Angel felt like laughing out loud and that didn't happen very often. He couldn't believe it had worked. She was really here, whole and alive and wonderful. They could have their chance together, finally. Somehow they'd find a way around the curse and his immortality, he just knew it. There was nothing they couldn't do together. Now, he just had to work out a way of telling her what he'd given up to get her back. He had a hunch she wouldn't be too happy about that.
Damn it, she'd been even more thrilled at the prospect of his shanshu than he was. But he'd make her understand. He had to. His life wouldn't be any kind of reward if she wasn't there to share it with him.
It was at once the most beautiful and the most tragic day of her life. Either of them.
Angel was attentive and openly affectionate, even in front of the others. She hadn't realised how tactile vampires normally were, with the distance that Angel had always imposed to protect himself and his feelings. That distance was gone now. Every few seconds he seemed to feel the need to run his fingers through her hair or touch her shoulder, stroke her hand... kiss her. And she... well, she soaked up the attention like thirsty ground, blossoming under his care, his love. For whole minutes she could even blot out the thought of how this would all end, and how soon.
The others tactfully withdrew after the hugs and greetings, Wesley and Fred with tears in their eyes as they told her how much they'd missed her. Even Gunn hugged her tightly and seemed more than a little choked up as he cracked some joke about her looking pretty good for a dead chick. Cordelia was surprised to find herself near tears as well. With the whole situation with Angel, she had almost forgotten how much she had missed the rest of their strange little family as well. It wasn't only his life she had touched, she realised now, and the discovery humbled her a little.
Left alone with Angel, she sighed heavily. "I'd forgotten what it was like," she said sadly.
Angel looked confused for a moment before he realised what she meant. "The guys? They all really missed you. Of course, they didn't go off the rails and turn into a hermit, but then I've always been a trendsetter."
Cordy chuckled, appreciating his attempt to lighten the mood. "Yeah, you're a real fashion icon." She moved closer to him and slid her arms around his neck, savouring the freedom to touch him as much as she wanted. "But enough with the heavy, broody stuff. How d'you want to spend our first day as a couple?"
"A couple of what? Ow," he said as she slapped his shoulder. "What? I can't make a joke? I'm happy." Cordelia looked up into that familiar face, sporting one of the cheesiest grins she'd ever seen (and she'd dated Xander, for crying out loud), and realised he meant it. She'd done that to him. Brought him happiness.
"I'm serious," she said, leaning up to kiss him softly and feeling her knees buckle as he kissed her back.
"I have an idea or two," he whispered, pulling back slightly to study her face, before making her yelp with surprise as he swept her off her feet and made for the stairs.
"Wow," Cordy said breathlessly. "That vampire speed sure comes in handy at the darnedest times, huh?" Angel's only response was a wolfish grin that made her heart do flip-flops.
In what seemed like seconds he was slamming the door of his room closed behind them and laying her down on the bed, following her down and continuing where he'd left off earlier. Cordelia closed her eyes and let her hands roam over his strong body, unfastening clothes wherever they got in her way. She let her other senses focus, relishing the rustle of clothing and the faint, familiar scent she associated with Angel, the feel of his cool, smooth, skin under her fingertips, the taste of his lips as they kissed her with almost feverish passion.
When she opened her eyes again, he was braced above her on strong arms, his eyes focused on her face with an intensity that awed her. She reached up to touch his face and he turned his head slightly to place a kiss in her palm. She smiled, for this one moment in time as happy as she had ever been in her life.
"I love you."
"I love you, too. Always."
Later - much later - they slept, sated and content, and when Cordelia woke the sun was going down once more, gilding the sky with streaks of amber and gold. She rose quietly from the bed and crossed to the window, pulling the drapes slightly back so she could watch her final sunset without disturbing the vampire who still slept in the shadows. It was amazing the sort of new perspective you got on the most common-place things, once you had been without them for a while. The world was fresh and new to her now, filled with ordinary miracles.
As the final colours streaked across the horizon and the last sliver of gold dipped out of sight, she felt two arms come around her waist and a cool body press against her back. She leaned back, saying nothing, content to enjoy this moment of connection. There would be time enough to tell Angel that she had to leave again. They had at least a couple of hours left to be together.
* * * * * * * *
Angel wasn't sure why Cordelia had insisted on coming downstairs again. They'd had a magical day together, unable to get enough of each other, and already he couldn't wait to get her back into bed again. But she had made him get dressed and dragged him down here where the others were once again gathered, looking as bemused as he felt. All except Fleur, who had a serious look on her normally cheerful face. As he watched her, Angel felt a peculiar foreboding, as if someone had just walked across his grave – in his case, a literal possibility. He clutched Cordy's hand a little tighter, needing the reassurance that the contact gave him. She was here, she was real, he hadn't imagined the whole thing...
"You're probably all wondering what this is about," she said. "There's something I have to tell you. I..." She looked over at Angel and bit her lip as her eyes filled with anguish. "Damn, this is hard," she whispered.
"Perhaps I can help," Fleur said, stepping forward. Cordelia looked relieved and clung to Angel's side as he wrapped his arms around her protectively. "As you might expect, Cordelia's return could not be achieved without some sort of sacrifice."
"So, what? We talking a live chicken or something here?" Gunn said.
"Hush, Charles," Fred admonished him, her brow furrowed with worry. "This is serious."
"Rather more than that, I'm afraid," Fleur said. "Angel had to sacrifice his right to shanshu, condemning himself to eternity as a vampire, and destroying any hope of a normal life with the woman he loves."
Angel's arms tightened convulsively around Cordy until she gasped, making him relax his hold slightly.
"However," Fleur continued, "as was her right, Cordelia refused the sacrifice." She ignored the gasps of disbelief from her audience and Angel's shocked "No". "She was willing to spend eternity in purgatory rather than deprive Angel of his dream, but she did ask for one day to remember him by. Her wish was granted."
"Cordy, please," Angel begged, imploring her with every ounce of his being to deny the woman's words, to tell him that of course she would stay with him...
"I couldn't do it, Angel. I couldn't ask you to give up your shanshu for me." Tears ran down Cordelia's face, as she felt his pain along with her own. "You'll see some day. This is for the best. You'll move on and find someone else."
"No, I won't. I didn't manage to find anyone else I loved like this in two hundred and fifty years." He saw her mouth open to speak and spoke fiercely, "And don't even think of mentioning Buffy. You and I both know that what we have goes beyond that, beyond what most people ever have. How could you give that up so easily?"
"Easily?" Cordelia was incredulous. "You think this is easy? You think it isn't ripping me apart inside to leave you. Maybe we'd even be deliriously happy for a while – stranger things have happened – but how long before you started resenting me for taking your chance at redemption away from you? I couldn't stand it if you ended up hating me for it."
Angel wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I could never hate you, Cordy. The truth is my redemption is meaningless if I don't have you to live for. It would be easier just to give up..."
"Don't you dare," she said fiercely. "You've come too far, accomplished too much, to just throw it all away like last season's cast offs. I won't let you."
"You won't be here to stop me."
"I'll find a way. It'll take more than death to stop me interfering in your life, you know."
"If the two of you would let me finish," Fleur interrupted, waiting until the pair had stopped glaring at each other, noticing that even while angry with each other they stayed close together. "Bringing a soul back from beyond the veil cannot be undertaken lightly, so the Powers are reluctant to do so unless absolutely necessary and, even then, only when those involved pass certain tests of... selflessness."
Cordelia frowned. "I don't understand."
"I do," growled Angel. "You were testing us, weren't you? You and your friends and that guy with the plummy accent. It was all an elaborate game – watching us suffer like this, go through hell..."
"It was necessary."
"It was cruel. And I think it's time you were straight with us. What exactly is the situation here? Is Cordy alive or not?"
"She is," Fleur said. "But she is changed." She looked at Cordy then and her gaze softened in sympathy. "I'm sorry for all you have suffered, dear, but you were never meant to die. A miscalculation some time ago had repercussions that we didn't bargain on. The Powers have work for you still, and they have taken steps to ensure your continued service. They tend to be a little autocratic that way." She smiled at them both, knowing their experience of the Powers had not been conducive to trust. "You will retain your seer's gifts, but you will be stronger now, better able to withstand the trauma of the visions. Also, you will not age in the same way as regular humans. We all live as long as we need to, and you and Angel have a long crusade ahead of you, but you will share the journey together."
"You mean I'm immortal?" Cordelia asked.
"No. You can still be killed by a mortal blow, as indeed can Angel. Neither of you are invulnerable. But you will no longer need to worry about dying from sickness or old age, or from the visions as you did once before."
Angel was the first to realise precisely what the implications of this momentous news were. "Then, she isn't going anywhere?" he said, starting to smile.
"Not for quite some time, I would hope," Fleur confirmed. "We didn't go to all this trouble for nothing."
"Angel! Put me down!" Cordelia laughed as he swept her up in a bear hug and started whirling her round the room until she felt dizzy. She gazed lovingly up at him as he held her tightly. "You big doofus!"
He grinned. "Guilty as charged. But I'm your big doofus..." And he pulled her into his arms and kissed her exuberantly, until she was giddy and giggling helplessly.
"Oh, that's just beautiful," sighed Willow, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief before handing it over to Fred who was sniffling indelicately at her side.
"Every fairy tale needs a happy ending," agreed Fred, sobbing happily into the soggy hanky.
"Ain't no need for all this wailing, woman," Gunn complained. "Sure it's nice and everything, but..."
"Is that a tear?" Wesley asked pointedly, looking suspiciously damp-eyed himself.
"Hell, no!" Gunn said. "It's... allergies! It's real dusty in here. You should do something about that."
"Of course," Wesley said. The four stood, united in emotion, as the vampire carried his immortal seer up the stairs for the second time in twenty-four hours. None of them noticed the small red-haired figure slip silently out of the front door, her work complete.
Another figure hovered around the front of the hotel, the natural disapproval in his expression warring with contentment at a job completed.
"I suppose you're going to take all the credit for that," he said, wafting a hand airily in the direction of the hotel.
Fleur paused. "I've only one thing to say to you, Malachi," she said, leaning in to whisper in his ear. "I told you so." Her laughter continued to echo and ripple in the air as the two figures disappeared into the night.
And somewhere inside the enormous building, two people started the rest of their lives as they meant to go on. Together. Always.