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AS TIME GOES BY (part eight)

Lilah was staring across her desk at Cordelia. "You want me to let Buffy go."

"That's right," Cordelia said.

Lilah leaned back in her chair. "I knew I shouldn't have gotten out of bed this morning. Gray, rainy, so the humidity's gonna wreck my hair. Lindsey's still in town. And now you're telling me that Wolfram and Hart should release one of the most powerful warriors for good in the world, when we got her last night on multiple district-rule violations?"

"Remind me to tell you about this totally great volumizing trick you can do with hot rollers and butterfly clips. But back to the subject. You owe me a few favors, Lilah. Plus, if I ever get around to calculating your bar tab, you'll owe me about a bajillion dollars."

"And you're cashing this in for Buffy's freedom? What has gotten into you? These past couple of days -- I don't know, Cordy. The least appealing parts of your younger self seem to be coming to the surface. Take, for instance, the fate of one Mr. Gavin Park." Lilah's eyes narrowed as she continued. "Seems like last night he tried to curse the whole firm. Using this totally bum Deburchan dagger, which not only thwarted him but alerted our security systems right away. Some of the last words he spoke -- while he still had his tongue -- were that you had possessed the dagger. And that you sent it to him via Wesley and Fred Wyndham-Price. That they got the Solonach removed, passage to Australia and a sweet sum of money out of the deal. And they didn't have anything to give to you in return. That last detail is the one that has the firm convinced Park was lying. Who gives up something for nothing? I can't think of an explanation either."

"So I have a sentimental streak. But going white-hat again? Get real," Cordelia said. "This isn't about doing Buffy a favor. This is about what's in it for you, and what's in it for me."

Lilah leaned forward and smiled. "That sounds a little more like it. What do you have in mind?"

"Angel," Cordelia said. "I want him. And I'm going to have him. But he's still just hung up enough on Buffy to hold him back."

Lilah said, "What's in it for me?"

"Lindsey's total downfall."

"The day's looking up already. Details, please."

Cordelia took a deep breath. "Lilah, please believe me when I tell you that I fully understand the absurdity of what I'm about to say." She looked Lilah in the eyes. "Trust me."

When Lilah was done laughing, Cordelia said, "Remember what we said last night? We can trust each other to look out for our own interests first. And my own interest involves getting Buffy as far away from here as possible."

"Like, say, a labor camp?"

"Honestly, I couldn't care less."

"But you can't tell me the details of this plan?"

"I can tell you some of it. I need you to let Buffy out of jail tonight. Angel will be at the Hyperion, so soon Buffy will be there too. She and Angel will think that I'm going to give them the Eye. You'll come crashing in, just at the perfect moment, and accuse them of stealing the Eye. Buffy and Angel, being their usual self-righteous selves, will confirm it rather than let me go down with them. I'll threaten you with -- oh, something vaguely blackmail-worthy -- and convince you to at least let Angel go. He'll believe that I saved his life, but just couldn't save Buffy. Sooner or later, he'll get over her." Cordelia felt her mouth twisting in a scowl. "He gets over people faster than you'd think."

Lilah smiled knowingly. Cordelia cleared her throat and continued, "You'll have Buffy on charges that'll let you send her to a labor camp, or whatever you want to do with her. Buffy -- well, she won't matter anymore. And Angel and I can start over."

"And how does this involve nailing Lindsey? Because that's the beauty part."

"The reason you're gonna let Buffy go? Because Lindsey's going to ask you to. So when she 'tries to steal' the Eye --"

"-- it's all on his head." Lilah began to grin. "I knew I liked you for a reason."

**

A few hours later, at the still-wrecked Hyperion, Cordelia hung a sign on the door that said CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. She stepped back inside to see Lindsey working busily at the counter, still writing out what she wanted. He recited, "For due consideration given, I hereby transfer ownership of The Hyperion Hotel, of the above address, to -- what did you say his full name was?"

"Krevlorneswath of the Deathwok Clan."

Lindsey frowned. "How do you spell that?"

"Who cares?"

"Like it sounds, then. It's interesting -- I haven't written a contract in a while." He finished up, then handed it to her to sign. As Cordelia did so, he said, "I have to say -- I'm surprised, Cordelia."

"Why is that?"

"I just didn't think you'd sell. Even for a sum this tidy -- and especially not for Buffy's freedom."

Cordelia looked up at Lindsey; he was holding the Eye in one hand, testing its heft. She smiled. "You offered me what I needed. A way to be free of the damn Visions forever. A way for me and Angel to get out of this place together, without him tearing himself up worrying about Buffy all the time. He's ready to leave her. He just needs a place to go."

"So Angel's going to be the one with you on those warm winter nights," Lindsey said. "That guy's got all the luck."

"Yeah, if there's any adjective you'd apply to Angel, it's 'lucky.' Do I need to do anything else for the transfer? For my protection?"

"Nope. What's done is done," Lindsey said. "Lilah agreed to set Buffy free tonight. The Powers won't be able to punish you. And nobody else will be able to track where your newfound wealth came from," he said, gesturing to the briefcase Cordelia now had at her side. "Buy your passage out of here and enjoy yourself. Tell Angel I envy him the ride."

"You're not talking about the Portal, are you?"

Lindsey grinned as he tucked the Eye into his coat.

**

The rain pattered against the windows all day. Naturally, Cordelia thought. It never rains in Southern California unless Angel's having a crisis. But she was grateful for it; for some reason, she found it comforting, and it helped her to think.

She went upstairs and wrote two notes. The first went to Angel and Lorne at the hotel where Angel was staying. It told Angel to return that evening, when Buffy would be back. It also told Lorne to stay away until the next morning, and contained a tidy lie about not wanting to throw suspicion on him. She sent that along with a messenger, a nimble little Tuipi demon, as early as she could.

As evening drew near, she tried to dress for the wretched weather; though she did put on her necklace and some lipstick, she wore sensible shoes (only a one-inch heel) and a long skirt. She tied her hair back in a severe ponytail, then slipped on her gray trenchcoat to ward off the rain. Some other things she needed had found their way to her room; she slipped them into the trenchcoat's pockets.

Then she went to her desk and propped up the second note, which was for Lorne to read the next day. This note contained no lies. It explained everything, possibly more fully than she would ever be able to explain it -- to Buffy, to Angel, to Lilah, even to herself. It said some very kind things about what Lorne had done for her these past years, more than she had ever acknowledged aloud, more than he would even have dreamed she'd noticed. It gave him some advice and wished him well.

And, at the very bottom, it said, "P.S. -- Wind the clock."

**

As she sat in the lobby, waiting, she heard clanking in the basement -- then steps coming up to the door. Cordelia got to her feet just as Angel walked in. "It's after dark, you know," she said. "Even if you were still a vampire, you could have traveled above ground."

"Old habits die hard," Angel said. He tried to smile, but the effort of it was almost grotesque. His shoulders were bent over, as though he were drawing in from physical pain. He was preparing to tell Buffy goodbye -- and as much as it hurt him, Cordelia knew he meant to do it. She got up, put her arms around him and held him as tightly as she could.

"It's going to be all right," Cordelia said, believing it. "You'll see."

The clock struck six, and as it chimed, he leaned down and kissed her hair. "I love you," Angel said, as though the words were a talisman to ward off his anguish. "I love you."

Three. Four.

"I love you too," she whispered. "Always."

Five. Six.

Then came the knock at the front door.

Angel tensed, and Cordelia took a deep breath. Here we go, she thought. "Angel, get the door, will you? I'm gonna pour us all some drinks, because God knows we're gonna need 'em."

Angel went past her and unbolted the door at let Buffy in. Buffy looked tired, and her pearly suit was slightly smudged with gray, but otherwise she seemed none the worse for her night at Wolfram and Hart. "Angel?" she said, not even acknowledging Cordelia, looking up at him in the dark.

"Are you all right?" he said as he led Buffy into the lobby. Despite his concern, the energy in the room was strange, and everyone involved knew it. From her place at the makeshift bar, Cordelia watched their faces as their eyes met. She could feel their dread in her gut, as though it were her own.

"They didn't hurt me. There was mostly a lot of shouting," Buffy said. "I think they were saving the good stuff for later. But no later, thanks to Cordy."

"Cordelia?" Angel looked over at her in surprise.

Cordelia shrugged. "I pulled a few strings." More than you know, she thought.

"I knew it," Buffy said, brightening. "You couldn't just sit on the sidelines forever, Cordy. I knew you'd come back to the fight. I just knew it!"

The door swung open, and both Buffy and Angel gasped as Lilah walked through the door.

"You were right, Buffy," Cordelia said. "You were right about everything."

"I take it that's sarcasm?" Lilah said, stepping forward. "You see, we've really got you two, Buffy. Scrapping in public -- I mean, we can hold you on that, make your life a hell for a few months. But stealing the Eye? That's gonna cost you."

"Stealing the Eye?" Buffy looked confused for about two seconds; then understanding dawned in her eyes.

Angel stepped forward. "It wasn't Buffy. She hasn't been out long enough, and you know it. I thought I could --"

"Like Buffy wouldn't be involved." Lilah sneered. "She's here, isn't she? I'm going to call the Guards in here and have the two of you dragged out. Cordelia, do you have anything to add? Something you want to -- "

Her voice trailed off as she saw the gun Cordelia had pointed at her. "Gotta hand it to you, Lilah. You're reliable." Cordelia said. "Here you are, bang on time. Whoops -- did I say bang?"

Lilah just stared at her. "Trust me, you said. I deserve this."

Cordelia didn't flinch from Lilah's accusing gaze. "We're going outside. And we're gonna get in your car, and then we're going up to the Portal. The Guards you've got outside are gonna be happy to help us on our way, if you're into the idea of being alive tomorrow. Buffy, you take charge of Lilah, okay? I'm keeping the gun, but you're in charge of smacking her around."

"I like the sound of that," Buffy said, seizing Lilah's arms as they walked forward.

Angel came to Cordelia's side. "What's happening?" he whispered.

"Traveling to Sunnydale will be a lot safer by Portal, right?"

"But Lilah --"

"Leave her to me," Cordelia said. "You trust me, right?"

"Right," Angel said. "Cordy, I have to talk to Buffy --"

"Just wait, okay?" Cordelia said. "The less time we all have to think about this, the better."

"I'm just ready for it to be over," Angel said.

She didn't trust herself to reply.

**

Lilah didn't fight them, either in the car or on their way through the lobby of Wolfram and Hart. Cordelia was grateful for that, though it made her nervous -- it meant Lilah was planning something later. Once they were in the elevator to the roof, Lilah muttered, "You know what I hate most about all of this? The fact that Lindsey's not going down in flames with me."

"He is, actually," Cordelia said. "That much was true."

"Maybe the night's not a waste after all," Lilah said.

They stepped out onto the rooftop, where the silvery arch of the Portal stood, glinting faintly in the mist. The small scrying mirror used to control the Portal was on a pedestal some twenty feet away. Cordelia gestured with the gun. "Lilah, go get the Portal ready to send two people to Sunnydale. Buffy, watch and make sure she doesn't reset it for someplace less interesting."

"Got it," Buffy said, casting a glance over her shoulder at Cordelia and Angel as she went.

Angel turned back to Cordelia. "Two people?"

"That's right," she said evenly. "You and Buffy. I'm staying here to bash that mirror in once you leave. By the time they can fix it and get anybody through the Portal again, you and Buffy will be away from the landing point and safe in Sunnydale. If anyone's ever safe in Sunnydale."

"Cordelia, no," Angel said, taking her arms in his hands. "I'm staying here. With you."

"No, you're not." Cordelia looked up at him and smiled gently. "Angel, you can't just live here with me. At the end of the day, you wouldn't be able to live with yourself. If Buffy were hurt or killed in Sunnydale, you'd never stop asking yourself if you could have changed that, if you'd been there. And if she makes it out of Sunnydale, but she dies in the next fight, the same thing."

Angel's face was resolute. "I'm not leaving you again."

"So what are you going to do? Stay here with me? Sell drinks, listen to Lorne sing, turn the other way while vampires and demons wreak havoc all around us? Maybe the first month would be wonderful. Maybe the second, or the third. But you couldn't live like that, Angel. I know how badly you want to just be a man, but let's face it. You're not! You're a hero. Sooner or later, it wouldn't be enough for you to stay home with me. You'd have to get back in the fight. The life you have already with Buffy -- that's the one you really want. Even if it doesn't feel like it right now, when Gunn just died, and you're so tired, and we're -- so close --" Cordelia closed her eyes tightly, forced back the tears.

"I want what we had together," Angel said. "That's the life I want." He meant it, she could tell -- but his expression was less certain now.

"And that's the life we can never have," Cordelia said. "Not in this world, not after the Venareth. In this world, your place is at Buffy's side. You know this, Angel. You don't want to face it, but deep inside -- you know it's true."

Angel opened his mouth to argue with her, but he said nothing. She wondered if the dampness on his cheeks was just the mist. Slowly, she said, "I won't make you go, Angel. But I won't make you stay. You're going to choose, and we both know what you're going to choose. I'm just telling you -- it's okay. That's the man you are, the man I fell in love with. Because I fell in love with the hero too, you know."

He touched his hand to her cheek. "So did I."

The Portal flashed open with brilliant light, and the breeze began whipping all around them. Lilah and Buffy turned around, and Angel and Cordelia stepped away from each other. As they all walked near to the Portal, Lilah said, "By the way, where did you get the gun, Cordy? I'm always interested in how people threaten my life."

"Angel left it in my room last night," Cordelia said.

"Last night?" Buffy whispered.

"He came to me, threatened to kill me if I wouldn't help you," Cordelia said. "I want it perfectly clear, though, I am doing this for my own reasons. Not because Mr. Protective freaked out about his woman being in trouble."

Buffy straightened up, and a little of the shadow was gone from her face. She held her hand out to Angel; he took it and smiled at her. Buffy dipped her head for a moment, then looked back at Cordelia. "Thank you. For everything."

Cordelia just nodded.

"You won't come with us?' Buffy said. Angel looked at her, clearly surprised at the offer.

Cordelia shook her head, swallowed hard and said, "The Powers are gonna be really angry that I gave the Visions to the side of good. If I stay here, their revenge will just be on me. I don't want you guys to have to deal with it."

Lilah grumbled, "Just give them the Eye so we can get this over with, and I can start thinking of a way to buy off Wolfram and Hart's enforcers."

"I sold the Eye to Lindsey this morning," Cordelia said.

"What?" Lilah, Angel and Buffy all said together.

Cordelia shrugged. "Why not? What you actually want is the jewel the Powers gave me to channel the Visions." She put one hand to her throat, then held out her necklace with its great, glittering opal in the center. "And this is it."

"But --" Lilah said. "Then -- the Eye --"

"Is a honkin' ugly paperweight I bought eight years ago at Pier One," Cordelia said. "Please. The Powers give me some incredibly valuable jewel that my whole life depends on, and you think I'm just gonna leave it out in the open? The Powers took away the hurt, not my brain."

"You always had it on -- you always held the Eye in front of it during your Visions. That's devious even by my standards; I'm impressed. So Lindsey's taking a useless trinket to the Underlords," Lilah said with a faint smile. "Cordelia, I might just have to forgive you. Wait. No I won't."

Buffy took the necklace. "This jewel -- this will let us close the Hellmouth."

"If you hurry," Cordelia said, gesturing toward the Portal. "Go."

"The Powers aren't going to like this," Angel said. "And the Underlords will realize what you've done."

"Relax," Cordelia said. "I've got a plan. I'm gonna be fine. But you guys need to get out of here."

Buffy strung the necklace around her own throat. "Okay. I'm ready."

Angel looked down at Cordelia, searching for words that wouldn't come. Finally, he said, "I'll always remember."

She smiled. "I'll always see you. The real you. Never forget that."

Buffy looked up questioningly at Angel; he responded by putting his arm around her waist and leading her toward the Portal. Their bodies were outlined in brilliant light.

I will never see Angel again, Cordelia thought, trying to make the words seem real, trying to memorize his step and his shape as he walked away from her. I will never see Angel again.

He didn't look back as he and Buffy stepped into the light.

The Portal flared, flashed, blasted Cordelia and Lilah with wind. Then it snapped shut once more. Cordelia took the butt of the gun and smashed it into the scrying mirror, which shattered.

She stood there in the silence and the rain. She would never see Angel again. Tears blurred her vision, and the gun tumbled from her grasp as she sagged against the pedestal, all her strength gone.

"I knew it," Lilah said. "Just knew it. You can try to hide idealism, but sooner or later, it bobs to the surface. Like a dead body. I know all about that."

"Just tell them I kidnapped you, Lilah," Cordelia whispered.

"I thought you had a plan for getting out of this."

"I lied," Cordelia said miserably.

The door behind them clanked open, and Cordelia and Lilah spun around to see Lindsey striding toward them, tense and scowling, his dark coat billowing behind him as he walked. He half-glanced back, held up one hand and said, "Stay back. Don't come out here until I tell you."

Cordelia glimpsed the Guards behind him as they obeyed him and stepped back behind the door. She shivered in the cold, in the terror she had promised herself she wouldn't feel.

Lilah pointed her finger at him. "Don't even try to put all this on me. We're going down together, or we're staying alive together. Which is it?"

Lindsey seemed to ignore the question. "I heard the Portal. Who went through?"

Cordelia didn't answer. Lindsey stepped close to her, his heavy boots crunching on the shards of mirror on the ground. "Tell me, Cordelia. Tell me now, while it's easy. Tell me who you gave the real jewel to."

Lilah grabbed his shoulder. "She gave it to Buffy and Angel. They've gone to Sunnydale."

"You got them out of here, didn't you?" Lindsey was looking deeply into Cordelia's eyes.

Lilah shook Lindsey now. "We have to warn the firm and the Underlords right away. If we do that, they can still be stopped, and we might just save our necks."

"I'm actually not all that interested in saving your neck," Lindsey said. "Cordelia, I think you and I need to have a talk."

A talk. How many hours of torture would that represent? Cordelia forced herself to think of Angel walking toward his freedom, toward the fight. She squared her shoulders. "I'm ready," she whispered as she turned to walk away after Lindsey.

Behind them, Lilah said, "You two aren't leaving."

Lindsey half-turned and said, "Oh, yes, we -- aren't."

Turning as well, Cordelia saw that Lilah had picked up the gun Cordelia had dropped -- and was now leveling it at Cordelia and Lindsey, who was standing slightly behind her. Lilah shook her head. "No way, Lindsey. You were always a little quicker, a little smarter. But not this time. You're not pinning this on me. It'll be easy to tell the firm who's to blame -- after you're dead."

Lilah cocked the trigger with a click. "Both of you."

Cordelia had only a moment to brace herself --

BAM!

Cordelia clutched at her stomach, but felt no pain. Saw only Lilah standing there, staring blankly at her, slowly letting the gun drop -- then tumbling to the ground.

When Cordelia wheeled around, she saw Lindsey standing behind her -- at her side, his gun still smoking in his hand. As she stared at him in astonishment, he raised an eyebrow. "How did you think this would end?"

The Guards came running out, alerted by the gunshot; Cordelia braced herself again for the inevitable. But then Lindsey put one hand on her shoulder. To the Guards, he said, "Rescind the arrest order for Cordelia Chase."

"What?" one Guard said. It was all Cordelia could do not to echo him.

Instead, she just stared at Lindsey as he said, "Miss Chase was deceived, just as I was. Lilah Morgan -- late of the firm --" he nudged Lilah's body with his boot, "-- got the true Eye for herself and one of her lovers. The lover made his getaway. But Miss Chase here managed to destroy the mirror before Lilah could do the same. I was forced to kill her to save our lives."

"Of course, sir," the Guard smirked, obviously used to hearing -- and accepting -- excuses for murder.

"Make your report," Lindsey said. "And get the corpse off the roof. Miss Chase has been through a terrible shock. I need to -- comfort -- her."

The Guards were all smirking now as Lindsey put his arm around Cordelia's waist and led her from the Portal.

Cordelia kept her mouth shut until the elevator doors shut, enclosing her and Lindsey alone. As soon as they had, though -- "What the HELL is going on?"

"You showed your true colors just in time. I've been looking for someone I could trust," Lindsey said simply. "Somebody who couldn't be bought."

"And why?"

"To help me infiltrate the Underlords," Lindsey said. The silky-slick grin he usually wore was gone now; he was serious, even earnest, as he leaned toward her. "Not everybody who fights them uses stakes and swords, Cordelia. You can do a lot of damage from inside. Like tonight, for example."

Cordelia stared at him, then thought back. "The Eye. You tried to buy me off --"

"-- and thought I'd succeeded. I was really worried that I'd end up handing over the real Eye. You gave me a bad afternoon."

"Angel said you tried to get them to give up --"

"I kinda thought Angel would be my guy. Buffy -- she could never have worked undercover," Lindsey said, with a slight shrug. "But I thought Angel could maybe have a convincing change of heart. Especially if he was seen to do it for his chance to be with you. But he wanted that a lot more than I realized he did -- which is a credit to his good taste, I might add. When I realized he was vulnerable, I thought I'd pretty much struck out. And then you come through in the clutch."

"You expect me to believe you're working against the Underlords." Cordelia folded her arms. "And that's why you were doing all the trash-talking about the Deburchan dagger --"

"Like how I told Buffy and Angel we didn't capture it along with Gunn?"

That was true, wasn't it? But -- impossible. "And you've been so shy about using the authority the Underlords give you --"

"Like how I watched Buffy break every district rule there is last night, and let her go instead of throwing her in jail?"

Cordelia stared at him. Impossible, but -- he had been testing her. Testing everybody. Even -- "When you tried me to go upstairs with you in front of Angel -- that was a test too?"

The cocksure grin she remembered was back. "Sort of. But that was mostly just for fun."

Cordelia slapped him hard; he winced a little, but the grin never really left his face. He rubbed his cheek as he said, "I do okay on my own. But I could use someone to watch my back. You've got the smarts and the steel for it, if you want to give it a try."

She considered it for a moment, then said, slowly, "You know they'll catch us, in the end. It's only a matter of time."

Lindsey half-smiled. "But at least the time will matter."

And wasn't that what she wanted, most of all?

Cordelia returned the smile. "You've got a deal -- Mr. -- McDonald -- ohhhhh, no --"

Pain. Claws in her back. Growling. Falling down in an alleyway, wet pavement cutting into bare knees. A woman, maybe 50 years old. Averton Square. Cuzfau beast. Pain and hurt and death --

Cordelia snapped to herself, gasping in the shock of the sudden absence of pain. She was sprawled on the elevator floor; Lindsey was kneeling next to her. "Cordelia! What happened?"

"A Vision," she said slowly. "A Vision. Like I used to have."

The vengeance of the Powers, she realized. This is it? This is all I was afraid of? All this time, all they would've done if I switched sides is -- just make it like it used to be.

Which, of course, means agonizing pain and terror, not to mention the strong possibility that my head may someday explode. And the fact that, someday, this is for sure gonna kill me.

But as otherworldly vengeance goes, I can take it.

"A Vision," Lindsey said. "You mean -- something bad that's about to happen."

Cordelia nodded. "Something we can still prevent. If you're up for it."

He grinned as he helped her to her feet. "I like a challenge. Which is why I think we're going to get along."

Lindsey steered her out of the Wolfram and Hart building and toward his long, black car. Cordelia was still unsteady on her feet, uneasy in her mind. She could still hear Angel's footsteps as he walked away from her, could feel the pain of each one as her heart beat. The agony of her Vision still clouded her thoughts. And the sheer danger of the path Lindsey had suggested was overwhelming and terrifying.

But all this pain and fear felt better than her best moment of pleasure or comfort since the Venareth. It was worth it again. No matter what, it would all be worth it.

Lindsey waved off the driver as he got behind the wheel. The tires whooshed through the rain-flooded streets as they sped away.

"Where are we headed?" Lindsey said.

He meant the address, she knew. But Cordelia said, "I don't know, Lindsey. But it's gonna be one hell of a ride."

**

The End

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