Better Than Heaven
When Cordelia came to, she found herself in a white room. Well, "room" wasn't exactly the right word as the place she had found herself in did not seem to possess anything in the way of walls, a ceiling, or a floor. "Space" would be the appropriate word and a very vacant space it was. It didn't look exactly unlike the space she had occupied as a higher power except that she wasn't engulfed in light. Sure, it was bright in the space but that was only because everything was white but she felt like she could at least see . . . well, there was nothing to see. She was alone.
She glanced around in bewilderment. Shouldn't there at least be a greeter in the afterlife? Not everyone was bound to be as sure that they had died as she was. A respectful, "Hi. Welcome to your eternity," would probably go a long way. Hell, she had gotten more instruction when she had ascended and that was pretty much just a matter of 'sit naked and bathed in light as you watch the world with detachment like it's a crappy reality show.'
It is after all. Just without editors and make-up people.
The thought reminded her that there was one thing of note about the position she found herself in: she was clothed. In particular, she was wearing the same clothes she had just been wearing as she left Angel's office: striped button down, slacks, and . . . wait.
"My heels turned into flats?" she found herself saying out loud in a fit of confusion.
She wasn't exactly angry, they were still cute shoes without the stiletto, but of all the clues she could have possibly found, this wasn't in any way helpful. She had briefly wondered upon arrival if she had been abducted by something evil on her way out the life door. She had always figured the afterlife would be a bit more organized and this place looked like some kind of temporary cosmic holding space. It really would be just so typical of the life she had lived; why shouldn't her death be free of abduction and things to fight? But it just didn't seem like any typical demon M.O. to kidnap her and then make her shoes more practical (a demon that was a fan of spiky things, perhaps?). The action had technically deprived her of her only weapon but it wasn't like she was lacking in regular combat skills and it certainly wouldn't have the element of surprise on its side. If it was some sort of scheme, she was clearly dealing with an evil mastermind.
She rolled her eyes at the thought.
For a little while she glanced around the void, waiting for something, anything to appear and answer all her questions but she quickly grew impatient and decided to do the one thing that makes sense when faced with a seemingly empty expanse of nothing:
"HELLO?!" she shouted in irritation, spinning herself from side to side as she called out, almost expecting an echo that never came.
Had Cordelia still been able to breathe, she would have stopped when she heard that familiar voice behind her.
"No," she whispered softly, her brain incapable of registering what was happening.
Everything that had happened in her life, especially including her ascension and subsequent body hijacking, had in some way embittered her to believe that there was no way any of those nice bedtime stories about the afterlife could possibly be true. She had gone in expecting another trial to face or at the very least some sort of test of her worthiness to determine where she would end up for the rest of forever. She hadn't been surprised to find no pearly gates, no feeling of utter bliss, and, in particular, no meeting with her deceased loved ones.
Although, she had to admit that she was an optimist in a lot of ways and the thought that one of these silly little ideas coming true made her feel like perhaps this really was the end of her struggle and she was willing to embrace it.
She turned around, taking in the image of him standing there with a slight smile on his face for a half a second before running towards him and throwing her arms around him in joy.
"I thought I'd never see you again!" she practically shouted in his ear as she squeezed hard enough to break bones, had that been a concern.
"It's good to see you too, Cordy. Well . . . not good necessarily. Was kinda hopin' I wouldn't see ya for at least another fifty years but what can ya do?" he said, running a soothing hand down her back, relishing in the feeling of her finally being so close to him again.
"The good fight," she said quietly, those words being all the explanation needed. The tears had started to well up in her eyes and she would be damned if she let him see her break down crying. This wasn't supposed to be a tearful reunion, damnit, and she was going to hold him as long as it took to compose herself and only then could she look him in the eye.
"Ya," he agreed, recalling his own words in grim remembrance, the smile fading from his face as he felt a tinge of misplaced guilt over her fate.
For a while they stood in silence, both lost in their own memories and trying desperately to cling to this one. She rested her head against his shoulder so she could better hide her face and soon felt one of his hands on the back of her head. The corners of her lips turned up as he ran his fingers through her hair. It passed Cordelia's mind that for a good portion of their friendship they hadn't had a very physical relationship which was partially (well, mostly) because she was so standoffish with him, snubbing him the few times he had tried to touch her. It wasn't until he found her apartment for her that she started to feel really comfortable with him and from there she could recall moments that all felt contented and natural. Unfortunately, the most prominent moment was right before he died and the thought set back her attempts at composing herself by at least another ten seconds.
Finally she managed to take a deep breath (or something akin to a breath as she wasn't exactly performing any natural bodily processes anymore; she was beyond vampire levels of not functioning) and leaned away from him with a grin as she finally got a genuine look at him.
"Doyle, you look . . . really good," she said in confounded shock. Her startled expression was soon mirrored on his face to hear her make such a statement. He knew as well as anyone that Cordelia was incapable of keeping her thoughts to herself especially when it was a reaction to something really unbelievable.
She had heard that absence makes the heart grow fonder but she didn't believe that it was merely not seeing him outside of a poor-quality VHS tape that had drastically improved his appearance. In fact, at first it was hard for her to pin down exactly what was different about him until she realized that it was a combination of little things. His hair looked different, still black in color but . . . longer? Better styled? Or maybe it was just clean for the first time since she had known him. His appearance was still white as a ghost (how appropriate) but looked fresh like he had given up binge drinking and then got three straight months of good night's sleep. His clothes had looked like his usual sort until she realized that his pants had been tailored to actually fit him like pants should and his shirt was buttoned properly and tucked in with a belt. It also helped that the shirt didn't have some crazy, eye-twitching pattern but was a simple blue that made his eyes startlingly vivid (his eyes being the one quality he had that she had always thought was kind of beautiful even though she would never admit it to anyone). He was still wearing a leather jacket, his brown one, but she guessed he wouldn't ever be able to stray that far from his roots.
Dead was a good look for him.
"Wow," he said with raised brows. "Comin' from you, that must be true. Either way," he started, giving her a once-over, "You look gorgeous, as ya always do."
She flashed him one of her wide grins. No one was as liberally complimentary to her as he was and it wasn't until now that she realized how much she had missed it.
"Well, shouldn't you look like the best version of yourself in heaven?" she pointed out. That had to be one of the other cliché conventions at work here. What else could explain his remarkable appearance?
Doyle tilted his head to the side with a half-shrug of ambivalence.
"I hate to break it to ya, princess, but this," he said, motioning to the space around them, "isn't heaven. Not even close really."
Cordelia took another look at the emptiness. No, not very heavenly. She had heard the plane she was on as a higher power described as a heavenly plane and it felt different from this. The look wasn't too different but the feel was entirely otherworldly and indescribable. This place felt like earth only without borders. Maybe it was purgatory? Or maybe she had been right about it being a rouse.
"Well, I guess I'm not too surprised there. I don't know what any of this is really. How do I even know you're really Doyle and not some hell beast that has come to psychologically torture me before my daily flogging?" she said matter-of-factly with an inquiring look on her face, daring him to prove his legitimacy.
He sighed and looked down for a minute, thinking hard about something that would show her that he was who he claimed to be. Regrettably, running through the catalog of facts about himself he realized that he and Cordelia had never really sat down and talked about their pasts with each other; certainly not in any great detail. He had barely told her anything about his present. All he had were experiences they had shared and most of them could have been stolen from Angel's mind by some evil demon in order to create an illusion and he knew she would point that out if he used any of those thoughts. There were a few things he and Cordelia had shared in privacy but unfortunately only one kept repeating in his mind.
He took in a nervous breath.
"My last words to you were, 'too bad we'll never know . . . if this is a face you could learn to love.'" He repeated solemnly, even pausing at the same point he had when he changed into his demon form.
He was suddenly thrown off balance by a vicious slap across the face.
"Jesus, Cordelia! What was that for?!" he shouted, bringing a hand up to his injured cheek. This was sure some realm they were in that he could still feel pain exactly as if he were alive and her slap had definitely gotten more powerful since the last time.
"For a long time I thought that if I met you in the afterlife I was going to give you a hard slap. . ." she started in her serious, authoritative tone that really should have been accompanied with jabbing her finger into his chest.
"And ya wanted to make sure it was really me first? Thank you," he interrupted sarcastically.
". . . I wanted to slap you for sacrificing yourself and for saddling me with the visions," she continued, undeterred by his outburst, "But I've grown to appreciate those things. I'm over them. But you know what I'm not over? Those words!"
Even though her voice was angry, her eyes were powerfully sad. Those words had haunted her for nearly two years after his death and hearing them repeated to her now and in such a perfect replication of the original was like reliving the entire process of coping with that unknown, that idea that followed her for years. He could have said any number of nice things to her before jumping to his death but instead he left her with a question she would never have a chance to answer.
"Oh," he said, his voice falling as he realized what she meant.
For a second they just looked at each other, unsure where they could possibly go from here. The loose ends he had left were still hanging in spite of the fact that his life had been eternally paused and hers had continued on. Two things were certain though: 1.) if they were going to get into the deep waters, it shouldn't be this abrupt and 2.) He had to look away from her crushed expression in order to tell her about point number one.
"We really need to talk," he said with finality. "We have a lot of things to discuss about . . . just everythin'. But first, we need to go somewhere more equipped for a serious discussion."
At the instant that his words were spoken, the space they were in transformed without any sort of transition or warning. Cordelia tried to shake off the visual whiplash as she took in where they were now.
"My apartment?" she asked doubtfully. It was an improvement over where they had just been but it wasn't actually anything to be overjoyed at seeing. She liked her stuff, sure, but she was supposed to be beyond the material now, right?
"Why not?" he asked, strolling around the living room. "It's comfy, it's familiar. . ."
"It's boring," she interjected. "You have the power to change this space and you couldn't have taken us to Italy?"
"Oh right, 'cause that wouldn't be distractin'" he commented, plopping down on the couch like he owned the place. "I wouldn't be able to accurately conjure up Italy because I've never been there. I've got control of this area for now but I'm not God."
Control of this area. Hey, wait a minute!
"You changed my shoes!" she yelled, waving her finger at him. Of course he had. In flats he didn't even have three inches on her. If she had still been wearing her heels, she would have towered over him.
Men, she thought contemptuously. But to be honest I guess that would have made for kind of an awkward hug.
He looked away from her guiltily and cleared his throat.
"Do ya wanna sit down?" he asked, motioning to the spot beside him and hoping that was enough of a segue to bring the conversation back to non-shoe theft related topics.
Deciding the shoe issue really wasn't anything to stay mad over, Cordelia took a seat next to him and leaned back against the throw pillows in the same way she used to in life. She had to admit that his instincts had been right about the location. Talking to him in her apartment, while it hadn't been done for a very long time, made it easy to forget that time had passed and they were both now . . . former. This didn't, however, make her entirely forget that she still had no idea what this entailed.
"So where are we really?" she asked, tossing up her hands as if she had giving up guessing. "I'm not in heaven. I don't appear to be in hell. Where have I ended up?"
Doyle leaned back against the cushions, getting settled in with an awkward wiggle, and turning towards her.
"As ya probably learned from your time as a higher power, things aren't really as simple as 'heaven' and 'hell,'" he said, making hand gestures to show the two sides of the spectrum. "There are a lot of different areas in the land of the not-so-living. This place we're in now was just set aside so that we could talk away from everythin' else. It's not where you're goin' to be forever."
"So you're my guide?" she asked, deciding that made sense as a role. She hadn't exactly had the best of luck with guides in the past and she kind of wondered if that's why she was gifted with getting Doyle this time around. She knew he would never steer her wrong.
"Part guide, part visitin' friend," he said with a reassuring smile that made her think he might know about her being led astray before.
"Okay," she accepted, pleased with that answer. "So who's in charge here? God?"
Doyle chuckled at her audacity. Of course, she was going to ask the big questions the first chance she got. "Honestly, I've been dead four years now and I still can't answer that one. I don't think we'll ever know. I still take orders from the Powers and I don't know who they answer to if they answer to anyone."
Cordelia knitted her brows at that answer. She hadn't exactly expected to get the answers to life, the universe, and everything after she died but she was certainly looking for something a little less cryptic.
"Well, I guess if I had any sort of religious devotion, it would be shattering to pieces right now," she noted nonchalantly. "Fortunately, my parents raised me on a healthy diet of materialism," she joked before her face fell into a meditative expression, staring down at her hands. "I guess I never considered it before but with everything that's happened I could only feel that strings were being pulled but I wasn't so sure that I wasn't able to intervene in some way. Like, the most important thing is what happens while you are alive. Whether everything is controlled by God, the Powers, a turtle balancing the universe on its back, or nothing, it doesn't matter as much as . . ." she trailed off, raising her eyes to his to see if he was still listening. She wasn't sure if she was making any sense to herself, let alone to him.
"Havin' the visions can do that to ya," he said, nodding in understanding. "I thought the same thing, even before I got the visions, and I had the pleasure of bein' raised Catholic, little of which stuck other than being overcome with irrational guilt if I entered a church. After gettin' 'em, well, I had been forced into atonin' for what good I had failed to do. That was enough evidence for me that punishment and reward are not exactly confined to the afterlife."
Cordelia realized then that she hadn't actually known why he got the visions in the first place and made a mental note to ask him later. But it really seemed like for a guide, he wasn't very informed about his own territory. Guides always seemed to know more than they let on but Doyle just didn't know at all. All he had said was that the places were not simple and he doesn't know who, if anyone, is running the show.
"So are you telling me there is no traditional heaven, because I'm pretty sure there is a hell," Cordelia asked curiously. "Angel had supposedly been there unless it had just been a bad dream about all his black clothes getting bleach stains on them and he got confused."
Doyle tried to resist the urge to smile and only succeeded in scrunching up in face like he was contending with a particularly painful headache before he continued explaining.
"No, I've just never been there so I can't be sure," he clarified with a far away expression as he considered the idea. "What I hear of heaven, the most common human one, is that it's far, far less concrete than somewhere like this. You have no real need or concern for identity or the livin'. You, sort of, float in a formless space where ya feel only positive, peaceful things forever. Eternal bliss."
"Wow," Cordelia murmured in awe. "That sounds awful."
"Doesn't it just?" he agreed empathically.
"I'm glad I wasn't too good a person," she decided. She may have been bored as a higher power but at least she had gotten a lot of those peaceful feelings and still got to keep tabs on how everyone was doing. Sure, she preferred being able to actively help people to merely watching but the thought of not even caring was horrifying to her. It certainly wasn't a reward she would want.
"The sentiment is shared," he said even though he knew her assessment of her character to be false. It was actually because of how good she had been (and how less good but still good he had been) that they were able to be having this conversation. "Besides, if I was in heaven now, I wouldn't have the privilege of being here talkin' to you."
There he goes again with the compliments, she thought unable to keep her amusement from creeping into her face.
"So how long do we have in this place?" she asked, trying not to sound eager. As much fun as it was to discuss how even after death nothing about the afterlife makes sense, she wanted to make sure there was time to actually talk to him like the friend he had once been.
"I wasn't given a hard time limit exactly but I don't think I can go on with the guidin' 'til I hear the complete autobiography o' Cordelia Chase." He folded his arms behind his head, leaning back in a relaxed position as if he was ready for the whole long tale.
"Not so fast, mister!" she snapped, leaning towards him. "Don't think I didn't notice that you have been watching me these past few years. You mentioned my ascension. So I think right now you should be the one opening up and telling me everything you never told me because you definitely know more about me right now than I know about you. And don't think I've forgotten how you casually left out the fact that you were half-demon for . . . oh . . . the entire time we knew each other. You owe me big juicy secrets!"
She had him beat there.
Doyle unfolded his arms and slumped forward in resignation as he tried to think. "So where should I start then?" he put to her, hitting the ball she deserved into her court.
Cordelia victoriously, almost mockingly, leaned back in the same way he had as she thought about what she most wanted to know about him.
"Start with your family and where you're from, friends you had, how the hell you ended up teaching third grade and volunteering at a soup kitchen, finding out about the demon thing and the vision thing, and don't you dare leave out a single relationship story," she listed off, making him wonder if she had actually considered this before.
"You're the boss," he said with a shrug. "Well, I was born in Ireland . . ."
"Really?!" Cordelia asked with feigned surprise.
Doyle rolled his eyes. "You know, no matter what anyone says you're a great actress."
Cordelia narrowed her eyes at him unable to tell if he was being sarcastic or serious. Sure, her attempts at an acting career had been a failure that she had accepted but she didn't exactly need to be reminded of that.
"Okay, I'll shut up. Please go on," she conceded, with a hand gesture.
"I was raised by my mother, who's human. I never met my father and the only things I know about him are that he's a Bracken demon and that every time I asked her about him she got this . . . sad look in her eye."
His voice grew softer as he recalled those times and Cordelia gave him a sympathetic look. He had stopped asking her about him by the time he was fourteen because that was the point when he realized that his father had probably mysteriously disappeared, died, or raped her. He knew she was keeping the truth from him for a reason and decided that if she ever wanted to tell him, she would. Otherwise, he accepted that his life was probably better without him. After finding out his father was a demon, he became even less curious. He knew most people in the same situation would try to track him down and get some answers but Doyle wanted none of it, wanted to just deny that the whole demon thing existed at all, and just directed hate at the figure he would never meet. Since his death every once in a while he thought about trying to look down at his dad but every time he decided it was better to never know. There was no use trying to redo a life that was over.
"She had me when she was young and we were really poor throughout my childhood. My grandparents helped out sometimes -I was named after my grandfather actually which is why everyone called me by my middle name- but my mother was always adamant about payin' people back and didn't want to accept loans she knew she couldn't pay off. We ate a lot o' meals at a soup kitchen in order to save money to make rent and she used to volunteer there while I was in school. As soon as I was old enough, I started workin' there too. Initially it was to pay off what I felt was my own debt but eventually I kept goin' because I liked helpin' out. Things got a little easier when I was a teenager because my mom started runnin' a daycare out of our place so we weren't livin' on the edge quite as much."
He stopped, realizing that there wasn't much else to say about his family overall. He hadn't seen any of them in the years before his death and with international phone calls being so expensive, he only phoned them every once in a while. He couldn't even remember coming clean to them about quitting his job or the dissolution of his marriage. He didn't exactly have the kind of semi-omniscient abilities immediately after his death that he did now so he never found out how they had gotten the message that he had died. Harry had probably done it by virtue of the fact that she was the only person who he had any contact with in his last year who would know how to get in touch with them. God, what did she tell them? And how did Angel tell her? Just by remembering how it felt, he was pretty sure there wasn't a body to bury . . .
"So what was high school like?" Cordelia asked, leaning forward in interest, oblivious to his dark internal tangent.
He curled his lip and shrugged, trying to get his mind back on point.
"Not much to say about it really," he admitted. Maybe there had been a lot to say at some point but a lot of his life pre-demon was fairly blurry. That kind of revelation really divides one's life into two distinct halves.
"I took high level classes in order to graduate early so I could get to work sooner and I spent most o' my time out of school at the soup kitchen or doing schoolwork. I had a few friends but not much of a core group. A lot of 'em were friends from the neighborhood who I had known forever so they had all grown up into very different people: one got really into drugs and dropped out, one was a sport freak, one never really left his house but had a great movie collection. I would mostly see 'em on the weekends: sneak a beer and watch some game. What kids do."
"You were kind of boring," Cordelia commented casually.
"Well, not all of us are fortunate enough to live on a hellmouth and take electives in vampire huntin'," he remarked with a smirk.
"You'd be surprised to know that wasn't an elective at Sunnydale High but it really should have been," she said, half with humor and half seriously wondering why such a class never turned up. "You know how it is when you're 16 though: just trying to not be eaten by your chemistry teacher and all your parents want to write the school about is whether or not there is actual meat in the meatloaf."
"There never is, by the way. I can say that with the authority of someone who worked in the public school system," he noted with a joking air of importance.
"I knew it," she said, throwing up her hand in resignation. "So did anything exciting happen to you in high school?" She gave him a suggestive grin, her eyebrows raised so high that they nearly disappeared in her hair.
"Oh, I know what you want," he said exasperated, rubbing his forehead. "I don't have many stories there either."
"Loser who couldn't get a date?" she asked forlornly. She shook her head slightly. "Can't say I'm not surprised."
Doyle's jaw dropped as he sat up straighter, defiantly. "I'll have you know that I had plenty a' girls who would've gone out with me if I had asked. The smart and mysterious loner thing can get ya pretty far."
"Okay, well if you were so popular, then why don't you have stories? Too shy?" she practically demanded, wanting an answer far more than she would willingly admit.
He looked her in the eyes for a pause and then sighed, staring off towards the window that showed its fabricated view of Los Angeles.
"The thing is with me and women . . . I only fall madly. It's either 'she's a nice enough girl but why bother?' or . . ." He brought his gaze back towards hers pointedly. "'I can't live without you.'"
"Oh," she breathed gently, a bit ashamed of her earlier assumptions. For a moment she tried to find her words but found herself captivated by the look he was giving her, one she had not been on the receiving end of for some time. Something clever wasn't presenting itself to her and all she could think of was every other time he had given her that look, like she was the most amazing thing he had ever seen.
"S-so, uh, how many were there?" she asked, a bit distracted. She hadn't meant to phrase the question so crudely but that was actually what was on her mind. How many girls had he looked at this way?
"Three," he answered, breaking their eye contact as he resumed story telling. "The first actually is a high school story. She was a girl who I knew for many years named Molly."
"Her name was Molly? So you were in love with a girl from the 1950s? I guess that explains the bowling shirts," she observed with a look of satisfaction, like she had just pulled an impressive Sherlock Holmes maneuver.
"I better be allowed to interrupt you when you have to talk," he said quickly before going back to explaining. "She was this tiny thing with red hair and a temper to match. I think because of how unimposing an image she presented she was always tryin' to make up for it by bein' really outspoken and ambitious. She wanted to become a doctor and nothin' would deter her from that. She lived a few streets over from me and we used to play together as children. Then we went our separate ways for, oh, ten years and became friends again in high school."
"And you dated?" she asked, her question sounding more like a statement.
". . . Not exactly. We had a complicated relationship. We were friends. I was crazy in love with her. She was aware that I was at the very least attracted to her. And when we were alone we fooled around."
"I wouldn't say that's complicated. I'd say that's high school," she commented fondly.
"Well, it was complicated for me. I wanted her so badly that for a while the foolin' around was great; it made me think that I might get somewhere with her. But whenever I tried to bring up the idea of us actually being a couple or goin' on a date or something, she would say that it would be foolish to ruin our friendship. Eventually, I couldn't take the stress of havin' everything but her heart and I just cut her out of my life. I had thought it would be nearly impossible to do at the time, I couldn't imagine bein' without her, but I had to do it. I ran into her once shortly after Harry and I got married and I have never wanted to run from a situation more. She wasn't even weird about it; just asked me why we stopped hangin' out. I lied and said I couldn't remember," he admitted with a touch of shame.
That hadn't been one of his finer moments but he was just a distraught kid at the time and couldn't think of a better way out. It was easier to pretend he was busy whenever she asked him over than to tell her that it was painful to be with her in every way but how he wanted. Avoiding being alone with her was how he had managed to keep up the act that they were just friends until graduation when he finally severed their ties entirely. In retrospect, the one good thing that had come out of his time with her had been all that he had learned about relationships in that year; experience that had made it easy for him to make the right move the next time.
"Huh," Cordelia said nonchalantly. "You want to know how I see it?"
Doyle shrugged. "Whether I do or not, I expect you're going to tell me."
She narrowed her eyes at him a bit but the menace was significantly mitigated by the fact that she was unable to remove the slight upward turn of her lips.
"Either she actually did have feelings for you and really was just concerned that if you dated you would break up and she would have lost you entirely or she didn't actually have feelings for you but liked feeling wanted by you. I know nothing about this girl so I can't judge exactly but it's gotta be one or the other," she said finitely.
He looked at her dumbstruck. He had spent a year in agony trying to decipher what went on in Molly's head and Cordelia had broken it down into only two concrete possibilities a second after hearing the abridged version of their relationship.
"How do you know all this?" he demanded, clearly impressed.
"Well, I am a woman," Cordelia said, the "duh" evident in her tone.
Doyle smirked with pleasure.
"Ya don't need to remind me," he said in a tone that was equal parts affectionate and leery.
Cordelia rolled her eyes.
"So girl number two?" she asked eagerly.
"That was Harry."
"Okay, I know part of this one!" she said happily, trying to remember what she had been told at Harry's bachelorette party. "Met doing volunteer work at the soup kitchen, which now makes a thousand times more sense by the way, married quickly, and you were teaching third grade at the time. Back up and tell me how the hell that happened," she commanded.
"You know how I said my mom ran a daycare?" he asked. "Well, I learned I was really good with kids and enjoyed workin' with 'em. At the time teachin' was a secure sort of job to go for. I was actually student teachin' and workin' on my degree at the time I met Harry. I had graduated high school early and then overloaded with my college classes from the beginnin' so I ended up really far ahead," he explicated, trying to make it very clear that his progress had been a result of hard work and not substantial intelligence. He wasn't lacking in the brain department but he wasn't about to make it out like he coasted through with top marks.
"Okay, I can believe that," she decided with a satisfied nod. "So how did you go from 'nice to meet you' to 'I do'?"
A fleeting smile passed over his face as he recalled the precise moment when he knew he was going to marry her, which truthfully had been within a very short time of shaking her hand.
"When Harry graduated from high school she had decided that she didn't know what she wanted to do with her life so she travelled. Wanted to meet interestin' people and see beautiful old things. Her family had money, you see. After a while her travel had landed her in my corner of the world where she had some distant relatives to stay with and she liked it so much she decided to stick around for a while. Since she was technically just a visitor she couldn't get a legal job so she volunteered to keep herself busy and do some good for the world." He paused for a moment with a soft smile of recollection. "She was that sorta person, you know? Either way, we met, I asked her out for a drink, and in three months it was official." His smile faltered as he remembered the end. "We were so young at the time. I had only just turned twenty when Harry and I got married."
"Wow," Cordelia breathed, finding it hard not to feel happier at the tale. It may have ended badly but to hear someone talk about something that meant so much to them at one point almost makes it hard not to feel some of their positive energy permeating the room. "You know, for all the husband searching I did when I was nineteen I don't think I could have actually imagined being married by twenty. You must have really loved her."
Doyle nodded, his expression an exercise in contradiction as his mouth spread wide across his face but his eyes were more than a bit tortured.
"So then?" Cordelia asked, pleased to hear more of their good times.
"First we tried to start a life. I told her that with her interest in people and history she would probably be great in anthropology so she applied to schools with that. We moved to Illinois first for a little while, that's where she's from, and then out to California where she wanted to go to school. I got into one of those accelerated programs to get certified to teach in the US and slowly got back to work. We started talkin' about havin' kids. Everythin' was mostly fine." He spoke more methodically and less invested than he had before and Cordelia could tell it was because he was reaching the point that was hard to talk about.
"Until . . . what?" she asked with caution.
Doyle looked away from her again as he took a moment to collect himself.
"Until one day I had an unusual feeling sneeze, looked in the mirror, and just like that my life was over."
He fidgeted with his hands while Cordelia tilted her head to the side, digesting his words.
"Hang on, bub!" she bellowed suddenly. "Something doesn't add up here. Harry studies demons. Why would she leave you over that? It's not like Bracken demons are dangerous or slimy or anything."
"How do ya know about Bracken demons?" he asked, turning towards her, a bit delighted in the thought that he might have been the cause.
"I found out a guy who was once in my life was a demon and you think I don't do research on it?" she asked, bemused. "Clearly hitting the books didn't become a part of your routine like it did mine, something you are fortunate for by the way. So many unpronounceable words," she muttered, a look of trauma overtaking her face.
"Well, to answer your question," he started, bringing her out of her ancient book induced funk, "it wasn't exactly the demon thing that left her runnin' for the door. We fought a lot from the beginnin' of our marriage but I guess that's to be expected when you get married young, yeah? It was mostly little personality issues we had with each other; sometimes it was something bigger like money or me sometimes drinkin' a bit too much on weekends but it was never anythin' worth stayin' mad or endin' a marriage over. We were good fighters though, I'll tell ya that," he said with a bit of a chuckle, shaking his head. His laugh quickly faded, however, and he tensed slightly as he continued.
"The demon thing was only a minor hitch for her but it was the endpoint for me. She was freaked at first and then just treated it like it wasn't a big deal and I hated myself so much that I couldn't see that she was being sincere. She was a saint for how long she tried before givin' up," he admitted, glancing towards the floor as if to hide something.
"So what did you do after that?" Cordelia asked quietly, the hesitation she felt showing through. It seemed to be getting increasingly hard for him to talk about it but then he looked up at her with an expression that urged her to make him continue. She wondered how many other people he had told all of this to and decided that aside from Angel, she was probably the first to hear it. She couldn't imagine keeping so many things inside but she had only been without someone to lean on for fairly short amounts of time respectively and it was becoming clear that he didn't have anyone for years.
"Quit my job. Stopped keepin' in contact with my family and old friends. My life became a mess in kind of a steady incline. First it was drinkin' too much on a more than weekly basis then it was drinkin' too much in bars then it was drinkin' too much in demon bars then it was gettin' into drunken fights in demon bars then it was askin' demons for loans in order to pay my rent and suddenly I've disappointed my mother in every way that I could. That whole idea had become my lifestyle and that's pretty much how I lived for a few years."
"I'm guessing this is where the visions come in?" she asked tentatively.
"Yeah," he said nodding. He curled his lip in deliberation as he tried to think of the best way to explain that incident. "To make a long story short, I came home one day to find a Bracken demon in my apartment, askin' me to help him and his clan escape from the Scourge. I refused, bein' the depressed and apathetic mess I was, and the first vision I got was o' the massacre that I could have prevented."
Cordelia put a hand over her mouth that had fallen open at the mention of The Scourge and never closed.
"Oh, Doyle . . ." she started, unsure what exactly she was going to say but he quickly cut her off before she could try to make him feel better. In his mind, all of that was in the past and he had done what he could to rectify it but it was only natural that she would react as she did with it all being new information to her.
"So I ended up doin' things on my own for a while which certainly forced me to take some active part in doin' good but I was pretty grateful that they eventually led me to Angel. I know I needed to make some reparations but the people needed a champion, not a self-loathin', half-demon drunk."
Cordelia put a comforting hand on his leg. "Heroes do occasionally come in the poorly-dressed, drunken half-demon form, you know."
He gave her a wry smile. "I'll take that as a compliment." They shared a smile for a second as she removed her hand and he shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not sure what else is left."
Cordelia nodded for a moment, stopping brusquely and furrowing her brow as if she was struck with something.
"Oh, right! So who was the third girl?" she recalled, gesturing rapidly at having the idea come to mind of where this thread of conversation had actually started.
A timid smile spread across his lips and he gave her a poignant look that answered her question.
"Oh," she murmured softly, only realizing now that the answer was painfully obvious from the beginning. She actually felt herself blushing a bit (could she still blush?) which lead to her becoming even more embarrassed at the fact that this of all things should make her blush. It's not like she didn't know how he felt about her and, although he was referring to the past, it occurred to her that there was no reason for her to assume that anything had changed for him just because her life went on and his stayed put. She was more staggered by the fact that although she had moved on, him remaining an unchangeable dead (no pun intended) end in her memory had meant that in some way her feelings (or whatever they had been) remained the same as well.
Lucky for her confusion, he didn't choose to elaborate on that and force her to pursue the thought further.
"You can figure out the rest from there so I guess that's the whole story. I mean, I probably have more tales of adventure I could share but for now those are all the important parts," he said contented, relaxing against the back of the couch.
Cordelia ran though the list in her head: poverty, absentee father, unremarkable or occasionally cruel friends, a young marriage and young divorce, finding out you're a demon, letting your life get out of control, being forced to take responsibility for deaths you could have prevented and then when it seems like everything might be looking up – finding a purpose, making a friend, meeting a girl -, you die.
"I'm sorry your life wasn't better," she said earnestly, reaching out to take his hand in hers. Comforting words weren't exactly her forte but she knew the gestures by heart.
"Hey, hey, don't say that," he insisted, placing a reassuring hand over their clasped ones. "My life was exactly what it needed to be."
She found herself chuckling quietly at his comment. Of course he would say that. She would say the same thing. She had essentially died by his example: go out for the cause, no tears, and no regrets.
"Now how about yours?" he asked excitedly, patting her hand and leaning forward to show he was an ardent listener.
"Well, you probably know a lot of it already since you've been invading my privacy as a ghost thing," she said, slipping her hand out of his grasp.
"Number one: Not a ghost. Haven't ever been one which is kinda unfortunate because I would have liked to meet Dennis face to face. Have a ghost drink. Chat about what it's like to haunt your apartment. Number two: I prefer to think of it as concerned observation . . ."
"And stalking is just excessive shadowing," Cordelia interrupted with a sardonic edge.
"And number three," he continued undeterred, "I don't know as much as you seem to think I do so you should probably start from the beginning anyway."
She shrugged and leaned back.
"Alright but you're asking for it," she warned good-naturedly.
"Fully prepared," he assured her with a grin that made it hard to deny him.
Cordelia kicked off her shoes and leaned against the armrest. Trying to find a new position (but not physically tired of the old one; being dead had strange perks), she pulled her legs up in front of her and let them rest against the back of the couch, her former 'watching television' pose. Taking a deep breath, she began her tale at a rapid pace: "I was born in Sunnydale and lived there my entire life until I moved to L.A. My parents were pretty well off. I mean, I had a nice car and expensive clothes and a horse but I still went to public school. Truthfully, Sunnydale High was a good school, middle to upper middle class area, lots of students get into good colleges, very little gang violence or drug busts; only problem is the rampant vampire attacks and town-wide magic spells and demons who like to make the occasional ritual sacrifices."
"You really should have made brochures for them," Doyle commented deadpan.
"Oh sure, 'Send your child to Sunnydale High! If they live to see their senior year, we can guarantee SAT scores above the national average!'"
"Brilliant!" he shouted, throwing his hands up.
"Clearly," she said with a complacent tone.
"So if I remember correctly, you ruled the school?" he asked as he recalled her trophies that he had seen during her very brief stay in Angel's apartment. "Captain of the cheerleadin' squad, most popular girl in school with numerous loyal followers, homecomin' queen . . ."
"Actually I was queen of the winter ball. I would have been homecoming queen but . . . it's a long story."
That involves running for my life from a squad of psychos who were in a competition to kill the Slayers and thought I was Faith, she recalled begrudgingly. And then both Buffy and I lost to the other two girls who were campaigning for queen. Maybe it's actually not such a long story after all but, 'I would have been' sounds a lot better than, 'I lost and it's probably because Buffy and I were being so juvenile about it.' Oh, and the whole hunted down thing.
"So you had a lot o' friends?" he asked, already knowing the answer from a conversation he had with Angel but wanting to hear her interpretation.
"I had a group of close friends," she said simply before pausing to consider her words. It really wasn't so much that I was so loved by everyone but that I was loved by a few and feared by most, she thought, realizing that she hadn't really considered her past in a long time. It was strange how different everything looked. Even referring to the girls who followed her in high school as friends seemed strange when they were put up against the people she called friends after high school. "Minions might actually be the more appropriate word looking back on it," she admitted out loud. "My best friend was a girl named Harmony. She's a vampire now," she noted nonchalantly.
"I'm sorry," he murmured sympathetically, his brows drawing in concern.
"No, it's okay," she said, waving it off with a hand gesture. "She's too dumb to be particularly evil."
Doyle was a bit taken aback by her dismissal of the subject but she didn't pay him any mind.
"Other than them, after I realized how dangerous it was to live in Sunnydale I started hanging around Buffy's group so I wouldn't be left out of the loop on creatures of the night. You remember Buffy? The Slayer? Angel's ex?"
"Trust me, I do," he said, his eyes wide as he nodded. "Hard to forget someone who puts a guy into a broodin' coma for weeks."
"I had thought they were losers for the longest time and we never really got along great but looking back on it in a lot of ways they were more like real friends than the people I actually called my friends," she decided, unable to hide the alarm from her voice as she apprehended that truth for the first time. "Even more tragic, the only long term relationship I had in high school was actually with one of Buffy's friends, Xander. I mean, I had a gold medal in dating but he was the only one I was with for longer than a few weeks," she clarified, not wanting to give the false impression that she had only managed to attract one guy during her whole four years at Sunnydale High even if Xander was the only one that mattered.
"So what made him so worthy?" he asked curiously, instantly forming a picture in his mind of the kind of guy Cordelia would date in high school: some high school athlete with a toothpaste commercial sort of face who wasn't the brightest bulb but was sure good at impressing people with his money, awards, or other superficial attribute.
"Ugh, nothing," she grumbled. "He was a loser and a slob, he dressed worse than even you most of the time, and he and I were always picking fights with each other and they weren't always the cute kind of fight."
For a second she thought Doyle was having a stroke until the impossibility of that event occurred to her. His stunned reaction had said it all: she had completely defied his expectations and he was having trouble comprehending it. Maybe she was being a little harsh in her description. It wasn't like she was with him simply because she ran out of acceptable boys to go out with . . .
"But really, he was the first guy I had ever dated who was genuinely honest with me and wasn't just with me because of my status," she added, saddened by how very much that little fact had meant to her back then. She really didn't meet any decent guys at all when she was younger.
"Did you love him?" he asked gently, clearly hearing the way her voice had softened.
She thought seriously about it for a moment, resisting the urge to simply shout out, "God, no" and move onto something else.
"I don't think I really did," she answered thoughtfully. "We were both so petty about everything; always trying to hurt each other and get revenge for every minor thing. That's high school," she smiled a bit at her mimic of her own words when Doyle had told her about Molly. "I appreciated him even though I couldn't ever express it and I trusted him but I don't think I ever loved him. And actually, trusting him turned out to be a bad thing."
"How come?" he asked with furrowed brows.
"He cheated on me with his best friend," she said with the same relaxed tone she had used when talking about Harmony's fate. "And then I got impaled on some rebar. The two things are unrelated but they happened within minutes of each other so it's hard not to think of them together. Kind of symbolic, really. I was livid but I managed to get over it pretty quickly . . . the cheating, not the impaling. That took some time."
It was a slight lie but she was sticking to it.
Doyle needed a moment to gather his thoughts and close his dropped jaw so he could focus in on the important part of her story.
"Well, clearly he wasn't worth your time. He'd have to be a special kind of idiot to cheat on you," he said with a bit of unconcealed disdain.
Cordelia smiled at his comment and suddenly regretted the fact that Xander and Doyle never got to meet each other. She kind of would have enjoyed seeing Doyle try to (and probably successfully) intimidate the hell out of Xander and make him feel bad for what he had done. She hadn't exactly had anyone to stick up for her after the break-up with her usual friends making fun of her for it and Buffy's crew taking his side and it would have been particularly exceptional to have said defense coming from someone who really cared about her.
"And to add to the maelstrom of suck, my so-called friends didn't want to have anything to do with me anymore because of that embarrassment and then a few months later my parents went bankrupt and I had to turn down all my college offers because I couldn't afford to go anymore. Cut to me moving to L.A. to start an acting career. I think you can pick up the next few months from there," she finished in another blur of speech.
He gave her a sorrowful look, wanting to say something about how sorry he was that she didn't have anyone or that she had to give up on her goals because of someone else's mistake but considering the brisk pace that she moved past the topic, she evidently didn't want to focus on it. Besides, if she hadn't ever had those unlucky things happen to her, they never would have met.
"So then we'll skip ahead to . . ."
He trailed off trying to find some other way to say 'my death' but nothing came to mind so he let the sentence linger, knowing she would catch on.
Cordelia straightened her back and let her legs fall to the floor as she moved away from the armrest and scooted closer to the middle of the couch, a bit closer to him but still miles away. She glanced down at her lap so he couldn't see the shadow that passed over her face.
"I don't know what you want me to say about that," she confessed quietly.
"You don't have to say anythin'," he insisted, not even convinced that he wanted to know how she had reacted but sure that he didn't want to hear about it if it would only cause her pain.
"I cried . . . a lot. Mostly in the privacy of my own apartment but there were a few slip-ups," she started slowly. She had never told anyone the full extent of her grieving although sometimes she suspected that Angel knew and just didn't feel right confronting her about it directly. "I thought about you more than I could have imagined I would. And I got angry with you for what you did and for giving me the visions . . ."
"I should tell you that I didn't do that on purpose," he interjected, hoping that he would get a chance to explain. "Not exactly. When I had made up my mind on what I was gonna do I was thinkin' that Angel would need someone else to guide him and that I wished it could be you. You were the only one worthy of doin' it. I guess thinkin' it made it so because I certainly didn't intentionally do some sort o' magic trick or anythin'."
Cordelia thought about this for a moment and found herself relieved. While there had been so many other things to overanalyze after he died, the thought of what exactly had happened in that moment they shared did always remain somewhere in the recesses of her mind. She had kind of assumed he did it entirely on purpose but she had often wondered how he had known how to do it. He seemed in the dark most of the time about the real nature of his visions so it didn't seem like "how to pass on your visions" would have been a tutorial he would have had the joy of receiving. Then there was the depressing thought that their kiss had been mostly for the purpose of giving her the visions but she tried not to believe that was the truth. She felt like the moment had gained something now knowing for sure that it had been purely emotional.
"Huh," she said, summarizing her feelings eloquently. "Well, either way, I cursed you for it a lot. And for what happened before you jumped."
Doyle bit his lip and glanced away from her for a second in shame.
"My demon face?" he asked sheepishly.
"Of course not your demon face! What you said!" she shouted, almost angry at him that after everything he still would think that she would capitalize on that little fact out of everything that happened that night.
The topic had already been breached not long after they had first seen each other in the white room and neither of them had said anything conclusive on it. He gave her a look of remorse as she tried to find her words.
"Leaving me thinking forever about what could have been," she finally said weakly, her thoughts from earlier finding a voice.
He seemed unable to even form a verbal response, instead leaning in towards her as if he wanted to take her hand again or hold her but he found himself frozen in place. He didn't believe there was any way to apologize for the trouble his words had caused and he didn't feel like he deserved to get closer to her. Maybe a simple, "I love you" or "Knowing you meant so much to me" would have been a better sendoff but it was hard for him to remember if he would have had the courage to say something so personal at that time. All he could remember was being so determined to do what he knew he had to do and the situation had dictated that he act quickly.
She waited a beat to see if he had anything to say or do and when he didn't react, she decided to move on. There's no way he could have known how she would take it and there's no way he would have had time to consider the burden he was leaving her with. Maybe she shouldn't have been so honest but being unrestrainedly honest with him felt natural, especially after everything he had told her.
"I acted really stupid in an effort to seem okay," she continued on, her voice gaining small traces of strength. "I went out a lot; tried to distract myself. I tried dating again which was even more miserable than I could have imagined."
That seemed to spark his interest and loosen him up from his stationary state.
"What do you mean?" he asked diffidently, looking up.
"At that point I found myself stuck between two kinds of guys. There were the rich, connected kind I had dated before who I had never had much luck with and who I thought I needed and then there was you, the brave, self-sacrificing kind of guy who really cared about me and who I actually wanted deep down," she started, thinking without that explanation her behavior didn't make much sense.
"Not long after you . . ." she trailed off, not really caring to say it as it still felt strange to acknowledge someone's death to them, "I dated a guy named Wilson who I thought was a combination of the two. He had a well-paying glamorous job but he wasn't conceited. He was interested in me and seemed to put me first. He was kind but he wasn't ever going to be a hero."
And by that I mean he was never going to sacrifice himself for the greater good or die in a battle against something evil, she thought glumly.
"And I was trying so hard to pretend that I wasn't still a mess. I was telling myself that I needed to move on and here's this great guy and life is short. Life is so short," she mumbled, the last sentence almost said in a whisper as she remembered how internally conflicted she was the entire time (all three dates) she was with Wilson.
She paused for a second, trying to find the smoothest way to deliver the real kicker of the story.
"I still would have sworn off dating if he had just left and never called me again. Of course, I can't ever just get the regular jerk; I get the impregnate-me-with-a-demon jerk," she said incensed.
"Cordy . . ." he started but was interrupted by her before he could find something nice to say.
"And so, I decided to put an indefinite hold on men until I wasn't thinking about you so much and I met the right kind of guy: an actual good guy," she said with a bit of pride.
"And ya settled for the Groosalugg?" he asked dubiously, clearly unimpressed with her choice.
"So now we're at the point when you started spying then?" she asked, raising an eyebrow at him.
"I somehow missed the part where ya met him but I caught the part where you flung yourself into his arms over poor Angel's," he said protectively.
Cordelia threw up her hands in annoyance.
"Did everyone know how Angel felt about me before I did?!" she shouted.
"If it makes ya feel any better, I had kind of an unfair advantage. I had been in his shoes before so I knew what it looked like," he said with a weak smile in an effort to smooth over the situation.
"Well, if you wanted to know," she started with a sigh, "I met him in Pylea, Lorne's home dimension where they made me ruler."
Doyle burst out laughing, half in disbelief and half out of pure joy.
"Good to know you found your kingdom, princess!" he said happily, his eyes alight with amusement. "So he was what? Your servin' boy? No, he'd have to be head o' your army or somethin'."
If he knew Cordelia, and he was sure he did, this Groo fellow would have to have some sort of impressive position in her ruling lands and obviously a guy who looked and dressed like that wasn't a cabinet member.
"He didn't work for me exactly. He was a part-demon, part-human champion of that realm who was supposed to take my visions from me," she explained, deliberately leaving out the question of how. It was weird enough telling him that a guy she dated wanted to take her visions, his visions, from her without having to add in how he planned to do it.
Of course, exchanging vague implications of our sexual histories seems to be a small theme here, she thought, wondering when they had reached that point in their relationship and why she had missed it.
"Hang on. I know this story in reverse," he joked, never thinking he would end up drawing a parallel between himself and Cordelia's clueless ex.
"He called me princess too but, you know, I was one," she added in fond remembrance.
"Ya always were," he said emphatically with a half-smile.
For the second time Cordelia couldn't tell if he was making fun of her or complimenting her. When he had called her princess he had sometimes done it as a way to call her out on her snooty behavior but sometimes he had used it as a term of endearment. She shrugged and decided to just accept the duality of his remark and move on.
"I refused to give him the visions," she said, sure that he already knew but wanting to tell him herself.
"You wouldn't have been able to anyway from what I learned about transferrin' 'em. Unless . . . ya loved him."
Speaking those words had seemed like a strain for him and she briefly wondered if he was saddened by the fact that she may have loved someone enough to be able to transfer the visions to them or if he was sad by the idea of her loving Groo. Considering what he had said about her rebuffing Angel, she figured it was probably the latter.
"In Pylea I didn't need to. They had some sort of prophecy or arrangement or something so I just needed to . . ." she tried to think of a clever euphemism but when nothing came she ended her statement by raising her eyebrows twice and nudging Doyle in the ribs. He mouthed and extended 'oh' of understanding.
"So you didn't, I assume?"
"Not in Pylea," she said, realizing the implication was that she did eventually (have sex with Groo; not transfer the visions) but knowing it probably wasn't any great secret to him. "I liked him but I wasn't going to risk the visions and I couldn't stay there. Then he showed up at the Hyperion a few months later and, well, he was that heroic type that I had frankly always wanted so we dated," she ended casually, pleased with her own explanation.
"But really? That guy?!" he demanded utterly perplexed.
Cordelia groaned at his insistence.
"I'm trying to give you a backhanded compliment about how much you ended up affecting the way I viewed relationships and you're hung up on this?"
She resisted the urge to just grab him by the collar and command that he feel flattered, damnit.
"I eventually realized how I really felt about Angel. It was just . . . too late," she said, her voice trailing off as she felt a twinge of regret.
Doyle gave her a sympathetic look.
"To tell ya the truth, Cordelia, Angel was the only guy who was really worthy of your affection. Sure, it took him far too long to realize how wonderful you are but it only felt right that if I couldn't be with ya that the greatest guy I ever met should have that privilege."
She looked him straight in the eye and resisted the urge to throw her arms around him in an appreciative hug. Angel had always been in favor of Doyle's feelings for her and she knew that the two men's friendship had probably meant more than she ever took the time to understand. In her mind she had always thought that if Doyle knew about her and Angel, he would approve and support them as Angel had done but it was something else entirely to know that he really did.
"It means a lot to hear you say that," she admitted with a small, thankful smile. "Unfortunately, as you know, I didn't really get a chance to tell him. My confession was kind of interrupted by the becoming-a-higher-power thing and then the having-my-body-invaded-by-a-fallen-higher-power thing."
She tried unsuccessfully to stifle the uneasy look that flashed in her eyes as she recalled those times as a backseat driver in her own body. She had a lot of things happen to her in her life but nothing was worse than that.
He could remember trying to find her after she ascended but the Powers had been particularly strict about not letting him see her and it wasn't until later that he realized why. He had spent a lot of time trying to make deals with them, it was something he had become fairly good at in life after all, but they wouldn't budge. When he watched her return to the world, he couldn't help but think that maybe he could have prevented all the torture she went through if he could have only found her and changed the sequence of events, but as he discovered later, all things happen for a reason.
"I loved Angel but I couldn't have ever been with him," Cordelia acknowledged despondently. She had always logically known it but the part of her that loved him was always stronger than the part that told her it was impossible. It was only now that she had almost a year of possession and a few months of coma time, which had bizarrely given her a lot of time to think (being brain dead corporeally but fully cognitive when chatting up the Powers; go figure), that she could really reflect on the ill-fated truth. "His first love will always be the path to redemption and unless he becomes human, nothing will change that. Hell, maybe that won't even stop it. And there was the insurmountable problem of our differences in life spans and aging. . ."
"Besides, there's the whole gettin' carnal means gettin' evil thing," he added.
"Yeah, when people say they'd like to die in bed I don't think that's what they mean," she said, shaking her head. "Before I had feelings for him I came to this revelation that I could never have a normal, spend-your-life-together relationship with someone anyway. I mean, how would anyone understand what we do unless they also live it? It's not like if you . . ."
She noticed what she was about to say and abruptly stopped herself, glancing into his eyes for a second before looking down at the small expanse of couch cushion between them and exhaling quietly. It did no good to make speculations like that, a lesson she had learned years ago after she got over his death, and it similarly didn't do any good to go back to them now. Maybe she and Doyle could have had a normal life together as a couple albeit a normal one for people who fight malevolent supernatural things for a living. Maybe. But there was no way to know.
"Well, I may not be able to spend my life with you but how about my afterlife?" he joked, trying to lighten the mood.
"Considering the mortality rate of this job that seems like the most realistic way to date," she agreed, glad that he seemed adamant about refusing to let her continue to be sad about things that were long in the past.
"Unfortunately, there's no real guarantee of where you will end up after you die. I was just extremely fortunate to be able to find you," he said jovially.
Her face fell as the meaning behind his words sunk in.
"Are you saying I won't see my friends again?" she asked warily.
Sure, she had become cynical about the afterlife and other realms ever since her ascension but seeing Doyle again had given her hope that maybe she would get to see everyone again and her heart sank at the thought that her final goodbyes really had been final. It made sense the more she thought about it though. Wesley, Gunn, Fred, they were all just human and if there's a heaven for demons exclusively, that was sure to be where Lorne would end up. With Angel no one could even predict if he would die as a vampire with a soul or a monster or a human so there was no use counting on him making an appearance either.
Doyle thought about her question for a minute, mapping out the same ideas she was having about where Team Angel would spend eternity but with a bit more insider knowledge.
"We could probably flag 'em down on their way to their new eternal places but most of 'em are humans. Good ones. The best we can hope for is that they'll end up in some heavenly plane and not meet a terrible alternative," Doyle said, verifying her mental speculation.
Great, something new to worry about, she thought. Whoever said death was supposed to be a final rest? But that did remind her of the temporary nature of their present location and that she didn't even know where she was ending up herself let alone any of her still alive friends.
"So you never did tell me: where are we going after this? Is there is a place for half-demon seers?" she asked disbelievingly. There was no way there have been enough of them in the world to warrant their own special heaven.
"In our case at least it's the realm of the PTB," he said, laying his left arm along the back of the couch.
"I'm going to be a higher power again?" she questioned hesitantly.
"Because that went so well last time?" she asked caustically, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Actually because of what happened last time, you have kind of a special deal worked out," he said excitedly. "Your time as a higher power made them reconsider the way they do things a bit. You will still do a lot of floatin' and observin' but they'll actually send you on missions as well."
"Missions?" Cordelia asked intrigued.
"In a spectral form, o' course, but you'll be doing work for the Powers, actively and not passively," he clarified, beaming at her.
"That sounds a lot better," she agreed with almost a sigh of reprieve. "Is that what you do too?"
"No," Doyle said, his elation deflating. "I'm in the floaty place and it took a lifetime to get me there actually. They were weighin' my soul for a while, figuratively speakin'. Weren't sure if I was good enough."
"They were debating you but they let me in with benefits?" she questioned, raising a brow. "Nice to finally get some appreciation around here," she mused complacently, leaning back against the couch, ignoring the fact that she was resting on his arm.
"Well, you'll have to tell me all about how nice it is to kinda sorta walk the earth again as a ghosty thing when ya get back."
"I still get to see you?" she asked, perking up a bit.
"We do share a plane now," he pointed out as a smug smile spread across his face. "I hope you can manage to keep it cleaner than your first apartment."
"And you better remember to put the higher power toilet seat down," she retorted, failing to suppress a grin of her own.
"Deal!" He agreed, practically beaming at her as he was reminded of how much fun it was so verbally spar with her.
Cordelia smiled as her eyes left his to take a long scan of the area that was posing as her apartment. They had been so able to unflappably talk about their lives and afterlives in such an ordinary location that it was only now hitting her that everything around her was fake, an ephemeral glamour to simulate the world she came from. Even her body, while lacking in aches, fatigue, or a necessity for breath or a beating heart, felt like it had before. She felt confined in it, mortal. Doyle's arm that was practically around her shoulders was deceptively warm with life. Everything around her was solid and real but would eventually be replaced with something more surreal and she would feel like a different being again.
"I will miss this place," she said, making her thoughts known to him. "Everything feels almost like we're still alive."
"It makes the transition from human to higher power a little easier," he told her. "For me it's like putting on an old jacket that I haven't worn in a while."
Cordelia smiled weakly at his comment, able to relate to his analogy but still distracted by the idea of how important concrete things can seem after death.
"I spent so much time searching for some tangible trace of you after you died," she said softly, noticing that it was a detail she had forgotten earlier. Trying to find something to remind her of his life had felt almost like the sadness she felt at losing the last bits of her humanity.
"Like what?" he asked, a bit troubled that he hadn't been able to leave her with something nicer than some lingering last words and perpetual killer migraines. He didn't have much in his life but had he been more prepared, he would have left anything she wanted to her.
"I don't know," she said, shrugging. "I had that video tape we made and for a while I kept it in my apartment. I would watch it once in a while and sometimes cry but as time went on it got harder and harder to watch so I ended up slipping it into Angel's things at the Hyperion."
It felt like a lifetime had already passed since she was sitting in Angel's place, watching the tape again after so many years, finally able to smile sadly at it instead of breaking down in tears.
"It didn't feel right to pry into what happened to your apartment and your things so the idea I had that maybe I could take one of your jackets or something because it would smell like you was a bust," she continued, gesturing towards his coat, the one he had been wearing when he died, she recalled. "Besides I realized that the day the smell disappeared, it'd probably make me sad again and I'd just have this random jacket in my closet without much meaning."
"I had a distinct smell?" he asked, tilting his head in interest and then burying his nose in his shoulder. He wasn't surprised to find that he didn't smell anything. When he had hugged Cordelia, he had tried to find her familiar scent (flowery shampoo and a different but complementary body lotion mostly) but came up with nothing as well. It was one of the things that had permanently left them with humanity.
"Yeah, it was like . . . men's deodorant, alcohol, and demon," she said matter-of-factly, as if it was a familiar typical combination.
"You could smell the demon on me?" he asked, puzzled. "I thought only Angel could do that."
"Well, no, it's not like I took a whiff and thought, 'Ah, eau de Bracken.' After I found out you were a demon that explained the smell. For a while I just assumed you brought dollar store cologne."
He nodded in understanding, deciding to let the dollar store comment lie. He had enough dignity to shop at the convenience store at least.
"I wanted something small but meaningful like," she looked around for a second trying to remember what she used to consider acceptable mementos, "I don't know, a picture or," her eyes fell on the chain of a hidden necklace visible at the base of his neck, "a piece of jewelry or something. Like your ring!" she shouted in remembrance as she saw that he was wearing it now.
"My ring?" he asked, holding his right hand up in front of her. He was a bit surprised that she had noticed it at all until he remembered just who he was talking to. He wouldn't be surprised if Cordelia could make up a chart of every outfit she ever saw him wear from memory and rank them from worst to most tolerable.
"Yeah," she said smiling. She grabbed him by his wrist with both hands and ran her thumb over the design on the front. "It's interesting looking and you always wore it so I figured it had to mean something to you but you were wearing it that night so . . ."
She shrugged, looking down as she slowly traced the little heart in the middle.
"You've really never seen a Claddagh ring before? I'm pretty sure Angel has one," he pointed out, trying not to get distracted by the feel of her warm hands around his.
"Maybe he's not as committed to his man jewelry as you are," she said, looking up into his eyes. "So it's an Irish thing?" she asked, leaning towards him, not letting go of his hand even though her own had stopped their movement.
"Yeah, a pretty old thing at that," he said, glad that she seemed so interested. "The different parts represent love, friendship, and loyalty and some people wear it to show their relationship status."
"Convenient," she said with raised brows and a nod. "So what is your ring telling me exactly?"
A smile spread slowly across his face.
"Well, in all the time you knew me I wore it on my left hand with the point of the heart facin' away from me. Some people say that means engaged, some say it means single but it's complicated. It seemed like the most accurate position for me at the time since I wore it on my left hand in the opposite direction when I considered myself married . . ." he explained.
Cordelia nodded in agreement. She had noticed the ring of course but since it didn't exactly look like a wedding ring and he didn't usually wear it on his ring finger, she had assumed he just wore it where ever it fit best. That explained why Angel wasn't at all shocked to meet his estranged wife. He had probably noticed the ring and, since he had one himself, had some idea of what it meant.
"But now it's on your right hand with the point facing towards you?" she finished, her words turning up at the end in question.
"It means I'm not available," he told her, letting his fingers curl around her hands as he held her gaze, "because, for me at least, there's already someone in my . . . afterlife."
Cordelia's lips parted slightly as if she felt she should say something but couldn't find her words and her eyes softened with a look that could be read as pity or as if she was in the early stages of crying. He sucked in a nervous breath and looked away from her in embarrassment. He hadn't exactly been expecting an overwhelmingly positive response but he really hadn't prepared himself for an outright rejection. Maybe it really had been too long. He was hoping she would be flattered, that she at least wouldn't mind the fact that he had died with feelings for her and would continue to have them now. He didn't expect anything of her; he just wanted her to know.
Trust me to go and make eternity awkward by alienating the only friend I have here, he thought bitterly as he stared down at the floor.
The inevitable feeling of her hands sliding from his grasp was coupled with an even more painful gesture of one of her hands finding his cheek and turning his head back towards her. Trying to hide his shame was a lot harder when he had to look at her, sitting so close and looking so beautiful and so very sorry for him.
However, Doyle didn't have long to endure this humiliation before he felt the hand on his face moving to the back of his head, fingers sliding through his hair as he was pulled forward. Her lips, just as he had remembered them, met his and for a second he was too stunned to process what was going on and just remained shocked still.
The second was brief as he responded eagerly, lowering his arm that had been on the back of the couch to wrap it around her waist and draw her towards him. She let out a little gasp of surprise as she was now almost sitting in his lap but that didn't halt anything. She wrapped both her arms around his neck and pressed herself against him earning a groan of approval.
I could have, she thought as she tilted her head back slightly so he could deepen the kiss. There was no learning about it. I could have loved all of you and I hope now you know that.
He was the one to finally, begrudgingly break away, for want of explanation. Their faces remained close as she gave him one of her wide smiles and made no move to pull away from his grasp or to loosen her own hold on him. With the hand that was not around her waist, he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear with a glazed expression, unable to believe his good fortune.
"I've wanted to do that since I saw you in the white room but it seemed kinda inappropriate at the time what with you havin' just died and Angel and everythin'," he admitted delicately, even more satisfied that she had been the one to actually initiate it. "And it's kinda inappropriate now. Higher powers are supposed to be self-sacrificin' and chaste."
Her smile faltered in disappointment at the idea. They're higher powers and they have to conform to some kind of standard? Wasn't this her reward? Didn't they make rules now? She has the rest of time to be those things and she'd be the first to say that no matter how much good she does, she will always be a tiny bit selfish.
Cordelia grinned deviously, running her hands along his neck and beneath his collar.
"Well then I imagine whoever our new boss is would not be happy with what's going on in my mind right now."
He let out a heavy breath as he thought about all the possible things she could mean by that and he knew that he wasn't going to be the righteous one here as he felt any reservations he had dissolving. His eyes brightening and a smirk finding its way to his lips, he was more than happy to oblige her as he leaned in for another feverish kiss.
There are worse ways to spend eternity. This one is certainly better than heaven.