Ballad for Dead Friends
The lobby of the Hyperion was dark, and though Wright figured this wasn’t out of the ordinary on its own, his spidey senses were telling him something was wrong.
"Anyone else having a serious Jack Nicholson moment?" Gunn asked when no one spoke.
Nothing for a minute. Wesley blinked and looked at him. "Pardon?"
"The Shining," Wright clarified, surveying the lobby with intent. "Get a bead on anything?"
Wesley shook his head and stepped forward. "Spike?"
Zack blinked. "Why would Spike be here?"
"Well, he did disappear from the hunting party. Maybe he found something and wanted to share."
"If Spike was here, he would've let us know by now," Wright replied. "No...this is something else..." He stopped, holding up a hand. "It's..."
Then he wasn't speaking at all. Before Wes or Gunn could get another word in, Wright bolted across the lobby and leapt behind the check-in desk. And there she was, huddled against the floor, sobbing hard and rocking herself back and forth.
“Are you hurt?”
Cordelia shook her head but didn’t say anything else. Wright stood there for a long moment, unsure of what to do—if she even wanted him to do anything. He found himself moving forward after a beat, and the next thing he knew, Cordelia was in his arms, crying against his shoulder.
That was how Wesley and Gunn found him. Found them.
"Oh god, Cordy." Wes hurried forward and knelt beside them.
Gunn looked paralyzed. "What happened?"
There was nothing for a long minute. Just gentle rocking amidst the soft sobs she cried into the Wright’s shoulder.
"Cordy, are you—"
The instant Gunn took a step forward, though, she clutched more tightly to Zack and shook her head, mumbling into his ear.
"What is it?" Wesley asked.
"She says she doesn't wanna talk about it," Wright replied.
Wesley nodded and rose to his feet. "Cordelia," he said softly. "Was it a vision? Did someone hurt you?"
Zack's eyes went wide. "The girls." A sense of urgency suddenly corded his muscles, but at the same time, he didn't want to leave her.
He looked at Gunn.
"On it,” the man said with a nod before turning and disappearing up the staircase.
Cordelia lifted her head at that, tears staining her cheeks. She looked at Wes, then at Wright, who watched as she made an effort to regain control.
Finally, she said, "It wasn't... The girls are fine."
Wright unleashed a sigh of relief, but that didn't stop him from tightening his arms around Cordelia when she tried to sit up. He couldn’t say why, but he wasn't quite ready to let her go.
Wesley had the same idea. Cautiously, he leaned forward, cocking his head. "Cordy..."
"I'm fine," she replied, sitting up.
Both Wright and Wes just looked at her.
"What?” she snapped defensively. “I'm...I—"
"Cordy, we saw you," Wright said softly, wiping away a lazy tear from her cheek with his thumb. "You better tell us what's wrong."
She shuddered within his arms a bit, shaking her head. "I..."
"Girls are fine," Gunn announced, jumping back into the lobby. "Is she all right?"
"We don't know," Wesley replied. "She won't tell us what's wrong."
At that, Cordelia became defensive. It was actually rather admirable, considering that she looked ready to start crying again at any turn. "That's because," she said, glancing back to Zack. "There's nothing wrong."
"Nothing you wanna tell us, you mean," Gunn clarified.
Wright scowled at him, eyes narrowing. "Just back down, all right?"
"It might be important. Cordy, we love you. You know that, right? If something happened—"
"It was nothing," she repeated. "I..." And then trailed off. When she came back to herself, her eyes shone with clarity. Understanding. "I need to speak with Zack alone, please."
Though Wright could tell the request surprised Wesley and Gunn, it didn’t shake him at all. He helped her to her feet, keeping an arm around her middle to steady her in case she decide to fall. "Right, guys," he said. "You heard the lady."
Wesley didn't seem convinced. "Cordelia—"
"I'm fine, Wes. Just...go home. See Virginia or something." She plastered a weak smile on her face and pulled herself from Wright's arms to give her friend a hug. "I wouldn't lie to you."
"I know," he replied. "It's just...with things as they are..."
She nodded. "I know. I love you guys, too. But this...this doesn't have to do with you. Okay?"
Wes looked at her for a long moment before nodding. "All right," he murmured. "All right." Then, with a sigh, he turned to Gunn and nodded for the doors. "Come on. We better go."
Gunn, however, didn’t look convinced. He was studying her harshly like a protective older brother. It was understandable, given the circumstances. "I don't like this," he said. "We—"
"Please, Gunn. I'll see you tomorrow. Okay?"
Nothing, and finally a nod. A very reluctant but understanding nod. "All right." His gaze turned to Zack's. "You're staying with her tonight?"
"Let us know if anything—"
After the others left, an uncomfortable silence fell between them. Zack wasn’t sure what to do now that he was alone with her, and she didn’t seem to have an answer at the ready.
"Ummm," he said. "I'm going to go check on the girls."
He smiled. "Yeah. Well, maybe when you have kids, you'll understand."
"Nikki's your kid?"
At that, he paused, eyes wide. "Good god, no!"
"Didn't think so."
"Do I really look that old? Honestly?"
Cordelia grinned, though not as broadly as usual. The sheen of dried tears glimmered lightly off her face. "Well, I dunno," she said after a moment. It was odd to hear a voice that was usually confident quiver. "Maybe if you shaved and smiled a bit more, like I said earlier."
It was natural—Wright scowled, and earned a small chuckle.
"Or do the exact opposite. Whichev."
"This is getting back at me for calling Wes old, isn't it?"
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Yeah. Uh huh. I'll be right back."
The girls were fine, though he had known they would be. It was a picture he had seen a thousand times. Nikki was curled on her side, one hand tucked under her pillow where she kept a stake, just in case. He had told her that such precautions were not necessary while they were guests in the Hyperion due to the enhanced invitation charm, but she didn't care. It was habit, after all, and she couldn't sleep if there wasn't a weapon within reach.
Rosalie was on the opposite bed, wrapped like a burrito in her sheets. The sheets themselves had been a godsend. Wright hadn't known the hotel had any extra accommodations and suspected that Cordelia had snagged them from Angel's room. The same room Spike had avoided. Wright had as well. It might be nicer, but he didn’t want anything to do with it.
Because of Angelus…
It was a roundabout kind of sense, he knew, but had Angelus remained Angelus—had that damned soul never happened in the first place—Darla would not have given Zack a second glance. Sure, people would have died, but Amber would have lived. She would have lived, and he would never have known about vampires, demons, or other uglies that went bump in the night.
Purely selfish reasoning, of course.
But then he thought of Wesley and Gunn, even Spike. His thoughts drifted to Cordelia downstairs. The idea of not knowing her did not rest well with him. He didn't know if he had been out of the loop too long, if he was merely reaching for any connection, or if he was seeing something that wasn't there, but that didn't change the radical dive his feelings had taken. Slowly at first. Little things.
Seeing her sobbing like that had been one of the single most horrifying moments in his life, and he hadn’t thought that could happen anymore. After all that had happened, all that had led him here, he couldn't stand it if another one of his girls got hurt. Rosalie was all right. Nikki was all right. Cordelia was not, even if she denied it. She was a pillar of strength, he had to admit. Even Amber at her best couldn't have witnessed and done the things that the Seer had and remained so…peppy.
And still, the thought of moving on sickened him. It felt wrong to be anything but faithful to his wife, even years later. Aside from one memorable night in San Antonio, Wright hadn’t so much as looked at another woman since Amber died. He hadn’t wanted to. His life had been too consumed with vengeance to worry much with sex or companionship.
Now he felt something else, and he didn’t like it. But he also didn’t know who to blame—himself for feeling it, Cordelia for being it, or Amber’s ghost for haunting him still.
Better to get downstairs. Apart from everything else, Wright didn't want to leave Cordelia for too long. The girls were fine—that was all he needed to know.
He found her in much the same state that he had left her. She had moved to one of the sofas in the middle of the lobby and was sipping at a cup of hot tea. He smiled. A tower of strength she might be, but even towers had their off days.
A flicker and she glanced up. "Hey."
The smile on his face broadened. She spoke as though he was a friend visiting for the weekend.
"Girls all right?"
A shadow of a smirk crossed her face. "Told yah."
Wright's grin remained but he didn't reply. Instead, he continued on downstairs and assumed a seat in the chair opposite her. They sat in companionable silence for a few seconds—enjoying the art of not speaking, even if discussion was inevitable.
When the time came to break the silence, Wright was glad she was the first to speak. The last thing he wanted was to coax her into a conversation she wasn’t ready for.
Yet her words chilled him.
"She was pretty."
Three little words. Nothing specific, and yet he knew what she was talking about. Wright wasn't aware that he was staring at her until Cordelia shifted uncomfortably and averted her eyes.
Then she was rambling, and that was never good.
"Really, from what I saw, Rosalie looks just like her. Well, you got the blonde thing going. Where did the blonde come from? Brown plus brown equals blonde? Maybe it was something on your parents’ side. But totally—the eyes. The eyes are, like, the same. I can—"
Zack grasped her wrist, his eyes seeking hers. "You saw her."
A trembling breath slipped passed Cordelia's lips, and she nodded, her gaze fogging again with the shimmer of tears. "I saw her," she replied hoarsely. "Oh god. I...there was...over and over again. So much pain. So much...so much rage. I hadn't felt anything like that since... Well, last year, when the visions wouldn't stop and I felt like my head was about to explode. It was so vivid. I felt it. I felt everything that bitch did to her." A sob rattled her system, and she caressed her mouth with the back of her hand. "I can't...it was...and then you. I felt what you felt, and I…I'm so sorry."
"You have nothing to be sorry about."
"But I felt it, Zack. You don't understand. I felt it. I felt everything." She shook her head and tried to turn away, but he wouldn't let her. It was important to him that they maintain eye contact. "Everything. Her. You. Even Rosalie, I think. On a level. It was...and I don't know why! It's not like it's something I can get everyone on. It's not like I can tell Wes and Gunn to pile up the car with stakes and crosses so we bust a cap to go save her. It happened and I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I feel helpless and I...I'm never helpless. It's—"
That struck a chord he did not wish to investigate. "I know."
"Sensory overload. God, it's never been like that before. I've never felt everything before." She shook her head. "And it was tearing me apart. It didn't last long, but it felt like forever. It felt like—"
"I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner."
There was a cold pause and her gaze met his again. And then, anger. Random but real anger. She jumped to her feet and wiped at her eyes. "Would you stop already?"
Wright frowned. "Stop what?"
"This! Stop...stop just pretending that you're concerned about me, all right? I know now. I know everything. I get why you're here. Why you want Darla dead so much." Her hands fisted. "God, she was right here. Right fucking here and Wes and I didn't just...kill her like we should have. 'Cause Angel had to go on his all holy quest only to find out that—hey—she couldn't be saved. She was gonna die and there was nothing his redemptive ass could do about it." Cordelia stopped again. "There are only so many lines a person can cross before redemption's not listed under the options section of the How To Live As A Dead Person guidebook."
Zack rose to his feet. "I wasn't pretending."
"That's swell. But I can't make it stop." She clutched at her chest. "I can't make it stop. I just keep seeing it over and over and over again. I can even..." A painful pause. "I can even hear her laughing. Darla laughing as she...as she butchered—"
That was too much. He held up a hand and closed his eyes tightly.
"I'm sorry," Cordelia whispered after a minute.
"I am, too. Sorry you had to see that. Go through it." He shook his head and glanced away. "It was hard enough the first time. Doesn't get any easier, either. Turning into who I am. Doing what I do."
"You do good, though. You've done a lot of good."
"I've done my fair share of bad, too."
"I think that comes with being human, sweetie. Just the way things are." Cordelia sighed “I can definitely see why trusting Spike was a big for you. Hell, I was there for the entire 'Angel goes bonkers, take one' and I still...I forgave him. Came and worked for him. Saved him from being hot-pokered to death by Spike."
Wright quirked an eyebrow. "Someday, you're gonna have to tell me that story, start to finish."
"It was before he was a good guy." She shrugged.
"You call Spike a good guy?"
"Despite my new and improved position against all things vampy? Yeah." Cordelia smiled thinly. "He's one of us. Besides...you were able to see beyond the fangs."
"Took me a while."
She gave him a skeptical glance. "It's only been a few days."
"Felt longer. And I haven't given him a clean bill of...whatever you give vampires." Wright frowned. "But I see...sometimes I see so much of me in him. What he's doing for this chick."
He made a face. "Horrible name."
Cordelia chuckled. "The girl was always on the wrong side of weird back in high school. Of course, she had the slaying thing and the typical 'woe is me, my boyfriend's a bloodsucking fiend from beyond the grave' thing going for her. The Angel and Buffy show. Really wish we'd had a mute button."
"And now she's Spike's girl."
"Well, Spike wants her to be his girl. There's a big difference." She frowned. "I hope he knows what he's doing, or realizes it, anyway. Buffy and I were never close for the obvious reasons, but I do remember her being a little on the high and mighty side when it came to vamps."
Wright snickered. "Well, she is the Slayer. From what I've heard about those the past few days, it's sorta her duty to not give vampires a free pass."
"Even with what Spike is doing for her? Risking for her?"
"Spike's said he doesn't expect anything in return."
"And you believe that?"
"Yes." He held up a hand. "But that doesn't mean he doesn't want anything in return. He just knows he's not gonna get it. And I see myself in that. More so than I wish I did."
Cordelia pursed her lips. "This is purely on a seer level," she said after a minute. "But...I think you two were in the same state before you met. And despite however little you like it, you're bringing out the humanity in each other, because you can see where it needs to go. You said you see yourself in him. Maybe he sees himself in you, too. Maybe he sees what will happen to him if he...if he can't save her."
There was a pause. "He'll turn into some self-loathing demon hunter who can't see but from kill to kill, and doesn't stop even when he knows it's destroying him?"
"No." She took several bold steps toward him, gaze steady and intent. He had never known a woman who could go from crying one minute to looking so damned courageous and determined the next. He had always boasted Amber's strength and independence, but he didn't know now if he’d seen something that had actually been there or not. "Instead of doing all the saving, he'll become someone who needs to be saved just as badly. And he'll be too proud to admit it when he needs help."
What followed remained a blur. Wright felt something warm brush against his lips—soft, pliable, and aching with as much wrought tension and liberation as he had ever thought to give or receive. It was delicious. Bold. God, it was another first. The girls of his past had usually been too shy to make such a forward move, even if it was birthed from friendship rather than sensuality. New and wonderful and gone too quickly.
Cordelia smiled at him warmly with kindness he reckoned she didn't even know she possessed and made to pass him. "Good night."
Only he couldn't allow it to rest at that. Not after being given a sample of something he had denied himself for the better part of a decade. Before he could think through the consequences of his actions, Wright had grasped her by the arm and drawn her mouth back to his. Needing, hot, and relentless. A surge of cool relief flooded him when she did not challenge him, rather sank into him with the same note of surrender. Whatever battle he had thought to come to blows with tonight was over. And after years of denying himself, he was ready to drown.
She understood. Fully. Of everyone that had tried to break down his wall, she had succeeded. Because she felt it just as much as he did.
Too soon it was over. They pulled apart gasping.
"Wow," she breathed.
"Yeah," he agreed, a little dazed. "Sorry, it's...it's just been so long."
"I didn't mean to... That wasn't what I was trying—"
They were silent for a few more minutes. Panting and studying each other without trade. Something there that neither wanted to approach. Something to be saved for another time.
"Well," Cordelia said, clearing her throat and stepping aside. "I'm...umm...going to go to bed. Use...well, I guess Angel's room is the only room that's all bed-ready."
"I can take you home if you like."
"No. I'd rather...umm...stay here." She offered a weak smile. "Little late to be going out again. Besides, your girls'd be all by themselves."
He nodded. "Yeah. They would."
Another moment. Another nod. "Goodnight, Zack."
Cordelia made it halfway up the stairs before he stopped her.
Wright looked perplexed by his own request for a minute, wrestling with thoughts and words. And when he spoke, it was more than heartfelt. "Thank you."
"For being one to save me." He grinned slightly. "For being that damned stubborn."
A pause before she smiled. Zack made a note then to get her to smile as often as possible.
"Anytime," she replied with a wink. Then disappeared into the darkness of the upper chambers. Up with the others. Nikki and Rosalie.