40: Introductions

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Chapter 40: Introductions

 

For a Sunday evening, the Sunnydale High library was busier than most school days. The Scooby Gang had gathered there just over half an hour ago at the request of Rupert Giles to get the details on Angelus and Angel. Having purposefully held them off most of the day with just the basic facts, he had also demanded they leave Cordelia and the Moirae’s new champion alone.

“So Klotho’s metaphorical pregnancy was just that,” Oz spoke up when the others around the room stared at the Watcher like gaping fish, “the merging of the gathered essence of Liam, Angelus and Angel into a completely new entity.”

Oz paused to look around for other reactions. Finding no other opinions voiced, he added an interested nod, “Cool.”

Now Buffy, Xander and Willow were gaping at him. Apparently ‘cool’ wasn’t the right descriptor for the situation in their minds.

Giles was unsurprised that Oz was the first to understand the application of the theory. Though stoic by nature, the werewolf was extremely intelligent and insightful. “In ways that we will never be able to fully detail, this new vampire is the sum of his parts. A unique being, but one who possesses the traits and memories of both Angelus and Angel. He will know you all, but technically this is his first time meeting you.”

“I can’t believe Angelus is gone,” Willow’s lower lip quivered unhappily. “He was such a sweet vampire.”

Rolling his eyes, Xander couldn’t believe it. “Listen to yourself, Will. You just said that Angelus was sweet. Angelus! The Scourge of Europe sweet? No wonder the Fates got rid of him. What use is a sweet formerly evil vampire when they want a champion?”

“That’s not a nice thing to say, Xander Harris,” gasped Willow. “You take that back.”

“Will not!” Stubbornly crossing his arms, Xander suddenly felt like he was back in kindergarten fighting over crayons.

“Angelus deserved to be their champion,” Willow shrugged off Oz’ arm not wanting any comfort right now. She didn’t care if there were tears flowing down her cheeks again and her eyes were red.

Buffy snapped at the idea. “No way.”

“Way.”

“Maybe Cordelia had Angelus wrapped around her little finger, but he was still a soulless vampire,” Buffy pointed out refusing to think that Angelus might have earned such an honor. “It was Angel who should’ve been their choice.”

“Psycho vamp?” Willow railed at her. “He couldn’t even control his instincts much less act as a champion. Considering…I mean, just look at you…well, you know what I mean when I say that…hello!…vampire bite…gosh, if anyone knows that—”

Squaring off in the middle of the library the petite blonde and redhead parried opinions at a fast pace until Xander and Oz finally stepped in to stop them. Neither had ever seen the two friends at each other’s throats in a verbal battle over anything. Buffy’s sharp quips interspersed Willow’s continuous trail of prattling babble.

Clearing his throat, Giles gained their attention. “Your opinions are no less valid than they were last night. However, the Moirae had different intentions and now they have come to fruition. Cordelia and Angel will be arriving any time now and I expect you all to behave yourselves.”

“W-What did you call him?” Buffy asked in a hushed voice.

“Angel,” repeated Giles realizing that he had purposefully left that out the first time he talked to the Slayer. Tugging at his tie, he followed up with an explanation.

Willow clarified, “So he goes by both names? I can call him Angelus if I want too?”

A groan sounded from Xander’s direction. “You trying to give us nightmares, Will?”

“No. It’ll make me feel better,” Willow commented with a pout wiping at her tear-stained face with the sleeve of her fuzzy sweater. “Like he’s not totally gone, which I suppose he is really still there…sorta…just not himself, ya know…just mixed with part of Angel too and part of Liam…though we didn’t know him as a human except for that…uh…peek at him that Klotho showed us. I wonder what he’s gonna be like.”

Buffy hadn’t said anything else since Giles called the new vampire by the name Angel. It caused her to drift off into her own thoughts where she wondered if this combination of Angel and Angelus might not be closer to her own boyfriend. Former boyfriend. The way he was before the split. Afterward, Angel had taken on a whole different personality and not been himself at all.

Just one of the reasons leading to their breakup. Was it possible things would be better this way? “Giles? If Angelus was Cordelia’s mate, but Angel wasn’t— what does that make the new guy?”

“Single?” Xander snarked before Giles could answer or before his own brain caught up with his mouth. Idiot. What are you trying to do? Give her ideas? Wave a red flag why dontcha!

Catching the look of horrification on Xander’s face, Giles easily reasoned out what was going on in the boy’s head. “Angel’s relationship with Cordelia is complicated. Frankly, it is none of our business, but technically they are both unattached. Cordelia remains part of the Order of Aurelius and subject to the will of the master.”

Snorting, Xander couldn’t stop himself. He wasn’t one for screaming or crying. Most of the time. Especially not over Angelus and Angel. The tension over the whole situation came out in bursts of uncontrollable humor. He could just picture himself hopping around on one leg because his foot was literally stuck in his mouth all day.

“Like Cordelia Chase is subject to anyone’s will,” Xander would believe pigs could fly before that one. “We don’t call her Queen C for nothing. As the former boyfriend, I think I have a handle on that.”

“But that’s just you, Xander,” Willow pointed out thinking that her friend couldn’t bend a flexible straw to his will much less Cordelia.

“Hey!”

Willow shrugged her thin shoulders. “I’m just saying it may be different with Angelus. It may be different than before. We don’t know what he’ll be like.”

“Good point,” Xander’s eyes narrowed as a worrisome thought crept into his head. “This vamp could be dangerous. Angelus was on a leash while he was here. This guy isn’t. He could be just as psycho as Angel for all we know.”

“Angel’s behavior was a temporary aberration,” Giles commented in defense. “A method of madness to provide the soul with certain experiences. The new vampire is certainly not psychotic, but he does possess the potential for both good and evil.”

Oz nodded thinking of his own struggles being a werewolf. “That applies to us all.”

“Agreed,” said Giles with an identical nod of concurrence.

“Most of us aren’t demons,” Xander countered quickly. “Maybe we should keep an eye on New Guy Vamp until we know he’s gonna stick with the game plan, fight the Good Fight and not take up where the old Angelus left off. You know…suck the world into Hell kind of stuff.”

Buffy volunteered faster than the others could blink, “I’ll watch him.”

Frowning, Xander commented, “I meant all of us. Time share the spying duties. Keeping some distance, but carrying a big stake just in case.”

“Okay. You keep your distance,” Buffy ordered. “I’ll carry the stake.”

Rubbing a finger across his furrowed brow, Giles let out a deep sigh. “Stalking Angel is unnecessary at this point. I think we learned our lesson on that one the last time.”

Willow had to admit, “Our stalkage saved Cordelia from being Angel food.”

“I don’t think it was food he had in mind,” Xander gritted his teeth at the memory. “That’s what I’m worried about.”

Giles told him, “You may have a point, Xander, based on the past behavior of Angel when he was influenced by an imbalanced psyche. However, this vampire is not that person nor is he in possession of a split personality or a shared soul. For the first time in his existence as a souled vampire, Angel is a whole entity now cured by the Moirae.”

Giving the Watcher a doubtful look, Xander decided, “I guess I’ll wait and see.”

“Just watch your mouth,” Giles pleaded. “Cordelia may be sensitive to anything we say to the vampire. For all intents and purposes she has just lost her mate even if he is bound together with the others.”

Thinking about it, Xander reluctantly admitted that Cordelia had feelings. That came as a surprise to him having been her boyfriend and seeing evidence of more self-centeredness than open emotion. Until Angelus came along. Cor loved the vamp. He couldn’t deny the fact. She also apparently loved Angel, which was kind of eew now that he thought about some of the things that were said last night.

Xander thought about what he would be like if anything horrible happened to Buffy or Willow. It would not be a pleasant sight, he figured. He’d be a wreck. What would he do if Cordelia came in looking depressed and broken? The teenager wasn’t certain he could handle seeing that.

Just as the thought hit him, the library doors swung open to admit Cordelia and Angel strolling in side by side. Sidebar conversation dropped off to nil as those gathered turned to face the newcomers. Entering with a dramatic flair, the two stopped in the middle of the room as if surveying the response to their presence.

Knowing the group expected the arrival of the weeping widow Cordelia was determined to keep her own feelings private. She had cried her last tear and no one was going to see her fall apart. Not talking about it meant she didn’t have to think about it. Not thinking about it meant she didn’t have to believe it. Not in her heart where she felt she would always see Angelus and Angel as two separate loves. Even with the proof standing by her side.

Back at the mansion, Cordelia had planned this entrance down to its smallest detail. From the time of their arrival right down to the clothes she was wearing. Having waited to see what Angel was going to wear, Cordelia matched her look to his. Angel’s clothing was no different than usual: black leather, a shirt of crimson red and the duster.

Cordelia had spent ten minutes chasing after Angel trying to wrest the duster away from him claiming that it belonged to her vampire. Seeing that activity only as a source for his amusement, she had returned to the bedroom to finish dressing.

Selecting the body-hugging red top, a long skirt of supple black leather and matching boots was no different than choosing her designer wear for school back when the Cordettes were worshipping at her feet. It was a costume for the role she was going to play that day and if it took Queen C to defend herself against the pity and well-meaning smiles of the Scooby Gang that was exactly what she was going to give them.

Fastening the gold choker Angelus had given her around her neck, Cordelia knew that she was also showing the world that she had ties to this new vampire and the Order of Aurelius. She didn’t care if that was the case. Let them think she freely accepted it as a fact. This choker was the only lasting thing Angelus had given to her that she could wear all of the time.

Entering the library, Cordelia stood shoulder to shoulder with Angel as she surveyed the Scoobies gauging their initial reaction. If the jaw-dropping silence was anything to go on, it appeared they made an impression. Placing one hand on Angel’s leather clad shoulder and the other on her hip, she sent the group a cool glare.

“Rude much?” Cordelia snarked at their gaping faces. “Did you forget how to say hello?”

Giles closed his mouth only to open it back up again in order to offer, “Let me introduce you to everyone.”

“I already know them,” Angel reminded the Watcher in a slightly distracted tone. He was too busy focusing on what Cordelia was going to do or say next. From the moment she had come downstairs tonight she had been cool and aloof.

Angel thought about kissing her senseless and melting that icy exterior. Only she looked too perfect to dishevel quite so soon, especially since it was only earlier in the day that she had shown him the most fragile side of her nature. He had a feeling that she wasn’t going to show him that fragility again.

“Perhaps you do know them,” Giles cut through Angel’s thoughts to redirect his attention back to the present, “but they technically do not know you.”

Noting that the others were still frozen in place by the impact of the dramatic entry, Oz stepped forward to greet the vampire. As he looked at the pair, there were no doubts in his mind that Cordelia had fashioned this color-coordinated effort resulting in the effect of them looking very much like a couple. A vampire couple, he edited his thoughts.

“Daniel Osborne,” he held out a hand to the vampire. “I go by Oz.”

Angel’s mouth lifted at one corner, “I know that Oz. The memories of Angelus, Angel and Liam are mine.”

“Giles mentioned it,” Oz nodded. “Just being polite to the new guy in town. Not making assumptions.”

Taking the offered hand, Angel shook it. They gave each other a silent nod of mutual understanding. Then Oz added, “I’m going to speak to Cordelia for a second.”

He wasn’t just stating a fact; the werewolf was asking permission. Those demon instincts just ran deep at times. Angel wasn’t certain that Cordelia wanted to hold a conversation with anyone. Glancing her way, she appeared almost regal in her aloofness. Maybe Cordy needed her cage rattled a little, Angel figured. These were her friends, not a group of total strangers.

“Sure,” Angel responded readily darting a meaningful gaze at the brunette who regarded him with a haughty expression.

While Angel awaited the arrival of the teary-eyed Willow who had been standing close behind her boyfriend, Cordelia and Oz simply stood casting each other stares of defiant silence and quiet concern. Having known Oz during her days of dating Devon, the lead singer of his band, Dingoes Ate My Baby, Cordelia realized he was seeing beyond the figurative mask she had put on tonight.

That knowing stare dug deeper than was comfortable at the moment. An emotional lump formed in the back of her throat forcing Cordelia to swallow it down and for the span of a single moment, her pain showed in the depths of her hazel orbs. Oz knew that it was time to move on.

Giving her the barest smile of encouragement and support, Oz told her, “Friends don’t always need words, Cordelia.”

There was nothing to be said to that, Cordelia decided. Oz was well-meaning, but this was not something she was planning to share in any manner of expression. Turning her attention away, she looked back at Angel who was in the middle of a rather one-sided conversation with Willow.

Cordelia was none too pleased with her friend the witch at the moment. After Angel gave into her demand for answers, he told her about her missing memories of her last night with Angelus. They weren’t really missing. She’d been asleep. Actually asleep! She had slept through her last remaining hours with her mate all thanks to Willow’s pink potion.

Expecting a little anger on Angel’s part considering his claim to the memories of Angelus and Angel, she was surprised to see him grinning like an idiot at the redheaded teenager.

Faced for the first time with the reality of Willow babble rather than the shadow of its memory, Angel couldn’t keep the grin from spreading across his face even if he wanted to.

“Can I call you Angelus? Cos Giles said I could, so I am. That is if you’ll let me or even want me to talk to you. I mean…I know I wasn’t Angel’s favorite person after the interrupting of the Cordy seduction. Though it wasn’t really a seduction was it? He kept threatening to spank me and I don’t think it would be very nice if you remembered that. And Angelus used to be my friend, but last night I really goofed and did something I shouldn’t, but I guess you know that too.”

Willow sucked in a deep breath when she was finished giving Angel an opening to finally respond to her numerous statements. It seemed to boil down to the fact that she wanted to be his friend. She stood staring up at him with wide red-rimmed eyes accentuated by her orange and fuchsia sweater that clashed garishly with them.

“How are the fish, Will?”

All the tension seemed to leave her body in one fell swoop and a bright grin appeared on her elfin face. That acknowledgement was enough for her. She completely understood Giles’ explanation of the emergence of this new vampire as a combination of his three parts. It was enough that she could see the spark of friendship that had existed between herself and Angelus.

“Still swimming,” Willow answered as she spontaneously threw her arms around his waist to hug him.

Cordelia watched the easy acceptance of the vampire by Willow with uneasy disdain. Her thoughts did not play out across her face for she kept them deep and hidden, but the fact that Angelus could be so instantly replaced in the redhead’s affections by this alternate version earned her ire.

As Willow pulled away from the warm embrace, she turned to Cordelia. The bright smile dropped away as she realized she had seen that cold look on Cordelia’s face countless times before. In grade school and junior high, it was more of a snooty princess expression, but this was the full-blown high school version of her very own childhood nemesis.

With a gulp, Willow decided to wait a while before asking Cordelia if she was okay. She didn’t think so considering the cold look in her eyes. Joining Oz back at the table, Willow grabbed his hand and held on tight. Their mutual worried expressions spoke volumes to each other.

Looking toward Buffy and Xander, the vampire wondered which one of them would make the first move toward him. Neither one seemed to budge from their positions at the edge of the table where they stood leaning up against its edge side by side. Taking a step forward, Angel decided he would be the one to take the lead.

The dark haired teen eyed him with a scrutinizing stare as if trying to detect something sinister in Angel’s approach. Xander wasn’t so big with the trust factor considering the past history he had to go on. Naturally wary, he remained curious nonetheless.

Stopping several feet away, Angel met Xander’s unflinching gaze with eyes that spoke of danger, dominance and power. Inwardly, Angel found it amusing, but it was simply the way he found himself reacting to the boy who was so entwined in the lives of the women also in his.

“Harris.”

“Angel,” returned Xander after only a moment’s pause.

Xander had not expected the now traditional greeting. Though he wasn’t certain what he thought would replace it, the exchange came as both a surprise and a relief that the status quo would be maintained. There would be no expected welcome hugs from him nor would he have to become the new vamp’s best friend.

Without a further word, Xander’s eyes shifted over to Cordelia who now stood apart from everyone else. Striking a typical Queen C pose, she looked beautiful and untouchable to a degree he had not seen since before their days of kissage and gropage in random school closets.

A low rumble caught his attention as the vampire moved past him toward Buffy, now standing directly in front of the blond Slayer who hadn’t taken her eyes off him since he first walked into the room. Xander wasn’t certain if the growl was directed at him for simply looking at Cordelia or at Buffy for no particular reason at all.

Buffy felt her heart flutter nervously in her chest as Angel approached her, anticipation of talking to him making her struggle not to follow Willow’s example with the hugging. It would be so good to feel the strength of his arms around her. Straightening up to her full height, Buffy placed herself inches away. Close enough to feel the aura of his strength and far enough away that she could gaze into his eyes.

Moistening her lips, she lifted her hopeful eyes to his and spoke almost shyly, “Hi.”

His memories revealed that Buffy Summers hadn’t been in such a twitter around him since their first year together. Those soft panting breaths and her racing pulse suggested she had forgotten all about her last encounter with her former boyfriend and was willing to explore options with him. That should have surprised him, but Angel knew tragedy often brought as much forgiveness as it did pain. And if not forgiveness, sometimes the convenience of selective memory.

At least from some quarters, he mused wryly.

Buffy reached out a tentative hand, just reassuring herself that he was real and in front of her. It seemed so easy to make the jump from seeing him to thinking of him as her Angel. Curling her hand around his leather clad arm, she stepped even closer as their gazes held fast and all others seemed to fade from the room.

Focused entirely upon him, Buffy felt the tingling sensations deep within her solar plexus spreading warmth throughout her body as every nerve and muscle reacted. Her eyes widened, first with confusion, and then followed instantly by a sharp recognition as she searched the fathomless depths of his eyes.

“Angel,” his name tumbled from her throat on a gasp.

It was followed immediately by the vampire’s acknowledgement that Buffy was correct in determining precisely where things stood between them. Though soft, his voice carried a potent message with a single word of his official greeting.

“Slayer.”

Catching her breath, Buffy took in the intensity of that razor’s edge stare. Her body wasn’t reacting with excitement now, she realized. It had been her Slayer senses all along acting as a warning that she’d been too emotionally overloaded to recognize. They still sounded off tingling madly at the close proximity to her natural enemy, a stranger that possessed the face and body of her lover.

Xander watched the exchange without a clue of what was really going on. All he saw was Buffy and Angel huddled close with the blonde clutching at the vampire’s arm like she did not want to let go. It had taken all of— what? Two seconds for them to start making with the goo-goo eyes? Maybe it was his own stupidity, Xander presumed, but he and Buffy had spent an increasing amount of time together apart from the other Scoobies of late and it had actually occurred to him at one point that it meant something to both of them.

Not.

A burst of jealously flamed hotly as Xander turned his eyes away from the Slayer and the Moirae’s champion. Looking over at Cordelia, he saw nothing to indicate similar feelings on her part. If she was feeling anything, the cheerleader kept it well hidden.

Eyes open, Cor, the advice sounded off in Xander’s head. Then his mouth opened as his own pain twisted into another suggestion, “Looks like someone’s gonna get lucky. Now that you’re single, Cordelia—”

Before he could finish the sentence, Xander’s words were cut off as a large hand clamped down across his throat. Pushed back against the flat of the table, he found himself staring up into the raging ochre eyes of a very pissed off vampire.

Angel hadn’t heard the slight pause in Xander’s voice. It sounded as if the boy suggested that someone would get lucky with Cordelia now that she was…single. If Xander Harris thought by some inkling of a chance that person might be him, he certainly had another thing coming.

“Keep your eyes, hands and intentions off of Cordelia,” snarled Angel viciously. “She’s mine.”

“Let go!” Buffy pulled at Angel only to be pushed down on the floor with a harsh shove.

The vampire snapped at her, “Stay out of this. This business is between the boy and me.”

Xander was gripping Angel’s wrist with both hands trying to loosen his hold, but it was useless. Then Angel’s attention turned back to him making the teenager wonder why he had not armed himself with a stake. A random thought passed through his oxygen deprived brain that his plan to keep an eye on the vampire was certainly justified.

“If anyone is lucky tonight,” Angel morphed back into his human visage and released Xander, “it is indeed you, Harris. Just remember what I said.”

Free from the iron grip, Xander sucked in a gasp of air. “I wasn’t talking about Cordelia,” he clarified with a strained voice. “I was talking to her. Suggesting that she watch out for you and Buffy. Looked like you two were about to— do something. Old habits die hard.”

“Buffy and I understand each other,” Angel told him feeling quite certain that the Slayer realized he was no longer of the same mind when it came to her affections. Literally not of the same mind.

Caught up in her own denial, Cordelia ignored the wracking jealousy that twisted her guts. Even though Angel had certainly made it clear to Xander that she was not on the singles market that did not rule out residual feelings for Buffy Summers. The idea grated against her heart, but Cordelia kept reminding herself that this wasn’t Angelus. It wasn’t even Angel who might have an excuse.

Petulantly, Cordelia muttered under her breath, “Go for it, Bad Boy.”

Angel’s head turned swiftly toward her as soon as the soft words were out of her mouth. It seemed his attention wasn’t completely turned elsewhere after all. Well— good. She was glad he heard her. Except Cordelia realized she used her pet name for Angelus with her tart suggestion. With her body feeling one thing and her mouth adding to Cordelia’s confusion, it did not take an irate look from the vampire to know she was in trouble.

Now wanting nothing more than to get back to Cordelia’s side and erase that haughty glare from her eyes, Angel remembered that he was still in the middle of letting Xander Harris off the hook. Turning back to the teenager, he carefully explained, “Cordelia is none of your business, but Buffy is no longer mine if that’s what worries you. So relax. Just watch your mouth.”

Xander ignored the part of the statement about watching his mouth. It was the same advice that Giles had given earlier. Hey, talking just came naturally. It was a defense mechanism— only in reverse since it seemed to cause certain vampires to attack him for making a simple point.

“So you’re saying that you already love Cordelia?” His curiosity was piqued now. Yes, it had been an easy jump to imagine the forever love with Buffy instantaneously renewing itself since Xander imagined her to be eager for it, but Cordy wasn’t exactly hanging on to New Guy Vamp’s every word. Was she? Though she didn’t exactly present the ideal picture of the grieving widow, Xander figured she had to be hurting on the inside.

Willow jumped in to answer Xander’s question before the vampire could affirm or deny his affections for Cordelia Chase. “Angelus loved her. Angel loved her even if his psycho vamp behavior was a little scary. Liam didn’t know her. So by my calculations at least two-thirds of him loved Cordelia and I seriously doubt— from what we…uh…saw of him— that Liam wouldn’t think Cor was a hottie. Loves her? You do the math.”

Standing there in frozen contemplation of Willow’s theory on love, Cordelia noticed that the vampire was back at her side just in time to hear the utterance of disdain fall from her lips in the form of a soft, “Pfft.”

“Not my best subject, Will,” joked Xander while silently admitting his friend was right. Just looking at Angel and Cordelia, he could tell that there was something between them.

What he wouldn’t give to be telepathic right now. The vibes coming off the pair of them were electric. The intensity even gave him shivers halfway across the room. Both stood silently focusing only on the other and neither one with a single readable emotion on their faces. Not that Xander could tell anyway. Though he knew enough to realize there was a lot being said without a word being spoken.

Standing with her hands propped on her hips, Cordelia merely returned Angel’s stare without a hint of apology. She had every right to her opinion and it wasn’t as if she was responsible for his vampire hearing picking up her soft utterances. Not like she said them on purpose just so he’d hear.

Not like it mattered that Buffy had looked like she wanted to crawl up his body and wrap her arms and legs around him. Not like Cordelia cared or had any rights to him. Not that she believed Willow’s little theory.

Cordelia denied that it had any effect on her whatsoever. Walling herself off from sudden jealousy or the spreading warmth of curiosity that hit after Xander questioned Angel’s feelings, she was determined not to let herself feel anything for this— stranger. Though it might be good to know what he was thinking because right now Cordelia wasn’t certain what was going to happen next.

Angel’s gaze went black, so dark the depths were as fathomless as obsidian; impenetrable and hard as the stone itself. If it was love, lust or anger he was feeling, Cordelia could not determine it to be true. His taut frame suggested reigned in power, actions controlled by a razor thin edge of restraint.

Love? It couldn’t be. This new vampire existed with the shadow of memory, nothing of his own experience. Willow’s calculations might be true if it talked of desire rather than heartfelt emotion. That seemed undeniable. Hello— vampire! The Moirae’s champion was charged with sexual magnetism, but Cordelia wanted no part of it. No matter that the steely muscular planes of his body and the appealing angles of his face perfectly matched the image she equated with love— there was a difference.

Her mind knew it. Her heart felt it. Her body? Well, it was just confused.

If she closed her eyes, Cordelia knew Angel’s presence would be no less palpable. On the outside, she remained the picture of cool disinterest. Inwardly, her heart beat madly and every traitorous nerve ending tingled in response. Recognizing her automatic reaction, Cordelia narrowed her gaze as if to blame him for it.

Go ahead, vampire, Cordelia still found it difficult to think of him as Angel and kept distancing herself from the name. Do it. Whatever it is you’re planning.

Cordelia’s hazel orbs bore deeply with a mix of emerald, topaz and burnished gold daring silently for action. Slowly deciphering the hidden messages, Angel found himself torn by her conflicting signals. One thing seemed clear enough. Looking for a fight? Don’t think I can’t tell, sweetheart. That I don’t know you.

Moving that extra inch forward, Angel brought his tall frame into the barest contact with hers causing a sharp intake of breath as the pebbled tips of her breasts brushed against his shirt. Anticipation or fear, Cordelia. Pick one. Can’t have it both ways, baby.

What’ll it be, huh? Gonna touch me with those wicked fingers? Kiss me until I see the stars? Cordelia knew lust. He wanted her and made no bones about it. No denial there. On his part. Make your point in front of my friends, champ. Just know that it’s them you’re convincing. Not me. I’ll never let you into my heart.

There it was again, Cordelia decided. That look of utter confidence suggesting she was on the losing side of this silent battle. Hell if she’d let this usurper make her quiver in fear— or longing in anticipation of his touch.

Is it anger? Questioning her own assumptions, Cordelia wondered if he was not mad at her for making comments about Little Miss Likes to Fight. Not that he seemed to want the blonde if his words to Xander were as truthful as they sounded. Pure anger— I can deal. Go ahead and bite. Spank me. Shake me senseless. Whatever it takes. Go on. Give me an excuse to leave— because it’s not right. It’s not fair to them to be with you.

Sensing the sudden buildup to something, Giles decided to step in. He had no wish to end up with either Angel or Cordelia’s wrath upon him for interfering, but the library was hardly the place to air out their issues. No doubt there were many. He had to admire the fact that Cordelia was even able to crawl out of bed to come to the meeting. After Jenny’s death— frankly, he was still not over it completely.

Clearing his throat rather loudly, Giles commented, “Angel, I think it would be good to see you handle a routine patrol tonight. Just to assess your handling of the situation in comparison to what we know of your predecessors.”

For a moment, the vampire did not respond to the suggestion. He was too focused on the sight of Cordelia’s ripe lips parted such a short distance from his own. She licked at her lips, moistening them beneath the onslaught of his stare, but only because they were dry and not that she had any conscious thought of tempting him.

“Angel,” the Watcher called out again.

Lifting his dark head, Angel gave Cordelia one last look before turning away. This silent conversation was not over. He promised her that with only a quirk of an eyebrow and the slightest curve of his mouth.

“I heard you the first time, Rupert,” Angel answered calmly. There was no tension in his voice, no hint that he was bothered at all by their confrontation, Cordelia realized with an angry breath. She sucked air into her lungs and held it deeply until it burned, the anger at his control nearly causing her to shriek out his name and demand a response.

Which was it? Lust or anger? Or did he really expect her to believe in Willow’s theory? Not like the little witch had been on-target with her magick lately, so why fuss over the fact that her calculating brain decided it had an equation for love.

Slowly releasing the air, Cordelia noticed that the Scooby Gang was too busy looking at Angel or listening to Giles’ plan for patrol to care or notice that her careful mask had faded momentarily. It appeared that the vampire was not going to give her excuses of any kind tonight. Not with an audience present at any rate.

“I’m not exactly dressed for patrol,” Cordelia pointed out when Xander asked her to pick a weapon from the selection he had gathered. “Think I’ll head home.”

Xander realized there was more to her statement than concerns about her leather skirt and stylish boots. She kept looking toward Angel from beneath her long eyelashes waiting for him to respond. There was a flash of surprise in the cheerleader’s eyes as Angel answered her agreeably.

“See you later, sweetheart,” Angel captured her chin in a gentle hold and brushed his lips across hers.

Her lips remained pursed in surprise at his easy acceptance of her suggestions. The vamp hadn’t let her out of his sight for more than a minute all day. So maybe Angelus or Angel wouldn’t have wanted her out on patrol in the midst of potential danger, but it seemed a bit strange that Sir Vamp-a-lot was suddenly trusting her out of his immediate presence.

Removing his keys from his pocket, Angel handed them to her. “You take the car. I’ll walk back after patrol.”

“You’re letting me drive the Plymouth without you?” Cordelia barely controlled the urge to giggle in delight. Fortunately, it was overridden by the realization that this was highly suspicious. Home alone and control of his precious classic?

Not that it was his, Cordy reminded herself quickly.

“No big,” he answered casually although his dark eyes were sparkling with something she couldn’t quite discern.

“Yeah. No big. You just go out there and do— whatever a champion does,” Cordelia gave him a tight smile, “that’s different from everyone else.”

Meaning different from what Angelus and Angel could accomplish, he surmised with an absolute sense of surety. Still blaming him for taking away her mate and would-be-lover. It wasn’t that Cordelia didn’t understand the truth. She was far too intelligent to fail to understand Giles’ explanations. It was pure denial.

Time and distance, the Watcher had suggested to him. Angel thought time wouldn’t be a problem. That he could be patient as long as he could hold her in his arms. Smothering Cordelia with attention would not be any wiser than letting her run off on her own with the hopes that she would return. There was a fine line to walk with this fiery young woman if she was to accept him as her mate.

Angel wanted that acceptance, but knew in the depths of his being that his decision to claim her would not change no matter her decision. When he would just as soon keep her at his side, he held out the keys to his car and encouraged her to go. To stretch her wings. To taste the independence that was so important to her.

Even if it was an illusion.

“Drive safely.” Angel made his words a caress across her cheek which caused Cordelia to tilt her head away in silent protest; except the move only provided him with access to the exposed cord of her neck. His cool lips pressed a butterfly kiss there.

So much for giving her space, Angel backed off and shoved his hands in his pockets as he censured himself. He could hear Cordelia’s heart pounding beneath her ribs with a telltale beat. Just go while I still have the nerve to let you out of my sight.

 


Willow and Oz had elected not to come on patrol, informing everyone that they had something else to do. While Angel figured this was a cryptic way of stating they wanted some private time together, it hadn’t been any of his business and he forgot about it the moment the words were out of Willow’s mouth. What the hell was Oz and the little red witch up to?

Noting that there was no sign of the Plymouth in the driveway, Angel hoped that meant Cordelia had put it away in the garage. The sinking feeling that hit his stomach caused him to leave the front door gaping wide as he entered the house. He followed the noise of the television to the living room.

“Where the hell is Cordelia?” Angel demanded of the pair curled up on the couch.

“Angelus,” gasped Willow as she took in his appearance. “You’re hurt.”

“The blood’s not mine,” he dismissed her concerns. Other than aching muscles and a few deep bruises, he was fine. “Where is Cordelia?”

“Upstairs,” Oz assured him.

A heavy weight lifted from the vampire’s shoulders at the realization that Cordelia had not taken the first opportunity to run. That didn’t explain what these two were doing here. Asking them, Angel learned that they were worried about his ma— about Cordelia. That they didn’t want her to be alone right now. So they had followed her under the pretense of cleaning up the mess left behind from the summoning spell.

Still standing on the threshold of the living room, Angel glanced back over his shoulder to note that the foyer appeared spotless once again. No sign of yesterday’s activity at all. He thought it strange that Cordelia would abandon guests even if they were just Willow and Oz. “How is she?”

The witch and werewolf exchanged glances trying to figure out how to answer Angel’s question. With an expression of pure honesty, Willow let out a long sigh and told him, “Sad.”

Not that he hadn’t known that or expected it, but Angel felt the impact just the same like a tight hand crushing his heart. “She told you that?”

“No,” Willow admitted. “Cordelia actually talked a lot— about stuff. School. Homework. Cheerleading. The Dingoes. Anything and everything except you.”

Oz hit the power button on the remote control shutting the television off. “We’ll be going now that you’re back. Cordelia is one in a million. Willow and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to make this more difficult on her than it already is.”

“There is no need to warn me off,” Angel contained his growl of irritation. It wasn’t so much what Oz said as it was the fact that the werewolf thought it necessary. It was the same damn warning that Rupert Giles had given him.

Time and distance. No matter how much that made sense, Angel knew he would not be able to give her much of either. He was trapped between wanting her unconditional acceptance and needing to lay claim to her in ways that would leave no doubt in her mind that she was his.

After bidding Willow and Oz goodnight, Angel slowly made his way upstairs toward the bedroom. He felt like doing nothing more than crawling into bed and curling up behind Cordelia, but the demon fight in the Old Sunnydale Cemetery had taken its toll on him. So much for being a champion, he mused. The Moirae’s title hadn’t given him any new advantage over the demon that he could tell despite Rupert Giles’ observations.

Angel strolled into the bedroom realizing immediately that there was no sign of Cordelia, just the light peeping from beneath the closed bathroom door. The soft splooshing sounds of water suggested that she was in the bathtub. Their suite had both a large bathtub and a shower stall, but Cordelia preferred the luxury of a bubble bath when time allowed.

He remembered the last time he shared— no, that was Angelus, he swiftly reminded himself. Angel rested his forehead against the bathroom door just listening to the sounds from within including the steady beat of Cordelia’s heart. Its rhythm called out to him in its familiar tune and it no longer mattered that the memory of it was not his own because each moment spent in her presence brought those memories to vibrant life.

When Angel’s soft knock sounded on the door, Cordelia nearly dropped the book she was reading into the tub. There was no doubt in her mind who was out there— the vampire. It only came as a surprise that he bothered to knock.

Maybe he’ll go away if I ignore him, Cordelia thought wistfully. Right. Pfft! Buy that bridge in Brooklyn while you’re at it.

“Cordy?” The question came along with Angel opening the bathroom door. Apparently, she had taken too long to respond to his knock.

“Hey! You’re letting all the heat out,” Cordelia complained as he stood in the doorway.

Stepping inside, Angel shut it behind him while trying to hide his amusement over the fact that she had obviously intended him to stay on the outside. Too late now. He was too busy soaking up the sight of her to leave again so quickly. Cordelia’s soft chestnut hair was swept up into a curling twist on the top of her head leaving loose strands caressing the curves of her face. Heat from the water turned her skin a rosy hue flushing her neck and the slick skin of her shoulders visible above the bubbles. One leg was bent upward, its knee peeking out of the water with tiny white bubbles clinging lovingly to its silken flesh.

Leaning back against the door, Angel flinched in momentary pain as his shoulder blade came into contact with the wooden surface. Cordelia’s eyes widened and proceeded to travel from head to toe looking for other signs of wear and tear from patrol. He didn’t want to worry her over nothing. “What are you reading?”

Cordelia could care less what she was reading. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” Angel denied it. He went back to his original question. “Something for school or pleasure?”

“It’s King Lear,” Cordelia rolled her eyes, “not Cosmo.”

Pursing his lips wryly, Angel commented, “I meant reading for fun, not how to pleasure yourself or your mate.”

The bathwater sloshed in reaction as Cordelia dropped her leg beneath the waterline. “I wasn’t talking orgasms either, but now that you mention it, Cosmo is a lot more educational than Shakespeare.”

He had to laugh at her way of thinking. “Sex education perhaps. Though it surprises me that you don’t take an interest in studying King Lear considering his daughter has your name.”

“As if I need to be reminded that my own life is a tragedy,” Cordelia glared as she shut the book and tossed it onto the floor.

What the hell was he supposed to say to that? Angel stared at her like she’d slapped him in the face.

Cordelia lowered her arms into the tub and sank a little deeper into the bubbles. He didn’t seem to be planning to leave, so she found herself chattering and asking him about patrol, a subject that surely had to be a safe one— unless Buffy had tried something while she was not there. The idea bothered Cordelia, though she had no idea why it would.

“We went to Old Sunnydale,” Angel referred to the oldest existing cemetery in town.

“Not my favorite,” Cordelia scrunched up her nose. “It’s spooky and smells like rotting flesh and old tennis shoes.”

Angel couldn’t deny it. The place wasn’t the most pleasant internment site, but because of its age was often the center of demonic activity in comparison to the typical vampire risings at new cemeteries. As he removed his jacket, wincing slightly while moving his shoulders, Angel told Cordelia, “We ran into something unusual.”

That could mean anything, Cordelia surmised. Sunnydale wasn’t exactly the home of your average Joe demons. “How unusual?”

“Oh it wasn’t the demon that was unusual,” he explained as he dropped the jacket onto the top of the hamper and started to unbutton his shirt. “That was your typical eight-foot behemoth with a tendency to rip people limb from limb.”

“Nice fella,” Cordelia mumbled as her attention wandered down the course Angel’s fingers were taking until he reached the part of his shirt tucked into his pants. He yanked it out and continued to unbutton until his shirt lay open revealing a hint of the muscular torso beneath.

Angel slipped off his shoes and pulled off his socks. “The lawyers who summoned him to our dimension didn’t think so when he killed them all.”

“Lawyers?” Cordelia was almost distracted from Angel’s slow striptease. She nibbled at her lower lip as he moved to unbuckle his belt.

“That’s the weird part.” Angel had no idea why a group of lawyers from L.A. would be in a Sunnydale cemetery summoning other-worldly demons. Even the Watcher was rather stumped by the discovery. “Rupert found one of their business cards and a copy of the spell they used to bring the demon here. They work for a firm called Wolfram & Hart.”

Cordelia never heard of them nor cared to. In fact, she was getting a little bored with the demon story. “So you killed the demon.”

“Yeah,” Angel nodded as he removed his shirt adding it to the pile on the hamper.

The sight of the dark blue bruises covering his torso startled Cordelia into calling out his name as she sat straight up amidst the bubbles, “Angel!”

He smiled softly, reassuring her, “I’m okay, baby. Really. It’s just a few bruises. They’ll be gone by morning.”

Just a few bruises?! “You look like a demon punching bag,” Cordelia gasped in outrage. “I thought the Moirae would at least make you invulnerable when they made you into Super Vamp.”

“Apparently not,” Angel glanced down at his bruised torso.

Reminding herself that she wasn’t supposed to care, Cordelia commented, “That’s what you get for not taking me along on patrol. I coulda kicked a little demon ass.”

“You wanted to come home.” Then Angel reminded her, “We agreed you wouldn’t put yourself in any more danger until you were properly trained.”

“We didn’t agree to anything,” Cordelia pointed out. Besides, she didn’t see herself training with Sir Paws-a-lot considering his touchy-feely tendencies. “I’m not going to train with you.”

Angel remained silent on that one. It was an idea whose time had come, she just didn’t want to admit it. He pulled his belt out of the loops of his pants and folded it in his hand.

“I was surprised that you left me alone tonight.”

“You weren’t alone,” Angel shrugged through the discomfort the move created. “Willow and Oz came over.”

“You didn’t know they would do that,” Cordelia countered. “Did you?”

Admitting, “No.”

“Was it a test, Angel?”

For a second, he was distracted as she used his name again. Test? What?

“To see if I’d be here when you got back,” Cordelia answered his unspoken question. “To see if I’d take the first chance to leave you.”

“I thought about it,” Angel made his confession.

“Oh.” Cordelia figured he’d go for denying it. “W-What would you have done?”

Angel stepped close to the edge of the tub gazing down at her. “What do you think?”

“Come after me?” she asked after a pause.

“Yes.”

“Bring me back?”

“Yes.”

“You’d do what you said when Giles was here,” Cordelia licked at the full curves of her lips.

Angel didn’t sense any fear as she reminded him that he already told her precisely what he would do if she dared attempt to leave him. There was intrigue showing in those hazel orbs questioning whether or not he would follow through with that threat. A hint of mirth at denying him the pleasure of tying her to his bed might also be found in her bright gaze unless he was imagining it.

Angel dropped the hand holding the curled belt to his side putting it in Cordelia’s direct line of sight. “You don’t have to be bad to be tied up, baby. Just ask me if you want it.”

“I prefer to do the tying,” Cordelia huffed in return now staring at the slowly vanishing mound of bubbles. Adding swiftly, “Not that I’m planning to.”

“Too bad,” Angel grinned that toothy grin that sent shockwaves down her spine. He put the belt down on top of his shirt on the hamper. “We’ll just leave that topic open for discussion at a later time.”

Fine. Cordelia sank back down into the water’s warmth trying to slow her rapidly beating heart. Now that that was clear, a more pressing thought occurred to her as she realized that she’d never kicked him out of the bathroom and now he seemed to be taking off his clothes. “What are you doing?”

“Undressing,” he answered with a grin that told her it should be obvious. Angel unzipped his pants and shoved them to the floor leaving him totally nude before her.

“No shit, Sherlock,” Cordelia snarked feeling her anger growing by leaps and bounds. “I was asking what you were planning to do once you finished with the getting naked.”

Cordelia kept her eyes focused on his, not daring to lower her gaze even under the pretense of checking out his injuries. He gave her a look that told her he knew precisely what she was thinking. “I was planning on hitting the shower. Unless you want company in the tub. Bubble therapy is probably even better for bruises with a taste of Cordelia in the mix.”

“No!” Cordelia snapped back quickly. She reached a hand out of the tub and felt around on the tile floor for her copy of King Lear never minding the fact that doing so made the cover rather soggy. “I’m homework girl tonight. Gotta read. No distractions.”

“That’s what I figured,” Angel opened up the door to the shower and turned on the water letting it run hot.

No sooner had he stepped inside the shower stall, than Cordelia took the opportunity to dart out of the tub, grabbing a towel along the way and leaving a trail of bubbles behind. By the time Angel emerged from the bathroom, Cordelia was bundled into a pair of her comfy jammies— a cotton top and bottom that looked nothing like her sexy nightgowns. She was propped up in bed with her still soggy edition of King Lear when Angel climbed into bed next to her.

Using her peripheral vision, Cordelia eyed him cautiously, pretending not to notice when he moved closer to her warm side of the bed. Angel lay on his back, his hands resting on his taut abdomen, but he was looking her way. “Kiss me goodnight.”

Her eyes snapped back to the page she was pretending to read. No way, Jose.

“Cordy,” his voice took on that deep timbre she could not ignore. It was neither a plea nor an order, but the sound of her name on his lips forced her to turn in his direction.

“Maybe I don’t want to kiss you,” Cordelia muttered even as she leaned closer to his handsome face.

“Then don’t kiss me if you’re afraid to,” Angel’s eyes gleamed with mischief knowing Cordelia was incapable of letting him get away with that particular statement.

Gaping at him, Cordelia responded with a harsh glare. “Afraid? Pfft!”

“Then kiss me goodnight.”

Scooting over so she was positioned on her side looking down at him, Cordelia leaned forward only to pause with her mouth hovering over his. Angel’s eyes were open as he watched and waited for her to make the move he’d dared her to make. Her hand moved inadvertently onto his bruised shoulder causing him to react to her touch despite being focused on the soft lips so close to his.

The slight jerk of his muscles in response to the pain was enough to distract Cordelia from her task, or give her the excuse she was looking for.

“You’re so bruised,” she let her eyes wander over his bare torso until reaching the blanket’s edge. Even if he wasn’t her mate or the Angel she loved, he was still a person. It hurt to see him injured this way and not provide her usual brand of TLC. She couldn’t because Cordelia knew he would take it as acceptance of his place in her life.

Cordelia wasn’t prepared to admit that he had a place. She only wondered how she was going to live with this vampire and not betray her feelings for Angelus. That meant she could in no small way let him into her heart.

“Kiss it better?” Angel suggested as he lifted a hand to palm her cheek. Then he knew the moment he asked that he’d made a mistake for the soft concern in Cordelia’s eyes turned to ice.

“Why you?” Cordelia demanded. “Why did the Moirae choose to make you a champion? Do you even know what that means?”

The moment for goodnight kisses had ended, Angel realized woefully. He slid his thumb along the curve of her lower lip wanting to taste its plump sweetness, but knew such an offering was not coming his way.

“I have no idea what the Moirae are up to or how I fit into their cosmic game, Cordelia,” Angel admitted softly as he continued to caress her face with his fingertips. “I regret that you’ve been hurt by their actions, but I can’t tell you that I’d wish they’d done otherwise. Because I want to be here doing whatever it takes to keep us together.”

Cordelia’s pulse raced as his fingers trailed down her throat. “We’re not together, Angel. We just sleep in the same bed.”


CHAPTER LINKS

DoN Chapter 39          DoN Home          DoN Chapter 41


 

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