"...and the young warrior faced the evil sorcerer in his underground cavern, and she dared him to hurt her, or the ones she loved. 'I'll never set you free,' she vowed, but the sorcerer only laughed.
"'By coming, you have already freed me,' he told her. 'When I steal your gifts, they will give me freedom.'
"And though the young warrior was suddenly afraid, she fought the sorcerer with all her gifts, all the powers that she'd once called curses. But in the end, he stole them, and escaped from his prison, leaving her on the ground for dead."
"But she didn't die, right, Grandma?" a small boy on the floor demanded. "Even though he got her gifts?"
The old woman smiled down at him, a radiant smile that transcended the wrinkles and lines of her aging face, leaving only beauty. "No, she didn't. Because the sorcerer only took the easy gifts, the obvious ones -- her strength and her skills. He forgot about her other gifts, and those were the ones that saved her. For her friends, her true gifts, came to find her, and they brought her back to life, breathing it from their bodies into hers. Together, they hunted down the evil sorcerer. And the young warrior fought him again and this time, she won -- with a lot of help from those friends, I might add. And she sneered at the evil sorcerer's remains, then took her friends and went out and partied all night, until the sun came up again."
"And they lived happily ever after," the rest of the children chorused gleefully.
The old woman's eyes dimmed and darkened, but her smile remained. "Yes," she agreed quietly. "They lived happily ever after."
"Okay, kids," a middle-aged man at the door announced. His graying brown hair was past his collar, and his smile shone like a pale reflection of the old woman's. "Grandma needs to rest for a little while now. Why don't you come into the living room and play before bed? We've got popsicles."
"Yay!" a chorus of cheers went up, and the children scrambled for the door.
Only the little boy who'd asked the question lagged behind. "Grandma?"
She smiled at him. "What, AJ? Better hurry, or you're gonna miss the cherry popsicles."
He shrugged, peering intently at her face. "They didn't really live happily ever after, right? 'Cause, there was more bad guys that they had to fight, right?"
She tilted her head, studied him in return. His short, sturdy frame, the brown hair he shared with his father and with her. The serious expression as he pondered the questions of the universe. "No, AJ. They didn't live happily ever after. They fought and they lost and they wept and they grieved. And sometimes they won, and sometimes they danced, and sometimes they laughed. And they always, always loved."
He considered that, then nodded. "Okay. I gotta get a popsicle."
"Go on," she laughed and shooed him on his way. The man watched him go with an indulgent expression, then came the rest of the way into the room and knelt by her side.
"How are you feeling, Mom?" he asked, patting her hand.
She jerked it away. "I'd be feeling better if people would stop asking me how I'm feeling."
He laughed and held his hands up. "Sorry, sorry."
She relented and smiled. "Go get one of those popsicles, Alan. And save one for me."
"The baby's still in here, do you want...?"
She nailed him with a glare that had only gotten more powerful with age. "You let her sleep. Get out of here, we'll be fine."
He shrugged and acquiesced, closing the door gently behind him.
The old woman laid her head back again the chair, and rocked slowly. Outside her window, the stars had started to shine, the moon glowing just at the edge of the louvered doors, which stood half-open. A breeze wafted through them, blowing tendrils of her thick hair gently around her face. She'd insisted on those doors, long ago when she and her husband had bought this house. She always wanted a back way out -- and a back way in.
The dark figure outside those doors kept watching her through the gauzy drapes. She was smaller than he remembered, though still as tall. It was simply that she was... not faded, she could never be that. Focused, maybe; distilled down to her essence, to the strength and bone-deep will that her youth had once almost disguised.
But still beautiful. The wrinkles and lines couldn't affect those bones, and he'd seen the smile that lit her face, seen the girl that still lived in her. Her hair was still long, falling down her back, and her gnarled hands were still elegant, her manicure as perfect as her makeup. Some things would never change.
Her eyes opened suddenly, locked onto him as if she'd already known he was there. "You've always been invited," she informed him imperiously, "so come in already, and stop doing the lurking thing."
He laughed softly under his breath, and obeyed, ducking through the drapes into the dimly lit room. "Hello, Cordelia."
She smiled again, and there was none of the accusation he'd dreaded, none of the hurt or blame. Only welcome for the prodigal brother. "Hi, Angel. Took you long enough."
"I'm sorry." He crossed the room swiftly and knelt next to her, taking her hand and brushing a kiss against her cheek. Her skin was like smooth parchment under his lips. "It took a long time for your messages to catch up with me. I'm... kind of a hard man to find, these days."
"Which is different from when, exactly?" Her eyes sparkled at him with the same life he remembered, teasing and challenging and daring him to do anything about it. "At least there's always a Willie in Sunnydale; I knew you'd go back there eventually."
"You were right," he admitted. He sat back on his heels, inspecting the large, comfortable room. "You've done well for yourself, Cordelia. I always knew you would."
She shrugged. "The house is nice, but you just saw the stuff I did best."
"Yes, I did." He shook his head in wonder. "How many grandkids, now?"
"Fifteen." She said it with great satisfaction. "And four great-grands. My kids started early, even though I *told* them I didn't want to be a grandmother until I was, like, 60. And they just keep popping them out."
"And every single one of them looks like you."
Even more satisfaction. "Yup."
He laughed again, the same breathy chuckle she'd heard in her dreams, almost every night for 30 years. It had faded, eventually, but she'd never forgotten. He hadn't changed, she reflected, with love and envy and a small, very tiny, pang of bitterness. At the unfairness of life, though; not at him. "I missed you, Angel," she said quietly, laying her hand on his cheek.
He sobered, lowering his head. "I'm sorry, Cordy. I'm sorry for how I left, and for staying away. But I'm not sorry for going."
"I know." She smiled sadly. "You were doing it for my own good, just like you did with Buffy. She and I had lots of phone conversations that first year, thinking of creative ways to make you pay for it."
His burst of laughter seemed to surprise him almost as much as the wicked glee in her eyes. "You two actually talked?"
She shrugged sadly. "You were gone. No one understood except her and Wesley."
He sobered once more, and she forced herself to smile again. "Hey, no brooding allowed. That's the one thing I never missed, Mr. Sulk in the Dark Until Dawn."
"I never sulked," he objected automatically, then caught himself and smiled ruefully. "Got me."
"That's because you're easy." She ruffled his hair, letting it run like thick silk through her stiff, aching fingers. "If you want forgiveness, Angel, you've had it for years. I was happy, and life was almost normal, and it was a good life."
He nodded. "I'm glad. I, ah, had Wesley feeding me information for the first few years, just to make sure, but... I'm glad."
"I always knew Wesley was lying about not knowing where you were, that rat." She made a face, then blew her breath out, letting her head slip to the side so she could stare out at the stars. "It's been almost twenty years, and I still miss him sometimes. I still miss all of them. We're all that's left, Angel."
"I know." He took her hand again, and they sat for a moment in silence, as ghosts hovered invisibly in the air around them. Cordelia seemed closer to them than to him; his grip tightened on her hands as if he could hold her there by strength alone.
He looked up to find her looking back down at him, smiling faintly as if she knew what he was thinking. She probably did; she'd read his mind on a regular basis, before. "It won't work, Angel."
"I know." He had to clear his throat. "Um, how long...?"
She shrugged. "A few hours, a few days, a few weeks. They don't know."
"Are you... in any pain?"
"No." Her face lit with grim humor. "I'm just kind of really old, Angel, in case you hadn't noticed. It's about time to hang up the old hairdryer and head for the light."
Despite her lightness, his face must have shown his grief, because she shook him with as much strength as her frail body could manage. "Don't do that, Angel. I'm 98 years old, for god's sake, and there's a lot of people waiting for me over there. It'll be good to be with the old gang. Doyle, Wesley, Giles, Willow... I'll get to kick Xander's butt again. And Greg'll be there, and we can sit together and watch our great-grandkids play." She nodded firmly. "It's going to be good."
He smiled at that, although his vision was trying to blur. "It will be, Cordelia. And you'll give all of them my love, right?" He stopped to consider. "Well, except Xander. You can kick him around for me, too."
She flashed a grin, and tilted her head, and was nineteen again for a moment. "Always."
They sat in silence for another moment, until a tiny coo from across the room caught Angel's attention. "Who've we got here?" he wondered, rising to walk over to the portable crib tucked in the corner. A small baby, not more than a few days old, lay on her back, looking up at him through sleepy, half-open eyes. One fist waved loosely in the air, as if the little girl didn't know what else to do with it.
"Bring her over here, and I'll introduce you."
Angel's eyes went very wide. "You mean, um, pick her up? Carry her?"
She rolled her eyes. "Duh. Just watch her head and don't drop her."
"Great. I feel much better." But he slipped his hands under the baby's body, and lifted her carefully out of the crib, then walked equally carefully across the room to deposit her in Cordelia's arms. After she was settled, he took his hands away, letting one finger drift across her incredibly soft cheek.
"See, that didn't hurt," Cordelia teased. "Angel, meet Cordelia Angela. Baby Cordelia, this is Angel, your great-grandmother's best friend."
She pretended not to notice his sudden look up at her, and his equally sudden absorption in catching the baby's flailing fist with his hand. "She's little."
"They start that way. But they get big. Trust me, I've done this lots of times." She rocked the baby carefully, her hands not as certain as they had once been. "They named her after me and her grandmother, my daughter Angela."
"And you named Angela... after me?"
"Why?" She looked up from the baby to find his dark eyes on her, genuinely confused. "Wesley told me, but I didn't... I left."
She nodded. "Yes. You left. You wanted me out of the line of fire, wanted me to be safe, to have a normal life. So you kissed me goodbye the day I married Greg, and you walked out of my life. And I hated you for it for a long time."
He flinched and she sighed, looking down at the baby. "Maybe you were right to leave; I don't know. I don't know what things would have been like if you'd stayed. I do know that the visions stopped after you left. And I do know that I was good at being married, and I was good at being a mom, much to everyone's surprise. And I finally got my law degree and I was *way* good at that."
He grinned. "Yeah, I know. I kept getting the L.A. papers for years, just to see who you'd demolished in court that day."
Her answering smile as smug. "Wolfram & Hart never knew what hit them."
"You kept up the fight," he said quietly, smoothing the baby's hair, then lifting his hand to smooth Cordelia's. "I guess I didn't do as good a job of protecting you as I thought."
"You did better," she told him. "You taught me how to protect myself. You gave me so much, Angel; you were my best friend. You were always my best friend, even when you were only here in my dreams."
He had to look away until his face was under control again. "A day never went by that I didn't think about you," he admitted. "You and Wesley and Buffy and Gunn.... All of it."
"We knew that, silly. We always knew. And we always worried about you."
"I was safe," he objected.
"And alone," she parried.
He shrugged. "That was the deal; I knew that from the beginning. I never did make it to the 'being human' part of the deal, though."
She caught his cheek in her palm, made him look at her. "You were always human, Angel," she told him quietly, certainly.
His response was equally quiet, equally sure. "Only because you always saw me that way."
When she leaned forward against his shoulder, his arms were waiting there to hold her close.
The moment stretched, threatened to tear under its own weight; Angel kissed her hair and Cordelia pulled reluctantly away, shaking herself. "God, listen to us. Now you've got me doing the brood thing. Do me a favor, go get me a glass of water, okay? There should be an ice bucket in there, too; I like it cold."
"Of course." He got up, moved smoothly and silently to the bathroom. Cordelia waited until she heard the water running before she bent to the baby in her arms.
"That's the one I've been telling you about," she told the little girl, her voice a bare whisper. "That's your Angel. Isn't he handsome? Still all broody and mysterious, but we're going to do something about that. Well, you are."
When she sighed this time, her breath was so shallow it couldn't even stir the baby's hair. "Time for the parting gifts, little me, but I've only got two to give you, and I don't know how much you'll like them."
She touched the baby's cheek with one trembling hand. "The first one is Tall, Dark and Lurking in there. I know he doesn't look like much, except for the gorgeous thing, but he needs you an awful lot, and he'll be there to catch you whenever you fall." Her eyes grew misty for a moment. "Just make sure that you catch him, too.
"The second present is even worse, but you're the only one I can give it to. I waited a long time for you to come, little me; you almost got here too late. But here you go. And someday, when you're swearing at me and wishing for things to be different, just remember one thing -- curses are what you make of them."
She brushed a kiss against the baby's forehead, once, then again. As her lips touched the soft, fragile skin, a blue light gleamed between them. It wisped around the two faces for a moment, casting them into odd shadows, then slipped into the baby's eyes, and vanished.
Little Cordelia stared up at her namesake, eyes wide as if she understood what she had just been given. Then she sneezed, and yawned, and Angel was there with the water Cordelia hadn't really wanted.
She sipped it anyway, and smiled up at him. "Take her for a little while, Angel? I'm getting tired."
"I can put her back in her crib," he instantly tried to duck out of it. It took most of her strength to nail him with one last Queen C stare, but he folded under it, just like always. Cradling the baby gently in his arms, he began to walk the room with her. And after a few moments, he even began talking to her under his breath, in words only he and the baby could possibly understand.
Cordelia watched them wander the dark room, her eyes drowsy and happy. *And my last gift to you, Angel -- you won't be alone.*
In the living room outside, she could hear the fussing of grandchildren being rounded up for sleep, the low laughter of adults enjoying themselves and their lives. And beyond those voices, she could hear more -- giggles and chuckles and someone arguing and someone defending and someone teasing them both. She knew those voices as well as the others.
Her family was all here. It was time to go home.
Her eyes slipped shut and her breathing slowed. Then, finally, it stopped. She never heard Angel turn to her, never heard his indrawn breath. She didn't see him put little Cordelia in her crib, touching her cheek gently as he tucked her in. She didn't feel him kneel beside her to smooth her hair one last time, bowing his head against the sudden grief, or see him slip out into the night, alone.
But when they found her a little while later, an old woman sleeping forever in her room, she was smiling. And content.