As he opened the lock on Cordelia's door, Angel gave thanks to whoever watched over vampires with souls that the basement of her apartment complex was linked directly to the sewers; it had made coming and going a lot easier over the last several weeks.
"Cordelia?" he called as he closed the door behind him, taking off his long, protective duster and hanging it up carefully. No sense in giving Cordelia anything else to complain about. There was no answer except for the sound of the hairdryer in the bathroom; he gave up trying to make himself heard, and headed for the refrigerator and dinner.
Dennis was already levitating a cup of blood into the microwave; Angel gave the air a half-smile. "Thanks, Dennis." He sprawled in one of the kitchen chairs, only then noticing the mess the apartment was in. There were dresses everywhere, mostly of the fancy-and-sexy variety, and wet towels draped over the couch, which Cordelia had yelled at Wesley for doing just the other day.
"Okay," Angel mused out loud. "Cordelia's got one of her dates. Any idea who this one is, Dennis?"
A pot rose and fell noisily on Cordelia's sink; whoever it was, Dennis didn't approve. Well, that was a bad sign.
Before he could continue the frustrating process of interrogating a ghost, Cordelia emerged from the bathroom and rounded the corner into the kitchen, hand still putting the finishing touches on her upswept hair. "Angel, you're here! Already. Earlier than I expected. Darn." Her voice trailed off and she bit her lip, then forced a wide smile. "I mean, hi!"
Angel looked at her quizzically. "You asked me to make sure I was here at 5:30, Cordelia. You said you wanted to talk to me about something."
"Right. Yes. I did." Delivered with all the fake brightness Cordelia was capable of, and totally unconvincing. "And here you are. Without Wesley. Where's Wesley?"
Angel shrugged. "Hitting the bookstores, probably. We need to start replacing the library."
"Oh, right. Don't let him skip dinner," she warned automatically. "I'm not going to be here to shove food down his 'I'm a Watcher, watch me research' throat."
"I'll remember," Angel assured her, trying to hide his smile. The new caring and maternal Cordelia Chase had taken some getting used to, but he liked it. So did Wesley, when she wasn't driving him crazy trying to make him recover through force of will alone. "So. What's the problem, Cordelia?"
"Problem? Who said there was a problem?"
Uh-oh. That was definitely the Cordy-caught-in-headlights expression. Angel's smile faded and he leaned forward in the chair. "Cordelia? What's wrong?"
Her false smile faded completely, and she bit her lip again, one hand playing with her hair. If she wasn't careful, she was going to destroy the careful style that looked like it had taken a lot of time to achieve. Actually, the whole outfit -- from the black silk top and the slim skirt, to the careful and perfect makeup -- looked as if she'd taken even more time over it than usual.
"Big date?" he asked casually, every muscle tensing. Cordelia's taste in men....
She started to answer, stopped, took a breath, and started again. "Yes. Big date. Kind of important."
"Casting director?" Who would have to be warned off any ideas about the casting couch. "Actor?" Who wasn't going to be running any scenes that involved hands or tongues. "Doctor?" Who could damn well practice his bedside manner on his patients.
Cordelia rolled her eyes, undoubtedly seeing the calculations running through his mind. But she didn't fire back any of her usual 'intimidate my dates and you can do your own filing for a month' defenses; if anything, she looked more worried.
"No," she said hesitantly. "He's, um.... a lawyer."
"Oh." Great. Her last date with a lawyer had ended with Angel having to send Wesley to pick her up from the bar where the guy had gotten drunk. He kept those thoughts off his face, and said noncommittally, "A lawyer, that's nice. Stable work. Anyone I know?"
She flinched. She actually flinched, and Angel's bad feeling grew steadily worse. "Um, yeah," she answered, biting her lip again. "You've, um, met him a couple times, in fact."
"Oh." No, he was definitely not going to like this. "I... don't suppose he's a public defender?"
"One of David's tax guys?"
"No." Even more quietly.
"District attorney's office?"
She just shook her head, her lips forming the denial soundlessly.
He was running out of ideas. And he knew of at least one lawyer who, except for the pesky 'complete lack of morals' thing, perfectly matched Cordelia's top five requirements for a guy. "Cordelia... Tell me you're not...."
"I have a date with Lindsey McDonald." She said it quickly, as if she was afraid she wouldn't be able to say it otherwise. "He's coming to pick me up, and we're going to dinner, and then he's got really good theater seats."
It took real, conscious effort to bite back his first response. And the second. By the third, he gave up. "Lindsey McDonald? Wolfram & Hart's Lindsey McDonald? The Lindsey McDonald who defended Russell Winters? The Lindsey McDonald who chose to work for the people who blew up our office and tried to kill you and Wesley? Several times?"
His voice had dropped to a deadly whisper by the end of the recitation; Cordelia flinched away, then rallied, rising up to every inch of height afforded by her high-heeled sandals. "Lindsey didn't have anything to do with the bomb," she informed Angel. "And he gave you the scroll that saved me!"
"After I threatened him with ax," Angel pointed out, still and menacing. "That's supposed to excuse him?"
"No, it's... I...." She threw up her hands and stalked away into the living room. "I knew you were going to freak out, I knew it! As soon as I said yes to that first date, I knew you were going to lose it!"
"First. Date." Not a question. A demand for immediate explanation and it had better be good.
Cordelia winced again, then dropped onto the couch, hiding her face in her hands. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she moaned. "I know I should have told you, but it just sort of happened and... I thought I could handle it. I wanted to handle it."
"Handle it?" Anger at Cordelia was replaced for a moment by fear -- then seething fury at McDonald. He knelt in front of her, grabbing her hands and forcing them away from her face. "Handle what, Cordelia? Is he making you do anything? Is he--?"
"No!" she denied instantly, her eyes wide and appalled. "No, he's not... It's not like that, Angel, he wouldn't do that. Well, maybe he would, but he's not!"
He would almost have preferred a different answer, would have preferred it if someone had been forcing her to lie to him -- instead of her doing so by choice. Lying to him of her own free will.
"So why tell me now?" Buffy had always hated that tone, called it his 'cold bastard' routine; he hadn't used it on her often, and had never used it on Cordelia. Until now. "Obviously you don't care what I think about any of this, or you wouldn't have been lying to me about it."
Her head shot up, eyes wide and appalled. "I did not lie!" she insisted. "I just-- I didn't tell you things that weren't strictly any of your business."
After everything they'd been through in the last year, that she didn't feel like she needed to tell him something this important...
"You dating a Wolfram & Hart lawyer isn't my business. Fine." Hurt combined with fury to make his voice colder, more cutting; he heard it and couldn't stop himself as he slowly stalked through the arch separating the kitchen from the living room. "I guess I can see that. It's not like all of your other dates in L.A. haven't been spectacular successes. Or like this particular law firm hasn't tried to kill and/or sacrifice you a few times. No. There's no reason I'd need to know where you were to oh, maybe save you or something."
She was huddled into the corner of the couch now, retreating from him. "I told Dennis to tell you if I didn't come home on time."
"Oh really." He crossed his arms and cocked his head, looking down at her. "And how would a ghost have told me you were out partying with the Lawyer from Hell? Morse code? Sorry, don't know it."
Apparently his sarcasm levels had hit overload; her hands clenched into fists and she shot to her feet. "Listen, you," she hissed, poking him in the chest with a long, perfectly manicured fingernail. "I'm not stupid! I left him a note to give you, and I told Buffy to call you and Wesley if I didn't check in. I covered my ass six ways from Sunday, and if you're hurt because you didn't get to play white knight again, then that's just too bad!"
He loomed over her, ignoring the renewed jabbing. "Maybe it's just because I've had to do it so much. I'm kind of in the habit of having to bail you out these days."
"Bite me," she snarled back. "I can take of myself, remember? Cosmic Messenger or not, there are choices I still get to make about my own life, and this happens to be one of them. And, I might add, one that doesn't concern you!"
"Wrong," he cut her off. "When it involves one of Wolfram & Hart's minions using you to get to me, then it damn well does concern me."
She blinked and stepped back. "Oh, because no one could possibly want to date Cordelia Chase for any reason except to get to you? Is that what you think? Is that what you really believe about me?" She turned away, walking towards the window. "You think I'm too stupid to have thought of that? I'm too naive to know that there's a really good chance Lindsey is just using me to get close to you, that he's the world's greatest actor?
"Well, I do know it." She turned back to him, her chin high and her eyes dry. "I knew it the first time we went out, and that damn well was why we went out the first time. Because Lindsey wanted to use me, and I thought I could use him, and we wound up using each other."
"I can see the scars it must have left," Angel observed with bland, cold irony. "He was the one who sent those flowers, wasn't he? With the card you very carefully didn't let me see?"
Cordelia laughed, humorlessly. "Yes, that was him. But you know what? I was the one who was stupid. Yup, I'm saying it so you don't have to. I called him, and I asked him out again and you know what else? We had a great time. Lindsey is funny and he's smart, and when he's not pissing me off just for the hell of it, he's a gentleman.
"And maybe he is using me, like every other guy I've ever met." Her look at him was pointed, and Angel felt the injustice of it clear down to the part of his heart she'd cracked open when she'd called him her family. If it showed, she didn't notice. "But if he is using me, it's because I decided to let him, and I'll deal with the consequences. And if you have a problem with that, or if Wesley has a problem with it, then the hell with both of you."
If he'd thought about it even half a second, he wouldn't have said it. But she was in his face again, defiant and refusing to even consider that she could be wrong, that he could care, and the words came out before he could stop them. Came out perfectly calm, perfectly level, and all the worse for that.
"Do you think Doyle would have a problem with it?"
She stiffened, and the eyes that had been hard and furious suddenly widened in pain, as if he'd slapped her. Actually, he thought with sudden sick panic, it might have been kinder if he had. "Cordelia--"
She shook her head once, cutting him off; his hand, reaching for her, hung uselessly in midair. She wrapped her arms around her waist, hugging herself as if to ward off more blows.
"I don't really know what Doyle would say," she said carefully, and he knew the casting directors were all insane because there was only the tiniest shake in her voice. "I don't know what Doyle would say because Doyle, he's dead. He found his redemption and he took it, and he's not here to approve or disapprove of anything I do. And you don't get to, either."
Cordelia turned away again, staring sightlessly at the wall; he made another motion to apologize, to comfort, but her shoulders stiffened as if she could see him. "Not everyone gets lucky like you, Angel," she said quietly, conversationally. "They don't get their souls back all in one shot -- 'Hey, found this on the sidewalk, is it yours?' Some people have to work for it, fight for it every step of the way. And they can't do it alone."
Angel started to speak, stopped, and tried again. "You think that's what McDon... What Lindsey wants? Redemption?"
She shrugged, a tiny movement of one shoulder. "I don't know. I don't think he knows; for a lawyer, he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer about some things. But he wants something that he can't get at Wolfram & Hart, or he wouldn't have come looking for you to save those kids. And he wouldn't have come looking for me."
"To save him?" No sarcasm, just curiosity. And worry.
She almost laughed -- or maybe it was a sob. "I'm not that stupid. Lindsey's gonna have to save himself. But if he ever wants to...." Her voice trailed off; when she turned around and met his gaze, her hazel eyes were calm again, but there was a shimmer of tears over them. "But if he ever really wants to, I'm not going to make him do it alone, Angel. There's nothing worse than being alone."
He nodded slowly. "No. There's nothing worse."
Her lips twisted. "I should have told you, you're right about that. But not because you had any right to know, or because I work for you. I should have told you because I'm scared. I don't know what I'm doing, and I really hate lying to you, and I really, really need you."
"I'm here, Cordelia," he said, finding it hard to force the words past the lump in his throat. "If you need me, I'm here."
When he held out his hand this time, she walked right past it and into his arms, burying her face against his chest. He cradled her close, resting his cheek on the soft thickness of her hair. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry."
It took long moments of muffled sobs and incoherent assurances before Angel could make his arms loosen, make himself let Cordelia step back. She didn't go far.
"So," she said, sniffing and trying to smile, "was that, like, our first fight?"
Angel almost managed a smile in return. "Yeah, I guess so. You're, ah, going to have to have it again with Wesley, you know."
Her smile wavered. "I know."
His eyes were serious as they rested on her. "I can't stop you from doing this, Cordelia, and you know I'm always here if you need me. But this is a really, really bad idea, and I'm going to be telling you that sometimes."
She shrugged. "I figured. And I'm going to be telling you to butt out pretty much all the time."
"That's fair." He caught her hand again, studied it, aware of just how close he'd almost come to losing his best friend -- first to Wolfram & Hart's demon, then to his own. "I'll leave you alone, Cordelia, if you promise me one thing."
A wary sideways look up at him. "What?"
He took her other hand, held it tightly. "Promise you'll tell me when you get scared, if anything happens that frightens you. If you get suspicious of Lindsey or anything around him, promise me you won't try to handle it yourself. You'll tell me and Wesley, you'll trust us to help."
She thought about it for a long second. "Okay," she finally agreed. "I promise." Then she grinned. "I was planning on doing that anyway, but if I get something out of the deal, that's cool."
He sighed, then laughed, and impulsively kissed her on the forehead. She waved him off, her face happy and unshadowed for the first time in weeks.
Then the doorbell rang, and they both sobered. "That's him?" Angel asked, guessing the answer.
Cordelia nodded. "Yeah. I told him he had to pick me up this time."
"Does he, ah... know I'm here?"
Another nod. "Yup; that was the deal. I told him I wouldn't lie to you anymore. I also told him you wouldn't try to kill him if he'd play nice, so play nice."
With that warning, she made quick repairs to her makeup using the mirror by the door, then settled her shoulders and opened it. "Hi, Lindsey."
"Cordelia." McDonald was, like almost every other time Angel had ever seen him, dressed in a perfectly tailored dark suit, his shoes spit-shined and his tie neatly knotted. He handed Cordelia a bunch of spring flowers -- not roses again, Angel noted; the guy was smooth -- then lifted his chin arrogantly and met Angel's hard stare. "Angel."
"Lindsey." He'd promised Cordelia not to kill the bastard. That didn't mean he had to be polite.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Think you two can co-exist long enough for me to put these in water?"
"Don't bet on it," McDonald muttered. She glared at him; he huffed out a breath and gestured with one hand -- 'it's cool, go'. She gave each of them one more glare for good measure, then took the few steps into the kitchen.
The two men stood in heavy silence, waiting for her to come back. Neither one wanted to be the first to speak, to concede any kind of ground to the other. Angel's hands tightened with the effort of not going for the guy's throat. McDonald's jaw worked with the effort not to say whatever it was he wanted to say. Cordelia hummed cheerfully and off-key in the kitchen.
Angel finally broke the silence. "If you hurt her, there's not going to be a hole deep enough for you to hide in. I will hunt you down, and you will beg me to let you die."
Angelus lurked around the edges of Angel's soul, waiting for a chance to come out, and it must have showed. But McDonald had guts, if nothing else. His chin came up a little higher, and he met Angel's eyes fearlessly. Almost. "Cordelia can take care of herself."
"Yeah, she can," Angel agreed. "But she doesn't have to."
McDonald's jaw worked again, then he nodded, once.
Cordelia reemerged, a smile pasted firmly in place, and picked up a jacket that matched her skirt. "All finished with the death threats? Good. Lindsey, let's go."
"Right." McDonald helped Cordelia with her jacket, held the door for her, and escorted her out with a hand at her waist. Angel -- very maturely, he thought -- didn't rip that hand off at the wrist.
"We'll be home by midnight," Cordelia half-turned in the doorway to tell him, her eyes meeting his meaningfully.
The message wasn't lost on either man, but Angel was the only one who smiled. Okay, smirked. "I'll be waiting up."
Lindsey rolled his eyes and closed the door, muttering something nasty about "blood-sucking chaperones" under his breath, and Cordelia laughed. Angel watched them go, then sighed and sat down on the couch, rubbing his forehead with one hand.
Wesley was really not going to like this. And... wait a minute. Buffy knew? She'd told Buffy, but not them?