's face was stricken. "You never even got the letter? And all those months I thought -- "

"I got the letter," Cordelia said. "I got the letter that said you wanted to be with Buffy instead of me."

"I never said that. Cordelia, the note you read -- what did it say?"

"It said you were human --"

"Right --"

"That Xander was dead --"

"Yes --"

"That Buffy needed you, and so you wouldn't leave her --" Cordelia's voice trailed off as she considered the note in an entirely new light.

"Cordelia -- you thought I meant that we were back together?" He was staring at her in dismay. "You thought you meant that little to me? Or that Xander meant that little to Buffy?"

"No -- I just thought -- you meant so much to each other --"

That hurt him; his eyes went dark with remembered pain, an expression she recognized all too well. But he said, "Cordelia, she was injured. The man she loved had died horribly. I couldn't leave her like that. I -- I thought you would come to us in Sunnydale."

"Why didn't you say so? In the note?"

"I thought I had. Looking back -- I see why you thought that, now, but at the time -- we were on the run, and we had people wounded and dying, and I only had a couple of minutes before Oz was going to have to leave -- " Angel shook his head. "It never even occurred to me that you wouldn't understand."

Cordelia put her hand to her mouth, stifling a cry of misery and anger at her own stupidity. Four years, she thought. Four years gone, because I didn't dare believe.

"I waited," Angel said. "I waited so long -- we couldn't get back to L.A., and Sunnydale was getting more dangerous all the time, but I kept thinking, day after day, surely this is it. Surely Cordelia's going to come to me today."

"I'm so sorry," she whispered.

"No, no. I should have realized -- we should have talked about Buffy before then. Or I should have risked the damn curse and made love to you that night. Done something to show you that I wasn't only with you because I couldn't be with her."

This sounded like a dream to Cordelia -- too much like a dream. She said, "Are you telling me you're not in love with Buffy anymore?"

Again the dark eyes. His body stiffened against hers, and he had to look away. Haltingly he said, "Of course I still love her. She's -- a part of me, maybe the best part. Anything I ever learned about selflessness and perseverance and faith, I learned from Buffy. I can be defeated in battle or watch my friends die, and all I have to do is look at her, and I believe again. I can't lie to you, Cordy. I think I'm always going to love her."

"But you said you love me," Cordelia said obstinately.

"I do," Angel said. He shook his head. "Didn't somebody say you couldn't be in love with two people at the same time?"

"Yeah. Somebody who lied, apparently." Cordelia was relieved to see him smile a little at that, realized she was smiling too. But she knew she had to keep going. "Okay, not trying to go into old-Cordy mode here, but if Buffy's still your be-all end-all, why do you want to be with me?"

"We were happy together," he said simply. "It's harder than it sounds. Buffy and I, we don't -- we never got the chance to learn how to do that together. I'm not sure Buffy ever got the chance at all. I left her so she could have this normal life she never found. But I did. I found it with you."

"Normal, with all the Visions and demons and stuff." Cordelia said with a faint smile.

Angel managed to smile back for a moment. "Relatively speaking." But his face fell as he looked into some unseen distance and said, "All the things I thought I was giving her, I got instead. Friends who stood by me. The chance to have children. A relationship with somebody who could bring me into the world, give me a home."

"Guilt-tripping again," Cordelia said. "This should not come as a surprise."

"It's not guilt." When she shot him a sideways glance, he sighed. "Relatively speaking. Cordelia, you taught me how to be happy. You made me believe in this life I could have -- not as a warrior or a penitent or a superhero or a martyr. Just as a man. But Buffy -- it's like she moved past all that. All the things she went through burned something out of her; she doesn't want that kind of life anymore. She believes in her calling with something that's -- beyond faith. Lindsey tried to buy us off today, talked a big game about how we could be safe together someplace where we could start a family. And it didn't even faze her -- I mean, I didn't expect her to give in to him, but the whole idea didn't mean anything to her. She doesn't even think about what it would be like anymore, to have a home. To have some safety. To hold your child in your arms -- I can't even talk to her about what that's like, holding your child in your arms -- "

"You're being Mr. Strong and Stoic for her," Cordelia said. "You're back in Sunnydale mode, aren't you?"

"That's what she needs," Angel said. "I don't know any other way to be, with her. And the world's different, after the Venareth -- maybe it's selfish to want your own happiness. I don't know. But I was more alive with you as a vampire than I've ever been able to be as a human. It's not anyone's fault -- it's just the way things are now."

"The world's not gonna turn all sweetness and light just because you've come back to me," Cordelia said. Within her mind, she marveled at the words -- you've come back to me. "But we can try, can't we? There are places we could go where we might have a chance."

"I want to try," Angel said. "I'm not going to lose you again, Cordelia."

She hated to say it, but it had to be said. "And Buffy?"

Again that tension -- but Angel didn't let go of her. "She'll go on no matter what. Nothing anybody could ever do to her would stop her. I know this will hurt her -- so much -- but she'll understand." Those last words hurt him more than anything else, Cordelia realized. Because he believed them. "Please, Cordelia -- help her this one last time. Just give the Eye to her -- or just turn a blind eye, and I'll steal it from you, so the Powers will blame me and not you. What she's doing is important, and I -- I need to know Buffy's safe."

His voice was thready, and Cordelia ached to see how badly he was hurting. And even now, it's still about Buffy, she thought. She's always going to own a part of him.

But it had happened -- it had actually happened -- Angel had come back to her. He still loved her. And now he would stay with her forever --

Downstairs, something crashed against the front door, then against a wall. Cordelia and Angel were both on their feet in an instant. They glanced at each other, then Cordelia went to her door, stepped into the hallway and peered down into the lobby.

Buffy and Lorne were rebolting the door shut.

Next to her, Cordelia heard Angel take in a deep breath.

She motioned him back into the room; after a moment's hesitation, he complied. Cordelia then went to the top of the stairs. "What's going on?"

Lorne and Buffy both looked up at her, looked at each other, then looked up at her again. Lorne said, "Buffy decided to stop in on one of the book-club meetings."

"And you nearly got caught by the Guards in the process," Cordelia said.

Buffy shrugged. "So I like Wuthering Heights. Who doesn't like Jane Austen?" Then she winced, and Cordelia realized Buffy's arm was hurt.

Cordelia said, "Lorne, can you come up here for just a sec? Hang on, Buffy."

When Lorne came through Cordelia's door, he said, "What's so important -- why, hello there, Angelcakes. Well, well, well." He raised one eyebrow, but his smile was gentle, not condemning. "I see a chorus of 'Torn Between Two Lovers' is in order here."

"Not now," Cordelia said. "I want you and Angel to get out of here. The Guards are gonna come looking for book-club members, as usual, and I'm fresh out of cover stories for you, Lorne."

"And you're going to play nurse with Buffy? Angel, I'm surprised you want to miss that."

"I don't." Angel's face was grim. "She's hurt, isn't she?"

"It's her arm, but it doesn't look serious," Cordelia said. "I'll bandage her up as fast as possible and get her to you. I'm the one the Guards are least likely to give trouble to if we do get caught. Okay?"

"I should at least check --" Angel stepped to the door, but Cordelia grabbed his hand, held him in place.

"Angel, it's all right. Or it will be. But I want you two to get out of here." Quickly, she kissed his hand. "I'll be there later. And -- I guess we'll talk."

"Not until then, Cordelia," Angel said. "I should be the one to tell her."

Like I'm gonna insist on telling somebody with superpowers and a jealous streak that I'm the other woman, Cordelia thought. "I promise, okay? Soon. Just make sure Lorne gets away safely."

She hurried downstairs; Buffy was sitting at one of the few tables that hadn't been upended during the battle. As Cordelia went for the first-aid kit behind the counter, Buffy said, "Sorry about trashing your place."

"You know, I actually don't mind vacuuming vamp dust out of the rugs. Not a bit." Cordelia knew she sounded a little too cheerful. But actually seeing Buffy there, bloodied arm and shadowed eyes, was driving home the fact that Angel's return to her wasn't going to be easy or blissful. It was going to leave Buffy dragged down in its wake.

As she set about bandaging Buffy's cut -- which was already beginning to heal up -- Buffy said, "Cordelia -- I know."

Cordelia fumbled the scissors, dropped them. "What?"

"I know that you're in love with Angel," Buffy said. "And I know he used to be in love with you."

Somehow it was worse that Buffy only knew half the truth.

Buffy took a deep breath. "Angel and I were kinda thrown together after the Venareth -- I mean, we love each other, but we didn't exactly choose this. If you come with us, Cordelia, fight with us again, then -- then as far as I'm concerned, Angel can make his own decisions. I want him to stay with me, but -- if things changed, if he someday decided to -- I'm just saying, our feelings aren't the most important thing here." Buffy's voice was shaking, but she kept on, "If the three of us leave here as partners, then I can take whatever comes. As long as we can keep fighting, Cordelia. Don't you see that's all that matters?"

Cordelia couldn't bear to look up and meet Buffy's eyes. Her hands were trembling as she clipped together the edges of the bandage. For a moment, she tried to think of what it would be like -- Angel as her lover, Buffy on the outside looking in. Tried to imagine a way in which Angel could bear it, or Buffy. And she couldn't.

WHAM. "Open up! Open up for the Guards!"

Buffy and Cordelia both stared at the front door, which was shaking as the Guards pounded against it. Cordelia said, "If we go into the basement, down into the sewers --"

"No," Buffy said. "I can't run for it yet. And I'd only get you caught. Hand me over." When Cordelia stared at her, Buffy said, "Do it."

Cordelia went to the door, opened it and let the Guards rush inside. They ignored Cordelia and went immediately to Buffy. Their captain grinned nastily. "You were sighted tonight at a meeting of suspected resistance fighters," he said. "We'll have to ask you to come with us."

"What about this one?" a Guard said, pointing at Cordelia.

"Shut up, you," said another. "That's a friend of Morgan's, that one. And she let us in, didn't she?"

"I came in here without her permission," Buffy said. The Guards relaxed; that made it easy for them.

But as they marched out the door with Buffy, Cordelia knew that everything was that much harder for her.

Continue on to part eight...

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