6: Healing Hands

friends n neighbors_v9


Healing Hands

Aluminum cans scattered across the concrete floor jerking Cordelia out of her dreams. The red carpet, glittering flashes from paparazzi cameras, and her Vera Wang gown vanished instantly. Instead, she was curled up in Angel’s favorite leather chair wearing her shorty PJs and blue robe, staring blindly at the weaponry decorating the wall. The incongruity between dream and reality left her head spinning.

Thump! Something heavy crashed down displacing another wave of cans. Blurred vision narrowed to pinpoint clarity as Cordelia snapped back to reality.

Bounding out of her chair, she cried out, “Angel!” The tray of gauze, paper tape and Kerlix bandages stationed on her lap went flying to the floor. Having just finished restocking and organizing her new Vampire First Aid Kit, she did not appreciate seeing its contents spread across the living room.

“Argh! Angel, you scared the crap out of me!” Now she was probably going to catch hell for leaving the bag of crushed Diet Dr Pepper cans in his stairwell. Hindsight suggested that its placement might not have been the greatest idea, but the staircase was the shortest route up to Dr Folger’s recycle bin.

Gearing up for yet another argument, Cordelia tightened her robe, tucked her loose hair behind her ears, propped her hands on her hips, and waited for him to charge in like he was going to face off against his worst enemy. She was ready for it. If the last few nights were any indication, Angel would be in the kind of dark mood that made her want to head straight for her favorite beachside resort and stay away for the duration.

Mr Bad Attitude had no excuse as far as she could tell. There had been no angst-filled calls from Sunnydale to set this off. It was not even his usual brood mode. Normally she would just let him rot in his dark cave of broodiness for a while, but even that option was out since he was staying out more than in. Sometimes it was as if he was trying to scare her off by reminding her that he was a vampire and not just the guy living next door.

No big deal.

If he thought she was going to back down, he was oh so wrong. It was invigorating to watch Angel get worked up over some of the silliest things like a few borrowed items. Pfft! And certain music was meant to be played with the volume up. It’s not like she was always telling him what not to do.

Whatever he got up to out there in the dark was not any of her business—until recently. A little bandage here or there had turned into major patching up sessions night after night.

Now the whole Florence Nightingale thing was starting to feel routine.

Just the other night, out of sheer boredom, or maybe a little unrestrained curiosity, Cordelia had been reading the letters in Darla’s trunk when Angel caught her red-handed. Just how long had he been watching her? Sir Lurks-a-Lot was a little too good at sneaking up unnoticed.

Standing in the open doorway between their apartments, Angel had cautioned her against what she might find there. Too late. The letter in her hand was by far the most sensual, intimate thing she had ever read. Most of the others ranged from sweet tokens of love and affection to desperate offers of financial support in exchange for Darla’s attentions. All taking on the tone of the eras they were written.

Cordelia flushed hot, more from excitement than embarrassment, having read this particular letter twice already, and now caught in the midst of her third go. It wasn’t like the others, which were written by men with no notion that their words could offer no real temptation to a vampire. This was from a lover who knew the way her body reacted to his touch, understood her desires, and possessed the skill to convey his own in a way that fired up Cordelia’s visual imagination.

“This one’s yours,” Cordelia had confessed while dropping the letter like it had scorched her skin. It fluttered down to the bright orange couch already littered with velum.

Maybe it was the bruised throat that made Angel’s words take on that husky tone. “You found it stimulating.” He wasn’t asking. He knew.

Cordelia wondered how many telltale signs her body was giving away. Despite the fact that it looked like somebody had repeatedly bashed his face with a meat tenderizer, her body still responded as if his hand had stroked a path straight between her thighs. Wanting to die a thousand deaths right on the spot, “That is so none of your business.”

“Debatable.” He looked rather smug.

Technically, it was his letter, so he might have a point, but Cordelia was not about to let him know that she was conceding it. His injuries were the perfect excuse to change the subject, an opportunity that Cordelia jumped at. Walking over to check his injuries, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Did Doyle take you bar hopping?”

His suggestive comments certainly hinted that a drink or two had loosened up his tongue a little.

“Just the one bar,” he confirmed only to grimace as he straightened up.

Adding a couple of cracked ribs to the tally, Cordelia wondered how many other hidden wounds she was going to find. “I take it Doyle made it out in one piece.”

Angel assured her, “He wasn’t even involved in the fight. There was this girl…”

Uh huh. Cordelia stopped him there. “Don’t tell me. Her muscle-builder boyfriend didn’t like the way she fawned all over you.”

“Something like that.” Angel hesitated before adding, “I had to hold back. Didn’t want to kill the guy.”

“So you let him beat you up first. Genius plan.”

Angel’s hand closed around her wrist guiding her forward into his personal space. He leaned in even closer, his uninjured cheek brushing against hers as he spoke, “Well, it worked.”

Cordelia pointed out that he could have just knocked the guy out. There had to be plenty of ways to get out of the bar without resorting to a fight. She stripped off his jacket and shirt while reminding him that she might not be around the next time he needed patching up. “Rehearsals are going to start soon.”

They had barely spoken the next day. Cordelia kept busy with her usual errands and phone calls. Doyle came in briefly, still hung-over from the bar the night before, and decided he was better off just heading back home again. Although she had wanted more details about what happened, especially about Angel and that flirtatious floozy, Cordelia let him go without pushing him for answers to her questions.

Maybe his cracked ribs hadn’t healed properly because Angel was snappish the few times he managed to put in an appearance. She was glad when he decided to leave her to her filing. Not so happy about his return in the middle of the night.

The room was dark except for a sliver of light stretching across the floor as it stole into her apartment through the open door. She had left it open wanting to catch him upon his return so they could talk about why he was being such an asshole lately. At two o’clock, she had given up and crawled into bed.

Sometime later, he was standing there in the shadows of her bedroom doorway. All he said was her name.

“Go away,” she groaned, turning her back and shoving the pillow over her head. “I’m sleeping.”

Despite not looking, she could tell that Angel was still there, holding himself motionless, staying utterly silent for a long time. Now alert beneath the cover of her pillow she questioned her senses. Surely he must have given up and have left the room, but something told her that he was just waiting for the right moment to try again.

Peeking out from under the pillow to note that Angel’s silhouette was outlined in the doorway, she snapped, “If you’re here to apologize it can wait until morning.”

He practically growled the word, “No,” causing Cordelia to toss her pillow at his head and tell him to get out of her bedroom. Angel easily batted the pillow away before stalking toward her bed. It was then that she noticed his limp and the scent of singed leather.

His name sounded on a gasp, “Angel…?”

He reached forward, one big hand closing over the edge of her comforter, and with a swift yank tossed it to the end of her bed. “Get up. I need you.”

Cordelia was under no illusion that he meant that in any romantic way. Certainly not with that tone. He was injured again and needed patching up. What did he do before she was around to take care of these things?

Scooting across to the edge of the bed, Cordelia swung her bare legs over the side as she sat up. All she wore was an oversized Sunnydale University jersey that had been given to her by a former boyfriend, and some panties. The shirt exposed one shoulder that peeked out from under her tussled hair. Any thought about looking for her robe was forgotten the moment she clicked the light switch and saw Angel.

Bruises and gashes were the theme of the night. His injuries were worse than after the bar fight and there were more of them. Angel was sketchy on the details, but got the basics across. A few vampires had taken up residence in an old tenement a few blocks away. “They were reluctant to leave.”

Every night seemed to get a little worse. Angel would go out early, stay out late, and come back looking like he had been in several street brawls. Tonight she had stayed up to confront him about it, but fell asleep before his return. Now, after the noisy entry she was still waiting.

Angel did not rush in as expected. There was no cry of outrage coming from the back staircase where he had tripped over her bag of recyclable soda cans. He usually had no trouble seeing in the dark. Nor was he a total clutz. An opportunity to educate her about the proper placement of trash bags would normally be right up there with his favorite lecture about not leaving wet towels on the furniture.

Gearing up for yet another spat, she propped her hands on her hips and tapped her foot as she waited.

And waited.

Until, scarily, she realized that Angel was not coming. Swamped by an icky sense of dread, Cordelia called out his name again with no response. That wasn’t a good sign. He wasn’t like Xander who might try to scare her to death by playing games and jumping out at her from a dark corner.

Running for the stairs, she called out, “You better be o—Oh!” Cordelia stopped short, her plea forgotten at the sight of him sprawled face down on the bloody concrete floor.

Multiple gashes ripped into his leather cost were congealed with dark blood. What she could see of his face included a swollen jaw covered in dark bruises, a split lip, and a jagged cut over his forehead and eyelid. The knuckles of both hands looked like red pulp.

Barefoot, she stood on the cold cement for about five seconds taking it all in. Tears stung her eyes. Anger laced her words, but it was fear driving them. “Out for a stroll my ass!”

Angel had been injured before, too many times to count, but this was different. Whatever he had gotten into tonight was worse than the past three nights combined. Horrified, her vision blurred into a red haze. There was only one place to direct her anger. He might be in no condition to take part in any arguments, but unconscious or not he was still going to hear it from her.

Crouching down, Cordelia tried to shake him awake. He lay there as still as the grave with skin almost grey he was so pale. Cold to the touch, more so than usual, she brushed her fingers across his cheek, then slapped gently and then more firmly. “C’mon, open your eyes. Talk to me. Tell me how to fix this.”

Reacting to her touch, Angel turned his cheek toward her hand. “A little help here, Angel,” she instructed while trying to roll him over to check his other injuries. “Now I know what they mean by dead weight. Sheesh! You weigh a ton”

A shout of pain from Angel as he rolled over pierced right through her already shot nerves. Not the screaming type, that impenetrable mask of stoicism usually bottled up any pain he felt. Oh, he could grimace with the best of them, but it was not like him to show it this way.

That terrified her. “Say something! What did this to you?”

A grunt of pain was about all he could manage. His shirt was in tatters, ripped to pieces by claws sharp enough to rend the flesh beneath. Unfastening the few remaining buttons, she pulled the material away from his chest cringing at the way the layered blood made it cling to his skin.

“You’re a mess…covered in wounds…” Most seemed superficial, but there was a nasty one gouged into his side. It oozed blood that dripped in thick globs down his abdomen. There was no sign that the gash was getting to the point that it would start to close up.

Even the superficial wounds still looked fresh. Angel had lost too much blood. The eyes that stared up at her were glassy, unfocused. He sounded confused. “You’re here.”

Taking off her robe, Cordelia pressed it hard against the abdominal wound hoping to staunch the flow of blood enough to buy some time. “Where else would I be at this time of night… morning… whatever. In bed, maybe.”

“Bed,” Angel repeated the word on a growl as she pushed a little harder on the wound.

“That’s where you should be, Dazed and Confused. The sun’s almost up.” She could see the hint of predawn light coming from the top of the stairs where Angel had failed to shut the door. The idiot had barely made it home in time— or at all.

Vampires did not exactly bleed out the same way as humans, but she knew that if she did not stop the constant ooze it would get to the point where he needed more blood than they could easily gather to heal him. Getting into fights night after night already made her question his intelligence, but he did not even seem to know who she was right now.

His big hands darted up to grab her shoulders dragging her closer instead of pushing her away. Even the pain written on his face could not hide the need. His eyes were tawny with it. Though his face looked human enough, Cordelia would not have been surprised by a show of fangs.

Now draped across his muscular torso, Cordelia was about to complain that he was getting blood all over her, but got distracted by the way he was staring at her mouth. He was hungry, and not just for blood. Maybe it was the pain that confused him making him want something more. Maybe it was just the fact that he was a vampire.

Knowing that she had never seen him look at her that way Cordelia started to wonder if he even knew she was the woman in his arms. Bloody fingertips skirted along her cheek. He said nothing. Before Cordelia could remind him that she was just there for her Florence Nightingale routine, Angel fused his lips to hers in a kiss that sought more than just comfort.

What? Hey! Oh…

Even half unconscious Angel knew how to make her head spin. Cordelia got over the initial shock and just went with the sensations. Flushed and shaky, she opened up to his needy caress. Long, cool kisses brushed across her seemingly fiery lips, the contact between them barely broken except to renew the kiss again. Each one more intoxicating than the last.

The dart of his tongue into her mouth brought with it the taste of blood from his split lip. The coppery flavor slid across her taste buds as if charged by an electric current, unexpectedly sudden and shocking. It was not enough to put a stop to their latest kiss, which was getting a little out of control.

Cordelia was afraid to admit how much she wanted more, but Angel was not even fully aware of what he was doing. He was badly hurt and in pain and obviously had her confused with someone who allowed him kissing privileges.

Maybe someone specific.

Like a certain slayer ex-girlfirend.

The errant thought acted like a bucket of cold water splashed over her. “That’s enough, Mr Grabby Hands. Buffy is not here.”

Pulling away from his kiss only gave him better access to her throat. He was already making himself quite at home there when she invoked his ex’s name. “Buffy?” He paused long enough to make her wonder if he was just confused or asking Buffy’s permission for something.

Angel nuzzled closer. “So warm,” he muttered absently. Adding, “Feels good,” almost as if he was talking to himself.

Cordelia was in full agreement about the good sensations finding it difficult to insist that he stop. Softly, his lips grazed over the wild throb of her pulse, mouth opening to drag his blunt teeth across it. The rough stubble from his jaw grazed her skin as he raised his mouth toward her ear.

Coming across as a sexy declaration, “I want to sink my fangs inside you,” his confession unfurled a lick of heat low in her belly.

Being turned on by that particular image spurred Cordelia into action. If she was dreaming up a certain vampire fantasy, the fangs might be fun. Considering the pleasure found in a few kisses, she had no doubt that if anyone could actually make getting bitten feel sexy instead of painful, it would be him. Either way, she was not going to find out.

“Oh, no you don’t, big guy.” Simultaneously, Cordelia yanked on his hair and pushed down a little harder on his abdominal injury until Angel jerked them both into a sitting position.

Sprawled across his lap, she noted the golden irises, and the utter lack of recognition in them. The blood loss was definitely having its effects. “Let me go, Angel. We need to get some blood in you pronto.”

Angel’s tongue dragged across his lips as his fingertips trailed up to her neck again. “Down boy. That wasn’t an invitation.” Using her free hand she pushed his away, an act that left him looking more rejected than dangerous.

His behavior was getting worse. Only one thing would fix that and help him heal. Blood. A lot of it. There had been a full container in the fridge last night. Angel drank some of it last night after his little tussle with that nest of vampires. She figured he had more before going out today and that would not leave much.

Still, it was a start. Cordelia tried to get up, but Angel, despite being much weaker than usual, still managed to hold her to him as if he thought she might suddenly disappear. His words reflected that. “Don’t go. You’re not leaving me.”

Anger toughened her resolve. As much as she wanted to believe his passion was meant for her, it was obvious that he was not completely in his own right mind. It was a miracle that he had been able to make it home at all. “Buffy’s not here. You’re the one who left her back in Sunnydale. I’m here. Me.”

“Buffy?”

That name on his lips just made her see red. “Gah! I swear if you’re dreaming up some slayer fantasy right now I will stake you myself.”

Extracting herself from Angel’s arms, Cordelia pulled away, scrambled to her feet and waded through the aluminum cans on route to the kitchen. A glance revealed that she was covered in blood. It smeared across her skin wherever he had touched her. A thicker layer stained her pajama top and shorts.

Despite the grossness, her nipples remained sensitive peaks against the sticky cloth and she felt achy at the loss of his touch. What in hell was wrong with her? None of this should be a turn on.

Well…

There was the way he kissed. Those big hands and the insistent way he held her against him. The way his open palm spread across her breast, claiming territory, caressing softly. His painful moans turning to pleasure at her touch.

Hot.

Then there was the part where he thought she was someone else. Angel was having slayer separation issues and using her as a convenient substitute. Hot? Not.

Cordelia found the container of blood to be only one third full. Nowhere near enough considering Angel’s blood loss. She brought it to him cold knowing that there had already been too many delays. He needed it now.

Watching Angel ravenously gulp down the blood, she was more relieved than disgusted, something she had not really considered until after the fact. He had never let her see him eat before purposely keeping that part of him closed off from her despite their friendship and the fact that they had lived out of the same kitchen for a while.

“Good to the last drop?” she quipped as he turned it bottom side up letting the last of it slide down his throat.

Holding the empty plastic container to his chest as if it was a lifeline, or hoping that it might magically refill, Angel closed his eyes as he leaned back into Cordelia’s supportive arms. Almost immediately, she noticed a difference. He was still a bloody mess and wracked with pain. She could see the strain of it on his face easing slightly, but his shoulders remained tense. Anyone else would be screaming.

She scooted around on the cleaner side of the floor. There was no longer a grey undertone to his pale white skin. When he looked at her with those soulful brown eyes, she could tell that he was truly seeing her now. He was no longer lost in his instinctual drive to fulfill his need for blood. Though he was a long way from all right, she knew that he was out of danger.

“I should call Doyle,” she told him, already starting to move again.

His hand closed over her wrist to stop her. “Cordelia.” The sound of her name on his lips made her shudder with want, the memory of his kisses still so vivid. She did not want him to read the desire in her eyes, or to remember the way she enthusiastically responded to his kisses.

“Cordelia,” he said again with a softer tone laced in confusion. There were gaps in his memory. She could tell from the questions he asked. The way he paused, turning his thoughts inward as he tried to fill the holes.

A little braver at the hint of faulty memory, she finally turned her gaze to his finding him frowning. Assessing her bloodied state with one raking glance, he let out a strangled protest. “Did I…”

No way was she going to talk about kissing him when he obviously thought she was Buffy. Interrupting was one way to stall the unwanted conversation, but she supposed they would have to hash it out sometime. Feeling angry about it might be ridiculous, but that was the way of it. Fine. If he wanted to embarrass them both she would just as soon get it over with.

“Did you what?” she snapped.

Angel looked utterly confused as he finished, “…fall down the stairs?”

Tensed up for a completely different topic, Cordelia took a moment to give him a response. “So much for that catlike grace of yours.

He added with a serious tone, “There were these cans,” as if he had faced a mortal enemy and its remains were now littered across the floor.

Three seconds of holding her breath did not prevent her laughter from breaking free. Poor Angel just sounded so lost. “You had a run-in with my new home security system. Works like a charm.”

Angel still seemed to be working out what was so funny, which only confused Cordelia. Did he remember kissing her or not? Forgetting that it was a subject she had wanted to avoid only minutes before, she decided that she wanted to know the truth.

Just before she could ask him about it, Angel chose that moment to look at his wound. Lifting the robe away caused a restrained growl of pain. Blood started to seep from its deep center.

“Keep holding pressure,” Cordelia pushed his hand and the robe back into place over the gouge. “I still need to call Doyle about making a blood run. You’ll need a lot more to heal properly.”

This time he did not stop her. Cordelia darted across the room to the old rotary phone. Dialing Doyle’s phone number from memory, she waited impatiently for him to pick up. Four rings later and his familiar Irish brogue sounded in her ear. Not to complain about the interruption of his sleep, but to verify that Angel had returned.

“Cutting it a bit close this time,” Doyle must have realized the time. “The sun is up. You haven’t been pacing the floor all night long have you?”

Choosing to ignore Doyle’s correct assumption that she had waited up for Angel to get home, she focused on her concerns. “He barely made it back in time. He’s a mess.”

Doyle groaned, “Not again. ”

“Worse.”

There was silence from Doyle’s end of the line until finally he said, “You still haven’t told him the full story about that play of yours.”

Was he blaming this on her? Cordelia could not believe that he was that ignorant of the way Angel’s moods went. “These dark and broody sessions have got nothing to do with me.”

“Pull the other one, princess.”

Cordelia wanted to reach through the phone and wring Doyle’s scrawny neck. “One of these days I will share the very painful saga that is Buffy and Angel, but now is not the time. Listen closely…”

Instructing Doyle to haul his skinny butt out of bed, get dressed, and to head over to the ‘special’ blood supplier, Cordelia listened closely for any indication that he was moving at the desired pace.

Halfway through a yawn, her intentions became clear, as did the reason behind them. “Human blood. Not the all-night butcher.” Doyle added an expletive.

“Pants, Doyle, now!” Cordelia told him to get going. Slamming the receiver down, she grumbled, “You’d think I was asking for a personal donation.”

“Eighty proof sounds pretty good right now,” joked Angel doing a pretty good impression of holding up the living room wall.

Cordelia wondered just how much of her conversation with Doyle he had overheard. Hopefully, he was too preoccupied with his injuries to notice that she had mentioned talking to the Irishman about the angsty situation with Buffy.

“Hey, you’re on your feet! Great sign that you won’t be crumbling to dust this time.” Grabbing his elbow, she swung his arm over her shoulder. “C’mon, let’s get you into the shower.”

Angel limped with every step toward his bedroom. The effort must have made a shower seem more daunting a task. Grimacing, he suggested, “Maybe I should just lie down.”

“And get blood all over your precious sheets? I think not.”

They managed to make it to the bathroom before Cordelia collapsed under Angel’s weight. Even though he was trying to walk on his own, one of his legs was injured to the extent that he could not put his full weight on it. However bad the injury, it was hidden beneath the cover of his black duster.

“Whatever did this,” Cordelia scrambled to get a better hold, “did you at least kill it?”

“Them,” he corrected with a groan as she gingerly pulled the duster off and let it drop to the bathroom’s tile floor. As usual, Angel was not exactly forthcoming with the details, but answered with an affirmative nod.

Through the tatters is his shirt she could see that the demons had come at him from all angles, baring their claws and digging deep. “We’re you saving some damsel in distress or just picking a fight?”

The sting of tears made it difficult to continue, her hands bunching up the material. Blinking them away did not make them any less noticeable to Angel. He palmed her face, staring down into her overly bright eyes, and brushed his thumb along her blood-smeared cheek as if trying to wipe away the evidence. “Does it matter?”

Cordelia yanked at his shirt a little harder than intended. The sudden move forced Angel to drop his hold on her, practically knocking him off his feet. “Why would I care if my vampire boss gets ripped apart just for the hell of it? Apart from the paycheck, you also happen to be my friend, dumbass!”

Because she was extremely pissed off at the idea that she might not care, she decided to play the card that Doyle had handed her. “Guess it’s a good thing my contract for the play is signed and sealed. The next time you decide to take stupid chances without any backup I won’t have to worry about cleaning up the mess.”

Angel did not flinch. He did not get visibly angry. He just went quiet, withdrawing his emotions, holding them back from her.

Cordelia hated when he did that. It frustrated her when he kept his thoughts and opinions to himself, refusing to talk, keeping her away from his feelings. She never understood why people like Angel could not talk their way through things, but instead bottled them up like state secrets.

Doyle wanted her to tell Angel the truth about the play and the plans for her job at Angel Investigations. No way was she going to make it that easy on him. If he wanted to know the truth he could ask her directly. Conversations went two ways and she was tired of having to interpret his part of them.

That did not mean she was totally against lecturing him while he was in broody, silent mode. No, that was kind of convenient. With businesslike efficiency, Cordelia stripped him down. The torn shirt joined the coat on the floor. While she unbuckled his belt, she reminded him that he was supposed to be working for the Powers That Be.

“What if Doyle has a vision? You’re in no shape to put an end to the next apocalypse!”

Cordelia reached for the button on his black pants only to have his hand close over hers. Irritated that her task and her lecture were interrupted, she glared up to find Angel looking somewhat amused despite his pain. “Shoes,” he drew her attention to the fact that he would not be able to step out of his pants while they were still on.

There was no way he was taking care of that task on his own. “Oh! Shoes. Got ’em.”

One came of easily enough. She tossed it and his sock into a corner. Removing the other was a challenge since Angel had to stand on his bad leg. Using the towel bar as a temporary crutch they managed to free him of his remaining footwear. “Getting you out of your pants should be easy after that!”

Down on her knees, she maneuvered into an upright position to have another go at the pants only to be stopped yet again. “Um, Cordelia, maybe I should handle things from here.”

“Pfft! You can’t stand up on your own,” she started ticking off a list of reasons why that wasn’t going to happen, “you can’t reach those gouges on your back, and it’s not like I haven’t already seen everything you’ve got.”

Everything, her mind echoed images permanently imprinted on her retina. The experience of seeing him naked and aroused was no little thing. Nope. Not little at all.

Considering the amount of blood loss, Cordelia doubted there would be any embarrassing displays today. “Just keep your erection issues to yourself, ” she teased.

“I don’t have…issues.” Angel denied swiftly as he pulled her up off the floor sounding outraged by the notion.

Cordelia simply snorted and got back to the task of taking off Angel’s pants, easily accomplished now that he was distracted. She was more concerned about the nasty gash across his thigh than his currently flaccid penis.

The walk-in shower was not that big, certainly not like the modern types that were large enough to hold a small party. Cordelia was more of a bubble bath girl. She turned on the water as hot as she could tolerate knowing that was how he liked it. Steam quickly built up on the clear glass.

“Get in if you can. I’ll grab towels and stuff,” Cordelia told him before darting out of the room.

Gathering a pile of clean washcloths and towels from the cedar chest of drawers where Angel kept his towels and sheets neatly organized, she made her next stop the living room. It took a minute to collect her first aid supplies, although she tossed them haphazardly into the tray instead of making any attempt at arranging it.

“You need to clean out those wounds,” Cordelia called out instructions to him. “Most demons don’t get monthly manicures, so who knows what gross stuff they had under their claws.”

Back in the bathroom, she found that Angel had just managed to make it into the shower stall, his limp slowing him down. He was just standing there with the door open, the spray of the water beating against his skin and spritzing out across the bathroom floor.

Only upon seeing him completely stripped down and standing under the water did Cordelia saw the true extent of his injuries. Suddenly, his nudity did not seem like an issue. She walked right in behind him pajamas and all. Reaching out to him was automatic. Her fingers traced the smooth edge of one particularly long wound across his back. “You look like they were carving you up for a late-night snack.”

“Cordelia, I’ll be fine,” he groaned under the full spray of the water as it sluiced over his body. It had to hurt almost as much as it felt good. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been injured.”

“We’ll, it’s the first time you’ve come home to me looking like you’ve been playing with the wrong end of a chainsaw,” Cordelia snapped back incensed that he was taking crazy, unnecessary risks.

Thinking about the likelihood that he would do this again when the odds were not in his favor, even though the outcome meant nothing more than another notch on his victory belt, made her sick—and so angry she felt shaky.

Reaching over, she slammed the shower door, shutting them both inside. His long fingers closed around her upper arm to pull her back under the water with him. Angel’s expression was stony, as if she was not the only one with the right to be mad. He said nothing as his hands a lifted to her face, the pads of his thumbs rubbing in circles where her skin was covered in bloody smears. Moving up to her temples he gently massaged at the tension there before his fingers combed through her hair.

Cordelia’s eyes shuttered closed for an instant. His touch felt so good making her want to melt into it, but being touched distracted from her true purpose here, helping him recover. “I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be the one cleaning you up,” she said just before his lips brushed her forehead.

As if he did not have the energy to argue his point in greater detail, Angel simply said, “Let me.” Cordelia felt a tug on the edge of her pajama top causing an automatic reaction as she stopped the upward motion. Was he still out of his gourd? This did not seem like the greatest idea.

Keeping her query light, she asked, “Whatcha doing?”

Angel pulled a trick from her book and had plenty of reasons at hand. “You’re covered in my blood, you’ll need to do this anyway, and you’re already here.” Being a rational kind of person, Angel made it sound ridiculous to waste water and time. Until he added one last thought, “Seems fair.”

Deciding that she had to be officially insane, too, Cordelia reached down to strip off her top eliciting a groan from Angel that had nothing to do with the pain of his injuries. Though the water was warm, her nipples peaked into pebbles aching for attention. She wanted to drag his hands up to her breasts, wanting them on her bare skin, but they were down on her hips plucking at the waistband of her pajama shorts as if testing her resolve—or his own.

Angel gave her a choice, “On or off?”

This was just about showering, Cordelia reminded herself, acknowledging a strange sense of disappointment at the fact that something more exciting wasn’t in the cards. Although Angel said nothing to sway her decision, there was something deep and needful in his gaze, something that went beyond it being his turn for a cheap thrill. They could manage this without completely stripping her down, but he seemed to want it and she was not about to deny him anything.

Swallowing down her nerves, she answered, “Off.” Because, truthfully, being skin to skin with Angel even under this clinical guise was too tempting to ignore. Cordelia only hoped that her voice was not as ragged as her breathing.

Angel wasted no time accomplishing the task, his hands sliding beneath the waistband of her cotton pajama shorts pushing them down over her hips and taking her lacy panties with them. The sensation of his fingers skimming across her skin made her catch her bottom lip between her teeth stopping what would have been an all too revealing moan.

The barest touch and she was practically purring! It freaked her out a little, this idea that she wanted more, a lot more of something that was completely off limits. Hello, curse! Even so, Angel was carved up like a holiday turkey.

Her sodden garments hit the shower floor with a splash. Cordelia kicked them into a corner of the shower stall. “So, um . . .”

Angel did not bother to hide the fact that he was staring, but that intractable mask was back in place preventing her from figuring out what he was thinking. He still had his hands on her, though probably more for balance than illicit touching. Did he like what he was looking at or had he seen so many women that he was indifferent to her nudity?

When he spoke, it was matter-of-factly. “We should get started. The hot water will only last so long. ”

That was all he had to say? Really!

Cordelia was not self-conscious about her body. On a scale of one to ten, she was a knockout, and knew it. Back in high school, her inability to attract Angel left her wondering about his good taste. After all, his preference for blonde slayers was his flaw, not hers.

Still, she expected some kind of red-blooded male response. A little leering would not have gone unappreciated. Oh, she would’ve called him on it. No doubt about that. As far as she could tell from his stone-faced expression, she might as well have been wearing a muumuu. Maybe that morning he came to her rescue in his birthday suit, and he ended up with a hard-on, was really more about being turned on by her blood than by her after all.

Confused, Cordelia felt the sting of rejection despite not having offered Angel anything, although she certainly was not about to let him know he had hurt her feelings. If he wanted this to be business as usual, she could deal with that too. “Fine,” she agreed curtly. “Turn around. This is not a peep show. I’m using the soap first, and then I’ll make a start on your back.”

Laying down a few ground rules might not change much, but it made her feel like she was in charge. Angel followed instructions and turned around, but the tiny shower stall did not make it easy to avoid touching. By the time Cordelia was half way finished with her super fast shower, she had bumped and nudged and slid into Angel more times than she could count.

Her efforts to avoid contact only made it worse causing them both to lose balance. The soap went flying. She fell back nearly banging head on the shower wall, but was grabbed at the last second by Angel who normally would have prevented the fall completely had his reflexes been normal. The move smashed her into his right side, fortunately the one without the gaping wound.

“Don’t you dare fall down,” Cordelia ordered as soon as she could gather her wits enough to extract herself from his arms. He looked ready to collapse.

Somehow, they made it through the task of washing off the blood. “What exactly were these demons doing that put them on your radar?” She aimed to keep talking, distracting him from the painful experience of cleaning out the wounds.

Angel let out a yelp when she pressed across cloth against one particularly nasty open wound. “What the hell?”

“Hydrogen peroxide.” Cordelia told him he was being a big baby. “You’re standing there with a big hole in your gut and you can’t take a little sting for a couple of seconds.”

He pressed his hands into the tile wall in front of him making his muscles ripple and wounds pull against his slowly healing skin. At least the abdominal wound had stopped oozing now looking more like a small crater. “It hurts.”

“Suck it up, tough guy. I’m just getting started.”

For a second it looked like he was going to rip the bottle out of her hand, but he seemed to think better of it. “Stop complaining,” she nudged him to turn so that she could get to the wound on his thigh. “Let me finish before Doyle shows up.”

“Doyle? That’s right. You told him to go buy blood.” Angel still seemed to be fuzzy on the details of even that conversation and it had happened after he drank the first batch. “He’s coming here now?”

Cordelia rolled her eyes and continued to dab away at the last wound. “Duh! You need blood. You need rest. By tonight this will all be forgotten.”

“Not likely,” he scoffed.

Cordelia supposed that it would be difficult to forget a couple of nasty demons ripping you to shreds, but she doubted that Angel had really learned any lessons. He seemed more concerned at being caught even though there was nothing illicit going on.

“You realize Doyle is going to show up and find us in here.”

Freezing, she dated a glance at the shower door. The glass was completely steamed over. Safe enough if Doyle happened to be stupid enough to barge in. Getting caught playing shower buddies with Angel would probably upset Doyle, who seemed to have strong opinions about co-workers getting intimate, and this certainly seemed to fall into that category. For some strange reason, he kept pressing her about her thoughts on the subject.

Not that there was anything truly intimate going on around here. Still sensitive about Angel’s lack of interest, she snapped, “At least Doyle would appreciate the view.” The flash of irritation on Angel’s face gave her a satisfied rush.

Concluding suddenly, “You’re mad at me,” Angel said confounded.

Cordelia snorted. “Wow! It’s finally sinking in. You go off on some random demon-killing spree, get yourself filleted, barely crawl back home before the sun turns you into a crispy critter, and you don’t think I have a right to be a little pissed off?”

After a short pause, Angel limped forward, which automatically backed her into a corner. It didn’t help that he had to press his hands into the wall on either side of her to hold himself up. He seemed to be gearing up for a new fight and Cordelia started preparing her counter-arguments, something about bosses being responsible for employees and paychecks, or friendly concern over a neighbor taking insane risks.

Having effectively boxed her in, he calmly rebuffed her angry tirade. “That’s not why you’re mad at me now.”

“Miss Multitasker, that’s me,” she smirked. “I can be mad at you on several levels simultaneously.”

“You think I don’t appreciate what you do for me,” Angel started out slowly, dark eyes narrowing to assess her response. “That I take it for granted?” Brow scrunching in distress over the idea he seemed to be ticked off that she might even consider that to be true.

Waiting it out, Cordelia waged an internal battle forcing herself to stay silent long enough to hear him out. In an unconsciously defensive move that hid her breasts from view, she crossed her arms over her chest, and glanced away.

“Or is this just about here and now? Did you expect something else to happen?”

Cordelia’s breath hitched and her head whipped back around to stare at him in crazy-eyed reaction. Could he make it sound any more pathetic? Total denial was the only way to go. “No, dumbass! Even if I had some deranged idea that you might find me attractive—which I don’t—from the looks of things you wouldn’t have the stamina.”

Hah! She was pretty sure he cringed a little. Not done yet, she added, “You’re in love with Buffy. I have zero interest in playing out some shower fantasy with my boss, especially considering that you’re still hung up on someone else.”

Trying to get a little breathing room, she pushed at his chest too angry to care that her hands pressed against his closing wounds. She made a move toward the door, but was stopped by Angel’s hand sliding across the flat plane of her abdomen. A sound emerged from his throat, a mix of frustration, exhaustion, and something she could not quite define.

When he touched her it was difficult to think, and though she would die before admitting it, this whole thing dredged up a few fantasies of her own involving soapy hands sliding over her skin, and wild, hot sex. Naked shower time with an injured Angel did not exactly fit that particular scenario, but it was as close as she might ever get. Being reminded that she would not get the starring role in any fantasy of his was a mood-killer.

Angel seemed to be struggling to find something to say, words evading him as he let his gaze follow the flow of water as it cascaded down her body, sluicing over her shoulders, creating rivulets down the peaks and valleys of her breasts to the triangle delta at her thighs.

Choose wisely, she cautioned silently, not wanting to hear anything to shatter the notion that he approved.

“Seeing you like this,” Angel finally managed to get it together, “with the water flowing over your golden skin,” tracing one runaway drop with a fingertip as it beaded down her sternum, “you’re like Venus rising from the sea, perfection in every line and curve. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”

Flushing with pleasure at the description, Cordelia could not believe that Angel had said that. True, she wanted him to acknowledge that he thought she was hot, not necessarily get so poetic about it. “Says who? Stating the obvious does not mean that it is unwelcome. I like compliments.”

Angel palmed her face and pressed a kiss to her forehead with his usual display of affection. Before lifting his lips away completely, he asked softly, “Are you going to let me finish?”

He pulled back enough for her to see the determination in his eyes. This had to be where the ‘but’ came into the conversation. Expecting him to say, “You’re hot, but….” Cordelia warily instructed him to, “Go ahead.”

“You’re the biggest pain in the ass I know,” Angel said dead serious and while he might be taking her advice by stating something else he found obvious, it was not what she expected.

Jerking away from his touch, Cordelia swiveled around to turn off the water. She had no idea what she expected Angel to say, but it was not anything like that. Maybe something about the curse. Or even something about his long lost one true slayer obsession. Having waited up all night worrying about him and getting ready to patch him up should be worth a little gratitude.

Pain in the ass? Urgh! He did not know the half of it.

“But I need you,” Angel’s confession cut through her plans for payback. Her surprised gaze swept back up to find his steadfast. His big hands slid up her arms to hold her shoulders, thumbs nervously tracing the delicate lines of her collarbones. “Don’t go, Cordelia. I want you to stay.”

Skipping over the unlikely fantasy version of that conversation, Cordelia was confused. “But the towels are out there.”

“Not what I meant.”

“I’ve still got some patching up to do,” she tried again. “I’m not going back to my place until you’re tucked in, but, ah, I don’t think it’s a good idea to…stay…here. Do you?”

The image of spooning with Angel popped into her head making her smile. She hoped that Angel did not think she was flirting. “Don’t answer that question,” she cut him off. “Just tell me what you’re trying to say.”

“Angel Investigations was your idea, Cordelia. It won’t be the same if you’re not here. Don’t leave.”

Oh. Doyle had been right all along. So much for that five dollar bet. Letting Angel think the worst had run its course. That little piece of misinformation had dragged out too far. Now it was time to set the record straight.

“You’ve got the wrong idea,” she assured him. “I’m not quitting, just using a few weekends to get some real acting credits. The play has a finite run. I’m not going anywhere.”

Angel looked like he had just been handed a cure for vampirism. “Don’t get too happy about it,” she laughed her warning. “I can still dream about that Red Carpet moment. Fame and fortune may take me away from all of this in six months or a year, but that does not mean it will take me away from you. I did promise to help.”

And it was so true that Angel would be screwed if she just decided to quit after getting a big break. Like either one of the guys could handle the office. Pfft! Would there even be an office? Doyle might just call in his visions from the local bar, while Angel went out night after night picking fights with the local demon population.

That whole idea was disturbing since it sounded a lot like the last few nights. Cordelia shook off the bad vibes and got back to business by watching Angel limp out of the shower stall. “Do you need help toweling off?”

Curtly, he answered, “No.”

Either he was still in serious pain or he was not satisfied with her plans to continue hoping for a big break into stardom. He liked having a dependable Girl Friday at his disposal.

Cordelia handed him a towel after wrapping up in one herself, and took a third for her hair. “I’ll be back in a jiff to finish patching you up.”

Deciding against rushing back to the apartment for clothes, Cordelia dried off, dropped her wet towels on Angel’s bedroom floor, and started rifling through the drawer containing his boxers. Opting for some soft blue ones, she stepped into them. Sliding them over her hips made her flash back to the shower when Angel’s big masculine hands slipped across the curves of her hips and buttocks as he undressed her.

Don’t go there! Yanking open the closet, she quickly selected one of Angel’s white silk shirts. It engulfed her, but it would certainly work in lieu of running all the way over to her place, next door. The last thing she needed was for Doyle to catch her coming from Angel’s bedroom wearing only a towel.

Rolling up the sleeves to get them out of the way, Cordelia started buttoning up the rest as she turned back toward the bathroom. Angel was standing against the doorframe, mostly dry, wearing the towel slung low around his hips. “Oh! That was fast. I thought you’d still be at it.”

How long had he been standing there watching her? “You’re obviously feeling a little better.”

“The shower helped.”

Moving over to assist him onto the bed, Cordelia noticed him staring at her with some sort of possessive gleam in his eyes. Honestly, the vampire was like a broken record repeating the same irritating message: don’t touch my stuff. “I swear I will return your shirt in pristine condition. Our dry cleaners are the best.”

“They had better be considering what they charge.”

“You try finding someone who doesn’t charge extra for demon goo removal!” A perfect example of just one of the many ways that she kept things running smoothly around these parts, she thought smugly. Captain Tight-with-a-Buck demanded that she keep on top of every penny, which was necessary considering that her salary came out of whatever was left.

Climbing onto the bed behind him, Cordelia pulled her first aid supplies closer, chatting away as she tended to his wounds. A little antibiotic ointment, a few steri-strips, gauze and paper tape a started to make Angel look like a patchwork quilt. He was quiet as she worked, which should have helped her to focus, but instead failed to distract her from remembering those fleeting touches in the shower.

Statue-still as he sat on the edge of the bed, wrapped in the towel, hands planted firmly on his knees as hers skimmed across his skin, Angel made a noise, or said something that she missed. Snapping out of her thoughts, Cordelia asked, “What?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“It’s okay to tell me if it hurts,” she encouraged, curling her fingers around his uninjured shoulder. “Be growly. You seem super-sensitive tonight. Unless you’re still worried that I’ll get something on your shirt.”

Denying it more firmly, Angel repeated, “I didn’t say anything.”

“Thinking it then.”

“Not even close.”

Taping 4×4 gauze over the wound on his right side, she stopped long enough to wait for him to elaborate, but he remained silent. Cordelia stretched one leg out alongside his, leaning forward again, only this time resting her chin on his shoulder.

Stretching out her hand to him, she said nothing until Angel threaded his fingers through hers. “What happened tonight?”

When Doyle arrived five minutes later, Cordelia was still listening to Angel as if he was just like any other guy telling his girl about his day at the office. With her focus entirely on Angel it took Doyle commenting, “Now don’t you two look all cozy,” to make her realize that he was there.

Doyle did not have to say anything about her wet hair or attire to make her fully cognizant of the fact that he noticed. That topic was not up for discussion. “You took your sweet time getting here.”

Once Doyle verified that Angel was going to be okay, he held up the blue cooler he carried. “Fresh from the blood bank. You want it straight from the bag?”

“Warm it up,” instructed Cordelia before Angel could respond. “That’s how he likes to drink it when he thinks nobody’s around.”

Doyle headed off to the kitchen giving time for Cordelia to reposition Angel to start working on the wounds across his torso. She was fighting with a mangled length of paper tape when Doyle reappeared with a steaming mug. “Not sure if this is body temperature, but it should be close enough.”

“Thanks.”

Cordelia watched Angel set the mug beside the bed instead of drinking it. “Hey! Drink up.”

“Finish this first. I’ll drink it later.”

Uh, no. “Drink it now,” she handed it back to him. Telling Doyle with a snort, “He’s shy about some things,” and rolled her eyes.

Doyle yawned widely. “You two have fun playing nurse. I’m going to try to catch some more shut-eye.”

Hopping off the bed to give Angel time to finish the mug of blood, Cordelia ran over to Doyle before he could walk out. Wrapping her arms around him for a long hug, she kissed his cheek with gratitude. “Thanks for doing this.”

With his face already close to hers, Doyle whispered, “Call me later.”

The fresh human blood worked wonders rapidly healing Angel to the extent that by the time Cordelia got around to the last wound all that was left of the deep gash was a raised red mark on his muscular thigh. She spread some ointment along the ridge of flesh despite that it was probably going to be gone within minutes. “All done. The sun is up. You should try to get some sleep.”

Angel turned down her offer of a second mug before bedtime. “I have had enough for now.”

“The good stuff does tend to go to your head.”

After gathering her supplies, Cordelia took his discarded towel, averting her gaze as Angel slipped under the covers. Knowing that he would probably get out of bed the minute he remembered her towels were on the floor or the state they had left the bathroom, she gathered everything up and tossed it on top of the hamper.

Angel tracked her every movement until she came back to get her stuff and then asked its quiet intensity, “What did Doyle say to you before he left?”

Were those jealous vibes for real, or was that just the blood talking? Cordelia decided to keep her response low-key. “Vampire hearing not working yet? We’ll probably meet up for lunch if there’s nothing else going on.”

“You’re going out?”

Nodding, she added a shrug. “Need a hand with anything else?”

For a moment, it seemed that he was going to ask for something. Instead, he sent her on her way. “Not tonight.”


CHAPTER LINKS

Chapter 5          F-n-N Home          Chapter 7


 

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