Timeline note: Early Season 2, AtS. The Angel team has just got the Hyperion and Giles has just taken over the Magic Box. Significant season arcs in other areas have yet to begin.
A delicate hand brushed off a smudge of packing tape and blew gingerly at the top of the dust-choked box.
"Ewww! This is nasty. Do I want to know where you had this before it made its way here?"
The box's owner lifted his head up, idly flipping pages of what was either a magazine or a catalogue. "I didn't have it anywhere, Cordelia. It wasn't mine until this morning."
She gave him a teasing grin, then turned to their companion. "And this from the guy who's always telling me how much he hates shopping. But give the guy a new office, and he's all over capitalism."
She picked up one of their latest purchases, and skimmed the box with her fingers. "I mean, look at some of this stuff. Super balls? Play doh? Are we six?"
"Super balls work wonderfully in sling shots," Wesley said. "And play doh is significantly less sticky than clay."
"And we need clay because…"
"Because your drawing skills leave something to be desired, and I was hoping something three-dimensional might improve your ability to present your visions to us."
"Anyway, it isn't shopping, it's equipping," Angel said, not looking up from his catalogue this time. "And I would have done it sooner if you had space to store it all in your apartment. Wes here has been keeping a wish list for months!"
"Oh, really? I know it's really hard to be more shopping-challenged than a vampire, but I gottta say, watchers? A close second, if my experience with them is any indication."
"As if it would be," Wesley huffed, looking a little wounded. "As if you've made any effort to really understand…"
"Effort? Effort? Who's the one who has opened her home to Defender-of-Evil-R-Us for the past two months, huh, genius?"
"Well, you're sort of the only one who has HAD a home," Wesley said.
"And with the visions? Cause that's sure been fun, let me tell you, having the Powers-That-Be regularly using my brain for their creepy mystic public broadcasting system! You want to talk about effort? Let me tell you, that's…"
Now, Angel closed the magazine again and looked at her, closely this time, and with some concern. "You said you were managing those."
"Not really much choice, is there? And I…I do know, you know. That what we're doing is important and meaningful and really, really special. I just wish it didn't always have to be so painful. Or icky."
Both men looked chastened by that little speech. They traded glances, then Angel shoved the catalogue at Wesley. "Take a few minutes, look over my list, add anything you need…"
He watched Wesley wander over to the makeshift officer area in search of his glasses, then when the watcher was out of earshot, he pulled Cordelia aside.
"Listen, Cordelia, if you need to…to talk to someone about this…"
"Right, like I need to give you more to brood over. Look, I'm fine. That bakra demon you two took care of last night was my fourth vision this week. I guess I'm still a little tired."
She smiled brightly, but Angel did not look convinced. "I'm gonna have Wes add some homeopathic stuff to that order," he said.
"And when I say 'someone' Cordelia, I don't necessarily mean me. I mean, I do mean me. If you want me to mean me. I mean, if you think me…I…would be…that is to say, if there was someone else that you preferred…although I hope you would feel you could come to me if…you get what I'm saying?"
"Almost completely a little bit. And I think it's sweet that you're concerned."
"I know you do. But I'm not trying to be sweet, Cordelia. This is…this is important."
"Yeah. Can I go?"
"Look, I'm still trying to learn evil-fighting and non-bitchy-being. Not sure I can assimilate real-friend-having too right now. Can we just let it go?"
"I'm not letting it go," he said. "But I'm…choosing not to talk about it at this precise moment. Fair enough?"
She sighed, moved away from him, grabbed her purse off the counter. "I'm getting coffee. I'll be back in a bit."
He let her go, but his scowl did not fade.
When Cordelia returned to the Hyperion, it was almost lunch and Wesley was eyeing her take-out bag with a hopeful grin.
"Yes, I brought you back something," she sighed, pulling a wrapped sandwich out of the bag. "You too, Angel." She tossed him the bag, and he pulled out his snack with a grateful nod.
"You're welcome. So are we still doing the whole office-setting-up thing, or did that…"
There was a knock at the door, and they all jumped a little. Angel moved for the door, hand tensing around a small weapon.
"You know, a bad guy's probably not going to knock," Cordelia remarked.
Angel loosened his grip on the small knife, but did not put it down.
"It's probably our delivery," Wesley said. To Cordelia, he explained "There were some specialty items I couldn't source here. We had to order on-line, but they appear to be fairly local."
"Sunnydale, actually," Angel said, putting down his knife and opening the door with an slight, unhappy tense. "Which explains…this…"
The 'this' in question stepped inside with an awkward nod. "Well, hello."
Only Cordelia looked even remotely happy to see him. "Giles!"
He nodded, and placed a large box on the floor, nudging it toward Angel. "It appears you are not the only one with a new venture, Angel."
"And yours is running a magic store?"
Giles shrugged. "I was ready for a new challenge, and there was an opening."
"Opening how?" Cordelia wondered. "Did the former magic store owner get eaten by a vampire or something?"
"Actually, yes. I don't entirely have the retail side up and running yet, but we're already handling the web orders. When I saw your name on the packing slip, I simply could not pass up an opportunity to do the delivery myself and…"
"Spy on us for Buffy?" said Cordelia.
"If I wanted to spy on you, that wouldn't be the reason."
Angel and Wesley traded nervous glances. "Spy on us for the council?" Wesley guessed.
"Why don't we start with 'look up some old acquaintances and go from there. My word, you are a suspicious lot!"
"Kind of have to be in our line of work," Angel said.
"Oh? And what line of work is that?"
"Helping the helpless," said Cordelia. "It's a thing."
Angel, still looking cautious, ripped open the box and did a quick inventory. "This all looks fine."
"Well, I should certainly hope so. We at the Magic Box aim to provide quality above all else. Our motto is to…"
"You know, we don't actually care," said Cordelia, still wearing her perky face.
"Ah. Well, I suppose I should…"
"Actually," said Angel. "Since you're here anyway…"
"What?" Cordelia interrupted. "You two hate each other! Why would you want….oh. Oh, Angel, you're so not."
"Well, I just thought…I mean, you've known him longer. If you don't want talk to me, maybe you'll…"
"Geez! What part of 'let it go' are you not understanding? Look, Giles, it was…nice…seeing you and all, I just…have an elsewhere to be…"
She ran. The men traded baffled glances, but did not try to stop her.
Cordelia's hair had almost dried from her bubble bath by the time Giles found her. She was perched on the couch with a tub of Rocky Road, having a remote control war with Phantom Dennis about whether the mindless sitcom should be The Simpsons or Seinfeld when her ghost roommate suddenly lifted his invisible hand off the tv button. The air went still for a moment, then the apartment door wafted open.
Cordelia rolled her eyes heavenward, and heaved herself off the couch, stomping her foot at him. "Dennis! Do we need to have another conversation about boundaries? Hi, Giles."
"You can stop arching your brow, you know. It's not you I'm being snitty at."
"I mean, I would have let you in. Just would have been nice to be asked about it!" These last three words she shouted into the ether. To Giles, she offered "Sorry about that. Trying to train the roommate here."
She offered him a seat, then returned to her perch on the couch. "So, what does that mean, 'ah'? Do we have an awkward conversation now where I explain to you everything that's happened since the last time I saw you?"
"No, actually. I'm rather comprehensively up to speed."
"What, you have council spies keeping an eye on us or something?"
His tiny little quirk of amusement was vaguely smug. "If I want to spy, I certainly don't need the council."
"Wow. That's…kinda creepy-sounding. Looks like I'm not the only one who's changed."
"That is almost certainly true. Cordelia, Angel filled me in on the latest events, and…"
"And you want to talk about it?" she sighed.
"If you'd like to, I suppose. I did come here for another reason though."
"I realized I have an opportunity to stock up on some inventory while I am in Los Angeles. I could use an extra hand."
"Great. A guy with his own car and credit card finally asks me to go shopping with him, and it's a watcher on a creepy hellmouth errand. Some life, huh?"
"Look, if this is some ruse to get me to let down my guard and spill my guts to you for Angel, then no. But if this is legit…"
"Oh, yes," he said earnestly. "VERY legit."
"Well, it's not like I have anything better to do. Pouting and brooding is actually kind of boring, you know. I don't know how Angel can stand doing it so much. Look, give me twenty to get myself cleaned up, okay?"
She hurried off to the bathroom, leaving Giles standing there, his mouth quirked into that odd little smile. "Angel pouts?" After a moment's thought, he decided that he probably didn't want to know.
The last stop of their marathon seven-store shopping spree was a converted warehouse half a block from Caritas. It appeared to be a very popular place: rows of cash registers lined the wall by the entrance, and long lines of demons stood with large shopping carts before each of them. The rest of the store was filled with giant plastic tubs of things, some of which were smelly or squishy or clearly still alive.
"Great," Cordelia quipped. "It's the bulk food store of the damned."
"Don't be silly. Now, here is my list. Let's just be methodical…"
Cordelia pointed to a random bin. "What's that?"
"Pigeon entrails. If we could just…"
She pointed again. "What's that?"
"Dove's blood. Cordelia, we only…"
She pointed to a display near the cash registers. "What's that?"
"A rack of sunglasses," he said without breaking stride. "Shall we?"
They were out in less than half an hour, and Cordelia was glad to see the street again. In spite of her snippy mood, it really was a beautiful day and the sunny weather, drive in Giles' sports car and company of non-vampire non-brooder really was a nice change of pace, and kind of relaxing. She was feeling herself loosen up.
"So, you want to buy me a drink or something?"
"Those were your instructions, weren't they? Keep me distracted, get me to relax and then try and talk to me?"
He blushed. "Cordelia…"
She started walking. "I know how Angel works. I know this place, kinda not far from here…kinda fun, demon bartender who reads people, great tequila and a killer iced coffee…"
He closed the trunk and followed her. "Cordelia…"
"Well, not killer in the literal sense. Cause that would be…I think he has some kind of mojo running anyway, keeps the big bads for any misbehaving. Safe as houses. All you have to do is buy me my iced coffee, get the all-clear from the host, and then we'll see about talking. Look, we're already here. Merl! Hey, Merl!"
She waved cheerily to a morose-looking demon as she ushered Giles inside. A large prickly-looking creature was on stage singing a love song to what appeared to be a female version of itself, who was dancing drunkenly at the serenade. A green-skinned demon with horns ambled over to Giles and Cordelia, wincing.
"Please tell me you're better than he is," the demon said.
Giles was looking about him, still vaguely confused. "Where are we?"
The demon bowed slightly. "Welcome to Caritas. I am your host."
"Caritas?" Giles smiled. "Interesting."
"Ah, an educated man. Those are always fun. Give me a minute to deal with el croonador over there, and I'll be right with ya. Grab a table, Kitten, I'll have someone bring you a drink."
Cordelia was positively giddy. "Isn't this nice? You're paying, right?"
Giles was already flipping through the binder of song choices. "Hmmm? Oh, yes. Is it my turn, then?"
The host arrived with a frothy, bubbling drink for Cordelia, and an expectant gleam in his eye for Giles. "Well, amigo, you ready to rumble?"
"If you can call it that. Shall I?"
Cordelia settled back in her chair as the music cued up:
We came out west together with a common desire
The fever we had might-a set the west coast on fire
Two months later got a troublin' mind '
Cause my baby moved out and left me behind
But it's all right 'cause it's midnight
And I got two more bottles of wine
"Wouldn't have pegged him for a country boy," the host said, moving back to the table for a better look.
"Yeah, I bet there's a lot about him that you wouldn't have pegged. You getting anything useful there?"
"Yes, and not all of it is stuff I'm going to tell you, Kitten. I will tell you this, though: he's safe right now. Anything you want to tell him, you can go ahead."
I'm sixteen hundred miles from the people I know
Been doin' all I can but opportunity sure come slow
Lord I'd be in the sun all day
But I'm sweepin' out a warehouse in west L.A.
But it's all right 'cause it's midnight
And I got two more bottles of wine
"Yeah," Cordelia said. "I kind of had already decided to, you know."
"It does sound like he knows what he's talking about." With that, the host winked and swept over to the stage to give Giles his reading. Cordelia was sipping at her frothy drink and pondering the best approach when Giles came back, looking not entirely pleased.
"Bad news from the psychic karaoke demon?" Cordelia asked.
He rolled his eyes. "As if he were the first to predict dire apocalypse, a coming darkness and a powerful foe to whom I will pay a terrible price…"
"Doesn't make it any more fun to hear though, does it."
He smiled gamely, looking suddenly tired. "No, I suppose it does not. Well? Will you sing too?"
"In what world would that be a good idea? Do you even remember the talent show?"
He winced. "Perhaps the world of music is not your optimal milieu."
"Although, I did rather admire your utter lack of inhibition. That's something that has never come easily to me."
"Says Mister I-Just-Sung-Karaoke-in-a-Bar-Full-of-Demons."
"But that's something I'm good at. I know I am. But when I am not so sure…"
"You bluster and squirm and devise lame-ass cover stories as cheap distraction? Not that I didn't enjoy the road trip to Bizarro World Wal-Mart and all, of course…"
He sighed. "What is the term that you young people use? Busted?"
"So, and very. Hey, you're getting all fidgety again. You don't need to do that. It's all good in here."
He straightened, moving in for the kill. "And out there?"
"Out there…out there, I sometimes feel like I don't know what's going on. And other times...other times I feel like I know too much about what's going on."
"I'm sure you think that I…that Angel…couldn't possibly understand what this has been like for you."
"Well, you kind of can't. I mean, Angel's an allegedly mythical undead creature of the night, and you were practically bred for this, and I'm…"
"You're in it now. For better or worse."
"I know I am. It just…doesn't always seem fair, you know? And other times…it feels like it really is my fault. That I'm paying now, for how I've been, for what I've done…"
He fiddled with a paper napkin, then said "We all have ghosts. We all have sins. If you really think…"
She fiddled with her straw, suddenly awkward again. "Forget it. I knew you wouldn't understand."
"Wouldn't I? We were all innocent once, you know. Buffy, Angel, Wesley…all of us. We were all innocent, and then we had that one day where we learned what's really out there…"
"And? You're going to give me some kind of buck up, little soldier speech about my sacred duty to mankind now?"
"Do you think I should?"
She slumped back in her chair with a sigh. "No. But if you had some kind of handbook…Saving the World for Dummies? On Becoming a Mystical Conduit for the Powers-That-Be? Zen and the Art of Being a Seer? The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vision Having?"
He chuckled. "No."
"What, then? What did you want to say?"
"Only that I've been thinking your frothy drink idea is starting to have some appeal. Is there time for another one?"
"Always. But...weren't we just having a serious conversation here?"
He blinked implacably. "Yes. And?"
"And now we're going to sit here for another hour and have frothy drinks?"
"Comfort as I am sure I have been to you, Cordelia, it is beyond even my considerable capabilities to resolve the ultimate question of the battle between good and evil in one conversation."
"So that's it, is it? We just live with it, and…lead our lives? Fight the good fight, save the helpless innocents, and when we aren't doing that, just…enjoy our little breaks?"
"Do you have a better suggestion?"
Two more bottles of wine. The only way to trump a frothy coffee drink was two more bottles of wine.
Note: The song is the Emmylou Harris version of "Two More Bottles of Wine"