"I'm sorry, Angel. I just don't think there's anything else we can do for her."
Angel stood leaning against his desk, arms crossed over his chest, staring at Wesley, but not really seeing him. He nodded mutely. He'd fought back the pain, the grief, for so long now he'd almost forgotten how to let himself feel anything at all.
"Then we have to do this," he said. "If it'll give her something even close to a normal life, we have to do this for her."
"I agree," said Wes, his voice gentle.
"Maybe--maybe it won't work the way Lorne thinks it will." Angel knew better than to let hope surface at this point, but there it was, bubbling into him. "Maybe she'll remember."
Wesley nodded. "Maybe."
But Angel didn't really believe it, and, he knew, neither did Wesley.
The spell was a little different from the one they'd tried before--God, it seemed like eons ago now--when they'd attempted to restore Cordelia's lost memory. Which was good, because that one had backfired rather spectacularly. This time there were no symbols painted on the floor, no spinning bottle, just the participants gathered around Cordelia's bed.
She lay there, silent, as she had for nearly three months now, her open eyes staring at the ceiling, brimful with tears. Her lips moved occasionally, and sometimes she even spoke, but whatever images spurred her to respond, they had nothing to do with reality.
Angel had harbored some hope when she had come out of the coma, but her return to consciousness had brought no corresponding return to lucidity. It reminded Angel of the time she'd spent under the spell of Vocah, when her visions had devoured her. But she was emptier now, somehow. More broken. It hurt him to look at her, remembering the beautiful, vibrant creature she had once been.
He knelt next to the bed, gathered her hand into his. The others waited, giving him his space. He was barely aware of their presence. Gently, he brushed his lips over her knuckles.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I thought I was doing the right things. I thought I'd done everything I could to keep you safe. I'm so sorry." He had failed her, as he had failed so many others. He could never make it right, but he could at least give her back her life.
He bent over her, kissed her forehead, then gently brushed his lips against hers. "I love you, Cordy." He breathed the words there against her mouth, so softly no one else could hear. Then he stepped back, and the others joined him in the circle.
Lorne led the incantation, his easy, melodic voice lulling Angel almost into forgetting what was at stake here. With his eyes closed, he breathed softly, to bring in the odors of the room. Gunn, Fred, Lorne--he knew them all, could sort each one out as easily as if he were doing it by sight, or sound. Cordy, though, smelled different. He had gotten used to the changes after living with them all this time, but it still hurt. She smelled wounded, though without blood odors. She smelled broken. It was the only way he could think of to describe it.
And Connor's odor still lingered in the hotel, in this room, and when its tenuous presence made itself known, Angel stopped breathing. Because that just cut too deeply. Even more deeply than the loss of Cordelia. There were times he wondered if either of them, himself or his son, would ever recover.
And wondered if Connor would ever come back.
Lorne's voice rose, clean and clear, and Angel felt the magic draw power from him, move past him, then pass into Cordelia. He opened his eyes.
She lay still, soft and pale and beautiful there in her bed. Angel stood taut, expectant, waiting.
Cordelia opened her eyes. As if sensing the others, she turned her head toward them. Her gaze drifted from face to face, but Angel saw no spark of recognition.
Until her eyes found his. She frowned a little, her lips parted, and she said, with effort, "Angel?"
Relief flooded through him, intense, sweet. Caution forgotten, he went to her, knelt again next to the bed. He cupped her face in his hand. "Cordy."
Only then did he register the look on her face. She was staring at him in confused indignation. "Jeez, Angel, what is your childhood trauma? And while we're at it, why are you touching me?"
Xander Harris was going over blueprints when his phone rang. He glanced at the clock on the wall. Ten-thirty p.m. was a bit late for phone calls, and his first thought was that someone back in Sunnydale had had an emergency.
Head filling with horrible scenarios, he snatched up the phone. "Hello?"
The voice on the other end was vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it. "Is this Xander Harris?"
"Yeah," said Xander. "Who's this?"
Momentarily taken aback, Xander managed, "Angel. Hey. Long time no see." He paused. "Why the hell are you calling me?"
"I need your help."
This really didn't make things any clearer. "What, you need me to build you something?"
Angel, humorless as ever, said, "No. It's Cordelia."
Xander had been right in the middle of bidding on one of the biggest jobs of his career, certainly the biggest opportunity to come his way since he'd moved to Vegas, but when Angel explained the situation, he got on the phone immediately--middle-of-the-night be damned--arranged for someone to take over the negotiations, and got on a plane to LA.
Wesley met him at the airport. "How is she?" Xander asked, in lieu of "hello." He'd been up nearly all night, and had drunk so much coffee his blood was probably half caffeine by now. Absently, he wondered what effect something like that would have on a vampire.
"As well as can be expected," Wesley said, though Xander thought he looked uncharacteristically grim. "Especially considering she's basically been in a coma for nearly six months."
Xander nodded. "Angel gave me the low-down. Sounds about like the usual for our crew. Demonic possession, apocalypse, all that." He paused, ignoring the painful emotion twisting his gut. "She should have told me she was part demon. She knows I love that in a woman."
Wes smiled a little. "It's been a very difficult time for all of us. Especially Angel--" He broke off, as if he'd said more than he'd intended. Xander decided to let it drop. There were some things he just didn't want to know, the sordid details of Angel's existence being among them.
"She's at the hotel, then?" he asked as they approached Wesley's car. The SUV seemed incongruous, given what Xander remembered of Wesley's personality, but, on the other hand, Wesley seemed vastly different.
"Yes." Wesley opened the car door and got in. Xander followed suit, tossing his gym bag into the back seat. "Angel's with her." He shook his head sadly. "He's the only one of us she remembers."
"Did you guys know this would happen?"
"We knew it was a possibility. In fact, we were afraid it might back up her memory even farther. As it is, she's very confused."
"I can imagine." Xander settled in for the ride, not sure what to think. It seemed the Angel Investigations team hadn't taken very good care of Cordy. But maybe they'd done everything they could. After all, the Sunnydale Scooby Gang didn't exactly have the best track record, either. "I guess you did the best you could," he finally said.
"Yes," said Wes, his voice a little sad. "Yes, we did."
The drive to the hotel was relatively short, and they passed it in silence. Xander was wrapped in his own thoughts, in memories of Cordelia. He hadn't seen her since she'd left Sunnydale, off to LA to become an actress. Of course he'd had news of her from Buffy, had known she was working for Angel--or with Angel, or something like that--but he'd lost track of the details of her life. She'd become thoroughly a part of his past, no matter how often he might think of her. And after losing Anya, he'd declared a moratorium on relationships. But this--he couldn't turn his back on Cordelia.
Unaccountably nervous, Xander followed Wesley into the big hotel. "We're here," Wes announced.
"Xander?" He heard Cordelia's voice, but didn't see her. Then Angel stood up from where he was sitting at a desk behind the reception counter, and bent a little. A moment later, he pushed Cordelia, in a wheelchair, out from behind the counter.
Xander quelled his shock a moment too late. She was pale and thin, a shadow of the girl he remembered, her body ravaged by atrophy. But then she looked at him and smiled--
"Cordy," he said, as the dazzle of her smile struck him full-force. She lifted a hand and beckoned him.
"Come here," she said. "Come here now."
He did as she asked, and as she held her arms out to him, he knelt in front of her. She set her hands on either side of his face, drew him in, and kissed him hard.
"I have missed you so much," she said, and Xander could do little more than stare.
Angel stood by, watching, as Xander spoke to Cordelia. Xander had put the wheelchair in front of the round couch in the lobby and now sat holding Cordy's hand, talking to her without awkwardness or reservation. Xander smiled, and Cordy's tinkling laughter drifted across the room.
Wes stepped up to Angel, touched his elbow. "Angel. Are you all right?"
"Yeah," he answered automatically. He was as close to all right as he was likely to get, everything closed up inside, locked away where he didn't have to feel it.
"I know how hard this must be for you--" Wes started, and Angel looked at him and suddenly all the pain was just there, flaying him, and he knew there was nothing he could do, ever, to make it go away.
"No, Wesley. You have no idea."
After a time, Cordelia said she was tired. Angel took her back upstairs, lifting her out of the wheelchair and carrying her, her body fragile in his arms, her weight next to nothing. Upstairs, he tucked her into bed, kissed her on the forehead. Over the past few days, she'd come to accept his help, his careful affection. He tried not to let her see too much, afraid of frightening her. In her mind, wiped clean of all memory after the first half of her Senior year of high school, he still belonged to Buffy.
"Sleep tight," he told her.
She caught his hand as he adjusted her blankets, and he looked down, mesmerized by the sight of her fingers tangled in his.
"Thanks so much for bringing him," she said.
He nodded. "It's okay."
"It's funny--I never thought I could ever care about him like that, you know?" Her eyes studied his face and he carefully schooled his expression, tamped down the rising emotion. "Has that ever happened to you? You spend all this time with somebody you never thought you could care about at all, and suddenly one day you wake up and realize you love them."
Angel swallowed hard. "Yeah. That's happened to me."
"Weird, isn't it?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Pretty weird."
He left her drifting into sleep and trudged back down the stairs. Wesley had made tea. He and Xander sat drinking, and a third cup sat on the table. Angel sank into the couch and picked up the teacup, curled his hands around it, feeling the warmth, letting the steam drift into his face.
"How is she?" Xander asked.
"She's fine for now. Sleeping." He tipped the teacup a little closer to his face, not to drink, just to feel the pervasive warmth. "Do this for her," he said, forcing out the words, "and I'll be sure you're both taken care of."
Xander frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Money, jobs, a place to live--whatever. I'll see to it you never have to worry about any of it."
"Forget it," said Xander. His voice was hard. "No deal."
Angel looked up, startled. "Why?"
"I'll do this for her, not you." He put his teacup down, shaking his head in disgust. "Maybe you'd have to have a heartbeat to understand this, but I'm not taking anything from you."
Angel still wasn't certain how he'd offended Xander, but obviously the wound had cut deep. "I don't . . . I don't guess I understand."
"She could find out. Then how would she feel? She'd think I was just with her for that. No. Forget it, Angel. I care enough about her to do this for nothing."
Angel nodded, understanding now. He should have figured it out before. "I'm sorry. I just wanted to help. I . . . I care about her, too."
Xander's gaze measured him coldly. "Then maybe you should have taken better care of her."
"Xander," Wesley broke in. "You have no idea what's happened over the past few years. You have no right to judge."
Somewhat to Angel's surprise, Xander backed down. "No, I guess I don't." But then his eyes flashed hard, back into Angel's. "You sleep with her?"
Angel shook his head. "No." Though it had been so real, the illusion, her hands tracing up his back, her heat clutching at him-- "No," he said again, and the memory that wasn't really a memory dissipated.
Angel squinted at Xander, the long-standing animosity surging. "Why? You afraid you couldn't measure up?"
"Frankly, yeah." To Angel's surprise, Xander smiled a little. "I mean, you're the only guy I know who's had more experience sleeping with demons than I have."
Angel couldn't help it--he smiled, almost laughed. But it faded quickly. It was good, he thought, to feel something here besides dislike. "You'll take good care of her." It wasn't a question--there was no point making it a question.
Xander nodded. "I will."
Angel saw them off a few days later, lifting Cordelia into Wesley's car and helping Xander put the wheelchair in the trunk. Cordy was recovering at a good pace--with the help of good doctors it wouldn't be long before she'd recovered enough muscle tone to work on leaving the wheelchair. Angel kissed her goodbye, on the cheek, his lips brushing the beauty mark he'd memorized until he could draw it unerringly, as he could every line of her face. He would miss her eyes, her brilliant smile. God, he would miss her so much.
Xander leaned forward, looking past Cordelia at Angel, and Angel was almost certain he saw sympathy in the other man's face.
"We'll be good," Xander said. "She'll be fine."
Angel nodded. "I know."
He stepped back from the curb and watched them drive away.