Chapter by Rheanna
"Farewell, oh home of my youth," Lorne said, looking out over the Pylean countryside as Angel revved up the car's motor. Lorne was Pylean, Fred was sure of that; he had better manners than most of the ones she'd met, and better clothes, but Pylean all the same. Yet he was going with them too. "I may never see you again. Let's hope not, anyway."
"I gotta say, I never thought I'd be homesick for smog," said Gunn -- did they really say Gunn? Or was it Glen? Black guy, no hair, listen for his name, she reminded herself. And what happened to his hair? Don't ask. Might be a bad story. "But all this time in the fresh air has been driving me crazy. The oxygen makes you lightheaded or something."
"Can't wait to see L.A., myself," Wesley said. His name was easy; he looked exactly like somebody who would be called Wesley. "Most particularly, I can't wait to see my bed, which happens to be located there."
"I am going to take a long, hot bath that lasts for five days," declared Cordelia, adjusting the top half of her bikini in a way that made all the men suddenly display a marked interest in the car's seats and dashboard. She bore little resemblance, physically or emotionally, to the frightened, dirty girl Fred had first seen in the stables.
Was it the same person? Fred was pretty sure it would be tactless to ask, but she couldn't help wondering. There could be twins, maybe. Duplicates. Shadows or reflections of the real person -- maybe the real Cordelia was still trapped somewhere, or still a princess. Shouldn't they check to make sure Cordelia was real?
Angel craned his neck over to smile at Fred. "Almost home," he said.
Fred smiled back at him unevenly and forced herself to pay attention to what, for lack of a better term, she was presently considering "reality." Angel had saved her from the monsters, saved her from Pylea. And now he was taking her home.
Home, she thought. That word ought to mean everything to her. But she knew it could mean absolutely anything --
No point in thinking about that right now. Instead she said to Angel, "Are you happy to go home, too?"
He did not seem to hear her. But even as Wesley began reading the incantation Fred had given him, she saw Angel take one hand from the steering wheel and hold it in a flickering beam of sunlight --
Then the world was made of light as the portal exploded, expanded and swallowed them whole. Energy washed over Fred, washed through her, with an electric sensation that was at once bizarre and terrifyingly familiar --
The car crashed out of the portal and off -- a stage? They were all thrown forward; Fred blinked her eyes as she tried to adjust to the sudden darkness. When she could see again, she looked around and found she was in a place that resembled -- she frowned to herself. What were those places called that her friends had always told her she'd like but she never did? She struggled, and after a moment a long disused word floated to the top of her consciousness.
They had arrived in a nightclub.
Nobody else seemed to think this was weird. Or, at least, weirder than usual. "Sorry 'bout your place, man," said Glen-or-Gunn.
"Always meant to redecorate," Lorne said easily, swinging the door open to get out. Then he froze, half in the car, half out. "But it looks like somebody beat me to it."
Fred could see well enough now to make out the details of their surroundings -- turquoise paint, beige carpeting, lamps that looked like cacti and fixtures on the walls that were -- hopefully fake -- cattle skulls. A dark scrawl on the wall would, when lit up, be a neon sign that proclaimed this place to be "The Longhorn." "Is this your nightclub?" Fred asked.
"Well, right now, it looks like Dolly Parton's hairdresser's nightclub," Lorne said, hands on his hips. "But yes, it belongs to me, a fact that my staff apparently decided to ignore in my absence."
"They redecorated?" Wesley said, squinting at the tables, which all appeared to be topped with maps of Texas.
"Unwisely, and not well," Cordelia said, shimmying over the back of the car to explore the place herself. "Oh, my God. This place looks like a Taco Bell, only less subtle and classy."
Taco Bell. The name conjured up all sorts of delightful memories -- late nights at the library, or long afternoons studying, just Fred and her books and a great big bagful of -- "Can we get some tacos?"
"Don't you worry," Glen-or-Gunn said with a smile. "We're gonna set you up with a little run for the border real soon."
"They changed the NAME?" Lorne said, staring at the neon sign. "Oh, when I find out who did this, heads are gonna roll. And in this dimension, that means something."
"This can't be right," Angel said. He was the only one of them who hadn't moved; he remained in the driver's seat of the car, hands on the wheel. "Lorne, your employees wouldn't have done something like that without your permission. And they couldn't have done it this quickly."
"So true," Cordelia said. "We called the repair guys about the Hyperion's sauna back in October. And have they given us a remodeling date yet? No."
"You were going to fix the sauna?" Angel said.
Cordelia looked slightly abashed. "Well, you know, steam is so good for the pores -- and -- and anyway, we're the bosses now, so, let it go."
Angel leaned back in his seat; his expression in the darkness seemed closed off, withdrawn. Although she hadn't known him for very long, anytime something had been wrong, Angel had told her. Even if he was shaking on the ground, even if he had to scream it, he had told her. So why wasn't he telling them now? And why no one else think it was strange that he wasn't telling them? The mood in the room seemed to have changed really fast, for some reason.
"We must have found another hot spot," Wesley said. "This club has the same layout as Caritas, perhaps. But we must have actually landed someplace else."
"No, this is my bar," Lorne insisted. "That dent in the wall? That's from the fracas that broke out when somebody interrupted Mordar the Bentback's Barry White medley. See the tusk marks?"
"How long were you all in Pylea?" Fred asked.
It was a simple enough question, but it froze everyone in their tracks. "Oh, no," Gunn said. "We didn't."
Wesley looked pale. "Cordelia's experience in Pylea before we found her passed only in real time -- I mean, Earth time -- our time --"
"Let's just check to be sure," Angel said. He got out of the car and began searching the room. Everyone else followed suit, and Fred began looking around too, though she wasn't at all certain what they were supposed to be looking for.
After a few moments, Angel opened up a side door that led to an alleyway. "Trash can," he said. Fred felt sure the words should mean something to her, but somehow they had become separated from their definition, so that when she tried to call up a mental picture that went with them, she couldn't. But the others must have known what Angel was talking about, as they all began pushing their way out the door. Fred stayed where she was at first, until the cow skulls on the wall stared back at her. Then she turned and ran after the others.
Angel was fishing about in a large metal box with a hinged lid. Aha, she thought as he tossed various cans and boxes out onto the asphalt: trash can. Finally he grabbed up a newspaper and read the date. "May 23, 2001. That's, what? Six days from when we left?"
"There's a little difference," Wesley said. "But nothing of consequence."
The alleyway was dark; it was nighttime. Not a single sun to be seen, Fred thought as she looked up. Not any stars, either. I could have sworn Earth had stars in the sky --
"Well, the fact that my bar now looks like a discarded set from 'Urban Cowboy' is of consequence," Lorne said.
Fred kept staring upwards.
Wesley began, "So how do we explain --"
Cordelia screamed. The others stared at her, then followed her gaze -- and Fred's -- up into the night. A giant creature, scaly and gray with wings perhaps 100 feet across, swooped menacingly across the sky. It breathed a long arc of fire, then soared toward the horizon.
"Los Angeles has dragons?" Fred said. "Now, see, I didn't remember that."
The others were all staring after the dragon, slack-jawed. "Guys?" Fred said.
Glen was the first to speak. "English," he said slowly, "when you said this incantation thing you and Fred worked out was going to get us home, were you telling me God's own truth? Because right now I am not wanting to hear that you fudged the details."
"Of course not!" Wesley said. "We had all the formulae -- expressed verbally -- Fred said that we -- this was supposed to --"
"Fred?" Cordelia said, her voice a question and a warning all at once.
"Cordelia," Angel said, in much the same tone.
Fred shrugged. "This is home. At least, this is one version of it."
"Beg to differ with you," Lorne said. "Tinseltown's got its share of the bizarre, of which I gladly constitute a small percentage, but Puff over there is NOT part of the scene. Not unless Spielberg's found some truly new applications for CGI."
"What do you mean, one version?" Angel said. His voice was steady, though she could tell he was fighting to keep it that way. "Are we home or aren't we?"
"Yes," Fred said.
The others stared at her for a long time, as though she'd said something very odd. At last, Cordelia said, through teeth clenched in a poor imitation of a smile, "You said your little formula-chanty-thingy was going to open up the portal and take us back. Did that promise come with a money-back guarantee?"
"Cordelia, please," Angel said. "Getting mad isn't going to help."
"Letting Drusilla Lite drive doesn't seem to have helped a lot either."
Angel's eyes flashed at that -- was that anger? Pain? Fred opened her mouth to ask who or what a Drusilla was when Wesley broke in. "Fred, if I pronounced the incantation incorrectly --"
"You didn't," Fred said. "You were really very good." She hesitated, then gave him a little punch on the arm, as she had seen Gunn-or-Glen do. Wasn't that supposed to be encouraging? Wesley looked less encouraged than vaguely ill. She pulled her fist back and hugged it to her chest. "It's just that the portals between dimensions -- they can be unstable, sometimes. If somebody else was traveling through them at the same time, or, or maybe trying to create portals where there weren't any before -- well, the equations would get all muddled up, and you'd have to model some truly horrible sine fluctuations to calculate the iterative resonance feedback and -- " Vaguely aware that she'd lost her audience, she concluded, "Things could get freaky. If you know what I mean."
Wesley nodded slowly. "But who or what would have the power to break down the walls between dimensions?"
"Glory," Angel said. This meant nothing to Fred; she was slightly relieved to see that the others were all looking at him with the same confusion on their faces. "When I went to see Buffy after her mother's funeral, she told me about an enemy she's been facing in Sunnydale. Glory -- a god from another dimension. Maybe she was trying to return there."
"Buffy versus God," Cordelia said. "Now there's a match-up for Pay-Per-View."
"You know, there's nothing I love more than chatting about lost loves," Lorne said. "But I'd like to hurry up and get to the part of the story that involves me. You think this Glory tried to get back to where she once belonged and kept us from doing the same?"
Fred's mind was reeling from all the new names and information -- Buffy, Glory, Sunnydale. And did somebody say something about Angel's lost love? She tried to do what she used to do best: focus. "If something really powerful were influencing the dimensions at the exact same time we were trying to get home, it could have sent us on a little detour."
"A 'little detour' would not take us to Dragon Land," Cordelia said. Her arms were crossed in front of her body, and her tiara was now off-kilter in a way that would have been very funny if she hadn't looked so angry.
"He probably got lost just like we did," Fred said, looking up sadly at the dragon, which was drifting through some whirling spotlights near Grauman's Chinese. "Poor dragon."
Angel stepped closer to her, drawing her attention back to Earth. He put one hand on her shoulder as he asked, "Can we get back again?"
"Depends on what went wrong, and why," Fred said. "I can figure it out. But I need a little while. And I can do the calculations with paper and pencil, but one of those -- things -- would be nice - "
"Things?" asked Cordelia.
This time Fred had the mental picture, but not the word that went with it. She gestured with her hands. "A box that beeps and glows and makes things easier." It was frustrating, because she was sure there had been a time when she'd known what the right word was. When she'd first arrived in Pylea, hadn't she spent weeks and weeks scratching away on the wall of her cave, wishing she had a --
"A computer," said Angel, smiling slightly.
That was the word she'd lost. Fred smiled gratefully back at Angel, and stuck a mental Post-It that read 'computer' on the picture in her head. She leaned closer to him and whispered, "And also -- I need a bath."
"Home base, coming up," said Gunn.
Something wasn't right about the Hyperion.
Angel was sure of it almost as soon as he brought the packed Plymouth to a halt just shy of the hotel's back gates. Although, judging by the almost palpable sense of relief in the car, he was the only one to have noticed anything amiss.
After the dragon sighting outside Caritas -- or the Longhorn, as he supposed he'd have to think of it while they were here -- the drive across the city had been tense. Little had been said, as five of the car's six passengers watched carefully for more evidence of divergences between this Los Angeles and home. Fred had spent the journey playing with the dashboard cigarette lighter.
However, they'd witnessed nothing more unusual than a bar brawl spilling on to the sidewalk as they passed through Westlake and a couple making out in a store doorway around Echo Park. Aside from one itinerant dragon, L.A. was still L.A.
And wasn't the Hyperion the same as well? Angel looked the building up and down, trying to pinpoint the source of his discomfort. It looked just the way it had when he'd left it a week ago: two wings flanking a six-floor central block, constructed in a mishmash of styles that could only be a permanent monument to a bet lost by a misguided architect whose name was now mercifully long forgotten. In the courtyard, the weeds Cordelia had been nagging him to do something about since the day he'd moved in still grew high. The ornamental fountain was still clogged with dirt and dry as dust. It looked ruined, broken-down, desolate.
And yet, he thought, not abandoned.
"I never thought I'd say this, but I missed this place," declared Cordelia as she hopped out of the car. "Okay, everyone out. Children and women in serious need of a bath and an escape from sequined underwire first."
"Wait," said Angel.
Cordelia was tapping her foot impatiently on the sidewalk. "I hope you've got a real good reason for coming between me and my loofah."
"I'm not sure about this. I think someone's in there."
Wesley frowned. "How can you be sure?"
Angel shrugged helplessly. "I can't. But we should check it out."
Cordelia looked back at the dark mass of the building. "Oh, come on. Look at the lobby windows!"
"They're filthy," Wesley said.
"Exactly. And, though I may possibly have been known to complain about it a time or two --" Cordelia did not even pause as Gunn snorted, "-- I do take the time and energy to keep those bottom windows clean. So nobody's there." Her expression changed slightly as she realized. "We're not there."
Gunn got out of the car and stood beside her. "That's gotta be a good, right?"
Wesley joined him. "Gunn?"
Gunn shrugged. "Think about it, English. Another version of L.A. means maybe other versions of us. But if we don't have twins here -- or they're off doing their own thing some place else -- that's gonna save some real awkward introductions. And it leaves the hotel vacant, so we've got a place to crash 'til we figure this thing out."
Wesley nodded slowly. Then his face clouded. "But if we never moved in -- "
Angel completed the thought. "The Thesulac demon never moved out. It's probably still there."
Cordelia sighed. "Terrific. Freaky here-be-dragons universe outside, paranoia-inducing demon inside. Hello, rock, allow me to introduce you to hard place."
Fred was frowning. "This is like the dragon thing, isn't it? Because I don't remember there being dragons here, before, but there are -- and I don't remember there being demons before either. But there are, here. So there shouldn't be demons." She looked up and smiled hopefully at Angel, apparently pleased with her ability to apply logic consistently. "That's right, isn't it?"
Before he could reply, Cordelia said briskly, "No, there were always demons. You just didn't notice them."
Fred's face fell. "Oh."
"We got rid of it before," said Angel: "We'll get rid of it again."
Wesley nodded. "Although we should make sure it's in there, first. No point in wasting time tonight trying to hunt down another orb of Ramjarin to raise it with if we're wrong." He thought for a moment, then appeared to reach a decision. "Angel, Lorne -- you'd better make a quick sweep of the building."
Lorne sat up and shook his head so fast his horns were a blur. "Thanks, but no thanks. In this movie, I am very clearly cast in the role of plucky comic relief, not action hero."
Patiently, Wesley said, "Thesulacs interfere with rational thought processes. Other demons aren't immune, but they're more likely to be able to shrug it off. You two are the logical choices to go in there."
"Think I'll come along too," said Gunn. "Could do with stretching my legs."
Wesley looked at him doubtfully. "I'm not sure. If the Thesulac's in there, it could very quickly have you thinking -- anything."
Gunn grinned widely, easy and reassuring. "Relax, Wes. Three people makes this go faster than two. Sooner we sort this, sooner we have a base, sooner we get answers and go home."
"Amen to that," said Cordelia.
Wesley considered this, then nodded. "Very well." His mouth quirked in an unwilling smile. "It's not as though you have many rational thought processes to be interfered with."
"I knew I shouldn'ta let you get to know me," Gunn said, his grin even broader.
Something rattled down the street, and they all tensed -- but when Angel wheeled about quickly, he saw only a soda can rolling down the gutter. Wesley squared his shoulders, again intent on the matter at hand. "We'll stay with the car and wait for you. Just in case there are any more nasty surprises lurking out here for us."
But as Angel moved toward the hotel's dark and silent facade, he was struck by the sudden and inexplicable conviction that it wasn't nasty surprises outside they needed to worry about.
"How long have they been gone?" Cordelia asked, her face creased in a frown.
"Only five minutes," Wesley said, holding up his watch so she could see it. Cordelia's brow furrowed even further, and he felt some extra reassurance was required. Making an effort to strike a tone which was more upbeat than he felt, he said, "I shouldn't worry. They've barely had long enough to get inside."
"I guess," Cordelia said, but she sounded unconvinced. Fred had shifted her attention from the cigarette lighter to the car's radio and was tuning it to each station in turn. Oddly, the only kind of music being broadcast on any frequency was Beethoven, with the exception of one rogue station where 'Copacabana' was on looped repeat. Whatever version of reality they'd landed in, thought Wesley gloomily, it was one of the stranger ones.
Cordelia sagged back in the car's passenger seat and, taking off her tiara, smoothed down her hair tiredly. "I want to go home, Wes. Dimension-hopping -- well, let's just say the novelty's wearing off real fast."
"I'll second that motion," Wesley agreed.
Suddenly, Fred gave a cry.
Instantly, Wesley was out of the car and scanning the street for the source of the danger; Cordelia was looking around herself frantically as well. He craned his neck and looked upwards, checking the smoggy sky for swooping mythical beasts and, with deep relief, finding none. But Fred was still screaming and pointing across the empty road at the Taco Bell directly opposite the Hyperion.
She stopped abruptly, and Wesley realized it hadn't been a scream, but a whoop of joy. "Tacos!" she announced, grinning with delight. "Nachos!"
"Nachos to you too," Cordelia said, scowling. "Jeez, Fred, are you trying to give us heart attacks?"
Wesley blinked, and frowned. He walked along this street three or four times a day, going to or coming from the hotel. From where he stood, he could see the twenty-four hour dry-cleaner's whose professional expertise he often challenged with clothing stained by the by-products of demon-slaying, and the bakery where the female staff cooed over his accent every time he stopped to buy breakfast on the way home. But he didn't recall there ever being a Mexican fast food place between them.
"Cordelia," he said slowly, "Should that be there? I mean, is there a Taco Bell there in our universe?"
She shook her head uncertainly. "I don't think so. New Taco Bell, the Longhorn -- maybe this whole dimension is done in tacky Tex-Mex. Scary thought."
"Burritos," Fred said dreamily, and she began to cross the street.
"Fred, wait." Wesley dug into his pocket and took out his wallet. "You'll need money."
She accepted the ten dollar bill he handed her, but stared at it curiously for some time, as if trying to remember exactly what it was for. Then her expression cleared and, smiling widely, she bounded away.
"We're gonna have our work cut out with her," Cordelia commented, watching her go. She glanced at the Taco Bell and shook her head. "I guess we've gotta expect stuff to be different here. And, as surprises go, I'll take extra fast-food joints over big, scary dragons in the sky any time."
"Yes, but..." Wesley began. He stopped.
She was looking at him. "What's the big?"
Uncomfortable thoughts were forming in Wesley's mind. Thoughts he wasn't entirely sure it would helpful to share, just now. For instance, his conviction that the Taco Bell not only hadn't been there in their reality -- but that it hadn't been there ten minutes before.
He was almost certain of it. Almost.
But, then again, it had been a long and strange few days, and he was exhausted, and he'd been on the lookout for a number of things far more important than fast-food restaurants.
Wesley shook his head slowly and got back into the car. "Nothing. It's nothing."
Angel stood outside what had been the Hyperion's staff entrance and now functioned as the building's back door. "Gunn, you check the ground floor and the one above it. I'll take the top floors. Lorne -- you've got the basement."
"I don't think so. I've seen enough Stephen King adaptations to know what happens to the guy who goes down to the basement, and it's never good."
"I'll take the basement," Gunn offered. "Ain't nothin' down there except the washer-dryer and a LOT of black sweaters." Pointing at Angel, he continued, "This is not a guy who has to separate his colors, if you know what I'm sayin'."
"We can talk about my wardrobe some other time. Everyone clear on what they're doing?" Angel asked. They nodded. "Good."
With one firm shove, he pushed open the door and slipped inside the dark building. After a second, he heard the others follow.
The lobby was just as he remembered finding it in another reality and months earlier: musty-smelling sheets thrown carelessly over battered furniture. "No paying guests for a while," Lorne remarked.
Angel shook his head. It was difficult to tell through the thick haze of dust in the air, but there was a scent, something fresh and tantalizingly familiar... "No. Someone's been here recently."
Gunn had moved behind the reception desk. "Probably squatters," he said. "Look." Reaching down, he lifted a plastic tub marked with the logo of a take-out Chinese restaurant, and prized open the lid. He sniffed cautiously, and made a face. "Urgh. Coupla weeks there, at least. Hey!"
He jumped back as a scrawny gray cat shot out from under the reception desk and ran past him. A second later, it had vanished into the dark recesses of the hotel's ground floor.
"If people have been here recently, the Thesulac must have chased them off," Angel said. "Or tricked them into killing each other."
Lorne pursed his lips. "At least he gave them time to have their last meal delivered."
"Let's just do this fast." Angel moved to the stairs and started to climb them. After a second Lorne followed; he could hear Gunn opening the door to the basement. He breathed in, took in the scent of the rancid take-out food again. Squatters. It made sense -- and yet, somehow, it didn't. He inhaled once more, concentrated. He could smell sickness in the air, something decaying, something he recognized but couldn't place. Something very, very wrong.
With Lorne close behind him, he ascended to the second floor. The smell of decay was stronger up here, and Angel was growing more concerned. Quietly, he said, "Why don't you check out the other end of the hall?"
"Oh, great idea. It's always been my fondest wish to die alone," Lorne said. But he did as Angel suggested.
Angel continued on his way, checking behind each door, listening carefully. After a heavy pause, he opened the door to 207 -- but sighed in relief when there was no sign of Judy, either alive or dead. If she weren't there, and squatters hadn't set up house, then the likelihood was high that the Thesulac demon had long since moved on, in search of fresh prey.
Perhaps, Angel thought, his perceptions were deceiving him after all. Maybe the cartons they'd found were evidence only of some teenagers who'd found the place, hung out one night and moved on.
As he stepped out of Judy's room, he looked up, stopped. There was a full length mirror at the end of the corridor, and in it he could see a sight that he had only just learned to recognize. The tall man staring back at him was powerfully built, with short, spiky dark hair. Strange, he thought, a reflection here too --
The reflection moved.
For a second they faced off in silence, and Angel quickly realized that the other's expression held more confusion than he felt. That made sense -- this other Angel probably hadn't seen himself recently.
Confusion slowly became recognition. "What--?"
Angel raised his hands in an automatic, placatory gesture. Where to start? He opened his mouth to attempt some kind of explanation, but got no further than the first word before he heard footsteps draw near behind him. He glanced back to see Lorne.
"The other end of the hall has nothing more terrifying than some truly lousy fake Louis XIV chairs, so it seems like Mr. Tentacles has moved on to -- HELLO."
Lorne drew up short, several paces behind Angel. When he turned around again, the door behind his double was opening as someone else came into the corridor, drawn by the noise.
She was wearing a red silk nightdress that shifted and clung to her, tracing the curve of her breasts and hips exactly as she padded barefoot across the hallway and slipped her arm around the other Angel with casual intimacy. Her hair was tangled, and as she moved the thick smell of sex wafted to Angel on the suddenly frigid air. He felt cold as she looked at him with lazy, half-interested bemusement. Then she stood on tiptoe and delicately nipped at the ear and throat of her lover. "Angelus? What do we have this time?"
"Not dream girl again," Lorne said, and took a step forward.
"Stay behind me," Angel said sharply.
"Stay behind me," Angelus said at the same time, pushing Darla away from himself.
The coincidence was enough to unnerve both of them further. Unwilling but unable to prevent himself, Angel sought out the other's gaze, locked and held it.
Everything was wrong here -- everything --
Angel looked away first. And so he missed the moment when Gunn came bounding around the corner.
"Basement and first floor are clear, and -- and -- what the hell?" Gunn hesitated for only a moment, looking quickly back and forth between the two doubles. Almost instantly, he turned toward Angelus and Darla; his hand went, lightning-fast, to the stake he carried in his belt at all times.
"No!" Angel yelled, but too late; in a flash Angelus lunged, slamming Gunn against the wall. One of his hands was clenched around Gunn's left wrist, clamped down hard enough to make the hand shake until the stake tumbled to the floor. The other arm was across Gunn's face, pinning his head to the wall, leaving his throat exposed --
Angel jumped forward, instinctively moving to protect Gunn against a threat. He grabbed Angelus' arm, pulling it away from Gunn's face --
He touched Angelus' skin. Cold, dead -- his own. Revulsion lanced through him, so strong and primal that he physically shook.
Angelus pulled his arm back at the precise moment that Angel also jerked his hand away. The two backed away from each other slowly. Gunn was shaking against the wall, but he collected himself quickly and got behind Angel. Darla, for her part, was looking more and more confused and unhappy. "Angelus?"
Angel took another step backwards without turning around and said, "We're leaving." He wasn't sure whether he intended the words as a warning, a statement of intent, an instruction to Gunn and Lorne, or something else again. Whatever it was, Angelus understood, because as Angel backed away from him and toward the stairs he made no move to follow. Instead he watched silently, Darla at his side, holding his expression in a rigidly impassive mask which Angel instinctively knew meant he was equally shaken.
They descended the stairs at speed and in silence, down two floors, through the lobby and back out into the night. At the car, Wesley and Cordelia looked up at their approach, as Fred contentedly helped herself to another nacho chip from the paper tray she was holding.
"Did you find anything?" Cordelia asked. She took in Angel's expression. "You found something."
He got into the car without looking at her. "We've got to get away from here."
Wesley shook his head. "It's unlikely the Thesulac will follow outside."
"It's worse than that," Gunn said.
Cordelia looked at them in turn. "Define 'worse.'"
"Nacho?" Fred offered, holding the tray under Angel's nose.
"Define 'worse,'" Cordelia repeated more insistently.
Lorne said, "'Worse' as in, let's move before we all die violent, painful deaths."
"Him," Gunn clarified tersely, nodding in Angel's direction. "The name Angelus ringing any bells for you? Because Darla was using it a whole lot while she was hanging all over him."
Cordelia said, quietly, "Oh, fuck."
"That's how it looked from where we were standing," agreed Lorne. He looked back at the hotel's dark entrance. "Here's a suggestion: what say we leave now, panic later?"
"Who's Darla?" Fred asked.
Angel pushed Fred's arm away and started the car's engine. He could feel the gazes of the others settling on him, hostile, angry. Amid his own confusion and terror, he could also feel a deep resignation; in the midst of all this improbability, there was an element of inevitability. The truth will out, he thought.
Blood will tell.
"I still don't understand," Fred said. "What are we running away from?"
Angel took the next corner too fast; he could hear all the passengers groan as they banged hard into the sides of the vehicle and each other. Fred was thrown against him so roughly that she gasped to collect her breath. The realization that he could hurt them badly -- that he had already hurt them -- achieved something that all Fred's pleading, Wesley's questioning and Cordelia's outrage had not. It made him put his foot on the brake.
As the car slowed and pulled over into a parking lot, Cordelia said, "Thank God."
"I'm not sure He's in this zip code," Lorne said. "But it's worth a shot, sweetie. Keep at it." He turned to Angel with a nonchalance that only barely seemed forced. "So that's your darker half. May I just take this moment to thank you for all that neurotic energy you expend keeping him bottled up? Because bottled up is exactly what that guy needs to be."
"Where the hell were you driving to, anyway?" Gunn demanded.
"Anywhere," Angel said. "Just -- away." He looked back over his shoulder at the carful of people with him. Fred was utterly confused -- poor Fred -- and the others were a mixture of angry, frightened and thoughtful. The "thoughtful" element consisted chiefly of Wesley; he had steepled his fingers in front of his face and his expression was distant. Gunn kept rubbing his shoulder, which had been injured during their encounter at the hotel; he was staring back at Angel with a mixture of displeasure and shock. In the back seat, Cordelia fumed, and even as she opened her mouth, Angel braced himself for her words --
"What the hell is he doing here?"
After staring at her for a moment, Angel said, hesitantly, "You mean Angelus?"
"No, I meant Ed McMahon. Yes, Angelus. What is he doing here?"
All her anger, all her fury -- it was directed at Angelus. As though he were someone else entirely -- "We have a number of different possibilities before us," Wesley said. "It's possible that, in this reality, Angel was never cursed with his soul at all --"
"No," Angel said. "I don't see why I would ever have ended up in the Hyperion if I'd never been cursed with a soul."
"So you did get cursed, but you never came back after your shag-nanigans with Buffy," Cordelia said.
"No," Angel said again. "Darla was in there. I killed her long before -- before Buffy and I --"
"I don't know all these names," Fred said. Where the others were on edge, she was simply curious. "Am I supposed to?"
"You're gonna know more than you want to know fast enough," Gunn said. "So Wolfram & Hart still brought babe-in-a-box back to haunt you --"
The car became suddenly very quiet. After a pause, Wesley said, "And in this universe, their plan worked."
"How?" Cordelia said. "How could it work? I mean, Angel got all antisocial and freaksome, but he never lost his soul. He never slept with Darla."
Lorne pursed his lips and looked up at the sky.
"Yes, I did," Angel said.
For a long few moments, there was no sound in the car at all. Traffic whooshed by in the night, sirens sounded in the far distance, and a faulty old air-conditioning unit in a nearby building wheezed incessantly. Angel wanted to meet their eyes, wanted to face up to it all, but there were so many eyes to face. Wesley's disbelief, Cordelia's outrage, Gunn's disgust -- even Fred looked wounded, God knew why --
"You had sex with Darla," Cordelia said. "You lied to me."
Quietly, Angel confirmed, "Just before I came back to all of you, there was a night when I hit bottom."
"So to speak," Lorne said.
"How could you?" Wesley said. "How could you do such a thing, knowing what the consequences might be?"
"I didn't!" Angel said. "I mean -- there were no consequences. I couldn't have been farther away from perfect happiness --"
"So you were practicing safe sex?" Cordelia snapped. "Well, guess what? Turns out it wasn't that safe at all. You lost your soul here, and Angelus is back out to play. Just so you could get your rocks off."
"Way to go," Gunn muttered.
"Everyone, wait," Wesley said. His voice sounded calmer, more measured; the tide of bad feeling in the car suddenly seemed to ebb and fade. "This isn't the time to go handing out blame. I think we have more important matters on our hands."
"Like what?" Cordelia said.
"Finding a safe base of operations," Wesley said. "And finding out what's become of us all."
Angel didn't want to know the answer to that question. But he didn't think he was going to be spared finding out.
In Silverlake, Cordelia's apartment was eerily silent, its windows uniformly dark. As it was 3 o'clock in the morning, that shouldn't have been surprising, but the events of the night so far had set Wesley's nerves on edge. Instead of getting out of the car immediately, he kept watching the apartment.
As he looked, he began to notice the absence of familiar features. The wind chimes Cordelia had hung outside the door -- the ones he always knocked his head on as he went inside -- were missing. The fern by the front door drooped sideways in its pot, withered and dead. "The place looks empty," he commented.
"Hyperion looked empty, too," Gunn said, shooting a sideways glance in Angel's direction.
Wesley had to concede the point, but they needed to find a base -- somewhere he could just stop long enough to think -- and they needed to find it soon. "I'll take a look. Just to be on the safe side." Turning around to face Cordelia in the back seat, he asked, "Do you have your keys?"
She raised her eyebrows, then waved her hands down the front of her body: "Wesley, I look like I'm auditioning for an 'I Dream of Jeannie' remake. Do you see any pockets in this ?"
He felt himself blush. "Oh. Right. Sorry."
"Since you ask, my apartment keys are in the pocket of the pants of my best denim pantsuit, which is currently in another universe. Which I guess is a better excuse than leaving them in the dryer." She shrugged. "But there's a spare set on the ledge above the door. Or there ought to be."
Wesley nodded, got out of the car and made his way quickly across the lawn at the front of the building and along the covered deck to Cordelia's apartment. Once there, he reached up and ran his hand along the top of the doorway. There was a metallic clink as the spare key fell to the ground, and he smiled as he retrieved it. At least something in this warped version of the world was the way it was supposed to be. Oddly, the key was speckled with rust, but with an effort he made it turn in the lock.
He opened the door cautiously, unsure what to expect. But the apartment was as quiet inside as it appeared to be from outside, and when he breathed in he found the air had a stale edge. Wesley stepped outside again to wave to the others, then waited while they joined him.
"Home sweet home," announced Cordelia, walking past him and into the apartment. The others followed, Angel last, and when he was inside Wesley shut the door firmly. "Even if it's some other me's home sweet home, right now I'll take what I can get. "
As soon as she spoke, the lights flicked on, flooding the living room with welcoming brightness. A blanket that had been draped over the back of a chair flew through the air, wrapping itself around Cordelia's shoulders and pulling her towards the sofa. As she collapsed onto it, cushions snuggled into place under her arms and behind her head. Wesley could almost sense the glow of intense delight permeating the space.
"Dennis, cut it out!" Cordelia was laughing as she freed her arms from the blanket hugging around her in a fierce embrace. "What, is this a hint about the Princess Leia costume? Cut it OUT, I said, that tickles -- Oh, I missed you too -- I know I haven't been here for a while --"
Wesley saw her look around the bright living room properly for the first time. As she took in her surroundings, her laughter stopped abruptly. "Jeez. I guess I really haven't been here for a while."
The apartment was a mess. Packing crates were stacked carelessly on top of one another, and a slew of belongings -- books, plates, clothing, a model of the Starship Enterprise -- lay scattered randomly around them. Much of the furniture had been pushed up against the walls and half-covered with old sheets. The place looked as if someone had got halfway through moving in, had an abrupt change of heart, then simply walked out and never returned again.
Cordelia stretched across the sofa and lifted a dog-eared copy of Playboy between her thumb and forefinger. With distaste and dawning realization she said, "This isn't my stuff."
"You probably decided to skip town when he took up homicide as a recreational activity," Gunn said, taking a seat beside her and referring to Angel as if he were invisible. While the others were making themselves comfortable in the living room, Angel had not moved far from the door: he was standing outside the group. The expression on his face, noted Wesley, clearly said that invisible was exactly what he currently wished he were.
"Yeah, that makes sense," Cordelia said, but there was doubt in her voice. She smiled a falsely cheery smile: "And Dennis has been making sure I'd have somewhere to come back to. You're the best roomie a girl could have."
Fred, apparently oblivious to the exclusion zone in force around Angel, moved closer to him. "Should I be able to see Dennis?" she whispered. "Or is he maybe Cordelia's make-believe friend? I had a make-believe friend for a while. His name was Schrodinger. He was a cat. Then one day he got in his box and when I looked inside he wasn't there." She saddened at the memory. "I think his quantum wave collapsed. Or maybe he just went to chase a mouse."
Lorne reached into a pocket and took out a handkerchief, which he used to dust the top of a packing crate before sitting on it. "Judging from the psychic energy sloshing around in here like ice cubes in an alcoholic's G&T, I'm guessing Dennis is a ghost."
Cordelia held up a hand, cutting him off before he could say any more. "In my house, we try to avoid the 'g' word. Sensitive subject." This established, she looked up and addressed herself to the room at large: "Dennis, meet Lorne and Fred. Lorne's from another dimension." She frowned. "Well, actually we're all from another dimension."
"And we need to start working out how we're going to get back there. Especially now that it's clear this universe is somewhat more dangerous than it initially appeared to be," Wesley said. "Dennis, is the phone still connected?"
In reply, the telephone took off from its cradle and deposited itself in his waiting hand. "Thank you, Dennis."
"Who are you calling?" Gunn asked.
"Someone who might be able to help, I hope," Wesley said, feigning confidence. But he looked at the phone he held for a long moment before dialing. He doubted anyone in the room -- including Gunn and Cordelia -- seriously believed this dimension's Cordelia was soaking up the sun on a beach in Hawaii, or that this version of Gunn had won the lottery and dwelled in Beverly Hills. But with no easy way to find out what had happened to them all, it was left to Wesley to ask the uncomfortable questions.
No point in delaying the inevitable.
He keyed in the number quickly, then held the phone to his ear as the connection was made. He felt an unexpected surge of optimism when it was answered almost immediately. "Hello?" a male voice said.
"Wesley Wyndham-Pryce?" Wesley asked.
"Never heard of him," the man said, in a nasal East-coast accent. "You've got the wrong number, pal."
"Wait," Wesley said quickly. "This is his home number. I mean -- I'm sure I'm not mistaken."
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line, as the man apparently considered the choice between becoming more deeply involved in the conversation, and just putting the phone down. To Wesley's relief, he chose the former option. "Uh, hang on. This isn't my place, it's my girlfriend's. I'll ask her. Hey, Kim!"
Another pause, during which Wesley strained to make out the details of a muffled conversation taking place somewhere distant from the phone. "This guy you're looking for," the male voice asked when it finally returned, "is he English?"
"Kim says the guy who lived here before her was English. She thinks he had some weird, long name."
"Did he happen to leave a forwarding address?"
"Not unless you can pick up mail in the afterlife."
Wesley swallowed. Around him, the five people who couldn't hear the other side of the conversation were looking at him hopefully. "So he's dead," he said, and watched five faces register varying degrees of disquiet.
"Yeah. I don't know what happened, but it was pretty sudden. Kim was almost ready to give up on finding a place. Good luck for her, real bad luck for him." The man stopped, as if something had just struck him for the first time. "Hey, uh, I'm sorry -- did you know him well?"
"I knew him very well indeed," Wesley said, and broke the connection.
He stared at the phone for a very long time before he felt able to look up and meet the gazes of the others again. When he finally could, he said with false joviality: "Well, I for one won't have to worry about the correct etiquette to observe when meeting one's double from an alternate reality."
"Wesley --" began Cordelia.
"Call Sunnydale," Angel said. His voice sounded uneven, and it cracked over the last word.
Wesley clenched his jaw -- for some reason, just the sound of Angel's voice threatened to push his temper past the breaking point. "I believe we're perfectly capable of handling this situation ourselves, thank you."
"Glory," Angel said. "We should find out what she was doing, exactly. That could help us. And I want to know if --"
Angel said no more, but Wesley could fill in the rest. Of course, of course. Angel's suggestion was only sensible. He ought to have realized that himself. After a moment of searching his memory, he came up with the right numbers, dialed quickly.
As Giles' phone rang and rang, Wesley watched Angel's expression grow progressively darker. He couldn't have, Wesley thought, he couldn't have killed them all --
The voice was rougher than Wesley remembered it, and the pronunciation was uncharacteristically indistinct, but it was still Giles. "This is going to sound a little odd," Wesley began.
"Who's there? What d'you want from me this time?"
Wesley blinked. If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn Giles was -- drunk. "This is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, Mr. Giles."
"Oh, God," Giles said.
This was not going well at all. "I realize this is something of a shock, but there is an explanation --"
"You again," Giles said. Beneath the sloppiness, the weariness, he sounded intensely irritated. "I wish you people -- you dead people -- would stop phoning me up at all hours. Call bloody directory inquiries if you want to talk to the living." Suddenly the anger drained from his tone, replaced by something like dread. "Is Buffy there? Tell her -- I can't bring her back. So stop asking me --" The line went dead.
Slowly, Wesley lowered the phone.
"Is something up with Giles?" Cordelia asked.
He hesitated before replying. "Mr. Giles is... rather indisposed just now. And in no condition to tell us about this Glory being. But I did glean some useful information. I'm afraid it's bad news."
In a voice that was barely more than a low whisper Angel said, "It's Buffy."
Wesley nodded, and Angel turned away, his whole body slumping as if something solid inside had turned to liquid and drained out of him. But of course, thought Wesley. In this universe, he was certainly dead and Cordelia very probably was -- but it still took the Slayer's name to get a reaction from Angel. It was an uncharitable thought, he knew, but he couldn't entirely suppress it.
"You don't have to be Columbo to work out how things went down here," Gunn said grimly.
"And we're not going to get any help from Sunnydale," Cordelia added.
"Then we'll find our own way out of this," Wesley said with determination. "It'll be dawn in a few hours; we'll be safe here until tomorrow morning." Then he looked at Angel, standing inside the apartment doorway, and realized the absurdity of that statement.
Cordelia was evidently thinking the same thing. "Want to bet? If Angel can walk in here, so can Angelus," she said, standing up and going to a chest of drawers which had been pushed roughly into a corner. "We have to do a dis-invite. I always kept some rosemary and thyme about, just in case --"
Kneeling down, she opened the bottom drawer and began to root around in it. "What is this junk? Deep Space 9 trading cards? Damn it, it isn't here --"
"Cordelia..." began Angel.
She ignored him and kept sifting maniacally through the drawer. "I hid it right at the back --"
Wesley rubbed his eyes. He was exhausted. Bone-weary. More than anything, he wanted to put his head down somewhere safe and soft and go to sleep. Attempting to soothe Cordelia's agitation, he said, "It's all right. It doesn't matter. We probably couldn't do a dis-invite, anyway. It doesn't work if the original occupant is d--"
He snapped his eyes open and bit off the word just before it slipped out. It was still too late. Cordelia straightened up slowly and turned around. When she looked at him, he saw her eyes were shining. She blinked -- once, twice -- and stood up. Then, as self-possessed as she had been frantic a moment earlier, she went back to the sofa and sat down again.
"We're safe tonight," Angel said. "He won't come looking for us before dawn."
Gunn frowned. "How come you're so sure 'bout that?"
Steadily, Angel said, "Because I couldn't face him again right now. So he isn't going to be able to face me."
"Nevertheless," Wesley said, "someone should keep watch until morning."
Angel took the hint and nodded. As he left, he said, "I'll be right outside."
Fred kept looking at the door after he had gone. "Angel's going to keep us safe, isn't he?"
Cordelia made a face. "Yeah, because Angel's safety-first man."
Lorne stood up, giving a theatrical yawn as he did so. "I vote we make this a slumber party. I need at least four hours, or my complexion turns from verdant lawn to old avocado."
"That's an excellent idea," agreed Wesley. "We could all use some sleep."
"Den's through there," said Cordelia, pointing for Lorne's benefit. "Make yourself at home. There's a sofa bed. It's a little lumpy, but --"
Lorne bowed graciously and, taking her hand, kissed it with a flourish. "Your ex-majesty, I assure you tonight there is no finer accommodation in all the palaces of Pylea than the sofa bed in the den of apartment 212, Embury Street, Los Angeles."
Wesley smiled. After a second, so did Cordelia. Getting up, she put her arm around Fred and led her away from the door. "C'mon. Allow me to re-introduce you to the concept of hot running water." A moment later, Lorne was gone too.
"You know," Wesley remarked to Gunn, "I wouldn't have thought a clairvoyant singing demon would have been the ideal companion for inter-dimensional travel, but I'm glad he's here."
Gunn swung his feet up on to the sofa and attempted to stretch his tall frame out on its inadequate length. "Yeah. We need someone on morale duty, that's for sure."
Wesley began arranging cushions on the floor to create a makeshift mattress. "We're going to get through this," he said. "There are plenty of hotspots out there. There must be another portal home."
"Oh, I don't doubt that," said Gunn. He closed his eyes. "What I'm wondering is, are we gonna survive 'round here long enough to find it?"
Outside Cordelia's apartment building, the night was quiet, and every window on the block was dark. The only noises were the faint hum of night insects and the occasional car passing on the street. But Angel wasn't paying attention to his surroundings. He walked blindly, aware of nothing except the litany of guilt echoing inside his head.
I gave up, he thought. I gave up, and I destroyed everything. Cordelia, and Wesley, and oh God not Buffy --
Cordelia and Wesley had been on their guard. They'd have known to be careful. They would have fought him.
So they would have died quickly. Angel hated having to be grateful for that bleak fact, but he was.
Buffy, though -- she wouldn't have known. Her mother had just died; he remembered her sorrow on the night after the funeral, and how fragile she had been. Was that how he'd found her in this universe? Her vulnerability would have opened a whole new range of opportunities to him -- and he had always craved novelty --
He could imagine the possibilities too easily and too vividly. Within seconds, they threatened to drown him in their horror.
He stopped walking, forced himself to concentrate. This isn't our reality, he reminded himself. Wesley and Cordelia and Buffy are all very much alive and well. And you have to hold yourself together to make sure Wes and Cordy stay that way.
Being trapped inside his own frustrations was what had created this situation in the first place. He couldn't afford to let it happen again. If he had any chance of preserving the fragile truce between himself and his friends, he had to be stronger this time. Smarter.
And getting lost in thought while Angelus came to kill them all wouldn't fit into either of those categories.
Angel inhaled deeply, mostly as a means of focusing on his surroundings. His undirected footsteps had taken him to the swimming pool which served Cordelia's apartment complex. Here, the air was thick with the chemical tang of chlorine, mixed with scent from the white flowers blooming on the trees that edged the courtyard and clung to life in tiny clay pots. And beneath all that was another scent -- something familiar --
He heard rustling and half-turned to see Fred standing behind him. Her hair was tugged back into a ponytail; she looked younger with it pulled away from her face. She was now wearing sweatpants almost comically too large for her and a T-shirt with the face of a black man who, for some reason, had a woman's hair barrette across his eyes. "What are you doing out?" Angel said slowly.
"I got the first shower. And -- Cordy let me take first pick from the clothes the last guy left behind." There was a slight hesitation before Cordelia's name, as if she wasn't completely certain it was all right to copy the others and shorten it. When Angel didn't object, Fred finished, "I don't think she was very excited about any of them, though."
Angel knew he should say something reassuring about making do or joke about Cordelia's sartorial misfortunes. But he was too weary -- in body, in soul -- to muster up anything of the kind. "It's not safe out here," he said. "You should go in."
"I feel safe if you're here," she said, so guilelessly that something inside him snapped.
He stepped close to her, held a finger of warning in her face. "I don't know how much you understood of what we were discussing back there. But Angelus? The murderer they're all talking about? He's me. He's what I was -- what I can be again. And apparently not even I understand what it is that changes me. You think you're safe?"
Fred didn't even seem to register his anger. "Is he worse than the beast? You didn't hurt me then."
"I could hurt you now. I mean, he could," Angel said. He'd learned, through hard practice, to think of Angelus entirely as a force within himself. That habit could prove dangerous now; best to break it, embrace the third person, recognize that Angelus was also another entity here, physically distinct and capable of acting -- and striking -- on his own. There would be time, later, to explain to Fred that he carried all of Angelus' evil within him, every moment. Assuming the others didn't explain it for him. "You're going to have to be careful."
"Okay." Her young face was naked of makeup, of any kind of artifice. She was meeting his gaze with the unblinking courage of a child. "So what do I do to be careful?"
Don't trust me, Angel wanted to say. But instead he began with the basics. "You've heard stories about vampires, right?"
"Like Count Dracula," she said easily. She sat down by the edge of the pool; he realized, for the first time, that she'd wandered out barefoot. Never even considering if there might be glass on the ground, or sharp stones that could cut her feet.
Fred dunked her feet in the pool, and her face lit up in a bright smile. "Oooh, nice. I never saw a pool painted this color green before. Usually they're blue." Then she frowned. "Aren't they?"
"Vampires are not exactly like Count Dracula," Angel said, reminding himself to think about the fictional creature Fred was referring to, not the Eurotrash he remembered from Prague. "They're real. I am one. Do you understand that?"
"Uh-huh. They're the mean cows. But you're not mean," she said. "Want to dunk your feet too?"
"This isn't the --" Angel paused as he realized what she'd said. He sat by her side. "What did you say about mean cows?"
"Sometimes cows -- I mean, people -- would show up in Pylea who weren't what you'd call normal. Not that anybody's normal after a little while there," she said, and something in her expression made him realize, for the first time, that Fred was painfully aware of how awkward her conversation and habits were to the others. "I think they came for the sunlight. But when the Pyleans tried to make them slaves, they'd get really mad, and turn into beasts, like you did."
Angel nodded. It made sense, now; others in L.A.'s supernatural underworld had to know about the portals, and all vampires would crave the taste of the sunlight denied them.
Fred reached out and began taking off Angel's shoes; he was too distracted by her words to protest. "But you turned back into a person. They didn't. They were animals, but worse than animals. The only way to get them off of somebody was to offer them blood. Pure blood. That was what they were after. That's why I kind of figured they were vampires -- or that they started as vampires, anyway. I still don't know what that other thing was, that thing they turned into."
"That's how you knew how to pull me away from Wesley and Gunn."
"Uh-huh." She stripped off his socks and pushed his now-bare feet into the pool. "Isn't that nice?"
The water was icy against his legs. If you were alive, he thought, the sensation was probably delightful -- the contrast of warm flesh against cool liquid. To Angel, it was just cold.
He stared down at the surface of the water. Fred's face was reflected there, wavery and alone on the pool's rippling surface. She saw it too. "You don't have a reflection any more. That's like Count Dracula too, right?"
"Right," Angel said, though it was hard to imagine Dracula, in any incarnation, dunking his feet in a swimming pool. He began going through the information that might keep Fred safe. "We can't go out in the sunlight, and we're burned by holy water and crosses. Crosses can also ward us off -- garlic too, though not for very long, so don't rely on it."
"So eating -- that food -- wouldn't work." Her eyes closed tightly, and Angel could almost see her straining to remember. "That food that's like a whole lot of string."
"Yes!" She beamed up at him. "I like Italian food too. That is Italian, right?"
"I think so," he said. "I'm not really that good with food. But concentrate, okay? You can tell a vampire by his lack of reflection, lack of pulse, cold body temperature or avoidance of sunlight. You can kill a vampire by staking him, with wood, through the heart." He pointed to his own chest, then to his neck. "Beheading works too, but I don't think you should try it. In fact, the best thing for you to do, always, is to run away and call for me or the others."
Fred actually seemed to be paying attention now. "That other woman you were talking about -- Darla -- is she a vampire too?"
Oh, God. How did he even start explaining Darla? Keep it simple, he decided. "Yes. She's the one who made me this way. She's dangerous."
"She turns into a beast, too," Fred concluded.
"Not exactly," Angel said. "It doesn't happen like that, here. But we do change before we feed." He hesitated, then looked her steadily in the eye. "I'm going to change now, so you can see what it looks like, all right?"
She squared her shoulders. "All right."
Angel breathed in again, let himself react to the warm smell of Fred's blood, so close, pounding beneath her pale, fragile skin --
His control, almost automatic at this point, relaxed; the demon surfaced. Fred stared at him, and he prepared for her shock and dismay.
Instead she said, "Well, that's not nearly as bad as before." Fred poked his forehead curiously with one finger. "Those ridges are really hard. Is that bone? How can you grow bone that fast?"
"I don't know -- I never --"
"Rate of deposition of osteoid must be phenomenal," Fred said, mostly to herself. "And then there's the mineralization -- maybe it stays pliable --" Then her expression changed abruptly, and she looked concerned. "I hope it doesn't -- Does it hurt when you do that?"
"I -- no. No, it doesn't hurt." Angel was completely at a loss. He felt foolish, now, for expecting a different reaction. For a woman who associated vampires with the wild, demonic animals she'd seen in Pylea -- who had been surrounded by demons of all kinds for years -- the face he wore now would scarcely look unusual. "You need to remember what this looks like, Fred. If you see anyone with a face like this, you have to get away from them as fast as you can."
"Including me, unless I've already told you what's about to happen," Angel said.
"Because there's a bad man here who looks just like you."
"Who is me," Angel corrected her. "And even after we get home, Fred -- even then, if you see me looking like that, and I'm acting even a little strangely -- you have to get away. Trust your instincts. Don't -- don't trust me --"
His throat closed off, and he stared back down at the lawn-green waters of the pool. Did Buffy have any warning at all? Or had she trusted him until it was too late, reached out to him for support and received instead a kiss that concealed teeth, or an embrace that crushed?
He would have seen the light fade from her eyes and relished it.
"Angel? What's the matter? Your face changed all of a sudden." Fred's voice suddenly sounded more focused than it had before. "Is this about the dead woman they were talking about inside?"
"Yes," he said dully. "Buffy. I killed her."
"You mean -- back home, too, or just the other you, here?" Fred paused as she reviewed her own sentence, and then she straightened up to look at him again, apparently satisfied.
"Just here. Back home, she's alive. Buffy's alive," he repeated. "If I didn't know that, I couldn't even --" His throat betrayed him again, and he looked up at the blank, starless sky.
"She's your girlfriend," Fred said, as though trying to commit it solidly to her memory.
"Not any more."
"But you still love her." It wasn't a question, but Angel nodded anyway. "And she still loves you."
"I don't know," Angel said. "I think -- it doesn't matter what I think. Or what she feels. We're not together, and we're not going to be. Because of what I am."
"Did she mind? You being a vampire?"
"No. But she should have." They were both silent for a long time after that. Angel watched the shimmering reflections on the surface of the water -- uneven lines of light crossing and weaving together like a rippling, ethereal fabric.
"Like the surface of a portal," Fred said, and he believed she had followed his gaze, read his thoughts. "It can swallow you up, take you under. But you can come back to the surface again."
Angel hesitated, then said, "I thought you were talking about the pool, but you're not, are you?"
"I know what it's like to get all wrapped up in ideas that aren't real. To let everything get so jumbled together that you don't know what you can trust." Fred held one hand in front of her, parallel to the surface of the water, then balled it into a fist. "I still don't know what's real and what's not. So I just deal with what's in front of me."
"Is that enough?"
"It kept me alive," Fred said. "It brought me to you."
By the time Cordelia had taken the longest, hottest shower the building's elderly plumbing was capable of producing, the apartment's other occupants were asleep. She wrapped a towel around herself and crept out of the bathroom and into her bedroom, noting with amusement as she tiptoed past the den that Lorne even managed to snore in key.
Once the bedroom door was firmly shut behind her, she snapped on the lights and dried herself off. Her Pylean royal bikini was lying on the bed where she had gratefully stripped it off at the first opportunity: eyeing it now, she knew she'd scream if she had to endure one more second of being scoured by semi-precious stones like cheese on a grater every time she crossed her legs. Rolling the bra and panties up inside the cape, she put the bundle to one side and began to cast around for an alternative.
Unfortunately, the choice was somewhat limited. Fred had been more than happy to swap her Pylean peasant chic for the first clean clothes they'd found that didn't swamp her small frame completely. In fact, she'd seemed positively enthusiastic about her Geordi LaForge XX-large T-shirt. Cordelia sucked in her breath and shook her head at the memory. Maybe it was a science-nerd thing. Picard, she could understand. But Geordi? He didn't even have a catchphrase. Opening cupboards and drawers, she continued her search of the bedroom, determined to find something -- anything -- that didn't scream 'merchandising'. The room, like the rest of the apartment, was a wreck, and although clothes and books and knickknacks were strewn all over the place, Cordelia saw not even one thing she recognized.
Well, that wasn't strictly true. She recognized the guy in the poster above the bed -- that was Captain Picard, celestial starlight reflecting off his bald head, as the Starship Enterprise streaked through the night sky behind him. At the bottom, blue type proudly proclaimed "Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before!" Nice poster, if you went for that kind of thing, but it sure as hell wasn't hers.
Nothing here was hers.
Her makeup and jewelry were gone. Her clothes were gone. The menagerie of crystal animals she'd been collecting since she was fourteen but now thought were tacky, yet somehow couldn't bring herself to throw away -- they were gone too. Cordelia Chase had been wiped out of existence, and the world had just flowed into the hole and filled it like she'd never been there.
All because of Angel --
Cordelia pushed that thought out of her mind. It would be so easy to let herself get angry, to blow up at Angel over this stupid choice he'd made, this lie he'd told her, the danger he'd put them all in. So easy to let the terror that had haunted her this winter take over again -- the terror that Angel could snap, at any time, and she had seen what happened the last time Angel really snapped.
But it wasn't worth it. Angel was back in her life now, and she liked it better that way, and he could only stay in her life if they didn't look too closely at what might have been.
She blinked and saw she was holding a plain gray sweatshirt with a small Star Trek logo embroidered just below the collar. It was almost subtle. Lying beneath it, she found a pair of drawstring pants she might get to stay on her, if she wrapped the cord around her waist twice.
Out loud, she said, "I swear to God, when I get home I'm taking Angel's credit cards to Macy's and I'm not coming back until I've brought retail therapy to a whole new place."
The thought made her feel better as she dressed; after all, this was the second time she'd lost a whole wardrobe thanks to --
She froze, the sweatshirt half on and half off.
The poster above the bed had changed.
A long, cylindrical space-station hung in the foreground. Behind, some actor who was neither bald nor Patrick Stewart gazed nobly into the middle distance. The slogan now read, 'Our Last Best Hope For Peace.'
Cordelia finished pulling on the sweatshirt and exhaled slowly. She was tired, she reminded herself. She was stressed. She'd recently abdicated leadership of a demon dimension, and now she was stuck in another universe where her vampire ex-boss's evil double was undoubtedly planning how to kill her for the second time.
In short, she'd had the kind of week that messed with your head. And, despite having dated Xander Harris for more than a year and absorbed a disturbingly high dosage of geekiness by osmosis, she wasn't exactly an expert on sci-fi television. So -- she'd been wrong about the poster. Yeah, that had to be it. After all, space ship, space station -- where was the difference, really?
Satisfied with this explanation, Cordelia lay down on the bed. Wesley was right: they all needed to get some rest. She reached out to turn off the bedside lamp and swore under her breath when her hand brushed a pile of envelopes, knocking them to the floor. She leaned down to retrieve them--
--and stopped when she saw, amid bundles of junk mail destined for RESIDENT, her own name printed in black and white. Above it, someone had scrawled in messy capitals, ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN.
"Am too known," she muttered, and tore open the envelope, grateful for even the slightest proof that she hadn't disappeared entirely from this world.
She glanced quickly at the pages inside. Then, her heart speeding up, she read them again, slowly, in case she'd made a mistake. She got up and ran out of the bedroom to where Wesley and Gunn were sleeping in the living room.
"Wesley, wake up," she hissed, shaking his arm.
"--Uhh?" He opened his eyes and sat up so quickly they almost bumped heads. "Is Angelus--"
"No, no." She waved the paper in his face. "I'm not dead!"
"I can see that," he said mildly.
"No, I mean, I'm not dead here, in this universe. This is my May bank statement. There's movement on my checking account."
"Let me see that."
She gave him the pages, and waited while he put on his glasses and squinted at it in the gloom. On the sofa, Gunn snored softly, undisturbed. "Not much movement," Wesley said after a moment. "A large deposit on the sixth of the month... Who are Mutual Dependable?"
"I have health insurance with them."
Wesley looked up at her, pleased and slightly surprised. "I had no idea you were so -- prudent."
She shrugged. "You grow up in Sunnydale, you learn the importance of comprehensive medical coverage. Insurance company execs put their kids through college on Sunnydale premiums."
"There's a payment made for the same amount a few days later, to --" he peered closer, "-- Huntercombe Hospital."
Unable to keep from grinning at him, Cordelia said, "You see? Angelus didn't get everyone. I'm alive somewhere and getting better. Maybe I can even help us."
Wesley didn't look as convinced as she felt, but he gave her a small smile. "Well, we should certainly follow this up. We'll find out where this hospital is and drop by tomorrow. Now, Cordelia -- please do try to get some sleep."
Feeling more content than she had since they'd fled from the Hyperion, Cordelia returned to the bedroom. She was about to flop down on the bed again when she heard the faint murmur of voices drift in through the open window.
The bedroom was at the back of the building, and the window looked out over the complex swimming pool. Cordelia peered down and, after a second, recognized the remote figures of Angel and Fred below her.
They were sitting close to the edge of the pool -- so close, they had to be dangling their feet in the water. How adorable, thought Cordelia sourly. We're in the wrong dimension and in mortal danger. Just the time to go paddling.
As she watched, Fred raised her hand and touched Angel's face. He made no move to pull away. There was something about the action -- an assumption of intimacy -- that set all kinds of warning bells ringing in Cordelia's head.
Fred was smart: maybe she'd work out by herself that Angel was strictly look, don't touch. Then again, Fred hadn't dated in five years and her ability to interpret the nuances of human interaction was rusty, to say the least.
Trouble brewing, Cordelia thought --
A sudden noise made her start. A car which had been parked on the street beyond the apartment complex roared into life, performing a fast and sloppy U-turn in the empty road. As it swung around, its headlights momentarily blasted the side of the building head-on with light, flooding the bedroom with an intensity of illumination that made Cordelia's eyes water. Then it was gone.
Her heart was thumping and her mouth dry as she got into the bed. C'mon, Cor, she told herself sternly. It's just a car. Angel said Angelus wouldn't come looking for us tonight, and Angel should know. There's no one out there. No one's watching us.
But, as exhausted as she was, she didn't sleep for a long time.
Fred was trying very, very hard to be very, very quiet.
This was something she was used to, something she was good at. At the library, she had made it a habit; in Pylea, she had made it an art form. Breathe in through the nose, slow and even, and don't move a muscle, or the monsters will get you --
Outside the kitchen, in the lounge, she could hear Cordelia talking to Gunn in a tone of voice that left little room for dispute. "You have to change. You smell of funk. Not even good old regular funk, either. Pylea funk."
"Which bears no resemblance to Sly and the Family Stone, I'm sorry to say," Lorne said. His voice, like Cordelia's, carried into the kitchen where Fred stood alone, hands clasped together so hard her fingers hurt.
"I don't care," Gunn said. "I like Xena as much as the next leather-bikini-loving man out there. But that does not mean I am ready to wear her face on my chest."
"Wesley's wearing his Sliders shirt!"
"Yeah, well, Wesley actually liked Sliders, so that tells you about the man's taste right there."
"I beg your pardon," Wesley said. "I consider this shirt a sort of ironic joke about our predicament. It's postmodern."
Fred could hear the smile in his voice as he said that. He acted like there was nothing wrong. But then, he was the one who had gone out for groceries in the first place -- he was the one who had brought it into the house -- and now it was sitting on the counter, waiting for her to show weakness, getting ready to pounce --
"You're not nagging Lorne to change."
"Lorne doesn't smell."
"Well, thank you for that vote of olfactory confidence," Lorne said.
Cordelia persisted. "You just don't care, do you?"
"You just want to have the rest of us looking even tackier than you. Thanks but no thanks on the shirt. We'll swing by the store and pick up some Old Spice or something."
"And that'd be an improvement in what sense, exactly?"
"Me, I find the ladies go mad for Brut," Lorne called back at Gunn as he stepped into the kitchen. Fred gestured desperately at him to be still and quiet, but he just stared at her. "What's the matter, pumpkin?"
Fred screamed and tackled him, knocking them both out of the kitchen and out of danger. As they landed together in an undignified tangle of limbs on the carpet, Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn rushed toward them. "What is it? What's happened?" Wesley said.
Angel threw open the door of the bathroom. "Fred? Are you okay?"
She was shaking so hard now she could barely choke out the words, but she managed to say, "In there -- in the kitchen --"
"What? He's not --" Angel began, but Lorne quickly shook his head.
Cordelia put her head cautiously around the edge of the door. "Lemme see. We've got milk, bread, cereal, those bran things Wesley likes, some ham and chee--"
"Don't say it!" yelled Fred.
Cordelia turned around, looking oddly at Fred. "Okaaay. So you're vegan?"
Lorne, however, was nodding understandingly. He gave Fred a sympathetic pat on the arm. "Let me hazard a guess. While on her grand tour of my dimension, I think our young friend here had a nasty encounter with some Pylean attack cheese."
There was a long silence.
"...Pylean attack cheese?" Gunn repeated disbelievingly.
Lorne nodded. "They mature it for five years in total darkness. That stuff is vicious."
Cordelia looked at him. "Your dimension is a strange and disturbing place."
"No argument there."
"You had some nachos last night," Wesley said to Fred, his tone one of reasonable persuasion. "The cheese was safe then."
"Well, sure, once it's melted!" Fred protested, gulping back a sob. "But now it's just sitting there on the counter, waiting to catch us off guard --"
The others looked as though they might laugh. For a second, Fred saw herself as they must see her: a wild-eyed girl getting hysterical about dairy products. But she couldn't make them understand -- it wasn't about the cheese. It was about spending your whole life learning how the world worked and then one day falling down a rabbit hole into another place where none of the rules held true any more. When you couldn't trust the world, the only way to keep alive was to stay scared and paranoid. Fred had found that running away from cheese helped, too.
But Angel smiled reassuringly, and she remembered that he, at least, understood what it was like to feel frightened when the rules you'd always lived by got twisted and warped. "I'll go melt it, okay? And then we'll get you some breakfast. Something completely cheese-free."
He began to move away, but Fred tugged at his arm. "Angel -- don't show fear."
"I promise," Angel said as he went into the kitchen.
"So, what's our game plan for today?" Lorne said quickly. "Now, weren't you saying that you needed some quality computer time to work out some equations and get us back under the rainbow?"
The computer. Fred relaxed slightly as she remembered the mental picture that went with that word. "Yes. Yes, that's right. I need to run some equations on the -- computer. I mean, I could write on the wall instead, like I did in the cave --"
The wall thumped several times in quick succession. "I think Dennis might have issues with that," Cordelia said hurriedly.
"So where can we get you some computer time?" Lorne continued.
"The library," Fred said. She could never forget that word, not ever -- how often had she dreamed, these past five years, of getting even one more wonderful hour in a real library? Then she hesitated. "Libraries are real, aren't they?"
"Absolutely," Wesley said. He was trying to smile at her, like Angel had, but he couldn't. He was tense now, upset. So were the others, now that she thought about it. The laughter and good humor from a few moments before were gone as though they had never been. They'd gotten all quiet right when Angel came out --
Oh. Of course. They'd found out about the cheese. No wonder.
"So, we pack a certain someone off to the library with Fred," Cordelia said. "They get some quality research done, come back with all that yummy math. Meanwhile, we take off to Huntercombe Hospital and track me down --"
"As the great philosopher and sage Samuel Goldwyn once said, include me out," Lorne replied. "I don't think I could walk into a hospital without being admitted for an emergency case of -- well, something."
"You can get us the ingredients we'll need for the disinvitation spell," Wesley said. "Since this universe's Cordelia is alive, it may be the most effective means we have of defending our base."
Lorne looked happy at the prospect. "Shopping. My kind of morning. And while I'm out there, I can find out a little bit more about this dimension in general. They may not have attack cheese here --"
"You can never be sure!" Fred said.
"-- but this is still a little on the strange side. Just my morning perusal of the local news tells me that much. I mean, wouldn't you think a dragon in the skies would rate a mention?"
"Good point," Wesley said. "And Angel and Fred can go with you to the library, Cordelia."
"I want to go with you guys," Cordelia objected. "I was gonna bring me a Get Well card."
Wesley paused before answering. Gunn beat him to it. "Cordy, we don't know what we're gonna find at this hospital."
He didn't say anything else, but apparently he didn't have to. Cordelia bit her lip and looked down at the floor. Wesley reached out to touch her shoulder, but stopped himself. Even Lorne seemed unusually grave.
Angel stuck his head out of the kitchen and showed Fred a skillet full of orange goo. "See? All taken care of."
Fred breathed a deep sigh of relief. She wondered why none of the others did the same.
Huntercombe Hospital was a small, private clinic in Burbank which had formerly been the residence of some forgotten Hollywood star with more money than taste. At least, that was the only explanation Wesley could think of for some of the building's more bizarre features: the grandiose Corinthian columns flanking the main entrance, or the stained glass windows above them depicting scenes from classic movies.
But the grounds were well kept, and as he and Gunn walked up the gravel path they passed a number of staff who gave them friendly smiles before hurrying on their way. Wesley felt reassured that this universe's Cordelia appeared to be receiving the best care possible.
The hospital reception was situated in what must once have been the main entrance hall. The window above the reception desk showed Judy Garland as Dorothy, linking arms with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man as they skipped along the yellow brick road -- all in a glorious stained glass version of Technicolor.
An attractive Asian woman sat behind the desk, laughing as she chatted with the man who was leaning against it, holding a file. She broke off as Wesley and Gunn approached.
"Hi there. Can I help you?"
"I hope so," Wesley said. "I believe a friend of ours is being treated here -- Cordelia Chase?"
The woman frowned. "I'll have to check the register for you. I know most of our patients' names, but I don't think --"
The man interrupted her. "It's okay, Ling. Cordelia's one of my patients." He set down the file and shook hands with Wesley, then Gunn. "Doctor Simon Davies."
"Wesley Wyndham-Pryce," Wesley said. "This is Charles Gunn."
"Pleased," Gunn said easily.
Davies led them away from the desk and through the extravagant double doors at the far end of the entrance hall. "Ling's usually great with patients' names," he said when they were out of earshot, "but she's more likely to remember the ones who get a lot of visitors. Cordelia -- well, I think you're the first people who've come to see her since she was admitted."
The thought of this universe's Cordelia in pain and alone for several months caused Wesley an irrational stab of guilt. "We would have come sooner if we could."
"Sure," Davies said, nodding in what was an all-too-strained effort to be understanding. "It's difficult, I know. A lot of people find just being in places like this too disturbing. But, still, kind of strange, a girl this young having nobody to look in on her. Her records says she was brought in one night by a distraught man who left without giving his name. Apparently he never came back --"
"He's here now," Wesley said under his breath.
"Nothing," Wesley said. "Please continue."
"Actually, please don't," Gunn said. Wesley looked over in surprise at Gunn, who suddenly seemed a whole lot taller -- and more hostile -- than Wesley had seen him in a long while. "We didn't ditch Cordy because we didn't care. We didn't come because we couldn't. End of our story. Now, let's talk about her."
Davies raised his eyebrows, but kept his tone polite. "Cordelia's in the Intensive Care Unit. I'll take you there."
The doctor moved ahead of them, allowing Gunn the opportunity to turn to Wesley and mouth the words, intensive care unit? Wesley shook his head. Davies would think it more than a little odd if self-proclaimed close friends of Cordelia Chase came to visit her without knowing the basic facts about what had happened to her. If they were to avoid arousing suspicions, they would have to choose their questions with care.
"Tell me," he asked, "what kind of progress is she making?"
Davies exhaled. "To be honest -- not as much as I hoped she would. But she is stable."
"That's good," Gunn said, looking at Wesley. But his expression was less certain than his voice.
Davies turned right, and Wesley and Gunn followed him. Every hall they had passed along so far, Wesley noted, had been carpeted and decorated with movie posters, mounted on soft foam backings. But while the clinic's staffers went about their appointed tasks with speed and efficiency, he had yet to see a patient, much less an open door.
What kind of hospital was this, anyway?
They walked past a external window whose top panel appeared to be an artistic interpretation of Humphrey Bogart entreating Lauren Bacall not to get on the plane in "Casablanca." He frowned. Hadn't Ingrid Bergman been in that movie? "This is certainly an unusual building."
The doctor frowned. "In what way?"
Wesley was at something of a loss for a reply at first. Finally he said, "You don't find the art a bit -- strange -- for a medical facility?"
Davies looked up at the window they were passing, which showed Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. "I never really thought about it. But now that you mention it, some of the patients with more profound psychoses do get upset about the David Lynch windows."
Psychoses, Wesley thought. He and Gunn glanced quickly at each other, and he could see his own horror reflected in Gunn's eyes. The locked unit, the lack of patients in the hallways -- suddenly it all made sense. Huntercombe was a psychiatric institution.
They had come to a set of sealed double doors. Davies opened them using a swipe card, then ushered them through. There was a second set of locked doors beyond the first, and Davies waited until they were sealed in the no-man's-land between the two before swiping his card through the reader to open the next set. "Patients with mild to moderate psychiatric disorders are treated in the part of the clinic we've just come through," he explained. "The ICU is a locked unit, for our severely disturbed residents."
Severely disturbed. Suddenly, Wesley didn't want to go any further. He wanted to turn around, walk out of the building and back down the drive. They could lie; tell the others they hadn't found her, and he'd never have to know what Angelus had done --
The main corridor in the ICU was empty. Davies stopped outside a closed, plain white door. "Of course, you know what happened," he said.
Wesley's mouth was too dry; he couldn't speak. He heard Gunn say, "Yeah," and was glad one of them was still capable of maintaining the deception.
Davies' expression was grave. "I won't lie. It looks bad. Just remember, she's on the best drugs available. The pain is minimal at this point."
As if from a great distance, Wesley heard himself say, "That's good to know. Thank you, doctor."
Davies opened the door.
The room beyond it -- was just a room.
Wesley realized he'd stupidly been expecting a padded cell -- something from a nineteenth century novel, with bars on the windows and shackles on the wall. Cordelia's room, like the rest of the clinic, was attractively if sparsely decorated, and might almost have been a hotel bedroom in one of the better chains. The only clues to its true nature were the furnishings, which were bolted securely to the floor, and the metal rails edging the sides of the bed.
And in the bed --
Her hair had been chopped to a length almost as short as his own, and she was thin rather than slender, but she was still recognizably Cordelia. He couldn't see her face; she was lying turned toward the window, where faint daylight glowed behind tightly drawn blinds.
Wesley entered the room, Gunn behind him. She reacted to the noise, her hands twitching as if she was trying to bring them to her face. She couldn't, and now that he was closer, Wesley saw why -- her wrists were held securely in
padded restraints. So, they weren't so far from the nineteenth century after all.
Evidently Davies could read the dismay in his face. "The restraints are necessary. She suffers periodic psychotic episodes. As unpleasant as they are, they'd be worse if she hurt herself again in the process."
Wesley took another step toward the bed. Cordelia's chest rose and fell more rapidly under the blankets, and he heard her make a tiny whimpering sound. "It's all right," he said gently. "It's me. I'm here, Cordelia --"
At the sound of her name, she turned her head to look at him. But she couldn't.
"Oh, God," Gunn whispered.
Cordelia couldn't see Wesley because her eyes were gone.
Her face was a mess of scar tissue and ugly welts of damaged flesh. Glistening flaps of skin swirled like twin whirlpools around the pits where her eyes should have been. This had been no clean surgical extraction; her eyeballs had been torn out of her head, violently and by someone with no consideration for the pain involved or what the aftereffects would look like.
Cordelia made another tiny, wordless noise and twisted her head on the pillow. As she did so, moisture crept down from the mangled corner of one eye socket. For a moment, Wesley thought she was crying. Then he realized the
fluid wasn't tears.
"There's still some infection," Davies said. "We're using strong antibiotics, but her injuries have been very slow to respond."
Wesley half-choked, tasted bile in his mouth. He made himself go closer to the bed, so he was standing over her. Taking her hand, he squeezed it. It remained limp. Not just antibiotics. "My God, what kinds of drugs are you
pumping into her?"
"Only what we have to," Davies said.
Gunn looked at him. "But if she wasn't sedated, she'd be able to talk to us, right? She'd know us?"
Davies hesitated. "It's unlikely."
"We're not strangers," Wesley snapped. "We're her friends."
Davies tone was gentle as he said, "I understand. But every time we've cut back on Cordelia's medication, she's become violent. And she's invariably incoherent. She hasn't shown any awareness of her environment." He paused.
"I'm sorry. She's obviously not the girl you remember."
Girl, thought Wesley. Not even a woman, really. A girl.
Cordelia arched her back and pulled against her restraints, muscles stretching like cords on her stick-like arms. Pushing her head back against the pillow, she uttered a keening wail of misery and fear.
Something inside Wesley twisted, and sorrow became cold, hard rage.
Periodic psychotic episodes, the doctor had said. So she still had the visions. But now, instead of helping others, they only added to the torment she already endured.
She still received messages for Angel, but Angelus wasn't listening.
Of course he had taken her eyes, Wesley thought bitterly. A blinded seer -- the irony must have been too delicious to resist. He would love this scene, the girl he had broken blind to the real world but still able to see the full spectrum of human suffering. And he hadn't simply taken her sight; he'd stripped her of her mind in the process and left her this shell, this mockery of the person she'd been.
"He should see this."
"I'm sorry?" Davies asked. "Who should?"
Wesley hadn't realized he'd spoken the thought out loud. "Nobody. Nobody at all."
There was a small wall around the edge of the visitors' parking lot. Wesley sat on it, looking back across the wide, freshly mown lawn and carefully tended flower beds at the institution's main building. Institution -- that was the right word. He couldn't think of Huntercombe as a hospital anymore. People got better in hospitals, then left them. Seeing this universe's Cordelia had shaken Wesley to the core, but left him certain of one thing: it wouldn't be easy for her to come back from whatever dark place she had fled to inside her skull. Left alone like this, she wasn't going to get better. She wasn't ever going to leave.
After a while, he became aware that he was no longer alone. Gunn was sitting beside him, selecting stones from the gravel under their feet and throwing them, one at a time, at an empty soda can lying some yards away on the grass.
"I used to know a girl," Wesley said finally.
Gunn stopped throwing the pebbles.
"I'd never met anyone quite like her. She was still in high school; very pretty -- somewhat vain -- but smart, too, although she went to pains to hide it. She was frivolous. Irrepressible. Unexpectedly practical. Occasionally shallow; always optimistic. Undeniably courageous. This girl, she --" he forced himself to smile, "-- she had a crush on me."
"Get outta here." Gunn smiled too. "No accounting for tastes, huh?"
"No," Wesley agreed. It hurt his mouth to keep smiling, so he stopped. "Anyway. I was going through a bit of a bad patch. Questioning a lot of things. Questioning myself. I was doing the only thing I wanted to do, and finding out I couldn't do it very well at all. When I looked in the mirror, I didn't like what I saw anymore. But this girl -- when she looked at me -- her eyes lit up --" His voice threatened to break. "Her eyes --"
Her face, disfigured and weeping fluid, flashed through his thoughts again. He wished there was some way he could erase the sight of the pathetic creature strapped to the bed, wipe it away before it bled into his better memories of Cordelia and corrupted them with its brutality. What he was feeling, he realized, was only a fraction of what she had endured. What she still endured, and would continue to endure, over and over and over --
He felt a hand rest lightly on his shoulder. "Remember, it ain't her," Gunn said. "This place -- it's a world gone wrong."
Wesley said, "No. This is the world the way it should be. All thanks to Angel." Gunn was looking at him, so he explained, "Angel is as responsible for what happened to Cordelia here as Angelus is. The only difference between the woman in there and our Cordy is that we come from a place where Angel's actions didn't have the consequences they ought to have had."
Gunn paused. Then he said, "Ain't a lot of 'ought to' with consequences, at least in my experience. You do your best, you make your mistakes, and in the end, there's still no telling what's gonna happen."
Wesley stared at Gunn in disbelief. "Are you -- making excuses for him?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Gunn held his hands up in front of him. "I'm not making excuses for anyone or anything that had something to do with what happened to the Cordelia we just saw. I just mean -- Angel's not the same guy who did this any more than that's our Cordy in there. This whole thing's one bad head trip. Only way we're gonna get through it is keeping what's real and what's not straight."
Wesley clenched his hands into fists at his side, then tried to relax them. "I know that. But I also know the chance Angel took -- the risk that this would happen to our Cordelia too -- that's real, isn't it?"
Gunn had no reply.
"I think I'll go crazy," Cordelia said.
She found a table in a shady corner of Los Angeles Central Library's science section and took off the backpack she'd been carrying. As she unloaded the paper and pens they'd stopped to buy on the way, she saw Angel looking at her uncomprehendingly.
Cordelia sighed and gestured at the stacks of books behind them, where Fred was standing perfectly still, her eyes closed and her expression one of pure, blissful contentment.
"I used to have a regular life. I dated. I was a cheerleader. And now my typical morning consists of reading physics textbooks in the company of a vampire with multiple personality disorder and a woman who's clearly achieving some kind of high on library-smell. Since the world's clearly gone 100 percent nutso, I might as well just join in."
Angel's confused expression disappeared, and instead he looked wounded. For a moment, Cordelia regretted the multiple-personality remark, until he said, "Fred just needs a minute to herself. This is a big deal to her."
Fred could spend as much time in the stratosphere as she wanted, Cordelia thought as she switched on the public terminal sitting at one end of the table, as long as she came down from reality's upper atmosphere for long enough to find them a way home. "Hey, Fred. If you're done savoring that mildewed-paper aroma, come and take a look at this."
Fred opened her eyes and lifted her arms. She twirled toward them between the stacks, wearing a smile so wide her face could hardly hold it. "There are books!" she said as she joined them. "All in order!"
"How about that? What will they think of next." The PC monitor hummed, and Cordelia put her hands on Fred's shoulders, placing her in the seat in front of it. "Okay, here's one of those boxes that beeps and makes things easier --"
"Computer," Fred said proudly, looking at Angel.
"Right. Windows has moved on a couple of versions since the last time you used one of these, but you'll pick it up."
Fred lifted the mouse hesitantly. "Pick it up?"
"Put it down," Cordelia said.
Fred put the mouse down again. She looked at it, then at the glowing monitor in front of her. For a long time her expression remained doubtful, and her hand hovered uncertainly above the keyboard.
Finally she extended her index finger and pressed 'Q'. When the letter materialized on the screen, she smiled in simple delight.
We are totally stuck here for good, Cordelia thought.
And then Fred began to type.
She was slow at first, but as her fingers found the keys with increasing speed and accuracy, the chain of letters and symbols on the screen rapidly lengthened. At the same time, her expression changed, child-like rapture replaced by focused concentration.
Suddenly Fred stopped, reached across the table and lifted a notepad and pen. "I need these books," she said, listing out titles and authors. "It's okay if they don't have Schwartz, I can use Peebles if Thorne's out, but I have to have Ferris. If they don't have Analysis of Uncertainty by Weinberg, Calder's Quantum Interpretation of Space-Time is just as good. And it has prettier pictures."
"On it," Angel said, taking the list.
As he left, Cordelia asked, "Anything I can do?"
Fred nodded without looking away from the equations rapidly scrolling down the screen. "Ask the desk for the last five years of the Reviews of Modern Physics."
Fred was by far the most lucid Cordelia had yet seen her. Somehow, while extracting from her memory the knowledge and tools of another life, she'd brought back at the same time a bit of the old Fred too, the girl who'd seen alternate universes only as theoretical possibilities, and not as places where monsters were real and cheese attacked you.
It was like following a forest trail, Cordelia thought suddenly: if you retraced your steps far enough, sooner or later you'd come to the place where the path split. At the crossroads, there'd be one person; afterwards, two. And you never got to go back and find out what happened to the you who went the other way.
At least, not if you were lucky.
"So you can do it, right? I mean --" Cordelia gestured at the computer's screen, "-- solve this puppy and get us home -- really home?"
Absorbed in the task at hand, Fred nodded absently.
"Good," Cordelia said, standing up. "You may not have met Angel's enemy within, but I have. Trust me when I say, we can't get out of any dimension that has Angelus in it soon enough."
"We're safe," Fred said. "Angel's here."
As she spoke, she looked up from the computer and through the stacks in the direction he had gone. The expression she wore was one of total, implicit trust.
And something more.
"Journals, coming right up," Cordelia said, and went to talk to Angel.
She found him flipping through the pages of a massive book whose tissue-thin leaves were covered in incomprehensible math, broken up by occasional paragraphs of incomprehensible English. As Cordelia approached, he indicated the page and gave a small, hesitant smile. "You know, it's at times like this I regret not having a formal education."
Cordelia placed her hand firmly in the center of the book and pushed it down. "We need to talk."
His hopeful expression vanished, and Angel looked grave and more than a little worried. "I know. Cordelia, I didn't tell you about Darla because I thought if I did--"
"Oh, screw Darla," Cordelia interrupted. "Well, obviously you already have -- but that's not what we're talking about."
"No. We're gonna talk about Fred."
"What about Fred?"
"She has a crush on you."
Angel looked perplexed for a moment. Then he smiled, nonplussed. "No, she doesn't."
"Yes, she does."
"No, she doesn't."
"Yes, she --" Cordelia broke off and took a deep breath. "Okay, we're gonna start this conversation again, and this time it's not gonna play like a comedy routine. Angel, Fred likes you. She more than likes you. She's probably carving I Heart Angel on the table as we speak."
He shook his head. "Cordelia, that's not possible."
Cordelia fought the urge to grab him and shake him. Apparently she was going to have to do this in very small, very simple steps. "How did you meet her, exactly?"
"You mean in Pylea? There were some people who wanted me to chop her head off, and I refused. When things turned nasty, I stole a horse and we got out of there."
"Uh-huh. So, you appeared like some knight in shining armor, saved her life, then literally swept her off her feet and on to the back of a noble steed."
Angel shook his head. "I would have done that for anyone. She's grateful, sure, but --"
"Yes, but you did it for her," Cordelia said, holding up a hand to cut him off. "And then you took her away from Pylea, a dimension whose chief attractions are slavery, uncomfortable underwear and cheese that bites back. And you brought her home."
"It's not really home --" said Angel, but she could see he was beginning to get it.
"And now she's all with the big doe eyes and 'Angel will keep us safe'." Cordelia allowed him a moment to process that. "Maybe it's slipped under your radar, but Fred digs you with a spade. And you're going to nip this thing in the bud. Not even the bud. Whatever comes before the bud, you're going to stop it there."
Angel looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Cordelia, even if Fred did think -- that -- I could never --"
Coldly, Cordelia said, "Never what? Sleep with her and lose your soul? Because, hey, third time's a charm, right?" Angel was silent, stung. Cordelia felt an unaccustomed pang of regret for her sharp words; something about this situation just brought the worst out in her. More gently, she finished, "You don't get to do the relationship thing, Angel, not with Fred or Buffy or Darla or anyone else. The proof's walking around out there."
Quietly, Angel said, "I know."
"So you're going to talk to Fred right now and explain to her exactly why it is you don't date. I'll get the rest of the books and journals." She held out her hand. "Give me the list."
Angel looked thoroughly unhappy, but he handed her the list and set down the book he was holding on top of the pile on the floor at his feet. "Cordy --"
"I know. Just go and get it over with."
She didn't relax until he was out of sight. Then she exhaled slowly and began checking the titles of the volumes in the pile against those on the list, making a mental note of the ones she still needed to find. How was it possible, she thought. How could he keep making the same mistakes again and again?
She set the list atop the books and lifted the pile. When she turned around, she saw with annoyance that she wasn't alone.
"I'm not gonna do this for you, Angel. You know what you need to do. Go do it."
He didn't move. Instead he cocked his head to one side, as if he wanted to examine her from a different angle. The merest ghost of a smile played over his features.
Cordelia felt ice form in her bones.
And then he was in front of her, his face inches from hers, his weight pushing her up against the shelves. She could feel the metal ledges against her back, her thighs, her calves. She loosened her grip on the books -- they were heavy, they'd make a noise, surely someone would hear and come. But he took the books from her and set them on the floor in silence. As he turned away from her, she opened her mouth to scream -- and felt a hand, cool as clay, clamp over her mouth. The other rested on the back of her neck, fingers lightly pressing into the hollow at the top of her spine.
"Be quiet for me," Angelus said in a low voice.
As he led her away, Cordelia hoped he was going to kill her quickly. Because the alternatives were much worse.
Chapter by Rheanna
"Wes, man, maybe you should slow down."
"Perhaps you should keep up," Wesley said. He was walking as quickly as he could along the blazing-hot sidewalk, paying no attention to where he was going, whether Gunn was still with him, anything. All that mattered was getting back to Cordelia's apartment, back to Cordelia, where they could see her alive and well again.
And tell Angel just what --
No, no. There was no time for anger now, no place for it. Wesley knew this, and yet it kept roiling within him, pushing its way to the surface.
"Good thing I wore my Nikes," Gunn said. "But I still think you should consider slowing down sometime soon."
"I'm not slowing down," Wesley snapped. "And I'm not going to stop until --" Sharp pain lanced from his gut, stopping him in his tracks.
"Until you rip your wound open and spill yourself all over the sidewalk," Gunn said as Wesley clutched his stomach. "Don't guess that's gonna be long now. So keep at it."
"Point taken," Wesley gasped. Though he was almost entirely recovered from his gunshot wound, he was still in no shape to run halfway across town. "Remind me why we let Angel have the car?"
"Partly because walking in the sun ain't really an option for him anywhere except Pylea; mostly because we are two stupid, gallant lunkheads who caved in when Cordelia gave us that look. It's hotter than hell out here. You want to take a shortcut in the shade?" When Wesley frowned, Gunn explained, "There's underground tunnels that'll get us halfway to Cordy's in a whole lot less time."
"You could have mentioned it before," Wesley said.
"Like you were listening to a word I was saying," Gunn replied. "Anyway, you ought to know -- sometimes there's vamps down there." He paused, then continued. "Angel knows those tunnels, too. Which means --"
"We might run into Angelus," Wesley said. Briefly, he weighed the remote possibility of an unwanted encounter in the city's extensive tunnels against the overwhelming desire to get back as quickly as possible. It wasn't a difficult decision. "We'll take the risk. Do you have a stake with you?"
"Sure. Fixed one up this morning." When Gunn lifted his T shirt and pulled a stake out of his belt as evidence, Wesley took it into his own hand. His fist closed tightly over the wood.
"Let's not lose any more time," Wesley said.
Wesley had, of course, taken the underground tunnels before -- usually with Angel by his side. For safety.
Gunn was with him now, walking through the dank, black tunnels, and confident though Wesley was in Gunn's ability, he did not feel safe here at all. He knew that Angel could appear at any moment -- and no doubt the vampire would take delight in killing him for a second time.
Though perhaps he'd at least be surprised by the sight of one of his victims returned from the dead -- and maybe that moment of surprise would give Wesley the opportunity he needed. He could envision it now, the stake plunging into Angel's chest, Angel turning into so much dust --
Angelus. He meant Angelus.
Then he heard it, began slowing down. Gunn didn't seem to notice.
"Gotta love the smell down here," Gunn said. "I was just messing with Cordy's head, but you know, we really might want to pick up some Old Spice or something. Because when we get up to the surface again, we are going to be mighty ripe, if you know what I mean --"
"Shhh," Wesley said. "Listen."
Gunn leaned back on his heels, then tensed as he, too, heard the sound. Footsteps -- distant, but coming closer.
Wesley peered through the darkness -- a grate not far ahead offered the only light, filtering sunlight through in faint beams. He could still see nothing, but the steps were getting closer now. "Walk into the light," he whispered.
"Oh, great plan," Gunn muttered. "Why don't we send up a flare while we're at it?"
"He can see us in the dark," Wesley said. "But he can't touch us in the light. Not without pain."
Gunn nodded, understanding, and the two of them moved as one into the light from the grate. Wesley glanced quickly at his friend; bands of darkness crisscrossed his face, as though he were in a cell, staring back from behind the bars.
The steps came closer, and Gunn whispered, "Hand that back over here, will you?"
Wesley's hand tightened around the stake. "I won't fail."
"That's not what I --" Gunn froze as a shape became distinguishable at the end of the corridor. Wesley squinted as he made it out: a tall figure, all in black, long coat that reached to his knees, heavy boots --
"Well, this is new," the figure said.
He spoke in Gunn's voice.
Gunn's jaw dropped as his double stepped forward into the sunlight and crossed his arms against his chest. Strangely, this other Gunn didn't seem all that surprised to come face to face with himself. "Now, here I was feeling all jaded, you know? Like I'd seen all there was to see. Then my identical twin shows up, hanging out in the sewers and wearing a stylin' shirt. Any chance we can trade? Trust me, this coat would look good on you."
"You're Charles Gunn. This universe's Charles Gunn," Wesley said. "Good Lord."
Gunn kept staring at the Other Gunn, his jaw still slack. After a moment, he finally said, "It's gonna take me a while to come up with something here. You guys talk without me."
"What's going on up there?" A figure jogged up out of the darkness to Other Gunn's side.
Gunn somehow managed to look even more surprised. "George! George, man, you're alive!"
"So far," George said. "Hell, now I have two of you to deal with."
Wesley remembered George's face, though it seemed to be coming back to him from a great distance -- oh, yes. George had helped him the night he'd been shot. According to Gunn, George had died in a vampire fight just before they'd all gone to Pylea in search of Cordelia. At least this universe was a better place for someone, he thought.
"I thought you were dead," Gunn said, briefly grasping his friend's arm. "I mean -- you are dead. You were one of my best friends, and you died because I wasn't there to back you up. George, I'm so sorry. You meant a lot to me, and I never told you --"
"Hey!" Other Gunn said. "You want to hold off on revealing my inner Hallmark card?"
"Sorry," Gunn said, still unable to look at his double. "But -- he was dead."
"Lotta that going around," Other Gunn said. He was looking at Wesley almost coldly. "Last time I saw you, you were flatlining in a hospital bed. If you weren't standing in the sunlight right now, I'd have to wonder."
"I can explain," Wesley began, but Other Gunn cut him off with a gesture.
"You know, these days, I really don't care about explanations," Other Gunn said tiredly. He stepped a little closer, and Wesley took in a deep breath. Other Gunn looked far older than the Gunn who stood at his side. He was unshaven, had bags under his eyes and radiated none of Gunn's remarkable vitality. He had a long, jagged cut that curved down the side of his face -- a recent one, to judge from the pink color of the scar.
"Angelus," Wesley said, indicating the cut.
Other Gunn smiled bitterly. "How did you guess?"
"He tried to kill you," Gunn said.
"And this surprises you?" Other Gunn said. "Why the hell I ever trusted that serial-killing son-of-a-bitch, I'd like to know."
"Serial murders?" Wesley said. He was surprised at first -- most of Angelus' career was dedicated to seeking out new and more reprehensible crimes to commit, not to repetition. But then he reminded himself of all the crosses cut in the cheeks of long-ago victims; if Angelus found something that amused him, he could keep it up long enough to form a pattern. "What is he doing? Be precise. If it matches his old habits, we might be able to track him down."
"Since when are we trying to track him down?" Gunn said, jolted out of silence.
"I'm with your good-lookin' friend here," George said to Other Gunn. "I personally try to avoid Angelus. Call me crazy."
"You should listen to George," Other Gunn said. "Unless you want your liver ripped out. Because you're not gonna stop him with a bottle of aftershave."
Wesley froze and looked down. Where he had been clutching a stake in his hand, he now held a bottle of Old Spice. He stared at it for a few seconds. "This is all starting to make sense now," Wesley said.
"Glad to hear you say that," Gunn said. "'Cause it ain't making a whole lotta sense to me. And where the hell did the Old Spice come from?"
"Give me a moment," Wesley said, looking back up at Other Gunn. "Angelus is removing his victims' livers?"
"Bet that's not all he does," Other Gunn said. "Not by a long shot. But yeah, he's developed a taste for livers. Rips 'em out, leaves the person there to just bleed to death. Sometimes it takes a while to die like that, and it's no fun. I've been with a couple of them when -- I mean, I try to patrol this place, but sometimes you just get there too late."
"Is he doing this in specific locations?" Wesley said. "The same places, over and over?"
"English, are you on to something?" Gunn said. Wesley motioned for him to be quiet.
"Seems to me, you understand him a little too well," Other Gunn said, his eyes narrow. But he nodded, and Wesley knew he had guessed correctly. "He does go to the same places. He's got a thing for the Paramount Gates."
"And the Hollywood sign," George added. "Plus this one weird-ass bar in town -- The Longhorn. You know it?"
"I'm afraid we do," Wesley said.
"Portals," Gunn said. "They're all portals. That means something, doesn't it?"
"Yes," Wesley said. Then his eyes widened -- "Dear God. The library. There's a portal in the library."
"Oh, shit," Gunn said. "We sent them right to him."
There was no possibility of calling for help.
Angelus had looped his right arm almost casually around Cordelia's waist; he held her right hand loosely in his left, pulling her arm across the front of her body. As he led her between aisles of books and through public reading areas, a few people looked up to see them pass, then looked away again. Cordelia guessed they saw nothing more unusual than a college student and her boyfriend, taking a study break to make out in the stacks.
If she took a breath to scream, he'd break her neck before she made a sound. And then he'd probably kill everyone who witnessed it.
Stay calm, she thought, then repeated it to herself, over and over. Stay calm, stay calm. Panic kills you right now; calm keeps you alive maybe an extra couple of minutes. Not long, but maybe just long enough for someone to come -- for Angel to come --
Angelus stopped outside a door bearing a familiar symbol and pushed it open. Cordelia's mind was halfway numb with terror, and it took her a second to realize where they were. When she did, the absurdity of it almost made her giggle.
She was going to die in the women's restroom.
Still holding her, Angelus walked along the row of stalls. When he had made sure they were all empty, he pushed the trash can with his foot from under the sinks to jam it against the door that led back to the library. There was no other exit, and the room had no windows. She was closed in with him.
Angelus let go of Cordelia. She was weak with fear, and her legs nearly buckled under her. She staggered backwards several paces, almost losing her balance before previously unsuspected reserves of strength kicked in and kept her on her feet. She put a hand against the wall for support and looked at Angelus, expecting to see a cruel victor's smile, or mocking sympathy for her distress.
Angelus watched her, blank-faced and impassive. It was crazy, she thought, but he looked exactly how Angel did when he was steeling himself to do something he really didn't want to do. She'd never realized before just how much they were still alike --
Then he vamped out, and a second later she felt his teeth at her throat.
Cordelia struggled, kicking and twisting as hard as she could, desperately trying to loosen his grip on her wrists, to shift his weight off her. It was useless; she was jammed up against the cold, hard tiles of the wall, and even if she could have pushed him off her, there was nowhere to run.
He was holding her so tightly she was sure she should be in pain, but the only sensation Cordelia was aware of was the needle-sharp tips of his fangs pressing into the soft skin on her neck. Does it hurt a lot? she wondered. I hope it doesn't hurt a lot -- please don't let it hurt --
But the bite never came.
Angelus let go and backed away as quickly as if she'd struck him. The ridges on his forehead and around his eyes made it hard to tell, but she thought she saw his expression change for an instant, to something more -- more what? She couldn't tell. Then his face smoothed, and by the time he was recognizably human again, the blankness was back.
Behind him, the door jerked as someone tried to open it from the outside. The trash can he had wedged under the handle rattled but stayed stuck. Cordelia considered screaming -- then realized she was less likely to save herself than to get whoever was trying to come in killed as well. After a few more attempts, the person outside the door apparently gave up and moved on.
Angelus reached down and pulled something from a sheath at the side of his boot. As he straightened up, Cordelia saw with terror he was holding a knife. It had a carved ivory handle and a blade that was at least four inches long. Angelus held it up, examining it critically under the flat white glow of the toilets' strip lighting. He appeared dissatisfied with what he saw.
Reaching into a pocket, he took out a Swiss Army knife and flicked it open. With short, precise movements, he began to hone the edge of the ivory-handled knife. Making it sharper.
"You have beautiful eyes," he told her without looking up.
Cordelia didn't say anything.
Still sharpening the knife, Angelus asked, "Did I ever tell you how beautiful your eyes are?"
"No," Cordelia said. It was barely a whisper.
"I should have," Angelus said. "I'm sorry."
He sounded so sincere. So like Angel.
"There are so many things you want to say," he went on. "But you don't. And then the moment's gone. You can't change it. It's too late." He blinked, as if he'd just noticed something. "You're frightened. Don't be."
With every last ounce of courage she could summon, Cordelia said, "I'm not."
At that, he raised his head. Unexpectedly, she saw something that resembled pride in his expression. "You're brave. She was brave, too. Right up to the point where her mind snapped."
As he spoke, Angelus held up the knife and flipped it over so he could examine each side in turn. He nodded to himself. Then he slipped the Swiss army knife back into his pocket and brought up his free hand to touch her face softly. His fingertips brushed ever so lightly against her eyelashes. "I was too careless, before. I won't be this time. I won't lose her again."
Suddenly the knife in his hand was being raised toward her head, her face, ohgodohgod, please no, not her eyes, nottheeyes --
She heard a snip. When she dared look up, Angelus was holding a lock of her hair between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. In the other, he held the knife. "Sharp enough now," he said.
He stepped back. Cordelia was shaking so hard she could hear her teeth chattering in her skull, as if from cold. Angelus held the knife in his left hand while he used his right hand to roll up the sleeve of his shirt, exposing the arm below the elbow.
Then, calmly, he transferred the knife to his right hand and began to cut.
The blade sliced through his skin easily, and in seconds he had made an incision that ran from the inside of his elbow to his wrist. Cordelia stared, horrified, half expecting the wound to gush blood like a fire hydrant. In a living person, it would have. But the cut Angelus had given himself only oozed dark fluid sluggishly. Beads of blood welled up from within his flesh, then slowly ran down his forearm, criss-crossing and joining to form a delicate web of red on his pale skin.
He wiped the blade clean on his jacket and drew close to Cordelia. "Give me your arm."
"No." The defiance was instinctive and immediate, and useless. He came closer to her again, dominating her. He was holding the knife at the level of her chest, and without thinking she raised her hands to protect herself.
It was the wrong thing to do. Angelus took hold of her wrist and sharply tugged the sleeve of her sweatshirt upwards.
The blade shone as he cut her.
For several seconds, it didn't hurt at all. She looked dumbly at her arm, and at the blood seeping, welling, and very soon flowing out of the incision he'd made across her wrist. Then the pain hit, raw slivers of it crawling up her muscles and into her shoulder, and she gasped.
Almost immediately she began to feel dizzy. She heard the patpatpat of rapid dripping and wondered why she hadn't noticed before now that one of the sink faucets was still running. But the faucet was her fingertips, and the liquid streaming off them wasn't water. Cordelia watched as red drops of blood spattered, as if in slow motion, onto the green-and-white tile.
She thought, he's going to cut me to pieces --
Fear took the last of her strength, and she started to fall.
Angelus caught her.
She felt him lower her on to the cold floor. Or maybe the floor was warm and she was cold, Cordelia wasn't sure any more. Blood loss and panic were pushing her toward a place that seemed disconnected from everything else, even from her own body. The edges of her vision were closing in, and when she looked up at him, it was as if he was at the other end of a long tunnel. But he must have been close, very close, because she felt his hand on her cheek, his body against hers. Cordelia felt something cool and wet on her arm, a soft lapping against her skin. His lips, she realized; it felt as though he were kissing the pulse at her wrist.
He slid his fingers inside her mouth. They were slick with his blood; it tasted thick and salty and -- something else. She was by now dazed with panic, and she was chilled to the core. The world around her no longer felt important or real. The only thing that was real was the taste that filled her mouth and made her throat tingle. It wasn't life but it was the next best thing.
She swallowed, feeling the pressure of his fingers against her tongue. Faintly, she heard his voice.
"You'll never grow old," he was saying. "Never suffer. Never die --"
With horror, she realized what was happening. He was drinking from her, making her drink from him. He was turning her.
Cordelia clamped her jaws together, as hard as she could. Angelus cried out and snatched his fingers from her mouth. As he swore, Cordelia spat a mixture of blood and saliva on to the floor, where it disappeared instantly into the rapidly expanding red pool.
Angelus held out his hand again. "Drink."
Cordelia's breathing had shortened to shallow, fast gasps, and it was difficult to speak, so instead she turned her head away.
"You'll drink in the end," he said. "In the end, everyone drinks."
She felt the truth of that, as clearly as she felt the blood leaking out of her. When it came down to a choice between taking what he was offering and sliding down into the darkness, Cordelia didn't think she'd be strong enough to resist. What kind of vampire would she be? Would she be worse than Darla, or Drusilla? Would Wesley be the one to drive the stake through her heart, or Gunn --
"No," she gasped. "No. No!"
To her surprise, Angelus smiled fondly. "So defiant. So vital. Just like she was."
So he wasn't just psychotic, Cordelia thought distantly; he was deluded too. Because if there was one person she was certain she was nothing like, it was -- "Buffy?"
The smile vanished, and that unnerving blankness settled over him again. "I already have something like Buffy. Now I want something like Cordelia." He lifted his other hand and brushed the fingers through her hair, softly, like a lover would caress her. "Stop fighting. Give in. I promise it's easier."
She coughed, gulped air. "I don't want -- to be -- like you --"
Angelus stared at her. His impassive, blank expression cracked open and an inner well of raw pain flooded his face. With grim determination, Cordelia struggled to stay conscious, aware it was a lost cause.
He stood up, and a second later she heard a metallic clink as he unfastened his belt. She could only think of one reason he might do that, and she began to shake. Cordelia's last despairing wish was that he would just let her die in peace, without this final act of violation. Her only small consolation was that she had very little time left to be awake -- or even alive.
Just when you think things can't get any worse, Cordelia thought, and blacked out.
Cordelia was angry, Fred was misguided, and the universe was just plain wrong. All in all, Angel wasn't sure how things could get worse.
Cordelia said Fred had a crush on him. Could she be right? Angel hadn't thought so -- but then, Angel had had other matters on his mind both in Pylea and after they had left. He stopped for a moment, and gave Cordelia the benefit of the doubt.
Under other circumstances, he might have been flattered, if a little confused. He might even have sought Cordelia's advice on how best to deal with the situation. But everything was different now; there was a tension between him and Cordelia that Angel didn't know how to heal. Now that the truth about Darla was out, Fred's harmless affection had become, in Cordelia's eyes, something potentially dangerous, even destructive. And Angel knew that had nothing to do with Fred and everything to do with him.
Images from that night with Darla flickered in his mind. He'd pushed the memories of having sex with her out of his mind as quickly and forcefully as possible, so this was the first time he'd allowed himself think back to it in detail. He couldn't deny, even to himself, that mixed up with the remembered guilt and desperation was something else. Release. Reckless, self-destructive pleasure. He'd told himself, once or twice, that what had happened had been for the best -- if that was what it took to wake him up, then --
But that rationalization seemed so cheap, so small, when compared to the price his friends had paid for it in this universe. For his own enjoyment, he had endangered his soul --
Angel stopped and forced himself to focus. There was a time and a place for guilt, he reminded himself, but there was also a time and a place to put it aside. He'd gotten a lot better at remembering this the past few months; something about this place threatened to drive that lesson from his mind.
His immediate priority was finding a way to discount Cordelia's fears without embarrassing himself, Fred or both of them beyond endurance. No immediate means of doing this were springing to mind. After all, there wasn't really any good way to say, just in case you were thinking of falling in love with me, don't bother.
Feeling apprehensive, Angel returned to where they had left Fred and sat down beside her. She was typing at the computer with a speed and dexterity he'd rarely seen. "I guess it's all coming back to you," he said.
"Oh, yeah," Fred said. She looked over her shoulder and smiled at him, her face radiant with discovery. "I can't believe how many search engines there are now. And there's so much out there! Every university seems to have one, and all this lovely data is just --" Fred sighed contentedly, and tapped the computer's screen; the monitor's light made her skin glow warmly. "You put in the words you want, and the information comes flying to you. I never appreciated how wonderful it is. And everybody here -- they all take it for granted."
"Like having other people to talk to. Or walking around in the sunlight," Angel said, leaning back slightly as Fred began busily clicking on links. "Or not having to worry about cheese."
"Don't say that word. Hmmm, that's interesting." Fred's mouth screwed up in the strange expression Angel was learning meant "intense concentration". She grabbed up her pencil and began jotting down some notes. "Odd measurements this lab published --"
She was about to dive back into her work, and Angel already sensed that this was something likely to absorb her completely until she was done. Better speak now. "Fred? There was something I wanted to -- ask you, I guess -- "
"Well, this isn't right at all," Fred said. She was scowling at the computer; she'd jumped to another site, another set of measurements. "I mean, none of this matches. Some discrepancy between different observers, sure, you expect that. But Stanford's numbers don't bear any relationship to M.I.T.'s. I mean, none."
Angel briefly considered trying to contribute to the conversation she wanted to have, looked again at the long columns of numbers streaming out behind each decimal point, and realized that impulse was utterly futile. "If we could just talk for a second, I'd really appreciate it."
"Oh, go ahead! I'm listening," Fred said. She looked back over her shoulder and gave him that smile once more.
"Well --" How did you do this? Best to spell out the main problem first; she'd realize the rest on her own, most likely. "You remember how we've talked about -- about Buffy?"
Fred's fingers stopped their brisk clicking on the keyboard. "Buffy. The girl you love."
"Right. And how we've talked about Angelus --"
"The bad man here who looks like you." Fred was typing -- and frowning -- once more.
"Exactly. And how we'd met him before -- how I became him, before. And that it could happen again."
"It won't happen again," Fred said, her voice warm with confidence in him. She tapped the computer screen with her finger. "Oxford's got the strangest numbers of all. Nothing works together! These measurements don't just not match the other schools, Angel -- they're not even internally consistent. They don't create a coherent picture of -- of -- "
She grabbed his arm, her fingers surprisingly strong. "Oh, no. No, no."
"What?" Angel leaned over her shoulder to look at the screen with her; the numbers were as meaningless to him as ever, but her urgency demanded a response.
"These measurements I've been looking up -- they're the data I need to establish this universe's unique parameters. But the parameters aren't here. The structure's not here. There's no foundation to stand on --"
When she turned back to him, Angel was shocked to see that she was afraid. Her eyes were bright, her breath was speeding up, and her quick heartbeat was rushing blood to her cheeks. Then, suddenly, he realized how close they were and wondered if it was fear she was feeling --
The earth moved.
Fred cried out as the floor began to tremble beneath them. The light fixtures began to swing back and forth as books started tumbling off shelves. Angel could hear screaming all around them as the power flickered.
He grabbed Fred and ducked beneath the table. "Hold on," he shouted over the din as he rolled on top of her for whatever protection he could provide. "It's an earthquake."
Fred's hands were tense as she gripped his shoulders. "I don't think so. I think it's more than that."
The floor lurched again, and Angel curled around her more tightly. He reminded himself to find out exactly what else Fred thought this could be, after they were all safe --
Oh, God. Cordelia.
In a few moments, the shaking stilled. The screaming died down as people began hurrying for the stairs. Angel shifted his weight off Fred and pushed her toward the others. "There might be aftershocks. Go outside and wait for me there."
Fred shook her head. "I'm not leaving this library. Not until I know --" She pulled herself up, then stared at the bookshelves for a moment.
Angel frowned as he looked at them with her. A moment earlier they had been in the academic section, surrounded by dusty, hardcover tomes in black and tan. But now shelves of romance novels ringed them, pink and gold dust jackets displaying titles in decorative cursive script. Angel lifted a copy of "Bandit's Embrace" and opened it up, just in case it was about astrophysics. It wasn't.
"I knew it," Fred said. Then she glanced back at the computer and yelped in distress. Angel instinctively pulled her back as he leaned forward to read the screen; instead of reflecting the hard work of Oxford University's astrophysics department, the webpage now belonged to the American Dairy Council and proclaimed, "Behold the Power of Cheese!"
"What are the chances?" he muttered.
"It's not chance," Fred said. "We need to get back to Wesley and Lorne and that guy with no hair. Right away."
"I need to find Cordelia first. Fred, it's not safe here. Go outside and wait for us. And -- stay in the sunlight."
Fred didn't argue this time, just took off running toward the steps. For his part, Angel went back into the stacks, trying to find the place where he and Cordelia had spoken before. But none of the shelves looked the same -- where he remembered novels, he saw frying pans. Something that he would've sworn had been a magazine rack was stuffed with hay. He actually paused as he saw that, where a light fixture should have been, a candelabra -- with real candles -- hung from the ceiling.
And he'd thought Pylea was a strong contender for the "weirdest dimension" prize.
He rounded another corner and saw the sign for the bathrooms. Not a bad room to duck into, if you were in a library during an earthquake and wanted to avoid being crushed by toppling bookcases. Angel went to the door of the ladies' room. "Cordelia?"
Very quietly, too softly for any human to perceive, Angel heard a low groan. He tried to push the door open, but it wouldn't swing more than an inch or two. Metal echoed against tile -- something must have fallen against the door. Angel started to push again --
And then he smelled it. Blood -- Cordelia's blood. Enough of it that the scent was overpowering.
"Cordy!" he yelled, throwing himself against the door with as much force as he could bring to bear. "Hang on --"
Angel slammed his way through the door; a trash can crashed to the floor with a metallic clang that echoed in the small room. In the mirrors, he could see a reflection --
Angelus! His mind leaped to the thought, but then Angel realized -- no, those were mirrors. And those really were his reflections, one right after the other.
Until the end, when the mirrors ran out and he was still standing there.
Angelus was drenched in blood -- Cordelia's and his own. He stared at Angel with glassy, unreflective eyes.
Angel braced himself, dropping into fighting stance even as panic welled up within him. He couldn't see behind Angelus -- Cordelia was behind Angelus -- oh, please, don't let Cordelia be dead, Cordelia can't be dead --
"Cordelia can't die," Angelus said.
Angel froze. Angelus ran past him, out into the library. For a split second, Angel considered going after him. Then that thought, and every other, left him, because he could now see Cordelia lying on the floor in a pool of blood.
He dropped to his knees by her side, desperately pressed his fingers to her throat. Her pulse was still steady; it wasn't as strong as it should have been, but not so weak as to be life-threatening. His vampire senses told him that she had lost a pint or two; she'd feel weak for a while yet, but she was in no danger of dying. There was blood -- Angelus' blood -- smeared on her chin and around her mouth, but her face showed no sign of harm. The blood was flowing from a nasty gash across her wrist. But at her elbow --
-- her arm had been bound with a tourniquet.
Angel touched the leather strap. The pattern on it matched the belt he was wearing exactly.
Perhaps in response to the touch at her arm, Cordelia moved her head. Her eyelids fluttered open, and Angel leaned over her to ask her what had happened. Before he could speak, she focused on him and began to scream.
"Get away from me! Don't you touch me!" She lashed out at him with pitifully little strength, but he still winced as her hand slapped his face.
"Cordy, it's okay. You're going to be all right."
His words did nothing to reassure her. She was shaking and sobbing -- but then she grabbed his left arm and stared at it. "You're not cut," she whispered. "It's you. Oh, God, Angel, it's you --"
"Yes," he said, holding her to his chest as he closed his eyes tightly. "It's me."
Chapter by Rheanna
"You can't go any faster than this?" Wesley demanded.
"Pedal's to the metal, buddy," the cab driver said.
The veracity of this statement seemed questionable to Wesley; the taxi's speed couldn't have been more than 45 miles per hour, and he was sure even this ratty old vehicle should have been able to go faster than that. But he refrained from complaining any further. He knew that, even if the taxi had suddenly flared into warp speed, they still couldn't have arrived at the library fast enough to suit him.
"Chillax, will ya?" Gunn said, sprawling in the seat next to him. "We don't even know for sure that Angelus would go there."
"Any chance is too great a chance," Wesley insisted.
"Thought you were done power-freaking about Cordelia."
"I am. I just -- think -- she should know all the facts as soon as possible. Know to be careful. You of all people won't argue with that."
"No, no arguments here," Gunn sighed. "Just tired of you fidgeting like a Mexican jumping bean -- what the --"
The cab began to shake violently, and for one moment Wesley wondered if the vehicle actually had been pushed to its limits and was about to break down, or explode. But then he realized that other cars were swerving on the streets, and that the palm trees were swaying wildly.
"Earthquake!" Gunn yelled. "Holy hell!"
"Pull over!" Wesley shouted.
"Like I didn't know to do that!" the cabdriver snapped. He began steering to the side.
"This is going to delay us," Wesley muttered.
"Let's live through the earthquake, then worry about our punctuality," Gunn said, bracing himself against the door.
And then suddenly there was no door; Gunn tumbled forward, and Wesley shot an arm out to grab him, pull him back into the -- into the --
Well, it had been a cab -- but the ceiling was gone. The seats were now a dark, polished wood, the same as the sides. Behind them was an enormous sack stuffed with -- what? And in front --
Gunn, still staring out the opening in the side he had nearly fallen through, said, "Is it my imagination, or are we flying here?"
"If it's your imagination, it's mine too," Wesley said. "Could you please take a look in here for one moment?"
Gunn sat up to see what Wesley was referring to. His jaw dropped.
In the front, where the cabdriver had been --
Wesley stared. Next to him, he heard Gunn gulp.
The cab driver was a fat, jolly man in a red suit. He had a white beard, rosy cheeks and a round belly. "Ho ho ho!" he cried merrily. "To the library!"
For a few long moments, Wesley and Gunn sat side-by-side and simply stared at the eight flying reindeer who were pulling them through the sky toward their destination. Finally, Gunn said, "You ever do any serious drugs, English?"
"I once drank three-quarters of a bottle of Crown Royal at a go," Wesley said.
"I got high this one time," Gunn said. "Ate two bags of Cheetos, watched an old Godzilla movie. But that's about it. That's not the kinda thing that would cause flashbacks, would it?"
"I don't think so," Wesley said. The breeze ruffled his hair, not unpleasantly. "I don't believe this."
"What?" the loud voice in the front boomed. "You don't believe in SANTA CLAUS?"
In an instant, the sleigh swooped lower and touched down to earth with a pattering of hooves and jingling of bells. Gunn turned to glare at Wesley. "What is your problem? You go telling Santa Claus you don't believe --"
"But you believe, don't you, Charles?" Santa said with a merry smile.
"How does he know your name?" Wesley muttered as he climbed out of the sleigh.
Gunn rolled his eyes as he followed. "Santa knows everybody's name," he hissed.
"Tell me, Charles," Santa said, "have you been a good boy this year?"
Gunn stared at Santa, apparently at a loss for words. He opened his mouth and closed it again a few times. His expression was one of the deepest concentration, as if a very great deal rested on his answer. Finally, very carefully, he said, "Yes."
"HO ho ho!" Santa gestured grandly to the huge sack behind them. With a twinkling of red and green glitter, something sailed out; Wesley was startled to realize it was a replica of Gunn's hubcap axe, now with a large crimson bow on it. "There you go, Charles! Merry Christmas!"
Gunn took the axe in his hands, his face split with a huge, open-mouthed grin. "Thank you, Santa!"
"And to all a good night!" Santa cried as he jingled the reins once more. The reindeer lifted up into the sky and flew away. Wesley and Gunn watched them go for a while.
"Man, I don't care if that was a dream or what," Gunn breathed. "Because that was incredibly cool."
"We -- I don't -- maybe -- we can discuss this later," Wesley said. "We still have to get to the library."
"Library, right," Gunn said, gripping his axe a little tighter. "This was a seriously good present, considering."
"We're still thirty minutes away on foot. Though I hate to mention it, we might want to look for another taxi," Wesley said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. Then he drew out what he found there.
"What's that?" Gunn asked.
"Nothing," Wesley muttered, tossing the lumps of coal into the gutter. "Nothing at all."
It was very important to stay focused.
The convertible careered around a corner at high speed, ran a red light and made an ill-judged left turn across the stream of oncoming traffic. In the passenger seat beside Fred, Cordelia hugged her cut arm to her chest and blinked woozily, still half-doped on whatever pain medication the paramedics had given her. The emergency medical station set up on the road outside the library had been busy with casualties of the quake, and no one had questioned her injuries too closely. Behind her, Angel huddled beneath a blanket. They were both completely quiet, which fortunately gave Fred a chance to concentrate.
Foot on the pedal -- steering wheel -- it was all coming back now --
LA's City Hall loomed into view ahead, 28 stories of civic dignity and authority. Or it would have been, if every single one of those stories hadn't been decorated in pink and white swirls of icing, and topped in a blob of whipped cream so expansive it resembled a sugary rain cloud.
City Hall was a giant cake. Fred thought that must be awkward for the people who worked in it.
In the back seat, Angel lifted the blanket he was sheltering under long enough to shout a warning. "Fred --!"
There was a large staircase in the middle of the road ahead. It was carpeted in ugly floral deep pile and didn't seem to lead anywhere. Fred twisted the car's steering wheel just in time to swerve around it.
Focus. Gotta keep focused.
"Like riding a bike," she said out loud as she grappled with the mechanics of driving. "You don't forget, you don't forget, riding a bike --"
She knew that was a lie. You did forget. After five years, you forgot all kinds of things you never thought you could. Like your address, how to talk to people, your mother's maiden name, how to drive.
Or just what a "bike" was, anyway.
But Cordelia was hurt and Angel had to stay under the blanket (this is not Pylea, she thought, sunlight burns, remember that, focus) and Fred was driving the car. Badly.
Of course, three days earlier, she couldn't have said for certain what the words "driver's license" on the small rectangle of plastic in her cave meant. On those grounds alone, Fred felt reasonably confident she was making
But she had to keep concentrating -- keep focused on what was important.
After half an hour of searching, Wesley finally had to accept that Cordelia, Fred and Angel must have already left the library; the emergency-medical workers had told them nobody died in the quake, which was at least vaguely encouraging.
But it was still no guarantee that Angelus hadn't spirited any or all of them away somewhere, against their will.
When he posited this theory, Gunn shook his head. "It's also no guarantee the Easter Bunny didn't give 'em candy. Today, I mean this literally. Wes, we ain't doing anybody any good hanging around here any more. We're just killing time in a weird-ass library."
"The disco on the third floor was a touch unusual, I grant you."
"Or this whole row of books? Printed on maple leaves." Gunn gestured at the torches on the wall. "And tell me L.A. fire codes don't have something to say about those."
"This universe appears to be unstable," Wesley said.
His voice thick with sarcasm, Gunn said, "No, really?"
Wesley ignored him. "And I believe Angelus is to blame for it."
"Angelus? How do you figure that?"
"What your counterpart was telling us in the sewer tunnels -- I think that was important." Wesley rounded a corner, Gunn by his side -- then stopped in his tracks as he saw what lay before them: the all-new library Dark Arts and Magical Forces section. "For once, I believe this instability is working for us."
"Speak for yourself," Gunn said. "I already got an axe out of this deal."
Wesley began scanning the volumes; some of them were unknown to him, but others were reassuringly familiar. "There's one from Earnshaw -- he'll have something to say about this, I warrant."
He leafed through the fragile, yellowing pages until he saw the passage he sought; although it had been a few years since he'd studied this in Watcher's training, memory still served. "Here's the ritual Angelus is carrying out."
"What ritual?" Gunn said. His face was twisted with unhappiness. "This has got to do with livers, doesn't it? As in, Angelus ripping them out of people."
"That's the one," Wesley said absently, licking his thumb before he flipped a page. "It's a form of sacrifice to the ancient Phoenician gods of darkness. Designed to bring about the end of the world."
Gunn exhaled slowly, then said, "I'm gonna start my questions off small. Why take out the livers?"
"The liver is a symbol of regeneration," Wesley explained. "By sacrificing humans at certain points -- but removing their livers so as to further degrade the form -- a penitent to the darker powers could bring about instability in the universe. Eventually, he would be able to destroy it."
"Certain points?" Gunn said, frowning. "You mean portals, ergo the Class One freakout you went into when you figured out about the library."
"So Angelus has been picking off my gang to try to destroy the world?"
"To judge from the strange events that have been occurring, Angelus has managed to do some damage already. This dimension is already extraordinarily unstable."
"So are we talking about put-on-a-sandwich-board, Jesus-is-coming-soon time here? How much time have we got?"
"Years," Wesley said. At Gunn's surprised reaction, he continued, "Fortunately for us, this ritual is very demanding. A sacrifice must be made on each of two consecutive nights, including the night of the full moon, every month for nine years for the magic to take full effect. That's how the legends have it, anyway. As we're all still here, I suppose no one knows for certain."
"So the guy is into long-range planning. How do we stop him NOW?" Gunn said. "I think this information is key."
"Well, first and best of all is stopping him from taking any more victims," Wesley said.
"On board with that plan," Gunn said evenly. "But I think we need a backup."
"If we should fail, then there's a counter-spell; it's actually better known than the Phoenician ritual, as it works against other forces of darkness and entropy as well. We'll need to take the liver that's been cut out --"
"I had to ask," Gunn muttered.
"-- and purify it with Veldar's Flame -- it's a kind of blue-white, magical fire," he added, seeing Gunn's bemused look. "It's simple enough to make. Lorne should have all the ingredients we need from his shopping for the disinvitation spell." Wesley paused, considering.
"You still all hot to toss Angel out of the house?"
"No," Wesley said quietly. "I'm still -- it's hard to face. To know what his soulless self has done in this universe."
"Tell me about it," Gunn said. "But you were totally feral back there, seeing as how it's not actually our Angel we're talking about."
"I realize that," Wesley said. Tension was knotting up his shoulders, but he forced himself to relax. "We'll have to deal with this later, I think. But for now, our priorities are simple -- stopping Angelus, saving Cordelia and getting home."
He did not mean the Cordelia who was, hopefully, waiting at her apartment. From the dark spark in Gunn's eyes, Gunn knew what he meant, and still didn't like it. Wesley looked steadily at him, daring his friend to argue.
He didn't. "Then let's get on it," Gunn said. "Let's get back to check on Cordy. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll get a real taxi this time."
"Turn left," Angel said. "Left here."
Fred swung the car off the road and on to the lawn in front of Cordelia's apartment block. She drove it through the communal garden and didn't brake until the whole vehicle was in the shade underneath the awning at the front
of the building.
The car screeched to a shuddering halt two inches shy of Cordelia's front door.
Fred let out a slow, shaky breath. She took her hands off the wheel and twisted around in the driver's seat. The car's wheels had plowed two deep furrows in the otherwise neat lawn. Fred winced. "Sorry, grass."
Behind her, Angel shrugged off the blanket and got out of the car. He didn't say anything as he lifted Cordelia out of the front seat and carried her into the apartment in the safety of the shade. Fred was quiet too; things were becoming clearer now, making sense in a way they hadn't for almost as long as she could remember. But her thoughts still had a frustrating tendency to fly around inside her head like butterflies, and she was aware of the need to focus, to concentrate -- she couldn't let the answers slip away --
Just as they came through the door, Lorne walked out of the kitchen, holding a coffee pot in one hand and a plate piled high with sandwiches in the other, and wearing a cowboy hat on his head. "This is one wacky universe," he said, "but I gotta hand it to 'em; they know how to have a sale. Like my hat? Got it in honor of The Longhorn, The Bar Formerly Known As Caritas. I thought it would make you all die laughing, be a little morale-booster for the gang, but in fact Cordelia just looks like death and suddenly my habitual flippancy feels strangely inappropriate."
Angel set Cordelia down gently on the couch, and Dennis moved a low box closer so she could rest her feet on it. "I'd ask for the gory details," Lorne said, "but I have a nasty feeling they might be gory. How's our princess?"
Cordelia nodded weakly. "I'm okay. It was -- scary -- but I'm okay." She looked up at Angel, smiled. "Angel was there."
Her smile was fragile, but so sincere that Fred wondered why Angel wasn't smiling back. As Cordelia beamed up at him, he simply stood next to her, his expression haunted.
As Lorne fussed over Cordelia and Angel, well, just stood there, Fred looked around the cluttered apartment. Some of the furnishings had changed (and, to judge from the orange and yellow floral drapes, not for the better) but no computer had materialized into existence. Fred grabbed a pen and tried to think where to look; finally, she just looked up at the ceiling.
"Dennis? Nice dead man? I have to do some math now. I can't do it in my head, and I kinda need to be able to pull back and look at the equations all at once. So, if you don't mind --"
No chill ghostly wind howled through the apartment, and the walls didn't start bleeding, so Fred figured it was probably safe to start writing on them. She started with the basics, began deriving from first principles the rules that should define this world. It was clear after the first few lines that the answers were crazy, but the math behind them made sense, and that was all that mattered. Fred had finally found a set of rules that worked; here was her focus, her structure. It was all coming back now.
Fred tuned in and out of the conversation going on behind her, following just enough to notice that Cordelia was telling Lorne what had happened at the library, Lorne was being sympathetic and offering to make hot, sweet tea and Angel wasn't saying anything much. Then a particularly stubborn derivative took up her full attention, and when she next surfaced, Lorne had returned to the kitchen and Cordelia was speaking to Angel in a low voice.
"I mean it, Angel. Thank you."
"I --" He broke off abruptly. "For what?"
"Hello? The whole stopping Angelus thing? You saved me." Cordelia's voice was slightly throaty, as though she might be trying not to cry. "I -- I just wanted to say that I feel safe with you."
"Oh, God." Angel did not sound as if he were going to cry. But he sounded -- strange. The way he had after he'd seen the monster inside him. Fred peeked over her shoulder at him to see if he would fall down and start shaking again. He didn't. She went back to work.
"Angel, did you get hurt?" Cordelia asked.
"No. No, I didn't get hurt."
"Well, then, at least tell me he got hurt. I mean, if he didn't even lay a finger on you, you must have just kicked his ass, huh?"
"We didn't fight. He just -- walked away."
"This Angelus is way more of a scaredy-cat than the other one. Which is definitely a good thing. We get some Halloween masks and a videotape of 'The Birds,' and he's history."
Fred thumped her fingers against the wall as she considered what she'd written, then quickly tore down a "Highlander" poster to make some more room and kept writing.
"I don't think it's that simple," Angel said.
"Of COURSE it's not that simple. I am trying valiantly to maintain my sense of humor in the face of a day that, on a trauma scale of 1 to 10, gets about a 98. Work with me here."
The door flew open with a bang, startling them all. When Fred spun around, she saw Wesley come in. When he saw Cordelia, lying bandaged and wan on the sofa, he went pale. Behind him, Gunn drew in a breath, as though he'd been hurt. Angel didn't even look at them; he just shifted his stance so that he wouldn't be in the way of the sunset light coming in through the door.
"Dear God," Wesley said, dropping to his knees at her side. "What happened to you?"
"Everybody's favorite evil twin decided to renew his library card," Cordelia said. "Tried to vamp me, tried to rape me." She took a deep, shuddering breath, then apparently got her courage back. "But he got stopped by everybody's favorite good twin."
"He got to you," Wesley said. "He could have --"
Wesley stopped talking and embraced Cordelia tightly. After a few moments, Cordelia laughed a little. "Jeez, Wesley, you're embarrassing me." Wesley didn't let go, and in a few moments more, Cordelia said, "Now you're scaring me."
"I'm sorry," he said, pulling back. "I needed to -- see your face --" He broke off, clearly uncomfortable. Hypothesis, thought Fred: Wesley doesn't make emotional declarations very often. Evidence: his unease, Cordelia's expression of discomfort. Evidence: overwhelming.
She looked back at the expanse of black marker now covering most of one wall of the apartment. Here too she saw the familiar pattern of hypothesis and evidence. Here, as well, the evidence was overwhelming.
"Put me down for one of those hugs, too," Gunn said. "But I'll let you get your breath back."
"Okay. Feeling the love just a little too much." Cordelia said, slowly, "What did you find at the hospital?"
Fred began to get a slightly uneasy feeling about all this; the math on the wall behind her was, for the moment, the least disturbing thing in the room, which was saying something.
Gunn and Wesley were both quiet. After a pause, Gunn stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. He said, "Sure you want to know?"
"I think you'd better tell me."
"Angelus," Wesley said, putting some bite into the name, "made you insane. And he -- Cordelia, he blinded you."
Angel made a small, strangled sound. None of the others seemed to hear. Cordelia put her hand to her throat. "He -- he cut out my eyes. Didn't he?"
Wesley grabbed her shoulders. "Did he try to --"
"I think -- I think he thought about it," Cordelia said. "But then he decided I'd make a great vampire. Which I now have to be grateful for. Oh, my God."
"How could you?" Wesley didn't look away from Cordelia, but there was no doubt who he was talking to now.
"Wesley, don't," Cordelia said. "Angel's the one who saved me. If it hadn't been for him --"
Wesley took a deep breath. He still seemed tense, but he was making a visible effort to calm down. "I'm sorry," he said. "This has all been so -- I'm sorry, Angel."
"Don't apologize," Angel said. His arms were folded against his chest in unconscious defense and when he spoke again, it seemed to Fred every word was an effort. "There's something more happening here -- I can't explain why -- but I'm sure now --"
"Your instincts are telling you much the same thing we found out," Wesley said.
Angel looked pale -- now that Fred thought about it, Angel always looked pale, but there was something else behind his eyes now, something truly stricken. She reluctantly turned back to her equations, but she kept her ears wide open.
"You -- you know?" Angel said.
"We've put it together," Wesley replied.
The room was suddenly very still. The only sound was the squeak of black marker on plaster as Fred raced through the final lines of the calculation. They were hardly necessary: the calculus was reducing and reducing to a single inevitable statement of fact. Fred felt her stomach twist as she scrawled the last symbols on to the wall.
"What is it?" Cordelia asked.
Everything made sense.
Fred dropped the pen and turned around. The math and the moment fused as she heard a question she could answer with perfect clarity and focus. She felt connected to the people around her, to the math surrounding her, to the person she'd thought she'd lost for good somewhere in the Pylean woods. How good it felt to be so clear, so sure, to be able to open her mouth and announce --
"The world is ending."
"I was just about to say that," Wesley said, peeved.
"Oh, crap," Cordelia said tiredly. "Here we go again."
Cordelia felt the familiar mixture of panic, determination and plain old annoyance settle in. "How long have we got before the world ends?" she said. "Because in cases like this, the deadline is pretty crucial. In my experience, you play the game entirely differently if you've got, say, two months, versus, you know, tomorrow. Or today." She put a hand to her head, fighting off another wave of dizziness. "Please, not today."
"Not today," Wesley confirmed.
Behind him, Fred looked puzzled. "Excuse me?"
Everyone turned their attention to Fred, who pushed her glasses up her nose and said, "I would appreciate it if you could tell me a little bit more about the end of the world. With the math, if possible."
"Math?" Wesley said, momentarily nonplussed. "I don't -- this is an ancient Phoenician ritual. I don't think they even had a concept of zero, so their math is probably -- well, it's not the point."
Fred pulled herself up straight. "The math is always the point."
"It's not an immediate crisis, Fred," Wesley sighed. "The ritual involved requires nine years to complete."
"And involves the extraction of human livers," Angel said.
"So you already know it," Wesley answered quietly.
Cordelia glossed over the potentially icky bit about livers; she was too relieved about the duration of the ritual to much care. Nine years seemed like a very workable time frame. But then Fred spoke again.
"I know one thing for certain. It won't take nine years," Fred said. "I think this universe is pretty close to collapsing. Within days, maybe."
Cordelia twisted up her mouth. Wesley gaped. Angel frowned. Lorne winced. Nobody said anything helpful. Fred sighed.
"Days?" Cordelia said. "We only have days?"
Fred blinked behind her glasses, and gestured at the math covering most of the wall behind her. "I've only derived the basic equations. I'll need to do more work to calculate the precise rate of decay. But that's what's happening. I mean --" she gestured at the impenetrable layers of code behind her, "-- it's obvious."
It wasn't obvious to Cordelia, and a quick poll of four other blank expressions established it wasn't obvious to anyone else either.
"What do you mean, rate of decay?" asked Wesley.
"Fred," Angel interrupted, "We don't understand this the way you do. You have to find another way of telling us."
Fred stopped. She nodded. "This universe isn't real," she said.
Cordelia breathed a sigh of relief. "So this really is all just a bad dream. I knew it."
But Fred was shaking her head. "No -- I mean, it shouldn't be real. It's here but it shouldn't be. The numbers are wrong."
"Which numbers?" Angel asked.
"There are certain constants -- numbers that are always the same, however you measure them."
"Like pi," Wesley said. "Three point one four one --"
Fred smiled. " -- five nine two seven. Except it isn't, here. M.I.T estimates pi at 3.14156. Oxford University puts it at 3.14163. They're having an argument over it in the journals."
Cordelia ran this through her head, hoping for some bit of wisdom gleaned in 9th-grade geometry to kick in and illuminate this conversation. "Okay, sure, that's weird. But how do wonky circles bring the world to an end?
"You can't just be a little wrong about pi! It's -- crazy!" Fred sounded distressed; privately, Cordelia thought that 'crazy' was a risky word for someone with a cheese phobia to be using so readily.
Slowly, Angel said, "In the library this morning, you said something about there being no structure, no foundation. This is what you were talking about, isn't it? The rules here don't make sense."
Fred nodded so eagerly Cordelia thought her glasses would fly off. "And when the rules don't make sense, the world they define can't make sense either."
"Which is why all this weird-ass stuff has been happening?" Gunn said. "You would not believe what happened when that earthquake hit."
"That wasn't an earthquake," Fred said. "It was -- I guess we could say, a reality quake."
"And we would be having reality quakes why?" Cordelia asked.
"I think this place is an offshoot of our universe, that it was created when we came through the portal. Possibly because we came through the portal. Something happened that made all the dimensions go hinky --"
"Glory," Angel said grimly.
" -- and this little sliver of reality we're in splintered off from the real world -- well, one of the real worlds. Everyone here thinks they have a history, but they don't. They didn't exist for very long before we got here. All the true universes in the multiverse are infinite; but this place is finite. Nothing finite can exist in infinity."
"Hence the word finite," Wesley muttered.
Fred continued, "And because this universe is inherently unstable, not only has it not existed for long, but it won't exist for very much longer either. The reality quakes will get worse until this universe implodes. It won't just cease to exist -- it never will have existed. And -- umm -- that's it."
Fred trailed off, shrugging apologetically. Cordelia bounced up and down experimentally on the sofa. It felt solid. So did the cushions under her arms. She lifted the cup of tea Lorne had made her and sipped it. It was sugary and strong and far too hot, and burned her throat on the way to her stomach. "I don't get it. You're saying none of this is real?"
"It is real. In a sense. But this world is more -- fluid than ours. Malleable. Which means anything in it is susceptible to change or erasure at any moment. So the way we perceive reality might actually impact on its substance..." Fred trailed off, and looked thoughtfully back at the calculations on the wall. "That could be significant. I didn't introduce a variable to reflect it."
"Hating to interrupt the math master class," Lorne said, "but, you recall that part about the universe crunching in like a light bulb in a car crusher? Any thoughts on how we might NOT be here when it happens?"
Fred brightened. "Oh, that's easy."
Wesley blinked. "It -- is?"
"Oh, yes. Well, easier than it might be in a 'real' universe. The structure is so unstable that opening a portal in it should be fairly simple. Comparatively speaking."
Fred positively glowed. Cordelia sighed in relief. The atmosphere in the room lightened considerably, and even Angel seemed to snap momentarily out of the odd funk he'd been in since the library. Still, Cordelia thought, it was sweet of him to be so worried about her. Reminded her of the old days, the way it used to be, when they watched each other's back no matter what.
No, she told herself. That's not the way it used to be. That's the way it is again.
"That's very promising," Wesley said. "Fred here can figure out exactly how we'd go about opening up the portal. And then we can go, and when we leave, we can bring the other Cordelia back with us."
Cordelia looked at him. "Bring her back?"
Wesley nodded. "We can't leave her here to die."
"English --" said Gunn, and Cordelia had the sudden feeling that this wasn't the first time Wesley had raised this particular subject. She should have felt touched -- he only wanted to do this to help her, or some less fortunate version of her, at any rate -- but instead she felt profoundly uneasy, in ways she couldn't articulate. She thought about that other Cordelia, strapped to a bed somewhere, blind and crazy, and shuddered.
"I don't want to talk about this right now," Cordelia said.
To her surprise, Fred chimed in, "That's right. We have to stay focused on what's important."
"What's -- important?" Wesley said, his incredulity failing to mask his anger. "Cordelia's suffering isn't important? Her fate isn't important?"
"Not compared to our staying alive and getting home," Fred said.
"I suppose I shouldn't judge," Wesley said, and know his words were like knives. "You've been through so much of your own suffering. But I might have thought that would teach you some compassion. Some basic sense of --"
"Stop this," Angel said. "Wesley, she's telling the facts as she understands them. This isn't personal."
"Not personal?" repeated Wesley. "Are you forgetting where the responsibility rests for what happened to this universe's Cordelia?" As if to emphasize his point, he placed his hand on Cordelia's arm, resting it lightly on the belt still wrapped around it just above the elbow. Cordelia felt as if she should say something, but could not, for the life of her, think what.
Angel looked away. "No. Of course not."
"Very well, then," Wesley said stiffly. "We'll revisit this subject in the morning, when perhaps Fred can be convinced to re-examine her facts." Fred's face went dark, but before she could renew the argument, Wesley continued, "We should get settled in for the night. Cordelia needs her rest. I dare say we all do. Except perhaps Angel."
"Speaking of things that go chomp in the night, what about this disinvite spell?" Gunn said. "We need to keep Angelus out and keep Angel in. How are we going to swing that?"
"I have a theory about rewording the spell to bring in the concept of the soul --" Wesley began.
"We can't afford for you to test it," Angel said. "Besides, you -- you need to know this anyway --" He looked so strange when he said that, Cordelia thought, so sad --
"What's that?" Wesley said. "Something about Angelus?"
"That's not Angelus," Angel said. He was speaking so quietly Cordelia had to strain to make him out, but every word was clear. "Not the way you're using the name."
Cordelia felt her body go cold as Angel continued, "The vampire I saw today -- he has his soul. He's me."
Chapter by Rheanna
Cordelia felt her stomach clench painfully. For a moment, she couldn't think, couldn't speak, couldn't hear anything but the rushing of her own blood in her ears. "What?"
The others were all staring at Angel with differing levels of displeasure and disbelief. "This Angelus -- has his soul?" Wesley finally asked.
"Angel, that's crazy," Cordelia said. "Angelus tried to turn me. God, he was going to rape me --- when I passed out, he was taking his belt off to do it --"
"That's not why he took the belt off," Angel said. "He made a tourniquet for your arm. He's the one who saved your life, Cordelia. Not me." He motioned at his own belt, which was still at his own waist.
Cordelia flashed back to that moment in the library when she lay beneath Angelus, feeling his Adam's Apple rub against her skin as he drank up the blood spilling from the open veins in her arm. That moment of pure pain and terror and helplessness -- not Angelus?
No. Not possible.
"Back up," Gunn said. "You're saying Angelus saved her?"
"If he -- you -- he -- Angelus wanted to save Cordelia, why did he try to kill her in the first place?" Lorne said, his tone carefully reasonable.
"I can't imagine," Angel said. "In the same way I can't imagine why I would do any of the things he's done here -- but I know what I know. He has his soul."
"How could you do this stuff if you had your soul?" Gunn said.
"That's -- not -- Angel," Cordelia said. "No way. I don't believe it."
"It is," Angel said. "Why else would he have saved you, Cordelia? Why not carry through with the murder? I can tell you, without my soul, I never would have stopped. Never."
"You're -- you're just being paranoid," Cordelia said. "That's it. Paranoid like always. Well, take your guilt trip on your next vacation. Angel, you couldn't have done all this. Destroying the world, or blinding me or -- or killing Buffy! You believe that, don't you? There's no way you would ever have killed Buffy. Not with your soul."
Angel was very still. "I can't imagine doing that," he said. "But -- but I must have."
Wesley shook his head slowly. "Giles said she was dead -- and I assumed..." He trailed off. "He didn't actually say that Angelus was responsible." Wesley looked strange; Cordelia realized that he was actually starting to buy into Angel's crazy theory. His eyes reflected a kind of unpleasant energy -- fear masquerading as anger -- that she hadn't seen in a long time -- not since they'd been afraid Angel was murdering those people, cutting crosses in their cheeks --
Cordelia's memory flashed to Angelus' blade, cutting into her own skin. And she realized, with a lurch of fear, that she was starting to believe Angel too.
She blurted out, "Think about this, would you? Like any old demon-of-the-week could take out Buffy. Wait, I'll prove it. Where's the phone?"
Lorne fetched it for her, and Cordelia checked with directory assistance, then pressed 1 to pay for the exorbitant connection fee. As she waited for the connection to be made, she heard Gunn say to Angel, "I'm hoping, for your sake, that we find out a soul-free Angelus did something real bad to your ex. Because I am not ready to hear that you can do something like that. Or like what we saw today."
"Cordelia's face was a ruin," Wesley said. "Could you have done that to her? Answer me. I want to hear this."
"I can't imagine it," Angel said hoarsely. He was sitting in the center of the room, Cordelia noticed; the attention of the group was focused solely on him, as if he were on trial. Maybe he was. "But I -- Wesley, I don't know what I could have done. I just know what I am."
"Does it matter if -- Angelus -- has his soul or not?" Fred said.
"Oh, yes," Wesley said. He was glowering at Angel now, his stare cold and penetrating in a way Cordelia hadn't known it could be. "It matters very much."
"But not compared to the actual problem of the universe collapsing --" Fred said. Cordelia rolled her eyes. Fred clearly needed to get her priorities straight.
At last, Cordelia heard a click as, at the other end of the line, someone lifted the phone. She motioned at the others to keep quiet.
"Xander? Hey, it's Cordelia! Good ol' Cordy from Sunnydale High and vampire slayage of yore. Now, I know we haven't kept up like we should have after the bitter, vindictive breakup, and you probably heard I was in the nuthouse and everything. But I just wanted to touch base, and, um, ask you some questions that might sound -- very, VERY strange -- oh, for Pete's sake," Cordelia sighed. "I forget I'm talking to someone who lives on a Hellmouth. I'm not your Cordelia. I'm from an alternate universe."
"Check. What's up?"
"I have to ask you a really difficult question. But the answer is going to tell us something we definitely need to know, okay?"
"I'm ready for any difficult questions you want to throw at me," Xander said cheerily. "Except chemistry. Not so good at that."
Cordelia took a deep breath. "Xander, how did Buffy die?"
The phone was silent for a while. When Xander spoke again, his voice was subdued. "She died the night after her mother's funeral. She was all alone -- she said she wanted to be alone, so we left her. We never should have done that. A demon caught up with her."
"You're absolutely certain about that?"
"Oh, I'm certain," Xander said bitterly. "It was a -- Giles said it was a Pavneq. We found it two days later. It kept her scalp as a trophy. Thing is, Pavneq demons aren't even all that strong. She could have fought it if she'd wanted to. But Buffy -- she went through a lot, those last few months, and I -- I don't think she wanted to fight anymore." There was a long silence on the other end of the line. "Is that all you needed to know?"
"Yeah," Cordelia said quietly. "That was it. Thanks, Xander."
"Hey, am I, you know -- cool in your universe?"
The phone went dead, and Cordelia put it down. Her whole body felt numb.
Angelus didn't kill Buffy.
Angel didn't kill Buffy.
There's no Angelus, she realized. There's just the same Angel who's sitting here in this room. The same one who tried to kill me, tried to turn me --
She turned to the others and forced the words out. "Buffy died the night after her Mom's funeral. A demon got her."
"In our universe, I was there -- I would have protected her -- " Angel's face twisted briefly in pain. Finally, he said, "He has his soul. I don't know why he's doing all this. But I know he's not Angelus, not really. We're trying to stop someone who -- who thinks like I do. So that might help us predict what he's going to do. When he's going to do it. I -- I realize this is disturbing -- it is for me too -- but we have to use this to our --"
"You tore out her eyes," Wesley said. "With your own hands. With your soul in your heart."
"I must have," Angel said brokenly.
The significance of what Xander had said, what it meant, burrowed its way deeper into Cordelia's mind. She stared at her arm. Felt herself start to shake. "That was Angel. Angel did this. Oh, my God."
"No," Fred said. "This is our Angel. And he didn't do any of that. So if we could just get back to the important things --"
"This is important!" snapped Wesley.
"No, it's not!" Fred was almost shouting. "We need to be -- focused -- and calm -- the world is ending!"
"Good point," Lorne said. "Well made. Maybe if we dealt with that little matter for a moment --"
He started talking, but Cordelia wasn't listening. Yeah, she thought. Her world was ending. It had been a nice world, too, for a little while: she'd believed in Bad Angelus and Good Angel, and it was okay to hate one and let the other buy you lunch. But the truth was that the gulf between them wasn't as wide as she'd wanted to believe it was and, really, she'd known it since he'd threatened her just to get a book.
Whatever it was that had opened back up in her heart for Angel these past couple of months -- Cordelia could feel it closing over, sealing up, leaving only the pain and the scar.
"Calm?" Gunn said, cutting Lorne off mid-sentence. "Calm? We just found out that Angel can go all homicidal and world-destroying even with his soul on board."
"We knew that already," Wesley said. His voice had gone utterly cold. "We've known it since he left those lawyers to die."
"Hey, a little attorneycide is a dangerous thing, but it's kind of a far cry from destroying the world, right?" Lorne said. Angel was looking Wesley in the face, but his expression was distant, as though he had withdrawn deep within himself.
The energy in the room was beyond strange now, Cordelia realized; she could almost feel the pent-up anger and fear and blame solidifying between them, pushing them apart. She laughed weakly. "I was just getting ready to trust you again. I am such an idiot."
"I can't control what I've done in this universe --" Angel began.
"Then who's to say you can control what you'll do in future?" Wesley said. "We can't. Can you? Well, can you?"
Angel's face was ashen. "No, I can't. I can't. No matter how hard I try -- I can't ever say that I'm safe."
"You killed Wesley," Gunn said. "You killed my friends. You turned Cordelia into something you can't even imagine, you son of a bitch --"
"Stop it!" Fred shouted. "We have to concentrate on what's in front of us right now. Not what might happen, or might have happened. That's just going to tie you all up in knots -- believe me, I know --"
"Where do you get off attempting to lecture us?" Wesley snapped. "Yesterday you couldn't fixate on anything more substantial than a Taco Bell."
"Hey," Angel said. "Lay off Fred. This isn't her fault. It's mine."
"And how gracious it is of you to admit it so readily," Wesley said acidly. "Yes, this is all your fault. It's your fault that Cordelia is blind and insane. It's your fault that innocent people have been killed. And I can't help remembering that you're also responsible for murdering me. Given all the things you're responsible for, I think I am entirely justified in echoing your words from a few months ago. Angel -- you're fired."
"Don't let this hit you on the way out," Gunn said, opening the door.
Night had fallen. Angel stared out into the darkness. Without turning around, he said, "I knew this was wrong. I knew I'd only end up hurting you in the end. I shouldn't ever have dragged you into this."
"No, you shouldn't have." Cordelia loosened the belt tied around her upper arm, slipped it off. Her arm throbbed and prickled as the blood flow returned, and she could feel the pain of the ugly stitches across her wrist. "You know, I always thought you didn't have a choice about how you were. But in this universe, you chose to drive me insane and cut my eyes out. Can you tell me why you made that choice?"
Angel's voice was barely a whisper as he said, "No."
Evenly, Cordelia said, "Then I can't trust your choices anymore, and until I can, I don't want to see you again."
Angel was outside the door now. He turned to go, and Gunn started to shut the door behind him.
But before he could close it, Fred was following Angel out of the apartment. "I'm coming too."
Angel stopped, turned around. "You should stay --" he began, and stopped. He was looking at Fred as if he'd never seen her before, and there was an odd, and oddly familiar, expression on his face. Cordelia recognized it; she'd only ever seen him look at one other person that way.
If he didn't know how Fred feels before, she thought, he does now.
After long hesitation, Angel managed to finish the sentence. "You should stay with the others. They need you to get home."
"So do you," Fred said simply, looking up at Angel in unabashed devotion. Poor pathetic girl, Cordelia thought, with something closer to contempt than pity. She silently thanked whatever trick of fate had kept her from ever falling for Angel herself.
"This isn't open for debate --"
"I'm not in Pylea anymore. I'm not a slave. I do what I want to do, and I want to stay with you."
"Angel might look like a man, but he's a monster," Wesley said. "A monster with a soul, but still a monster. You won't be repaid well for your trust, Fred."
"I already have been," Fred said, with more ferocity than Cordelia had previously given her credit for. "I'm going wherever Angel goes."
"And there's my cue," Lorne said. He gathered up his shopping bags. "There's a little incense in there from Rick's -- keep it to remember me by. Though, if I'd known this was going to be my legacy, I would have gotten something besides Mango Delight."
Cordelia looked at him incredulously. "You're going with them?"
"Love you guys, honestly. But Fred goes where Angel goes, and I go where Fred goes," he said, heading to her side. "A physicist with expertise in multiple dimensions seems like a really good person to have handy right about now. And -- if I may make one little suggestion --"
"What's that?" Gunn said.
"We'll promise not to go home without you if you promise not to go home without us," Lorne said. "Whichever team puts the answer together first gets bragging rights -- but they help the others out. There's some bad blood in this room, but I don't think anybody here actually wants to see anybody else die. Particularly me, because I'm just so gosh-darned endearing. You can find me at the same place you always have. Deal?"
After a moment, Cordelia nodded. "Deal," she said.
Lorne nodded, and left, closing the door behind him.
There were 68 rooms in the Hyperion, and not one of them contained anything noteworthy, unless you found dead bodies interesting.
Darla didn't. At least, not any longer. In nearly four centuries, she'd seen -- and been responsible for -- enough deaths that corpses had lost much of their novelty value.
Novelty. Freshness. She craved both and had experienced neither in too long. Darla descended the stairs into the hotel lobby, dragging one finger along the banister as she went. By the time she'd reached the bottom, her index finger was black and a long trail was visible in the thick dust that coated the railing. She wrinkled her nose in distaste. Nothing in Angelus' latest folly had been fresh for a very long time.
In the short period she'd spent at the hotel, Darla had learned to hate the place with a fervor. It was too hot by day and too cold by night. Nothing worked properly; fifteen bathrooms on the second floor alone, and the shower in every last one of them leaked. Worst of all was the smell -- a miasma of decay hung over the whole building, polluting the air with the stench of irreversible disintegration.
She smiled grimly to herself as she crossed the lobby. Really, she should feel right at home.
The office behind the front desk was cluttered and dark, but Darla knew exactly where to find what she needed. When she returned to the lobby, she was carrying two bottles and a glass. She set the glass on top of the filthy reception desk and half-filled it with vodka.
She'd wanted to go somewhere else. She'd suggested it. Then she'd wheedled and cajoled. Finally she'd threatened. But her threats were empty these days, and they both knew it. The balance of power had shifted between them; just like everything else lately, the rules were changing faster than she could keep up.
Darla poured more vodka into the glass, until it was full. She put the bottle of tonic to one side, unopened.
An angry mewl and the scratch of claws on wood made her look up.
The cat sat on top of the reception desk, watching Darla with a mixture of hostility and suspicion. It was the same animal she'd seen more and more often around the hotel in the past weeks -- its mangy gray fur and ragged left ear made it easily recognizable. But now that she had the opportunity to study it up close for the first time, she also saw how thin it was. It looked ill. It must be a stray, she decided.
The cat looked at the vodka bottle and licked its chops.
An alcoholic cat. Well, that was new. Darla was amused.
"A toast," she said, holding out her glass to it: "To those of us with multiple lives."
Frightened by the sudden movement, the cat hissed loudly and swiped at her hand. Darla dropped the glass, swore as the liquor soaked into the faded carpet. When she held up her hand, it was marked with white-edged slits where sharp claws had broken the skin. Darla swore again, raised her arm to strike back --
-- and laughed instead.
The cat was feral, untrustworthy and vicious. Darla decided she liked it.
It mewled again, got up and began to move in tight circles on top of the reception desk. At the same time, Darla felt the beginnings of faint vibrations rising up through the building's foundations, shaking her to the core. Too late, she realized the cat hadn't been spooked by her, but by something else.
Damn it, not another one --
As the building began to shake harder, she ran to the door that led to the hotel basement. Halfway across the lobby, she went back for the vodka. The quake was already in progress by the time she got back to the top of the basement stairs. The last thing she saw before she closed the door behind her was the cat streaking toward the Hyperion's back entrance.
The building was shaking so hard now it was difficult to keep her balance as she went down the stairs -- she put one hand against the wall for balance and clutched the bottle in the other. She knew she was no safer down here than above, probably even less so, but the old instincts had protected her for a long time, and Darla wasn't about to stop listening now. When threatened, get underground.
At the bottom of the stairs, the tremors grew so strong it was impossible to stay on her feet, so she fell into a crouching position, hands over her head, bottle of vodka stabilized between her feet. Around her, the accumulated junk of the hotel's last years as a going concern shook and banged against Angelus' more recent additions to the collection. In one corner, a standard lamp fell over, the bulb shattering with a pop, while the manacles attached to the far wall rattled against each other.
It had to stop soon. They never lasted this long --
There was a crash from the other end of the basement, so loud that it briefly drowned out the deafening roar of the quake.
And then it was over.
Darla lifted the bottle and took a long, deep drink. Feeling only marginally more calm, she looked cautiously around the basement. Apart from a liberal scattering of broken china and dented weaponry, she was relieved to find nothing fundamentally different. The quake must have been centered in some other part of the city.
A scraping sound made her start: the trapdoor which led to the sewers underneath the hotel was opening. Darla lifted a sword which had fallen from its mounting on the wall and landed near her feet. She was almost certain she knew who was coming; after a quake, however, it wasn't wise to depend on usual expectations.
The trapdoor flipped over on its hinges and banged against the concrete floor. This time, at least, her expectations were correct: the shape that emerged slowly, pulling itself with difficulty up into the basement, was Angelus.
Relieved, Darla lowered the sword and went to help him. Unceremoniously, she hauled him through the trapdoor so that he was sitting at the edge of the hole. As she helped him, she noticed that his shirt and coat were heavily bloodstained, and he was holding his left arm awkwardly. But his skin was warm to the touch and there were still traces of blood on his lips. He'd fed recently.
"What happened to you?"
Angelus didn't reply. Instead he pointed at the bottle sitting on the ground behind her. "Give me that."
"Someone's had a bad day." She handed him the bottle, and watched with regret as he gulped down what remained of the vodka. "So, did you kill anyone special?"
She frowned. "Did you get around to checking out your old friends' new home?"
And that, apparently, was all she was getting. No, "Thank you, Darla, for spending the whole of last night staring at the side of an apartment building. I really appreciate how you endured being cramped and bored on my account." Of course, there'd been a time when he would no more have thanked her for anything than she would have let him: it was a weak, human affectation. So why did she want to hear him say it now?
"So, you haven't seen them yet." Wonderful, she thought. Another night of pacing lay ahead.
"I saw them. I went to the library to prepare the next site. They were there." The empty bottle slipped out of his hand and through the trapdoor to the sewers, where it landed somewhere far below with a faint splash. Now that she was close to him, Darla saw the gash on his forearm, sealing over already but nevertheless still deep.
She took his hand and tugged at it until he stood up. "You should forget about them. They don't matter. They're just shadows, like everything else. They'll be gone with the next shakeup. They're probably gone already."
"They're real," Angelus said. There was a quality in his voice -- conviction, animation -- that had been missing for so long she had almost forgotten what it sounded like. It reminded her of the vitality that had first drawn her to him, so long ago now --
Darla moved a little closer to him. He didn't notice. Distracted, he said, "I thought she was like Cordelia -- but she is Cordelia -- she tasted more real, more alive than I ever thought --"
"And you drank her up." Darla slipped her arms around his body and stretched up to press her mouth against his. For a second he resisted, then his lips parted, just enough to let her tongue inside his mouth. He tasted of blood and cheap liquor. Always a potent mixture.
She kissed him harder, ran her hands lightly over his back, then brought them around the front of his body so they rested on the waistband of his pants. His belt was missing -- odd, because he always wore one -- and it took only a second to undo the zipper, work her fingers between layers of fabric and skin. Already she could feel him hardening at her touch.
He turned slightly, trying to break the contact. She expected this; it was part of the game. He could never resist for very long.
"No," he said.
"Yes," Darla said, and ran her nails lightly down his length. She felt his whole body stiffen against her as he tipped his head back, shut his eyes and gasped involuntarily. He wouldn't stop now; she had him.
It was good to know some games were still played by the old rules.
Again he maneuvered away from her, but this time he made no real effort to escape her touch. She circled with him; they were turning around on the spot, slow dancing without music.
Darla turned, opened her eyes just long enough to see --
At the far end of the basement, the brass-framed mirror which had formerly had place of honor over the reception desk was propped at an angle against the wall. It must have fallen during the quake, Darla realized -- that had been the final crash she had heard. The sheet which had covered the mirror lay in a crumpled heap at its base, revealing that the impact had broken the glass. A spider's web of cracks radiated outwards from its center; instead of one mirror, there were now a dozen, each one reflecting a slightly different aspect of the basement.
And each fragment also reflected, in the midst of the junk and debris, two figures caught in their old dance.
The expression on the face of Darla's reflection was one of consummate shock; Angelus' image simply nodded. "I saw my reflection in the bathrooms at the library," he said.
Darla gaped at him. "And you didn't think that was worth mentioning?" She pointed at the multiplicity of reflections. Simultaneously, the reflections pointed back at her. "This isn't possible."
"Everything's possible now," Angelus said. "Even the things that aren't."
He stared for a moment at the mirror, and at himself reflected in it, holding Darla. Then he broke contact with her and zipped up his pants. "The quakes are getting stronger. And they're coming more frequently. Come on."
At least something was coming more frequently, Darla thought sourly as she followed him up the basement stairs. At the top, she waited behind him as he tried to open the door; it opened halfway, then stuck. Angelus leaned against it, tried to force it fully open. The door refused to budge an inch further. He squinted through the narrow gap at the lobby beyond, and frowned. "Something's changed."
He shook his head. "I'm not sure..."
The gap was wide enough to squeeze through, so Darla did. The hotel lobby was uncomfortably bright after the basement's dark shelter, and it took her a moment to understand what she was seeing.
What she was looking at was impossible.
The lobby's main doors and the area next to the reception desk were exactly as she had left them. But the alcove by the back entrance, next to the stairs, was different.
Bones, bleached white and fused together in impossible ways, erupted from the floor, ripping up the carpet and scraping against the stair rails as they twisted and climbed toward the ceiling. Fingerbones sprouted from femurs; elsewhere a humerus ended in a dangling collection of teeth. The structure spread out as it grew higher, branches tapering into smaller and finer bones.
Suspended from the end of each branch was a human rib cage, the bones bending together at the top and bottom to create an enclosed space. Each cage of bones, except one, held a collection of ragged feathers which might once have been a songbird.
Darla stared at the tree of bones. She had grown wearily used to the endless stream of changes and inconsistencies that had lately undermined any attempt at a normal daily existence, but this was something new again. This change in reality wasn't just something different, or out of place -- it was crazily wrong, impossible. The bone-tree could only exist in a world that had stopped making sense.
She heard a grunt, and looked around to see Angelus forcing his way out of the basement behind her.
He stared at the bone-tree for a long time, his expression unreadable. Then, unexpectedly, he put his arms around Darla's waist and pulled her toward him. He touched her with barely-suppressed violence, as if the closeness of such a shrine to death had finally stirred a long-buried sense of urgency in him.
This was the beginning of the end, and he knew it.
At the top of the bone-tree, the broken and twisted body of a stray cat stared down at Darla from between the smooth white bars of the highest rib cage, one ragged ear moving in the draft.
"How much longer?" she asked.
She felt Angelus' fangs scrape her neck, his cold lips on her skin. "Not long."
"I'll leave you at the Longhorn," Angel said. "You'll be safe there."
>From the passenger side of the Plymouth, Lorne looked at him. "I'm getting two things from that. One -- you're going somewhere else, and, two -- the somewhere else you're planning on going is emphatically not safe."
"I'm going back to the Hyperion," Angel said flatly.
Fred's face creased in concern. "The other you might be there. The bad you."
"That's the idea," Angel said. He was surprised by how calm he felt. "It'll be hard to drive a stake through his heart if he isn't."
Lorne lifted his hands and made a T-shape in the air in front of his chest. "Time OUT. What precisely is that going to achieve? Apart from dragging your psyche to even more convoluted depths of Freudian complexity?"
"What if you fight him and lose?" Fred asked, sounding upset. "I mean, you should wait -- or get a plan, or --"
Lorne twisted around to address her directly. "Good thinking, munchkin. Just one flaw -- that approach would require our very own dark and stormy knight here to approach this situation rationally. And he doesn't want to do that. He wants to go and start a fight which won't help us get home but which will probably end up with him being swept up by a dustpan and brush. Anf even if he wins, it won't achieve anything."
"It'll make me feel better," Angel said.
"No," Lorne said, "it won't. And you know why it won't? Even if you went over there right now, even if you reduced him to a small pile of ashes and scattered them to the four winds, you wouldn't feel any better. Because YOU would still be standing."
As Lorne spoke, Angel saw again the scene from the library restrooms; Cordelia, slumped in a wide slick of her own blood, a mirror image of himself crouched over her. And when Angelus had looked up, voiced the thought in Angel's mind, met Angel's gaze -- at that moment, Angel had known the truth. If the eyes were a window on the soul, Angel had seen his own essence staring back at him.
And now Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn had seen it too; not in his face, or in the shape of the demon he had been in Pylea, but in the legacy of his actions in this universe. He had murdered Wesley, tortured Cordelia until she broke.
A monster with a soul.
"Now," Lorne said, "what say we take a few steps back from all this and just chill until we regain our sense of perspective, hmm? How about dinner?"
"I'm hungry," Fred said, a little too quickly.
Lorne smiled broadly. "Then I declare the motion, 'This house would prefer to have dinner than get involved in a meaningless fight to the death' carried two votes to one. Driver, I spy an outpost of old Mexico ahead which should suit the senorita in the back. Pull in."
"What is this place called? Taco Casa?" Fred wrinkled her nose. "Maybe we could go another couple blocks for a Taco Bell --"
"Don't push it," Lorne muttered.
At least, Angel thought as he parked, this was one way of getting them out of the car. If necessary, he could disappear while they ate.
Inside, the restaurant was busy, and there were few tables left. After a brief search, they found a vacant booth, hidden in a secluded corner behind a bank of cheap, fake potted plants. While Angel and Lorne slid into the turquoise-plastic seats, Fred joined the lengthy line at the counter.
"You know," Lorne began conversationally. "It's at times like this I like to remember the immortal words of --"
"I don't want to hear it," Angel said.
Lorne was undaunted. "You don't know what I'm going to tell you, yet."
"I don't care what you're going to tell me. I don't want to hear homilies or pearls of wisdom. I don't want to be cheered up, encouraged, reassured or heartened. I don't want to think. I don't want to talk."
"Excuse me. Hey, excuse me! I want to speak to the manager."
The voice was so loud that Angel looked around despite himself. A group of young men had shoved their way to the front of the line and were leaning over the counter. Angel looked around for Fred and saw that she had been pushed to one side. She was frowning in obvious annoyance.
A woman in a staff uniform with a jacket had been summoned from the back of the kitchen area. She smiled politely as she asked, "Do you have a complaint, sir?"
The leader of the gang was dressed in a biker's leather coat and pants. He grinned at his companions before facing her over the counter. "Do you serve black people in this restaurant?"
"Sir, we serve everybody who wants to eat here. Now, if you'd like to place your order --"
"Do you serve white people?"
"We serve everybody," repeated the manager. Her smile had vanished, and many of the people behind the bikers in the line were grumbling loudly.
"Do you serve yellow people?"
The manager's tone was openly frosty now. "We serve everyone."
"So -- you serve all kinds of people. That's what you're saying." The biker turned to his companions again, then back to the restaurant manager. "Well, that's great. We'd like to order some black people, some white people and some yellow people. To go."
The biker vamped out and lunged over the counter, grabbing the manager by the lapels of her jacket. As he hauled her toward him, the rest of the gang bared their fangs and began rounding up the restaurant patrons closest to them.
Lorne exhaled heavily. "Vampires. Loud, obnoxious -- and they never know how to conduct themselves in public." He looked at Angel. "Present company excepted."
"I'll handle this," Angel said.
He stood up and made his way through the melee. The biker vamp was leering into the face of a terrified middle-aged man when Angel tapped the vampire on the shoulder. "You really don't want to do this."
The vampire's teeth hovered over his victim's neck. Then he dropped the man, who passed out and slumped on to the floor at his feet. The vampire turned around to face Angel. "Maybe you'd like to tell me just why the FUCK not --" He froze.
"Because," Angel said quietly, "I've had a very, very bad day. And if you make it any worse, you'll regret it. But not for long."
"Angelus." The vampire blinked. In a second, his attitude changed entirely, from predatory self-confidence to abject deference. "I'm -- we're -- I didn't know this was your turf, man. We thought you only hunted on the north side." He reached down and picked up the limp body at his feet, exposing the neck. "Uh, hey, you want first bite?"
Angel snarled and knocked the unconscious man from the vampire's grip. "Get out of here." He stood back and addressed the other members of the gang. "Get out. Now."
Biker Vamp spread his hands and stepped back. This wasn't merely deference, Angel realized. It was terror. "Sure, man. Whatever you say. We're gone, we're outta here." He nodded to the rest of his gang: "Moving out!"
Slowly, the vampires began to assemble in the empty space in front of the main counter. All around the restaurant, patrons sat perfectly still, or cowered behind chairs and tables. The manager was pressed against the base of the counter, her breathing shallow and her eyes wide.
The air was saturated with fear, and it smelled so good --
The vampires were halfway to the door now. The leader turned around and, as an afterthought, gestured around the silent, fearful restaurant patrons. "I mean, man, you want 'em, they're yours. Plenty more out there. Just take 'em. Take 'em all."
Suddenly, Angel felt a faint tremor through the soles of his boots. It grew rapidly more intense, and within seconds the tables throughout the restaurant were shaking drinks and plastic trays of half-eaten Mexican food on to the floor.
Fred had fallen to her knees; she was clinging to a giant cardboard burrito for the little support it could provide. As Angel caught her gaze, she mouthed, Quake -- and then her eyes widened at something behind him.
He turned around, and saw what Fred had already seen.
The vampires were changing, transforming even as he watched. Their skin darkened, becoming scaly and rigid, like armor, while ugly spikes sprouted from their faces.
No, Angel thought. Please, no. Not again. Not now, not here --
The floor shuddered one last time as the quake ended. Angel reached out a hand to steady himself and watched with helpless revulsion as his nails lengthened into talons, his fingers twisting and becoming clawlike. He could feel the change overtaking him, twin sensations of strength and hunger surging through him, threatening to overwhelm him --
But this time, they didn't.
He felt the same intoxicating rush of power he had in Pylea, like a red mist falling behind his eyes, but somehow it was still possible to think through it. Angel pushed the table he was leaning on and watched with satisfaction as he was able to rend the metal base in two. He reveled in his strength, and in the knowledge that he was still in control.
All the vampires had now degenerated into their pure, demonic forms. Angel snarled at them. He was looking forward to this.
He picked out the gang's leader, then rushed him.
The collision was brutal, the pain sweet. Angel bore down on his opponent, easily pinning him down. He lifted the vampire's head and, with savage enjoyment, slammed it into the floor, over and over and over and over --
He didn't stop until the vampire's body went lax beneath him. Angel leapt to his feet, oblivious to the screams and hubbub around him. He looked around the restaurant, taking in the plastic molded benches and tables, the plastic displays advertising plastic food positioned between plastic greenery -- dammit, wasn't there anything made of wood in here?
He heard a noise from behind him and turned around just as another of the vampires gave a guttural cry of rage and started to run at him. Bending down, Angel lifted Biker Vamp's unconscious body and threw it at the approaching vamp, hard. The force of the impact slammed the running vampire into the table behind him, while Biker Vamp landed on the serving counter, where he slid along the metal surface for some distance before flopping out of view behind it, in the kitchen area.
Angel ran, jumped and hurdled the counter with ease. He heard roars behind him as the remaining vampires, galvanized by his attack on their leader and their superior numbers, started to follow.
The kitchen staff had fled; there was no one to stop Angel tipping over the nearest deep fat fryer. A tide of slippery, sizzling fat washed over the floor, instantly raising the temperature in the kitchen by ten degrees. As the slick reached the fallen form of the lead vampire, his scaly skin started to blacken and smoke.
Two more vampires jumped the counter successfully, only to fall immediately on the treacherous floor. They screamed as glutinous layers of boiling oil splashed on to their hands and faces, raising ugly red welts on the flesh and filling the air with the smell of cooking flesh.
Angel smiled, grimly satisfied.
A single gas flame somehow still burnt on the stove behind him. Angel ripped a handful of paper towels from the dispenser above the sink and held them over the blue flame until they caught alight. Then he threw the burning mass into the middle of the pool of oil, and basked in the whoosh of heat and light that resulted.
When the flames had died down, he stepped over the faint, charred stains that marked where the vampires had incinerated, and returned to the main part of the restaurant.
It was completely empty.
Patrons and staff had fled, and the restaurant -- which not ten minutes earlier had been a busy, congenial establishment -- was a derelict husk. The fire in the kitchen had triggered the automatic sprinkler system; sprays of water drummed the floor, turning abandoned half-eaten meals into unappetizing mush.
Angel looked around feeling, if anything, disappointed. For the first time since they had arrived, he felt he'd achieved something. The simple, cleansing efficiency of the fight had left him feeling focused, battle-ready, eager for more --
He knew what he wanted to do. Angelus. He would face Angelus like this. Show him who was stronger, Make him suffer just as he had made Wesley and Cordelia suffer --
He turned around. Not everyone had gone, after all.
"THIS is what he looks like when he gets out of the bed on the wrong side?" Lorne asked. "It's more disturbing than Cher without makeup."
"Angel?" repeated Fred.
Angel opened his mouth to reassure her -- and couldn't.
He tried again, and heard himself make only a series of incomprehensible grunts. This form, he realized, simply wasn't equipped for speech.
He pointed at the door, then at them -- I'm going; you stay.
Fred took a step forward, but Lorne placed a gently restraining hand on her arm. "I wouldn't, sweetie. Handy survival hint: if something with claws that sharp wants to leave, don't get between it and the exit."
"But -- it's Angel."
"Not right now, it isn't."
I am, he wanted to say. And there was more he wanted to tell them: that he was going, but he would be back. That everything would be fine once he'd found Angelus and made him pay. But not speaking -- not being able to communicate with his friends anymore -- appeared to be the price of his powerful new form. He started to make for the door.
Behind him, he heard Fred say, "Angel?"
He looked back, suddenly overcome with the urge to make one last effort to speak to her. Fred had moved closer to Lorne, who had placed his hands on her shoulders. They had no way to be sure he was coming back -- but he would, just as soon as he had faced Angelus, made everything right again.
Except that it wouldn't be, Angel thought suddenly. Killing Angelus wouldn't get them home any sooner. Or get his friends back.
And allowing himself to lash out in anger -- to start a violent, unnecessary brawl -- hadn't brought either of those objectives any closer to being achieved, either.
He could have let the biker vampire and his gang walk away, Angel realized. Angelus' reputation in this universe was obviously such that they'd been ready to leave simply at his command. But he'd chosen to fight; he'd wasted time and energy which would have been better used to wage other battles. More important ones.
"It is Angel," Fred said. "It is. Look at his eyes."
Lorne's voice belied his reservations. "Actually, I was looking at the teeth and claws."
Angel raised his hands, forced himself to look at the razor-sharp talons. They were perfect weapons, ideal for tearing and mauling. But these hands couldn't hold a pen to write. Couldn't touch someone else without piercing fragile skin.
He closed his eyes, sought a control he wasn't sure he had --
-- and when he opened them again, the hands he was looking at were bloodied and covered in scratches, but were unmistakably those of a man, not a monster.
Fred was smiling broadly. "You came back again."
"I came back," Angel said. It was a relief to hear his own voice.
"So," Lorne asked dryly, "have you successfully exorcised your self destructive urges for now, or would you still like to go and fight your only-slightly-more-insane half to the death, just to round the evening off?"
Feeling chastened, Angel said, "I'm not going to go looking for him tonight."
"So what are we going to do?" asked Fred.
Angel looked around the ruined restaurant, taking in the extent of the destruction. Fire sprinklers still hissed in the kitchen area, where burning oil had reduced most of the equipment to warped and blackened husks. In the main restaurant, everything which hadn't been bolted down had been scattered in the quake or used as a projectile in the subsequent fight. This particular Taco Casa wouldn't be serving food again any time soon, if ever.
"For a start," Angel said, "I think we should just skip dinner."
Chapter by Rheanna
"His verbes, consenus rescissus est," Wesley concluded firmly, and he opened his clenched fist, allowing a handful of dried herbs to scatter on the floor of Cordelia's apartment.
"That's it?" Gunn asked.
Wesley brushed his hands together. "That's it."
"There's no..." Gunn made a vague rolling motion with his hands, "...bright lights, magic smoke, maybe a little 'no entry' sign popping up over the door?"
"It's a low-key charm, not a David Copperfield show. There are no visible effects."
"Then how do we know it worked?"
From the sofa, Cordelia said, "When Angelus comes to vamp us all, if he can't get in, it worked."
"That's the test?" Gunn looked at the apartment door for a few seconds more. "I'm gonna go check the locks on the windows."
Wesley watched him go, frowning. When he was alone with Cordelia, he said, "I'm afraid that's something of a redundant exercise. If the disinvitation spell worked, all the thresholds are protected. If it didn't -- well, whether the window locks are secure is the least of our worries."
"He just needs something to do." Now it was Cordelia's turn to glance doubtfully at the front door. "Will that keep both of them out?"
Wesley sat down beside her. "To be perfectly honest -- I'm not sure. This is a novel situation. But I'm confident it should revoke the invitation that was made to the Angel from this universe, and he is the greater threat."
Angel. In his mind's eye, Wesley could still see him slipping out of the door and out of their lives. The last time they'd parted like that -- a non-goodbye, loaded with silent recriminations -- Wesley had been the one leaving, carrying his few possessions with him out of the Hyperion. He'd glanced back at the hotel one last time, to see if Angel had followed them to apologize, to ask them to come back. There had still been time then to make things right.
But he hadn't, and now the time for making things right was long over.
Angel had been able to walk out of Cordelia's apartment without even looking back, Wesley thought. Maybe it's that easy, for him. Or maybe he finally realizes there's no going back.
After Angel had gone, for a few minutes everything had seemed -- better. Absurdly relaxed. Wesley had never kidded himself about the makeshift nature of their renewed partnership; however, he hadn't realized just how much distrust and, yes, fear of Angel still lurked beneath the surface. Coming to this universe had intensified everything -- but now that Angel was gone, he had felt certain that everything was going to get better. A ridiculous feeling, perhaps, but one he didn't seem able to shake.
Until the last reality quake struck, and the ceiling turned chartreuse, and all the uncertainty came rushing back in.
Cordelia leaned back into the cushions and Wesley was glad to note that, although she still looked tired, some color was returning to her cheeks. "I don't know, Wesley. I keep playing it over -- and over -- in my head, and I don't understand..."
When a minute or more had passed and she still hadn't spoken, he prompted, "Understand what?"
"Why we all blew up like that. How we went so long without realizing how we felt." She shook her head. "And how we could have been so wrong about Angel. I thought things were getting better, and then we go and find out --"
"We thought Angel could get better," Wesley said. "Obviously, he can't. Whatever apparent helpfulness or goodness he projects at any time is just -- just -- another phase he's moving through. Angel's essential nature tends to evil; in the end, he'll always return to it." He was silent for a few moments, considering this; he'd never said it aloud before. Only since reaching this universe had he allowed it to form, as a conscious, acknowledged thought, in his mind. "I only wish we'd understood that before."
"He saved me," Cordelia said softly. Then she frowned. "Well, he saved me from himself. I'm not sure if that counts as saveage, technically." She shook her head. "I can't even think about it now. Maybe -- when we get home -- if we get home."
"Oh, we'll get home," he reassured her, forcing a note of cheer into his voice. "I've got a few ideas we can work on. I'm becoming something of an expert at interdimensional portal creation."
Cordelia smiled back. "Something else to put on the resume, right?"
"We'll be back home before you know it. Back to a nice, dependable universe where no more than the usual number of vampires are trying to kill us." Wesley envisioned this new life -- a lot like the life they'd led without Angel before, although, in his imagination, greatly fortified with cases and money. "We still have the lease on our old offices, so we can start over without Angel right away. We can concentrate on the things that matter. Our work, and each other, and nursing the other Cordelia back to some semblance of sanity."
At that, her smile faded and a strange, clouded expression passed over her face. "Wesley -- about that other me," she began.
Wesley covered one of her hands with his own. "I know it's difficult to imagine," he said. "I suppose it will be even more difficult to see. But we're going to make things better for her, Cordelia. You'll see."
"How?" she asked harshly. Wesley looked down, surprised; instead of the weak, uncertain Cordelia he'd expected, he saw a woman who was anguished, almost angry. "I'm -- she's blind. She's insane. Knowing Angelus, she's insane for good. And you want her to go on suffering like that?"
"No! Cordelia, I'm trying to help her. Even if she's never -- stable -- again, I know she could come to recognize she's surrounded by people who care about her. Who love her," Wesley said, getting the last words out quickly. "What a comfort that would be to her. We can't just leave her here alone, with nobody to care for her."
Cordelia shook her head. "Wesley, she won't be alone if she stays here. She won't be anything. After this universe ends, she just -- won't be."
Wesley realized, with a jolt, that she was right; the blind, helpless Cordelia he'd seen earlier would vanish along with the rest of this splinter universe when it reached its violent end in a few days. But the thought did not reassure him. "All the more reason to rescue her. We can't just leave her here to die."
"You're not listening to me --"
"You're the one not listening to me," Wesley snapped. He knew, on one level, that it was insane to attack one Cordelia to defend another. But the image of the poor, broken woman in the asylum bed hung in his mind, drowned out every other thought. "Angelus is trying to end this universe and kill everyone in it. Maybe we can't save this universe from collapsing forever, but we can save one person. We can undo one wrong that he's done. Just this once, I want to stop him."
Cordelia face contorted into something very like anger. "I thought when Angel left, this would all be over."
"What would all be over?"
"The idea that somehow this is all about him," she said, visibly struggling to remain calm. "That he's so much more important than --"
She was interrupted by a noise behind them. Wesley turned quickly, surprising himself anew with how tense he was, and relaxed when he saw Gunn.
"Bedroom window's open," Gunn said.
"I shouldn't worry," Wesley began, then stopped as he noticed the recent cut on his face. Before he could say anything, another Gunn -- their Gunn -- came back into the living room.
Cordelia looked first at one Gunn, then the other. "Just when I thought today couldn't get more confusing."
Affording Wesley and Cordelia no more than a cursory glance, Other Gunn crossed the room to face himself. "Man, I know you got your own problems. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't --"
Gunn held up a hand. "What's up?"
"Angelus got one of my people. He got George."
Cordelia looked up at Wesley. "George? Didn't he help us the night you got shot?"
Wesley nodded, thinking about the young man who they'd met just a few hours earlier. The man who'd been able to talk and joke with Gunn that afternoon and who was now gone, wiped out of existence here as suddenly and violently as he had been in their own reality.
For the briefest of seconds an expression of deep, raw hurt passed over Gunn's features. "George is dead --"
"If he was, there'd be nothing we could do about it, and I wouldn't be here," Other Gunn finished. "But he's still alive."
"How can you be so sure?" Wesley asked.
Other Gunn shrugged. "Full moon."
"And that means... Angelus is on a diet?" Cordelia hazarded.
Wesley shook his head. "It's the ritual. Angelus is going to sacrifice him -- extract his liver. And bring this reality one step closer to complete collapse."
Now he had Other Gunn's full attention. "This is what you were talking about before, isn't it? Down in the tunnels."
"Yes. The bizarre occurrences which have been happening here -- the breakdown of reality -- Angelus is causing it." Wesley wondered briefly why he was still using the name Angelus -- but apparently Angel had taken it back, in this reality. "He's trying to destroy the world."
"So how do we stop him?" Other Gunn said.
Gunn answered, "There's this whole magic blue fire thing with the livers you can do to stabilize the universe. But it's not gonna come to that, because we're gonna get to George in time."
Wesley took in the fierce determination on both Gunns' faces; he'd never seen either of them so dead-set on anything. He hated to say anything to upset them further, but -- "Well -- we don't know where Angelus has taken him."
"The library," Cordelia said suddenly. "It's gotta be the library. Wes, the ritual has to happen where the portals are, right? We know there's a portal at the library. I'm thinking Angelus wasn't there today just because he wanted to borrow the latest Harry Potter. He was, you know -- casing the joint."
"Ain't you one with the street talk," Other Gunn said, his lower lip crinkling in something that was almost a smile. "If we go now, we might get there in time. My truck's outside." He scowled. "If I'm lucky, it's still a truck. I keep on thinking one of these days I'm gettin' a Maserati out of this, but not yet."
He headed for the door, and Cordelia started to follow him. Wesley put a restraining hand on her arm. "Are you sure you're up to this?"
"I'm still feeling a little light headed, but I'm okay."
"That's not what I meant. Cordelia, you had a very -- traumatic experience today. To face Angelus again..."
"...is exactly what I want to do," she said firmly. "Regardless of what you seem to think, I'm not victim girl, Wesley. I don't cower." She raised her head, jutting her chin out with determination. "Besides, if we're wrong about where Angelus is and what he's doing -- I don't want to be spending tonight here alone." Without giving him time to respond, she left.
Other Gunn was heading toward his truck, which was parked at the side of the road. It appeared, Wesley noted, still to be displaying the major characteristics of truckhood, but no evidence of Maseratihood.
He hung back, waiting until Cordelia and Other Gunn were at the vehicle. When he turned away from the door, he saw that Gunn had not moved either. "I was hoping we'd get an opportunity to speak privately," Wesley said. "I'm not certain going on this rescue mission is a good idea."
"Not a good idea?" repeated Gunn. "What part of letting George get killed again is a good idea?"
"It's not that," Wesley said quickly. "I want to help, too. But the four of us will hardly be a match for Angelus. And this -- well, to be blunt, this isn't our universe. In fact, if Fred is to be believed, it isn't a real universe at all."
"And what about the Cordy from this dimension? The one you want to bring back with us?"
"That's different," Wesley said before he could stop himself.
Gunn's face was stony. Finally, he said, "Yeah. I guess it is. You didn't seem to have a problem making the big decisions in Pylea. Acceptable losses, right? But it's different when it's someone you know."
"I sent Angel into battle."
"Okay, then. It's different when it's somebody who matters to you. That's when it gets under your skin. Well, I know George. He matters to me. I know I wasn't there before to stop him getting killed. And I know I'm sure as hell not gonna let that happen again."
Abruptly, he pushed past Wesley, walking out of the apartment and toward the two people waiting in the truck without looking back.
After a moment, Wesley followed.
"We are not setting up our headquarters here," Angel said.
"Headquarters?" Lorne said. His green skin looked almost blue in the light from the neon sign. "We're not setting up a mobile army unit, Sarge. We're just waiting in a place where the others can find us."
"That blue shape," Fred said uncertainly, "is that Texas?"
"Indeed it is, sweetpea," Lorne said. "You're coming along just beautifully. But keep those synapses firing on the question of us getting home. We can play Carmen Sandiego some other time."
Angel looked doubtfully at The Longhorn, nee Caritas, which had been a tranquil oasis of serenity by comparison. He could hear country music blaring and people talking and cheering at the top of their lungs. The rhythmic pounding from inside sounded a lot like boots on wood, suggesting dancing was going on inside.
In other words, everyone inside The Longhorn was having a wonderful time, and Angel was scarcely in a mood to witness it.
"This is where we came back from Pylea. So this is a portal," Fred said.
Angel stared at the club again, examining it in a light he never had before -- considering it in terms of attack and defense. "The ritual -- Angelus could come here. He probably already has."
"And that clears up the mystery as to why I sold the place," Lorne said. "One little evisceration during happy hour just kills a club's reputation."
Angel had decided to not to seek out Angelus for a meaningless battle -- but he realized that guarding a location where Angelus might take a victim was, in fact, just about the most prudent action he could take right now. "Let's go, then," he said, squaring his shoulders and preparing for the worst.
Sure enough, the jukebox was blaring as they stepped into the bright lights of the club. Fred pushed her glasses up her nose as she gawked at the various dancers and drinkers. Many of the women were wearing skimpy tank tops and skin-tight jeans; Fred looked down at her oversized T-shirt and sighed. Angel thought idly how much line dancing looked like certain forms of demon possession. Coincidence? He'd have to ask Lorne sometime. For his part, Lorne was gazing at a Miller Genuine Draft neon sign at the bar with something approaching real sorrow.
The bouncer sidled over to them, then fixed Lorne with a stare. "Your skin --"
"It's actually a very funny story," Lorne said, settling his cowboy hat a little more firmly onto his head so that it covered his horns entirely.
But the bouncer was grinning sympathetically. "Them damn shakeups will get you every time, won't they? You're going along, mindin' your own business, and bam! Your TV's turned into a rutabaga or something. One time last month, I sprouted a beard went down to my knees. Looked like damn Fu Manchu for the rest of the day. But I got off easier than you!"
"It's not easy, being green," Lorne said sincerely.
"Tell ya what. In honor of your new skin tone, we'll fix you up with a round of margaritas. Compliments of the house," the bouncer said.
Lorne smiled even more broadly. "You, sir, are the soul of generosity. If my friends here will just get us some seats --"
Angel took Fred's arm and led her to one of the few empty tables. She looked after Lorne, who was ingratiating himself with the bartender. No doubt asking if he could get a Sea Breeze instead, Angel thought, and if his mood had been any less dark, he would have smiled.
But he was also remembering standing on that stage, in that last second of terror before beginning to sing, and looking out into the audience for Wesley and Cordelia. Knowing that, no matter how bad he might be, they were going to support him no matter what.
He shut his eyes tightly.
"Are you okay?" Fred's timid voice made him open his eyes. She was leaning toward him, her expression as grave and intent as a serious child's. Gently she laid one hand on his forearm, her skin warm through his thin shirt.
"I'll be all right," Angel said dully. "Don't worry about me. Worry about those equations."
"I can't worry about them much until I get some more paper," Fred pointed out. "Besides -- I do worry about you. I mean -- I don't worry because I'm scared -- I worry in, in a good way."
She blushed so deeply that Angel could see it, even in the dim lights of the bar. He wondered at his own blindness before. "We'll get you some paper, then --"
Lorne sauntered up, carrying a tray of drinks. "I took you both for salt-on-the-rim types. Bottoms up, everyone; whatever else you want to say about our day, I'm pretty sure it's earned us all a stiff drink."
Angel obediently drank from his glass; his tongue registered the cold, but nothing else. Fred's eyes went wide as she took her first sip. She pulled back, stared at the frozen green concoction in the glass, and then began gulping the drink down. "Whoa, whoa, honey. We don't want you manipulating dimensions under the influence," Lorne said.
"Sorry," she said. "It just tastes so --" Fred hung her head for a moment; then, as she looked at the table, her face lit up. "Napkins! Can I have your napkins?"
"Um, sure," Angel said. As she snatched them up, he looked over at Lorne. "Is this some Pylea thing?" Lorne shook his head.
The mystery was solved moments later when Fred took out her pen and busily began scribbling equations on the napkins. Lorne smiled and reached across the table to pat her on the shoulder. "There's more where that came from."
Fred didn't answer. Her mouth was screwed up in a very strange way, and the tip of her tongue poked through her lips. Angel half-smiled, recognizing what he already thought of as Fred's "game face."
"So, how are you, slugger?" Lorne said.
"Your fake nonchalance is normally more convincing," Angel said. "You're slipping."
"Rough day," Lorne said. "Tough crowd. Speaking of which, I can't believe these guys are still listening to Garth Brooks. Take it from someone who's met a lot of sewer demons in his day: you really do NOT want the friends that come from low places. And you haven't answered the question yet."
"I'm fine," Angel said.
"I may be less convincing than usual, but you're just less convincing, sweetcakes."
"What do you want me to say?" Angel's exasperation dimmed down to unease. "You don't want me to sing, do you?"
"I think your day's been traumatic enough. God knows mine has," Lorne said. He leaned forward and put one arm on the table, a gesture Angel had learned to associate with an impending lecture. "But it's still your responsibility to keep going. You can't afford to derail again, not here and not now."
"I know," Angel said. "You don't have to worry about me."
"And that business in the restaurant --"
"Was a mistake," Angel finished for him. "I didn't want to think, didn't want to communicate. I just wanted to fight. But it didn't solve anything."
Lorne looked at him. "So you're going to stop fighting?" he asked.
"No. I'm going to start thinking." Angel leaned forward a little. "What happened to me here -- it doesn't make any sense."
"Angelus having his soul," Angel explained. "I mean, I slept with Darla and didn't lose my soul in our universe. And I didn't start trying to destroy the world. I didn't hurt Wesley and Cordelia. Even if I hadn't come to my senses that night, I wouldn't have wanted to do anything like that. I -- all I wanted to do was close myself up in the dark with Darla, so I wouldn't have to think anything or do anything ever again. So why was it so different here?"
"Good question," Lorne said. His expression was one of grudging respect. "Any theories?"
"Maybe -- maybe Buffy's death," Angel began, then shook his head. "No. If anything ever happened to Buffy, I'd want to be on this side of the fight more than ever. That would have woken me up if nothing else did."
"Even with the guilt?" Lorne said. "I know what Little Miss Slayer means to you. And I know you felt like you'd let her down before."
"I'd feel -- even more guilty," Angel said. "But I'd have to go on for her. I wouldn't have any other choice." He paused, then looked at Lorne. "How did you know about Buffy? I never talked to you about her."
"When you sing," Lorne said quietly. "There's this moment -- right before people start singing, that last second when they open their mouths and take a deep breath -- that's when their souls open up. You can see a lot there, in that first flash; usually you see what's most important or precious. You see what matters most to people. You see what they love."
Angel didn't trust himself to answer aloud, but he nodded. Fred kept scribbling away on her napkins; she'd need some new ones, soon. Lorne finally said, "I thought you were going to need a Host-patented verbal bitch-slap, young man, but you're -- you're doing all right. You're staying focused on the actual problems at hand, keeping yourself together. I hereby move that epiphany of yours a few notches up the credibility scale."
"It's not that I don't care," Angel blurted out. "My friends -- I hoped that we -- " He shook his head. "Never mind. I can't change it now."
"Admitting defeat already?" Lorne said. But his voice wasn't needling, the way it often was; he was looking at Angel sympathetically. "You guys have bonds than run deep. Deeper than any of you will admit, these days. But Buffy's not the only person I've seen when you start to sing."
Angel looked down at the table. "I don't think they'd believe that any more. We reached a point where -- Lorne, I can't go back."
"Those three get their backs up, sometimes," Lorne said. "You know that. Not like you guys haven't had a falling out before."
"This is different," Angel said. He didn't know exactly why he was so convinced that this separation was irrevocable -- only that it was. "I don't think they'll ever want to work with me again, after this. But maybe -- after we're back, and safe, and some time has passed -- maybe we could -- just know each other --"
He looked down at the table again. Fred looked up long enough to pat his shoulder softly and then went right back to her work.
Lorne, ever tactful, changed the subject. "So, something's not right with Angelus. You think maybe he lost his soul after all?"
"No," Angel said. "I know what I saw, and I know what he did. Angelus has his soul, but something else happened to make him act like this. Something besides Darla."
"What would that be?" Lorne said.
Angel shook his head. "That's what I don't know."
Cordelia had already had one crazy ride through L.A. today, courtesy of Fred; now Other Gunn was streaking through the streets as though he'd had driving lessons from Mr. Toad. And if she'd thought the streets were strange before --
The roads were all cobblestone now, which looked cool and quaint for about two seconds until she was reminded, with a jolt, that Gunn's truck had no shock absorbers. The scarlet-tinted streetlights above their heads cast a feverish red glow over the city. A few buildings had collapsed into rubble, but there was no sign of rescue crews. In fact, the buildings looked more like ruins -- as though they had fallen apart centuries before. Cobwebs the size of sails drifted from intact buildings, and Cordelia hoped fervently that they'd sprung into existence on their own, not been spun by four-story-high spiders.
In short, what had looked surreal this afternoon had become nightmarish now it was night. As much as Cordelia hated to admit it, it looked like Fred was right -- things were falling apart, and fast.
"Almost there," Wesley said, somewhat nervously. Other Gunn didn't slow down.
"I swear to God, this time I'm staking him," Other Gunn muttered as he shifted gears. "This is the night. As soon as I see him, that son of a bitch is dust."
That was weird to think about -- Angel-Angelus-whoever, soul intact, getting staked. To her surprise, Cordelia felt her eyes start to tear up at the thought. Remember, she thought savagely, you still have eyes. This version of you doesn't, thanks to him, thanks to him, thanks to Angel --
She didn't feel much better, and finally seeing the library didn't help either. The building showed signs of the damage it had suffered earlier that day -- but it too looked as though it had been abandoned for years. Vines had grown up the walls, creeping over the columns and into the windows. And even in the gloom, Cordelia could see that the vines had thorns.
"One more reason why I just rent movies," Gunn and Other Gunn said in unison, then stared at each other for one moment. Then, again in chorus, they said, "Let's move."
Cordelia opened the door and slid off Wesley's lap. Wesley got out behind her, stretching his legs as he stared up at the forbidding building. "It looks as if the power's out inside," he pointed out.
"The Stakemobile should still have flashlights in the back," Other Gunn said. Gunn fished around for a minute, then held up two of them.
"All right, then," Wesley began. "We'll have Cordelia handle the lights, as she's not really strong enough for --"
"Excuse me," Other Gunn said, "but who died and made you king? This is my man in here. His too," he added, with a shrug in Gunn's direction. "Nice of you to come along for the ride, but you don't call the shots around here."
Wesley looked cowed for a moment, but quickly straightened up and squared his shoulders. "Actually, I do. You know George better than we -- and you know this universe, as well, but I'm in charge of this unit."
Other Gunn looked over at Gunn, apparently expecting violent opposition. Gunn fidgeted sheepishly. Other Gunn said, "How the hell did that happen?"
Cordelia frowned. Exactly how had Wesley ended up in charge, anyway? They'd all gone into this as equals, but now he was the one who made the decisions. She wasn't sure exactly how that had come about, but she suspected it had something to do with being the first one to show up in the mornings.
"It doesn't matter now," Gunn said. "If I tell you that we can trust him to come up with a good plan, is that enough? Because we gotta get in there after George."
"Fine. Whatever. Get us in there," Other Gunn said, pointing a finger at Wesley. "But I warn you right now, you make up the game, you take the blame."
"Precisely what is that supposed to mean?" Wesley said.
"It means George better be okay when you're through." Cordelia was surprised to realize it was their Gunn who had answered.
This is all wrong, she thought. We're still angry and upset and scared, and we still don't know what to do -- I thought we had this figured out --
Wesley handed her a flashlight and grabbed one of the stakes Other Gunn offered him. "Where were you today when Angelus found you?" Wesley asked her.
"The fourth floor," Cordelia said. "It was the physics section, though God only knows what it is now."
"We'll find out," Gunn said grimly, gripping his hubcap axe.
Other Gunn threw him a look as he took up his own axe. "How come you got a bow on yours?"
Fortunately, it appeared that the library's basic inner structure was much the same. It still had stairs, and floors, and books -- but the fact that they were all covered in a faintly smelly, slick ooze cut down on Cordelia's enthusiasm.
They made their way up the stairs gingerly -- the ooze was slippery -- and in total silence. Cordelia held the flashlight in her good hand so tightly it hurt. Wesley did not ask me what I think, but I think this is a bad idea, she decided. Angelus is not going to like being interrupted --
For one moment, she felt her wounded arm throb -- not along the scar, but along the band of skin where the tourniquet had been.
And then she heard it. A voice speaking words in no language she had ever heard -- but she still knew the voice.
Cordelia turned and mouthed, Angelus.
The others all nodded. Other Gunn breathed out once, a short huff; he was ready. But Cordelia could see her own hesitancy reflected in Wesley and Gunn's eyes.
The words of the spell continued to ring out, and Gunn nudged Wesley's arm. Wesley shook his head; apparently he didn't know the language either. But it didn't really matter, Cordelia realized. They knew what Angelus was about to do. And they had to stop him.
Other Gunn, tired of even this brief pause, went to the door. When nobody said or did anything to stop him, he pushed it open and slowly walked through. The others followed.
Cordelia quickly clicked off the flashlight, leaving them in darkness -- but that was better than giving Angelus extra warning.
What had been the physics reading room was now filled with romance novels and yet more of the ooze, thicker here than it had been anywhere else. A faint glow shone from the stacks; little slits of light flickered unevenly through the books and on the ceiling.
Angelus was still chanting, so apparently he hadn't heard them. Faintly -- almost beyond Cordelia's hearing -- another voice groaned in pain.
Both Gunns tensed. That had to be George, Cordelia thought.
Wesley motioned for them to split up and come at Angelus from different directions. Other Gunn scowled, but he moved to Wesley's side. Gunn went with Cordelia as they tiptoed toward Angelus.
Toward Angelus, Cordelia thought, aware that her mood was shifting from "troubled" to "panicked." This is a bad direction. The wrong direction. I don't want to do this, I just got away from him, what will he do this time?
They got to the last row of shelves. The chanting stopped suddenly. Cordelia's blood turned to ice -- but Angelus didn't yell at them or come springing out in attack. Must just be a pause in the ritual, she thought, trying to control her breathing lest he hear it. That's it, just a pause.
George cried out. Wesley signaled for them to move, but the Gunns didn't see it -- they just jumped. Cordelia gasped in a breath, as though diving underwater, and jumped too --
-- to see Angelus standing at the other end of the corridor, clutching Other Gunn's throat in his hand. Candles lined the floor of the passageway between the books; in the middle was a table. And on the table a figure who could only be George was strapped down, bleeding and dazed.
A series of ugly knives lay on the tabletop, near George's face, where he had no choice but to look at them.
"You again," Angelus said to Other Gunn, his voice almost bored. He lazily tossed away that version of the axe. Other Gunn clawed at Angelus' coat, but ineffectually; he couldn't even seem to get the breath to scream.
"Let go of him," Wesley said, appearing from the darkness.
"Oh, God, thank God, help me, help me," George whispered.
Even in the faint light of the candles, Cordelia could see Angelus' face shift from vampire to human. He actually smiled -- not a cruel smile, but something that was genuine, almost shy. "Wesley," he said. "You're here too."
"And we're going to stop you," Gunn said, taking his first running steps toward -- Angelus or George, Cordelia wasn't sure --
Angelus threw Other Gunn, with force; his body flew through the air, hitting Gunn hard. They fell to the floor in a tangle at Cordelia's feet.
George chanted helplessly, almost mindlessly, "Help me, help me, help me, please, man, help me --"
Wesley took advantage of the moment to lash out with his stake -- but Angelus, moving more quickly than Cordelia could see, turned back and grabbed Wesley's wrist in his hand. In a pain-hoarsened voice, Wesley croaked, "You won't do this. We're going to stop you."
"You don't understand," Angelus said. "And I can't let you stop me."
He shoved Wesley savagely backwards; he fell into the darkness, out of Cordelia's sight.
Both Gunns seemed stunned; they were trying, ineffectually, to pick themselves up. Okay, Cordelia thought, it's up to me. She grabbed the axe Gunn had dropped and stepped forward. "Back off, you -- big -- creep," she said.
"You're okay," Angelus said. He sounded glad, Cordelia thought, genuinely relieved that she was all right after their encounter that morning. In his eyes there was a kind of naked caring, even love, that she'd almost never seen from Angel himself -- oh, God, she thought, it's like I can see his soul.
But then his expression iced over again, into something equally familiar and far more horrifying. "You're in my way," he said. "Don't make me move you."
Cordelia froze for an instant, then swung the axe at him with all her strength.
Angelus ducked it, grabbed the axe himself and pushed it against her, knocking her back. She cried out in pain as she involuntarily took part of the fall on her wounded arm; in the faint candelight, she could see Angelus wince.
"I can't let you stop me," he repeated, and Cordelia realized that the only thing scarier than a crazy, ensouled Angelus was a crazy, ensouled Angelus with an axe.
George's voice was thick with tears now. "Oh, God, oh, God, please, please, help me, please --"
The two Gunns were getting to their feet, and Angelus spun, slashing the axe at them. Cordelia screamed -- but Angelus had used the broad side of the axe. Instead of bisecting them, he knocked them both down once more. Almost before she realized that, she felt the hard slam of metal against her back; her face hit the floor so hard she tasted blood.
She looked up in time to see Angelus grabbing Wesley -- who had apparently jumped back into the fray -- and slamming him hard into the bookshelves. The shelves shuddered but didn't fall; Wesley did both, slumping to the ground.
The shelves kept shaking. Then began shaking harder. "Quake," Cordelia whispered, then shouted, "QUAKE!"
Suddenly, the confined space was flooded with bold, blazing light. The candles had flared up and changed into torches, and the only reason the whole place didn't go up in smoke was that the shelves had suddenly become stone walls. The table George was strapped to looked a lot like an altar now. Cordelia's legs suddenly felt cold -- and when she looked down, she was wearing a Sunnydale High cheerleader's uniform.
Vines like the ones she'd seen outside were slithering their way in now, growing so quickly they writhed across the floor like snakes. Cordelia cried out and pulled herself free as the vines tried to wind around her ankles; Gunn, not fast enough, was quickly bound to the floor. Other Gunn jumped up, unsteady on the still-trembling ground. "What the hell --"
The wall was already starting to crumble. Angelus worked a loose stone free without difficulty and threw it, hard, into Other Gunn's gut. He fell again, toppling over near Cordelia. "Not much time left," Angelus said.
"Help me, help me, help, help, help --" George gasped.
"Angel!" Wesley yelled. He was pinned to the stone wall by the vines, as neatly as though he'd been tied there. "Damn you --"
For one moment Angelus froze. "Angel," he said softly. Then he shook his head. "No time left at all."
Angelus grabbed one of the knives and plunged it into George. For one long moment, there was no sound but George's terrible last scream.
"No," Gunn said, struggling so hard beneath the vines he was bleeding. "No!"
"I'm sorry," Angelus said, looking down into George's face, which was frozen in a rictus of terror and pain. Then, quickly and deliberately, he sawed through George's abdomen, cutting deeply, apparently unhampered by the shuddering earth. Cordelia could see the blood flowing down the table-altar in sheets, could taste her own blood from her cut tongue in her mouth, and thought for one moment she was going to pass out.
He has his soul, he has his soul, he has his soul --
Angelus reached into George's convulsing body. For a second, his hand disappeared entirely, making a sickening, sloshing noise as he delved into the ruined flesh. Suddenly, he pulled out a dark, glistening mass that had to be George's liver. Nausea washed over Cordelia, and she dropped to her knees; the thorns cut her legs, but the pain seemed to be coming from a great distance.
Angelus lifted the liver up, as if examining it. George's body went taut beneath its chains, then went limp again, then slumped into unconsciousness, if not death.
Other Gunn, holding his ribs in pain, got to his feet and saw what was left of George. His face creased in pain, and Cordelia saw him mouth the word, No.
He's dead, Cordelia thought. Oh, God, we didn't stop him, we can't get the liver, that's it --
The quake was stronger than ever now, and the ceiling was shot through with a dull orange glow that looked as though it were melting.
This is it, Cordelia thought wildly. The thing she'd fought against and feared and avoided time after time was finally coming to pass.
This is what the end of the world looks like.
Angelus reached into his pocket with his clean hand -- the other was red with George's blood -- and threw some powder and herbs at one of the torches. Then he spoke one word -- something Cordelia didn't know. But Wesley did; he stopped flailing uselessly against the vines and stared, shock-still.
The flame from the torch changed.
Instead of the usual orangey-yellow, the torch's light began shining a bright, steady, blue-white.
Blue-white -- Veldar's flame, the spell we needed, Cordelia thought.
Angelus dropped the liver into the flame. The blue-white fire leapt high -- almost to the ceiling -- and consumed it instantly.
The quake stopped. The ceiling quit melting. The vines started to wilt, then disintegrated into so much ash. The stone walls changed back to bookshelves -- and the books were all physics journals. The altar with George's dead body became a table once more; it was a wooden picnic table now, but still closer to what it had been. Cordelia saw her sweater shift from Razorback yellow to Trek-geek gray, and her skirt unfurled, went dark, and molded itself back into a pair of sweatpants. She felt a tingling up her arm, where Angelus had cut her, and then the pain vanished; Cordelia suddenly knew that if she pushed up the arm of her sweatshirt, she would see smooth, uninjured skin.
Other Gunn's body shimmered with a strange light, went transparent, and then vanished as though he had never been.
George still lay dead on the table. That did not change.
Angelus looked around, pressed his lips into a tight line, then nodded. "That'll do for now," he said.
Then he walked off into the darkness. Cordelia didn't have the strength to even yell for him to stop, much less do anything to make it happen. To judge from the shocked expressions on Wesley and Gunn's faces, neither did they.
She heard the door swing, heard Angelus' heavy footsteps as he went down the stairs.
I don't believe it, she thought.
Angelus just saved the world.
Chapter by Rheanna
"I'm getting it," Fred said.
"I'm not," Angel said, frowning at the dance floor. "How is Lorne picking this up so quickly?"
In the middle of the line dancers, Lorne was shimmying his way through a flamboyant version of the Achy Breaky to laughter and applause. Angel shook his head. "How do people do that? Just get out there and -- move around like nobody's even watching?"
Fred looked up from her napkins. "You're thinking about dancing?"
"It's the least unpleasant thing I can think about right now," Angel said. "Which says a lot about the day."
"Do you not know how to dance?" Fred asked. She smiled shyly. "Because I could teach you --"
"No!" Angel said hurriedly. "I mean -- I know how to dance, Fred. I used to do it all the time, back when dances made sense."
"You had partners. Steps. Patterns. It was all laid out for you in advance, and the rest was just a matter of style," Angel explained. He smiled for a moment, remembering the grand balls of Vienna, then frowned again at the chaos before him. "Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, we had real dances. Waltzes. Reels. Mazurkas. Now, the mazurka, that was a dance. These days people just get on the dance floor and -- flail."
"Line dancing has steps," Fred pointed out. "It has patterns. Lorne's figured it all out already."
Lorne chose this moment to toss an extra spin into the dance; the other dancers clapped their approval, never missing a step in their movements. Fred grinned up at Angel. "See?"
"I couldn't do that," Angel said. "I couldn't have everyone looking at me like that."
"Didn't they look at you back when you did the marimba?"
"Mazurka," Angel corrected her, automatically. "And yeah, I guess they did. But it didn't matter then. I never cared what people thought about me."
"Does it matter what people think?" Fred said.
Angel flashed back to the expressions on his friends' faces as, one by one, they had cast him out of Cordelia's apartment and their lives. "Yes, it does."
Apparently Fred had followed his line of thought; she ducked her head in embarrassment for a moment. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to make you feel bad."
"Fred, no," Angel said, gently touching her shoulder. "You couldn't. It helps a lot, having you here."
She went pink at that and smiled. Angel realized he was on very dangerous ground -- but in an instant, Fred had snapped out of whatever reverie he had inspired. "Anyway, I wasn't actually talking about dancing, before," she said.
Fred began spreading her napkins out on the table; with one wave of her hand, she indicated that Angel should pick up his margarita and get it out of the way of the higher math. He looked down at the equations -- as incomprehensible as ever, and even blurrier, thanks to the effect of damp napkins on ink. But Fred seemed enthusiastic about the results.
"This," she announced, "is a map of Los Angeles."
Angel saw how happy she was with the analogy -- custom-made for the physics-illiterate -- and decided to play along. "So where's the Hollywood Bowl?"
"We have more important landmarks on this map," she said, so proud of herself that Angel could no longer resist a smile. "In mathematical terms, I've laid out what I think is the rough structure of this part of the splinter universe. So far, it suggests as few as two but no more than five active portals in the area --"
"How can you know that?" Angel said, peering at the squiggles on the table as though they would suddenly turn into arrows.
"In layman's terms," Fred said, "portals amplify this universe's inherent instability. If there weren't at least two active portals, we wouldn't have had this many reality quakes. But more than five --" her voice trailed off. When she spoke again, she was grave. "More than five, and there will be nothing approaching reality as we recognize it. No constants of gravity or light or physical composition. We might have a few pockets of comprehensible reality, but the rest will be pure chaos."
"Don't you mean, would be?" Angel said, with little hope.
"I mean, will be. This universe is going to get more and more unstable. By the time it's ready to self-destruct, it's going to be more confusing than I could describe to you. Except mathematically, I mean."
"I thought the plan was for us to be long gone by then."
"Well, now, see, that's sort of the interesting part," Fred said.
While in China, Angel had become familiar with one of the local curses. It went, May you live in interesting times. He leaned forward. "Interesting -- how?"
"It was easy for us to get here," Fred said. "We were moving from a place that was, for lack of a better term, more real to a place that was less real. That's like swimming with the current. But now we're trying to move from a place that's less real to a place that's more real. That's harder. Not as hard as moving from one real universe to another -- but harder than it was for us to get here. Still with me?"
"More or less."
Fred continued, "This universe is going to have to be very weak before we can be free of its influence and move back home."
"We have to let this universe get weak. You mean -- we have to wait for the world to end?"
"Right!" Fred beamed, happy to be understood. Then she paused, considering. "I suppose when you put it that way, it doesn't sound as encouraging."
"I can handle it," Angel said, with significantly more confidence than he felt. "Just tell me how that's going to work."
"Well, first the universe starts falling apart," Fred said blithely. "And then -- oh, no --"
The napkins fluttered as the table began to shake. People started to scream and shout. The lights flickered. At the bar, glasses and bottles began clinked and cracked together; the Miller Genuine Draft sign fell to the floor with a crash.
"We got a shakeup!" the bartender yelled. "Hang on to your hats!"
Angel could see Lorne doing just that as he ducked off the dance floor; Fred yelped and dived under the table. Angel moved to join her, shouting, "This isn't the end of the world -- is it?"
She shook her head, her hair flopping about wildly. "I don't know!" Fred's glasses flew off her face as she spoke, but she didn't even seem to notice. "This is a portal, right? So we can get through if we have to!"
"We can't!" Angel shouted over the din. "Cordelia and Wesley and Gunn -- we can't just leave them!"
"If this is it, we have to go!" Fred cried out.
In one horrible, wrenching flash, Angel realized she was right.
If Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn weren't there when the time came to break through and go home, then he couldn't fight it, couldn't change it. This was the one thing he couldn't control, no matter what.
Wesley's words about the ritual to stabilize this universe flickered through his mind, as did an image of what would be necessary. The image was nauseating, terrifying, and not unfamiliar. He could postpone the end of this world if he had to, if that was what it took. He could save them all, make sure they all got home.
At what cost?
The ground lurched, and Angel could hear metal twisting. Quickly, he put a protective arm around Fred. The screaming around them raised in pitch as the ceiling took on a strange, orange-ish glow. Beneath Angel, the floor was suddenly soft; he looked down and saw the wood floor turning to dirt, then saw grass sprout up from it, somehow emerging from the earth already sickly and yellow. Tables tipped over, but when they hit the ground, they changed into stones. No, Angel realized -- into tombstones.
The Longhorn was becoming a graveyard.
Lamps became trees, old and gnarled and forbidding. Some of the chairs melted, solidified and bloomed into funereal arrangements in crimson and white. And deep welts in the earth formed, deepened and became empty graves.
As unnerving as all this was, Angel had spent a fair amount of time in cemeteries and was handling the transformation well -- better, it seemed, than the screaming patrons of the bar, whose ability to cope with changes apparently did not extend this far. Fred hadn't begun saying the words that would open the portal yet, so maybe this wasn't the end of the world after all.
Then the quake intensified, and gravity went insane.
Fred screamed and clutched at Angel as she was pulled upwards out of his arms; he grabbed at her hands with all his strength, but the force tugging at her was too strong. She was ripped away from him, and Angel watched helplessly as she flew -- fell? -- to the ceiling along with another dozen people. Though the ceiling still glowed an unearthly, molten orange, Fred didn't appear to be burning or in pain -- just terrified. Others were towed toward the walls; he saw Lorne go skidding into what had been the bar and was now a marble sarcophagus. Angel was one of the few still able to treat the floor as the floor.
"Fred!" She looked down at him, her face framed by the eerie, undulating orange glow of the ceiling. Fred was clearly panicked but able to hear him; she remained focused on him as though their lives depended on it -- and perhaps they did. "Will you know if it's the end?" he shouted. When she nodded, he said, "Then do what you have to do."
But even as Fred opened her mouth to begin chanting, the quake stilled -- as suddenly as it had begun. Gravity snapped back to normal. Everyone pinned to the ceiling fell; Angel dived for Fred, but she tumbled into one of the open graves. Then the grass turned back into a floor -- an unbroken floor --
With Fred entombed inside.
"Fred?" Angel yelled, pounding on the floor even as the wreaths turned back into tables. "Fred!"
No response. Angel began pounding harder and harder. Oh, no, no, no, he thought. Not Fred, please no. Please don't let her be --
Angel slammed his fists into the floor, putting his strength into it; the floorboards finally gave way. "Fred, can you hear me? Are you in there? Fred!"
He pulled at the wood and metal, desperately digging through the debris, seeking any evidence that Fred was still inside, still alive. She trusted me, he thought. She came with me despite everything, and now she's --
"Angel!" a voice gasped.
Angel peered down into the floor's wreckage; there, beneath still more boards, entwined in wiring, was a very frightened Fred. He breathed in and out, a reflex of relief. "I've got you," he promised. "Hold on."
He kept ripping and tearing at the boards until he was able to get an arm around Fred's thin shoulders and pull her free. She was trembling as he brought her up from the twisted mess that had enclosed her, and her hands gripped him tightly. Once she was finally free, they sank back against one of the tipped-over tables, exhausted. "Are you all right?" he said, hugging her close.
Fred's arms wound around his waist as she leaned against him. "I am now."
She was warm and real as she lay in his arms, her heart beating so hard he could feel it through her whole body. Angel breathed in deeply, trying to calm himself; he took in the scent of her, something delicate and intangible. And it felt so good to be near someone who trusted him, who cared for him -- to be near someone alive --
Fred looked up at him, her face alight with confusion and yearning and hope. And Angel felt a rush of protectiveness and warmth that he'd only known one other time in all his 250 years.
With Buffy, the rush had almost instantly become a bonfire -- something that blazed so hot and strong that it dominated his life from that moment to this, something that blinded him with its light.
He couldn't let himself be blinded again.
"We have to talk," Angel said, taking Fred's arms from around his waist and folding her hands in his. "About you and me."
"Oh -- okay," she breathed. "Is this, you know, the kind of talk where -- do you need a fish?"
Completely nonplussed, Angel stared down at her for a moment. "A fish?"
"You know, the ritual for courtship," Fred said, casting her eyes down at the last word. "Or is that just Pylea?"
"Just Pylea. Don't -- don't start giving men fish, okay? They're not gonna get it."
"That sounded too weird to be from Earth," Fred said. "Then again, so do personal ads, but those are real on Earth, right?"
"Yes, they are -- but, please, I need you to listen to me for a minute." Angel collected himself, then plowed ahead. "Fred, I can't ever be in a relationship -- I mean, a romantic relationship -- with anyone."
Some of the light in her eyes dimmed. Most people, in her position, would have began denying or at least underplaying their feelings immediately; Fred wilted, without shame or artifice, and it pierced Angel's heart to see it. "You -- you can't -- oh. But -- you said something about Buffy --"
"Buffy's the one who had to learn this with me. I already knew I could never marry her or give her children. But I found out that I'm cursed -- I mean, literally, I'll tell you about the gypsies sometime -- and that I can't even make love to a woman without losing my soul."
Fred looked extremely disappointed now. "But -- you said something about Darla --"
Angel shook his head. "I can have sex, if it's just bodies. If it doesn't matter. But I can't ever be with someone that I truly love. And I don't think you should settle for anything less than that, from me or from anyone."
For a moment, Fred glanced away; to Angel's surprise, when she looked back, she was smiling hesitantly. "It doesn't -- why would it have to be about sex?" she whispered. "I mean, if you cared about somebody, you'd still want to be with that person. Even if you couldn't -- you know -- you wouldn't just walk away. Not if you really cared."
Angel couldn't meet her eyes right away. "Oh, Fred. Buffy and I -- we tried that. It didn't work. I know sex isn't everything, but it matters. And the fact that I'm a vampire means I'm always a danger in other ways, too. You're the one person in my life -- the only person -- that I haven't hurt somehow. I want to keep it that way." He looked down into her open, trusting face, her soft eyes. "I'm sorry. I really am. I think you're beautiful, and smart, and brave, and a lot of other wonderful things. If the situation were different -- I'd be very lucky."
She sat there for a minute, taking that in. Then she said, "That must be so hard for you. To be so alone."
"I have my memories," Angel said.
"Are they enough?"
"They have to be."
Angel thought of Buffy, stepping close to kiss him for the first time in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals and schoolbooks. She didn't know anything. He thought he knew everything. Neither of them could ever have guessed what lay ahead. He'd considered that first kiss a thousand times, usually in regret or sadness. Now, though, the memory changed; for the first time, Angel was grateful for all the things they hadn't known at that moment. He was glad that they'd had one instant -- just one -- filled with nothing except anticipation and hope.
That was something he could never have again, and something Fred could only have with someone else.
She slipped her fingers from his; he let her go and sat back. Fred ran her hands over her hair, collecting herself in every way. "I -- I'm just gonna -- freshen up," she said hurriedly.
"The bathrooms were over there," Lorne said, sauntering up and looking none the worse for wear, though his cowboy hat was somewhat askew. "No idea where they might be now. But that's probably an okay place to start. You okay, Miss Winifred?"
"Fred," she corrected him with a frown. "I'm okay. Thanks."
As he got to his feet, Angel watched Fred step carefully through all the debris on the floor as she made her way to the back. She stopped only to pluck her glasses out of the wreckage; she slid them back on carefully, then straightened herself up and went on.
Lorne said, "Well, looks like I broke up quite the little tryst over here." After a couple of moments, he continued, "I said that mostly to hear your outraged denial, which I can't help but notice isn't forthcoming."
"Nothing's happening," Angel said quietly. "Fred and I -- it's not even a possibility. And Cordelia told me I should talk to her about it right away."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Lorne said. "You had the friends talk? You just friended Fred?"
"It's not that I don't --" Angel hesitated, then said, "I can't get involved with her. You know that. And it was best to tell Fred that up front, so she can forget about me and move on."
Lorne shook his head and laughed. "Let me get this straight: Fred's got the hots for you, you might just have the hots for Fred, and you think a little sit-down chat's going to end all that?"
"Cordelia said --"
"This was Cordelia's idea?" Lorne said. "Following female advice is usually a good idea in affairs de coeur, but not today. Cordelia's greatest virtue is she's completely straightforward. She says it, she thinks it, she does it. It's refreshing. But her greatest problem is that she keeps on believing the rest of the world should work the same way. It doesn't. You sure don't. And love? Never."
"But now that Fred knows --"
"What does Fred know? That you're a big, handsome, swarthilicious fella who keeps saving her life at every opportunity, who's as lonely as lonely can be, and would just love to love her if only you had the chance. Oh, yeah, your problems are over."
Angel dropped his head into his hand. Lorne patted him on the shoulder. "C'mon. Let's see if any bottles of the good stuff survived the quake."
Darla was running again. But this time she was fleeing up, not down.
Behind her, a twisting storm of wind and dust howled in the confines of the Hyperion's hallways. The black, roiling mass had writhed into existence just as the most recent, and most violent, shakeup had begun. Now, only minutes old, the tornado had already consumed most of the hotel's lower floors. Darla was certain that if it caught up with her, she would be torn limb from limb in seconds.
There was nowhere to go except up.
Her feet pounded on the stairs as she climbed desperately; she was steadily growing dizzier as she rounded corner after corner at speed. Up was not good. There was nowhere to go after the top floor, nowhere to hide from the bellowing roar at her back. But there were no choices left to her; she was being driven by a force she could neither evade nor fight, and Darla was experiencing her least favorite sensation. Fear.
She had reached the third floor now. Halfway to the top. Maybe if she could get out on to the roof --
Suddenly, her foot caught in the frayed edge of the carpet. Darla fell.
She scrambled to get up and succeeded only in turning around in time to see the full force of the storm bearing down on her. The air was solid with thick black ash; the wind lashed her like a hundred whips; her skin burned and her head was filled with a buzzing that made her brain hurt --
And then it was gone.
Ash and dust rained down on the carpet around Darla. The hotel was silent. As quickly as it had risen, the storm had dissipated.
She clambered to her feet. The faint tremors shaking the building told her that the quake was still going on, somewhere, but its worst effects appeared to be over. Darla shut her eyes.
Darla opened her eyes, and smiled triumphantly. She'd survived. She always survived. It was what she was good at.
She straightened up and noted with distaste that she was covered in thick black ash. Her attempts to wipe it off using her hands only served to rub it more deeply into her clothes and skin.
Time to get clean.
She walked along the third floor hallway toward the bedrooms. Her narrow escape had left her drained, and by the time she reached the closest room, every step was an effort. Her mouth was dry, and her limbs ached. She was exhausted.
She reached out to open the door, and froze.
The hand resting on the door handle was petite and perfectly manicured. It was also wrinkled and liver-spotted. It was the hand of an old woman.
Terrified, Darla pushed open the door and stumbled into the bedroom. She walked past the musty, unmade bed and went straight to the bathroom. To the mirror in the bathroom.
She saw her reflection and gasped in horror.
The woman looking back at her was growing older as she watched, aging decades in the space of seconds. Darla saw her hair thin, turn gray, then white. Her complexion paled; her skin wrinkled and became translucent, like tissue paper. Her eyes dimmed, then were obscured by thick folds of skin hanging loose around them.
Darla watched her beauty shrivel and vanish.
"This is not possible," she said out loud. "This is -- not -- possible." But her voice was little more than a croak, and in her mind she heard Angelus saying, Everything is possible now. Even the things that aren't.
She sank to her knees; then, when her strength deserted her entirely, she rolled on to her back and stared up at the bathroom's dingy ceiling. Her vision was fading at the edges, and her arms and legs felt heavy and cold.
Was this what dying felt like? Her first death had been so long ago Darla could barely recall it; the sensations of strength and overwhelming thirst she had felt on wakening as a vampire were far more memorable.
This was death as humans knew it, she realized. An intense desire to sleep, lethargy creeping over weighty limbs, a simple hunger for rest. This was what she had cheated her way out of four centuries earlier; this was what she had fought tooth and nail to escape ever since. She should be terrified now. Angry. Bitter.
Darla felt none of those emotions. She was simply tired, and grateful, at last, to rest.
She closed her eyes and waited for the darkness.
It didn't come.
When she opened her eyes again, she was still lying on the cold bathroom floor. Her legs were cramping, and she had to move. The hand she reached out to pull herself to her feet was unblemished and smooth. A young woman's hand.
Darla stood up. The floor under her feet was stable; the quake was over. And, judging by the faint glow coming from behind the curtains over the window in the next room, it was morning.
She left the bathroom and walked through the bedroom and back to the hallway. She felt so light she was surprised when she looked down and saw her feet were touching the carpet. She had thought she was floating.
Something had happened to her, and Darla wasn't yet sure what it was.
The sight of her ash-stained legs and arms jolted her into wakefulness. She was still filthy. Picking up her pace, she descended to the second floor, and the room she and Angelus used most often.
She opened the door and started to pull her dress off over her head as she entered the bedroom. It wasn't until she had shrugged it off completely that she saw she wasn't alone.
Angelus was sitting in the chair beside the bed. His clothes and hands were dark with dried blood. There were flecks of it all over his face. He looked as if he hadn't moved in hours. He looked as if he might never move again.
He lifted his head and saw Darla. She clutched her dress in front of her, feeling a sudden and absurd modesty. One of his shirts was lying on the end of the bed, so she picked it up and put it on.
In a dead, flat voice he said, "I made the sacrifice. Performed the ritual. I stopped it again, for a while. Soon I can stop it for good."
He was still looking at her, as if in entreaty. Darla didn't know what he wanted. Approval, maybe?
She crossed the room slowly and sat down on the edge of the bed. They were so close to each other their knees almost touched. "Angelus --"
"Angel," he said.
Darla looked at him. "What?"
"Angel," he repeated. "He called me Angel. There was a time -- a time when I thought I could have that name. I thought I could be something else. I believed in the possibility of redemption."
"Now we know better, my love," Darla said, shaking her head. She smiled. "And isn't that how we always liked it?"
"We know better," Angelus repeated. He closed his eyes. "They saw me -- they saw what I am -- and I can never go back --"
Darla held his bloodied hands in her ash-stained ones. "Hush, my sweet."
Angelus opened his eyes, and looked at her desolately. "There is redemption, but not for us." Matter-of-factly, he added, "I'm going to save the world."
"I'm going to make this all stop. And then I won't have to care anymore."
His voice was faint, almost wistful. Darla leaned closer to him and whispered, "And when you do, everything will be better."
He laughed at that, so brokenly he might have been choking. "No, it won't. But that's okay. That's how it's supposed to be." He stopped, and looked at her. "Promise you won't leave."
"Yours to the end," Darla told him. She stood up, pulling him to his feet along with her. "Go and clean yourself up. And then sleep. You deserve it."
"I deserve it," Angelus repeated. Darla led him to the bathroom, stripped off his bloodied clothes, turned on the shower and pushed the soap into his hands. When she was satisfied he could continue with the mechanical acts of lathering and scrubbing unassisted, she left him and went downstairs to the hotel reception.
She crossed the lobby quickly, barely registering the fact that the bone-tree was gone. Darla needed a drink.
She kept her stash of liquor in a well-padded drawer, and most of the bottles had survived the quake intact. She lifted one at random and unscrewed the lid.
Behind her, a cat mewled.
Darla lowered the bottle without drinking and turned around slowly, afraid of what she would see.
The gray cat stood in the middle of the Hyperion's lobby. Its left ear was ragged, and its coat was mangy; there was no doubt it was the same animal she had last seen broken and dead, suspended inside a cage of bones.
Angelus' magic had changed reality. Brought it back to life.
The cat paid no attention to Darla; it was too busy toying with the small rodent it had caught. She held out the bottle to it. "Hello, kitty. Still thirsty?"
At the sound of her voice, the cat glanced up at Darla just long enough to decide she didn't present a threat. Then it pounced on the small creature pinned down between its claws.
Its fangs, already sharp, thickened and grew. At the same time, its face twisted, hard ridges rippling into existence above its yellow eyes. The cat bit down on its prey and began to drink.
Darla watched it in a mixture of horror and fascination. She had been mistaken. The cat was back -- but it wasn't alive.
Within seconds, the mouse's body was little more than a dry bag of fur and bones. The cat tossed it over twice, then batted the corpse to one side with its paw. Evidently unsatisfied, it began to sniff the air, trying to scent out a fresh source of blood.
Darla understood the hunger it felt. It was a pure and savage need, undeniable, insatiable. The cat would hunt and kill and drink and kill and drink -- it would never feel a moment's peace, never again know real rest --
There was a crash, and the cat fled. Darla looked down, and saw the bottle she had been holding lying at her feet. It had shattered when she had dropped it.
Darla looked back at the stairs which led to the Hyperion's upper floors. Angelus was in one of the bedrooms up there. Maybe he was waiting for her; more likely, he had fallen asleep already.
It would be hours before he woke and discovered she was gone.
The sun was coming up over L.A., heralding the start of a new day. Wesley hadn't yet recovered from the shock of still being alive to see it.
They were driving through the pre-dawn streets in stunned silence, Other Gunn's truck rolling smoothly over the non-cobbled road surface. Wesley wasn't sure why the vehicle should continue to exist when its owner had disappeared -- literally -- into thin air, but he was grateful it did. He was grateful, too, that Gunn was driving, although judging by the way he kept nervously drumming his fingers against the steering wheel, Wesley guessed he was equally, if not more, shaken.
Cordelia spoke first. "Would someone like to explain what just happened back there?"
Neither Wesley nor Gunn responded.
"I mean, that other Gunn just -- he just -- " Cordelia put her hands together, then broke them apart with a flourish, "Poof, all gone! Is he -- dead?"
Wesley thought over the events at the library, trying to make sense of what had happened. "I think he didn't die so much as simply -- stop existing. The effect of the magic was to stabilize this universe, to force it to make sense. Since you can't have two versions of the same person in the same place at the same time, one of them simply -- disappeared."
"But that would mean Angelus just saved the world."
"He did," Wesley said.
"That's not your line," Cordelia said. "This is the part where you disagree with me, and -- " She trailed off. "You're not gonna disagree with me, are you?"
"There's no doubt about it," Wesley said. "By performing the ritual -- cleansing the sacrifice -- he checked the forces which are causing this universe to fall apart. Temporarily, at least."
That much was inarguable: the evidence was all around them. The truck passed a sober office building which only a few hours earlier had been a small tropical rain forest, complete with brightly feathered macaws and grazing okapi. Not everything was back to normal -- the sun, for example, was breaking with tradition and rising in the west -- but there was a sense that imminent collapse had been, if not averted, then at least postponed.
Cordelia took a deep breath. "So we're saying Angelus is the good guy here?"
Gunn stared at the road ahead. Tonelessly, he said, "If he's so damn good, how come my friend is dead?"
Unbidden, his own words from just days before came back to Wesley. You try not to get anybody killed, you wind up getting everybody killed. Was that the decision Angelus had made as well: a few lives in exchange for many?
Wesley had thought he was dealing with evil in its purest form, and he had been horrified. But it was far more horrifying to realize that the actions Angelus had taken in this universe were ones he could understand, if not condone.
"So -- what does this mean?"
Wesley turned around. "Cordelia?"
She shook her head. "This makes everything different, right?"
They had arrived back at Cordelia's apartment in Silverlake. As Gunn parked the truck at the front of the building, Wesley said, "This doesn't change anything. We still have to find a way to get home. We still have to --"
As he got out of the truck, he stopped. Gunn and Cordelia drew up beside him.
Darla was waiting for them. She stood outside Cordelia's door, protected from the morning sun by the partition that screened off the entrance from that of the neighboring apartment.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "I do not believe this. It's not even eight a.m., and already this is shaping up to be a really BAD day." Picking up her pace, she began to march determinedly toward the building.
Gunn followed her; Wesley hesitated. "Cordelia -- wait. Remember, she's dangerous --"
"It's daytime, Wes," Cordelia said without looking around. "If I stand in the sunlight, what's the worst she can do? Spit at me?"
Something wasn't right here, Wesley thought. Angelus saving the world. Darla making daytime excursions to visit his past victims. He wished something in this mixed-up, maddening universe would just make sense --
"You've got some nerve coming here, lady." Cordelia was standing in the light, just a few paces beyond Darla's reach.
Darla blinked. She looked steadily at Cordelia, then at Gunn and Wesley. She was wincing a little, and it was clear the daylight was making her uncomfortable. "I need to talk to you."
"Hey, that's convenient," Cordelia said. "Because I've been wanting to talk to you too. See, it seems to me this whole mess is your fault. We were getting along just fine until you turned up and starting screwing with Angel's head. And you didn't just do it in our universe -- you did it here too. You screwed him up, and then you just screwed him, and now I'm crazy and Wesley's dead and God only knows where Gunn's gone. And it's all. Your. Fault."
Cordelia stepped forward and jabbed her finger into Darla's chest to emphasize each syllable of the last three words. Wesley wasn't sure, but he thought Darla actually recoiled. Now he could study her up close, he saw she was -- different. Her hair was a mess, and her clothes were mismatched, as if she'd thrown them on in a hurry. But there was something else, something wrong and yet recognizable --
"Cordelia," Wesley began.
"You have to help me," Darla said.
Cordelia moved another step closer, so that she was now half in and half out of the shade of the partition. "Oh, wait, I think I remember this. How did it go, again? Oh yeah -- 'You have to HELP me, Angel. I'm DYING, and gee golly gosh, because I'm human now I can exploit your misguided sense of responsibility.'" She folded her arms across her chest, her stance combative. "Well, tough luck. Because I'm not Angel, and you're not human any more. And I've wanted to do THIS for a very long time."
With one quick motion, Cordelia reached out and pushed over the partition, allowing the morning sun to flood the porch. Wesley half-turned away, expecting the familiar flare of flame and heat that accompanied a vampire's exposure to the sun's light.
Darla didn't move for a moment. Then she opened the bag she was carrying and brought out a pair of sunglasses. She unfolded them and put them on.
"Okay," Cordelia said. "I guess that last reality quake gave you vampires some major SPF protection. Someone gimme a stake."
"Cordelia, wait," Wesley said. He reached forward and grabbed Darla's wrist. She looked back at him, almost uninterested. The truth was inescapable now. "She's not a vampire. She's -- she's alive."
"Oh, yes, I'm alive," Darla said bitterly. "And, God, I wish I weren't."
Chapter by Rheanna
Darla sat perched on the edge of her chair, flipping a cigarette over and over between her fingers. "Anybody got a light?"
"We don't smoke," Cordelia said coolly.
"Figures," Darla said. "I need a drink."
Wesley's overwhelming inclination to hostility inexplicably surrendered -- briefly -- to the influence of untold generations of good English breeding. "Tea or coffee?"
Darla glared at him. "I said I need a drink." She glanced down at her hands and looked momentarily surprised to discover she had shredded the tip of the unlit cigarette with her nails. "Funny, you can smoke thousands of these things and never get addicted when you're a vampire."
"Which you, pardon me for mentioning it, patently are not," Wesley said. "Why are you here?"
"Because I want to die," Darla said.
"Sounds good to me," Cordelia said brightly, standing up. "There's a carving knife in the kitchen. I'll just get it and then we can --"
She sat down again. "Okay, okay. Joke. Mostly."
The cigarette slipped out from Darla's fingers and fell on to the floor. She didn't pick it up. She looked exhausted, Wesley thought, as if she hadn't slept well for weeks, or perhaps ever. Rattails of dull blonde hair hung limply around her face, and her skin was sallow. She looked ill.
"You're dying already," he said.
If Darla was surprised he knew, she didn't show it. "They brought me back wrong. Or maybe right. I think -- maybe -- this is how it was supposed to be..."
Gunn looked at Wesley as the realization dawned on him too. "She's got syphilis. Just like the Darla in our universe did."
Wesley nodded slowly, but his mind was racing. When they had arrived to find Darla in Angelus' company, they had assumed she was a vampire. Why? Because, he thought, in our universe -- the real universe -- "Were you made human by one of the reality quakes? Or did Drusilla never turn you into a vampire at all?"
"Dru? Turn me?" Darla seemed genuinely surprised, even amused, by the idea. "She'd have liked that. She always did have a warped grasp of family. At first, I would have welcomed it, even from her. But really I wanted Angelus to do it -- I begged, and I begged, and I begged --"
Assumptions, Wesley thought. Everything we've assumed so far has been proved wrong. We assumed Darla was a vampire, but she isn't. We assumed the Angel from this universe lost his soul when he slept with Darla, but he didn't. We assumed he'd murdered Buffy, but he hadn't. We assumed Angelus is trying to destroy the world -- but he's not.
We thought this universe didn't make sense. Maybe it does. Maybe we've simply been blinded by our fears.
"We need to start at the beginning," he said.
Cordelia looked at him. "Wesley, world ending, remember? That means we don't have a lot of time for in-depth analysis."
Still looking at Darla, Wesley shook his head. "That means we have to understand precisely what we're dealing with." He walked forward until he was standing directly in front of her. "You said they brought you back. Do you mean Wolfram & Hart?"
She nodded. So that was one fact confirmed. Up to that point, at least, this universe had followed the same course as their own.
"Tell us what happened after that."
"They gave me clothes. Money. A place to live." Darla shrugged. "Then they tried to kill me."
Gunn raised an eyebrow. "Ooooh, I think I've seen this one already."
Darla gave a low, humorless chuckle. "I wanted to rip their throats out... I couldn't. They brought me back human, and weak, with this -- thing inside me --" She raised a hand and clawed ineffectually at her chest.
"The syphilis?" Cordelia asked.
"The soul," Darla said, her expression disgusted. "But my boy came for me. It was always that way. It didn't matter how long we were apart -- he always came back to me in the end. And I came back to him." She smiled, and for an instant her face took on an aspect which was almost gentle.
Cordelia made a retching sound. "It's Love Story with fangs. Spare us."
"Pardon me for not seeing the romance here," Gunn said, "but I'm thinking you only went looking for Angel 'cause you wanted him to make you into a vamp again."
"At first," Darla said, her voice quiet.
"He wouldn't do it; he wouldn't turn you," Wesley surmised. "So you stayed, hoping to persuade him --"
Cordelia raised her hand. "Uhh, time out. Angelus was in a vamping state of mind when he tried to turn ME. Anyone want to explain that little logic twister?"
"He didn't, though," Wesley remembered. Slowly, he was deconstructing the facts, reassembling them in a more meaningful way. "He couldn't go through with it."
"When you arrived at the hotel," Darla said, "we didn't think you were real at first. Things change from one shakeup to the next. Every quake throws up shadows and ghosts."
Cordelia took a sharp breath. Gunn looked at her. "Cordy?"
"He said -- he said he wanted something like Cordelia. Those were his exact words. I guess he thought if I weren't real it would be okay to --" When Cordelia broke off, she stared at Darla. "He said he already had something like Buffy."
Darla smiled crookedly. "I always thought she looked a little like me. Turns out it's the other way round."
Gunn stood up. He circled behind Darla slowly, then came to stand beside Wesley. When he spoke, there was a clear edge of suspicion in his tone. "And now you've changed your mind. You're cool with dying, after all. What's with the 180? Because you're not convincing me."
"I'm not trying to convince you. I'm telling you that we have to stop Angelus, and soon, or else --" Darla began. Abruptly, she broke off and put her hand to her chest. Her breathing became fast and shallow, and it was clear she was struggling for air. "Pills --" she gasped.
Wesley hesitated, then started searching through the contents of her bag. A half-empty blister-pack of light blue capsules nestled at the bottom. He took it out and punched out one of them. "Someone get her some --"
Cordelia appeared at his elbow, holding a glass of water. With Gunn's help, she forced a small amount of it into Darla's mouth, while Wesley administered the medicine. After a few more seconds, the seizure subsided.
Wesley looked at the pack in his hand, but both it and the capsules it contained were unmarked. "What are these?"
Darla's voice was hoarse as she said, "I don't know. He gets them for me. They stop the palpitations. For a while." She shook her head. "He won't turn me, but he brings me those. He's just delaying the inevitable. He's doing the same thing to me he's doing to the world. Putting together the broken pieces, pretending he can't see the cracks."
"The sacrifices he's making," Wesley said. He sat down, the packet of pills still in his hand. "He's -- patching up reality. He can suppress the symptoms, but he can't cure the disease."
"The world is dying. Breaking up, breaking down, unraveling at the edges, rotting from the inside out. I can feel it because the same thing is happening to me." Darla's voice was soft, and Wesley heard no anger in it, only resignation. "Angelus wants to bind the cracks with magic and make it go on and on and on. But I'm tired. I hurt. And I just want everything to stop."
Her shoulders slumped as she spoke. For a moment Wesley saw her in a different light and, for the first time, as a different person to the Darla in the real universe. Perhaps they'd started off from the same place, but their paths had diverged in obvious -- and some less obvious -- ways. The woman he was currently talking to might have a name and face he knew, but she wasn't the same person as her counterpart in Wesley's universe.
And the Gunn who had vanished and the Cordelia who was blind and insane were different people, too. The distinction between what was real and what was not should have been simple to make, and yet they had somehow all failed to make it.
"I'm not buying it," Gunn said suddenly, his voice harsh. "Why's Angelus running around trying to make the world a saner place? Why's he picking up meds for his girlfriend? The rest of his behavior don't exactly scream Boy Scout."
"He wants to save the world," Darla said. "Can't imagine why. Maybe he doesn't think he's been punished enough yet."
"For killing us?" said Cordelia. She folded her arms across her chest. "Nice sentiment, but a little late."
"No," Darla said. "For not being able to save you."
Gunn turned to stare at her in frank disbelief. "Right. Just like he saved George."
"We saw him kill George. But what we didn't see, we assumed -- " Wesley broke off, and when he spoke again, his voice was hollow. "Darla is alive here, not a vampire. That means the point at which this universe's history diverged from ours is much earlier than we thought. Before Angel slept with her in our universe -- before Drusilla turned her -- before all of that had a chance to happen here, something else occurred. Something that changed Angel but didn't remove his soul."
Cordelia was looking at him blankly. "Like what?"
Darla's expression was disdainful. "You mean you haven't even found out what happened to yourselves here? Inept, aren't you?" Obviously enjoying the opportunity to act as the bearer of bad news, she pointed at Wesley while addressing Cordelia. "He's dead. And you lost your mind. And your eyes."
"We know," Wesley said tersely. "But -- when did it happen?" Even as he spoke the words, the answer began forming in his mind.
Darla put words to the images. "When Wolfram & Hart brought me back," she told him. "When they sent -- what was that thing's name -- Vocah after you both. You died in a bombing, apparently; you hung on for a couple of days, long enough to put some lovely images in Angelus' head." She turned to Cordelia. "You were already insane --"
"I was close," Cordelia whispered, shuddering. "It was like having other people's nightmares pumped into my skull -- except worse, because I knew it was all real. I couldn't stop seeing them, and all I wanted to do was --" She broke off suddenly. Horror mixed with growing comprehension flooded her face. "I wanted to tear my eyes out."
"And you did," Darla said. Her smile was too broad in her sallow face -- for the first time, Wesley understood the phrase 'death's-head grin'. "Angelus got to you just a little too late -- a minute earlier, and maybe -- well. After that, he gave up. He put you in the best loony bin he could find, and then -- then he came back for me."
Gunn's voice was still edged with suspicion, but less than it had been. "And he just spilled all this to you. Because he's such a sharing, in-touch-with- his-emotions kinda guy."
"I share his bed," Darla said, and shrugged. "Sometimes he drinks. Sometimes he dreams. Sometimes he even talks to me. All those pretty pictures in his head -- I've got them too."
Cordelia had been brought to the hospital by a distraught man, the doctor had said. Wesley had envisioned himself in that role, but now could see the scene as it must have transpired: Cordelia the shuddering wreck he had seen in the hospital, Angel already shutting off, shutting down, unable to forgive his own failure to protect them.
"So Wolfram & Hart won," Wesley said. "They pushed Angel over the edge. They drove him to despair."
"I think it was a big day at the office," Darla confided. "Promotions for everyone. They all went to the Home Office, wherever that is. They did such a good job on all of us." There was an edge of ice in her voice as she concluded, "I hope they all got what they deserved."
"Wait. Wait. Angel -- Angelus -- flipped because he lost us?" Cordelia was shaking her head slowly. "Then why did he go to such trouble to fire us back in December? Why didn't we matter to him then?"
"No. We did matter," Wesley said. "He told us that, in so many words. He knew we were all that stood between him and darkness. He knew what he would become without us. The only difference was, then he was seeking it out. "
Gunn said, "When you were both in the hospital -- after Wolfram & Hart had gotten to you -- Angel asked me to look out for you. He said you meant a lot to him. The way he said it, it sounded more like 'everything'."
Wesley said nothing. He was remembering the sheer, visceral shock he'd felt on seeing this universe's Cordelia. His sense of outrage had quickly become a need to lay blame, to exact retribution. Emotion had overcome reason, even though he knew the real Cordelia was unharmed and whole. What he had felt must have been nothing compared to the grief and anguish Angel had experienced.
Angel, Wesley thought. Not Angelus. It was always Angel.
Wesley thought, what were we afraid of? Angel becoming dangerous. What makes Angel dangerous? Solitude. So what did we do? We threw him out. Bloody stroke of genius, that.
He raised his head and saw everyone was looking at him. In a small voice, Cordelia asked, "What are we gonna do?"
Of course they were looking to him. He was in charge; he made the decisions. That included the hardest ones.
He straightened up.
"The first thing we have to do is go and talk to Angel," Wesley said.
"Folks, we had extended hours tonight 'cause of the shakeup and all -- people do like to knock 'em back after one of those," the bouncer said. "But it's almost breakfast, and it's about time you went on home."
"We'd love to," Lorne said, "but truth be told, we don't actually have anyplace to go. Know any nice motels in the vicinity? That don't charge more than -- oh, what have I got here -- $13.76 and 5 Pylean yuctaba?"
Angel sighed and started searching his own wallet; he'd have to send Fred out to the car to grab his blanket so he could make a run for it. He didn't want to leave; he wanted to lie down -- on the floor, if he had to -- shut his eyes and give in to exhaustion. He'd felt the sun come up a few hours ago, and after two straight days awake, the impulse to sleep was almost overwhelming.
Fred, for her part, looked as exhausted as he felt. Since their conversation, she'd avoided being as close to him as before -- she didn't seem angry or resentful, just slightly awkward. Lorne, in an unusual display of subtlety, sat between them and steered the talk to neutral topics, like margaritas, the Dixie Chicks and the impending apocalypse.
Just as Angel fished out a couple of twenties to add to the kitty, the bouncer sighed. "I shouldn't be doing this," he said, "but I can't just go tossing a green man out on the street. There's a spare room in back with a cot for the lady, if you want it. That still puts you boys on the floor, but -- "
"We'll take it," Lorne said. "You are a man of uncommon decency, not to mention credulity."
The bouncer didn't look as if he understood the last word, but he also didn't seem to care much. "Hell, after that last shakeup, it's not like there's anything left worth stealing. We'll be back around 2 p.m. for cleanup duty. Maybe you guys can pitch in, huh?"
"Our pleasure and privilege," Lorne said. "Take care, amigo."
As the bouncer shooed the last couple of customers out the door, Fred said, "He's being very nice."
"He has a good heart and a soft head," Lorne said, not unkindly. "Both of which work to our advantage."
Although not, apparently, to the advantage of the people who had just arrived at the door, and were trying to get in. The bouncer was shaking his head as he tried to close the door on them. "At this hour?" Angel muttered. "It's, what, eight a.m.?"
"Never underestimate the human capacity for alcohol," Lorne said.
Then Angel's sharp ears caught the voices at the door.
"We were looking for our friends -- one of them might appear a bit, ah, unusual --" Wesley?
"He's green, okay? You MUST have noticed the green guy." That had to be Cordelia.
Angel stood up even as the bouncer, shaking his head, let the others in. Wesley and Cordelia were in the lead, followed by Gunn and -- he blinked in surprise -- Darla?
"Look at what we have here," Lorne said. "I just know the story behind this is really rich, and I'm looking forward to hearing it, because the only reason you guys showed up here is to tell us that we have a way home. Right?"
"Sorry, but no," Wesley said. At first, he hadn't met Angel's eyes -- but now he brought his head up, looked him in the face. "We found out what happened in this universe. Why Angelus has done the things he's done."
Angel found it hard to look away from Darla; she was close enough now that he could catch her scent. Unquestionably human; unquestionably very sick. She was staring back at him, searching his face for something -- what, he couldn't begin to guess. "It wasn't Darla," he said, repeating only what he already knew.
"You remember last year, when our offices got bombed and I got the visions and stuff?" Cordelia said. "Well, okay, of course you remember that. But --"
"Wesley died, didn't he?" Angel said. "And then he couldn't translate the scroll to save you. But -- your eyes --"
"Did that myself," Cordelia said. She rocked back and forth on her heels, twisting her hands together as she spoke. "How scary a week are we having that this news comes as a relief?"
"Of course," Angel said. "Of course." It all made sense now -- he would have seen it before, if only he hadn't been too wrapped up in his own fears and concerns to see it. How well he remembered that long, black night when it seemed he would lose them both -- the quick, unwelcome thrill of vengeance as he'd killed Vocah, sliced off Lindsey's hand. He had been so frightened, so guilty, so desperate -- and beneath it all, twisted up by the terrible wish not to care.
Angel shook his head and looked again at his friends. "And that changes things?"
"I think perhaps it does," Wesley said. "We've interpreted so much of what Angelus is doing -- of what you did in the past -- as pure evil. And it wasn't that at all. The truth is more complex."
Lorne said, "Hate to interrupt this very special episode, but I was just wondering -- how is it that Angelus attempting to destroy the world isn't pure evil? Because it sure seems close enough for jazz."
"Turns out Angelus ain't trying to destroy the world after all," Gunn said. "He's trying to save it, though why he's picking off my gang to do it --"
"Of course," Angel repeated. "He has to kill them to take the livers for the sacrifice. And he chooses people who don't have families or jobs -- the people he thinks no one will miss."
"He's wrong about that," Gunn said.
"I know. He knows it, too. But he'll tell himself anything to make it easier," Angel said.
"Wait a second," Fred said. "Angelus is trying to save the world? He's interfering with the breakup of this reality?"
"That's right, little girl." Darla's voice was a rasp, and she was steadying herself on a nearby chair, gripping it with white knuckles. Angel realized she was almost ready to fall down. "Angelus is quite certain he can keep us all alive forever."
"Perhaps that's for the best," Wesley said. "These people can survive, instead of perishing."
"My people gettin' killed is for the best?" Gunn protested.
"What's done is done," Wesley said. "We can't take it back."
Angel sensed an argument brewing and was quietly glad, for once, to be out of it. He stepped forward and took Darla's arm in his hand; she flinched, but didn't pull away. Gently, Angel guided her to sit in the chair. He pretended not to see Cordelia's look of displeasure.
"That last reality quake -- that should have been it. That should have been the end," Fred said. "But Angelus stabilized it. He turned it back. Oh, this is bad. This is very, very bad."
"We need the world to end in order to get home," Angel explained. "We need reality to break down completely."
"Let me get this straight," Gunn said. "The apocalypse is coming, Angelus is trying to stop it, and we want it to happen? Anybody want to take a shot at what's wrong with that picture?"
"Can he stop it?" Cordelia asked. "I mean, I thought this universe was on the skids pretty much no matter what. He's only buying time, right?"
"I don't think so," Darla said. "Angelus doesn't think so either. He thinks he can stop this forever."
"Oh, no," Fred said. "Oh -- I need napkins."
The others stared at Fred a bit, but Lorne hurried over to get her some more paper for calculations.
"I can't help but notice this is a bar," Darla said. She smiled at Angel. "How about a drink for old times' sake? Or don't you and I have any old times?"
"We do," Angel said. "But I won't get you a drink. I'll get you a glass of water. You look like you could use it."
Darla laughed, a dry, cracked sound. "I'm not exactly worried about my liver, you know."
Angel went behind the bar, took out a plastic cup and found the nozzle for water. To his surprise, Wesley followed him. As Angel filled up the cup, he said quietly, "Thanks."
Wesley genuinely seemed surprised. "For what?"
"For giving me another chance."
"You gave me one, once," Wesley said. "When we met, I treated you like an animal to be caged. When we met again in Los Angeles, I threatened you. But you gave me assistance and work and friendship when very few others would have. I'd never have found another life that would have suited me so well as what we're doing now, and I'd never have found that, but for you. You gave me the chance."
Angel stared at Wesley for a moment; he hadn't thought of the early days of their friendship in so long, it was surprising to remember. "You deserved it."
"And so do you. Come on, let's get your demonic sire her water."
Fred was huddled in a corner now, writing out more scribbles on her napkins. Lorne and Gunn sat near her, staring down at the markings in futile hopes of understanding. As Angel approached Darla, Wesley took Cordelia's hand and drew her aside, toward Fred. Cordelia opened her mouth to protest -- then, to Angel's surprise, shut it again and walked away.
Angel sat down opposite Darla and handed her the cup. "This will make you feel better."
"I doubt it. The only thing that will make me feel better is death," she said, but she accepted the water.
He watched her drink, noting the tiny grimace of pain she tried to hide with every swallow. Her face was bare of makeup, and her hair simply hung around it, uncombed. In two hundred and fifty years, Angel could count the occasions he had seen her like this on the fingers of one hand.
"You were so afraid to die, when you first came back. You pleaded with me to make you a vampire."
"I pleaded with you -- him -- to make me a vampire here, too," she said. "And you know how well I can beg, don't you, darling boy? I used to ask so sweetly, and you did whatever I wanted." It was true, he knew -- and once, she would have used those memories to mock him. Now she only sounded tired and sad. "But this one thing, you wouldn't give me. You thought it was better to die a human than go on as a vampire. And finally, I believe you."
"Where I come from, you were denied that," Angel said. "It was Drusilla. She turned you right in front of me."
"Oh, my love." Her hand against his cheek was bony, covered in rough, cracked skin. "And that other Darla -- she's a vampire again?"
She smiled. "And does she hound you without mercy?"
"Not lately. But she will again."
"Don't let her," Darla said.
"I want to die," Darla said, more firmly than she'd said anything else. "I want to die a true death. As a human. The way it should have been. I don't want vampirism or magic spells or alternate universes to keep dragging my life out, so very far past the point when it ought to have ended. I used to think you could never have enough existence, but you can. I'm old enough. I've seen enough. I understand now, Angelus." She looked at him. "Or should I call you Angel?"
"Angel." He covered her rough little hand with his own. "The end is coming. We're going to stop him, I promise you. You'll be able to die. You'll be able to rest, at last."
"And that other me -- you'll take care of her, too?"
He stared at her; she wasn't pleading for him to go back to the "true" Darla for a renewal of their partnership or love affair. Darla was asking him to let her die -- in every universe. She was asking him to stake the Darla he knew and end her unnatural life forever.
"I will," he said. "I promise you. Every version of you will be at rest."
Darla sank against the back of the chair and smiled at him -- a warm, genuine smile the likes of which he'd never glimpsed on her face. Despite her sickness, she suddenly looked as beautiful as he had ever seen her. "Thank you." She laughed weakly. "It's so funny."
"That he was the one I wanted," she said. "That you were the one I cast away."
"Cordelia, you're staring again."
"I'm trying to lip read."
"It might actually be less rude if you simply interrupted them and asked them what they're talking about."
Cordelia abandoned her attempts to follow Angel and Darla's conversation from half way across the room, and looked at Wesley. "When Angel gets in the Darla-zone, it pays to stay alert. One minute he's all 'She means nothing to me' and the next he's firing us and going fruit loops. Don't tell me you're not getting little deja vu shivers here?"
"I think it's different, this time," Wesley said. "I think he only wants some kind of resolution with her."
"You hope," Cordelia said. Angel and Darla were still engrossed in their heart-to-heart. Fred was frenziedly scribbling in her corner; Lorne and Gunn had given up trying to follow what she was doing and were currently bonding over a mutual appreciation of early Motown. Cordelia was free to talk to Wesley privately, and while she didn't relish the prospect of what she had to tell him, she could no longer put it off. "Wes, there's something --"
"Cordy, I need to --"
They stopped simultaneously. "You first," Cordelia said.
"No, please. You."
Cordelia took a deep breath. "Wesley, we're not bringing the other me back with us. If anyone has a right to make the final decision, I do, and I'm saying no. I know what it's like in her head; that was me for a day and a half. The pain -- it just burns you up. After a whole year, she's all burnt away inside. What's left --" she shook her head, "It's just a body. When this universe goes, it'd be kinder to let her go with it."
She steeled herself, waiting for the inevitable tide of outrage and anger.
It didn't come.
"I know," Wesley said softly. "I suppose I knew as soon as we saw her, really. But I couldn't bear the thought that there was nothing I could do -- that there was no hope for you --"
"For her," Cordelia corrected him gently. "She's not me."
"I realize that now."
Cordelia nodded. "But -- thank you for wanting to do it." Wesley smiled and quickly squeezed her hand.
"Finished!" Fred yelled.
Everyone looked around, or up, or broke off their conversations. Cordelia, closely followed by Wesley, hurried back to where Fred sat. As she pulled up a chair, she looked down at the arithmetical jumble on the tabletops and remembered, with some sadness, that acceptance letter from Duke she'd had to throw away. The best education Daddy's stolen money could buy -- maybe that would have helped her understand a little bit of what Fred was working through here. It was easy to miss when she was hiding from cheese, but Fred, Cordelia realized, was smart. Scary smart. Willow smart.
Probably smart enough to handle herself around Angel, she thought. Which is good, considering Angel's track record for not handling himself around women.
"So, Fred, what are we dealing with?" Angel said.
Cordelia looked up to see him, not huddled in a corner staring at his precious Darla, but leading her back to their group. She smiled in welcome and was relieved to see him smile back.
"I'm not 100 percent sure," Fred said without looking up from her calculations, "but I think we are dealing with some serious trouble."
"Okay, when the girl who was talking about switching dimensions like it was running out for milk and a newspaper says that something is 'serious trouble,' I start to worry," Gunn said. "What's the what?"
"That last reality quake should have been the last," Fred said. "The level of chaos shouldn't have been reversible." Cordelia thought of the thorned and bloodied library and shuddered.
"But Angelus did reverse it," Wesley said.
"Which he shouldn't have been able to do at all," Fred said. "I don't understand the magic you're talking about, but apparently Angelus is able to force the natural laws of this universe to make sense. It's as if -- as if he's constructing a past for this universe as well as a future. Binding it with the true universes of the multiverse, one that began with the Big Bang and won't end until the end of time. He's changing this dimension from unreal to real."
"And this is a problem why?" Gunn said.
"Because," Angel said, "if this dimension becomes real, then it gets a whole lot harder to get home."
"When did you go to M.I.T.?" Cordelia asked.
"Just listened to Fred," Angel said. "Did I get that right?"
Fred nodded grimly. "Except that it won't just be harder to get home. It will be impossible."
Cordelia's stomach clenched. Gunn's jaw dropped. "Impossible? Why?" Wesley said.
"Because this universe will have fundamentally changed its nature since we entered it," Fred said. "It won't bear the same relationship to our universe that it did before. It's like -- like trying to navigate by the North Star if you've been moved to the southern hemisphere. You may still understand the principles, but you don't have the guide you need."
"This making any sense to anybody?" Cordelia said.
"I could show you the math --"
"That won't help, muffin," Lorne said. "But thanks for offering. Okay, we have to stop Angelus. Pronto. How do we do that?"
Wesley straightened up. "We could stake him," he said. "I know none of us wants to consider what that would mean -- staking a form of Angel that has his soul. But if that's what it takes --"
"Won't help," Darla said. "Very few people stay dead here for long. You never know when somebody who perished in a quake or died of old age is going to pop back up."
"I guess that explains why you don't just throw yourself in front of a bus," Cordelia said, hoping her tone communicated just how much she wished Darla would do something of the kind.
Darla smiled thinly at her in reply. "I can't tell you how many times that Irishman's showed up, railing at Angelus, saying he threw his life away for nothing. If you think I drink, you should see Angelus after one of those visits."
Cordy felt her body go cold and weak at the thought of Doyle, torn from his death and returned to it, over and over and over again. Angel caught her eyes for a moment, and she could see he was equally stricken.
Wesley had no memories of Doyle, but he was obviously very affected too. "That means -- even if we did succeed in staking Angelus, he might return and take up his work again before we could get home," he said. "Oh, dear. Poor Mr. Giles."
Cordy frowned. "Giles?"
"He said -- the dead kept calling him, that Buffy kept asking him to save her, over and over," Wesley said. His face was pale. "He was telling the literal truth. She does do that. No wonder he was drinking."
"These people come back?" Gunn's voice was rough, strained with thinly veiled emotion. "You mean -- my people might --"
"Not the sacrifices," Darla said. "Those deaths are -- different, somehow. Those people stay dead. Angelus used to hope and hope they wouldn't, but -- and oh, he tried everything. He tried animals. He tried demons. But in the end, it all comes down to the same thing. He has to take a human life, end it for good. Now, though, he thinks he's very close to being done. Maybe just one more person."
"And he'll commit that sacrifice as soon as he can," Angel said. "Tonight?"
"Probably," Darla said.
"We gotta move fast, then," Gunn said. "Gotta take the guy prisoner before he gets the chance --"
"We can't do that." Cordelia was surprised to see it was Fred who had interjected. "Angelus knows which portals are active and when. He knows exactly where to be. That's information we need."
"There's about a twenty-five percent chance he's headed here, right?" Lorne said. "How convenient and yet how distressing."
"Those odds aren't even close to good enough," Angel said.
"We might draw him here just by thinking about it," Fred suggested.
Cordelia stared. "All we need is the power of positive thinking?"
"Well, kind of," Fred said. "You see, we're -- more real -- than this universe. That means our thoughts and emotions have a powerful influence here. In fact, I think --" She suddenly looked more uncertain, more hesitant, than she had in a long time. "In fact, I think this entire universe is based on our emotions. On our fears, maybe. I mean, what's everyone here afraid of the most?"
There was a long moment of silence, during which nobody seemed able to speak or meet anyone else's eyes. Finally, hesitantly, Angel said, "That I would lose control of myself. That I'd lose my friends."
"I kinda figured that," Fred said. "And, um, I think maybe Cordelia and Wesley were worried about that too."
"Understatement of the year," Cordelia muttered.
"So that happened here," Fred continued. She looked at Gunn. "And your friends getting hurt -- that was something you were worried about?" He nodded, his expression distant, turned inward. "And for me -- well, it's been a long time since the world seemed to make sense. The signs of instability are really awfully overt here. I think that's my fault. I can't figure out Lorne's, though."
"Oh, that's easy," Lorne said breezily. "I have a deep-seated terror of bad interior decorating, which has come to pass. I mean, look at this place," he said, gesturing at a cow-patterned bench. "And have you SEEN the drapes at Cordelia's now?"
Cordelia was pretty sure that home decor wasn't Lorne's worst nightmare, but there was little point in pursuing it now. "That's kind of weird, the universe just -- knowing -- what we were scared of. Like it was eavesdropping or something."
Fred nodded. "I think it used those emotions. Both to shape this universe and to try to destroy it."
"So stuff we think actually happens?" Gunn said. "Okay, nobody think about the Stay-Puft marshmallow man."
"We exert a powerful influence," Fred said. "In order to break down completely, the universe would need to throw off that influence as much as possible. So I think -- I think we were being driven apart. That our emotions about certain things might have been amplified. Like about, say, cheese."
Cordelia shared a quick glance with Wesley, then with Angel. Angel's guiltathon, her freakout, Wesley's anger -- all of it had been off-the-scale, hadn't it? And she wasn't at all sure this weirdo universe was to blame. But they could consider that later. She said, "You're telling us we have influence over this whole universe."
"Your dream come true," Wesley said with a smile.
Cordelia pretended not to hear. "So, Angelus -- if we all sit here and call his name, he'll show?"
"That's still not a guarantee," Angel said. "If our fears are as strong as our wishes, then there's no telling what effect we will or won't have."
"We have to set him up," Wesley said. "We have to -- draw him out. Find a way to follow him, to discover what he knows."
Gunn shook his head. "The guy's a step ahead of us. He's Angel -- except he knows this dimension better than we do by a mile. How do we get a step ahead of him?"
"We use what he doesn't have," Cordelia said. The others all stared at her, and she hated to finish what she had to say -- but she knew she had to. "We use the one thing he doesn't know."
Darla had made sure to wheedle a bottle of whisky from Angel before they parted. It was sad, even a little pathetic, that their final farewell had proved such an anticlimax. For decade upon decade, they had been triumphant, glorious lovers, as decadent and beautiful as the world they had inhabited. Now he was a quiet, melancholy man in a bar and she was his broken-down ex, begging for a drink.
What the hell. She'd gotten the drink.
She lifted the bottle to her mouth and gulped deeply, telling herself it was necessary for the deception; Angelus would never believe that she'd wandered off all day for any reason beyond getting more alcohol. Darla dropped the bottle back into her bag, took a quick breath, grasped her real prize tightly, and went into the Hyperion lobby.
The lobby was as silent and dingy and depressing as ever. Darla could only face it because she was, at last, pretty sure it was the final time. "Angelus!" she called. "Come downstairs!"
A few moments of silence, then the soft pad of bare feet on the hotel's threadbare carpet. "Where were you?" He sounded sleepy and vaguely annoyed. "I wanted you."
As Angelus, clad only in a pair of boxers, appeared at the top of the stairs, Darla put on her prettiest smile. "I was out getting a present for you."
Angelus stared. She laughed as merrily as she could. "Do you like it? Its name is Fred."
The thin young woman whose arm Darla was gripping with the little strength she had left looked up at Angelus. Her face looked nervous, but Darla could tell it was only an act. So far.
"I don't want to know her name. I don't want to know anything else about her." Angelus came down the stairs slowly; after that first hard glare, he didn't look directly at Fred. "Where did you find her?"
"She was begging for money near the liquor store," Darla said. "She's a runaway, I think. I told her we'd pay her to play with us tonight." Angelus had used the story himself before. It worked more often than Darla would ever have thought.
"I won't do anything too weird," Fred said, and the trembling in her voice wasn't feigned. Good, Darla thought. Now you know what you're dealing with. That works for us, and makes this little performance of yours halfway believable. "The lady was nice to me --"
Angelus walked up to them, leaned past Fred's shoulder and kissed Darla hard. As his tongue pushed between her lips, Darla wondered idly if he'd want to take her right in front of the girl. They used to enjoy that, once upon a time. She didn't care -- she and Angelus could probably teach this mouse-brown waif a thing or two -- but she suspected Fred wouldn't feel the same way. The girl was pressed between their bodies; Darla could feel her shaking now, frightened, probably most of all by her invisibility to Angelus.
He didn't want to see the girl, didn't want to face what he had to do.
But he would, Darla knew. In the end he would.
When their lips parted, he whispered, "Take her to the car."
"Is it time already?" Darla asked, cocking an eyebrow.
"Past time," Angelus said.
Chapter by Rheanna
The reality quakes were occurring almost continuously now; a constant, faint tremor made the loose change in the tray by the convertible's gear box rattle and chink even when the car was parked.
Angel reached down and pocketed the coins, without taking his gaze off the Hyperion's distant entrance. It took every ounce of self-control he possessed not to get up and walk straight in the front door, get Fred and Darla out of there, find some other way -- any other way -- to get home that didn't involve this.
He had dreaded this all day, been filled with an unaccustomed helplessness as he watched Fred rehearse the plan, over and over, with Darla. Even the renewed companionship of his friends as they counted away the hours at Cordelia's apartment had done little to soothe him; he could only watch numbly as Fred went out the door to face Angelus. She'd dressed herself in her Pylean tunic, drawn her hair back from her face; when she went out, she'd been smiling, as though there were nothing to fear at all.
"Lorne, go round the back of the building," Wesley said, breaking the silence. "Just in case they come out the other way."
"Not loving that plan," Lorne said. "If Angelus sees me and guesses we're thinking of tailing him, I'll be guacamole inside thirty seconds."
"He's only seen you once, briefly," Wesley pointed out. "He'll be less likely to recognize you."
"Yeah, because I don't stand out in any way," Lorne said, pointing at his horns.
Wesley was unmoved. "That's IF he sees you, which he won't, because you're going to be extremely careful."
"And I was thinking this would be the perfect opportunity to indulge my rash and self-destructive side," Lorne muttered as he went.
Wesley nodded to Gunn. "Let's wait in your truck. We'll have to move quickly when they come out."
Gunn nodded, and they walked away, toward the truck parked some distance along the road.
Angel kept watching the hotel. He was probably the only one who could see it, as the street lamps were no longer working -- instead of throwing light on to the road, they were raining cherry blossoms. The petals fell to the ground silently and softly, heaping into thick, cloud-like drifts that obscured the gray buildings and littered sidewalk. It was a surreal but eerily beautiful sight.
"It's degrading," he said.
Beside him, Cordelia looked down at her Pylean royal bikini and sandals. "Well, granted it lacks a certain dignity, but there's no need to get snippy -- Oh. You're talking about this universe. Right." She shivered, and pulled the cape more tightly around herself. "It's also way too cold. The real L.A. is never this chilly in May."
Angel took off his jacket and put it over her. "I don't understand what was wrong with the sweatshirt."
"Hey, I have my pride. We're going home tonight, and I refuse to be seen in my own dimension in Star Trek leisure wear." She pulled the jacket over her bare legs. "Thanks."
Angel had resumed his vigil over the hotel's front entrance and said nothing.
"Okay," Cordelia said. "You're doing that 'tense and withdrawn' thing again. Normally, I wouldn't mention it, but since we're on slightly shaky ground in more than the literal sense, I really want to keep talking."
Angel made himself look away from the Hyperion. "I'm worried about what might be happening in there."
"May lightning strike me for even contemplating what I'm about to say, but --" Cordelia took a deep breath. "I think we can trust Darla. She's still skanky and evil and everything, but she's for real about wanting this over. You can tell when you look in her eyes."
"I know," Angel said. "I saw it too. And I'm not worried about Darla --" He broke off, reluctant to pursue a line of conversation that might jeopardize the fragile understanding he had reached with Cordelia. Afraid it was already too late for that, he met her eye, expecting to see disappointment, disapproval, or worse.
To his surprise, Cordelia looked sympathetic. "You're worried about Fred."
There was no point denying it. "Yes."
"Well, don't be," Cordelia said firmly. "She's smart. I mean, not just book-smart. She survived five years in Pylea on her own. She can look after herself."
"This is different," Angel said quietly. "I just wish there were some other way --"
"Me too," Cordelia said. "But we need to make sure Angelus doesn't take anybody else. And we needed a human he'd never met before. That leaves Fred. But I think she can handle it."
"I hope so," Angel said. "She doesn't understand who it is she's dealing with in there. She trusts me; she thinks he's just -- just a bad man with my face. She doesn't understand we're the same. She doesn't understand that if she gets too close I'll hurt her."
"She really likes you a lot."
After a pause, Cordelia added, gently, "You really like her too, don't you?"
"And you told her why that's a no-go."
He met her gaze. "Yes."
Cordelia sighed. Softly, she said, "Curses suck, huh?"
Her commiseration was so sincere and earnest that Angel found himself smiling a little. "I've thought that more than once. But I can still have her friendship. And -- yours," he added hesitantly. When Cordelia didn't say anything, he decided to plunge ahead. "I should have told you about Darla. I'm sorry. But I thought if I did, I'd lose you for good. I was afraid of that happening."
Cordelia glanced at the hotel. "With good reason, apparently." She shivered again, and pulled his jacket up so it covered her arms as well as her legs. "I guess -- we could have given you the benefit of the doubt a little more than we did. Which is NOT to say," she added, furrowing her brow, "that lying to me is okay. But you've given me your jacket, so you're earning points back already."
"Thanks." Angel hesitated, then frowned. "Although I'm not sure I can afford to buy you another whole new wardrobe."
"Oh, that's fine." Cordelia casually leaned back in the passenger seat, then glanced slyly sideways at him. "Actually, I was thinking maybe jewelry this time."
"Or jewelry --" Angel began, then stopped.
Lorne had appeared from the alleyway that ran along the side of the hotel. He was moving quickly along the street, almost running. As soon as he reached the convertible, he hopped breathlessly into the back seat. "It's time to play the music," he announced. "It's time to light the lights. They're leaving."
As he was speaking, a car which was the twin of Angel's own roared away from the hotel and accelerated along the street. When its taillights were faint, twin glows, Gunn pulled out and began to follow it. A moment later, Angel put the convertible into gear and followed him.
Cordelia twisted around and looked hopefully at Lorne. "You didn't happen to overhear where they were going?"
"Strangely, they were a little light on idle chitchat."
"Then we'll find out when we get there," Angel said.
Darla leaned her head back and for a moment actually enjoyed the wind in her hair; a convertible was an insane choice of transport for a vampire, but this fleeting, glorious sensation of reckless speed was one benefit of Angelus' insanity. The evening air was cool, and as they pulled further away from the city center, it became -- well, not fresh, Darla supposed. But marginally less smoggy.
All in all, a wonderful night for the world to end.
Casually, Darla lolled her head around to glance behind them. Fred was huddled in the back seat, her long hair blowing about in the wind. The girl was as white as her tunic, and Darla wanted to laugh; Fred actually thought this was scary. She didn't know the half of it. But she would.
Darla's eyes flicked back to take in the road behind them; in the very great distance, almost further than her weak human eyes could see, a car was following them. Angelus didn't seem to have noticed. So far so good.
Just then, he braked sharply and pulled the car over. Darla tensed -- had he caught on?
But no -- Angelus only looked at Fred and said, "We're here."
Darla turned her head forward again and sighed in relief. A few hundred yards up was their destination -- spotlights shone on the stories-high letters that spelled out "Hollywood".
"This is where you want to do it?" Fred said, still playing along, still killing time. But her voice was shaking so badly now that Darla could barely understand her. Not that it mattered; the fear made it all more credible.
The earth's low rumbling was more noticeable now that the car had stopped. Angelus cocked his head, listening, then held out one hand to the girl in the back seat. "Yes. This is the place. Come on." He spoke to Darla without turning to her. "Get the bag out of the trunk."
"What's the magic word?" Darla sing-songed. Angelus ignored her and began towing Fred uphill. Darla sighed and went to the trunk; as she lifted the bag, she could feel the weight of the ropes within, hear the clink of the metal.
Up ahead, Angelus was leading Fred toward the base of the letter "D." Darla trudged uphill behind them, her shallow breath catching at the effort.
By the time she caught up, Angelus and Fred were standing at the foot of the "D". The letters were shaking with the trembling of the earth. Fred looked down into the city. "The lights are nice from up here."
"Yes, they are," Angelus said without looking. "Put your hands behind your back."
Fred's eyes widened as she saw him bring the ropes out of the bag. "Oh, now, we didn't say anything about getting tied up."
"That's what you're getting paid for," Angelus said smoothly.
Darla glanced down, and saw, not one car following them, but two. And both vehicles were stopping; apparently Angel and his friends planned to come the rest of the way on foot. How circumspect, she thought. How marvelously sensible. Angelus might just be so distracted killing the girl that he wouldn't notice.
Angelus was distracted now; he took Fred's wrists in his hands and pulled her arms back in something that was half an embrace. Was he acting? Darla's eyes narrowed. "Come on," he said. "It won't be for long." Neither will this performance, Darla thought; she's got about five seconds before he just knocks her out cold.
"That's -- that's --" Fred was panicky now, but she suddenly straightened up and lifted her chin. "That's extra."
"You'll have to pay me more," Fred said. "How much are you going to pay me?"
Angelus snarled, and Fred's eyes went wide --
And the earth split open.
Darla screamed as the ground began shaking violently -- more violently than she'd felt in any other quake, ever. She fell, digging her fingers into the hard, dry earth in an attempt to keep herself from tumbling down the hill.
Angelus tackled Fred, bearing her down with him. Fred tried to struggle against him, but his body pressed hers to the ground. Over the roaring of the quake, she could hear Angelus shout, "This can be hard or it can be easy. My advice is to lie still and let it be easy."
"I won't!" Fred cried, pushing ineffectually against his chest. "I won't!"
Darla tried to struggle to her feet, but the convulsions of the earth wouldn't let her. Fred was only a few feet away, but she might as well have been miles.
"You will," Angelus said, and in one lightning-fast move, he pinned Fred's arms above her head. One quick shift and he had both her wrists in a single powerful hand. "Darla!" he yelled. "We don't have much time! Get the knife --"
Fred screamed, as loudly and desperately as Darla had ever heard anyone scream -- which was saying something.
This is it, Darla thought. The world was ending -- the fabled, oft-prophesied apocalypse was actually happening -- and Angel and his goody-two-shoes friends weren't here. The earth was shaking violently, and Darla was certain that if they hadn't climbed the hill already, there was now no way they could.
Their plan had never stood a chance of succeeding. Darla wondered how she'd ever allowed herself to be convinced to participate.
She had nothing left to lose, so --
Darla pulled the knife out of the bag and began crawling toward Fred and Angelus. Fred was still struggling, staring up into Angelus' cold, blank face as though it were the most horrifying thing she'd ever seen. Probably it was. "Darla!" Angelus yelled.
"Coming, my love," she whispered.
Then she lifted the dagger high and plunged it into his back.
Angelus froze, his body a long, hard line of shock and betrayal and pain. He stared at Darla. She smiled. "Payback's a bitch, isn't it?"
Fred took advantage of the moment and pushed him off her, as hard as she could; Angelus fell into the dirt, still staring at Darla as though he had never seen her before. But when Fred scrambled to her feet and -- somehow, despite the tremors -- began running away, his face changed. Pure, vicious wrath twisted his features -- first figuratively, then literally, as the demon emerged. "Do you know what you've done?" he shouted.
"Yes," Darla breathed. "Yes, I do."
Get away, get away, get away get away getaway --
Fred was half-running, half-falling down the hill. She'd seen the cars coming; where were they? Why hadn't they come to save her from that -- that --
She saw Angelus' face again, the mirror of Angel's, so hard and brutal and evil. The blankness in his eyes as he had looked at her, ready to kill her --
"Fred!" She peered into the darkness to see Angel running up toward her. Wearing that same face --
No, Fred thought, Deal with what's in front of you. And that's not the same at all. She kept running toward him as fast as she could until she collided with him.
Angel tumbled with her to the ground. The night sky was shimmering purple and green above their heads. They lay on a bed of four-leaf clovers. The letters above them now spelled out "Jersey City." The end was nigh.
"Fred, are you all right? Did he hurt you? We were trying to get to you, but the quake --"
"I'm okay," she said. "He didn't hurt me." And she smiled up at him, to prove that it was true; for some reason, that made Angel shut his eyes tightly, as though he couldn't bear to look at her for a moment.
A second later, and he was back to himself; Angel managed to get to his knees as the others -- Lorne and Cordelia and Gunn and Wesley -- all fought their way up beside them. "We don't have much time!" Fred said.
Cordelia looked at her incredulously. "You think?"
In the sky, glittering bands of light began to form -- like the aurora borealis, Fred thought, if the aurora borealis could catch on fire. It would have been beautiful if it hadn't meant the sky itself was tearing apart.
"Angelus?" Wesley gasped.
"Up there," Fred gestured. "Darla stabbed him."
"Right on, Darla!" Gunn said with a fierce grin.
"Let's not give him any more time to recover, shall we?" Lorne said. "Let's get uphill, get to our portal and get the hell out of here."
"No," Fred said.
"What?" Wesley said, his face very pale. "No time?"
"No need," Fred said, pointing behind them.
The others turned to see what Fred had seen -- a new dimensional portal opening up, a swirling vortex of blue and gold. In the distance, yet another sparkled into being. "What's happening?" Angel said.
"This dimension's finally coming apart," Fred shouted over the whine of the rending earth. "Portals are opening up everywhere -- so we could open up one anywhere we want."
"We have to hurry," Wesley said. "Come on, let's go!"
Fred got unsteadily to her feet and began hurrying after the others. But Angel didn't join them. Fred, Wesley and Cordelia all stopped as the saw it. "Angel, what's wrong?" Wesley yelled.
"Darla," Angel said.
"Do NOT start that now!" Cordelia cried. "She's not real. Get over it!"
Angel shook his head. "That's not what I mean --"
Darla laughed as she watched the brilliant swirls of light and color in the sky, on the ground. She'd have worked for the end of the world before now, if only she'd realized it would be so impressive.
Angelus' hand clamped around her arm. She didn't even bother to turn around and face him as he said, in a low voice, "You realize what you've done?"
"I'm sorry, dear boy," she said. "But it's all for the best."
"Yes, it is," he answered. "I see that now."
He brought his hands around her in an embrace that would have been entirely gentle and loving, but for the bloody knife in his hand. "It's time," he whispered in her ear. "It's time for me to finally give you what you wanted."
"Angelus?" she said, her voice tremulous.
"I denied you. I never used to do that. I thought it was right -- but now that's all changed. I'm going to give you what you need. We'll be the same again, just like we used to be."
Darla began to shake as he drew a scarlet line across her shirt with the tip of the knife.
"You won't need your liver when I make you a vampire," he said.
"He's gonna sacrifice Darla?" Cordelia yelled. "How can you know that?"
"He's me," Angel said. "I'm him. And if I believed the things he believes -- that's what I'd do."
Wesley shook his head in frustration. "Can it make a difference now, Fred?"
"He might be able to hold this world together for a while." Fred had to shout to make herself heard above the background noise. "Forever -- I don't know."
"But if we go right now, he won't have time to stop us! Am I right?" Cordelia protested, and Fred nodded in response.
Angel shook his head. "I promised," he said. "If he turns her as he kills her -- that will freeze her as a vampire. Her transformation by death -- that's forever. She'll have to be a vampire forever. And I promised her I wouldn't let that happen." Angel's face became still, determined. "Take Fred and go," he said.
Wesley stared in disbelief as Angel turned away from them and ran back toward Darla.
In more than two hundred years of existence, Angel had thought he'd seen just about everything there was to see. But the end of the world -- this was something else again.
Around him, huge chunks of turf and grass were splitting from the ground and floating upwards, like icebergs slowly breaking apart in a warm sea. The sky was rapidly filling with a mass of disintegrating earth, and the flickering rainbows which lit the heavens were spreading into the gaps where the ground had been. The distinction between sky and ground was fast disappearing.
Angel ran, ignoring the chaos around him, ignoring the dull rumble of the dying universe, ignoring everything except the need to find the next firm place to put one foot in front of the other. "Darla!"
"Help me -- help --"
He stopped, twisted around in a desperate effort to track her voice to its source. A second later, he realized the futility of what he was attempting: now that the most basic laws of cause and effect were breaking down, there was no guarantee that the place from which he heard her call was where she was.
As he hesitated, the ground beneath Angel's feet became spongy and then started to turn to liquid. He made a snap decision based on nothing more certain than instinct, and ran.
Then he saw her.
She was lying on the ground, perfectly still. Angelus crouched over her, wielding a knife. Angel froze, afraid he was already too late --
But there was no blood pooled on the ground, no wound in Darla's stomach, and after a second Angel saw why. The blade of the knife bent in Angelus' hands; whatever it had become, it wasn't metal, and it wasn't sharp.
He could still save her.
Angelus threw the knife down in disgust. Then he stood up and saw Angel.
The moment stretched, while the maelstrom whirled around them, growing in intensity. A tree drifted past, upside down, a woman and a child clinging to its roots.
Angelus subtly shifted his feet and arms into what Angel recognized as his own preferred attack position. When this became a fight -- as it must, he realized -- he would be facing an opponent with his strength, his skills, his experience. The outcome of a battle in which both sides were perfectly matched, Angel knew, would be simply a matter of luck.
Angelus smiled thinly. "I'm guessing you're not here to lend me a knife."
"It's over," Angel said. "Let it end."
He glanced at Darla, lying on the ground. Her chest still rose and fell; she was unhurt, but unconscious. Angel guessed that in her already weakened condition, she had passed out from shock or fear. "She wants to die. Let her."
Angelus' face twisted in contempt and anger, and it was an effort for Angel not to look away. Seeing his true, demonic aspect in Pylea had been horrifying -- but somehow knowing the depth of hatred he was capable of showing as a man was even worse. "And how would you know?"
"She told me."
Angelus stared at him for a moment. Then his features contorted into a snarl. "You're one more ghost sent to haunt me. If you won't help me, I'll do this myself. With my bare hands."
Abruptly, he ripped open Darla's blouse, exposing her midriff. He placed his hands in the hollow between her ribs, preparing to dig his fingers into the flesh and pull her apart --
Angel tackled him.
They rolled together across the uneven ground, away from Darla's unconscious form. When they came to a halt, Angel was on his feet first, a second ahead of Angelus, who winced as he regained his footing. Of course -- Darla had stabbed him. Angel felt a momentary surge of confidence at the knowledge that they were not perfectly matched, after all.
On the other hand, Angel had neither fed nor slept in days. Which one was now stronger?
Angelus kicked, and Angel feinted to avoid the blow. He felt wet drops fall on his hands and head; at first he thought it was water, but when he looked down at himself, he saw streaks of reflective silver on his skin and clothing. It was raining liquid metal.
Angelus tried to punch him; Angel anticipated the move, and blocked him easily. "Go back to them. Go back where you came from," Angelus said. His eyes flashed with something Angel thought was envy. "You must want that."
Left hook -- right jab -- block. "I want to save her."
Angelus spun, grabbing Angel and pinning his arms behind his back. Now they were locked together, being slowly painted silver by the metal rain. Angel could see Angelus' profile, shining gray against the dark, swirling sky. "I am saving her," Angelus said in a low voice.
"You're going to make her like us. That's not saving her; it's damning her."
Angel jerked his elbows up, using his weight to force them into Angelus' ribs. He was rewarded with a loosening of the grip on his arms, just enough to enable him to free himself. He twisted around, and now they were face to face again. Back where they had started.
"She's dead no matter what," Angelus said. "Maybe I rip out her liver; maybe her heart gives up, or maybe it's alcohol poisoning. You can't save her either."
"There's more than one way to be saved."
But Angelus wasn't listening. "Maybe a bomb gets her, and she fights for three days while her insides liquefy, until she doesn't have the strength to hang on anymore. Or maybe she goes insane, kicks so hard against the restraints she breaks her ankles. Then, when you plead with the doctors to loosen the ties, just a little, just to give her some comfort, maybe then she works one hand free and scoops out her own eyes while your back is turned. Is that better than becoming like us? Is that better than being damned?"
Angel thought of Wesley, broken and dying. Cordelia, sinking into madness as he looked on helplessly. The pictures Angelus' words conjured were so vivid, so terrifying, that for the briefest moment, his concentration faltered.
Angelus lashed out, and Angel went down hard.
He started to get up, but he was tired now and fractionally too slow. In a moment Angelus was on top of him, pinning him to the ground. "I'm going to tell you something, because I can see you haven't worked it out for yourself yet. I can live with being damned, because now I know redemption is a fat, sweet lie. There's no such thing. Not for us."
Angel was being crushed into the ground so hard it was barely possible to speak. "Don't -- believe -- that --"
"Oh, the possibility existed once," Angelus went on, almost conversationally. "There was Buffy, wasn't there? But we took away her innocence in every way there is and went to hell for it. Strike one!" On the last word, he lifted Angel's head and slammed it down on to the hard earth.
"And we came back from hell, but we still couldn't have her, so we had to walk away from the only good thing in our miserable existence. Strike two!" Angel braced himself as, again, his skull was pounded into the ground. He could hear buzzing in his ears and his vision was starting to blur.
"And then there was a new city, and a job worth doing, and people to care about, and we fucked that up too. Strike three, you're OUT."
On the last word, Angelus slammed Angel's head down again, even harder, stunning him. Through the disorientation and pain, Angel gasped, "It -- didn't happen -- like that --"
"Maybe not for you. Maybe not yet. But it will. There are only so many second chances, my friend. And you and I both used up our quotas a long time ago." Angelus lowered his voice and whispered in Angel's ear, "I'm going to save the world. I'm going to save Darla. And you're not going to stop me."
Then Angel felt his head connect with the ground again, and again, and again, until darkness mercifully descended.
Gunn's truck was gone. To be more accurate, where Gunn's truck had been there was now a funnel-shaped whirlwind of plastic and metal auto parts. The Plymouth, fortunately, had fared better and was both in one piece and where they had left it. Wesley felt a profound sense of relief at the sight of something so mundane and so normal as a parked car.
He shepherded the others toward it through a world which was now little more than a random and disparate sequence of unconnected scenes -- a snowstorm through which camels roamed existing just yards from a tiny patch of desert where a lone polar bear perspired
And then there were the portals. It was ironic, Wesley thought, that he'd spent most of the past week tracking elusive interdimensional gateways, and now he was surrounded by them. A myriad of swirling vortexes floated over their heads, swaying and drifting as if in the current of a gentle breeze. But none of those gateways, Wesley was certain, led where they wanted to go.
"Get in," he said, indicating the car. "Quickly. Fred, if you say the words here, will it open a portal that'll take us home?"
She nodded. "This reality's very weak now, it should be possible to open a portal anywhere -- but -- Angel --"
They were all looking at him: Fred, Cordelia, Gunn, Lorne. Wesley hesitated, then shook his head. "There's nothing we can do. He chose to go back. "
"You can't just leave him here!" Fred cried.
"We don't have a choice," Wesley said. "I'm sorry, really I am. But -- look around. If we wait for him, this place will collapse around us before we can leave. Angel's made his decision."
Fred glared at him, her eyes flashing with real anger. "You're still mad at him. You don't care if he gets stuck here."
Wesley felt a stab of pain, mixed with guilt. "I'm mad as hell. But it's not that I don't care -- " He shook his head helplessly. "There are more lives at stake here than Darla's."
"He sure picks his moments," Gunn said. "I guess we should have known. It was always gonna be about Darla, at the end."
"No," Cordelia said.
Wesley looked at her; she was standing rigidly beside him, staring into the pandemonium surrounding them as if she could make Angel appear from it by force of will alone. Gently, he took hold of her arm. "Cordelia, he chose to go back. We'll probably never understand why. But he's gone now -- "
Cordelia shook her head fiercely. "I understand why. He went back for her because he's Angel." She turned around to confront the car's other occupants. Fred was smiling slightly, aware she now had an ally.
"It's not just because it's Darla. If it were me -- or you, Wesley -- he'd go back for any one of us. He went back for her because that's who Angel is." Cordelia's voice was rising as she became more vehement. "He tries to take care of people and goes off the deep end if he can't. It can't be all sweet and touching when he does it for us and then flaky and stupid when he does it for someone else. It's just Angel. He's a total obsessive dork, and he's our friend, so let's get up there and get him."
Fred was smiling broadly now, and Cordelia was grinning back at her. Wesley had the feeling he was witnessing the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Of course, it was a beautiful friendship that wasn't going to last very long, as it would certainly be destroyed along with the rest of them when the universe ripped itself apart.
"Fred," Wesley said. "Say the words. Open a portal home."
Cordelia stared at him. "I swear, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, I will never, ever forgive you --"
Wesley cut her off. "We're not going yet. Fred is going to open a portal back to our universe. She and Lorne are going to stay here and mark it. That way, we might just have enough time to find Angel, return here and still get home." He took a step away from the car, then looked back at Gunn and Cordelia. "Well, what are you waiting for?"
Cordelia didn't move for a moment. Then she jumped out of the car and hugged Wesley. "I will love you to the end of the world for this."
Which was probably all of three minutes away, Wesley thought as they headed into the chaos. But it was the sentiment that counted.
Cordelia was running as quickly as she could -- it was more jumping, really, to and from various islands of reality. Through the swirling colors and surreal environments, she could glimpse a tiny raft of what looked like a normal stretch of the Hollywood hills. She moved as fast as she could, jumped lengths that would have gotten her on the Sunnydale track team if she'd ever deigned to try out, and listened for Gunn and Wesley behind her.
If we get out alive, she thought, I am going to smack Angel upside the head, then give all the guys big hugs until they die of embarrassment, and then I am going to try and market this as a video game, because it would be cool if it weren't so damn real.
"Angel!" she shouted for what seemed like the thousandth time. Was her voice even carrying through this strange, changeable atmosphere? No way to know. She could only keep calling. "Angel?"
She turned and saw Angel. He was almost completely coated in what looked like silver paint, mixed with trickles of blood welling from cuts on his face and hands. Cordelia breathed out a quick sigh of relief. "Angel, thank God. We found you. Did you save Darla?"
Angel looked completely confused, even panicked. "You're not supposed to be here -- this is dangerous -- why didn't you -- "
"Why didn't we go home without you?" Gunn asked. "Good question."
Wesley glared at Gunn. "We aren't leaving you behind, Angel. And that's it. We have to make our way back to Fred, right away."
"There's a lot of being-all-stupid-and-heroic going around these days," Cordelia said. "You're our friend. You're always gonna be our friend, even if you screw up. And we're not going home without you." She reached out and tugged at Angel's arm.
Angel stared down at her, and his expression of disbelieving hope changed slowly to understanding. Then, to Cordelia's immense surprise, he embraced her tightly. "I can go home," Angel whispered. He was holding Cordelia so fiercely she could hardly breathe, as if she were his life raft in a stormy sea. Without letting go of her, he turned to Wesley and Gunn. "You came back. You saw what I did. What I am. And you still came back."
"What we saw here proves what you could have been," Wesley said, "But you're not the same as the Angel from this universe. We were -- I was -- wrong to think you were."
"You both got yourselves stuck in tailspins," Gunn added. "But you pulled up out of it in time. He didn't."
Wesley finished, "You could have fallen as far as he did -- if you'd chosen. But you chose something else."
"So if you could choose to start moving, like NOW, that would be a good idea!" Cordelia freed herself from Angel and started hauling him back in the direction they had come. He didn't budge for a second; then, he took several unsteady steps after her.
Then he stopped.
Cordelia tried to pull him into motion again, but he wouldn't move. She grabbed his shirt and pulled harder. "Come ON!"
Angel lifted a hand and gently wiped blotches of sliver from Cordelia's cheek, where her face had pressed against his stained clothing. He smiled. "You have beautiful eyes."
Cordelia stared at him. Then she stared past him, at the two prone forms lying on the ground behind him, silver masses almost indistinguishable from the sodden, metallic earth. No wonder she hadn't noticed them until now. One was Darla; the other had to be -- oh God --
Cordelia looked up into Angelus' face. He gestured toward Angel -- the real Angel -- and said, "I made bad choices. I want to make one good one. You came back for him, not me."
Wesley, Gunn and Cordelia were all frozen in shock for the moment it took Angelus to turn away. He walked to Darla's limp body, picked her up, and said, quietly, "Go home." Then he walked into the chaos.
The silver rain changed to water; Angel's gray-frosted form began to wash clean, clearing his face to their view for the first time.
It took another second or two for them to snap out of their surprise; then Gunn said, "We have GOT to run."
It seemed to Angel he'd been walking forever. He couldn't remember where the journey had started, or where he was trying to go. He only knew he was tired. They were making him walk, and he wanted to stop.
He tried to sit down.
"What the hell you doing?" Gunn said. "You gotta keep moving."
Full consciousness returned slowly, and Angel became aware that he was being supported between Gunn and Wesley, his arms draped over their shoulders. Cordelia was just in front of them, scouting out a safe route through the chaos.
Cordelia looked over her shoulder. "Angelus didn't take her liver, and he didn't vamp her." She seemed to consider that for a moment. "I think beating the crap out of you might have been therapeutic for him."
"Then she's --"
"We are seriously playing beat the clock here," Gunn interrupted. "Walk; don't talk."
In the confusion around them, that sounded like a sensible plan. Angel concentrated on bearing as much of his weight as possible on his own legs, leaning on Gunn and Wesley only to steady himself. They moved in silence, focused entirely on finding a path through the turmoil. The last shreds of logic were evaporating from this reality -- Angel saw sounds, heard colors, fought waves of dizziness as gravity twisted crazily, destroying any possibility of distinguishing up from down.
"Angel!" Fred's voice seemed to be coming from straight ahead of them -- right behind a shimmering silver cloud. Angel weighed the possibilities for a second as the others gathered around him. The ground on all sides was dissolving; they were crammed on to a sliver of firm earth.
"What's happening?" Gunn said.
"Through there," Cordelia gestured. They all stared at each other briefly, then clutched hands and leapt, as one, into the silver cloud.
For a few moments, it felt as though they were floating, not falling. Maybe, Angel thought, gravity didn't work the same way in the cloud. Perhaps they were going to float forever -- they would never get home -- Angelus had beaten him. He'd wondered which of them would be stronger; now he knew.
Then he felt Wesley's hand on his right sleeve, Gunn's on his left. Cordelia's arms were wrapped around his chest. Angelus' strength had been only his own. Angel shared the strength of others. And that was why he was the one who was going home.
Then the ground crashed up to meet them and they all landed, hard. Cordelia crumpled to her knees; Angel saw Gunn fall flat on his face near her. Wesley had landed on his back and apparently had the wind knocked out of him; he was gasping for breath.
Fred and Lorne pulled them into the car, one at a time. Angel landed in the driver's seat; he had never been so grateful to feel the solid leather of the steering wheel in his hands.
He looked at the others. "Thanks for saving me."
They seemed unmoved. "How come we're letting the guy with a head injury drive?" Gunn asked.
"I have the keys," Angel said.
Fred peered up into the sky -- a tapestry of chaos. Her face was sad. "Poor dragon."
Angel gunned the motor and drove into the portal of light.
Darla's first thought when she opened her eyes was, Damn it. Still alive.
She tried to sit up, but stress and exhaustion had taken their toll on her, and she didn't have sufficient strength. As she struggled, strong arms wrapped themselves around her, and she felt herself being lifted into a sitting position.
She tilted her head back to see who her helper was. When she saw the face of the man looking down at her, she frowned. She knew the features well, of course, but there was something different about them. They were softened by an unfamiliar tenderness.
"Angel?" she asked hesitantly.
He turned away from her for a moment, reaching out to lift something she couldn't see from this angle. As he moved, she could see the rip in the back of his shirt and the wound beneath it where she had stabbed him. She realized who was beside her.
"I'm sorry," Angelus murmured.
"So am I," Darla said, and meant it.
"I found this in your bag," Angelus said as he turned back to her. He pressed a small leather hip flask into Darla's hand.
She opened the flask and held it to her lips. The scent of bourbon wafted into her nostrils, so strong even her weak, human sense of smell could not mistake it. She began to tip the flask, intending to drain it and sleep out the apocalypse. Something stopped her.
"I don't want it right now," she lied, handing the flask back to Angelus. "Maybe later."
"Darla," he said quietly. "There isn't going to be a later."
She looked at him steadily. "Let me see."
Gently, he put his hand behind her head and supported her while she surveyed the dying universe. Beneath them, what remained of Los Angeles was breaking up, huge swathes of the city simply dissolving into the all-consuming beauty of the vast, rainbow strewn sky. Red and orange and yellow and green and blue and indigo and violet. Even the light was dying, Darla realized, dissipating into its component elements and serenely drifting into the endless dark.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"Yes," Angelus said. "It is."
"Do you think --" Darla hesitated, then realized if she didn't ask the question now, she'd never ask it. "Do you think you have to have a soul to appreciate beauty?"
Angelus raised a hand and stroked it softly through her hair. "You can have a soul and fail to see it. It's something else, I think. Something more."
He was smiling, a small, sad smile, but still a smile. Darla found herself smiling back, and her beating heart filled with something she couldn't name. "We're not the people we were."
"No," Angelus said. "We're not."
"Hold me closer, Angel." She named him -- one last time -- and he didn't object.
He embraced her more tightly, and although Darla wasn't certain, she thought some of the sadness lifted from him.
Angel's lips brushed hers, very gently, and Darla fought back her exhaustion to respond. They'd known every kind of pleasure together, and yet in this moment it seemed that only this kiss, this once, was real.
Her world shrank until it was filled by his cheek against hers and his arms around her. And then that world, too, was gone.
Fred screwed up her eyes as the Plymouth came crashing out of the portal, engine roaring, vortex swirling, bottles crashing as they landed --
-- in a nightclub.
And it looked a lot like the Longhorn, except that things were shiny instead of leathery --
Lorne shook his head. "You know, I've been thinking about remodeling the bar." He took up a couple of unbroken bottles. "Anyone for a nightcap?"
They clambered out of the car, shaking their heads. Wesley leaned toward Angel. "Are you certain you're all right?"
"I'm all right," Angel said. Fred was worried; he hadn't looked good when he had fallen with the others out of the silver cloud. But he was smiling at Wesley and Cordelia now. "And I'm certain."
"At last," Cordelia breathed. "We're home."
"Fred?" Angel said. "We did get home, right?"
"This looks familiar to you?" Fred said. Everyone nodded. "Then it's our home dimension. Or close enough as makes no difference."
"Makes no difference?" Gunn's forehead went all wrinkly when he got upset, Fred noticed. "Excuse me, but any difference is a big difference."
"Did we not just learn this?" Cordelia said.
Fred shrugged. "You don't understand the multiplicity of true dimensions. I know, for sure, we don't have counterparts in this universe; the portal let us in without a problem, and that would only work in a dimension that recognized us as real. But that doesn't mean that we're the same Fred and Angel and Cordelia and so on who left this dimension to begin with."
"What, we have a couple dozen other versions of us hopping dimensions?" Cordelia scoffed.
"No," Fred said. "There's an infinity of others. Some of them will get home. Some of them won't. Some of them will find new and better places. Some of them will die. That's the way it works."
Wesley was shaking his head in disbelief now. "Well, that's taken all the enjoyment out of watching Sliders reruns."
"'Bout time somethin' did," Gunn said under his breath.
"We might not really be home?" Angel said. He looked confused, and Fred really couldn't blame him. It was all pretty confusing, when you let yourself think about it.
"Pish-posh," said Lorne. "Of course we're home. Look at the bar. See the tusk marks? That's from that fracas when somebody interrupted Mordant the Bentback's Barry White medley. That's for real, and I know it."
Everyone cheered up at this and set about the tricky business of getting the car from the nightclub to the street. Fred helped them at it, and if she was the only one who remembered that the tusk marks had been on the other bar, she wouldn't bother reminding them.
In the alley, Cordelia said, "Okay, made myself a promise." She walked up to Angel and smacked the side of his head with the flat of her hand -- not too hard, but hard enough to make it a slap.
"That is for running off and scaring us, even if it was all noble and stuff," Cordelia said. "Now, this is for being all noble and stuff, even if you did run off and scare us." She pulled him into an embrace.
Angel put his arms around her and returned the hug. Fred felt a quick, unwilling flare of jealousy that was instantly snuffed as Cordelia let go of Angel and hugged Wesley and Gunn in turn.
When Cordelia finally pulled away from Gunn, she straightened her cape and said, "Now, who still has David Nabbit's phone number? Because I have a video game I want to pitch."
"It's at home," Angel said. "Let's go."
As they drove toward the hotel -- home base in this dimension too, apparently -- the mood became giddier and giddier. Angel was clearly happy to be in his friends' company again; he kept turning to them, wanting to talk about this or that, to the point that Lorne had to motion for him to keep his eyes on the road.
But as they chattered on and on, Fred felt an all-too-familiar set of emotions returning to her: confusion, fear, uncertainty. Before, she'd had a job to do, equations to complete -- something to focus on besides her own worries. But now, she couldn't stop asking herself: What was real from the dimension they'd just visited, and what was fake? What would follow them here? What had she forgotten from before? A lot, she figured.
And the five years the world went spinning on without her -- what had happened? To her family, her friends, her coworkers. She held her hand to her face as an image shimmered in front of her: a goldfish, with fins like shining veils, circling in a bowl. His name was -- Albert. Yes, Albert. Did anyone come to feed him while she was gone?
Fred couldn't have said why that, of all the things she might have chosen, tugged at her throat. She blinked hard and hugged her arms around herself.
Angel noticed. "Everything okay, Fred?"
The others were talking animatedly among themselves; for a moment, her conversation with Angel was a private one. "I'm all right," Fred said. "Just feeling a little -- scared."
A little of Angel's ebullient good humor evaporated. "Fred, I want you to know -- I understand. You've seen the worst that I am, in every way. If you don't feel comfortable around me -- that's okay."
"Oh, no," Fred said quickly. "I'm not scared of YOU."
Angel seemed genuinely confounded. "You're -- not? But Angelus --"
Fred shrugged. "Sure, I was scared of HIM. But he's not here. I just deal with what's in front of me. And, right now -- you are."
Angel looked at her. She couldn't tell if he was pleased or worried. His expression was a little of both. "Thanks," he said at last. "Then -- why are you scared?"
"For the love of me, please remain facing forward while you're driving," Lorne said.
Fred tried to explain. "I've been lost for a long time. I still feel lost."
"Lost?" Gunn laughed and patted her shoulder. "You just got yourself found."
"I know the adjustment will be difficult, Fred," Wesley said. "But think of all the comforts of home you must have missed. They're all still here waiting for you."
Fred thought about this. "Is -- is there still strawberry ice cream?"
"And 30 other flavors at a Baskin Robbins near you," Cordelia said with a grin.
"And it just rains rain here, right? No silver or cherry blossoms or anything?"
"Real rain only," Angel promised.
"And nobody will call me a cow or put an exploding collar on my neck?"
"Highly unlikely," Gunn said. "Anybody tries it, they got us to deal with." He pounded his fist into his other hand for emphasis.
Fred brightened. "And the X-Files is still on? That's my favorite show."
"It's still on," Cordelia said guardedly, then shook her head. "You are the queen of setting yourself up for disappointment, aren't you?"
Fred paid this no mind, just kept creating beautiful lists in her mind as Angel pulled the car up in front of the hotel. "And there's still Mexican food, right? And all the good-smelling scrubby stuff at the Body Shop? And, ooh, water slides?"
"Plenty of water slides at the wide variety of theme parks L.A. has to offer," Gunn said. Then he added, mostly to himself, "That portal jumping's a fun ride, too -- sell it to a theme park, we could make some money."
"You're sure about that?" Fred said.
"Trust me," Cordelia said. "Tacos everywhere. And soap."
The front doors of the hotel were before them, and Angel was smiling. "Can I say it? I'm going to say it."
Wesley glanced at him. "Say what?"
Angel pushed through the doors triumphantly and said, "There's no place like --"
Home. That was the next word, home. But Angel didn't say it. Instead, he stood in the doorway, staring at the figure inside the hotel. A short girl with red hair -- nobody Fred had ever seen, in any dimension. "Willow?" Angel said.
Cordelia seemed to know the girl too. "Hi, what's --" Then her voice trailed off.
Slowly, the girl named Willow stood up. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
"It's Buffy," Angel said quietly.
Behind Fred, Cordelia gave a little gasp. Willow nodded and started to say something, but she choked on her own sob.
Angel clutched onto Wesley and Cordelia's arms as though he lacked the strength to stand alone. Fred could see that his hands were shaking, his eyes wide.
Willow finally whispered, "I'm so sorry, Angel. But Buffy -- she's --"
"No," Angel interrupted. "No. No, this isn't real. This can't be real." Suddenly, Fred felt his hands on her shoulders; he was staring at her with frightening intensity. "You said we might not be home. This might be another universe."
Fred nodded dumbly.
"I need to know -- is she dead in our universe? Or are we in another universe where she died? Tell me. Tell me!"
Willow was standing very still, her expression half-tearful, half-confused. No one else had moved; Cordelia and Wesley and Gunn were looking at Fred too, now. Waiting for her to give them the answer.
"I can't," she said. "There's no way to be certain. This is the reality we have to live with. This is home now."
Home, Fred repeated to herself. It ought to mean everything. But it can mean anything. Anything at all.