Angel was used to heartache. Pain and suffering and never getting much in the way of peace was his status quo. After nearly a century of one misery after another, he'd been sucked into the promise of a better life in Sunnydale, but it hadn't taken very long for him to realise what a truly awful mistake that had been. In L.A. he at least had a few things going for him. He had a mission. He was well aware of the loophole in his curse and what would happen if he let himself get swept up in little things like love and happiness ever again. He had friends here. Doyle was still a painful memory, but he had Wesley, he had Gunn and Fred, he had Lorne, and he had Cordelia.
Or he'd had Cordelia, almost, then lost her. Then lost her again. And again. The Greater Good kept on butting in, and so he and Cordelia never got their time together. Which, he knew deep down, was probably a good thing if his curse, mission and immortality were taken into consideration, but he was having a hard time finding the upside.
Then today, on a day like any other, she'd come back to him. They'd had one short day together with barely a moment to be alone, and now she was telling him she couldn't stay.
It was going to shatter him to pieces.
"Oh, what the hell," she said. "One for the road?"
He'd missed kissing her. And he wasn't sure, but it was entirely possible that this was their first real kiss: just the two of them, no magical influence and nobody was possessed. Just a simple kiss, but from what she was saying, it was going to be their last.
The shock of her vision hit him. He saw it all: the Circle of the Black Thorn, Cyvus Vail, the Fell Brethren, that cold bitch of a Senator, and Lindsey MacDonald. Goddamn Lindsey McDonald, handed his freedom on a silver platter on still he couldn't just take it. Angel saw what they had in store for him and he knew what it was he had to do. It terrified him, the sheer scope of it, the audacity, but at the same time it filled him with the pure, clear light of hope. It had been a long time since he'd allowed himself to really hope for the future.
The vision faded and it was just a kiss. A really, really good kiss. Or possibly the worst kiss ever because Cordy was leaving him again. He could try and find a way around it, fight for her or maybe just resort to begging, but the cold stone in the pit of his stomach was feeling a lot like dread because she'd said it would happen, and Cordelia was many things but she wasn't a liar, not about the big stuff.
He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. A dramatic exit maybe, a flash of pure white light as she ascended, an illusionist's puff of smoke masking her departure, at the very least a last lingering look as she walked out of his office and out of his life for the last time. But not this. Her eyes lost their focus and searched the middle ground between them, seeing something only she could perceive.
"Cordy, what is it? What's happening? Tell me."
With effort she focused on his face. "Angel, I had to make a sacrifice. But this isn't what I was told would happen."
"A sacrifice? Cordelia, what have you done?"
"I've been watching you again."
"Mostly when you were in the shower." He smiled, but it hurt. "Things weren't going too well, were they?"
"Understatement. But, Jesus, Cordelia, I would have coped. I always have before."
"Bullcrap. You were in big trouble, buster. In over your head and you couldn't even see it coming."
"Okay," he said softly. "You got me. Now tell me what you've done so I can help you."
"You can't help me this time."
"Don't say that."
"What will be will be. You know everything there is to know. Don't you?"
Angel darted his tongue over his lips and nodded.
"Okay," Cordelia said, her relief obvious. "Okay. Good. But this, it's not... I made a deal. I asked for a day. That's all I get."
The unfairness of it choked him. "Why did you do that? I'm not worth it, Cordy. Not worth ten of you."
"Only ten?" Her sad smile faded as her eyes clouded over. "It's too late now, Angel. I've had my day, now I have to go. A deal's a deal. But this wasn't supposed to happen. I don't know what they're... It's like I'm cut off. I can't see."
Dismayed, Angel waved his fingers in front of her face.
"No, dummy." She captured his fingers and blinked her gaze back to his face. "I mean inside my head. I can't see the others anymore. The Higher Beings. They're all around, watching, but I can't see them anymore."
"What does that mean?"
"Damned if I know." She gave a tired little shrug. "Don't know what this is, but it still looks like an exit to me."
"Don't. Don't leave me again."
"Angel. I have to. No regrets."
"No regrets." He shook his head and swiped at the tears in his eyes. "I love you."
"My Angel." She smiled, and it broke his heart. "I love you too. I think I always have. Always. No matter what."
"No matter what," he whispered.
She went limp in his arms, like she was falling asleep. The room was claustrophobic -- too full, too empty -- and so quiet around him that it was shrill in his ears. He was alone, and nothing was right. He laid her on one of the couches and stayed beside her for a long time, watching her, holding her hand, smoothing her hair.
The phone rang, invasive and awful. It took three rings before he even realised what the sound was. He didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't want to leave her, but the noise was wrong and intrusive. When he picked up the receiver to make it stop, it was only habit that made him lift it to his ear. He answered the questions asked of him dully.
"Hello. Yes, I know. She's-- ... But that's impossible. ... No. No, she isn't. I'm telling you she's not. ... Look a body can't just disappear, and in any case we checked her out yesterday. ... Yes. ... Yes, we did. ... I don't care what your records show becau-- ... She can't be. ... She can't because she's right--"
He turned, his heart broken, another painful chapter closed, and steeled himself for the sight of his dead love.
Cordelia was sitting up on the sofa, staring at him with wide eyes, her heart beating like a drum.
Angel dropped the phone back into the cradle.
"Woah," she said, pressing the back of her hand to her forehead. "I feel really funky. Did I faint or something? I knew I shouldn't have skipped breakfast again."
"Cordelia?" He edged around furniture, not taking his eyes off her in case she disappeared. "You're back? I mean you're not gone? Not dead? I mean... What is this?"
"Angel?" She blinked, like she was seeing him for the first time. "You tell me. What's going on? What is this place?" She tensed. "Hey, you still have your soul, right?"
"Yes, I still have my soul. I mean, it was a good kiss, but I'm hardly likely to have lost my soul over--"
"Kiss? What kiss?"
"Our-- Cordelia, what's wrong?"
"Wrong? What's wrong? What's wrong is I'm at work. I take a coffee break. I close my eyes for five minutes -- tops! -- and when I wake up, I'm here." She gestured around the office and seemed to really notice it for the first time. "Hey, where are we?"
"Your office. You have an office." She got up and went to the window. "Is this your penthouse office?" Her eyes widened. "Your penthouse office in L.A.?" She raised a hand and touched the glass. "Does Buffy know about this?"
"Buffy? What does she have to do with--" He stopped, took a breath and tried again. "Tell me what's going on here."
"Okay. I'll bite." She pushed away from the window and with one finger drew small circles in the air. "What is it? Demon of the week has sucked me into dreamland? Or how about another misfire spell of Willow's?" She snapped her fingers. "Ooh! Is Xander trying to win me back again? Because that's so not going to happen. That bridge is burned."
"What? Why would...? What?"
"Maybe I'm just asleep." She pinched herself on the arm. "Pretty realistic dream." She glanced up at Angel and frowned. "Or not."
"This isn't a dream. Trust me on that." He took her elbow and guided her back to the couch. She eyed him with distrust but let herself be led. "Tell me what you remember."
"Duh! I just told you."
"That's all? Nothing else about L.A.?"
"Apart from the awesome shoe stores? Zilch."
"You said you were at work?"
"I did?" she said, looking oddly coy.
"Where were you working?"
"I really doubt that's relevant."
"It could be."
"Fine," she said, blowing out a stream of air. "Yeah, I was at work. Queen C has a job, hoo ha."
"April Fools on Richmond. You know it?" Angel searched his memory, but came up empty. "Yeah. Daddy's not so free and easy with the plastic these days, so I have to earn the money for my dress somehow."
"For prom? It's only the most important social event of the year. God." She shook her head sadly. "You old vamps are so out of touch."
"Prom? Senior prom?" Angel shifted in his seat, not wanting to ask, but knowing he had to. "Cordelia... how old are you?"
Her suspicion kicked up a few notches and she slid a little further away from him. "Why am I thinking that's not a good question? You gonna ask me who the president is? The year?"
"Might not be such a bad place to start."
"Oh god." She swallowed heavily. "Oh god, please tell me this isn't happening. What year is it?"
"Two thousand--" Cordelia gasped and slapped her hands over her mouth. Angel grimaced, but soldiered on. "-- and four."
"No. No!" She squeezed her eyes shut and took a couple of deep breaths. "In with good, out with bad. Okay. Okay." She opened her eyes and shook her hands out. "Okay. So I've been Marty McFlyed. I should be used to this stupid Slayerette deal by now. You think you're out and they just keep pulling you back in. So what do we do to fix this? How do I get home?"
"Home? I..." Angel faltered. "I have no idea."
"What do you mean 'no idea'? There's always a pointer, right? Some magic, an ooga-booga symbol, or a demon maybe. Something."
"Hey, this just happened. I don't know why. It's not like you just appeared out of thin air. This is--"
"Your speciality. Not mine. Fix it."
"Where's Giles? He always knows what to do."
"Giles is... England. He went back to England."
"Giles left Sunnydale! What? How could even he do that?"
Angel put on the brakes. "Cordelia," he said, taking her hands in his. "Listen to me carefully. I'm not sure what this is, but what you remember is all... It seems like a lifetime ago to tell you the truth. And my lifetime... well, it's longer than most. You've been living in L.A. for the past few years. A lot -- a lot -- has happened in that time. To you. To me. To everyone."
"Like what?" she asked, eyeing his hold on her hands with alarm.
"Like a lot. I'd rather focus on why you can't remember those years."
"Suits me. The sooner you figure it out, the sooner I can go home." She pulled her hands free.
Angel glanced down at his empty hands. "Why don't we start with the last thing you remember before you woke up here?"
It was then that Angel knew that the world, as ever, was determined to make his life just that little bit more difficult as Spike burst in through the door, chin up, coattails a-flapping.
"Angel. I need a car."
Alarm lifted Cordelia to her feet. "I should have known. This isn't the future; this is some weird evil ploy." She pointed a finger at Angel. "You've lost your soul again and this is all just... going to end badly."
"Why does nobody ever have even the least bit of faith in me? For the last time, I haven't lost my soul."
"And yet Spike is here. Tell me what's wrong with this picture."
"Yes, Angel," Spike said, looking back and forth between them. "What's wrong with this picture?"
"Cordelia's... She may have lost her memory. Or something."
"Oh," Spike said, watching with interest as Cordelia backed away, trying to put a little space between her and the two vampires in the room, wringing her hands and darting glances at the door. "Hit her over the head with your caveman club, did you? That's nice. Good luck with dragging her back to your cave. Now, I need a car and the valet boys seem to think that someone gave explicit instructions that I wasn't to be given one. Sort it out for me, there's a love."
"Kind of got bigger fish to fry," Angel said without even looking at him, and went to Cordelia, wanting to calm her but only succeeding in making things worse by looming into her personal space.
"Yeah, I can see you have your hands full here. So if you just give me your keys I can get out of your gravity-defying hair and let you get on with it."
Cordelia shrieked as Spike approached and jumped back, holding up her two index fingers in the sign of the cross. "Get back! I don't know what the game is here, but I'm sure that if you're holding me hostage Buffy will be along any time now to break me out and you guys can deal with her. So just back off."
Spike eyeballed her. Cordelia noticed Spike eyeballing her and eyeballed him right back.
"Cordelia, pet. I thought we'd been through this. I'm on-board with the good guys now. All souled up, just like His Royal Broodiness here. Although if I don't get a car very soon, I might just rethink the on-board part and jump ship."
"You have a soul?" Cordelia backed off another few steps, only to trip over a stray cushion. She stumbled, but kept her footing. "Don't make me laugh."
Spike didn't look impressed. "I should get some flyers printed up. Maybe take out an ad or something. Look. Cordelia. If this is about me trying to bite you, I'm sorry. I told you, it was just a case of mistaken identity. I'm a good guy now, okay? Got me a soul, just like Angel." He held up three fingers. "Scouts' honour."
"You have a soul," she repeated slowly. "Come on."
Spike levelled a look at her. "Dib, dib, dib."
"What, do they give them away in breakfast cereal in the future?" She looked to Angel for confirmation, who could only shrug. "Jeez," she said to Spike. "Copycat much? So what's your story? Did you get cursed too?"
She looked surprised when Spike went quiet and glanced quickly at Angel. "No," he said, low and serious. "Fought for it. Won it. Fair and square."
Cordelia put her hand on her hip. Spike waited her out. "You really expect me to buy that?" she asked.
"Believe what you want," he said. "I'm sure you'll get your memory back soon enough and we can all have a jolly old laugh about it. In the meantime... Keys, Angel, there's a good chap."
"But why would you fight to get a soul?" Cordelia asked. "No vampire would ever... That doesn't even begin to make sense."
"Buffy," Spike said, distracted as he began rifling through the drawers in Angel's desk. "For my sins. Everyone knows that."
Her gaze flitted to Angel and back again. "Oh, come now on. That's just..." She trailed off. "Ridiculous?"
"That's as may be," Spike said, dodging out of the way as Angel reclaimed his desk. "But it's the truth." For the first time he seemed to take an interest in what was happening to Cordelia. "You know you look different."
Cordelia's hands immediately flew to her hair then smoothed over her clothes. "Different?" She looked down at herself. "Wait, what the hell am I wearing?"
"Yeah." Spike crossed the room to get a better look. He didn't seem to notice or care when Cordelia flinched and her heart skipped a beat. He squinted, ducked his head and looked close, inhaled a few times, then nodded, his decision made. "You're younger." He grinned. "In fact, you look smashing, luv."
"Younger? That's impossible." Angel thought he'd been left out of the proceedings for entirely long enough. He elbowed Spike out of the way, but on closer examination, it appeared to be the truth. Cordelia looked a little sleeker. The faint lines she'd developed around her eyes and the corners of her mouth -- especially during the bad period when the visions had been at their worst -- had gone. Her hair was longer; her scent subtly altered. She looked just like she had when they'd first met up in L.A.
As much as Angel hated to admit it, it looked like Spike was right.
"Spike, ask Harmony to call Lorne for me," he said without moving from his rapt examination of Cordelia.
Spike waved his hand. "Pfft, ask her yourself."
"Spike, please," Angel ground out from between gritted teeth.
Spike rolled his eyes. "Fine." At the top of his lungs, he bawled, "Harmony!"
"Harmony?" asked Cordelia. "You can't mean--"
"You called, Blondie Bear?" Harmony appeared in the doorway, notepad in her hand and a bright smile on her face.
"Angel wants you," Spike said without looking at her.
Angel sighed, a long and weary sigh of a man who only wanted the simple things in life, but who rarely seemed to get them. "Harmony, can you call Lorne for me? Tell him to get back up here on the double."
"Sure thing, Bossie."
"Don't call you Bossie. I know... Boss."
"Thank you," Angel said, anything but sincere.
"Sure thing," she called cheerfully, already heading back to her desk.
Cordelia looked like she was trying not to have palpitations. "Harmony's... She's your secretary?"
"She kind of... came with the building," Angel admitted.
"Yeah, but she's your secretary?"
"Sure. Great typing. Incredibly sycophantic." He trailed off because, really, what was the point in trying to justify it? "I'm not really sure how it happened. Last week, she brought me a camel."
"It was in the lobby."
"You know what you need to do?"
"Fire your human resources guy."
"Don't think I haven't thought about it. Listen, Cordelia, about Harmony."
"There's more? How can there possibly be more?"
Angel gave her a weak smile. "She's under strict contract, so you'll be completely fine, but I think you should know..."
"Harmony's a vampire."
"But yesterday we were just..." Cordelia sat down with a bump. "Harmony's a vampire in the future. Sure. Why not?"
"But, hey, if it's any consolation, she originally came to L.A. looking for you."
Cordelia looked up, horror-struck.
"No, I mean, she was looking for you because you were her friend. And she was lonely. Not because she wanted to eat you. It was... very annoying, but really quite an impressive display of willpower for a newly turned vampire if you think about it."
The intercom sounded. "Angel, Lorne's on his way."
Angel hit the answer button. "Thank you, Harmony."
"I heard everything that you just said. Most of it was very complimentary."
Angel closed his eyes. "Thank you, Harmony."
"No problem whatsoever," she said brightly, and the intercom went dead.
"I'm scared to ask, but who's Lorne?" Cordelia asked.
"He's, ah... Funny thing, actually, he's a demon. But a good one," Angel added quickly. "He's a good friend of yours."
"I'm friends with a demon," she said, like she was trying it out for size.
Angel watched her sadly, remembering Cordelia's old animosity toward anyone and anything not one hundred percent human. He recalled Doyle's constant fear of discovery. He remembered how far Cordelia had come since then, and realised that all her self-discovery, everything she'd learned, so much of the person she'd become, all of it -- it was all gone now.
"Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it," Spike said.
"I tend to remember friends," Cordelia said.
"Don't worry," Angel said. "Once you meet Lorne, you're bound to remember him. He's pretty unforgettable."
"It's not easy being green," muttered Spike.
"So how do I know him?" Cordelia asked.
"He, ah... heh." Angel was afraid to go on. How this must all seem to her he could only imagine, and really, all this was only the tip of the Angel Investigations iceberg. Then again, he supposed, if someone had told him all that was to happen to him in the years since he'd moved to L.A., he wouldn't have believed them in a million years either. "We met him in Caritas."
"It's a demon karaoke bar that he used to run." Angel quickly forged ahead, like the faster he said the words the easier it would be to get them out. "When you sing, you bare your soul and then he can read you. He's empathic. We destroyed his bar a couple of times. We also travelled through a porthole to his dimension, Pylea, where I became pure demon for a while and they made you a princess. It was... quite a trip."
"You can't tell her all that!" Spike exclaimed, mindless of Cordelia's elevated panic levels. "What if we have to send her back home or something? You'll be messing with the space-time continuum." He shifted his shoulders as he noticed that the others were looking at him strangely. "Look, Star Trek, okay? The Prime Directive or self-fulfilling prophecies or paradoxes or what have you. Xander had a shitty film collection and I had to spend far too much bloody time cooped up at his place. But I raise a valid point. What if our Cordelia and this Cordelia have switched places, huh? What then? You just don't know."
Angel and Cordelia shared a look that said they maybe had to allow for at least the possibility of Spike's argument.
"And, hey, look at it this way," Spike continued. "At least she knows about vampires and demons and the like. She knows who we are. And at least she remembers everything up to a point. Things could be worse."
Angel thought this over. Cordelia knew who he was. She'd soon realise that he definitely still had his soul, that what he was telling her was the truth and, more importantly, that he was her friend, although he might leave the madly in love with her part out until she'd found her feet. She was only supposed to have had a day with him, but she was still there. Scared, pissy, and couple of years younger for some reason, but still there. Yes, he decided, hope rising like a balloon in his chest, things could definitely be worse.
"Wait just a minute." Cordelia held up one finger and pointed it at Spike. "You're trying to tell me you spent time hanging out at Xander's house? Now I know this is all just some freaky dream."
Lorne arrived back a little while later and, as always, commanded the room. Taking quick stock of the proceedings, he went straight to Cordelia. Stunned at his appearance, she couldn't do much more than sit there when Lorne took her hands and told her to sing. She looked nervously at Spike and Angel, who both gave upbeat nods of encouragement.
"I've figured it out," she said. "I've obviously been wrongly committed to a mental home and whatever drugs they've got me on, the dose is way too high."
"Just sing for the man," Angel said.
Cordelia found that she actually drew comfort from the soft hands of the strange green demon sitting beside her. For a creature with horns from another dimension, he gave out great vibes. What the hell, she figured. It wasn't as if things could get any stranger. Clearing her throat, she sang a quick off-key rendition of a few lines of Whitney Houston. She got as far as "More than I thought I could be..." before she trailed off, too unsettled by Lorne's reaction to continue.
He stared at her sadly. "Oh, Cordelia. Where did you go?"
"Nowhere," she said, fidgeting under his scrutiny. "Right here, see?"
"Well?" Spike asked, his impatience getting the better of him. "Spit it out."
"She's gone," Lorne said. "Everything in the last few years is gone. The last thing she remembers is some hot young thing buying her a dress -- gorgeous, by the way -- and then she wakes up here. It's like everything since then has been surgically removed."
"How can you just remove a couple of years from someone's life?" Angel asked. "That doesn't make any sense."
"I don't know," Lorne said, too busy watching Cordelia to notice, or care, that Angel was snapping at him. "I'm just telling you what I saw. If Cordelia was with the Higher Powers and now she's back to stay, it's possible they did this. Maybe she knew too much. Maybe she sacrificed it willingly. Who's to say?"
"I didn't sacrifice anything," Cordelia said. "And to tell you the truth, I'm getting a gigantoid headache trying to keep up with all this. How about you get with the magic-making and undo it." She looked around expectantly. "What? No takers? Fine. Super. So just track down my parents for me and I can just go home, huh?"
Angel said, hesitant, "I don't know if that would be such a good idea. You haven't seen them in a while. And I know that you weren't on the best of terms with them before that."
"What, so you're saying I was in L.A. by myself? With no money, no friends, and I ended up with you guys?"
"Me and Doy--" Angel shoulders slumped. "Yes, that's pretty much what I'm saying."
"Whoopee for me. So how did I end up going from unemployed actress to vampire sidekick?"
"We bumped into each other at a party. I saved you from a vampire and you needed a job. The rest is history."
"Not for me. I can't process this. It's all just too much."
"So just get Wesley to check her out," Spike suggested.
Cordelia immediately brightened. "Wesley? Wesley's here? Get out! Why didn't you say so sooner? He'll get to the bottom of this." She looked around hopefully. "So where is he?"