10: There and Back Again
There and Back Again
Six days in Sunnydale felt like an eternity. Time moved at a snail’s pace from which there was no escape. Now it was over. The Hellmouth was secure. Threat averted. Mission accomplished. Not that it had been easy.
Keeping his head in the game was next to impossible. Before he left L.A., he faced the first hurdle: Cordelia. All he really wanted to do was hang up the phone and finish what he started before the interruption. Kissing her. Slow, hungry, hot, sweet kisses that made him crave the taste of her mouth, the warmth of her plush lips, and the sensation of her silken skin beneath his touch.
Rational thought won over his baser instincts. There had always been an undercurrent between them pulling at something deep inside. It annoyed him. Got in the way of other feelings, and other people. Slammed into him whenever she was in danger. Sizzled when they touched. And it occasionally scared the hell out of him when the demonic side of his nature clawed at his insides urging him to respond to her mouthy, stubborn streak with more than a stern look.
Whatever the hell “it” was, Angel could not easily explain or define it. Maybe he was channeling his irritation with Cordelia’s infuriating sense of neighborliness into something enjoyable. A way of exacting control when she clearly had him wrapped around her little finger.
Getting involved with Cordy was not a good idea at all. Yet, as insane as it seemed, he wanted her. Everything she had to give. Even that tart acerbic tongue had its uses. Part of him enjoyed the sting. Something hidden away beneath her defensive barbs, warm and sweet, had yet to be fully discovered, but he caught glimpses of its power over him. Felt it in the way his unbeating heart ached at the glory of her smile.
Angel gulped away the thickness in his throat. No use thinking about it. Simple sexual gratification was not on the cards for them. Their friend-colleague-boss-secretary-neighbor relationship was already knotted up with mixed emotions. Getting physically close could get dangerous. Whatever was happening between them was better evaluated from a distance. No matter his annoyance with the interruption, Buffy’s phone call was a vivid reminder to Angel that he could not have everything he wanted.
Distracted by Cordelia’s rapid retreat and the definitive slamming of their adjoining apartment door, he had heard only about a third of the one-sided conversation with Buffy. Fortunately, the highlights were simple enough to process: trouble in Sunnydale. The imperative, “Come now,” seemingly gave him no choice but to comply even though a sense of obligation committed him to it anyway.
Instead of heading straight for the car, Angel had stopped in front of the connecting door rapping his knuckles on it. Over the noise of the music blaring from inside her apartment, he called out, “Cordelia, open up.”
He knocked again a little more forcefully when the stereo volume went up a notch instead. Wanting to explain about the call, he had tried one last time to tell her what was happening, although it was an easy guess that she would read more into Buffy’s demand for his presence than was actually there. Not to mention the fact that it wasn’t that hard to read between the lines that insultingly suggested he was using her as a substitute for Buffy.
Deciding that Cordelia was going to ignore him completely, Angel had muttered a rarely used expletive and turned away. The metallic scrape of the door moving along its track jerked him to a halt. “Let me guess,” she said with a sardonic tone lacing her words, “someone has unleashed the next apocalypse and Buffy wants you there as backup.”
Angel approached her cautiously as if a faster pace might frighten her off. “Pretty much.”
“Thought so.” Cordelia crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe. Although her voice remained steady and her words succinct, he could read the turmoil in her eyes.
“I should go.”
He could see the ‘hands off’ vibe practically steaming from her. Bristling, she surprised him with, “Maybe I should come too.”
Startled, Angel’s response snapped back a little more forcefully than he would have made it. “No! You’re staying here.”
Cordelia snorted a cynical little sound suggesting that she knew what his response would be all along, although Angel doubted she understood why. “You’re safer here,” he clarified his thinking. Knowing her penchant for needling him about Buffy, she might imagine this to be some sort of clandestine meeting.
“What about you? You haven’t even fully recovered from your demon-killing spree.” Reaching out to him, her fingers slid downward across his torso to the site of his worst wound, now completely closed over, but still sore. The warmth of her hand seeped through his shirt to his skin.
Capturing her hand, he wanted nothing more than to show her something else that needed soothing, but it would only start something he intended to take his time finishing. “Don’t worry about it. I know what I’m doing.”
“Pfft! Just as long as you remember the one thing you’re not supposed to do— no boffing Buffy,” she added coolly.
He did not move a muscle, nor say a word. Let her think what she wanted about his plans for Buffy. Maybe if he let her believe he was eager to get back to Sunnydale to Buffy’s waiting arms it would be for the best. Was she jealous? He tried to find a sliver of jealous rage in her expression, but Cordelia looked like she was handing out matter-of-fact advice.
Angel wasn’t sure what pissed him off more, the idea that Cordelia thought she could hand out orders about his relationship with Buffy—whether or not he ever had any intention of sleeping with her—or that she seemed to be doing it more out of self-preservation than jealousy. Maybe she didn’t want him with the same intensity? The idea came and went just as quickly. No, she was into him. Very into him if her enthusiastic kisses hinted at her feelings.
“Doyle and I can hold down the fort until you get back,” she practically shooed him toward the door.
Leaving Cordelia alone in Doyle’s company for an unspecified period normally would not have bothered him. However, after the conversation in the sewer, Angel was not entirely certain that Doyle had given up on his plan to ask Cordelia out on a date. Any sparks of jealous rage were all on him, though he put on his best poker face at the mention of their friend’s name.
Realizing that he still held her hand captive, he let go, and stepped toward the door leading out of her apartment into the garage. He kept walking toward the Plymouth and did not look back until he heard the door close shut, not with a bang, but with a soft click and a turn of the lock. As if she was resolved to let him go because it was Buffy who asked for his help, and there had never before been a reason to doubt his response.
The drive to Sunnydale had gone by almost on autopilot.
Twenty miles from town he saw the first road sign. The closer he got the guiltier he felt. Only he was not sure if it was because kissing Cordelia meant that he had cheated on Buffy, or if the accusations about using her as a substitute were somehow justified.
He was there to fight the Good Fight. Support the team. Be there for Buffy.
But his head was not fully in the game.
He kept thinking about Cordelia and asking himself if he was just reading things wrong when it came to her responses. Was her attraction actually to her fantasy version of Detective Broderick rather than him? No, it was real. Denial might be healthier for them both, safer for her— for everyone. He knew his desire was real and he could feel her response to him.
Still, such temptation was dangerous, and she was not wrong about Buffy. He still felt something: lingering love, tenderness, and remorse. A combination of a thousand emotions that still had a raw edge when his thoughts drifted toward Sunnydale. He had ended things between them for a reason, but it never really felt over.
Cordelia might have been justified to guess that it was Buffy calling. That he would jump at the chance to see her again. This was not an excuse, but an obligation.
The guilt he expected to feel upon seeing Buffy again faded quickly as he was introduced to a newcomer to the group, a man named Riley Finn. He did not need to be told that they were lovers because his senses revealed the news almost instantly. It was clear from the expression on Finn’s face that he was sizing up a rival. The nervous tremor to Buffy’s voice suggested she expected the tension might escalate to violence.
Angel definitely felt something, but it was not anger. Surprise, yes. He had wanted Buffy to move on with her life, but had not fully considered coming face to face with his replacement. Slow warmth spread across his chest as the idea sunk in and he recognized what he was feeling. Relief. It chased away the shadow of guilt looming ever-presently in his thoughts.
Buffy seemed confused by his indifference, but there was no time for a heart-to-heart talk. Not while Sunnydale was in danger. In the end, talking was not really necessary. It never had been between them. Before he left town, she asked him to go out on one last patrol. She kissed him and he let it happen just to see where it would go. His lack of enthusiasm must have shown because Buffy backed away pretty quickly. Surprise and disappointment showed on her face, but there was a hint of resolve showing, too, as if she was also testing things out.
“I-I shouldn’t have…” she started to say but let the night air swallow her words.
They were at the end of their patrol route. “I think we’re done here,” Angel said to her, but this time it felt like he meant it. “Time I headed home.”
Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the keys to the Plymouth, which was parked in front of Giles’ house, but stopped when he heard Buffy call out to him, “Angel, wait. I almost forgot!”
He stopped in his tracks and waited doing his best to ignore the phantom sound of Cordelia’s laughter in his head as she referred to him as Buffy’s lap dog. Fetch. Kill. Sit. Wait. She was not exactly wrong about it either, which made it sting even more.
Catching up to him again, Buffy reached into her own pants pocket pulling out something small enough to have tucked away in her hand. The Claddagh ring, he guessed with a small pang of regret as Buffy continued on with her explanation.
“I was going to have Oz bring this to you on his trip to L.A., but things went wacko here at Hellmouth Central. Wow, I guess I should’ve given this to you when you first got here, but I had hidden it from Spike and—”
“Spike! He’s back?”
Buffy cringed. “Ah, yeah, long story. He has this whole takeover Sunnydale thing going on. No big. Nothing I can’t handle. It’s just that we found something important. Something that could change everything…for you.”
Resting in her palm was an ancient golden ring fashioned around a large emerald stone. He knew it for what it was almost instantly. “The Gem of Amarra.” No wonder Spike wanted it. Buffy was right. Its reputed powers could potentially make him virtually invulnerable, impervious to sunlight and a laundry list of other things.
“Giles wants to talk to you before you go. Books and stuff…” Buffy trailed off with a sigh.
Angel doubted those references would tell him what he really wanted to know. He suspected the gem’s abilities might also secure his soul, or at least counteract the curse by acting as a balancing force. It did not sound like the kind of theory he could test out without risking that everything could go wrong. That put a lid on his excitement pretty quickly.
The ring felt warm to the touch, its mystical energy attuned to his vampire nature. Angel slid it into place on the middle finger of his right hand. The invisible energy spread out in a wave of tingling sensations until it suffused him with the kind of warmth he had not felt in over two hundred and fifty years. Even if half of the legend was true he worried that possessing the ring might cause problems.
Spike’s interest in it was probably going to be one of many hurdles ahead, but it might just be worth it.
Now he was driving home from Sunnydale. Apocalypse averted. Old relationships ended. Loophole resolved.
So he hoped.
Could the ring truly nullify the curse? Surely, one of those books would shed some light on the subject. It was not just a matter of wanting to be rid of it because obviously the ever-present threat of Angelus meant that the world was a safer place without the darkest part of his demon nature on the loose. There would be nothing to stop him from making a fresh start with Cordelia—unless Doyle finally made that move he had been planning for months.
Angel gripped the steering wheel a little tighter and pressed his foot down on the gas.
Some undercurrent of attraction had always been there, privately acknowledged, but never something he planned to act upon until sheer proximity changed things. Over the past few weeks, he had given in to desires he thought fully under his control.
Countless erotic scenes filled his head, starting with an exploration of her beautiful body. There was not an inch he could not imagine teasing with his mouth, kissing, sucking, nibbling every line and curve he had committed to memory. He salivated at the thought of his tongue on her sex, tasting, delving into the juicy center, flicking at the sensitive nub, stroking her into a rapturous frenzy.
God, he wanted to see that. If she could get so damned worked up over the way he organized his clothes closet, he knew that sex with Cordelia would be electrifying. Truthfully, everything she did confirmed that assessment. All it took was one look from her and he was transfixed by lascivious thoughts. Much of his free time had been spent considering how to broach the idea of letting their friendship turn intimate and determining ways in which he could provide her pleasure while limiting his own, ensuring that his soul would remain intact.
Cordelia’s beautiful body seemed to be made just for him fitting with his like an interlocking puzzle piece. The way she responded to his touch, matching his desire, made him painfully aware that they both wanted more than kisses. Prolonging the chase used to be part of the game, but trying to suppress his needs was downright painful.
Neither one of them had much luck with romance. Truthfully, he was not really certain he wanted to risk getting involved again so soon. Cordelia seemed to be over Xander, but she had not been with anyone since they had met again. He could tell. That was not to say that every male she met wasn’t wrapped around her little finger. One glimpse of that radiant smile was enough. Everyone from Doyle to Dr Folger was half in love with her.
The thought spawned a wave of possessiveness. Cordelia was a friend, a colleague, and neighbor. Not his lover. There was no claim of ownership involved, and she would probably hand him his ass if he ever brought up the subject, especially when it was going to be necessary to keep things casual.
Until he figured out if the ring truly offered his soul protection, he could not risk falling in love with her. What he felt now was just an undeniable hunger that tangled up their friendship with lustful cravings. Desire should not have to be so complicated. Want. Take. Have. Keep. But this was Cordelia Chase and that made everything just a little more complex.
From the first, she had been something of a thorn in his side, a temptation for his darker desires, testing out his methods of control. Her spoiled, egotistical outlook on life had always reminded Angel of his youth back in Ireland. Her existence had turned topsy-turvy, and she lost everything that she held dear in that former life. Now they were here in Los Angeles where the Powers that Be had brought them back together. Somehow, he doubted that improving his sex life had anything to do with it.
Until he knew more about the Gem of Amarra’s affects on the curse, he could not risk unleashing Angelus upon the world again. Especially because Cordelia would be the first to come face-to-face with the monster he was if he should lose his soul again. That was something he could not do, but he wanted her anyway, and he intended to make certain that she knew it.