Shadow of the Beast


AUTHOR: CHELLE
SUMMARY: This is Beauty and the Beast C/A style.
RATING: NC17
POSTED: 12 Nov 2008
CATEGORY: Angst / AU
CONTENT/PAIRING: C/A
WARNINGS: None Listed
FICPIC CREDIT: SpikesSire
AUTHOR NOTES: Angel left Sunnydale in Season One (Buffy was unable to see past the vampire, think the way she saw Spike) Cordelia knows the Scoobies and a little of who and what they are (just as other students in their town do), but she was never a part of them. Wesley did come to Sunnydale for a while as a replacement for Giles when he was fired, but left soon after. And in this story, there was never a gypsy curse.


shadow-of-the-beast


Part 1

Cordelia Chase stared out of the rain splattered cab window into the dark night, her stomach twisted into knots. This was her last chance, her last hope to save her dad from the mess he had created for himself, as well as his family. If only there were another way, another option. But she knew there wasn’t. She had exhausted all of her father’s resources, practically begged any and all of his former business contacts for their help. It was no surprise really that she had found no support, no one willing to risk themselves for a man who had fallen prey to the most deplorable state amongst his set. Poverty.

Her eyes focused themselves on the large drops of rain that had settled onto the glass beside her, watching as each one weaved a crooked path across the smooth surface before sinking down and disappearing into the dirty, black void. No matter where they landed, or what path they took, each one was doomed to slide down, pulled from below by a force of nature beyond their control. She felt like that. As if no matter what path she took or how hard she fought to pull things back up again, laying in wait just below her was some omnipotent force of nature, tugging her heart and soul toward some black void, whispering for her to give up, surrender her mission to try and save her father, and herself.

She closed her eyes as she thought about the way she had acted just months earlier when he first broke the news of their ‘situation’. They were in debt, had been for the better part of a year. So, he had explained, for almost her entire Senior year, he had been gradually borrowing money in order to keep them all in the ‘state of which they had become accustomed’. It had started out simple enough, a small amount here for a car payment, a minute amount there for the lodge dues and her mother’s weekly spa visit. But over the course of almost a year the small amounts had turned into one whale of a sum. Three-hundred fifty-two thousand one-hundred and eighty-four dollars to be exact.

Cordelia had just stood quietly at first, college forms in hand, as he explained to her why she would be unable to go to any school, much less the very expensive, private, far away from Sunnyhell one that had accepted her. But as soon as his confession ended, her anger flared and she tossed the useless papers in his face, ranting and raving about how he had ruined her life, destroyed any chance she’d ever have at a normal, safe existence. Little did she know at that moment just how right she had been.

In the few weeks that followed, she and her father had slipped into a tense silence, while her mother slowly distanced herself from them both, eventually packing her bags and leaving for New York, her childhood home. Cordelia really wasn’t surprised. Her mother had always made it quite clear that she had married her father for money. She had never really wanted the ‘family life’ or at least not one that included children. She had let that fact slip out in one of she and Cordelia’s many disagreements. It had hurt when her mother voiced it, even though Cordelia had been intuitive enough to guess it early on. Even when Cordelia was just a small child, her mother had exuded a coldness, a detachment from her husband and child.

Her dad had tried to make up for her emotionally absent mother by spoiling Cordelia rotten, thinking that the things that made her mother squeal and brag and pledge her undying affection to him, would in some way have the same affect on his daughter. But, although Cordy had an appreciation for nice clothes and good taste, the tangible gifts of love had had the opposite affect on her, making her feel disconnected from her father by proving the fact that he didn’t know her at all. She wasn’t like her mother; she was like him. The way he used to be. A man who loved horses and art. Who hid his great intelligence behind an even greater sense of charm and charisma. Or at least that is who she had always wanted to be, had tried to be in her youth.

But soon she grew to know another side of her father, one that pushed and climbed to the top of his company, using any means possible to reach his goals of power and wealth. That was a side she didn’t want to know, didn’t want to be.

She loved her father. She even loved her mother in the only way she had been allowed – from a distance. And as the days past and their tense silence eased, she had learned to forgive her father for what he had done, feeling great pity for him as he apologized daily for the direction in which he had turned their lives.

Finally, Cordelia forced herself to grow up a little, accept her fate and move on. She vowed that she would make something of her life. Not going to school and being broke wasn’t a death sentence, just a delay. She would make her own way in the world. But not before she helped her father. So, one night after he had fallen asleep, or passed out from the increasing and ritual amounts of alcohol he seemed to be consuming, she snuck into his office, knowing that he kept meticulous records on everything. After a few hours of rummaging through the boxes of files that were packed and ready to move, she found what she was looking for. Folding the piece of paper, she stuck it into the pocket of her silky robe and quietly shut the door, taking her time as she made her way slowly back to the room she could call hers for three more days, every step worrying over just what she would say to the man who had loaned her father so much money.

Cordelia shivered at the memory of what had happened the next day, the meeting with the ‘thing’ her father had borrowed from.

“Almost there, Miss,” the cab driver offered over his shoulder as he waited on the light in front of him to change. “Just a couple blocks now.”

Cordelia reached down and opened her purse, counting the small amount of money she had left. It had been a fairly long ride from the bus depot. At least longer than she had expected and she was beginning to wonder if she would have enough to pay the fare as she glanced up to the front seat, watching the meter tick away. Closing the purse, she held it in her lap, clutching the only thing, besides the clothes on her back, that she owned.

Looking out of the window again, she said a silent thank you for the rain. Surely Wesley would not turn her away in this. Not if he knew she had nowhere else to go. True he had warned her away, told her that the things she had heard about the vampire were untrue, that if she came she would be in danger. But she was already in danger and her father was in the claws of the monster she had so shamelessly begged for lenience, asking him, or it, to extend the length of the loan and allow her father more time to repay his debt.

She had meant to help, had pledged to him that she herself would take over the debt, pay it in full in the years to come. He simply answered her pleas with a sinister smile and in that moment Cordelia knew she had made a mistake. Little had she suspected that this demon would fixate on her, capture her father and torture him, vowing that he would do so for the rest of the man’s mortal days or until the debt was paid in full. Unless, of course, she wanted to take his place. The choice was hers, and just to show her that he wasn’t a complete monster, he would give her a week to decide her fate. The money or her life, for her father’s freedom.

She had four days left, the other three wasted on business contacts, so called friends and even Mr. Giles. None of which could or would help her. She couldn’t blame any of them really, especially not Giles. After all, he had been the one to tell her about Angel, the supposed vampire with a soul. Of course he had warned her just as Wesley had, telling her that his state of soul did not ensure that he was good. In fact, Giles had explained to her that since Angel had fled Sunnydale almost three years ago, the accounts of him were more dark than not. That he had been known to help a few humans, but that at best he was indifferent, uncaring about the human race, and at worst, a demon, in every sense of the word. Especially since Sunnydale, his first contact with humans in almost a hundred years, leaving him with a curse inadvertently placed on him by Willow.

With sympathy in his eyes, Giles had suggested then that it might be a better idea if she sought help from the Watcher’s Council, that he would have Buffy help her if she was not dealing with an apocalypse, that if successful, would render Cordelia’s attempt at saving her father irrelevant.

She hadn’t gotten to the part of the deal that included the trade, and when he mentioned an apocalypse she decided that it was best not to tell him. He would help her then and she didn’t want the burden of the world added to her shoulders. Nor did she want to pile onto the Slayer her family problems, as desperate as they were.

The cab stopped short at the corner of a dark and deserted road, causing Cordelia’s body to jerk slightly backward.

“It’s just there,” the cab driver pointed to a dark, massive building at the end of the street. It looked like some old hotel that in its prime might have been quite grand.

“Well?” Cordelia raised a brow impatiently. “Are we going or not?”

“I’m really sorry, Miss. This is as far as I go. This is as far as any cabbie or sensible person in L.A. will go. In case you haven’t noticed, that street’s like a ghost town, literally. I’ve only heard of a couple of people who have actually claimed to have gone down there at night. Junkies. Even so, the stories they tell…are you sure this is where you want to go? There’s a real nice Econo on fifty-second. Take ya at no extra charge.”

Cordelia stared out of the window and down the dark empty street, feeling that sense of doom pulling at her again.

“Miss?”

“Huh?” she focused back on the driver.

“Are you sure this is the place?”

“I sure hope it is,” she answered and pulled what money she had left out of her purse.

Getting out of the car, she squared her shoulders and began the long walk down the street, her shoes splashing in the occasional puddle. The rain had stopped, allowing her to lift her head and study the other buildings as she passed by them. Each one was obviously empty and in disrepair, making the definition of ‘ghost town’ that the cab driver had given the street seem a perfect fit.

She wondered what had made Wesley come here. No one knew much about his life in L.A.. Just that he had left the Watcher’s Council for some unknown reason and now he resided in the towering building where, according to Giles, so did the vampire Angel. That bit of news had shocked her at first, having known Wesley, if only briefly, it just didn’t seem to fit. But, people change, as she was perfect proof. Maybe it was some kind of study, like a Watcher for vampires. Who knew? She was still getting used to all of this occult and supernatural stuff. It had been a real shocker last year to find out that all of the weird things she used to scream or laugh at in horror movies actually existed. And even more shocking to find out that the girl she had been so snarky to over the past three years was actually a superhero of sorts.

She wondered if the story Xander Harris had told her was true or if he was just trying to impress her as usual with his vicarious tells of his adventures as the Slayer’s sidekick. It was obvious that Xander held no affection for Angel and openly admitted that he was glad that the ‘curse’ had chased him away. He told her that Angel had come to Sunnydale with the pretense of helping the Slayer, never telling her what he really was. Xander supposed that it was a skillful but faulty plan to trick her into trusting one of them in order for them to learn the secrets of a Slayer. When Buffy found out, she was so upset, so disgusted with herself for being attracted to something that she was sworn to kill, that she asked Willow for help. Knowing that Buffy’s attraction to Angel was mostly physical, Willow, the fledgling Wicca, tried a spell that should have made it impossible for Buffy to see anything but Angel’s demonic face. The spell worked, all too well, and Angel was cursed to wear his vampiric face permanently, for not only Buffy, but all to see. Never again being able to appear as a human.

Eww. Vampires. She had seen a couple before. Living in Sunnydale and all. They weren’t a pretty sight. All bumps and fangs, with yellow eyes that glowed like a crazed animal. Well, it didn’t matter. It couldn’t. Angel was her last hope. No matter how difficult, she would be as civil as possible. And just maybe he would help her.

She was in front of the hotel before she realized it and raised her eyes to take in its full height, her heart skipping wildly in a moment of foreboding. It looked like something fit for monsters to live in. Perfect, she guessed, since that was just what she was looking for. Only a monster could defeat a monster.

She squinted and tried to focus on one of the dark balconies, swearing that for a moment she had seen, something, a shadow maybe, gone before she could decide if it was real or just her fear playing tricks on her. Walking up the steps, she noticed that the double glass doors that must have once served as a very attractive entrance, had been painted a deep black on the inside, blocking out prying eyes and, she suspected, the sun as well. She swallowed hard, banishing thoughts of what vampires looked like and what they ate for dinner, hoping that Wesley would be her ally in this quest, and, if need be, her protector.
Part 2

Wesley slowly walked to the blackened double doors as the persistent knock continued. It had taken him a moment to even register exactly what the sound was. It had been a long time since anyone had carelessly and unknowingly wandered down the lonely, abandoned street after dark. And usually those few that did never made it as far as the hotel before turning back, or running back that is. He remembered the night he had been one of those few, proclaiming himself a rogue demon hunter, daring to hunt down the mysterious creature that lived in the towering hotel.

Having read Mr. Giles’ accounts back in Sunnydale of the souled vampire and after adding his expertise and thoughts of probability to the debate of whether or not the vampire had been legitimately trying to help. His official opinion had been that the attempt had more likely been a trick, conjured up by the vampire who’s true name Wesley knew of, through the Watchers’ Archives, as Angelus.

After being placed on an indefinite leave without pay, or what most liked to call fired, from the Watchers Council for his inability to control his first Slayer, Buffy Summers, and the influence of her previous Watcher Rupert Giles, Wesley had vowed he would prove himself and his worth. Thus, taking on the burden of a lone demon hunter. His plan had been to travel the world, seeking out the demons he had only read about at the prestigious, yet secretive, school for Watchers in England. His first stop, Los Angeles, hub of some of the most evil in the United States.

He had some success at first, killing two vampires, a Krylock demon, and almost catching a Primethis Slug – very fast creatures despite their name. Then he found the dark and lonely street he soon would call home. He had heard of the area, of the whispered rumors of a creature that kept all living things away. Intending on a show of great heroism that was sure to win back the approval of the Council, Wesley armed himself, ready to capture or kill the being that seemed to terrify most in the city, or die trying.

He paused a moment before reaching the doors, thinking of how differently things could have turned out that night. He had intended on killing Angel, especially when he recognized the vampire from the drawings of Angelus he had studied in his days of training.

Slowly the ex-Watcher had crept inside of the ghostly domain, searching every room until the first rays of dawn were only minutes away, finally spotting his target. Feeling a sense of joy at finding one of the most legendary and feared vampires in history, Wesley had raised his crossbow as he entered the empty room on the top floor of the hotel, adrenaline pumping fast and hard through his veins.

But he never fired the bow that night. How could he? The beast he had sought out, the Scourge of Europe, the feared vampire Angelus, was not the being he saw perched on the highest balcony, eyes closed, face turned up to the eastern sky, waiting.

The image had thrown him so much, made him question his previous assessment of the situation in Sunnydale, that Wesley lowered his weapon.

“What are you waiting for?” Angel had asked, his voice filled with ache and sorrow, his eyes still closed as he remained as still as stone.

The insistent knocking roused Wesley from memories of the night that had changed his life and his beliefs of good and evil forever. Rubbing his tired eyes he reached out and unbolted the door, opening it just enough to see the unfortunate human, or enemy who stood beyond the painted glass.

“Cordelia?” Wesley peered out at his one time secret crush from Sunnydale.

Cordelia tried a bright smile as she stared through the small crack in the doorway at a man that barely resembled the handsome Englishman she had flirted with in passing at school. Gone were the glasses and stuffy suits, replaced by a face full of scruffy stubble and casual, wrinkled clothing. His once sharp, clear eyes now bloodshot and drooping with exhaustion.

He guessed that he should not have been surprised. He had not known the teenager very well, but he did remember her persistence when it came to getting what she wanted. “Did you understand anything I told you when you phoned last?”

“Hi, Wesley. It’s good to see you too,” she said it honestly.

“He won’t see you,” Wesley kept his stance stubbornly, the door remaining firmly more closed than open. “He doesn’t see anyone… on purpose,” the last two words trailed almost silently after the others.

“If he doesn’t help me, my dad will die, Wesley.”

Wesley’s gaze turned down, unable to look at the pleading desperation in her beautiful hazel eyes.

“Did you hear me, Wesley? Die.” She hoped that would be enough for him to let her in. Hoped that her entire story would never have to be revealed. Ashamed that she was too weak to immediately give up her own life to save that of someone she loved.

“I’m sorry, Cordelia,” he confessed, still unable to look at her. “Your father’s debts are owed to a very powerful being. I wish…..” he took a deep breath. He did wish that he could help, would if it were HER life on the line and not her father’s. But he wasn’t strong enough to face something that great alone and Angel had already given his answer. The vampire would never go back to Sunnydale, for anyone or anything, and in fairness to Angel, Wesley couldn’t fault him for that.

Wesley finally looked up at her, “I’m sorry,” he started to shut the door but before it could close, Cordelia shoved a stylishly heeled boot in the opening. “Wesley, I don’t have anywhere to go,” she tried again. “I’ve asked for help from everyone, anyone. You think I would come here first? This is my last choice, my last hope.”

Wesley just stared at her, unsure of what to do. Angel had already given his answer, but maybe if Wesley talked to him again, explained things a little better. And even if Angel was still unwilling to help her, maybe a phone call to Mr. Giles would help. The Slayer was strong and surely able to help her father out of his dilemma.

“I took a bus, a cab, have sold or lost everything I own, and now I’m ruining the best and only pair of boots I have,” she tried for snark since begging seemed to be lost on him. “Are you going to let me in or not?”

“Oh, sorry,” he looked down at the booted foot still holding open the door and stepped back, allowing her to slip inside.

Cordelia’s breath caught in her throat as she entered the lobby, a look of surprise on her face. It wasn’t grand, at least not compared to some of the hotels she had occupied in her young pampered life. And, although it had obviously been refurbished to a certain extent, it still had a long way to go. Even so, it was a contradiction to the face it wore on the outside. It was clean, well lit, warm and for some strange reason gave her a sense of security. As if as long as she were surrounded by it’s walls, no harm could come to her. She looked back at Wesley, who turned to her after bolting the door.

“I’m surprised,” she said.

“Surprised?” he asked as he passed her and walked toward a room off the lobby that looked like an office, Cordelia not far behind.

“I just didn’t expect it to look like this.”

“And how did you expect it to look?” he asked absently as he reached down to the lamp on his desk, turning off the light and gathering a few scattered and opened books.

Cordelia caught a falling book from his arms as they both exited the office. “Ya know. Cobwebs, candelabras, big pipe organ. It looked so dark and scary from the outside.”

“Yes, well. That was Gunn’s idea. No matter how much work we do on the inside, he insists that we do only the minimal repairs needed on the exterior, just enough to keep us from demolition or city inspectors, but not enough to attract unwelcome guests,” he cut his eyes to her at the words ‘unwelcome guests’ before continuing, “And of course all of the windows have been painted black, therefore, it isn’t surprising that you saw no light.”

Cordelia shivered at that explanation, the idea of just why the windows were blackened reminding her what else, besides the companion beside her, resided in the old building. “Who’s Gunn?” she asked more to give her mind another train of thought than out of real genuine interest.

“A friend,” was his simple, unelaborated answer.

“Does he live here too?”

“Yes.”

“So, there are two of you here then? With the vampire.”

“Actually, there are four of us, including Angel,” he answered again without elaboration, giving Cordelia the feeling that Wesley had no intentions of sharing any more information than what was absolutely necessary.

Noticing that they were heading in the direction of the massive staircase, Cordelia’s steps slowed, the courage that had been revved-up by the speech she had repeated to herself over and over during the bus ride to L.A., quickly fading from her memory. “Where are we going?” she could hear her heart thumping in her ears and willed herself to take a deep, calming breath.

Wesley turned and walked the few steps back that she had lagged. He looked at her wearily, “Cordelia, I will speak to Angel for you just before sunrise, I’ll even call Mr. Giles tomorrow if the answer from Angel is still no. But it is late and I am very tired.”

“But I could just speak to him. Explain to him how important…..”

“He knows, Cordelia,” Wesley interrupted. “I relayed the entire situation to him and his answer was no. He won’t see you. He won’t see anyone apart from the people who reside in this hotel. And then it is only limited to a few brief moments, just before sunrise. It is the only time that any of us are allowed onto the top floor, the only time that any of us will go,” he stood and watched her face sink in defeat. “I’ll try,” his tone softened into an attempt at reassurance. He wanted to reach out and lay a comforting hand on her young shoulders that bore too large a burden on behalf of another. “Believe me, I will try. But if I am to be persuasive, I need rest. As I am sure you do as well,” he said sympathetically, his heart going out to her at the clear evidence in her eyes of the worry and fatigue her father had caused.

“I’ll put you close to Fred,” he said as he headed back for the stairs, expecting her to follow. When she did, he continued. “Don’t be alarmed. Angel never descends to the lower floors. One would never know that he was here if they weren’t initially informed of his presence,” he passed on the information as they reached the first landing and headed down the hall.

Stopping in front of one of the many doors, Wesley pulled out a key and turned the lock. The room was the size of a large bedroom, furnished only by a double bed and old chest.

“I’ll get Fred to bring you down some of her extra linens,” he stood in the doorway and watched as she entered the room cautiously, fingering the bare mattress and wondering how in the world she was supposed to be able to sleep with the knowledge that a vampire was loose in the building.

An awkward silence stretched on for a moment.

Feeling as if he should say more but unable to think of a word, Wesley stood just inside the room for another minute, “Try to get some rest,” he said before reaching over and grasping the handle, closing the door softly. He hoped that Angel would help her, believing that the act might just be the thing to bring him closer to his cure.

***

He sat in the comfort of darkness, slouched in a corner of the barren room. Every sense, every cell, focusing on the foreign presence in the hotel. She had just entered the building, yet she was everywhere. He closed his amber eyes and lifted his head, breathing in the air, taking in the scent of the woman he had ordered not to come.

She was much more beautiful than Wesley had described. He had noticed that immediately as he leapt as quiet as death from rooftop to rooftop, following her as she bravely walked down the street. Watching her as the cab driver sped away before she had passed the first building. Coward.

When Wesley had first spoken to him of her problem, he had dismissed it as soon as it was revealed that her father was being held in Sunnydale. The beautiful façade of a town, hiding the gates of hell.

He gritted his jagged teeth as pain washed through him, memories of his first attempt at doing real good in the world filling his mind. He would never forget the young Slayer’s scream when his face briefly slipped into the image of the permanent monster he now was. He had stared in confusion at her for only a moment, surprised by the kiss she had given him, before realizing what had happened. Standing paralyzed he had watched as her face changed quickly from terror to disgust.

And why shouldn’t she have been disgusted?

He stood and began pacing the floor restlessly. He had tried once to help a beautiful young girl from Sunnydale, laid himself open to danger and destruction in order to keep her safe. And what did he get in return? A ‘no thanks’ in the form of a spell that kept him permanently in the shadows. That made sure he’d never approach a human again without the brand of what he was solidly in place.

He had thought to scare the beautiful brunette as she walked so purposefully down the dark street all alone. Terrify her into running back to Sunnydale, his mind already branding her a foolish kid for attempting personal contact with him. However, with each step she took down the deserted road, he realized that, although young, she was no kid. And certainly no fool.

She knew exactly what she was doing, what she was risking. Or at least she thought she did. He discerned that by the fear that radiated from her, the way her heart raced faster and faster the closer she came to the hotel. Yet she held herself regally, never giving a clue to the outside world of the fear that was eating her alive. That was not a definition for foolishness, but bravery.

He also knew a piece of information that she had not given to Wesley. A term, or alternative, that her father’s captor had given to her.

He paced faster, a low growl emanating from his chest as he imagined her taking the deal, offering herself up as some sacrificial lamb in order to save a brainless father. He pushed down another feral growl. Why should he care? No one in Sunnydale had cared about his ability to help before. Besides, she might brave an attempt to speak with him, knowing that Wesley would be close by, but she would never be brave enough to go back to Sunnydale and give herself freely to any monster. Never.

He would not help her.

So her father would die. He was a simple minded human to borrow money from a being that would take his flesh over cash anyway. Leave him to the fate he created for himself.

But what of the fate he had created for his daughter? She was all alone and the object of some monster’s obsession, whether she turned herself over to him or not. Angel knew the Memlock demon, along with his perversions. Knew that the huge, snake-skinned creature wanted Cordelia and that he would make her pay on her father’s debt, one way or another. The money was really inconsequential when it came to his fetishes. And one of those fetishes just so happened to be collecting young, attractive, human girls by the dozen. He probably wet himself when he saw Cordelia Chase.

Angel’s fists clenched at the picture his mind conjured of her in her father’s place.

“I don’t care,” he growl at himself.

She would send Wesley to him again, but his answer would still be no. It didn’t matter that she had shocked him with her bravery or how difficult it must have been for her to come to something like him for help, knowing what he was. None of that was his fault. He would not feel guilty for it. She had been told not to come.

Then why did she? And why did her very presence seem to torture him? He tried to focus on something else, anything besides the smell of her, the image of her, the sound of her heartbeat as it joined with the others in the hotel. He would not let those things affect him. Would not waver. He had given her his answer. Twice.

Angel’s pacing turned into more of an angry gate as he crossed the room and turned back again, telling himself that his answer to Wesley would still be no. It didn’t matter that he would have to watch as she left the hotel to face her fate. He wouldn’t help her, he couldn’t.

He had to ready himself for Wesley’s plea. He knew the former Watcher would do his best to convince him, still holding on to the hope that Angel was the one spoken about in the obscure little prophecy he had found. The disillusioned humans who had taken up residence in his building might think he was some tortured potential do-gooder, but in truth, the few acts they had witnessed had been no more than whims, accidents even. He was no more a hero than any other demon that walked the streets at night. No matter what their hopes.

He was furious at her for coming, for putting him in this position. “I don’t care,” he repeated again, his voice dripping with hatred, welcoming in the anger to crush the guilt. Knowing that deep inside, where the now dead flame of hope had been lit three years ago by Whistler, he really did care.

***

Cordelia jumped slightly at the rap on the door before quickly composing herself. “Come in,” she called from her seat on the bed.

A timid thin woman with large glasses entered the room, her arms full of linens, sheets, a blanket, pillow and what looked like a piece of clothing folded neatly on top.

“Hi,” the woman smiled after laying the items on the mattress and waved a little too enthusiastically for someone living with a vampire. “I’m Fred,” she leaned in as she spoke, a nervous laugh escaping her lips as she pushed up her glasses that slid slightly down her nose.

“Cordelia,” she responded and gave a small smile back. Standing up, she reached out for the pile of linens.

“Oh, here,” Fred seemed giddy as she reached out and grabbed the item on top. “It’s a night gown. Wesley said he didn’t think you brought anything with you. I’ve only worn it a couple of times, since I bought it, not since it’s been washed because it’s not dirty or anything, it’s clean and its pretty comfortable for a long one although I usually prefer the shorter ones, they don’t get all twisted up when you toss too much or have those really bad dreams about cows and caves,” she finished breathless as she handed the long white night gown to Cordelia.

Ooookay. “Thanks,” Cordelia reached out and took the pretty but plain garment from the obviously disturbed young woman. ‘Well, what do expect, Cordy?’ she thought to herself. ‘She lives with a vampire. That alone defines crazy.’

Thirty minutes later, after insisting on helping Cordelia make-up the bed, hosting a long winded tour of the small bathroom, and offering several times to share some of the tacos stashed in her room, Fred allowed Cordelia to usher her politely to the door. But just before leaving, she turned around, her face sincere. “Are you afraid?” Fred asked her in a quiet almost childlike voice, the crazed look and rambling sentences suddenly gone.

“Yes,” Cordelia answered, longing to talk to someone about it, welcoming that intimate moment of kindred spirit that all women seem to share.

Fred didn’t respond to her answer as they both stood silently at the door. After a few heartbeats, Cordelia asked, “Fred? Why are you here? What made you want to live in the house of a vampire?”

“I was in a really bad place for a long time. But I finally found a way out. It was simple really, it shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did. I just followed the numbers and then I was home. But I think my brain took a little longer gettin back,” she smiled shyly, able to acknowledge her obvious mental state. “I think it just forgot how to not be there. I wandered around for a couple of nights before it happened,” she seemed to stop and think a moment.

“What happened, Fred?” Cordelia asked softly, urging the young woman to continue.

“I was in an alley I’d been sleepin’ in. There were a couple of men…….they tried to….,” Fred seemed uncomfortable and Cordelia felt regret for pushing for the story. “I’m usually pretty good at hiding, or defending myself. But there were two of’em,” she said almost apologetically as she looked down at the floor. “I just remember them laughin about what they said they were going to do before one of them punched me so hard I fell. I was a little dizzy and it took a few minutes for me to remember where I was, that I hadn’t got lost again. When I finally looked up, I saw Charles Gunn standin there with a bat in his hand and both men slumped over on the ground,” she smiled and looked up again. “He brought me back here and I’ve been living with him and Wesley ever since.”

“And Angel,” Cordelia reminded her.

“I don’t think I’d call what Angel’s doin here livin,” she whispered.

Cordelia leaned against the wall near the door and let out a big breath, she thought about Fred’s choice of the phrase ‘not living’ when describing a vampire and shook off a shudder. Turning her head she looked at the other woman who still stood in the doorway. “What’s he like?” she kept her voice soft, as if someone other than Fred might hear her question.

“I don’t know, really. He doesn’t let any of us get too close. Good and bad. Nice and not so nice. It’s not his fault really, I guess. He’s just kinda stuck ya know, between our world and his, and he’s hurting. Sorta like a wounded animal that growls anytime someone gets near, even if they’re tryin to help. At least that’s what I think he must be like.”

Cordelia didn’t like the illustration Fred had given of the mysterious vampire. Wounded animals might elicit sympathy, but they were still animals, unpredictable and violent.

“Wesley thinks Angel’s a tortured soul, that he was meant to do good but was kinda pushed off his path by what happened with the Slayer. He’s always in his office studyin prophecies and tryin to find a cure for Angel’s curse. He goes and talks with him sometimes but never for very long.”

“What about Gunn? What brought him here?”

“Angel saved his life. I don’t really know what happened. Charles doesn’t like to talk about it, but I know it was right after he lost his sister. He goes out with Angel at night sometimes, to hunt, but I don’t think it’s because he likes him or trusts him. I think he’s just waitin to pay back the favor, or for Angel to mess up. Maybe a little of both. He grew up on the streets fightin vampires, hatin’em for the things he witnessed. I think it confuses him that one would do something good.”

Cordelia could understand that. “So you’ve never seen him? Angel?”

“No,” she said softly and Cordelia couldn’t tell if Fred’s answer held a meaning of regret or relief. “But I just know that he can’t be completely bad.”

“Oh, why not?” after all of the stories, Cordelia still couldn’t seem to believe in the idea of a good demon, or at least one that was not completely evil.

Fred shrugged her shoulders before answering, “He gave me a home, a place to feel safe again, whether he meant to or not. I’d like to tell him thanks for that. I’d like to think he was glad that Charles brought me here, saved me from being just another crazy homeless person.”

Cordelia’s heart went out to Fred. When they had chatted, or rather when Fred had rambled as they made the bed, Cordelia had found out that Angel had paid cash for the hotel. That Wesley had told her once that Angel had a small fortune stashed away, left over from his days as a true vampire, one without a soul. He didn’t lavish any of his tenants with gifts or anything, but none of them were required to contribute financially to the old building. And Fred was supplied with a moderate and steady allowance. Cordelia had no way of knowing if this was Angel’s decision or the influence of the two men who obviously watched over Fred, but she could understand why she might feel a since of loyalty or gratitude to someone who she viewed as a benefactor of sorts.

“Guess I better go and let you get some sleep,” Fred moved then, just out of the room and into the hall. “Don’t worry. Wesley will help you, even if Angel can’t,” she said with great conviction.

“Goodnight,” Cordelia watched from her doorway while Fred walked to her room a few doors down.

Shutting the door, Cordelia buried her face in her hands and blew out a large breath of frustration. Angel wasn’t going to help her. Even Fred seemed to sense that. And Wesley had already pleaded her case twice to him and the answer had been no.

Cordelia walked to the bed and sat down, her shoulders slumped in depression and defeat. Angel wouldn’t help her, and poor Wesley couldn’t. She had already spoken to Giles, knew to what extend he was willing to go.

Picking up the gown, Cordelia grabbed her large purse full of what little personal items she had brought, wondering if a warm bath would help the cold numbness that was filling her up inside as the growing realization that she was the only one who could save her father became all too clear.

***

Cordelia lay quiet and still in the darkened room, a cross clutched tightly in one hand, thoughts of her father, her mother, her life plaguing her mind. How had she come to this? There had been a time in her life that her biggest worries were which date to choose and what shoes to wear.

Her eyes focused on the opened window and the vague muted light that filtered through it and into the room. She had had to open it, unable to stand just the idea of the blackened window, even if the sky was almost as dark as the painted panes. In some ways she thought it must be her fear giving her another form of defense to go along with the wooden cross, thinking to repel the vampire by the idea of a window opened to the sky, no matter that it was still night and wouldn’t affect him at all. Fear never was a very rational advisor.

She should just leave, go home and get it over with. What difference did it make that she had four more days left when she knew the inevitable outcome?

Of course, her fate wasn’t really sealed, she did have a choice. She didn’t have to go back to Sunnydale.

Cordelia swallowed back a small sob at that thought, that she would even entertain the option of abandoning her father. But why did that surprise her? It was just what her mother had done. Maybe she was more like her than she wanted to believe.

Her eyes focused on the room again as she desperately pulled her thoughts away from guilt and blame. She wouldn’t leave her father. She knew that. Her desperate and brief thoughts of not returning to help him were just her last frantic gasps of oxygen before drowning.

She studied the shadows again, counting them like sheep. One. Two. Three. She stopped. Concentrating on a very large, dark outline near the corner of the room. She squinted, shifted her eyes away and then back again, but no matter what she tried, the shape still looked the same, like that of a man. She knew better, knew that no one had entered the room. But then it moved slightly.

Cordelia’s head shot up from the pillow and she sat straight up, her heart pounding out a frenzied rhythm as she moved to get out of her bed.

“Stay where you are,” the voice rumbled the order softly, like distant thunder.

Cordelia stilled, her left hand twisted in the sheet that covered her just above the legs, while the right gripped the cross she held so hard a splinter pricked the palm of her hand. She waited for his cue, to know whether to speak or scream.

“Why did you come her?” the low voice was filled with anger and admonishment. “Wesley gave you your answer. Did you think coming here would convince me?”

Her fear almost turned to anger at the contempt in his voice. Lifting her chin, she looked in his direction, unwilling to let him intimidate her. She had wanted to plead her case personally, now was her chance. “I had to try. He’s going to kill my dad.”

“So pay him the money,” he said so simply she wanted to cry.

“I don’t have it, or I would,” she bit out.

“Well then, what do you want from me? Money? If you borrowed it from me, wouldn’t you be right back where you started? In the debt of a demon?” his sarcasm was a cruel taunt at her situation.

“I didn’t come here to ask for money,” she stayed the quiver in her voice.

“Then what did you come here to ask me for, Cordelia?”

His voice had been hard and admonishing until her name had crossed his lips, softening the sound and making her uncomfortable at the intimateness of it, the caress it held. “I just….,” she breathed slowly and collected herself. “I thought that maybe you could, would ‘convince’ him to let my dad go. I’d still pay back the money he owes of course, eventually.”

“Oh, ‘convince’. And why should I risk myself for a man who is dumb enough to borrow money from something like a Memlock demon?”

“Why?”

“Well, what’s in it for me? Besides the pleasure of pissing off one of the biggest demons on the West Coast?”

She finally realized. Angel was just like the other demon. He wanted payment. “I’ve got a string of pearls missed by my mother’s quick and greedy exodus. They’re worth about three-thousand.”

“Not enough,” he gave a humorless laugh. “Anything else.”

She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t have anything else.

“So, that’s all you have to offer? A necklace for the life of your father, the greedy fool.”

“He’s not a fool!” she argued passionately. “He was desperate.” And so was she. She looked back at the figure, “Please,” the word tore it’s way from her heart and cut straight through him. “I can’t just leave him there.”

A picture suddenly formed in his mind of her begging for her father’s life in front of the Memlock, of the pleasure it must have brought him. He wanted to rip the monster to pieces for that, to kill her father for causing it and her for lowering herself in front of the creature.

His anger turned into words that lashed out at her, “And did you beg so sweetly when you made your deal with the Memlock?” he hissed between gritted teeth.

He knew.

“What makes you think I’m any different? You know what I am. What’s in my nature to do. I’m a monster just like he is. That’s why you came to me, isn’t it? To find a monster to defeat a monster?”

“Some people say your different than other demons. That you have a soul. Even if you don’t let it show,” she meant the last as an insult and he clearly understood it for just that.

“A soul doesn’t automatically mean you’re good, that you care. There are enough humans in the world that prove that fact on a daily basis.”

“There must be something in you that cares a little. You live with humans.”

“Well, unlike vampires, humans can enter your home without an invitation. Just because I don’t kill them, doesn’t mean that they are welcomed.”

She was tired of the fruitless conversation and the game of words he seemed to be playing, “Are you going to help me, or not?” her voice was soft and weary.

“No,” he answered, his body tensing at the bite in his own voice and the emptiness in her eyes as she resigned herself to her fate.

Cordelia rose then and dropped the cross on the bed. What did it matter now? Die tonight, tomorrow, six weeks from today, she no longer cared.

“Where are you going?” his voice thundered as it had before, demanding a reply.

“Home,” she said as she began to take small steps in the darkness, heading for the light switch by the door.

“Why?”

“Have you been listening? To save my father you jerk.”

“So it’s that easy for you? To trade your life for his. You’d give yourself to that monster so that he can live?”

He sounded outraged and she turned and looked in his direction just before she reached the door, “Yes.”

“So,” he paused, his voice taking on a sinister note. “You do have something more valuable than a necklace,” there was a grimness to his words, and at once she knew he was attempting a bargain. The same one that waited for her in Sunnydale.

Her mouth was dry and her chest rose and fell quickly. She had been prepared for this fate in Sunnydale. What difference did it make which beast she went to? “You’ll get him away from that monster?” she hoped and feared it at the same time.

“You’ll give your life for his?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“And I can believe you? Trust that you’ll do what you say?”

“You hold my dad’s life in your hands. I think tonight should instill enough trust in you that I’ll do anything for that.”

“Then it’s done.”

He moved then, and she thought of what he was, what he needed to live. Could that be what he meant? Literally give her life to him as payment? Unable to control herself, she turned and flipped on the switch, as if the light would banish him as it did any bad dream or creepy shadow; but she couldn’t seem to make herself turn around, to look death in the face. She longed for the forgotten cross on the bed and uttered a silent prayer that he had meant his words. That her death would free her father.

The bright room was an unexpected assault and he knew instantly she had done it to chase him away, thinking that he was going to kill her and that the light would cause him to slither back under his rock like all disgusting things that live in dark places. That was her impression of him, something ugly and evil, cowering in the shadows. He stared at her back as it trembled, the courage she had flashed at him in the dark gone as she came to terms with what she had actually done. He wandered if she would stay true to her word. If he could make her break it. “Don’t make deals you can’t keep, Cordelia,” he warned, daring her to turn around and see the monster to which she had sold herself.

Staring at her trembling hands, Cordelia took a deep breath and turned, readying herself for the hideous sight.

He stood straight and tall in the middle of the room, his amber eyes burning into her, waiting for her to run in terror or collapse to the floor in sobs, begging to take back the bargain. But just like anything viewed in shadows and darkened rooms, whispered about and feared, he became clearer in the light, less monster and more intimidating figure. He was tall and thick, with broad shoulders and a menacing presence; and the muscles that tensed and flexed under her scrutiny, gave her more of a sense of power than menace. His face was definitely one of a vampire, but even that, bathed in the glow of the overhead bulbs was not as terrifying as she had thought it would be. She supposed that running for your life through the Sunnydale Cemetery made the idea of sharp teeth and a bumpy brow much scarier than it seemed now.

She found herself staring into his amber eyes, swimming in the deep emotions of hate and pain that swirled within them, thinking that Fred’s assessment had been right. He was more injured animal than demon. And in some ways that made him all the more dangerous.

His brow furrowed and he took a small step back, as if to catch himself, before straightening again and looking at her as if she had struck him. He had expected fear, but he had gotten much worse, a small amount of pity and a large amount of curiosity. The kind of look that might grace the faces of freak-show patrons or students looking into formaldehyde jars. “Get a good look, Cordelia. See exactly what kind of deal you’ve made,” he ordered with a growl, his eyes turbulent and cruel.

He was trying too hard to scare her now and she knew it. She thought about what Xander had told her. That Angel had come to Sunnydale to help and what the result of that attempt had been. She wondered why he never let the others see him, yet gave them a home and, in a sense, took care of them. Why would an evil vampire do that? Why would a marginally good one after being cursed by the first humans he tried to help?

He was putting her through something that he never forced on the other members of his house. Suddenly she was afraid of the possibility that he would change his mind, that he wanted to. That he was giving her a test that she was expected to fail, allowing him to go back on his promise.

Well, she would not let him. She had come too far to give up now. No matter what feelings raged within her at the moment, she could not show fear, regret, or disgust at what he was, enabling him to use that as an excuse to run away, abandon his attempt at helping her the way he had Buffy and the others in Sunnydale.

It might not be too bad living in the old hotel, she reasoned with herself, always the survivor. The others seemed to come and go as they pleased. She’d have Fred for company and she could visit her father, go out during the day. Eventually, maybe even go to school. Cordelia remembered what Fred had told her, how she wished that she could thank Angel for what he had done, no matter how he felt about it.

Tentatively she took a small step forward, causing Angel’s body to visibly tense, “Thank you,” she breathed, showing that she not only wasn’t afraid but even grateful for his help. And in some ways she was, now that she knew the trade had not meant her death and that her father would be set free.

Angel stood uncertainty, not knowing what to do at the unexpected reaction and words of thanks. Everything about her surprised him, caught him off guard. He stared back into her hazel eyes full of fear at her situation and cautious gratitude. Just as it had before, her bravery shook him, changed everything he wanted to believe about humans.

He looked at the way she stood so still, so brave as she looked at a product of hell. She was holding herself in that regal stance again, the one she had donned as she walked so fearlessly away from the cab. He stared at her features, the perfect line of her face, the fullness of her lips and her soft, sun kissed glow. Her beauty was much more prevalent as she stood half way across the room like some angelic goddess in the clingy, white night gown. The bronze of her skin enhanced even more by the color of the garment as it gently hugged her curves. Her coffee colored hair tumbling loosely around her face and down her back, urging him to touch it, to run his fingers through it.

The old familiar memory of angry and disgusted eyes came fresh and fast in his mind, the irises morphing from clear, blue to sparkling, hazel. He cursed himself internally at his thoughts and boiled with rage at her for turning on the light, for making him feel so vulnerable to her eyes, and her so inviting to his. She was acting as if she weren’t afraid of him, and for a moment he had believed it. Relished it.

Suddenly he felt over-exposed, imagining, after admiring her beauty, what a hideous creature he must seem to her. “Turn it off,” he growled.

“What?”

“The light! Turn it off!” he roared.

Cordelia stepped back quickly and plunged the room back into darkness. Her hands were shaking again and her heart pounded so hard she felt dizzy.

Angel took several steps until he stood just inches from her, his face hidden again in shadows. She thought about screaming for Wesley. Instead she froze, waiting for his next unpredictable move, for the injured beast to strike.

He stood over her for what seemed an eternity, intimidating, aggressive. The darkness turning him back into the deadly creature he was as his shadow engulfed her, smothered her until she felt as if she couldn’t breath. “Are you afraid of me, Cordelia?” he finally spoke; his voice was soft and menacing, expecting a truthful answer. He knew she was and wanted to feed that fear, punish her for turning on the light.

“Well,” her voice shook, but she didn’t care. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? To scare everyone away so you can lick your wounds in private?”

The truth of her words stabbed him even as their openness created an odd sense of intimacy.

“There is a reason I live in darkness, Cordelia. A reason I don’t want anyone to look at me,” he leaned close to her ear, “Don’t ever do that again,” he threatened through clenched teeth.

And then he was gone.

Part 3

Cordelia lay across the bed of the brightly lit room, staring at the wooden cross on the nightstand. It had been hours since Angel had disappeared and hours since she had frantically reached up and flipped the light on again. She’d been unable to turn it off after their confrontation and had spent most of the night curled on the bed wondering if he had gone to Sunnydale and if he had been able to keep his part of the deal. Her father’s freedom for her life.

Her life. Just what did that mean? She had thought for one heart-stopping moment when Angel had crossed the room that “A Life for a life” had meant just as it sounded. An offering, an end. After all, he was a vampire. He had to take the life of a human to survive. Or did he?

He had stopped so suddenly when she turned on the light in fear. The look on his face had nearly brought her to her knees; the shock in his eyes, the hurt portrayed by the lines in his brow and the slight slump of his shoulders. In that moment, as scary as he seemed, being attacked by him almost seemed an impossibility. Almost. She shivered at the thought of what had followed, grateful that apparently promising her life to a vampire had not meant her death. At least not yet.

So what did it mean? Was she doomed to be a resident of this “Hotel California” like the others who seemed inexplicably bound to the place and its owner through their obsessions with revenge, mysterious prophecies, and social apprehension. Had they promised the same thing to Angel, offered up their lives for some favor, sold their souls as willingly as she had hers? Or were Wesley, Charles Gunn, and Fred here for the reasons they claimed; devotion to an un-deciphered prophecy, revenge for a beloved sister, and shelter from a world they were not ready to face.

The smell of clean air after a good rain wafted through the open window, drawing Cordelia’s attention to the lightening sky outside. Aching for the bright, warm morning sun and its ability to chase away the dark thoughts of the previous night, Cordelia rose from the bed and walked to the window. Laying her arms across the sill, she leaned her head slightly out into the breaking day, staring up between the buildings at the paper-thin clouds that scattered the sky and intermixed with hues of pink and blue.

As the world outside continued to lighten, a splash from the street below caught her attention. She watched as a small car sped down the short street, using the route as a shortcut, obviously oblivious to its sinister reputation. Cordelia looked back up, this time focusing on the old building that sat across from her window. She recalled the way it had appeared the night before, so ominous and foreboding as she had sat out on her death-march down the dark, abandoned road. In the daylight, however, its appearance began to transform into something so different. She watched intently as the sun crept across the structure, chasing away shadows and replacing them with artistic, architectural curves and old stone masonry, giving it an antiqued or historic appearance as opposed to the haunting, chilling feeling it had conjured the night before.

Its massive size was still daunting, imposing; but no longer did it seem to loom over the street like a dark predator, ready to devour anyone who strayed into its domain. The morning sun shed light into its dark hollows, robbing it of the power it had possessed in being the unknown, the unseen. Its presence was still impressive, awe-inspiring; however, as powerful as it seemed, time and experience had weathered it, weakened it.

Its secrets began to unfold with every breaking ray and Cordelia could see it clearly now. The building was old and worn and full of cracks brought about by earthquakes and age. Solitude, neglect and time had made it what it was. But in all its imperfection, its intimidating size and marred facade, it was beautiful. It had simply been forgotten, disregarded, unappreciated for what it truly was, could be. All it was in need of was care. Someone who could see beyond the cracks and age and dusty, dark halls. Heck, with a little TLC it could probably be restored to its former glory.

It was such a contradiction of itself. Strong yet weak, beautiful yet grotesque. She didn’t understand how it could encompass so many differing characteristics, or why she even cared. But for some strange reason she did care, couldn’t stop herself from studying it, analyzing it.

In a way it reminded her of Angel; the contradictions, the way he frightened and fascinated her at the same time, how the light had robbed him of some of his power the night before.

A beep and another splash startled Cordelia and she looked down to the street again as yet another car braved the shortcut, unafraid of its mythical unknown in the light of day. She stared at the street for a moment and then back to the building. A realization hit her.

The building was Angel. What was it he had told her the night before? That there was a reason he lived in darkness? She had thought he had meant that darkness was a necessity. That it was his domain, the world where he could roam freely. But it had nothing to do with freedom or power. He didn’t live in the darkness. He hid there, counting on the fear it instilled in humans. He didn’t use it to prey on them, but to keep them away. And just as the building she now stared at so intently, Angel, as strong and dominant as he seemed, was full of cracks. Worn by the solitude, scarred by loneliness, bitter and angry from the years of living without external (or internal) light.

Angel was the old building. Empty. Neglected. She wondered to herself what he might have been with care, what he could have contributed to the world if Buffy and the others in Sunnydale hadn’t thrown him away.

She pushed away harsh thoughts of Buffy Summers. She couldn’t blame the girl, she was the Slayer after all. By nature, Angel was her enemy. And even if she was the one who had chased him away, squelched whatever amount of good that hid inside of him, he had let her. He had let one act of fear throw him from a path that could have meant something, made him someone. Now….now he was nothing. An empty dwelling that everyone feared in the darkness, and forgot in the light.

Cordelia breathed in one last breath of morning air before stepping away from the window. Heading toward the small bathroom, she thought about her father and the fate that his actions and her own promise had condemned her to. A life sentence in the company of solitude, loneliness, and bitter anger.

Yet even as she feared what her promise to Angel had meant, in some small corner, just beyond the reach of her consciousness or control, she wondered if she could ever conquer her fear of the darkness, if she could ever see beyond the cracks, age and dusty, dark halls, and if she could ever help the others to do the same.

***

He was powerful. Even as he swayed slightly, the blood of the Kremlock covering his body, mixing with what flowed from his own wounds, the intruder was more powerful than the two demons that still stood.

Clinton Chase’s heart raced as he looked toward the open sewer entrance that the vampire had used to surprise his captors. He looked back to the three bodies as they flung themselves at each other in a frenzy of fangs and gore. The vampire was going to win.

He looked at the sewer entrance again and slowly crawled across the marble floor. This was his only chance. If he waited, the vampire would surely turn his attention to him when his business with the Kremlock had been settled. So, risking one more glance at the battle, Clinton sprinted as fast as his bruised and battered body would allow him to and dove into the opening.

There was a time he would have noticed the smell and grime of a place such as the Sunnydale sewer. Who was he kidding? There was a time that a spec of dust on his best Armani would have sent him into a tail spin. But now none of those things mattered. As he shuffled through the dark tunnel, nothing in the world mattered as much as the safety of his little girl.

He cursed and yelled in his mind for what he had done to himself and his family. How had it gotten so far?

Well he would make it all right now. By the time the vampire killed the other two monsters, he would be far enough away for a clean escape. And without the Kremlock on his back, he and Cordelia could leave Sunnydale, start over.

He stopped and stared at the split in the tunnel ahead, breathing heavily as he tried to discern the best route, the fastest way to freedom.

Catching his breath the best he could, he veered slightly to the left, hoping he had chosen wisely.

“Wrong way” a soft voice echoed through the chamber.

Clinton felt a small pain in his chest and he fought to calm himself as he turned to look behind him. Nothing. He squinted hard in the darkness. No one, no thing. But he knew. Something was there. And he had seen too much in the last few months, knew too many faces his pursuer might wear to risk finding out what the “something” might be. Turning back around, he bolted, running as fast as his racing heart would allow, his bare feet splashing in black puddles, his shoulders occasionally scraping and scratching against the jagged sewer walls. He could make it. If his heart didn’t give out on him, he could make it.

He ran for what seemed an eternity with no end to the tunnel or visible entrances in sight. Adrenaline pumping too hard for a man with a heart condition, he pushed himself faster as he glanced behind himself, trying not to think about the voice he had heard. A tightness began to squeeze his chest and he rubbed at the ache in his forearm, looking down as he did so. He never saw the shadow that passed in front of his path. Never knew that he was running straight toward it until he felt the cold muck of the sewer floor beneath his back.

Stunned for a moment, the fall and chest pains causing a ringing dizziness in his head, Clinton looked up at the shadow that towered over him and tried to focus.

A powerful hand descended from the blackness and grabbed him roughly by the arm that now felt numb. He struggled to stand as the dark figure lead him quickly back the way he had ran.

“What part of ‘wrong way’ don’t you understand?” the voice was venomous yet soft as it maneuvered them both through the darkness.

Minutes later, Clinton found himself with the stranger in front of the branching tunnels. It was then that he caught a profile of the demon, knew that it was the vampire that had fought, and obviously defeated the Kremlock’s gang. As they traveled the lighter tunnel, he could see the extent of injuries the monster beside him had sustained in the fight. On a man they would have been fatal. But for what he knew of vampires……Clinton knew his fate then. Balling the fist of his free arm, he slammed it into the largest gash in the vampire’s side. The monster howled in pain and Clinton ran.

The hand caught at his arm again, but where it had been simply firm before, it now was violent, painful. His body slammed hard into the wall as Angel pinned him tightly against the filth with one, strong arm.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the monster growled just inches from his face.

“I didn’t escape the Kremlock just to become fuel for an injured vamp” he breathed heavily.

“Escape” Angel almost seemed amused then. “Is that what you think you did?” Releasing his grip, he let the man slip to the floor. “Pretty stupid move. Of course, what should I expect from a man who borrows money from a Kremlock.” He backed away a step or two and looked at Clinton for a moment, as if deciding what to do with him. “Wait here” he finally commanded, before disappearing into the blackness.

Clinton did what he was told this time. He couldn’t escape death now. It was what he deserved for what he had done to his family. At least he could rest with some peace in knowing that the Kremlock was dead and that he would never be able to get his hands on Cordelia.

When the vampire reappeared, Clinton braced himself for whatever pain was to come. He closed his eyes and felt a soft, heavy object hit his leg. Opening his eyes, he looked down at the dark canvas bag that lay at his feet.

“Bus ticket, a little money, and a change of clothes” Angel explained from the opposite wall of the tunnel.

Clinton stared suspiciously at Angel as he knelt slowly to the bag. He unzipped and rummaged through it. Just as the vampire said, there was a bus ticket, a pair of slacks, a shirt, shoes, and enough money to get him and Cordy far away from Sunnydale, and then some. His hand trembled. Joy, gratitude, hope overwhelmed him. He looked up with wet uncertain eyes. “Thank you” he whispered.

Angel’s face softened for a moment, then hardened in anger. “Don’t” his voice was the venomous whisper it had been before. “Never be grateful for a good deed before you know the motives behind it.”

Clinton could care less about the vampire’s personal motives, good or bad. He was free. And now so was Cordy. He zipped the bag and stood, letting his unlikely rescuer lead the way.

With every step, the sewer tunnel grew lighter and lighter, until they reached what was obviously a manhole.

“This is as close to the station as I can get you.”

Clinton paused for a moment and looked at the being in front of him; his jagged fangs, his disfigured face, the blood that still dripped from his side. “I don’t know why you did this. I don’t really care actually. But I can’t help but be grateful. You saved more than my life tonight.”

Angel swallowed down the long forgotten taste of guilt, “Your bus leaves soon. If you want to stay alive, get out of Sunnydale and never come back” he tried not to growl the response but failed.

“I will. As soon as I find my daughter, we’ll be as far away from this place as we can get” Clinton said before turning to the entrance.

“You won’t find her” he didn’t know if it slipped out or if he had wanted to hurt the man intentionally.

The words took a moment to sink in, took a moment to register in Clinton’s brain. “What?” he finally turned and asked in bewilderment.

“Cordelia’s not here” Angel answered coolly, almost arrogantly.

Shock froze Clinton into place. He could do nothing but stare, unwilling and unable to believe that this monster knew about Cordelia.

“I told you, never be grateful until you find out the motives” he offered quietly.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Clinton dropped the bag and charged.

Angel stood as a solid wall, letting the man vent his anger for a moment before pinning him to the ladder leading to the street above.

“If you touch her! If you lay a hand on her!…”

“You’ll what Chase?” he taunted. “Come on. Scare me. You’ve done such a great job of it already.”

Clinton collapsed back against the steps with a sob, desperation replacing his anger. “Please, I’ll do anything. Whatever you want. Oh God, please. Take me in her place” he cried.

Angel’s anger escalated, “Don’t you think you’ve done enough bargaining when it comes to Cordelia?” he tightened his hold. “She’s made her deal. Bought you’re freedom for the price of her own. She’s my responsibility now. Mine.” he let go of his hold, allowing Clinton to drop down to his knees.

Angel stared at the man who sobbed at his feet, begging for his daughter’s life. Her father didn’t deserve her. It was his weakness that sent her to the Kremlock, to L.A..

“Please let her go. Please” Clinton cried freely but was met with an icy stare. “You’re going to make her like you. Aren’t you?”

“She would never be like me. Even if I did turn her.”

“What will you do?” he feared the truth and needed it at the same time.

“What you couldn’t. Protect her. Keep her safe from the things you’ve exposed her to. Give her the life you tried to bargain your soul for. She’ll have everything and anything she wants.”

“Except her father” by the look on the vampire’s face, Clinton knew he had planted a seed. “She’s a smart girl” he tried to regain some composure and stood. “You think she’ll believe I’m safe just because you say I am? If you do, then you don’t know her, not at all.”

Angel hadn’t thought of that. She would want proof. And he would need it as leverage to make her honor her part of the deal. He thought for a moment and took a step toward the bag, took out the envelope that held Clinton’s bus ticket and scratched Wesley’s cell phone number on the paper in blood. “Call this number at midnight. She’ll answer.”

Angel turned away from the man then, only to turn back for one last warning. “And Mr. Chase, if you’re thinking about talking her into leaving or escaping, just remember who’ll be standing beside her as you try.”

The tunnel was suddenly empty, and Clinton’s arms trembled as he climbed the steps up to the manhole, trying desperately to think of a way to save his daughter.

Part 5

Clinton Chase buried his head in his hands. How on Earth was he going to help his little girl? He raised his weary head slowly and reached over to pour his fourth glass of very old, very good scotch. It was the only other thing, besides a few nights in the cheap motel, that he had bought with the wad of cash the vampire had given him. He took a big swallow and stared at the remaining bundle of green on the Formica table, cursing himself and taking another swallow. He’d risked so much for that damned green paper and the happiness he thought it would buy. Now….. He stared at the green mound and downed the glass. Now he had nothing. He pushed the money from the table with his arm. It made him sick now to look at it. Even sicker that he needed it. That he had taken it.

He stood and opened the tacky bright drapes, watching as a jet passed overhead and shook the small building. If he could just find her, get her here, they’d be gone. He would put himself and Cordy on one of those planes and never look back.

“Where are you” he whispered to himself.

His old contacts were pretty powerful. They could find her for the right price. The problem was that none of them would take any of his calls. He’d already tried that. He had also tried the number he had called Cordelia on earlier and, of course, it no longer worked.

A private investigator? Maybe? He had enough money to hire one. At least for a while. But somehow the idea faded when he thought of just who he was trying to find. No normal PI would be able to track down a demon. Not unless that demon wanted to be found.

He wished he could remember the firm Braxton had hired a couple of years ago. They were based in L.A.. He shook his head at the thought of his old colleague Trenton Braxton. He’d been the one to enlighten Clinton about the darker dealings of Sunnydale business.

What was the name of the group he had used? The one he said handled all of his “otherworldly” ventures? Fox and Hart? No. That wasn’t it. He crossed the room and opened the nightstand drawer, pushing aside the Gideons’ kind contribution and pulling out the A-M Los Angeles Yellow Pages.

Attorneys, he found immediately and began to frantically search the thousands of entrees as a seed of hope began to form in his mind. With each column his finger slid down he became more confident that he had an answer, a plan. He only hoped that the money his enemy gave him would be enough to retain their services and that he would find Cordelia in time.

***

Morning finally dawned on another sleepless night for Cordelia as she lay across the king-sized bed, taking in her new accommodations. The room was massive, just as the other suites she had seen, and besides the light layer of dust, it was fairly clean. Everything was in working order – the lights, the plumbing – making her wonder if she was its first or just its most recent resident.

The disturbing thought that tried to form in her mind was suddenly and sharply interrupted by a quick knock at her door.

As soon as she answered, Cordelia was greeted with two smiling faces and one very handsome, very obviously angry one at having to be at her suite so early in the morning.

“We’ve come to help you settle in,” Wesley took the job as spokesman as he smiled sweetly and held up the cleaning products in his hands.

“Oh, no, thanks,” she felt a little embarrassed now that she thought of the ridiculous list she had made the night before and what he must have thought about her as he read it. “The room’s fine, really. I can take care of it myself, she sai”d convincingly.

Charles Gunn took the cue and turned to leave.

“Where are you going” Wesley called after the man.

“You heard her. She don’t need no help. And I got better things to do than wash Barbie’s Dream House windows,” he turned again but was stopped by Wesley.

“Angel specifically said to treat her as one of our own,” he said in a hushed whisper to Gunn. “You know what she went through to get here, what could have happened to her if she hadn’t come.”

Gunn looked up at his friend as if he understood all too well.

“She’s not only under the protection of Angel, Charles. She’s under ours as well.”

Gunn took a few seconds to let Wesley’s words sink in before grabbing a rag from Wesley’s hand. “Alright,” he said tightly and walked through the doorway, giving Cordelia a hard look as he said, “But I ain’t doin no windows.”

“Got it,” Cordelia looked back. “No windows.”

“This is gonna be so much fun,” Fred followed in, seemingly unfazed by Gunn’s little show. “I bet you have great taste. I just copied my Aunt Betty’s house because well she always seemed to have a nice cozy house and I don’t really have an eye for decorating, not that Aunt Betty did either but I like it,” she finally took a breath and said, a little sadly, “It reminds me of home.”

No one asked “Where’s home”. Cordelia just assumed the other two knew and even though she was fond of the scatterbrained woman, she was determined not to get too close. These were her jailers after all. Maybe not intentionally, but they were obviously loyal to Angel. Therefore, part of the madness that was keeping her there.

The morning passed by quickly. Cordelia scrubbed a toilet for the first time in her life and Fred had done wonders on the rest of the huge bath. Wesley and Gunn had already gone out and returned with painting supplies and had begun the task of transforming the walls from dull beige to a warm, buttery gold.

The deliveries had started after that, forcing Fred out on the balcony as look out so one of the guys could hurry down to the lobby before any jittery delivery person sped away.

There were boxes embossed with all the names that used to make her mouth water and her heart sing – Sergio Rossi, Barbara Bui, Parasuco Denim Cult, Coach, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and a good mix of Smashbox, Lancome, and Mac Studio Cosmetics, just to mention the first few arrivals.

By late afternoon, the room was full and the deliveries slowed to a halt. “The rest will have to come over the next week or two I’m afraid,” Wesley apologized. “Some of the items on your list were, well, harder to obtain than others.”

Cordelia just smiled slightly and put down the Vivienne Tam jacket that Fred had been awing over as Cordelia explained to her the quality and versatility of a great jacket in any woman’s wardrobe.

She felt ashamed. The first few expensive and gorgeous items had made her uneasy, but it hadn’t taken her long to slip back into old habit as she gradually began breaking open and coordinating each new item.

She left Fred to the pile of half her sarcastic list and headed to the partially blackened windows of the French doors leading to the balcony. Taking a razorblade from the tool box underneath Gunn’s ladder, she began to scrape away the black paint.

“You shouldn’t be doin that,” she heard the voice drift down from the ladder.

“Don’t worry,” she answered back without looking up, “I’ll put up some heavy drapes. I just can’t stand the idea of these painted windows.”

She heard the wood of the ladder creak as the “soldier” of Angel’s little castle descended the rungs.

“You ain’t doin it right,” he complained and took the blade from her hand. “You’re gonna cut yourself,” he began to take over her task and expertly scrape away the dark coat.

She didn’t know why, but in that moment she felt she knew something about the stranger who stood beside her, pretending to ignore her stare. Fred thought that he had come to the old hotel for vengeance, but Cordelia knew, had just met the man, only heard him speak a few times, but knew all the same. He hadn’t come to wage a passionate war against the wicked. He was hiding, just like Angel. The world for Charles Gunn must have turned dark and ugly after his sister’s death. ‘ So he had teamed up with the only creature he knew he could never call ‘friend’, never care or worry about. A vampire, just good enough to fight along side when the mood struck, but just bad enough to never forget his sister and what had taken her away from him.

But he had probably never counted on Wesley, who he seemed to have a quiet friendship with. Or Fred, who he seemed to ignore completely, except when he thought no one was looking. Now this strong man, who seemed irritated by her very presence, who had called her “Barbie” for which she would soon make him pay, was worried that she might knick herself while cleaning the windows.

His quiet indifference was a front. She could tell. She’d always had a certain talent for reading peoples actions, letting them speak louder to her than their words.

“Thought you didn’t do windows” she asked quietly, with a knowing smirk.

He continued to ignore her as he scraped another strip of paint.

She started to speak again but stopped herself. What did she think she was doing? She was not going to get involved. This was not her home, or some giggly dormitory, as Fred seemed to think. This was her prison. She had to remember that. Caring about the people around her would be betraying her father and why she had made her insane promise in the first place. She couldn’t be happy in the hotel without her father. She wouldn’t.

***

“As I explained earlier,” the young lawyer began to subtly usher the unshaven Mr. Chase from his office. “We don’t handle missing person cases.”

“She’s not missing!” Clinton was becoming desperate and a little angry at the way he was being dismissed. “I told you! She’s being held against her will by a vampire here in the city! She said his name was Angel! You’ve got to believe me! I know you know about these things! Trent Braxton…”

“Was the only name that got you this appointment in the first place. We’ve been looking for him for weeks and I thought you might be able to offer us some useful information. But it seems you’ve obviously had a traumatic experience, Mr. Chase,” the man began to patronize. “And listening to the insane and wild tales told to you by a very unstable man such as Mr. Braxton is not going to bring your daughter home any sooner. My suggestion to you would be to file a missing persons report at your local police…”

Lindsey McDonald’s advice was cut short by the ringing phone, “Excuse me for a moment,” he said before picking up the line. “Yes, sir….but it’s only….yes, sir….yes, sir…I understand…..with perfect clarity.”

Lindsey placed the phone back down and looked up at his ‘three o’clock’. “Well, Mr. Chase. It seems that we do have a common interest in finding your daughter after all. We’ll need some information of course. Pictures, detailed descriptions of her and this vampire who has claimed to have taken her.”

Clinton looked bewildered at the man’s sudden change in attitude. “So, you’ll help me? Just like that? You believe me now”

“We believed you the moment you walked in the door, Mr. Chase. We just didn’t care until now.”

***

Cordelia sat in the middle of the suite, looking at the things she had ordered her captor to deliver. Pulling the soft robe around her freshly bathed body, she stared for a moment at the beautiful things before exchanging her new robe for her old clothes.

She had made that ridiculous list out of anger, never expecting him to get her anything on it. What would he think of her now? What would she owe him now?

Taking a deep breath, she stared at the French doors that had remained open to let out the smell of paint and ammonia earlier in the day. She walked out onto the balcony and stared off at the distant lights, wondering if her father was safe, if her mother was happy, and if she would ever see either of them again.

How could she still feel anything for her mother? The woman who had abandoned her and her father. Who would have taken everything in that room and never questioned what it meant or what it would cost her.

“Don’t tell me they didn’t fit,” the voice made her jump and give off an uncontrollable squeak.

“Don’t do that!” she panted as she stepped back and focused on the growingly familiar shadow.

“You’re not wearing any of those things you wrote down on your list last night. So, I’m assuming that they didn’t fit,” he never moved from the shadows that plagued the corner of the balcony.

She breathed out a huge breath of fatigue and frustration. “That list….that was just a sarcastic remark. I didn’t really mean for you to get me those things. I don’t want to owe you anymore than I already do. If that’s even possible,” she looked into the shadow.

“You don’t owe me for the things on the list. Every human who pushes their way into my little slice heaven gets the same treatment,” he said sarcastically. “You’re no different from the others,” he ended with a lie.

She ignored his tone and kept talking, more to herself than to him, “I just don’t want any of them to think that’s what I am. That that beautiful, gorgeous and very expensive mound of merchandise in there is all I care about. I don’t want them to think that’s why I’m here, that I can be bought. Since they obvious don’t know why I’m really staying,” she directed the last comment to the shadow he occupied. “I mean, I don’t want to be here and no matter how much I like those things in there, no matter how tempting they are, I can’t lie to myself and act like I do. I don’t want designer labels and a posh apartment.”

He watched her as she leaned her back on the ledge of the balcony, seemingly in deep thought. “What do you want” In that moment, with the smell of her freshly bathed skin filling his senses and her casual way that seemed to make him at ease, he’d give her anything, anything that crossed her lips was hers.

“I want to go home.”

Except that. “And what home would that be” the earlier bite returned to his voice as the spell was broken.

“I don’t know,” she rubbed her fatigued face with her hand and stared off again.

He couldn’t stand it. The look on her face. The way her mind was warring with itself, wanting something that didn’t exist.

“I didn’t come here to be some housemate with a bunch of strangers and a vampire. This was my last place to go for help. I would have never dreamed of coming here otherwise. No offence,” she added off-handedly.

“It’s okay. Most people wouldn’t have even put it on the list of possibilities.”

The balcony slipped into silence for a moment or two.

“So, this life promising thing…” she changed the subject out of shear exhaustion.

“Means that you promise to live your life here, in the hotel, with me.”

“So, I can’t even step outside for a breath of fresh air.”

“There is no fresh air in L.A..”

“What if I just needed to get out, leave for just a little while and come back”

“Why would you want to leave” he sounded a little panicked.

“I don’t know,” she snapped. “Doctor’s appointment, pedicure, window shopping down Rodeo, day at the beach, anything! If you’re really going to make me keep this deal of ours, have me live here, then you’re going to have to let me do just that. Live.”

His only answer was silence.

“So, I am a prisoner.”

“I’ve got enough money for you to have anything you could ever need or want delivered right to the door.”

“No you don’t. No one has “enough” money, Angel,” she called him by name forcing him unconsciously to come partially out of the shadows, hoping she would say it again. “My dad found that out the hard way. Not everything that makes life worth living or brings you happiness can be delivered to your door. Sometimes you’ve got to venture out and get it yourself.”

He looked at her face, felt the waves of determination and fatigue rolling off of her. But there was no fear. She wasn’t afraid of him. Standing on a dark balcony, with a vampire who could kill her before she even blinked, she showed no fear, argued with him even as if he was some regular acquaintance discussing what made life, life.

In that moment he knew that she was wrong. Happiness, or at least a burning hope for it, could be delivered to his door. It had arrived just two nights previous, when she had marched down the street to the last place on her list.

“I don’t want you to think of yourself as a prisoner, Cordelia.”

“So, what am I then” she whispered desperately, completely bewildered as to why he would want her to stay. “Pampered Pet” it came out with disgust.

“Better than prisoner,” he backed up into the shadows again. “Take the things, Cordelia. Everyone else here does. It’s what I want. It’s what you’ll do,” he was back to his bullying tone.

That order fired her temper, but she couldn’t discern his figure any longer and for a moment she thought she saw his large shadow leap over the ledge.

She leaned out over the edge, wanting to shoot her anger straight towards him, but couldn’t see him and she felt more than knew that he was no longer on the balcony. Laying her arms across each other on the top of the ledge, she rested her chin and looked back out at the city. “Even a pampered pet can get sick and die unless they’re aloud a walk once in a while, Angel” she whispered to the night.

***

The next day, only Wesley greeted her bright and early.

“The other’s have enough home improvement for one week” she asked as she let him into her suite.

“Gunn has gone out for the morning on some personal business, Fred is sleeping in and I’ve come with a message from Angel,” he seemed too pleased with the news as he gave her a smile.

She waited with a very unexcitable stare.

When he realized his announcement had not made the slightest spark of interest, he simply continued. “Well, he says I’m to take you for your walk.”

Cordelia coughed back a choke, “My walk”

“Well, yes. I’m sure he meant for me to get you out of this place for the day. It can become very depressing no matter how much one fixes up the place.”

“Yes, it can,” she looked out to the balcony and to the spot she had occupied the night before. Stupid vamp was listening. And he made a joke. She tried not to crack a smile as she told herself she was furious at him, that she would always hate him, but somehow she couldn’t will her ever ready temper to the surface.

She was beginning to understand, as she followed Wesley out of the door, that Angel, like everything else in this strange place, was nothing like he seemed.

Part 6.

Cordelia leaned toward the flower cart, smelling the array of blooms. The farmer’s market was bustling underneath the bright blue day. She scanned the area, spotting Wesley as he added another paper bag of goods to the three already sitting on the stand. He made a motion to the old woman behind the makeshift counter, letting her know that he was almost done before weaving his way to the tomatoes.

Cordelia gave herself a small smile. She had thought her “walk” would consist of window shopping and tanning at the beach for a couple of hours, or at least something that amounted to frivolous and pointless entertainment. She looked up at the clear sky. It was almost noon and they had already been to the bank, the cleaners, and now, hopefully, they were ending their little stop for produce. It wasn’t that she was disappointed, not really. It just had caught her by surprise. The hotel seemed so dark and even a little gothic, that she had forgotten, but for its exterior appearance, that it was for all intended purposes a working household of sorts. Wesley, obviously, its keeper.

She watched him as he pushed his selection of tomatoes onto the counter, spilling half the contents. She walked over and helped him drop the bruised vegetables back into their sack.

“What do I owe you, Mag?” Wesley addressed the elderly woman by name, reaching into his wallet.

“You put that away, you know you’ve paid enough for whatever you want from my stand for a long time,” she said with a wink to Wesley and a smile to Cordelia.

Wesley seemed to feign surprise that she would not let him pay, but Cordelia could tell by the easy way he accepted that it must be a common exchange between the two.

“Pretty girl you’ve got with you today,” Cordelia noticed the woman was still smiling in her direction.

Wesley’s eyes started to dart nervously around before concentrating on closing his already closed wallet. “Well, yes, she is,” his answer was more nervous than his actions. Shoving his wallet hard into his blazer, he picked up three of the bags. Cordelia took the other two and watched him hurry away. She looked back at the woman, “Thank you,” she smiled back.

“No need to thank me, dear. That’s a fine young man you’ve got there. Fine. He’s a good catch. Don’t let him get away.”

“Oh….we’re not…we’re….Okay,” she settled and turned to catch up with Wesley.

“What was that all about?” she asked as soon as her steps fell in time with Wesley’s.

“What was what?” he stared ahead, slowing his pace a little now that they were reaching the end of the market.

“That,” she nodded her head back a little. “She didn’t charge you for any of this stuff. Seems to me it wasn’t the first load of freebies either.”

Wesley didn’t answer for several moments and Cordelia thought that he was going to ignore her question altogether until they rounded the street corner and he took a seat on an empty bus stop bench. She sat beside him and waited.

“I started coming to this market a couple of months ago. Every week I’d stop and pick out items needed at the hotel. Mag’s stand has the best quality, so naturally I frequented hers more than the others.”

“Naturally,” Cordelia added when he paused, hoping to urge him on.

“One afternoon, I noticed that Mag had a nasty cut just below her ear. Inquiring about it, I asked if she was well and had she had an accident of some sort. The poor woman broke out into tears, mumbling about her sanity and deformed young men threatening her stand. I sat her down and gave her a cup of water from the thermos on her truck and after a few moments, coaxed the story from her. It seemed that, because of the popularity of her stand, she was staying much later than the others, packing all of her things onto her truck alone. She told me that a gang of young “punks”, as she called them, had surrounded her the night before, demanding her money for the day. She had reluctantly given it to them, hoping that they would leave. Instead one of them came close to her, grabbing her by the neck and demanding that she give them even more on the next night. She said that she must have been hallucinating in her panic and old age, because his face, and his teeth…” Wesley stopped.

“His face and his teeth what?”

“That’s all I could get out of her, but it was enough.”

It took Cordelia’s mind only a second to catch his thought. “Vampires,” she said with a sigh of pity for the nice woman.

Wesley nodded his head, “Often young vampires mug and rob, sometimes taking their victims life, sometimes not.”

“She was lucky,” Cordelia thought aloud, a shiver running up her spine at what might have happened to the woman. “So that’s what she’s thankful to you for? For being nice to her that day?”

“No. After her story, I instructed her to leave the market early that day. I told her that those young men would not bother her again.”

“You took care of a gang full of vamps?” her tone was so full of suspicion that it wounded him just a little.

“Is that so hard to believe?” he answered back a little sharply.

Cordelia raised an eyebrow at him.

“I guess it is,” he mumbled his disappointment. “Anyway, that evening, just before dusk, I went to Angel. I told him the story. At first, he seemed uninterested, bothered even by my mere presence. But as I turned to leave, thinking of alternative ways to help the woman, he told me to inform Gunn that they would be “hunting” that night.”

Cordelia was silent for a moment, staring at Wesley as he stared forward lost in the memory of his tale. “Angel?”

Wesley continued to stare ahead and simply nodded.

“The next morning there was an envelope on my desk at the hotel. It was overflowing with money. I can only assume it was the money Angel had taken from the vampires as a good portion of it was soiled with ash and blood.”

“What did you do?” Cordelia asked with quiet awe, her eyes still boring into the side of his head.

“I took it to Mag. She assumes that I am the one who took care of the matter. And I couldn’t very well explain to her what had really happened.”

Cordelia’s eyes turned forward then, her chin sinking to her hands. She tried to reason out the realization, trying to fit the good deed to the vampire who had made her tremble the night she had arrived at the hotel, had made her promise her life in return for his help. A thought clicked and her head bolted up. “He couldn’t have done it without something in return,” she said a little too haughtily. Of course. Angel wasn’t some dark and misunderstood do-gooder. He was the occult Godfather of L.A., making innocent humans promise a lifetime of favors for his help. She absolutely refused to believe anything else.

“You’re right.”

Ah ha! She knew it. “Probably had to promise her life’s blood or something.”

“Angel does not drink human blood!” Wesley’s shocked eyes widened as he turned to her. “At least not often, and never FROM a human. He only consumes it when he is gravely injured. And then it is strictly from a small supply we purchase from a local blood bank.”

“But that….” she tried to think of why it was wrong for Angel to drink human blood at all and scurried for an answer. Wesley Windham Price would not make Angel into the good guy, “How could you let Angel do that? That blood is supposed to save lives.”

“It does,” he answered her more with his eyes than his words.

She stared at him for a moment, trying to let his meaning sink in. Angel drinking human blood saves lives. But the lives of whom? The people he sometimes saves? Or the one’s he would drink from without his little emergency stash. She shivered a bit. “So what did she have to promise?” her voice was quiet again.

“Along with the money there was a note instructing me to make Mag promise, no matter how good the business, that she was to pack up and leave each day before dark.”

“That’s it?”

“What else would he expect from her?” he looked genuinely puzzled by her response. “He usually does expect something in return from those random few he decides to help. Always for their own good of course.”

Yeah right. Her mind raced to reason out why he would help. There had to be a reason besides ‘just out of the goodness of his…..did vampires even have hearts?’ She suddenly realized that, beyond the little she had found out in Sunnydale – stakes to the heart, holy water, sunlight, and biting – there really wasn’t a lot that she actually knew about vampires. The word “hunt” stuck in her mind and she remembered Xander bragging about one of his adventures with Buffy, in the process telling Cordelia how vampires like the hunt as much as the kill. “So he helps people when it suites him. When he feels like a little violence,” she tried another line of reasoning.

“Certainly not,” Wesley sounded offended, making her feel slightly ashamed. “Not all of his deeds have been violent acts against the underworld of Los Angeles. Take the Harrison Safe House. It’s a women’s shelter in the heart of the city. Gunn had been familiar with the place as he had helped some of its occupants get away from a life “on the streets”, for lack of a better term. About a month ago, Gunn heard through one of his contacts that the shelter was in financial ruin and about to close its doors. Gunn met with Angel. Now they have enough funding to continue for two more years. Thanks to an anonymous donor, who only asks that part of the grant go toward hiring the services of the most reputable accountant in the city.”

“He’s got that much money?” her tone of suspicion was back.

“He’s lived for well over two-hundred years, Cordelia. He’d have to be a fool not to have amassed a fortune over such a long life span.”

Cordelia slipped into thought again, trying to wrap her mind around the information that Wesley had just shared. It just didn’t fit. A monster couldn’t do the things that Angel had obviously done. He had helped people. People who would probably run screaming from him if they met him on the dark streets of L.A.. But he had helped them nonetheless. And the only thing he had asked in return was that they protect themselves in someway; return his favor by keeping themselves safe. Making them promise something for their own good.

Could it be that simple? Could his deal with her, the fateful promise that had felt like a death sentence, be as simple as the others? A promise made to ensure her safety, a payment that was for her own good? Her mind was still trying to sort out the logic in such a promise when Wesley spoke.

“There is a nice diner down the block,” he stood and looked down at her, purposely changing the subject, knowing he had already told her too much. “These will keep in my car while we sit down for a bit.”

Cordelia stood and followed his lead, quietly walking the half-block to his car and placing the bags inside.

Half an hour later, as they sat in an orange, vinyl booth waiting for their food, Cordelia asked, “Who’s room am I staying in?”

“Pardon?” Wesley seemed to choke on his water.

“The room? The suite just below Angel’s floor? The one we spent all of yesterday remodeling? It was in complete working order, Wesley. And the only things that work in that hotel are the rooms that are used.”

Wesley placed the glass down on the table. He blew out a breath wondering why he seemed incapable of keeping anything from her. “The room was supposed to be Angel’s,” he said it almost with sadness. “As I told you before, Angel does try to help people, in his own way. But it is always anonymous, always from the safety of shadows and the solitude of the top floor of the hotel.

“However, there was a period, when he first started understanding that there were ways he could help, I began to notice a change in him. This was several months ago of course, but I believe that the feeling of knowing he had helped humans that had no where else to turn started to soften his armor a bit.

“The incident in Sunnydale traumatized him so much, that I believe he thought himself a lost cause. But when he started to help, to care just a little, there was a small light that started to flicker inside of him.

“It was just before Christmas when Gunn and I suggested that he do for himself what he had done for us, make his space in the hotel comfortable. Not wanting the top floor, why I haven’t a clue, he picked the suite just below it as his new apartment. We hurried and began repairs on the rooms. He even discussed finally meeting Fred. He seemed almost in good spirits, or at least what could be defined as good spirits for Angel.

“Then, one night, he and Gunn were “hunting” for a group of vampires that had attacked some of Gunn’s friends. They found four of them, surrounding a family and their car. Their auto had broken down on the side of the street, one the vampires had their son in his hands. The boy couldn’t have been more than three. Gunn raced toward the family, taking on three of the vampires himself. Angel ran to the child without thinking, dusting the demon and grabbing the boy in his arms.

“It wasn’t until the boy’s mother screamed that Angel had realized he was no longer in the shadows. As Gunn bested the last vamp, he turned to see Angel, frozen under the street lamp, the boy held tight in his arms.

“Gunn said the woman’s face was full of fear, she turned to Charles, begging him to kill the last of them, not to let that horrible thing kill her son.”

The waitress halted Wesley’s story as she placed the sandwiches on the table. When the waitress was safely out of earshot, Cordelia asked, “What happened?”

“Gunn took the boy from Angel and carried him to his mother, then gave the stunned family a ride home.”

“And Angel abandoned the suite and crawled back into the shadows to lick his wounds,” Cordelia finished the story, thinking again how insightful Fred’s first description of Angel had been.

“I’m afraid so,” Wesley sighed and took a small bite of his sandwich.

“I guess I can understand now why he hides in that big old hotel,” Cordelia picked at the bun on her sandwich, her appetite suddenly failing her, then said absently, “The only thing I don’t get is why the rest of you are.”

“Why the rest of us are what?” he asked after swallowing another bite.

“Hiding. You from failure, Gunn from the memory of his sister, and Fred from the world.”

“I am certainly NOT hiding,” he sounded outraged and forced himself to lower his voice a bit. “My work at the hotel could possibly be more important than anything the Watcher’s Council has seen since their discovery of the Slayer line.”

Cordelia bristled at his selfish motives but held her tongue for the moment. It wouldn’t do to get him mad at her. After all, he was her “handler” today. But she couldn’t help but be angry for Angel’s sake. For all his expertise and research, Wesley should be helping Angel with his curse. If this vampire with a soul was as good as Wesley seemed to think, as good as she was beginning to believe herself, why not do everything to help him? She couldn’t understand how Wesley could witness Angel’s good deeds, see the pain that his life, or unlife, was causing him without at least trying to help. “So you spend all of that time in your office studying demon psychology?”

“Every waking moment,” he said it almost with reverence, as if his precious catalogue of the demon mind would bring about world peace.

She couldn’t hold it in any longer, so she tried to soften it as much as she could but the bite of her words was ever present, “And the curse that Angel suffers under, that runs a far second, right?”

Wesley seemed to get nervous at the mention of Angel’s curse. Probably guilt.

His ears turned red and he put his half eaten sandwich down on the plate, “Just because you don’t understand the importance of my work, doesn’t mean that it is unimportant.”

And with that, the door of information that had seemed open to her all morning slammed shut. Wesley was cordial and friendly as ever as they spent the rest of the day doing things of her choosing; window shopping, purchasing a few linens for her suite, walking through the park, but he kept the conversation light. She had thought that their lunch time conversation had angered him, but it seemed more to have upset him. As if the mention of Angel’s curse brought him great pain. She wished she had been able to keep the last comment, that had obviously sent him inward, to herself.

***

It was nearly dark by the time they returned to the hotel. Cordelia helped Wesley put away the produce from the market and ate a bite of dinner with Fred before climbing the stairs to her room.

She took her time in the bath, dressed in a cute but modest pair of Victoria’s Secret Pjs, item number one-hundred thirty-seven on her list of demands, and stood in front of the bathroom mirror while drying her mane of chestnut hair.

Why was her heart skipping in anticipation? And why was she primping as if she were going out on some hot date?

She knew why.

She knew that he would come tonight. And now, after Wesley’s tales of the “reluctant dark hero” she was intrigued, impressed even. She wanted to see him. Wanted to find out for herself if he was truly what she was beginning to think he was. Good. Truly and utterly good.

But how could being away from her father be good? What kind of promise of protection could that be? It was the only thing that still bothered her. She had heard Angel tell Wesley that her father was in a motel by the airport, but she hadn’t pressed the subject with Wesley during their little day trip, unsure really as to why she hadn’t. She supposed it was out of fear.

But she didn’t feel afraid.

She felt in some small way, as sick and silly as it seemed, more protected than she had in all of her life.

She rubbed a generous amount of lotion on her legs, arms and hands and took one last look in the mirror before turning out the bathroom light.

The moment she opened the balcony doors, she knew he was there, lurking in the darkest corner of the balcony. Waiting.

Ignoring him as if she hadn’t felt his presence, she walked to the ledge and looked up at the half-moon that shone bright in the sky. She stayed that way for several minutes, gathering her thoughts, choosing her words carefully before she spoke.

“It’s not really polite to spy,” she said without turning.

He moved slightly then and she turned toward the corner, only to see that most of him still remained in shadow.

“How was your …. ‘walk’?” he bit out the last word. He almost sounded jealous.

“Oh, it was great,” she stretched lazily and leaned her back against the ledge. “We ran some errands, went to the produce market,” she emphasized that particular stop. “Ate some lunch, window shopped on Rodeo and saw the cutest little……this is ridiculous,” she finally huffed. “I’m not going to stand here and talk to a shadow, it’s silly and it’s rude.”

When he didn’t move, she did, toward the door. “Wait,” he quickly took a small step forward.

She paused halfway to the door. “Are you going to come out of the shadows like a good boy?” she couldn’t believe she was teasing him.

He didn’t move.

“I’ve seen what you look like already, Angel.”

He watched her as she waited. He didn’t want her to look at him, but couldn’t bear it if she left. He stepped out of the shadows, staying as far from her as he could on the small balcony.

She searched his face and saw him fidget visibly under her gaze. He wasn’t a monster, barely a vampire. Granted, the ridges, the fangs, the blazing golden eyes were all still firmly in place, but he was not the scary dark figure who had greeted her the first night she had come to the hotel. Wesley’s stories had softened him some, turned him into something else in her eyes. She guessed that what her father had told her long ago was really true. What was on the inside of a person could outshine the shell.

She suddenly wanted to know more about him, everything. “Do you sleep in a coffin?”

“What?” his yellow eyes shot wide at her.

“A coffin? Do you have to sleep in one?”

Her frankness was shocking, and at the same time exhilarating. No one ever asked him anything about himself, not even Wesley or Gunn. “No, I don’t sleep in a coffin,” he answered.

“But you do sleep during the day, right? I mean the sun makes you all weak and everything, right?”

“I sleep during the day sometimes, but only if I’m tired. The sun can only effect me when I’m in it,” he didn’t know why but he almost felt like smiling when she began to pace, as if comparing notes in her mind from old horror movies.

“But it does burn you up?”

“Yes.”

“And the black,” she motioned to his attire with her hand. “Is that like a uniform for you guys or something?”

“I just happen to like black,” he did feel the corners of his mouth loosen then, however not quite into a smile.

“So no coffin, no sun-coma, and black is just a fashion statement,” she ticked each one off finger by finger. Her eyebrows shot up in excitement as the next question hit her, “Can you fly?” she asked eagerly.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Oh,” she sounded disappointed. Angel had never wished for that particular power until then.

“Why the questions, Cordelia?”

She shrugged her shoulders, “Know thy enemy,” she half-heartedly said then wished she could immediately take the answer back as he began to fade back into the shadows. She hadn’t been serious, not really. Good grief.

“You SHOULD know your enemy, Cordelia. It’s a smart move.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” she decided to play along. “It really helped going out today with Wesley too. I found out a lot about the monster that’s keeping me here.”

He stepped further back into the shadows. Of course that’s why she would ask questions. He was a fool to let himself think for a moment that she was interested in the kind of existence he was forced to endure. That she would even care.

“He told me stories, terrible stories,” she gulped in fear and gave a dramatic shiver for good measure. “Stories of charity, heroism, selflessness. Why, I could barely eat my lunch,” she cracked a small smile then.

She wasn’t afraid of him, or plotting against some enemy. It was worse. Much worse. She was making fun of him. “Wesley’s being kind to you, Cordelia. For every good story he knows about me, he also knows a hundred bad. Don’t mistake giving into the whims of humans as a sign that I care,” his voice was that distant rumble again, the kind she was beginning to identify as his “scary” voice.

Instead of running terrified into the safety of her room as he had hoped for her to do, Cordelia took a purposeful step toward the shadows, blanketed in the bravery that he had admired the first night he watched her march down the street to his door. “It’s too late, Angel. I’ve seen behind the mask. You may be a vampire, but you’re a vampire with a soul. A good soul. The problem is, you just don’t quite know what to do with that, do you?”

He advanced then, faster than her eyes would register. Looming over her, he tilted her chin up to face him, his eyes blazing down at her. “Look real hard, Cordelia. This isn’t a mask. It’s what I am. Inside. And out.”

Cordelia reached up slowly, taking his hand gently from her face, her eyes never falling from his. He felt it then, the change. That small gesture. The feathering touch of her hand. Fear rocked him. He would never be able to scare Cordelia Chase. Not when with a single touch she could hold all the power in the world over him.

Cordelia’s heart began to race at the intimate contact she had made. She searched frantically for a diversion. “How’s your wound?” she said a little breathlessly, clearing her throat immediately after.

“Wound?” he was still caught in the trance as he stared down at her face.

“The one you got saving my father?” she touched his side and he flinched away, awake.

“Don’t be a baby, let me see it,” she demanded.

He stilled and let her lift his black shirt slightly as she searched in the area she had remembered seeing blood. The skin was smooth and pale, covering a ripple of muscles that would have had any of the jocks at Sunnydale High drooling with envy. But the wound was long gone.

“I guess I can add miraculous healing power to my list,” she mumbled, her eyes still on the muscles of his abdomen as her fingertips continued to search his side where the cut should have been.

Sparks of electricity shot through him, but he remained still, afraid of betraying the feeling that her touch was causing, afraid the slightest move might make her realize just what she was doing to him. He closed his eyes.

Cordelia had meant the gesture as a distraction, and that’s exactly what it was. But not for Angel. God, he was beautiful. She felt her hands tingle as they searched his side, wanting an excuse to search the rest of his body. She absently wondered what his human face had looked like on such a gorgeous body then scolded herself for such a stupid thought. She closed her eyes and bit the inside of her cheek, forcing herself to stop. Slowly, she pulled down his shirt and ventured a look up at his face, hoping he hadn’t recognized her wound inspection as the grope fest it was.

Her eyes froze in shock. A gasp escaped her mouth as she took a small step back.

The wonderful shocks of lust and warmth that her touch had caused turned to searing pain at the look in her eyes. “Forget what I was?” he growled.

“No, Angel…I…” her eyes wide with confusion.

Angel ran a hand through his dark hair. How could he blame her? She’d given him more than anyone had ever given him with just a touch. It wasn’t her fault that he was a monster. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.” Then with one silent leap, he was gone.

“Angel! No! Wait!” she called out, but it was no good.

She raced inside and slammed the doors, her chest laboring to control her erratic breath. She leaned her head against the cool glass of the French door. It had to have been Wesley’s stories, or the attraction she was beginning to feel for Angel. That was the only explanation, the only thing that could possibly make sense. Why else would she see him like that?

She had only seen it for a brief moment, but in that instant when her eyes had blinked up at him, it was not the face of a demon that stared back at her, but that of a man. A cruelly handsome man with eyes like dark chocolate and a mouth made to make women melt. But it had to be in her mind, her attraction for him tricking her brain into making him what she wished he could be. Because as soon as she had seen it, it was gone, and it had been the face of a vampire marred with hurt, mumbling an apology that should have been hers. How could she have done such a thing to him. She closed her eyes against the glass, vowing to make up for the pain she had caused him.
Part 7

Wesley descended the hotel stairs wearily, lost in thought. A week ago he had been ready to give up, mark Angel off as another one of his failures. But Cordelia had brought hope back into his research, his cause. Maybe she could succeed where he had failed. He yawned and rubbed his shadowed jaw, exhaustion from the long hours he had been working outweighing his enthusiasm.

Wesley’s research had been so valuable, it had been key in explaining Angel’s “curse”. The only thing that eluded him now was the cure. He hoped that the answer lay with Cordelia’s arrival, if not he feared the worse. That Angel could never be saved from the curse, from himself.

As his mind worked on the ever present problem that dogged him night and day, Wesley’s unfocused eyes were caught by a figure madly pacing in his office. He glanced at his watch as he stepped from the last stair, it was early, too early. Something was wrong.

Cordelia didn’t wait for the greeting he attempted as he opened his office door. “Have you seen him?” her eyes pinned him as she stepped forward. “I’ve been waiting in his “lair” all night,” she said with angry sarcasm. “He never came back! The big jerk!” she continued her pacing. “What if he’s….what if I… ugh! This is all your fault, you know!” she accused with a huff before sinking down in his chair and resting her head in her hands.

“I assume you are speaking of Angel. You’re concerned that he is not here in the hotel?”

“Well, yeah!” her hand flew a sharp motion to the blackened window, indicating the rising sun.

“Cordelia, Angel often leaves the hotel,” he tried to conceal his own worry at the information, making the fact seem more ordinary than it was. “Sometimes he is too far to return safely. He can take care of himself,” he spoke the words softly, soothingly, hope growing and spreading through him at her concern.

“You don’t understand,” she said despairingly as she looked up at him. “I…it must have been your stories yesterday. You made him sound so….and his face….it must have been the stories. I must have wanted to see him like that. Imagined him that way for a minute.”

Wesley let the information, the hint of what it meant wash over him for a moment, keeping his excitement in check, calming his voice before he spoke, “Like what, Cordelia?”

“It was so stupid, Wesley. I think I hurt him, really hurt him,” her anger now seemed to fade into sadness.

“Cordelia, what did you see?”

She rolled her eyes, embarrassed of herself and her reaction the night before. She blew out a slow breath, “Just for a minute, his face…it looked… human, beautiful,” she breathed the last word.

Wesley’s pulse jumped, his adrenaline raced. He had to stay calm, level headed. It was the only way it could work.

“I was so shocked that I backed away from him, staring and gasping like some idiot. You should have seen the look on his face, Wesley,” her heart began to break for Angel. “He looked so hurt. I think he thought that I was disgusted with him after I got so close, touched him like….” she trailed off, not wanting to admit out loud that she had gotten so close to him.

Wesley was silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts, deciding his next move.

“I’m so worried about him, Wesley. You know him. Would he just leave like this? Will he be back?”

He didn’t know Angel at all, not really. Sure he’d studied him, read about him, heard the lore of the sudden and mysterious return of his soul. But those where things written in books, whispered in dark alleys by those who feared him. Angel, the man, the vampire, was a virtual stranger to Wesley. No one had ever gotten close enough to get to know him, until now. Now, after Cordelia’s worry, her obvious rendezvous with Angel the night before, Wesley was beginning to feel as if the only person in the hotel who really knew anything at all about the true Angel was the woman in front of him. Little as even that knowledge was at such an early stage. “Cordelia, Angel is a very complicated vampire. I’m sure he doesn’t blame you for seeming shocked by his appearance. It can all be put in the clear tonight when he returns. Everything will be alright.” And he truly believed that now.

Cordelia stood and walked to the darkened window, looking at it as if she could see outside. She took a calming breath. “He’s not, ya know. Complicated. That’s where I think you’ve all misjudged him,” her voice was not accusatory, simply stating a realization, sharing what she finally was seeing in Angel with Wesley. “What he wants, needs is so simple, so normal.” It was a need she recognized in herself time and again.

“And what is that?” his voice was as quiet as hers.

“Acceptance. He’s been rejected at every turn. He can’t be a vampire, not a pure vampire because he’s good, because he has a soul. But he’s not human. He can’t even pretend he is because of the curse. And in Sunnydale, if that whole story’s true, well, big rejection there. I mean, he was just trying to do good, wasn’t he?” she looked at Wesley for verification of what she had interpreted as Angel’s existence, of what had happened in Sunnydale.

“It’s true. Angel has faced rejection at every turn. There is no wonder he hides himself now.”

Cordelia turned her gaze back to the window, thoughts and emotions battling in her mind, in her heart. Why was she so concerned about him? Was it pity? Curiosity? She couldn’t put a label on the way her heart broke for him, the way her mind fretted and worried over a way to help him, the way her body had reacted to him the night before. She should be worrying about her father, about her own situation, but she couldn’t. Not when she knew Angel was in pain. And that she had been the cause of it.

Wesley put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder, wanting to help her. “Why don’t you get out for a while. Take your mind from the problem. Everything will be clearer tonight when Angel returns.” Wesley turned at the sound of footsteps crossing the lobby. “Gunn,” he called as he turned toward the office door.

Gunn entered the office with his usual unhurried manner, crossed his arms and leaned casually against the doorframe.

“Cordelia wishes to go out today, I thought you might accompany her.”

“No,” he said without hesitation and turned to leave.

“I can’t very well send her out alone, Charles.”

“Then you go,” he shot back.

Wesley followed him to the lobby. “I’m needed here.”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Cordelia snapped at the two men from the office door. Not really wanting either man’s company. She looked up as Fred bounded down the stairs with a smile. She was clothed in one of her many girlish dresses, her feet bare and her eyes wide. If Cordelia had to spend the day with anyone in the hotel, Fred was much higher on her list than a moody, reluctant Gunn or Wesley who seemed more interested in his stupid research than anything else in the hotel. Including Angel. She pushed down her ever present anger and disappointment in Wesley for his inaction when it came to Angel and his problem. “What about you, Fred?” she raised her eyebrows in question at the other woman. “Want to get out of this place for a while?”

“No!” both men turned to Cordelia in unison.

Cordelia watched the smile that was widening on Fred’s face fade at the men’s sudden answer.

“Fred cain’t leave. So don’t be rubbin it in her face,” Gunn warned.

“Cordelia, Fred has had a trying experience. She doesn’t venture out. Ever,” Wesley explained more diplomatically than Gunn. “We think this decision is best,” he motioned to Gunn who nodded his head in agreement.

“Good grief! Is hiding the solution to every problem here? Is that the way you help each other?”

“We ain’t hidin her, Barbie” Gunn took a step closer to Cordelia.

“Merely protecting,” Wesley added.

“My name is Cordelia, not Barbie. And how can…” “There really is no need…” “You look more like a Barbie than a C…” The three voices rose as the argument escalated until a sharp whistle silenced the room. All three looked toward the stairs.

Fred took her fingers from her mouth slowly, fidgeted, then straightened her shoulders. “I’d love to, Cordelia.”

Cordelia smiled as Fred’s hand shot up, silencing the two concerned men who stared up at her. “This isn’t a cave and that world out there’s not the hell I was in. I can’t keep hidin here forever. But thanks,” she smiled at Wesley and then Gunn. “For worrin about me so much.” She took the rest of the stairs quickly then, excitement in her eyes. “Where we goin’,” she grinned eagerly at Cordelia.

“Not sure, but shoes might be a requirement,” she looked down at Fred’s bare feet.

“Sorry,” Fred blushed. “It’s been a while.”

Cordelia smiled a reassuring smile and Fred ran up the stairs. Both men turned simultaneously, their accusing and hurt eyes fixed on Cordelia.

“She’ll be alright,” she tried encouragingly. They didn’t seem to buy it.

Fred was back in an instant, tucking money into her pocket as she ran down the steps. “I bet tacos taste great when they’re still hot from the oven. Can we get tacos for lunch?”

“Sure,” Cordelia turned when Fred reached her and the two women headed for the door. Both noticed the dark figure following behind and stopped, turning to face Charles Gunn.

“I’m goin,” Fred asserted herself bravely, making Cordelia proud.

“Not alone you aint,” Gunn’s stance dared her to argue.

Cordelia twined her arm with Fred’s and urged her to the door, whispering conspiratorially, “We’ll go shopping, lingerie section. He’ll be gone in an hour.”

Fred giggled and Gunn shook his head, flashing Wesley an angry glance before following the two women. It was definitely not the day he had planned.

Wesley watched as they left before returning to his office. It was then that he noticed the envelope on his desk, Angel’s familiar script letting him know that instructions lay inside. It was a common way to communicate with Angel. Both left notes more often than spoke.

He opened up the letter and read carefully. Smiling at the requested task.

***

The offices of Wolfram and Hart bubbled with daily activity as Clinton Chase paced nervously in front of Lindsay McDonald’s desk. “I don’t understand! Haven’t you found her yet? You’re supposed to be good at this sort of thing!” he accused with anxiety heavy in his voice.

“Patience, Mr. Chase,” Lindsay said smoothly, convincingly. “Give us a few more days. I’m sure we’ll have a solid lead by then. Now,” he rounded the desk, prompting Clinton to still. “My company has secured a room for you at a much nicer establishment, four star, a gift from us for your patience in this trying matter. Rest assured that we’ll find her.”

Clinton ran his hand through his hair, “Thank you. I can’t tell you what your help means to me. I’m sorry for my outburst. It’s just that she’s my little girl, she’s all I have now.”

“No need for apologies. It’s completely understandable.”

The two men shook hands at the door and Lindsay directed his secretary to see to the details of Clinton’s room and comforts.

With Mr. Chase safely ushered out, Lindsay began to close his office door before spotting Lilah making a beeline for him. He pushed out a great breath of frustration and didn’t bother closing the door as he stepped back into the office.

“So,” she purred as she entered, closing the door after a quick glance at Clinton. “The golden boy can’t find the vampire in the haystack after all?” she teased, mocking his failure at the impossible task.

“Found him two hours after my first meeting with Mr. Chase,” he reached into a drawer and tossed a folder onto the top of the desk.

Lilah swallowed the rest of her sarcastic comments she had prepared on the way over and opened the folder, thumbing through the surveillance pictures and detailed information.

“He’s been hiding out in an old hotel downtown,” he walked up just behind her, pointing at the picture of the building.

His nearness gave Lilah a little thrill that she quickly dismissed. “And this must be the long, lost daughter,” she pulled out a picture of Cordelia standing alone, looking out from one of the balconies of the hotel.

Lindsay took the picture from her hand, “Yeah,” he stared at the image.

“Oh please,” Lilah’s face morphed into slight disgust at the way his eyes lingered on the image. “Don’t tell me the damsel in distress type is what gets you off.”

Lindsay tossed the photo to the desk, trying to cover up his thoughts. He ignored her dig. “I reported what we found to the Senior Partners as soon as I had all the information. They wanted to go in immediately, snag the vamp and bring him back here.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“The problem is he’s been MIA since last night. None of our detectors have sensed him in the building since then.”

“You think he knows?”

“No. He’ll be back.” Lindsay sat down in his chair, his eyes went to the picture of Cordelia before he knew what he was doing.

“And then what? You swoop in and save the girl?” she laughed and dropped the file to the desk. “Give it up Lindsay, you never were the hero type, we don’t breed those here, remember?” she turned and sauntered out of the room, but he never looked up.

He waited until he heard the click of the door before picking up the photo. He stared at it for a long while before he reached out with his other hand, his fingers gently stroking the image of the beautiful brunette.

***

The day had been an interesting one. The lingerie shopping had only reinforced the fact that the women were definitely not going to shake Gunn’s trail of them. He just simply planted himself near the desk, enjoying a flirt session from one of the sales girls.

So, they accepted him as their companion instead of their guard and in no time, and to Cordelia’s shock, he was eating tacos and cracking jokes that made Cordelia feel as if she should smile politely and Fred laugh so hard she almost choked, twice.

They decided on a movie for the afternoon. A comedy. Cordelia had sat quietly as Gunn and Fred laughed, talking to the characters as if they were real. But, as it had all day, Cordelia’s mind drifted. She couldn’t even engage in the discussion about the movie on the truck ride back to the hotel, she hadn’t remembered a single scene. Her mind had been on one thing, Angel. And it was starting to tick her off.

So, she had politely stayed silent as Fred and Gunn chattered on about just what was the best, all-time comedy ever made. About his beaten-up truck and what it meant to him. About how much Fred had enjoyed getting out of the dark and dreary hotel.

Cordelia looked around the cab of the truck, remembering a time that she would not have been caught dead in such a thing. She smiled slightly at herself. She was glad she had changed.

Her smile faded as she thought of the price with which that change had come. Her father’s tragic actions, her mother’s abandonment. It was the first time during that day that her mind had turned to her family, her father.

She wanted to talk with him again, make sure he was alright. After all, he was her father. And as Angel had said, she was not a prisoner. Even if the best thing for her now was to keep her distance from him for a while, she still had every right to be in contact with him.

She would talk to Angel, or Wesley, or Gunn. Which ever one who would listen to reason. And she would talk to her father. Soon.

With that worry taken care of she looked out the open truck window, watching as the sun hung low in the sky. She tried to push out images of Angel rushing back to the hotel as soon as darkness fell.

Why should she care if he came back? She had a room to stay in, a very nice, very plush room. She had all the mad money she needed to explore L.A. each day of her extended stay. And she would be speaking with her father very soon; she was sure of it. So, why should she feel this way?

Sad.

Alone.

When they arrived at the hotel, Fred burned Wesley’s ears with every minute detail of their day while Gunn tried to seem uninterested in her excitement. Cordelia simply smiled a greeting over Fred’s shoulder to Wesley and headed for the stairs.

Two steps up, a strong hand gently stopped her. “Thanks,” Gunn said as she turned her attention on to him. “For today,” he clarified. “You were right. About Fred. It was good for her.”

Cordelia smiled at him, “Not just for her,” she stared at him for a moment, watched the comprehension dawn on his face when he realized that she had seen what the day had done for him. He gave her a nod and what could be considered a pleasant look. And with that, she knew she had been accepted into his tight circle of people who never realized they were his friends, his family.

He didn’t speak to her, but watched as she continued up the stairs, thinking about his initial misjudgment. Wondering how she knew the day was just what he needed; the distance from the hotel, the movie, seeing Fred smile and laugh.

Cordelia reached her floor, started down the hall before pausing and turning back to the stairs, climbing another flight. When she reached Angel’s suite, she knew she wouldn’t find him there since the sun still had not completely set. She wasn’t even really sure why she had gone in. To wait for him? To snoop? Although she suspected both were true, the latter took more precedence.

The room was how she remembered it. Dark. Somber. Depressing. But with the last rays of sun still outside and the light from the candles she found scattered around, she realized that there were signs of life in the room. Dismal as they were.

There was a small mattress in one corner of the room, an old rickety chair in another, and stacks of books littering half of one of the walls. The rest of the room was in shambles. Cordelia went to the mattress and sat down, picking up one of the books nearest to her.

She recognized the language, French, although she couldn’t comprehend one line. She closed it and picked up the next. It at least was English. Poetry. She read for a while, then placed the book back down. She stood up, slowly circling the room, taking it in. Thinking. She looked at the stack of books again; noticing what at first sight seemed to be some sort of journal. She hesitated, then stepped purposely forward, picking up the leather-bound book.

What she found inside made her breath catch in her throat. The sketches were beautiful, artistic. The first was of the moon, high and full, shining over the balcony of the very room in which she sat. And even though it was simple pencil and parchment, it was real, breathtaking. Cordelia turned the page carefully, reverently. The next few drawings were just as stunning. Another night sky, a moonlit landscape, Wesley hard at work in his office with a furrow in his brow, Gunn on the hunt. But then there was a change, beauty to nightmare. A pair of eyes, wide with horror, as if they were looking at the devil himself. She turned the page, pulled deeper into the nightmare. Each drawing was the same, sometimes different eyes, different points of view, but always the same. Stark terror. Torment.

Cordelia swallowed an unfamiliar lump in her throat. This was his life. His existence. His view of the world was the landscapes, the moon, his friends working hard at his side; it was breathtaking, inspiring. But the worlds view of him held no beauty in his mind, only terror and fear.

When she was to the center of the sketchbook, and when she thought she couldn’t stand to look at another nightmarish scene, she turned the next page and saw herself. Gone were the horrified eyes, the faces twisted in terror. She was alone, walking head held high down the lonely dark street outside. Somehow he had managed to incorporate a fearless look in her eyes that she knew had not been there the night she had come to him. She touched the picture, her heart wading into unfamiliar territory. Was this how he saw her? Beautiful? Brave? She had never felt that way. Not like the person in the picture anyway.

She closed the book. The last image too powerful to attempt to look at any others. Walking to the balcony, she pushed aside the heavy drapes and watched the sun sink into the horizon.

When the door to the suite creaked open, she didn’t turn. Why should she? It wasn’t him.

“Cordelia?” came Wesley’s voice.

Cordelia didn’t turn, didn’t answer for a long moment. “Who is he, Wesley?”

Wesley paused longer than she had, searching for the right answer, the true answer. “I don’t know,” he was closer to her now that he had crossed the room. “I think that is a knowledge that eludes even him,” he added.

Cordelia stepped back from the balcony, allowing the curtains to fall together. She turned to Wesley, “He thinks he’s some kind of monster, or animal. And by the looks of this room he’s living out the delusion,” she looked around the suite with sad eyes.

“We should leave. If he does come back tonight. He may not be…..,” Wesley sighed, “predictable. It’s best we let him come to us. When he’s ready.”

Reluctantly, she stepped forward and left the room.

With Wesley’s short goodnight, she found herself in her elegant, comfortable room. Her mind turned to the animalistic den upstairs. A twinge of guilt hit her for accepting her accommodations after seeing how Angel forced himself to live. She closed her eyes, remembering the way she must have looked to him the night before, so like the images of fear in his book. She never wanted to be that to him, just another pair of accusing, condemning eyes that saw only a glimpse of hell when they looked at him. She felt something sting her eyes, she willed away the tears. She wouldn’t cry for him. Tears wouldn’t do him any good.

But what would?

A quick shower later, the sunset long gone, Cordelia found herself pacing restlessly, wondering when he would return. If he would return. She picked up a magazine only to throw it back to the nightstand. She took long strides to the dresser, picked up the brush, ran it through her hair once, twice before tossing back down.

She squeezed her eyes shut, willing Angel out of her mind. What was this? Was she pining over a vampire? Maybe it was guilt over her first assumptions about him. Maybe it was the way her body had jolted to life when her fingers had caressed him, wandered over his nonexistent wound.

Pushing the memory of his taught, muscled frame from her mind, she tried to focus on his face, remember what he was. But even the lines, bumps, and glaring eyes that labeled him the demon he thought himself now seemed somehow to soften with the knowledge of his deeds, his artistic heart. Poetry and French literature softening the harshness of his face, defining the soul that lay inside.

Fresh air. That would help her clear her mind. Think things through. Remember the reality of her situation.

She walked to the French doors, pulling both open in one sweep. The scent overwhelmed her. Great long planters lined the edge of the balcony. In them, small vines sprouted up and spilled over the sides, some of the longer ones stretched up and lay atop the ledge. White, fragrant blooms, half open in the darkness, peppered the fledgling plants.

Stuck in the soil of the center planter was an envelope. She recognized Angel’s handwriting from the note he had left with the phone just nights before.

Taking the few steps it took to reach the planter, Cordelia leaned down, picked up the letter, and opened it.

Cordelia,

An apology for last night. They’re called Moonflowers. This is what should greet you every night. Not a monster in the shadows.

Angel

Cordelia read the short note several times before closing it. She looked to the shadowy corner, wishing he was there.

An apology.

She had teased him about his life, groped him in the pretence of checking his wound, and acted like a stuttering idiot when her desire to see him human had gotten the best of her.

She was the one who owed him the apology.

Leaning down, she smelled the aromatic blooms. He wanted to fill her nights with beauty instead of monsters. This time tears did come to her eyes, and she welcomed them. How could a monster be responsible for this?

“Where are you?” she whispered as she touched one of the blooms.

***

Angel stared at the mirror on the wall behind the bar, straight at the empty space where his reflection should have been. He’d never wished that he could see himself until now. He wanted to see the thing that had made Cordelia gasp and shrink away, curse at it, put a face on his hatred.

Turning up the bottle in front of him, he drained the contents. It had taken a lot, but he’d finally had enough that he was beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol.

Reaching into his pocket, he placed another twenty on the bar as a shrill voice began to screech out a Bette Midler tune from the stage behind him.

A green demon passed in front of him, stared down at the twenty and then up at Angel. “Look tall, dark and deadly, I think you’ve had just about enough.”

Angel’s amber eyes turned up to the demon’s red ones, a menacing growl rumbling deep in his chest.

“Alright, crumb cake. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya when you’re passed out in the alley and the tequila sunrise bites you in the butt. Literally.”

Angel watched as the bar tender/owner opened another bottle and sat it in front of him, hovering in the spot for a moment.

“If you ask me….”

“I didn’t,” Angel warned and took a huge gulp from the bottle.

“Sorry,” the other demon threw his hands up in surrender. “It’s none of my business. It’s just not everyday that I get a vampire with a soul in here.”

Angel’s response was quick, he lunged at the demon, but before he reached him a sharp pain shot through his head. He recoiled back to his barstool, the demon never flinched.

“Non-violence policy. Had it put in a while ago. Really cut down on the remodeling.”

“Who told you?” Angel shook the pain from his head and focused back on the bottle.

“About the soul?” the demon laughed. “You did. Or at least your aura did. Thought that I was mistaken at first, but the more you drink darlin the clearer I see it.”

“Thanks, Lorne,” a customer shouted as he left the bar, taking the demon’s attention for a moment as he waved and smiled a ‘you’re welcome’ back.

“I’ve watched you reading all night. I didn’t sing. There’s no way you could have known,” Angel never looked up, but his voice was a clear warning. He couldn’t afford for the demon world to know about him, about the soul.

“Honey, you don’t have to sing. The singing just loosens the outer shell so I can see more of what’s inside. That tequila has loosened you to transparency.”

Angel took another drink from the bottle and looked up. “So, what do you see?” He’d meant to sound sarcastic, threatening, but his voice came out hopeful. He wished he had just stayed quiet.

“On the outside? A vampire. In true ‘vamp’ form tonight I might add,” Lorne referred to his demonic visage, unused to a vampire who didn’t use his human appearance in the club.

“It’s the only form I’ve got,” Angel took another drink and stared back into the mirror.

Lorne looked behind himself, then back at Angel. “You won’t find the answer to your little problem there anymore than you will in that bottle.”

“And I suppose you have the answer,” Angel said dryly.

“Me? No, honey buns. I’m just the Glenda to your Dorothy.”

Angel stared at him for a moment, “Huh?”

Lorne leaned over and collected the now empty bottle, “Wizard of Oz? Judy Garland?” He leaned his head back and belted out a line, “Soooomewheeeere, over the rainbow!”

Angel simply stared at him.

Lorne closed his eyes and shook his head in utter disgust. “Why do I even bother?” he muttered. “You already have the answer. In here,” he pointed toward Angel. “Now, if you’ll excuse me. I’ve got a Langor demon waiting to be read. Does a great Diana Ross, right down to the Divatude if you know what I mean.”

Angel sat and stared at the mirror long after Lorne walked away. He didn’t have the answer. He wasn’t sure if he even knew the question. Was there a cure for his curse? Why did he have a soul? Why did Cordelia Chase affect him the way she did?

He wondered if Wesley had followed his instructions. Suddenly he felt very foolish about the flowers. They seemed a silly and inadequate apology for the way he had lurked in the shadows outside of her room. Scared her half to death with his closeness.

He had to get control of himself. He had never obsessed like this over Fred when she came to the hotel for shelter. Cordelia was no different.

What a lie.

At first he had blamed his reactions to Cordelia on her beauty. But deep inside, he knew it was so much more, that she was so much more. And the way she had touched him the night before…. It was as if she could chase away his demon. That if he could have her trust, her friendship, her love, nothing else would matter.

He laughed bitterly in his mind and stood, leaving the bar. Love. She could barely look at him. Love? He wanted to go back to her balcony and push the flowers over the ledge, rip the note up before she could see it. It had been so impulsive. But he had just wanted her to know that there were other things in the night besides monsters.

***

Wesley placed his glasses on his nose, “Yes, yes, I’m coming,” he answered the persistent knocking at his suite door.

Cordelia marched into his room as soon as the door was open. “If I want anything, all I have to do is ask, right?”

“Pardon?”

“You said that if I need anything, that I should ask you and you’ll make sure it’s done, taken care of. You said that,” she stated the fact as if she were trying to convince him of his own words.

“Well, yes. Of course.”

“Alright,” she took a deep breath of satisfaction. “Here’s the list. I need as much of this stuff as you can get tomorrow and I’ll need your and Gunn’s help with some of the painting of course.”

“I don’t understand,” Wesley looked at the list, reading some of the contents. Then he looked to the woman in front of him, a purpose glinting in her eye. “You’re not satisfied with your room?”

“Of course I am. Are you kidding? It’s beautiful. This is for Angel.”

Wesley stared at her, stunned into silence.

“He’s not an animal, Wesley. And it’s time he stopped living like one.”

“Don’t you think that is for him to decide?”

“I don’t really care if it is or isn’t. That room up there is wrong, the image he has of himself is wrong.”

Wesley looked back to the list as if trying to decide.

“Wesley, he can’t live in the darkness forever. Pretty soon its going to swallow him up. Make him the monster he thinks he is.”

He looked back at her but still said nothing.

“Help me pull him out?” she asked softly, waiting for his answer. She couldn’t do it without his help.

Wesley took a deep breath and slowly pushed it out. “Alright. If Angel does not return tonight, Gunn and I will meet you in his room at daybreak. We’ll have to work fast. I can’t possibly predict his reaction if he finds us there after sunset tomorrow.”

Cordelia leaned up and kissed Wesley on the cheek, causing him to blush. “Thanks,” she smiled and left the room.

***

Angel sat against the wall of the sewer. The sun would be rising soon. He just couldn’t go back, not yet. He had promised himself that he would stay away from her, remain the hidden host he had always been. But he knew that he needed a little more time to prepare himself mentally, emotionally. If he went back now, he couldn’t stay away.

What was wrong with him? Everything in him, beast and man, screamed his need for Cordelia. Her presence, her touch.

Touch.

That is what it had been. It had to be. No one, human or demon, had touched him in decades. At least not like she had the night before, with such care and concern it made him forget what he was for one small moment. That’s what was affecting his senses, his judgment. He didn’t care any more for her than he did the others. She was a human in need and he was helping her. Nothing more. He’d stay clear of the hotel. Let things blow over for a couple of days. Pretty soon, when he knew for sure she would be safe, he would send her on her way.

A growl escaped him unchecked at the thought of her leaving. He shook himself and stood. He needed to find shelter for the night. A couple at the most. He would return after that. Things would be clearer then.

He would not torture himself with fantasies that could never come true.

Part 8

Two days past as spying eyes watched the human residents of the hotel ready a room fit for a king. “What do you think?” Holland Manners looked at the surveillance tape.

“Well, we know he hasn’t been there for a couple of days. We’ve tried to track him down on the streets with no luck,” Lindsay answered his superior.

“Maybe he’s dust and they’ve taken over the place. This,” Holland looked at his notes, “Charles Gunn is a formidable character. Maybe there has been a change in command.”

“No. Whatever they’re doing, its for him. He’ll be back,” Lindsay answered with complete confidence. “And we’ll be waiting.”

“And what of Mr. Chase? Has he been taken care of.”

“Mr. Chase is enjoying a relaxing stay at one of our finest establishments.”

“So we can use him? If we need him?”

“If it becomes necessary, yes. But I don’t think it will come to that.”

***

Two nights away from the hotel had not helped. If anything it had strengthened whatever he was feeling towards Cordelia. And the ever present thought that he would eventually have to let her go was driving him mad.

She was human, needed and deserved a human life. He knew that. He couldn’t tie her to him, keep her locked away. Although every predatory bone in his body told him that’s just what he needed to do.

But logic, or the small part of his brain that possessed such a gift, told him that even if he did those things, she would never return what he felt. Never lay awake as he had since her arrival, dreaming what it would be like to see her smile, to touch him with need and hunger in her eyes. Those things were not available to demons, monsters. He would let her go, so she could grow into the woman she was meant to be. Set her free so that she could find happiness, companionship with someone who didn’t lurk in shadows or dream about doing things to her that would probably fill her with disgust. Let her go to meet some idiot that would never know how to treat her, protect her.

Anger rose and flamed in Angel’s mind at the thought, his strides down the dark street lengthening, his fists and jaws clenched.

Never look beyond her beautiful face, the lush curves of her body.

He punched a parking meter as he passed, bending the metal and sending change hopping to the concrete below.

He could picture it all now. She’d be some trophy wife, dusted off and taken out for corporate parties or drinks at the club. Angel suddenly pictured the guy, a puny human with no character and too many teeth. Their perfect house, their perfect life. His vainly manicured, tanned hands roaming her body with inexperience and haste.

Angel never slowed his stride as the next parking meter was simply ripped from its anchor and tossed to the opposite curb.

He wanted to leap to her balcony, lurk in the shadows, a viper among the blooms he had sent her. Waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He’d take her to her room. Show her what real ecstasy was. Make her compare any and every man that entered her life in the future to him. Ruin whatever intimacy she tried to experience by images of him taking her, making any other man seem inadequate, a pale comparison to what he could give her.

Spotting the hotel in front of him, Angel took his normal path, his feet falling silently to the concrete floor of her balcony. His senses were bombarded with the olfactory display by the blooms he had Wesley set out, making it difficult to catch on to her scent. He moved closer to the closed doors, his eyes seeing perfectly into the darkened room. He stilled, his eyes turning dark, menacing. She wasn’t there.

Panic shook him. He should have never trusted Gunn and Wesley to look after her. He should have pushed away his demon, his desires and stayed to protect her.

But just as he was about to crash through the doors, punish the friends who had failed him, he caught her scent, soft and light in the night air. His face turned upward and he leapt like a great cat to the floor above.

Cordelia lay inside, beyond the balcony, clothed in sweats and t-shirt, stretched across a bed he didn’t recognize. In a room he didn’t recognize. A few books littered the bed, his sketch book lay open, clutched in one of her hands.

Her mouth was slightly opened, her chest rising and falling with slow, silent breaths. She looked innocent, sexy, forbidden. So right sleeping peacefully in his room. Suddenly the animal in him cowered. The scene he had pictured on the way to the hotel, the one that had made his body so rock hard before, now just made him ashamed. Pictures of rough, mind blowing sex turned into candle light and soft touches, laughs and words of love.

Slowly he entered the room, took in the changes, the obvious smell of fresh paint and cleaning products assaulting his body.

His books, the few favorites he had chosen to keep over the years, were lined up neatly in a mahogany bookcase on the far wall. The attached kitchenette had been cleaned and upgraded with new appliances; a small fridge, microwave oven. The bed that Cordelia had draped herself across was enormous, heavy, masculine and sat atop an ornate rug covering the freshly polished hardwood floor. The entire room was a mixture of old and new, with muted colors and a good combination of antiques and custom made pieces.

He stepped closer to the bed, stared down at her. “What did you do?” he whispered the question.

Cordelia’s eyes fluttered, opened slightly, then blinked the haze of sleep away. Angel, he came into focus and it took her a moment before she understood that she was awake. “Angel?” she sat up, embarrassed that she had fallen asleep, that he had found her this way.

She had snuck back to the room after the others had gone to sleep, just as she had the night before. Worrying for him, waiting for him, reading his books, the ones she could anyway. Daring to look at the rest of his sketchbook. Seeing herself through his eyes.

She had felt so foolish for the need to know him better, to be closer to him. But Wesley’s stories, Fred’s faith in him, Gunn’s loyalty, had turned Angel into something much different than the monster she had met when she first arrived. And reading the books that obviously meant so much to him, touched him in some way, were helping her even more to decipher the true Angel, the soul behind the shell. But out of all of those things, the sketches were her favorite. When she had dared to look into the book again, she had found even more of herself, the others. She had stared at each one for hours, wondering how he could believe he was such a monster, when he could create such beauty, such emotion with the stroke of his hand.

Cordelia swallowed hard and nervously rose from the bed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I was…” she looked down at the sketchbook in her hand and closed it, quickly placing it on the bed. What would he think of her invasion on his privacy? Suddenly the word that Wesley had used to describe his possible reaction came unbidden to her mind. Unpredictable. All of this was working out so wrong. She wanted him to come back to his empty room, surprise him the way she had been with the flowers he had left for her. She had pictured him taking it all in slowly, alone, at his own pace, coming to them when he felt he could. Now everything just felt uncomfortable, forced, her presence in the room wrong.

“I…” she began, then thought out her words better. “We just thought you deserve the same as the rest of us.” Cordelia bit her lower lip anxiously. His face was a blank mask, his amber eyes void of any emotion. She couldn’t read him, especially not in the dim light of the room. She waited for his response. Hoped that her instinct had not been wrong.

Angel simply stared at her for a moment, entranced by the way her tongue darted out to wet her full lower lip, her teeth following to bite at it nervously. He dragged his gaze from her, looked around, taking the room in again. He had been wrong. It hadn’t been the touch of her hand on his skin that was causing her to invade his thoughts, his body, his soul. It was the touch of Cordelia herself, her presence in everything; the hotel, his room, his pitiful existence. She was changing him by just her existence. His eyes settled back on her, “You did this,” it was a statement, not a question. And it meant more than she knew.

He didn’t like it. She was sure of it. “Well, I know it isn’t the post-trauma, ‘look-at-me-I’m-an-animal’ stink hole ya had before. But you could show a little gratitude buddy,” she griped, her exhaustion and embarrassment getting the best of her. “I mean, we really worked our butts off up here and you act like…..What is it?”

Angel’s mouth twitched at her tone. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had the nerve to scold him. A very small, amused smile spread over his jagged teeth, the minuscule show of emotion shocking himself as well as Cordelia.

He reached out, taking her hand, happy beyond measure when she didn’t flinch. “I’m sorry,” he didn’t let go. “Thank you.” He was staring at her, lost in some trance and he was dragging her right along with him. His thumb began to feather gently back and forth along the inside of her wrist. He wasn’t even aware of the instinctive gesture.

Cordelia, on the other hand, was all too aware of the touch, the sparks that seemed to flicker with each stroke. Her pulse leapt wildly and she found herself needing to catch her breath.

“So,” his voice was soft, masculine, mesmerizing. “Are you going to show me around my new room, or what?”

“Huh?” she shook herself and stepped away, leaving his hand empty, lonely. Clearing her throat, she tried to gain some kind of control over her breathless voice before she spoke. “Well, Angel,” she smiled as she approached the kitchenette, fanning her hand out like a game show model, making his grin into an authentic smile. “Welcome to the Twentieth Century.”

She explained in detail the new appliances, giving him a quick instruction on how they worked, opened the small refrigerator fully stocked with a week’s supply of blood. It marveled him that that particular display had not seemed to bother her, and if it had, he was grateful that she had pretended that it hadn’t.

His eyes never left her face as she went through every step, in each part of the room. Explaining how she and Fred had come up with the color scheme. How Gunn and Wesley had fought over the wiring and plumbing details. She made sure that each member of the hotel got their due, that he understood that it had been a team effort. But he knew it had been all Cordelia.

He loved the way her eyes lit up when she talked about duvets and light filtering drapes. He watched her mouth as she went on and on about thread counts and the intricacies of a good pillow, suddenly finding linens a very sexy and mouthwatering subject. Her mood was light and contagious and he found himself being caught up in the moment. Until they reached the side of his bed where the sketchbook lay.

Cordelia fell silent, the smile and playfulness she had adopted before fading from her eyes as she watched his unwavering gaze drift down to the book, a look of discomfort now covering his face.

“I’m sorry,” she finally offered. “I shouldn’t have snooped. I just couldn’t help myself.”

“I wish you hadn’t seen those,” his voice was low, embarrassed by the sketches. “I should have destroyed them as soon as I finished.”

“No!” she was suddenly furious. He looked up at her with confusion. “Don’t you dare! They’re beautiful!”

He knew the only ones that were beautiful were the ones of her. In truth, he didn’t mind that she had seen those. It was the others, the nightmares, that he wanted to spare her from. Hide the truth of his life that he was ashamed of. “Not all of them are beautiful,” he admitted.

“Yes they are,” she picked up the book. “Real artists show beauty and pain in their work. This is your life, your experience. Don’t ever destroy that.”

He took the book from her and laid it back down on the bed, staring down at it for a moment.

“I think we all wish we could wipe away the terrible things that have happened to us, hide away from them. I wish I hadn’t been such a bitch in school. I wish my father hadn’t lost all our money, made his stupid deal. I wish my mother had had the strength to stay, to be the mom I wanted. But truthfully,” she thought of her realization in the cab of the truck, of liking who she was more now than she ever had, despite everything that had happened. “Those things have made me stronger, made me realize what really is important.”

Angel turned to her, letting her words sink in. Reaching up, he lifted his hand to her face and stroked her cheek. He couldn’t figure out if he was in heaven or hell. If Cordelia was temptation or salvation. “How do you do that? Make life seem so easy, so simple?”

Cordelia couldn’t move, but she tried to keep herself calm, struggled to ignore what the small touch was doing to her body. “It’s not easy, Angel. Hiding’s the easy way out. But then you’re not really living at all when you do that. Are you?”

Angel’s hand slid down, spanning her slender neck. Cordelia’s pulse jumped in response. “Thank you,” she said a little breathless, feeling a little like a rabbit caught in the claws of a wolf. “For the flowers. They’re beautiful. I’ve never seen any that bloom at night like that.”

“I’m sorry I scared you,” he whispered as he leaned a little closer.

“You didn’t scare me. I was just…I should never have touched you like that. We barely know each other,” she admitted even as his hand found its way to her chin, tilting her head up slightly.

His gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth. His thumb traced her full, lower lip. His hand slipped expertly to the nape of her neck. She might leave the hotel some day, go on with her life, but this moment, standing in the room she had created for him, was his. He could feel her pulse racing, but he couldn’t sense an ounce of fear. Slowly, carefully, he pulled her toward him, waiting for the moment to end, the spell to be broken by her revulsion, by the look of fear in her eyes.

She should have pulled away. Her brain screamed that everything about it was wrong, but her body didn’t seem to listen, couldn’t seem to fight the spell he was weaving, ached even in anticipation for his lips to touch hers. Then she felt it. The cool feather light brush of his mouth. Heat raced through her body, pooling low in the pit of her stomach.

When she felt the soft, soothing caress of his tongue along the crease of her lips, she gasped, felt the floor move beneath her feet and reached up to hold on to him, to steady herself.

The kiss was so soft, so tender. But she could tell by the fine tremor in his tight muscles that he was using every bit of his restraint not to hurt her, afraid of piercing her with his sharp fangs.

She would stop. One more second and she would pull away. But even as she decided it her lips parted. Angel took advantage immediately, his tongue venturing into her velvet-soft mouth.

Fire seemed to race through her veins. She’d been kissed before, more than kissed. But this was no groping quarterback in the backseat of his brother’s car. This was sweet passion, raw need, all rolled into one nearly innocent kiss. For the first time in her life, Cordelia knew what the true meaning of chemistry was. Knew why people that never seemed to fit together could burn for one another. Love one another.

At that thought, the word love, Cordelia placed her hands on the solid wall of his chest, pushing away slightly. She blinked away the fog of lust that had consumed her and looked up into his face. She caught herself this time before she could react, before she could betray what she saw there, not wanting to push him away again, not sure if he would even believe her.

It was the same vision that had wavered before her two nights ago, but this time she knew that it was no dream, no self induced hallucination. It was real. He was real. A face to match his name. Brown eyes stared down at her, making her insides melt in the wealth of emotion she saw reflected back at her.

She could tell he was uneasy now, fearing the moment. Reaching up, she ran her hand through his dark hair, assuring him with a gesture that he hadn’t made a mistake. Should she tell him what she saw? Risk his misunderstanding a second time? She smiled at him as her hand fell away, staring at his face she whispered, “I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.”

But her words brought reality back to Angel, and she swallowed her shock as his face morphed back into that of a vampire right in front of her eyes.

Feeling suddenly self-conscious, crowded by her scrutinizing gaze, and remembering that he had traveled through the L.A. sewers two nights in a row, Angel stepped away slowly. “I need a shower,” he said suddenly. Not wanting to touch her with the stink of where he had been forced to stay on him. Needing to wash away the smell of her skin and the borrowed heat of her body before he did something foolish like kissing her again.

Cordelia took it as her cue to leave. “Well,” she breathed. “Goodnight.”

“You don’t have to go,” the words rushed from his mouth before he could stop them. “I mean. I’ll be out in a minute. We could sit and talk for a while,” he offered hopefully.

It sounded wonderful. But Cordelia wasn’t convinced, after such a heated, earthshaking kiss, that talking would be the only thing on the agenda. She needed to go back to her room, clear her head, cool off. She needed a shower herself. A very cold one.

“I’m tired, Angel. We both need some rest. But if you promise not to disappear on us again, maybe tomorrow night,” she gave him a small smile.

“Sure,” he conceded.

They both stood in silence for a moment. “Well,” Cordelia said again. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Angel stared after her as she quietly closed the door. Cursing at himself minutes later for not walking her back down to her room.

***

Cordelia bypassed her floor, heading straight for Wesley’s room. This had to end. It was time the members of this….whatever it was, get off their butts and find a cure for Angel. She thought of his face. The way his human visage had shimmered in place for a moment. Had it always done that? Angel had hid for so long, maybe the others had never had a chance to see it. He couldn’t look at himself, had no reflection. That might explain why he didn’t know.

Cordelia found Wesley’s room empty and immediately headed for the office, her anger and desperation for Angel growing with each step. Why hadn’t Wesley invested his time, his talent into a cure for Angel? At the least he should be researching exactly why it had happened. What the spell had actually done to him.

The office light poured into the dark lobby. Cordelia marched in and stood in front of Wesley’s desk, peering down at him, tapping her foot impatiently on the tile floor.

“May I help you?” he asked a little annoyed, looking up at her over his glasses.

“Working on your little project?”

“Yes,” he waited.

“I see,” she began to pace. “And all the while, while you sit here in this little hole, documenting, putting together your little research manual, hoping to get your old job back, Angel’s up there, suffering,” she pointed to the ceiling.

Wesley closed his book and stood anxiously, “He’s returned then?”

“Yes, he’s returned then?” she tried to mock his prime British accent.

“Cordelia…..”

“You’re so selfish, Wesley. Fred I can excuse,” she was seething now. “Gunn at least does what he knows, helps in his own way. But you,” she pointed at him. “You use all of this,” she waved around to the hotel.

“Cordelia, if you’ll just listen….” he tried to interrupt.

“No, you listen! You use this lifestyle to benefit yourself…”

“Cordelia…”

“When what you should be doing is working on Angel’s problem. Helping the one person on earth who’s helped you. Working on a cure for his curse! Finding a way to….”

“There is no curse!” Wesley’s voice rose, echoing in her ears, stunning her into silence. Cordelia stared at him, her mouth slightly open.

Wesley calmed himself, hoping Angel had not picked up his outburst, “There is no curse,” he repeated in a hushed voice. “At least not anymore.”

“I don’t understand,” Cordelia looked lost.

“Sit down,” Wesley ushered her to the small vinyl chair against the wall then perched himself atop his desk. Taking a deep breath, he began. “Willow Rosenberg is a fledgling Wicca at best. The spell she cast on Angel was to show the Slayer his hidden identity. It was a mere Glamour at best. The spell itself couldn’t have lasted more than an hour at most. However, I’m afraid, the effects have lingered far longer,” he paused, his eyes full of sorrow for Angel and helplessness at his own failure. “You see, the event cut Angel deeply. Leaving an emotional scar that cannot seem to heal.”

“You’re saying…” Cordelia struggled to comprehend. “You’re saying that it’s all in Angel’s mind.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“So that’s why? All the books on demon psychology? The hours and hours of study?” guilt flooded her voice.

“You couldn’t have known,” he excused. “No one does.”

“Why haven’t you told him?” she couldn’t help but feel slightly betrayed on Angel’s behalf. He had a right to know.

“From what I’ve read, telling him that it is all in his mind, essentially all his fault, could compound the problem even more. I had hoped to bring him out of the trauma naturally. I thought that we were on the right path when he began helping others, realizing what he could do.”

“But then the family, the night with Gunn,” she finished for him.

“Exactly.”

Cordelia fell silent.

“I had almost lost hope, but then you came of your own free will. Asking specifically for Angel’s assistance. And then…”

“I saw his face, his other face,” she interrupted.

“And my hope was renewed.”

Cordelia opened her mouth, intending on clarifying her statement, letting Wesley in on the encounter with Angel just minutes earlier, but a loud crash interrupted her, jarring both she and Wesley to their feet.

Glass spilled into the lobby as another crash was heard, Wesley grabbed a rifle he kept under his desk as he pushed his way past Cordelia to the lobby.

Cordelia peered behind him from the office door, watching as a man dressed in what appeared to be black military garb entered through the broken window. More windows shattered and in minutes the one lone soldier turned into a half dozen. Wesley raised his rifle, but before his finger found the trigger, a dart from a soldier’s gun planted itself in his chest. Wesley slumped and fell.

Seeming to ignore Cordelia, the soldiers turned their attention to the stairs. Instinctively she knew who they had come for. Sprinting to the center of the lobby, she picked up Wesley’s gun and tried the best she could to aim, but the trigger seemed stuck. Closing in behind the last man, she swung the gun back like a bat, striking him over the head. The soldier shook away the ineffective blow and turned to her. “Angel!” she screamed.

The soldier pulled the dart gun behind his head in a move that mocked Cordelia’s, striking her across the temple, landing a solid blow.

Part 9

A roar vibrated in the intruders ears, reverberating off the dingy walls of the old hotel. Each man looked among themselves with questioning glances. It was supposed to be a simple vamp extraction. Nothing more. But the men were beginning to wonder if their employer had yet again deceived them.

As the unit turned, a dark figure dropped soundlessly to the lobby floor. A vampire, tall and muscular, dressed in black, dark hair dripping water onto the marbled floor stood before them. The demon’s eyes lingered on the fallen woman for a moment before turning their burning glare onto each of the men, settling on the one who had struck Cordelia. Marking him for death.

The man, sensing his fate, yelled an order, “Dart him!”

Three of the attackers raised their guns with lightning speed. But Angel’s movements were a mere blur. He dodged two of the darts. The third barely grazed the fabric of his shirt as he reached Cordelia’s attacker. Angel held the man captive with one hand around his neck, stared into his eyes, fed on his fear, watched as the shadow of death crept into the man’s face, and snapped his neck.

The body fell like a rag doll, thudding hard to the floor. The men faltered for a moment, unprepared for such an attack. Angel ignored them, his full attention on Cordelia as he bent down to her. The man on point took notice, used the vamp’s distraction as his moment for the perfect shot. He raised his gun, aiming straight for the neck. But before his finger squeezed the trigger, an arrow flew from the stairs, sinking deeply into the flesh of the intruder’s arm, sending a gush of blood down the appendage.

Angel didn’t have to look up to know that Charles Gunn had delivered the shot. His head rose to the remaining men, a growl vibrating from deep within his chest, his mouth opened in an animalistic snarl exposing his fangs.

Their leader injured, their confidence in the success of the mission fading, the unit slowly backed away, intent on fleeing their obvious death.

Angel sensed their fear and confusion, knew they would run. And when the man on point turned, Angel was already blocking his escape. Grabbing the lead man’s injured arm, Angel twisted. The already damaged limb popped, the only thing holding it in its socket was Angel’s iron grip. “Who sent you?” he growled between gritted fangs.

The man looked nervously to the two still humans on the floor. He’d never encountered a vamp like this before. One that seemed to fight with and for humans. “They’re not dead,” he said through the pain. “Just tranqed, not dead,” he repeated desperately, holding back a whimper.

Angel responded by grabbing the man’s good arm, twisting it until he heard another satisfying pop.

Gunn had to force himself to stay put on the stairs as the man howled in agony. He looked frantically passed Angel for help from his team, but his peers were gone, escaping into the night.

“You think that if I thought they were dead you’d still be alive?” Angel nearly hissed the words. “Now,” he repeated slowly, “Who? Sent? You?”

“Wolf…” the man began to answer before a jolt of electricity shot through his earpiece. His militant jacket, as well as the dead man’s on the floor began to smoke and sizzle, the smell of burning flesh assaulting the air.

Angel dropped the man’s two useless arms, allowing them to dangle at the intruder’s sides. Backing up a safe distance, he watched as the man in front of him and the one laying dead on the floor burst into a glowing flame, disintegrating into ash.

Silence took hold of the room.

“Well, at least we ain’t gotta worry about where to dump the bodies,” Gunn mumbled the deadpan comment before he reached the lower floor, bending to Wesley’s side.

Coming out of her hiding place from the floor above, a nightgown clad Fred ran down the steps behind Gunn. “Oh my gosh!” she gasped as her eyes focused in on Wesley and Cordelia.

Angel lifted Cordelia gently from the floor, cradling her in his arms and turning toward the stairs.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” Fred’s voice was frantic.

“No!” Angel growled, turning a burning glare of warning at Fred.

Her face froze in shock or fear, Angel couldn’t tell which, but for the first time during the entire mess he realized she was there. Facing him. He closed his eyes in a sort of apology and turned his back to her.

“Don’t call anyone,” he said as he pushed quickly passed her and headed for the stairs. “We don’t know who they were or what they wanted. We can’t trust anyone,” he said a little desperately as he stared down into Cordelia’s unconscious face, brushing the long strands of hair from across her cheek and mouth as he rushed her up the steps.

When Fred finally regained her senses and opened her mouth to protest, Gunn laid a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll get Dr. Harrison, from the shelter. After all the dough Angel’s given he owes us a house call or two.” Gunn lifted Wesley with some effort and carried him to the old round sofa before setting out on his errand.

***

Angel took the stairs quickly, passing Cordelia’s floor without a thought, heading straight for his suite. Kicking the door open, he moved to the bed, placing her down with extreme care.

He sat down on the edge beside her still form, pulling up the silly throw she had placed at the end of the comforter. “To warm the place up,” she had explained during the tour she had given him earlier. “Make the place look lived in,” she had smiled at that one, making a joke about what he was. He looked down at the silly blanket. The cover wasn’t what had made the room warm, livable. It had been her; her presence, her touch, her body laying across the bed, waiting for him to return.

He mumbled a curse under his breath as he watched the nasty bruise to the side of her face begin to form and spread. Quickly, he went to the small refrigerator, gathering a few cubes of ice straight into his hand. As he placed the cubes directly onto her skin, a sense of dread began to creep in. He had done this to her, caused her to be in danger. He had thought to protect her from her father’s enemies. But in truth, he was no better than the man. He had simply brought her from one dark existence into another. He lifted the melting ice from her face. He had caused this, just as if he had struck the blow to her himself.

Angel had heard Gunn’s words to Fred and knew the doctor would come soon. He was grateful for Gunn’s level-head and scanned the room for a place to hide and watch. He couldn’t let the doctor see him, but he couldn’t leave her. Looking around the room, he took in the details, the little touches of Cordelia that were spread throughout the suite.

He loved what she had done for him, that she had thought about him. No one had ever cared about his comfort before. But in some ways he missed the old room. It matched his moods. Dark. Damaged. It was a room he could break things in. Vent his anger. A place where he could…..What was it she had been so fearless in telling him the first night they met? Lick his wounds in private? Yeah, the other room definitely lent itself to that. This room was too much like her. Warm, beautiful. A home. It made him feel like something good in his existence was possible. It made him, as crazy as it sounded, feel alive.

But he wasn’t alive.

Angel stared down at Cordelia’s body, watching the slow, steady rise and fall of her chest.

He would never be alive. He would never be human.

Reaching up with the little ice he had left, he noticed for the first time the blood that had trickled from the man’s wound onto his hand. He placed the ice on the side table. He couldn’t touch her with blood on his hands.

And when she woke, and realized what he had done tonight, killing one man, a human, injuring another, she would finally see him for what he really was.

A monster.

She’d tried to forget that, make him forget that by changing his room, acting like she didn’t care about his face. Why had she done it for him anyway? Because he sent her flowers? Maybe she did it out of fear. Humans often dressed things up or down, changed fears into fairytales so that they could sleep at night. Mastered and tamed animals genetically engineered to rip out their throats, just so they could forget for a while that they were once and still occasionally prey.

He reached out to her, touching her with the hand that had not been drenched with blood. Oh, well. Maybe pretending your fears didn’t exist wasn’t such a bad thing. It had been nice to pretend for just a minute that he was something else. That this room meant something more than a dressed up cage for a beast. That Cordelia was something more than just another lost human staying in his self-made prison. That the kiss…..Angel’s jaw tensed as he stared at Cordelia’s soft mouth, his thumb traveling over her full lower lip. No, the kiss was real. Nothing that explosive could have been pretend. But it would have to last an eternity.

A soft knock at the door, pulled his attention away from Cordelia.

Angel pushed a hand frustratingly through his hair. “Go away, Fred,” he answered back.

“Angel, please,” came her muffled reply.

He didn’t answer, assuming that she would take it as a hint. She didn’t. The doorknob turned slowly.

“I guess it’s not just rooms that your changing around here,” Angel whispered to Cordelia.

The door creaked open and Fred’s waiflike frame entered the room cautiously. She would have never had the courage to enter Angel’s suite before, but the last two days she had spent so much time in the room that it had lost some of its mystery, its forbidden air.

Angel tried to turn his face away, his mind warring over staying at Cordelia’s side and retreating to the shadows.

“Go away, Fred,” he repeated his earlier warning a little softer.

Ignoring him, Fred approached the bed slowly, looking down at Cordelia and then back to Angel who was desperately trying to shield his face from her by turning his head.

“I already saw ya down stairs, Angel,” her Texas drawl came out lightly. “And I mean it’s not like you’ve got somethin I haven’t seen before. Well, you know what I mean, I mean I’ve seen demons before, not that you’re a demon, demon, I mean you are a demon but I mean the really evil ones that I spent so much time with in that place I don’t like to talk about. Now they were demons in every since of the word and you’re just a vampire, well not JUST a vampire, a very special, very unique vampire but a vampire. And around here, to people like us…..well I just don’t think that’s as shockin as you might think it is.”

Angel turned a fraction of an inch, just enough so that he could see her out of the corner of his eye. God, he wished he had the courage to scare her so she would just leave. Why was it that he could make a man piss his pants with a look but the two women in the room with him at that moment refused to see what he was? They had no self-preservation. It was the only logical answer. “I just didn’t want you to see me like this, to meet me like this,” he paused for a moment before turning back slowly towards Cordelia, “I don’t want to be like this,” he whispered the confession aloud.

Fred began to sit down on the bed but thought better of it when Angel visibly tensed. Instead she chose the comfortable chair just next to the night stand.

Angel should have been happy that Fred didn’t seem afraid of him, but it also made him realize that what she had faced must have been terrible to make a vampire seem mundane. Or made her so crazy she didn’t care.

“She’ll be alright,” she broke the uncomfortable silence.

“She has to be,” he whispered more to Cordelia than to Fred.

“So, who do think they were?”

Angel shook his head, “I don’t know. But I will.”

Fred felt herself shiver then. She hadn’t been afraid, but Angel’s reply seemed more vow than answer. A promise to himself, to Cordelia. Remembering the sound of cracking bones, she decided to change the subject for her own piece of mind.

“The room looks nice,” she tried to break the morbidity of their situation.

“Yeah, thanks,” he said, still never looking directly at her.

“Oh,” Fred grinned. “It was all Cordelia. We just kinda helped out a little.”

“Don’t let her fool ya,” Cordelia’s voice came out in a whisper before her eyes tried desperately to flutter open. “She spent half a day teetering on a metal ladder. Scared the crap outa Gunn.”

Angel touched her arm, “Cordelia?” it was more a sigh of relief than a name.

Her eyes were lazy, half opened orbs. She tried to push herself up and winced at the explosions going off in her head.

“Don’t get up,” he pressed her gently back down and turned to look at the suite door, his superior senses picking up footsteps in the hall. “You’re going to be alright,” he said when he turned back to her.

“What happened?” she breathed out.

“You were hit by….”

“Commando guy,” her mind started to focus. “I remember.” She closed her eyes against the pain before the total recall of the moment hit. “Oh, God! Wesley!” she tried to sit up but met with another wince.

“He’s fine,” Fred assured her, silently hoping that the tranquilizer hadn’t really done any damage.

“Did you kill them?” it seemed an effort to speak, but she had to know, had to know that Angel was safe.

The question came so suddenly that Angel felt his body tremble slightly, waiting for his own response, waiting for his pretend moment to end. He opened his mouth to answer. To lie.

“He only got one of ’em,” Fred rushed to answer. “Well, two if you count the one that burned up after Angel broke both his arms. The rest just ran away, although by the looks of the two that Angel attacked, whatever failsafe that was in place probably got them too,” she said it so simply, as if they were discussing a playground brawl.

Angel turned the full force of his gaze on to Fred for the first time since she entered the room. If he didn’t care about her so much he’d be willing to break both HER arms at the moment.

“Good,” Cordelia relaxed a little.

Angel looked back to her in shock.

“Who were they?” Cordelia asked Fred as she closed her eyes again because it just hurt too damn much to keep them open.

“We don’t know. But….” Fred’s words were cut off by Angel’s quick look of reprimand.

“What the hell do mean by, good?” Angel turned back to Cordelia.

“Angel, those men were coming for you.”

“Cordelia, those weren’t demons running around the Sunnydale Cemetery. They were human,” his voice dripped with shame.

“I’m not diminishing the fact that someone died tonight, but if you’re thinking about blaming yourself for being forced into the situation, don’t,” she finally opened her eyes again. “As awful as it is, as much as it may bother all of us, you had to do it. You had a right to defend yourself. You’re not a monster. You killed in self defense.”

“No, I didn’t. I killed him because of this,” he brushed his hand against her bruised temple and cheekbone. “I looked at him first,” his voice dropped low, menacing, he wanted her to know, wanted her to see, “Knew he was the one. I wrapped my hand around his neck, watched as his eyes bulged in fear when he realized he was going to die, and then I snapped his neck.”

Angel stood and stared at her for a moment as the footsteps in the hall reached the door, making sure his words had sunk deeply. “Now, say I’m not a monster,” he walked slowly back to the balcony doors, exiting them just as the door to the suite opened.

***

Dr Harrison took a small bottle of pills from his bag and handed them to Cordelia who now sat propped up and under the covers of Angel’s bed. He looked to Gunn and Fred who stood patiently to the side. “Two now, two in the morning. Cut it down to one by tomorrow afternoon and then one every eight hours until the pain is a bit more tolerable.”

The doctor stood from his seat at the edge of the bed. “It’s a nasty one, but you’ll live,” he reached down and touched her chin, moving her head to the side for one last view of the bruise. He would have felt better if he had been able to convince the young woman to let him admit her for the night, just for observation. But what could he do? Charles Gunn had informed him that this was for a friend of the doctor’s anonymous benefactor. And he didn’t want to rock-the-boat. The shelter couldn’t exist without the grant.

“Was that thunder?” the elderly man looked toward the dark, curtained window before he finally let go of Cordelia’s face. He could have sworn the night was clear but it was the third time he’d heard the distant and odd rumbling since he’d entered the room.

“Thanks, doc,” Gunn approached the man, ignoring his question and sensing that the doctor would be safer on the dark L.A. streets outside than in Angel’s suite examining Cordelia. Taking the older man by the elbow and allowing him a quick goodbye to his patient, Gunn handed him his bag and escorted him out the door.

Fred looked down at Cordelia who was staring at the balcony doors, a frown of disapproval on her face.

“I’ll go check on Wesley,” she offered herself an excuse to leave.

“How is he?” Cordelia moved the covers off her legs and gingerly rose from the bed.

“He’s still a little groggy, but Dr. Harrison said he’d be fine. I think Wesley’s kinda proud he survived a drug that should have took down three men. You were both real lucky,” Fred smiled, relieved that her friends were safe.

“We were all lucky.”

Fred smiled, glanced at the balcony doors and turned to leave the room.

Cordelia’s head pounded with each step toward the darkened doors. When she finally made it outside, she was thankful that the predawn air was cool, easing the ache of her throbbing bruise a little, noticing in the darkness that her eyes didn’t hurt quite as much. Crossing her arms, she walked to Angel’s side, looking out at the night as he was. “Ya know, growling at the man, as ineffective as it was, still, kinda rude considering he came all the way over here as a personal favor for you,” she advised softly, turning to look at the side of his face.

Angel didn’t turn. “He kept touching you,” he accused as if the man had committed the gravest sin.

“It’s called an examination, Angel,” she spoke as if he were mentally challenged. He’s a doctor. He was just making sure that I hadn’t hurt anything else when I fell. Besides, he’s like a hundred and eighty-four,” she dismissed. “Be grateful that he was willing to come.”

The man’s age didn’t make things any better. Angel was over two-hundred and he wanted to touch her. “He was willing to come because of the money, not because of me, or you for that matter. Money can make humans do anything, good or bad,” he turned to her then. “You should know that,” he winced as soon as he said it, saw her drowsy eyes turn sad.

She was silent then and turned her face back out to the darkness.

Angel closed his eyes for a moment. He hadn’t meant to hurt her. Or had he? “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“It’s okay. It’s the truth.”

Angel could see the glisten of hidden tears in her eyes and he reached out to touch her hair, wondering absently at why he felt comfortable enough to do so around her. “I’m sorry,” he said it again.

“It’s okay, really. I just. I….” she trailed off.

“What?” Anything. Why couldn’t she see how terrible he was, how selfish? Anything she said, whatever she needed. She deserved the world for putting up with him.

“I miss my dad.”

Angel felt himself groan inside. When he would have opened his mouth to remind her of his earlier decision, his strict order, of the reasons he could not possibly allow her to go near her father yet, or ever for what he had done to her, she turned.

Her enormous hazel eyes were staring straight into him, not reproachful, not mad or hurt by his comment, not terrified of the things he had done just a couple of hours earlier, simply sad. He couldn’t look away, couldn’t move. He was lost somewhere in their warm depths, their sorrowful, hazel pools. She looked at him as if he held all the answers. As if he was the only being on earth that could help her. But most of all she looked at him with complete trust.

What was it he had decided? Ordered? Oh, yeah. Her father. She wasn’t going anywhere near her father. He had a reason. A good reason. More than one. But now, lost in her eyes that stared into him, pleaded with him to understand, he couldn’t seem to see why seeing her father was such a bad thing. If it made her happy, how could it be wrong.

His gaze dropped to the perfection of her full lips, slightly parted, waiting for his answer.

No, pleasing Cordelia could never be a bad thing.

“We’ll go see your dad as soon as you’re up to it,” he surrendered. When he saw a small smile creep into her eyes and across her lips, he lost himself in the moment. Some uncontrollable urge to please her pushed him on, “We’ll even bring him back here to stay, if that’ll make you happy.” What the…? He wanted to take it back, until her arms flung around his neck.

“Thank you,” she whispered against his ear. “You don’t know how much this means to me, Angel.”

His arms circled her in response, “Yes, I do. It’s the only explanation as to why I’ve completely lost my edge.”

Her only response was a small laugh through tears as she hugged him even tighter.

“I don’t know if I can stand this, Cordelia,” he whispered into her hair, taking the irresistible scent of it into his lungs. “The way you throw all this blind trust at me. The way you seem completely unable to see what I really am. I don’t think I’ll survive the moment you come to your senses.”

She pulled back slightly to look at him, “It’s not blind trust, Angel. Just trust. I believe in what people do, not what they say. And, as weird as it seems, you’re the only person in my entire life who has come through for me.”

“How can you trust me? You don’t even know me. What I am. What I’ve been.”

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve been. And as for what you are, I’m not blind either. You’re a vampire with a soul. Plain and simple.”

“Cordelia, I don’t think that’s plain or simple.”

“Well, of course you wouldn’t. That definition wouldn’t fit the label of monster. And I do know you, Angel. I know you by your actions. You keep claiming to be this monster, but frankly, I haven’t seen him yet,” still locked in an embrace with him, she pulled one arm free and gently touched the ridges of his forehead, “These don’t make you a monster, Angel.”

“I killed a man tonight, Cordelia. How’s that action for you.”

“You saved our lives tonight, Angel. If you were human and someone broke into your home, threatened your family with weapons, would you defend the people you loved? Yourself? I know I would.” She wrapped her arm back around him and leaned into the strength of his chest, “I know a man died tonight. And I know that the guilt of that kill is eating you up inside. But you see, because of that, you should know you’re not a monster. A monster wouldn’t care.”

Angel held her there for as long as he could, until the sun was just moments from warming the sky. Reluctantly, he pulled away and taking her by the hand, he led her to her room. She needed rest. And he needed time to absorb what she had said.

And what he had promised.

***

Angel stood beneath the spray of water, enjoying the improved plumbing of his room. The pain medication that Dr. Harrison had given Cordelia had kept her out most of the day. Angel had stayed by her side most of the time, watching her sleep, making sure the others were close by if she needed anything.

But most of all, through the entire sleepless day, he had thought. Thought about the change of events since Cordelia had come into his home.

Home? That was the first time he had ever thought of the hotel in such a term.

He stared at the water running down the face of the tile in front of him for a moment, the warm jets of the shower, warming his cold body. Lifting his hands he traced the lines in his brow, his fingers drifting lower to the jaggedness of his mouth.

It was strange, to be made to kill them, when all he wanted to do was protect them. Maybe Cordelia wasn’t blind to what he was after all. Maybe she was the only one who could really see him, beyond the face, what he really was, or at least what he wanted to be.

Maybe it was sex, pure and simple. They were both obviously attracted to each other. Although, knowing full well why he would be attracted to her, he couldn’t fathom why in hell she would want him. But sex didn’t seem to describe the emotions Cordelia stirred in him adequately. It went far beyond that, far beyond any physical thing he’d ever felt. It was more than a want, a desire. It was a need so basic, so elemental that Angel was beginning to feel as if he could not survive with out her. Needed her just to exist.

And her beauty, although great, ran a far second to what he saw inside. Her courage and acceptance of him, of the others and their strange life at the hotel. The way she seemed to look past his monstrous face, reaching into his very soul. She was the only being, human or not, who didn’t run in terror from him or look at him as a project, a specimen.

Turning off the shower, he stepped out and dried and dressed quickly. She’d be waking up soon and he wanted to be there.

Taking the few stairs to her floor below quickly, Angel paused at her door, not wanting to wake her. Gently, he pushed the door open.

The room was fully lit, Cordelia’s bed empty. Angel scanned the room, focusing in on the half opened bathroom door.

Angel stared at her as she entered the room, dressed in designer jeans and a fitted pullover that accentuated her full breasts. He took in the sight, trying to ignore the way her curves made his body feel heavy and uncomfortable in his own clothes. “Why aren’t you in bed?” God, why weren’t they both?

Cordelia jumped, “You scared the crap out of me, Angel,” she breathed.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“You said we could go get my dad,” she raised her eyebrows as if daring him to go back on his promise.

“I said when you were ready.” When he was ready.

“Ready,” she proclaimed in a sing-song voice as she moved to grab a purse from the closet.

“Cordelia,” Angel crossed the room. When she turned his hand gently touched the ugly green bruise in protest.

“Angel,” she reached up and took his hand from her face. “I’m fine. A little sore, but fine.”

Angel pushed out a groan of frustration.

“Wesley said he has the number for the motel downstairs,” she passed by him, ignoring his obvious objection. “I thought we’d call before we go. Let him know we’re coming.”

Angel turned, “You’ll never convince him to stay here,” he tried not to sound hopeful.

“Pfft,” Cordelia opened the door, waiting for him to follow. “I convinced you to let him, didn’t I?” she shot him a bright smile, one that made all the little grins she had flashed at him since her arrival pale in comparison. He had a feeling that that smile could convince anyone to do anything for her.

“Alright,” as if he had a choice. “Gunn can go with us, that way you’ll have someone to go inside with you.” He moved to join her at the door.

Downstairs Gunn, Fred, and a slow moving Wesley waited in the office. “Hi, Angel,” Fred smiled at him as he and Cordelia entered the office. He gave her a small nod. It was uncomfortable being in the brightly lit room, everyone able to stare at him at will. He wanted to slink to the shadows or wait out on the dark street.

Cordelia sensed his unease and slipped her hand into his, giving it a firm squeeze, “The number?” she looked at Wesley who was staring at their clasped hands. He shook himself and looked quickly to his desk, “Yes, here it is. Logan’s Motor Inn and Suites.”

Gunn gave a little humorless laugh, “I’ve seen the place. There ain’t nothin suite about it.”

Angel shot him a look as Cordelia rounded the desk and took the number. Sitting down she took the receiver in hand then looked up to the occupants of the room. “A little privacy, please?”

Fred, Gunn, Wesley and Angel filed out of the room obediently and shut the door. Angel’s ears tuned into Cordelia’s voice, hearing her greeting to the clerk before Wesley approached him, interrupting his attempt at eavesdropping.

“Angel, I wonder if I might have a word with you this evening after your errand. It’s about,” he leaned in to whisper, “the curse.”

“You found something?” Angel whispered back.

Wesley glanced at the office window at Cordelia briefly before answering. “Yes, I think so.”

Angel heard the click of the phone and turned his attention back to the office, the door slowly opened. Cordelia took a tentative step out.

“I’ll pull the truck around,” Gunn started for the door.

“Don’t bother,” she said quietly. “He’s not there.”

Angel stepped closer to her, touched her arm for comfort.

“He left. Why would he do that?” she looked up at Angel. “He didn’t even leave a way for me to get in touch with him.”

Guilt washed through Angel. It had been a few days since he had checked on Clinton Chase. His new and unexpected feelings toward Cordelia had garnered every bit of his attention. He should have known the man would find trouble. Or desert his daughter as her mother had. The last thought made him hope for Clinton’s sake that the first was true.

Cordelia slipped her hand from Angel’s. Passing the group, she crossed the lobby and headed silently toward the stairs.

Angel turned to Gunn and Wesley, “Find him,” he ordered before following after her.

Wesley walked quickly behind him, “Angel, the curse…”

“Not right now,” he dismissed.

***

He knew she’d be on her balcony. Not by his senses. He just knew. She stood by the ledge, gently touching one of the flowers in her hand. Crossing the room, Angel stepped behind her, his hand stoking the mass of chestnut silk that tumbled down her back. To sooth her, to sooth himself.

Cordelia closed her eyes as his hand slid down and found the nape of her neck, his fingers curling around the slender column. Even as he sought to sooth her, to view her as merely a human in need, desire slammed into him hard and unexpected. He had touched her only to comfort her, but he couldn’t seem to let go and cursed himself for his lack of control, his selfishness in her situation.

“I’m such a coward,” she laughed bitterly at herself as Angel’s fingers began to massage her neck. “Any brave person would run to the motel, try and find out what had happened. I run to my room and cry like a baby.”

“You’re not a coward, Cordelia. Stop blaming yourself for your father’s mess. You came here, stayed, even knowing what I was. You didn’t even try to run when you were free in the daylight. You came back here, honored your promise.”

“Would it have done me any good?” her voice was so low even his ears almost missed it. “To run?”

“No,” he told the truth, pushing the limits of what he thought she could accept. “I meant what I said, Cordelia. You’re not a prisoner. But at the same time, I know I can’t let you go. Not completely.” ‘Not ever,’ the words shimmered in his mind.

Her heart pounded at that admission, the vibration echoing through his own still body.

When he thought she would finally flee, scared by his possessiveness, she leaned back against him, relaxing her body into the strength of his chest. Her life was out of control, so different from what it had been just a year ago. She needed a rock, a solid place to rest, to find out who she really was.

“I’ve got to find him, Angel. I know you don’t believe me, but the things he did, he only did for me and my mom. I won’t ask for your help again. You’ve already done so much; saving him, taking me in. I guess I could hire someone,” she brainstormed frantically. “A private eye?” she thought aloud.

Angel turned her around at the silly notion. “I’ll find your dad. And I’ll keep my promise,” his golden eyes stared down at her, watching a lagging teardrop trail down her face. Reaching out, he swiped the salty bead and brought it up to the coolness of his mouth. He hadn’t even understood why he had done it, but at the taste of her tear, he groaned aloud, his body raging at him for some kind of release from the torment of being so near her.

He bent his head to her, his mouth taking hers hard and possessive, wanting to devour the rest of her, wanting to wipe away every thought of her father and any idea that she might ever need anyone else to help her. He only needed her, he wanted her to only need him.

Why had he lost all self control? She was mourning her father’s absence and he couldn’t control his own selfish needs. She deserved something so much better.

Cordelia sighed and closed her eyes. It was just what she needed. The solid strength of him, the rock to hold on to during the storm, his mouth pushing away thoughts of her family, her façade of a life. But something deep inside of her said it was more. More than just loneliness, more than just weakness.

Her lips were satin soft beneath his assault, trembling, enticing. He knew then, as he deepened the kiss even more, reached his arms around to press her closer to him, that this was no mere advance to ruin any future mortal relationship. Because there would be none. This was Angel claiming what was his, giving Cordelia what was hers.

Cordelia met his hunger, his desperation with her own. And it was Cordelia who swept her tongue across the crease of his mouth, begging entrance.

When Angel opened to her, swept her along with him as he ravaged her mouth, time stopped and the world fell away. Nothing existed except the two of them, no monsters, no curses, to trouble prone fathers or absent mothers, no mysterious mercenaries. Only the hard strength of Angel’s arms as they wrapped themselves around her, bringing her out of the darkness that she had been struggling through. He was a mixture of dominance and compassion. And somehow, Cordelia knew that she would never be the same.

Angel couldn’t stop. Only when she gasped for air, did he lift his head, his amber eyes burning possessively over her face. He had to calm himself, chain the beast. He couldn’t afford to lose her now, not after she had ventured through the darkness to drag him out.

Very gently, tenderly, he ran a caressing hand over her silky hair and down her soft cheek, eventually resting his palm against her throat. His fingers curled slowly around her neck, his thumb feathering the delicate line of her jaw.

He had followed her to her room to sooth her, to offer support and comfort. But now, all he wanted to do was touch every inch of her, to sate some secret and mysterious hunger that she had awakened ever since her arrival. He bent to kiss her again, softer this time, Cordelia’s eyes fluttered and then closed.

What was wrong with her? Her father could be dead, or worse. Her life was in shambles. And she was lost in some lust induced make-out session. She reached up and placed a hand on Angel’s muscular chest, pushing just an inch away from him. She might want him, need him even, but it wasn’t rational. “We should stop before we get carried away,” she whispered against his mouth.

He groaned aloud as she stalled where she was, tempting him just an inch away. It was torture.

“I’m already carried away,” he whispered back.

Her lashes raised, blinked up at him, her chest rising and lowering quickly. “I just…my life’s so confusing right now, Angel. I don’t want to make a mistake. You’re on the edge right now, barely believing in yourself, I don’t want to cause another problem for you to have to sort out.” She couldn’t stand it if her attraction to him confused him even more, hurt him in some way.

Angel stroked her cheek, raised her chin slightly with his hand, “Does it have to be a problem? Can’t it be a solution?”

Cordelia retreated slightly, turning toward the small wind blowing onto the balcony, desperately trying to cool her heated skin.

“Coming here has changed me so much, Angel,” she admitted.

Angel stepped close beside her, leaning down to rest his elbows on the ledge of the balcony. He wished he could give her the normal life robbed of her by her father, held out of her reach by himself. “I’m sorry you had to find out what evil was, that it existed.”

“Are you kidding me? I knew there was evil in the world. Granted, I didn’t think of it in terms of actual monsters running around in the sewers of Sunnydale, but that’s just one form Angel. It comes in many. And quit apologizing for my sucky life,” her melancholy turned to exasperation for a moment, “It was royally screwed by the time I got here.”

“But you said you’ve change since you’ve been here,” he pressed.

Cordelia shrugged casually, trying to water down the importance of her revelation. “I just feel different here, that’s all. In Sunnydale, before my father’s deal, I was afraid all the time. Afraid of missing a step, letting them see behind the mask of perfection, not letting anyone see that I had a mind of my own. A brain. Girls with brains aren’t cute, aren’t popular,” she laughed with disgust at herself. “It was all so fake. I was so fake,” she looked down at her hands. “‘Act the part and you will become the part’, my mother used to say. She was right. You wear a mask long enough, you start to believe that’s what you are, all you are,” she looked at him and he knew that she wasn’t only speaking about herself.

He had thought her so untouchable, so different. But were they?

“Then after my father ruined our lives and my mother left, the mask dropped. I knew what real fear was then. I was so terrified. So alone. But then I came here. And all that changed. For the first time in my life I feel safe. I feel like I’m learning who I really am. I just don’t want to make any more mistakes, don’t want to disappoint any more people in my life. Especially you,” she turned to look at him. “You’ve got too much baggage to carry to take mine on too. You, who thinks this disfigured face is a reflection of his soul,” she skimmed her fingers across his cheek. “Names himself a monster. A monster who protects an old market woman, saves children from real monsters, and gives away some mysterious fortune to help and pamper everyone but himself. Standing here on this balcony, with a monster like that, I’ve never felt safer or less alone in my life. I just don’t want to screw that up.”

He took her hand from his face, held it in his, “How can you look at me and say that? Can’t you see what I am?”

“Yes. That’s why I can say it.”

Angel leaned in to kiss her bruised eyelid, her cheek, the corner of her mouth, before settling softly against her lips. It was so tender, a reverent exploration. His mouth left hers slowly, his hand sliding down the side of her arm. His fingers entwined themselves with hers and he brought her hand to the coolness of his mouth, his lips brushing a kiss across her knuckles, the inside of her wrist. Placing her hand against the wall of his chest, Angel bent his head to the neckline of her stretchy, cotton shirt, his goal the small bit of cleavage shadowed by the scoop of the neck.

“Stay with me, Cordelia,” he whispered against her skin as his mouth sent darts of fire in the form of small kisses that trailed up the neckline of her shirt to her collarbone. “Be with me. Not because of your promise,” he continued between the kisses. “Or because I’m going to find your father and keep him safe,” his mouth made it to the hollow of her neck. “Stay because you want to, because I need you, because you need me. You weren’t afraid of me, don’t be afraid of this.”

She did need him. Her body clenched as his mouth sent flames dancing over her skin. Her hands circled his head as he continued his onslaught of kisses, making his way to the pulse point behind her ear. Her fingers tangled in his thick, dark hair when she heard him mumble something inaudible against her lobe. She loved what he was doing to her, and even more what she seemed to be doing to him.

Angel’s hands reached down and caressed her hip, glided up to the hem of her shirt as he nipped her earlobe and buried his face against her mass of hair. “I love the way you smell,” he inhaled. His hand slipped beneath her shirt and his fingers splayed over her taut stomach.

“Maybe we should talk a little while longer, discuss what this means,” her breath came in little gasps, her fear at the intensity of their situation showing. Fear of him, fear of herself. “Ya know communication is the keystone to any new relationship,” she barely got out.

She shivered as he kissed down her neck and back up against her ear, “This means everything to me,” he whispered in her ear, “And I’m communicating it the only way I know how.”

His voice moved like magic over her skin. Blood raced through her veins thick and heavy. She ached, need, never wanted anything more in her young life.

She turned her mouth to his. He felt himself on the edge of control, a gruff sound escaping his throat as he moved away from the balcony, dragging her with him to stand just inside the room.

Cordelia was so aware of him. His broad shoulders, powerful chest, the way his arms locked her body to him, protectively, possessively. He was seeping into every pore of her body, changing her, changing them both. The hell with family problems, the world. Those things were for rational people to worry about. Cordelia was beyond thinking rationally.

Angel caught at the hem of Cordelia’s shirt, breaking the embrace only briefly as he lifted the cotton material over her head. His large hands spanned her waist, bent her backwards so that her silk covered breasts rose to meet his descending mouth. His mouth pulled at her hard peeks straight through the material, instantly causing a creamy, hot response to pool between her legs.

He raised his head, desperate to touch skin. Fumbling with the hook of her bra for a mere second, he ripped the scrappy garment off with one strong tug. Angel stared mesmerized at the perfection of her; her back arched against his palm, eyes dazed and sexy. He reached up with his free hand, traced the fullness of her breasts, the smallness of her ribcage, her fit, tapered waist.

Cordelia straightened herself, leaned in closer to him, sliding her hand beneath his shirt, needing to touch him the way he was touching her. She tugged at his shirt and he joined her, lifting it quickly over his own head.

Their eyes met for a moment before Cordelia’s dropped to the flawlessness of his chest. He was pale and muscular, like sculpted marble. A Greek god in stone. She traced the cut line of his abdomen and he trembled.

His body was raging at him, so fiercely that he feared if he didn’t rein himself in a bit, cage the beast, that he would hurt her. His body went rigid as she bent forward, kissed his chest, fed on him the way he had her. When he regained thought, his hands traced down to the curve of her hips, pushing at her jeans and silken panties until she stood bare before him.

Angel swept her up into his arms, only making it to the bed because it was close. He laid her down, taking in the sight of her; her satin skin, her beautiful face, her firm and shapely legs. Lowering himself, he hovered above her, never pressing his weight down, afraid of crushing her. His head sank to the perfection of one breast, his cool mouth closing around her. The pull of his cool lips as he fed on her sent a rush of heat so fast and strong through her body that she felt as if she were burning up.

His hand slid even lower, down along her waist to the slender curve of her hipbone, lower still to burn a trail down to her knee, then back up the soft skin of her inner thigh.

Cordelia felt herself shutter as his hand found moist heat between her legs and, without thought, her fingers found the button of his pants, working at the confining garment so that finally the full length of him burst free, heavy and needing. She could feel his hand pressing against her, making her blood rush hot and heavy. She moved her hips, needing a release from the sweet torment his fingers caused as they delved deep, testing her readiness, pushing her limits.

Hot cream met him, bathed him, her manicured nails raked at his back. He lifted himself slightly, discarding what was left of his clothes before settling some of his weight onto her. His knee nudged between her legs, opening her to him. He pressed his sensitive tip to the entrance of her heated core and immediately her body responded, bathing his with hot cream. His mouth captured hers as he eased inside her, inch by excruciatingly slow inch. She was so tight, so hot; he thought he’d explode before he even began. She surrounded him, gripped him so hard that he had to clench his jagged teeth together, to call on every ounce of control to go slowly.

She moved her hips then, needing him deeper, sending a shock through him so hard, so jolting, that he lost all sense of control. Gathering her hips into his hands, his body surged forward with one powerful stroke.

Cordelia gasped, the pleasure and pain of it so near ecstasy that she cried out, her hands reaching up, circling his neck, needing more. His body retreated and thrust a second time, a third, filling her completely, each stroke becoming surer as their bodies worked together in a dance of pleasure. He surged into her with sure, hard thrusts that seemed to build in intensity, winding them both tighter and tighter.

His mouth fed on hers as his hips drove into her, harder, stronger. It went on and on, reached higher and higher until she heard herself cry out, her body fragmenting into a thousand pieces as wave after wave rocked her. Her muscles convulsing, wrapping him like a glove.

He gripped her hips tightly, his body hard and slick with her release. He was drowning in it, losing himself in her. She was tight, velvet fire against his cold steel, producing feelings and sensations in him that he thought he would never, could never feel. Lightning flashed through him, his sure, thorough strokes turning into a frenzy of need. He threw back his head, his eyes blazing from merciless gold to warm brown as he erupted into a torrent of passion. He felt himself spilling into her, her body milking him, rocking him with her own aftershocks.

Cordelia stared into his eyes as he slowed, rocking her body gently with his. Leaning his head down, he lapped lazily at one breast, then another, making her body tremble with weakness and desire all over again.

Angel lifted his head, reached out to frame her face, but Cordelia stopped him, holding his hand tightly in hers, her eyes staring straight into his, through his.

“I want to know every inch of you, Cordelia,” he protested softly, bringing her hand to his mouth, turning it over to kiss the inside of her wrist.

“Maybe,” she whispered a slight smile crossing her lips as she raised his own hand to his face. “It’s time to get to know yourself first,” she brushed his face with his own hand.

Angel dropped his hand away and went perfectly still for a moment, then rolled onto his back, taking Cordelia with him so that their bodies still joined completely. Her eyes were bright, alive with the afterglow of something too explosive to be labeled sex. She took his hand again, lifting it to his face, tracing the smooth plane, the sensuous mouth. His other hand joined her, his human face full of shock as he ran his fingers over his brow, his mouth, feeling the bluntness of his teeth. “How?” he whispered.

Cordelia shrugged, causing a small friction between their still joined bodies, sending butterfly wings fluttering to her toes. “Maybe I’m not the only one learning to live without a mask.” And she leaned down to kiss him, because she had to.

Part 10

Angel took Cordelia’s face in his hands and gently pushed her from the kiss, raising them both to a joined, seated position in one fluid movement. He brushed at her cheeks, carefully avoiding her bruised flesh. “Wesley said he’d found something,” he mused aloud. “He must have discovered a counter spell or a way to reverse the original. He tried to tell me, talk to me about my curse, but…”

“There is no curse,” she breathed the confession that should have come from Wesley himself. But Angel deserved to know, should have been told. She couldn’t keep the secret from him.

“What the hell are you talking about? You just saw it yourself,” he reached up and touched his face again, reminding himself that it was real. “It’s the first time I’ve been able to change since that night in Sunnydale.”

“No, it’s not,” she sighed. Wesley’s deception was going to make this difficult. She worried if Angel would believe her, if Wesley would finally admit the truth, and if Angel’s ability was temporary. “On the balcony, when I looked at you and seemed to be startled. You remember, just after I …touched you. It wasn’t the face of a vampire that shocked me. For just a second I saw this,” she reached up and touched the side of his face with her hand. “At first I thought I was imagining things. Then, in your room, the night you came back, it happened again.”

Angel stared at her thoughtfully for a moment, his handsome brow producing a line as her words sank in. “Even if you did see me, see my face change, it still doesn’t explain what you mean by ‘no curse’. There was a curse, a spell, whatever you want to call it. Maybe there still is.”

Cordelia shook her head slowly. She didn’t feel good about spilling Wesley’s secret. After all, he had only protected the truth to spare Angel more hurt. But her loyalties, on some base and unknown level, lay wholly with Angel. She couldn’t support the lie, not with him looking at her with dark, chocolate eyes full of hope, and a little fear. “Willow Rosenberg’s spell was weak. Wesley said that it wore off almost immediately,” she tried to still the slight tremble in her voice. She couldn’t stand the confusion that now joined the other emotions shining from his eyes. “Their reaction to you hurt you, made you believe you were what they thought you were. A monster. She might have brought it out, but you kept it there.”

Angel stared at her as if deciding what to believe. Slowly his eyes turned from her face to her mirror just above her chest-of-drawers. He stood and crossed to the mirror, not slow or fast, but purposefully. He stopped in front of the piece of glass. For the second time since Cordelia had come to the hotel, he wished he could see what should be there. He stared at the room behind him in the reflection. What did she see? He knew what his human face looked like, from memories and the couple of photos he’d been caught in in the last century. But what did Cordelia see? He’d never cared what he looked like before now.

He saw Cordelia’s reflection walk behind him, stop at his side, his eyes transfixed on her reflection. She looked to the mirror and then back at him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you with the truth. And if it helps, I don’t think Wesley meant to hurt you with a lie.”

He simply continued to stare at her reflection, then to the empty space beside her, longing to see what they looked like together, beside one another. The sheet she had wrapped around herself from the bed draped loosely beneath her arms and she pulled it a little tighter in the silence.

“Can you change back?” she whispered her question. “I mean, shouldn’t you be able to change from one to the other? Is that how it works?” She wanted to see if he really was coming out of his self imposed punishment, wanted to know that he was regaining some control.

Angel stared at the empty space, concentrating on the way his fangs felt as they pushed through his mouth, the way his brow protruded, the way the beast inside him fed his capacity for violence, his need of blood. Holding the image and the instincts in his mind, his face shifted.

He turned to Cordelia, as if to verify the act since the image could not be shown to him.

She smiled.

He had never experienced that reaction before. Sure, she had shown him over the past few days that someone could accept him, that his demonic face could be endured, overlooked. But a smile? No, his monster’s face had never elicited that reaction, ever.

With great concentration, he slipped back into his human face once again, enjoying the ability, the returning sensation of control. “So Wesley knew. All this time he knew.”

“I think he thought he was protecting you,” she tried to make excuses for Wesley. She owed him that, after spilling his secret. “Maybe he knew that no one could bring you out of it. That only you could decide when you were ready.”

Wesley was wrong. He hadn’t brought himself out of anything. It had been Cordelia. Her acceptance, her stupid, blind faith, her presence in the hotel, her body beneath his.

He smiled down at her and her breath caught in her throat. She could feel her pulse jumping wildly in her neck. Angel smiling in demon-face was cute and endearing. Angel smiling with a sinful mouth, dark eyes and a face that belonged on the cover of magazines melted straight through to the core.

He put his arms around her and pulled her closer, his eyes never leaving hers, the small smile still gracing his face. Ever so slowly he lowered his head to hers and kissed her softly on the mouth. Cordelia would have never thought that a kiss like that, mouths closed, eyes open, short and sweet, could ever be described as passionate. But it was. Because it was full of feeling, full of promises and unspoken words.

“Thanks,” he breathed against her lips. He knew that she would misunderstand it, think that his gratitude would be for the kiss, their night together, or her companionship during his healing. How could he explain to her that she had done this, that no one in the world except Cordelia could have done it? She was the only human he had ever encountered that would have accepted him as he was. Not the handsome face staring down at her now, many humans had accepted him when he wore that particular façade. But she had accepted him at his worse. Made love to him as the evidence of what lay inside him stared down into her face.

And he loved her. He knew it shouldn’t be possible. He’d never believed in love that much, not as a human and not as a vampire, and he had known her for so little a time. But nonetheless, he loved her.

“I think I should be thanking you,” she breathed a little dazed after the kiss. She smiled back up at him, playful.

Angel couldn’t chase away his happiness. No matter how hard he tried. Her family drama, the fact that Cordelia would probably never love him, Wesley’s lie, mysterious assailants, none of those things could make him brood, not tonight. Not with some feeling of control back in his existence and especially not with Cordelia standing in front of him, naked under the draping of a sheet, smiling at him with a teasing grin. He wouldn’t think of what the night meant to her, couldn’t bear it if what she felt was mere comfort, company. He couldn’t analyze, not tonight. Reaching out, he tugged the sheet free from the grasp of her hands.

***

Cordelia pressed the pencil to the paper and crossed out the second to last of the long list of contacts her father had in L.A.. She stared down at the last one, a sense of dread filling her at the possibility of failure. What if it was a dead end? How would they ever find her father?

Cordelia had started the morning by calling Angela, her father’s former secretary. She had been wonderful, supplying Cordelia with contacts she had never known existed. Not that she had ever paid that much attention to her father’s affairs anyway. But the optimism that bloomed after talking to Angela began to wilt fast as each contact proved to be of no use.

She stared out of the office, through the glass and into the empty lobby, daydreaming about her night with Angel. They had made love one more time before she fell asleep, her head cradled against his chest. She felt a thrill run through her at the thought of his hands on her, hers on him. The night had been ecstasy, pure and simple. She had wanted it. Had wanted him to be her rock during the storm that was brewing in her life. But he had produce an entirely new storm, a new dilemma.

What had it been? What had it meant to him?

She had awoke to the sun streaming through the open balcony of her room, panic had struck her first as she looked toward the sunlit, empty spot next to her on the disheveled bed. Her panic faded quickly as she eyed the note laying next to her on the sheet. It had read…

Gone to find out what I can. Make a list of all the old contacts you remember of your father’s. I know it seems doubtful he would be in touch with them, but we have to look at every possibility. Don’t worry. We’ll find him.

A

She had caught herself in a little sigh at his stealthy departure from her room. “Well, what would you have preferred?” she had asked herself aloud as she sat in the morning light, the note in her hand, “Angel reduced to dust beside you, or Angel searching for Dad?” Neither she had concluded. She had wanted to wake up the same way she had fallen asleep. But Angel had made a promise. And he would keep it.

Shaking herself mentally and picking up the receiver, Cordelia punched in the numbers with the eraser before replacing the bitten pencil in her mouth, her perfect teeth chewing with unconscious nervousness. There would be other roads to take, this didn’t necessarily have to lead to her father.

“Wolfram and Hart. How may I direct your call?”

Cordelia yanked the pencil from her mouth and threw it to the desk, “Well, I’m not sure really. I’m tracing a business contact. Clinton Chase. He’s about 5’11 with….”

“I’m sorry. We’re not at liberty to discuss our clients with….”

“He’s not a client,” Cordelia interrupted desperately and tried to calm her voice. “One of his former partners oversaw a merger for the firm, he helped with the final billing. He was only at your offices once or twice according to his secretary,” she tried to sound professional, hoping that would help. “In late August of last year. The company he represented was Madison Inc.. Clinton Chase,” she said the name again.

She heard the woman take a deep, exasperated breath. “This is a very large firm Ms….?”

Cordelia sat silently for a moment, she couldn’t say ‘Chase’. “Price,” she offered.

“Ms. Price, this is a very large firm. They handle mergers on a daily basis. I’m sorry, but there is no way we can help,” the phone clicked.

Cordelia was frozen with the receiver in her hand. It wasn’t until the annoying buzzing staccato jolted her to her senses that she laid the receiver back down. Well, that was that. She looked down at the useless list and grabbed it, crumbling it in frustration and sending it sharply into the trashcan beside the desk.

She lowered her head into her hands. She was glad at that moment that no one was in the hotel. Angel had gone to find out what he could, hopefully through the sewers and in very dark places, she mused. Wesley, Gunn and Fred had gone to an occult bookshop on ninth. Wesley had spoke of an old tome he needed for his research, assuring Cordelia that when they, as well as Angel, returned that they would make a trip to the motel in which her father had been staying. He practically begged Fred to go with him to the shop, excited when she accepted, disappointed when Gunn had tagged along.

None of them had seen Angel that morning. He had slipped out of the hotel silently. Cordelia had not had the heart to tell any of them, especially Wesley, about what had happened. She’d passed enough personal information and opinions between them, they would have to work out the rest themselves.

She had been sitting in a depression for at least twenty minutes, unable and unsure as to what to do next, when the phone beside her jolted her body, its piercing echo giving her a gush of adrenaline. “Hello,” she breathed heavily from the scare of the ring.

“Ms. Price?” a male voice on the other end asked.

Price? Wolfram and Hart? “Yes,” she barely got out.

“I’m so glad I caught you. I was passing by the front desk on my way back from a meeting when I heard one of the interns telling another that someone was looking for Clinton Chase.”

“Yes, that was me,” she struggled to contain her hope. Just a trail, just a crumb.

“I remember him,” the man seemed to pause.

Was that it? All?

“He’s not in any trouble is he?” the man asked innocently.

Cordelia wanted to laugh hysterically. Was he in any trouble? It was such a painful comment, a question that ripped at her heart. “Not from me,” she answered truthfully.

“Can I ask why you’re looking for him?”

“I’m working on the behalf of a long, lost relative,” truth in its own way again.

“Well,” he seemed to mull over his answer, “then I might be able to help you. My name is Lindsay McDonald. I’m an associate here. Clinton helped close a merger of mine last year,” he lied. He hadn’t been anywhere near the merger. “Great guy. Listen,” he paused for a second, “I’ve got an eleven o’clock. Can you come in about one? I’ll try to remember all I can,” he promised.

Cordelia’s heart nearly jumped out of her chest. It was just a crumb, she reminded herself. But it was something. “Of course.”

“Great, see you then, Ms. Price,” the line went dead again.

Cordelia shuffled quickly through Wesley’s desk, finding the yellow pages and thumbing through the three-inch attorney section. She scribbled down the address for Wolfram and Hart and placed the book back in the drawer.

Should she wait on Angel? She glanced at the blackened windows, knowing that Angel probably wouldn’t fare too well just past noon on the streets of L.A.. She had no idea when the others would return. She glanced at her watch, at the door, to the stairs. She had to go, she couldn’t wait. The thought to call Gunn on his cell slipped through her brain and passed away quickly. The truth of it was she was glad they were all gone. She wanted to go alone, wanted this crumb for herself. She had depended on too many people for too long. The information she would get wouldn’t be much, but at least she would feel as if she had helped in some way, had contributed something worthwhile.

Opening the desk drawer again, Cordelia’s fingers found the first listing under taxi service.

***

“Well?” Holland Manners asked Lindsay with some impatience as the young lawyer was ushered into the plush office.

“She’s coming to meet me at one.”

“You’re sure it’s her,” he stated with skepticism.

“She used a false name, but it was her.”

Holland thought for a moment before speaking again. “See what you can find out. This…Angel may be more valuable to us than we think. We should tread carefully. If he is what we think, what our seers say he is, we certainly don’t want to destroy him. Not if we want to recruit him.”

Lindsay nodded his head with a mumbled, “Yes, sir,” before turning to go.

“And Lindsay,” Holland called out, halting Lindsay’s quick exit. “HE is important to us. The girl and her father are nothing to us. Bait, chum for the shark. Do we understand one another?”

“Yes, sir,” Lindsay mumbled again before leaving the office.

***

Angel traveled quickly through the sewer, heading back to the hotel. He hadn’t been able to find out anything from the underbelly of L.A. and felt a deep regret at having to return to Cordelia without any information. He knew that by now she had probably gone through the list of her father’s contacts, disappointed at the lack of information she was sure to have gotten. He felt a little guilty about that, the dead-end task he knew he had given her, but he wanted her there, at the hotel when he returned. She would insist on going with them to the motel near the airport of course, to talk to the employees or see if Angel could pick up anything, but at least he would be with her then, able to protect her.

He slipped from human visage to demon and then back again. It had been a practice he had imposed on himself as he walked the sewers alone. Making sure that he was gaining back his control, making sure that the miracle didn’t slip away. He had done the exact same thing several times as he watched Cordelia sleep in his arms during the dark, early morning hours. It had been torture looking at her, wondering what their night had been to her. He had asked her on the balcony to stay with him, but he knew that even if she did it would only be temporary.

She was too alone and vulnerable to make a promise like that to him, and he had been a selfish bastard to take advantage of that. But he wanted her, and for now he had her. Even so, Angel had walked the earth enough to know what would happen in the end, what should happen. As soon as they found her father things would change. Cordelia would have a piece of her old life back, a reminder of who and what she was. She wouldn’t stay, not for the length of time or for the reasons Angel wanted her to. And he would have to let her go. Despite the fact that he felt as if she belonged to him, as if he belonged to her.

The thought made him wish her father far away, unable to be found, or worse. He closed his eyes against that desire. Cordelia could never be happy without at least knowing her dad was safe. And so Angel would make it so.

Angel opened the sewer entrance and entered the hotel, at once his senses flared, his demon raged. She was gone. Suddenly the thought of their assailants crossed his mind. Damn it! An unforgivable mistake. He strode purposely into the lobby, trying to pick up the freshest scent she had left, afraid of what he might find. Terror gripped him. He should have stayed with her. He turned to the office, entered the glass door with frantic urgency. What if more had come? What if….?

Looking down at the desk, he saw a scribbled note.

Got a lead! Be back soon.

Cordelia

P.S. Don’t worry!

Angel growled, crumbling the scrap of paper and tossing it so hard the metal trashcan slid two feet and hit the wall. He tried to stay calm. Lifting his head slightly, he tried to sense the other’s presence. Maybe they had gone with her? It was certainly a possibility. In fact it was probably exactly what had happened. They were all probably at that very moment sitting in some sterile office, asking about a man that no one probably cared to remember about. It was a safe enough outing. Wasn’t it? And even if there was any kind of trouble, at least she had Gunn with her.

But that thought just seemed to make things worse. Angel didn’t want to picture Gunn helping Cordelia, saving Cordelia, being flashed an outstanding smile of thanks by Cordelia.

He shook his head and walked back into the lobby. He wasn’t angry at Gunn. He was angry at himself. He shouldn’t have left that morning the way he had. A note? They had just had a night he’d remember for an eternity and he had left her a note. He should have stayed, at least until she had awoke. But the sun had been minutes away from the open doors of her room, and besides, he knew he wasn’t strong enough to look at her face if it had shown any regret at what they had done. He also knew he would not have been strong enough to hide exactly what the night had meant to him.

So he had taken the coward’s way out. As always. Leave a note and make a grand gesture like finding her father instead of facing the morning after. He knew that whatever regrets she might have about the night would be deeply hidden from him as long as he was searching for her father, offering his own protection for the man. Another proof positive of his selfishness at his use of that fact.

Angel sat himself down on the crimson sofa, then stood, paced and sat down again. He’d wait for them. He’d practice patience, just as he had practiced the change of his face. It might be a foreign quality to him – patience – but it would become more and more comfortable with practice.

Just sit here and wait. She would be back soon and he would not be angry. She didn’t believe he was a monster, an animal, and so he would not, for her sake, act as one.

He stood again, paced again, sat again. Repeating the action several times. Repeating the word ‘patience’ between gritted teeth with each angry stride.

***

Cordelia leaned over slightly on the leather sofa in the contemporary and tasteful waiting area, catching a glimpse of herself in the shaded glass of the office. She reached her hand up and brushed her fingers over her cheek and temple. She had done what she could with make-up, but she knew that the hint of a nasty bruise still showed through. Sighing, she leaned back straight and smoothed her hands over her skirt.

She had had just enough time to change into something a little more professional before the cab had arrived. The drive over she spent touching up her foundation, trying desperately to cover the bluish-green injury to her face. It hadn’t worked completely but there was nothing she could do. She couldn’t expect Mr. McDonald to take anyone with a pair of dark shades on seriously, she only hoped that her black eye didn’t make him uncomfortable.

“Ms. Price, Mr. McDonald will see you now,” the secretary smiled.

“Thanks,” Cordelia smiled back, stood and entered the office.

“Ms. Price,” a young and handsome man in a very tasteful suit greeted her, ushering her to the chair in front of his desk. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

“Thank you for seeing me. I know you must be very busy.”

Lindsay McDonald sat on the edge of his desk, looking down at her, “Not at all. I’ll be glad to help your client in any way I can. Although it has been a long time since I’ve seen Mr. Chase. You said you were working for a family member?”

“In a way. His daughter. She needs to find him. It’s very important to her.”

Lindsay seemed to stare at her for a moment as if he were thinking of what he should say next. “That’s a nasty bruise,” he reached out and she turned her head down and away, shocked by his bluntness.

Lindsay pulled his hand back, “There’s not much I can tell you,” he seemed to easily ignore his own loss of business etiquette. “He closed a deal for us, we all went to lunch together. That’s about it.”

Cordelia’s heart sank. He could have told her that on the phone. Half of a precious day wasted. “I see,” she was defeated. “Well,” she tried to brighten her tone and stood, “Thanks for your time anyway.”

“Ms. Price,” he called out and stood from his desk as she walked to the door. “There may be another way I can help,” Cordelia paused a few steps from the door and watched as Lindsay rounded the desk and picked up his phone. “Lisa, get me Research and Investigation,” he ordered politely.

Cordelia’s eyes shown with eagerness at what she thought his order might mean. He was going to help her.

“Frank. Lindsay McDonald, Special Projects. I need to find someone,” Lindsay smiled at her and motioned for her to sit down.

Cordelia couldn’t help the hope that sprung up inside of her at his gesture, she beamed back and took her previous seat.

“Clinton Chase, former Sunnydale, California resident. Missing….” he raised his eyebrows in question to Cordelia.

“About a week,” she stretched the days.

“About a week,” he parroted. “Salt and pepper hair, hazel eyes, about five ten, five eleven. Last seen at…” he looked at her again.

“Logan’s Motor Inn and Suites,” she supplied, her brow furrowing slightly at Lindsay’s accurate physical description of her father.

Lindsay supplied the man on the other end of the line with the little information they had along with some more small facts Cordelia gave him during the conversation before hanging up the phone.

“How did you know what my…client’s father looks like? It’s been almost a year since you’ve seen him.”

“I told you, I remember him,” he seemed to answer easily and she tried to convince herself that it was nothing more. “Frank will want to interview the daughter. It’ll help out in the investigation.”

“Oh,” she hadn’t thought of that. It wasn’t as if she had an aversion to letting the man in front of her know that she was actually the daughter, but she had started with a lie, an unnecessary one, and it was a little embarrassing. “Actually…”

“Let me guess,” he smiled sympathetically. “You’re the daughter.”

“How….?”

“I told you, I remember him, and those eyes are definitely his.”

It seemed impossible, but he must be telling the truth. How else could he know? “I’m so embarrassed. I don’t know why I lied. I guess I thought being an agent might convince someone to help me more than being just a girl looking for her dad,” she shrugged.

He gave a small laugh, his perfect, white teeth flashing at her. “It’s alright. But just for the record, I would have helped, either way.”

She smiled again, grateful that he had dismissed her white lie so easily, made an effort to make her comfortable. “Well, I guess I should talk to your investigator.”

“Nah, let him get the preliminaries out of the way first. In a day or two, after he’s combed over the motel and interviewed any witnesses or workers, we’ll set an appointment.”

“I don’t know how to thank you,” she said.

“I do,” he answered quickly. “Do you like sushi? There’s a place not far from here, Kyoto,” when she seemed hesitant he used his best persuasive voice. The one that won him every case he had taken. “I’m starving and I’d love it if you’d have lunch with me. In fact, now that I think of it, Kyoto is where your dad and I had lunch.”

If she had been hesitant before, he had found the spark to light her interest with the mention of her father. And she was famished after all. And the little Japanese restaurant was, from her knowledge gained from every magazine she read, one of the hot spots in L.A.. Mr. McDonald might even remember something more being in a place where he had talked with her father. He might remember another contact or high powered name thrown out into conversation, a lead that might find her dad. “Alright,” she conceded.

Lindsay smiled his shiny smile again and picked up the phone. Cordelia thought that she should find him handsome with his boyish good looks and expensive suite. In fact, he would have been the perfect man for the old Cordelia. But for some reason her tastes had changed. His eyes were too light, his build not quite large enough. His hair was too tailored, too tame. And his perfect smile reminded her of a shark more than, well, a perfect smile. Not too mention the fact that he was a lawyer. Even though he was helping her, and her gratitude was immense, she couldn’t imagine him protecting market women or saving children or secretly giving donations to needy shelters.

Even now he was making sure she knew he would help, coaxing a lunch from her that he knew because of his assistance she wouldn’t decline. And she wasn’t blind to the fact that his eyes had slipped several times to her bare skirted legs, had taken her in when he thought she wasn’t looking as he spoke with his secretary on the line. But Cordelia was desperate, and desperate times called for desperate measures. If he was using his power to find her father in order to impress her, then she wasn’t beyond a little flirting in order to have his help. After all, it was a practiced skill, one she detested now, but one she was more than willing to use.

“Well, I’m free for the rest of the day. Kyoto sometimes takes a small wait,” was his flimsy excuse for canceling the rest of his day. “Do you mind leaving your car here? I thought I’d drive us over.”

“I took a cab.”

“Perfect,” he walked over to her and she stood, allowing him to open the door. “Just one more thing,” he paused just outside of his office.

“Yes?”

“I refuse to call you Ms. Price again.”

She smiled politely, “Cordelia, Cordelia Chase.”

A sense of dread and guilt washed over her as they walked down the hall. She should have called the hotel. She knew Angel would be furious when he returned and read the note. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t called. He never seemed to want her to leave the hotel without someone with her.

But she was a grown woman for goodness sakes. If she wanted to meet with an old business contact of her father’s, have lunch in broad daylight with him to discuss finding her dad, then she had every right to do just that. Angel didn’t own her.

Or did he?

He seemed to think he did. In a charming sorta idiotic kinda way.

He wouldn’t be mad. He would understand and be proud of the progress made in the search for her father.

She considered that fact for a moment, matched it with the manpire she was beginning to know so well. Her dread began to consume her.

Angel was going to be pissed.

***

It was near five when Wesley, Gunn, and Fred arrived back at the hotel. Their short errand had turned to a day of treating Fred to L.A., neither of the two men able to deny her excited, young face anything. It had been wonderful to watch her emerging from her shell, but Wesley was drastically behind now and he wanted to get right to work researching his newest book. Not to mention that they were also supposed to help Cordelia locate her father.

Wesley stopped suddenly as he stepped inside, his two friends falling in behind. “Angel?” Wesley’s mouth gaped open at the sight of Angel, pacing the lobby furiously, his face smooth and handsome.

“I should have guessed she wasn’t with you,” his voice was low and menacing. He never looked at Gunn, Wesley, and Fred as they stood shocked still inside the doorway of the hotel. His paces quickened, lengthened. “I give her a simple job. One. Safe. Simple. Dull. Job,” he bit. “I should have known she wouldn’t just sit here and wait. Of course, she is Clinton Chase’s daughter,” he groused. “I guess I shouldn’t expect her to stay out of trouble.”

“Angel, your face,” Fred breathed. No one replied. Angel might be in his human face, but he was dangerous, pacing back and forth like a kept lion, just waiting for the lock on his cage to snap.

“Cordelia isn’t here?” Wesley inquired, ignoring for the moment Angel’s appearance.

“Does it look like she’s here?” he finally turned his cold eyes to Wesley, remembering the secret.

“Maybe she just stepped out for a while, Angel,” Fred tried, taking the cue from Wesley to ignore Angel’s obvious change.

“No, because that would be simple. That would be safe. She’s gone looking for her dad. The same man that risked her life, that forced her to go groveling for his own life, forced her to come here and risk herself for him. She just doesn’t see. It won’t end. He’ll never change and she will always pay a price for trying to help him,” he rumbled.

“Oh dear,” Wesley ventured closer into the room, watched as Gunn entered easily and plopped down on the red sofa next to Angel’s trail of fury, pretending not to be alarmed. Wesley wished he had Gunn’s air. “She should have waited for us, trusted us to go with her.”

“Maybe you don’t instill that much trust,” Angel turned his anger toward Wesley.

He knew. Obviously. He had figured it out. Healed himself. Or Cordelia had told him. “Angel…” Wesley began to explain.

“Not now,” he almost growled. “It’s not important. Right now, the only important thing is finding Cordelia.”

A car door caught the attention of everyone in the room, even Gunn. Angel paced as close to the door as he dared, careful to avoid what sunlight that would pour in when Cordelia….. Angel growled……or whatever man she was with, opened the door.

***

The food had been delicious, the company only tolerable. Lindsay, as he insisted several times that she call him, seemed to want to talk about everything but her father. His job. His great apartment. His fabulous car. His this, his that.

She had sat across from him, regretting her acceptance of his lunch invitation the entire time. Luckily she was able to zone out through most of the meal. It didn’t take much concentration to listen to a one sided conversation. The only time she had been forced back into focusing was when he inquired about her bruised eye again. She explained it away. Walked into a door. Typical battered woman answer. He probably thought she had some bad-boy boyfriend with a penchant for violence.

Did she? Angel hadn’t been the one to strike her. On the contrary, he had been the one to take care of her. But the description, ‘bad-boy boyfriend, with a penchant for violence’ seemed to fit.

Except for the boyfriend part.

That was silly. He wasn’t her boyfriend. They were attracted to each other. They were becoming friends. Okay, more than friends and they were EXTREMELY attracted to each other. And their night together had been one she would never forget, never regret. He was sweet and dangerous and sexy and strong. She stared off in a daze, a smile creeping across her face as she numbered his qualities.

“…..Cordelia,” Lindsay’s voice registered in her mind.

“I’m sorry,” she shook herself.

“We’re here. This is the right place, isn’t it?” he pretended to look surprised at where she was staying.

“Yes, I know it doesn’t look all that welcoming. But it’s home.” Why had that word slipped out so easily?

Cordelia thought she saw a disturbing look cross Lindsay’s face before he got out of the car. But it was gone when he opened her door for her, his ever present ‘smile of the shark’ back in place.

“Thanks.”

The two walked silently in the early evening sun to the doors of the hotel. When it was obvious that Cordelia had no intentions of inviting him in, Lindsay brought out another tactic. “You know, I forgot to mention it before, but it would really help if you had a picture of your father. I could get it to Frank tonight and he could show it around.”

It made sense. It was a good idea. And she had one in the solitary bag she had brought with her to the hotel when she first arrived. She took a deep breath for courage. “Alright, come in and I’ll get it for you.”

Cordelia blinked her eyes for a moment, adjusting her vision from the bright western sun to the dimly lit interior of the hotel lobby. The sight that met her was not a pretty one.

Fred sat on the hotel counter, twisting her hands together with nervousness, Wesley stood beside her, looking just as uneasy, while Gunn reclined back on the round sofa, pretending not to look between Cordelia and her companion. Angel stood just inside the door way, the tips of his boots just millimeters away from the bright sun that poured in from the street outside, as if he had known exactly where the rays would land and had gotten as close as he could.

His arms were folded across his broad chest and a muscle twitched at his temple. His face was human, handsome and beautiful, but his eyes were cold and hard, boring a hole straight through her.

Cordelia froze, swallowed to alleviate her suddenly dry throat.

Angel’s eyes held her for a moment, letting her see the weight of his anger, before turning to the man at her side.

“Angel,” Cordelia said slowly, cautiously, just as one might a snarling dog. “This is Lindsay McDonald. My father closed a deal for him a while back.”

Angel just stared at the man. Lindsay gave a small, satisfactory grin at the name ‘Angel’ despite the fear of being so close to the vampire. “Nice to meet you,” he smirked.

Angel was as still as stone, a snake ready to strike.

“Lindsay,” she continued. “This is Angel, my….friend,” she struggled to define him.

That word struck Angel like an arrow.

“I was worried about you,” he accused, his eyes still locked on Lindsay as if waiting for the man to move.

“I’m sorry,” and she meant. On some level she had known how he would react. “I just got so excited when I finally found someone who would talk to me about my dad. I should have called.”

“You should have waited,” he finally looked back at her and she felt the full force of his rage, his worry.

Deciding that it would be better, healthier and less embarrassing to continue the discussion with Angel in private, Cordelia decided to do what she could to get rid of her escort. “I’ll just go get the picture,” she turned to Lindsay and said quietly.

“What picture?” Angel reached out and grabbed Cordelia’s arm as she tried to pass, growling at her.

She looked at him now with her own level of anger, jerking her arm away from him. “Lindsay’s firm has a department they use to investigate cases. He’s going to help me find my dad,” she hadn’t meant her voice to sound so brittle, but he had hurt her arm with his stupid vampire strength and he was embarrassing her in front of someone who didn’t know that he was a dumbass. And after his display, she was afraid that Lindsay might believe her black eye WAS the product of a jealous boyfriend. That she was the type of woman that would actually let something like that happen.

Angel looked at her, the rage in his eyes turning to something else, hurt, betrayal. She hadn’t meant to hurt him. She stared at him for a moment, her eyes trying to apologize while the childish part of her brain screamed, ‘He started it!’ Finally, she turned to the stairs, Fred trailing after her.

Angel turned back to Lindsay. The lawyer felt himself tremble a little and took a step back, closer to freedom, raising his chin as if that would fool the vampire into believing he wasn’t afraid. “It’s my fault really,” he goaded.

“I know,” Angel answered quickly.

“I mean, after our long meeting in my private office, I convinced her to have lunch with me. She’s a remarkable young lady,” he was baiting a tiger, but it was his job.

“I know,” Angel voice was so soft Lindsay could barely hear him, though the warning was coming through loud and clear. Angel never let the blow that she had gone out with the man show. Gunn finally walked up to stand behind Angel for support he probably didn’t need, their crossed arms and defensive stance mirroring each other.

Lindsay stood his ground, they wouldn’t harm him, not with Cordelia in the hotel, he assured himself. But he at least had a new piece of information to offer his boss, a new Achilles Heel of Angel’s. Cordelia wasn’t just one of the humans he protected, lived with. He loved her. And he was warning any male, especially Lindsay away from her. Lindsay’s sly smile grew just a bit. They could use that. And when his company got Angel in their clutches, Cordelia would be his. The stupid vampire just didn’t know that yet.

“Here’s the picture,” Cordelia came back down the stairs alone and glanced back and forth between Angel and Lindsay as they stared each other down, then to Gunn who had joined the battle of testosterone. She rolled her eyes and turned to Lindsay, ignoring the fuming men behind her. “Should I call tomorrow, set up an appointment with Frank?” she asked, focusing on the most important problem at hand first.

“No,” he said softly and turned to her. “Call me personally,” he reached into his coat pocket and took out his business card and a pen, scribbling a couple of numbers and an address on the back. “This is my private number, cell and address. Contact me when you can, soon I hope,” he added. “I’ll handle everything with Frank. I know it’s been difficult not knowing where your father is, if he’s dead or alive,” he was drawing blood now, purposely hurting Cordelia in front of Angel.

Her eyes glistened just a little but she blinked the emotion away. Her father was alive.

“But don’t worry. I’ll find him for you,” he glanced at Angel.

“We’re all trying,” she didn’t know why she felt defensive on Angel’s behave. Lindsay couldn’t have known that Angel was looking for her father too. “Thanks for helping us. And I’m sorry for all this,” she glanced back angrily at Gunn, Angel, and a belated Wesley who had finally joined the flock, arms crossed as the others.

“It’s okay. If I were Angel, I’d have been worried too. Don’t apologize. I think your friend and I understand each other now. After all, our goals are the same.” Cordelia was the only one who thought the goal was her father.

“We understand each other perfectly,” Angel finally said.

Lindsay touched Cordelia’s arm affectionately. She wanted to jerk away but refused to give her audience satisfaction.

Angel stared at the hand that had touched her. Right, he noted. And then watched in silence as the man left his hotel.

“I have never been so embarrassed in my life! That man is a business contact!” she paced in front of the three, glad that Fred had strayed to her room instead of coming back down, witnessing her total embarrassment. “An important one!” she added. “Do you have a lead on my father?”

Angel just stared at her, unrepentant.

“I didn’t think so! I know I should have called, and I’m sorry. But you, you don’t even wait for an explanation,” she shook her head in disgust. What was she doing? “Ya know what? You don’t deserve one either,” she stalked up the stairs.

“Man, you just stood there and let that dude rub it in your face, man,” Gunn finally said when Cordelia was safely up the stairs.

Angel didn’t answer, he couldn’t. None of them, even Cordelia could understand what it had taken to keep still, to not rip out Lindsay McDonald’s throat right in front of them. He couldn’t have moved any closer to the man, not even for intimidation as he knew Gunn was suggesting. If he had moved, there would be no stopping. And it had cost him too. He could feel the unreleased violence swirling in his head, clouding his control. He turned and walked toward the staircase and up to his suite.

Wesley watched as he went. He wanted to talk to Angel, explain things. But after the last few moments that had passed by, he knew better. Their conversation, or his pummeling, would have to wait.

***

Cordelia was stewing. She had been sorry about her actions, her thoughtlessness in not letting the others know where she was. She would have worried if it had been one of them, had worried when it had been Angel who had left without a word.

A thud and a crash from the floor above brought her eyes to the ceiling. A crack, a shatter, then another heavy thud had her racing to the door and up one flight to Angel’s room. She pushed the door open quickly; her first thought was fear for Angel, his safety. She stood stunned in his doorway.

The mahogany bookshelf lay on the floor, its contents strewn about the room along with several other broken items. Angel paced the room, his booted feet crunching broken glass.

“Angel?” she breathed.

“Go away,” he warned, desperation in his voice. Thoughts of her laughing in a restaurant with the little troll and thoughts of what her future held, her normal future, mixed and swirled together. He knew she would leave someday, seek out a normal life, but that jackass downstairs had given that life a face, a scent. And Angel’s instincts were on his trail now, on the hunt. He warred internally between right and wrong.

She closed her eyes, she hadn’t wanted to fight with him, but he’d been such a jerk about it. She turned to go and reached out for the doorknob, Angel’s hand was there stopping her. She froze in place, feeling his chest against her shoulder blades. They both stayed that way, the only thing breaking silence was her rapid breath.

He was going to lose her, either way, whether it was by his failure to protect her or by his inhuman possessive, temper. When her father was found, when HE found her father, she would go. If she had been wavering in that decision before, he had just made up her mind by his behavior. He knew it.

“Don’t go,” he whispered finally against her neck. He meant from him, from his life, from the hotel, from the room. “I’ll behave,” he backed away slowly and she turned to look at him. “I want you to explain,” he tried softly.

“Are you through with your tantrum,” an eyebrow arched on her angry face.

He nodded and sat purposefully on the end of the bed, hoping he told the truth, that nothing she said would make him a liar.

“Well,” she breathed and began to slowly pace in front of him. “I did what you ordered,” she emphasized the last word with a pointed look before continuing. “I called my dad’s old secretary and got a list of all his old contacts. No one helped of course. In that world, catching poverty’s like catching the plague. The last contact on the list was Lindsay’s firm, Wolfram and Hart.”

The name pricked at him for some reason, a fleeting memory, but he couldn’t interrupt her, not now that she was offering to tell him.

“Anyway, they weren’t helpful at first either. But after I had hung up, about fifteen or twenty minutes later, the phone rang. It was Lindsay. He said he’d over heard some of the conversation and when he’d found out they were talking about my dad, he remembered the name, had done business with him last year.”

“Just like that,” he mumbled because he couldn’t stop himself.

“Yes, just like that,” she was defensive. She knew Lindsay’s story sounded ridiculous, unlikely, but it was something and she would believe in it. “He said he might be able to help if I could come in and meet with him. You were gone. Wesley and Gunn and Fred were gone. I had the first solid lead on my father.”

“I don’t see how a man who happened to remember your father at his offices a long time ago can be a solid lead in finding him now, Cordelia. And how did he know the number to call? And why would a busy attorney volunteer to help, just like that?”

“Caller I.D.?”

“Caller what?”

“Never mind. I know you’re suspicious. I know you think most humans are bad or selfish. But there are actually some good ones out there.” Not that she really thought Lindsay was one of them. Her internal alarm said he wasn’t. But she could ignore that alarm if it meant she’d find her father.

“I don’t think most are bad or selfish. Just afraid. And humans can be very dangerous when their scared, make rash decision, hurt the other before they hurt them. I know you want to find your father, Cordelia, but this man is not the way. It’s not a good idea.”

“How can having access to an investigator not be a good idea? Shouldn’t we use every resource available, look at every possibility?” she reminded him of his note.

“He’s a shark, Cordelia.”

“He’s a lawyer,” she dismissed and sat down with a sigh of defeat beside him on the bed. “Look, Angel. I’m not crazy about the guy either.”

“He’s attracted to you,” he wanted her to know.

“Pfft, I knew that the moment I walked into his office.”

“And you went to lunch with him?” Angel stood, began his own pacing. “Probably flirted with him, let him get a real good look at those great knees in that goddamn skirt!”

“That’s not fair!” she shot up from the bed “I’m a grown woman, Angel. Maybe not according to you ‘Mr. I’ll live forever’, but I am. And I made my own decision. I’m not weak!”

“No one said you were!”

“I can take care of myself, have for a long time. I wanted to help and I did. Me. All by my little mortal self.”

“Cordelia,” he felt defeated and sat down on the bed again. It hadn’t dawned on him that she had needed to help, feel a little control back in her own life. Part of her that he loved the most was her bravery, her independence. It was after all what had brought her to him. And probably what would drive her away, too. He sat in silence for a moment. She stood. The moment stretched, but neither was uncomfortable, just emotionally drained.

“I hope you find my father, Angel,” she broke the silence quietly. “I hope WE do,” she corrected. “I trust you more than anyone else, believe it or not. But I have to try everything.”

She’d be less than she was if she didn’t. He knew that. She would work with him or anyone else she could to save someone she loved. It was who she was. She would brave sleazy lawyers, loan shark demons, and even an emotionally stunted vampire to get back her dad. And when he was found she would go. And why wouldn’t she? He’d scared her into staying the first night. Made her bargain her very soul for her father. Treated her like a prisoner, fulfilled his selfish desires when she was at her most vulnerable. She should go.

He sat at the end of the bed and reached his hand out to her, an offering, his beautiful face staring at her in the dimly lit room. He had her for now. And he was selfish after all. He would take what he could get.

Cordelia stared down at his large hand reaching to her, waiting for her to react. He was patient, his hand lingering in the silent, dim room. Patience with practice, he reminded himself.

Cordelia’s mind went from numb to racing at is unexpected action. She thought of her first night at the hotel, the way Angel had tested her, tried to warn her. She thought of the way she had found out who he truly was, what lay deep inside. His scene downstairs, the anger, the betrayal. Every thought, every feeling at that moment was of Angel. No one loved him. He was so alone, so angry at the world, so frightened. Her heart broke for him, for both of them.

The night before he had been her rock, her safe place. She gazed down at his hand. She had shaken him, worried him, and now he needed something solid to hold onto. Her feet carried her across the floor; her hand reached out and was engulfed by his strong one. He brought her hand up and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. “Will you promise me you won’t see him alone again?”

She nodded her head slowly. He looked so desperate. How could she not agree? He was hurting, no matter if there was a good reason for it or not. She could never do anything to hurt him on purpose. And it was such a simple concession. She could care less if she saw Lindsay McDonald on her own or with a crowd of people. The only thing that mattered was getting her father back. And erasing the hard look of pain from Angel’s eyes.

Pulling her closer, he trapped her hips between his legs, wrapped his arms around her waist and laid his head against her, just below her breast. He closed his eyes and listened to the steady beat of her heart, the thing that made her human. She should go, he reminded himself. He would let her. “I’m sorry, Cordelia. Humans aren’t the only dangerous creatures when they’re afraid.” And he was terrified. Terrified of what he’d be without her. Of what the world might do to her without him. Of her father, of the stupid lawyer’s interference. Afraid he would fail at finding her dad, that the shark toothed lawyer would succeed. Afraid of having to watch the gratitude and smile she would send the son-of-a-bitch’s way.

Cordelia thought she felt a tremor run through Angel’s body. She had been furious with him downstairs. But now, with his arms wrapped around her, admitting that he was simply afraid for her, he was melting her, breaking her heart. She couldn’t breathe, the weight of his emotions paralyzing her, the weight of hers confusing her. She didn’t know what to do, where to touch him, how to soothe him. The move had been so shocking, so desperate. She had been prepared for a fight. She had not been prepared to handle this. To handle Angel’s emotions. To handle her own.

Finally she reached up and stroked his hair with her hands. She heard him inhale deeply as if to take her in, his head nuzzled closer to her breast.

What would he do without her? His safe place. Would he turn back into the pathetic thing he’d been before she came? And what if this idiot she’d found today actually could find her father? What if he found him tomorrow?

So what. Angel had her tonight. He’d have to make it last a few lifetimes. He’d live out every sweet fantasy with her tonight. And then he’d let her go.

Strength drained from Cordelia’s body, her legs began to quiver slightly. Angel took the opportunity and moved his knee, pushing her weakened legs apart and pulling her down to his lap so she was straddling him. He clasped his hands around her waist, holding her exactly where he wanted her, gauging her reaction.

“Angel,” she breathed the plea. He wasn’t playing fair.

“I know that you’re going to leave when your father is found,” he confessed. “And deep inside, although I can’t seem to make myself accept it, I know it’s right.”

Cordelia opened her mouth to protest, but then closed it. Would she leave? She hadn’t really thought past finding her dad, setting him straight. And now she couldn’t sort out that problem and the way her chest seemed to cave in at the thought of leaving the hotel. The truth was she was just too damn tired to figure it all out.

His hopes sank at her silence. What had he expected? He already knew. “Just give me this, let me pretend that you could love me enough to stay. That this could be enough for you.”

“Angel, even if I left the hotel, we could still see each other,” she assured.

He shook his head. “You’d live a whole life without me in the daylight. You wouldn’t be able to stand that. And going by my reaction downstairs, neither could I. You’ll want sunshine and a husband and children. And that’s what you should want.”

“Don’t do this to me, Angel. It’s not fair. It’s cruel. How can you decide what’s right for me? I don’t even know what’s going to happen, yet. Don’t push me to decide now. And don’t decide for me,” she stared in his eyes, trying to ignore the way their bodies were pressed together at just the right spot. Tried desperately not to notice the way her skirt had ridden up and the way her body was responding with little shocks of pleasure at the feel of him beneath his trousers against her silk panties.

She was the one that was cruel, even though it was innocently so. She’d swooped into his life, pulled him out of darkness, given him hope, only to abandon him eventually. He watched as she opened her mouth again, to make some promise she couldn’t keep or to spit fire at him for treating her the way he had. He didn’t care. He couldn’t talk about it any longer. Didn’t want to. All that he wanted was for the fantasy to begin. He cut whatever she was going to say off with a savage kiss, his tongue coaxing her mouth open.

The kiss wasn’t foreplay, wasn’t temptation before sex. It was sex. Raw and rough and she matched it flame for flame. Her body began to writhe against him helplessly, bringing him instantly to life. When she lifted her head breathlessly, she saw that his hands had been busy, unbuttoning her blouse.

She helped him push the top from her shoulders and to the floor. He stared at her for a mere second, reached out, kneaded her full breast before breaking the front clasp and sending the scrappy lace to the rug.

It was impossible not to hold him close, press his cool and inviting mouth even closer as he took the hard peek of her nipple into his mouth. He made love to her breasts with his cool tongue, licking every curve, sucking and ravishing with passionate skill.

She arched back and clung to him. The heat between her legs melting and pooling into liquid fire with each wet, dragging stroke of his mouth. She writhed in his possessive grip as tension rose. “What are you doing to me, Angel?” she asked desperately. How could she think about their problems when he was doing such amazing things to her body?

“Living in my fantasy world, pretending you love me, making you mine,” he whispered before returning to his task.

Her body clenched with anticipation, lust, desire at his words. She wanted to be his. Wanted to be anything and everything for him.

He lifted his head slowly and pushed her gently up to her feet, keeping his seat on the edge of the bed. “Take the rest off for me,” he looked at her through layers of want and need. “I want to watch you do it,” he whispered. He didn’t know how much time he had left, how long it would take them to find her dad, and he had a lot of fantasies to fulfill. For both of them. He’d need those fantasies to chase away the years without her to come.

“Angel,” she pleaded weakly.

“My fantasy world. Indulge me. Give me something to keep the fantasy going when you leave. Offer yourself to me, Cordelia. So that I know you’re completely mine, even if it’s for now and not forever.”

Cordelia bit the quiver in her lower lip. Leave him? Could she?

She tried to be sensual, provocative, push down the emotions she couldn’t name. The ones that were making her hands tremble. She found the clasp of the skirt, let it slide to the floor. Her eyes held his as she hooked her fingers in the side of her lacy panties. Keeping her legs straight, she bent at the waist, sliding the small material down slowly. She rose gracefully, stepping with poise out of her heels. Reaching up, she gave him a generous view of her lifted, full breasts as she removed the clip that had held her mass of hair in a loose twist. She let the silken strands slide out and settle with a bounce around her shoulders and down her back. The brush of it was almost more than she could stand across her sensitized skin.

Her face was flushed with desire, not shame, as she stood before his hungry gaze, naked. She took a slow step forward.

“Stop,” he whispered. “Turn around,” he pleaded more than ordered.

She made a slow seductive circle, as graceful as a dancer. When she had turned completely, he was there, standing in front of her, their bodies mere threads apart. The first contact of his rough hands made her shiver. He cupped her breast, traced the curve of it while he stared at its perfection. His hand slid down tenderly over her ribcage, the indention of her waist, the curve of her hip, between her legs. She clutched him then, panting.

“Widen your legs for me,” he whispered. His voice sent a bolt of lightning through her body. She spread her legs a little wider.

He caressed her, teased across the small strip of short trim curls with his fingertips. Her fingers dug through the material of his shirt, grasping onto the thick muscles of his shoulders.

The slow stroke of his hand sending her into a frenzied fever, Angel bent over, circled her nipple with his tongue before sinking slowly to his knees, trailing kisses on her body during his slow descent. Removing his hand from between her legs, he grasped her hips and blew on her flushed folds before pressing his face to the damp readiness.

Her legs shook, threatened to give out. “I thought this was supposed to be your fantasy,” she gasped as she closed her eyes, her head thrown back.

He raised his head slightly and dropped a kiss on her thigh as he slipped his hand between her thighs again. “This is my fantasy,” he breathed it out as one finger probed at her soft flesh. She looked down at him with lazy, lust filled eyes. Too gone to care what any of it meant. Too high to analyze feelings or consequences. She couldn’t think about staying or leaving. He needed this. God, she needed it. Wanted the same thing he did. A fantasy of perfection to last the rest of her life.

He looked up at her, his eyes catching hers as he slowly inserted one finger into her silky wetness. “My fantasy is full of selfishness, Cordelia,” he warned, his finger never missing a beat of its deep, stoking dance. “I’m selfish enough to want you to love me, here, tonight, in this room. I want to hear you say it to me, even if you don’t mean it.”

His words barely registered in the haze of her mind as a second finger joined the first. “I want to make you come so hard that no one else will ever do for you. I want you to dream about this night for the rest of your life and wake up wet and hot for me, calling for me. That’s how selfish I am.”

He leaned in and licked the slick, soft crevice between her thighs. Her fist bunched the material of his shirt, keeping her from falling. His hand slipped away as he stood slowly, turning around with her and laying her atop the throw on the end of the bed.

She leaned back on her elbows, the anticipation killing her. They had had sex the night before, great sex. But this was so much more, so intense, so possessive, so full of sensations and feelings she could not name. He was taking things from her that she wasn’t sure she was ready to give; her heart, her soul. Would she ever leave? Could she? He had told her to offer herself to him, and she was, all of her. “Are you going to take your clothes off,” she tried not to sound breathless when she looked up at him, staring down at her.

He unbuttoned his shirt a little too quickly, throwing it in a ball to the floor. He began to lean over her reclined body. Her hand came to his chest, pushed him back slightly. “All of it,” she mocked is aching whisper.

He finished the job quickly, with none of the fluid grace she had had. He laid down on his side beside her, looked her over, drinking her in with his eyes, committing every curve to memory. His large hand reached out to touch her, traced her cheek, her lips, trailed down slowly to her breast, skimmed her across her naval and settled back to the spot he had left hot and quivering, thrusting one finger back inside, withdrew it, thrust deeper. She cried out, squirmed around restlessly. His kisses followed the path his hand had traveled. Angel slipped silently to the floor in front of her, between her calves that dangled off the end of the mattress. Watched as his finger came out of her, slick and wet. He pulled her a little closer to the edge of the mattress. He kissed her inner thigh, “Say it now,” he whispered against her skin.

“What?” she panted. It took a minute for her clouded mind to remember what he wanted, what he had asked for. She cried out again when she felt his tongue lick her with a long, greedy stroke. He pushed her thighs wider, held her writhing body in place and licked her again. “Say it,” he whispered.

Her hands reached down, tangled in his coarse, thick hair as he licked yet another long stroke . “Oh god. Angel.”

He licked again and thrust his tongue deep. She cried out once more before breathlessly giving him what he wanted. “I love you,” she panted, gasped. “I love you.”

Her words struck him, urged him on. He was ravenous, she whimpered and struggled against the merciless lash and thrust of his tongue, tugged at his hair, pleading with him to stop, unsure if she could survive more.

He ignored her whimpers, her small sounds of protest, her sighs of pleasure. He held her without pity, felt her first tremor, his mouth never leaving her as the climax racked her body, clenched her muscles, made her sob in ecstasy.

Only then did he raise up, cover her body with his, satisfied in the way she trembled with little aftershocks. Angel rained tender kisses across her closed eyes, her cheek, jaw, lips. She opened her eyes and looked up at him, his deep brown eyes staring down at her. She reached up, looking at him as if finding out a deep hidden secret.

He wanted more, he wanted the fantasy complete, but with her eyes so soft and accepting, staring up at him, his nerve was wavering. He shook himself mentally, escaping whatever spell she was weaving. He had to have it. All or nothing tonight. He pressed himself to her entrance, hard, heavy, waiting. He stared down into her eyes. His face morphed under her touch, yellowed eyes replacing brown, jagged teeth marring his sinful mouth. She didn’t blink, didn’t gasp in shock, she simply stroked his hair, trailed fingertips across the ridges on his forehead, down his cheek.

“Now say it,” he looked down at her, his body absolutely still, waiting.

Cordelia raised her head up to meet his, kissed his lips softly and leaned back again. Her eyes were locked with his for a small moment in the silent room. “I love you,” she whispered with a new awe in her voice that he missed.

Her body accepted his with one sure thrust. That one strong move sent a shocking jolt of pleasure through her still shivering body. She gasped for air, for mercy as he began to move, thrusting with long, hard sure strokes, driving deeper, harder, welding them together.

She was spiraling again, going up in flames. How had she ever lived without such pleasure, without the man who was giving such pleasure to her? He was possessive and bossy and self-deprecating. But would she have him be any other way? Without those traits, he wouldn’t be what he was, what she!..Those things balanced his hidden sense of loyalty, his need to protect those he cared for, his guilt and knowledge of his capability for extreme violence.

Cordelia’s mind slipped away from serious thoughts, caught up in a whirling tornado of terrible need as he began to drive into her at a furious pace, bringing her again and again to shuddering, earth quaking ecstasy. Her muscles clenched over and over, gripping and milking him until he was no longer in control, until her body took his soaring with hers.

“Say it again,” his husky voice tore out the words as they both burst into a scorching flame, holding onto each other for dear life as they plummeted back to earth.

Angel buried his face in her shoulder, holding her tightly against him. Cordelia’s arms were locked around his neck, her body rippling endlessly, holding him inside of her.

The room was silent except for her ragged breaths that she struggled to bring under control. She could see the small dim light of dusk slipping away from them through the slit in the heavy drapes of his room. She closed her eyes; her arms tightening around him as she nuzzled the side of her face to his still buried head. “I love you,” she said softly, and meant it.

Part 11

Angel stood beside his bed staring down at Cordelia as she slept; letting the words he had forced her to say wash over him. He closed his eyes for just a moment, savoring the lie. ‘I love you,’ he let her voice echo through his mind, his heart, before looking down at her again. It was time. Time to find her father. And time to let her go. He had his fantasy night to help sate the hunger he would feel for the rest of his existence without her. And now he would fulfill his promise. Reaching down, he brushed her cheek lightly with the back of his hand before turning to leave.

She had been so unexpected, filling an emptiness within him that was unfathomable. Her trust and belief in him had been a precious gift. But a bittersweet one. Before her, he had known solitude, had longed for something he really could not understand. It had been a painful and lonely existence, to have never known love, companionship, true desire. But now he knew. Knew the definition of those things to a fault. And knew that the pain he had felt before would be a muted version of what was to come. How much more would he hunger for those things now that he truly understood them? As he descended the stairs to the lobby, he couldn’t help but wonder if he might have been better off to have never known the deep emotions she had awoken in him.

No.

She had been and would always be a bright light in an otherwise bleak and dark existence. Cordelia had given a part of herself to him, and that light would remain with him forever, changing him. Diluting the evil that lay dormant within him.

Approaching the basement door, Angel’s mind strayed to Cordelia’s future. How could she ever be safe without him? Who would protect her? His own name began to materialize as the logical answer until he remembered the attack, her beautiful bruised face. He could never be her protector. He couldn’t even keep her safe in his own world.

The night of the attack replayed in his mind as he entered the sewer; Cordelia’s body laying on the marble floor, the burning rage that had consumed him, the feel of the intruders throat in his hand as he began to crush the life from him, demanding who had dared send them into his home.

Angel froze. His photographic memory focusing in on that moment. ‘Wolf!’ the man had uttered before dying.

Why hadn’t he recalled it before?

Angel’s jaw twitched, his eyes turning from mere hunter to inhuman predator. He turned, headed back into the hotel, up the stairs, and into Cordelia’s room, finding what he needed tossed carelessly on top of her chest.

The room was dark, but the bold print at the top of the expensive business card was crystal clear, WOLFRAM AND HART. The assailant’s words came back in Angel’s mind, ‘Wolf!’. A deep growl vibrated in the room as Angel turned the card over and read the address scribbled on the back of the card.

***

Lindsay pressed the lock button on his key chain causing a loud ‘beep’ to echo through the parking garage of the exclusive apartment complex. Gated more for prestige than for security, the complex was beautiful and pricey, just what a top executive at Wolfram and Hart should have. He’d lived there for nearly a year now, but he still got a small thrill each time he pulled into the iron gates and heard the guard call out a greeting of ‘Good evening, Mr. Lindsay’. Mr. Lindsay. He had made it. And for someone like him, someone who had come from very little means, very little respect, it meant something.

Sure some of the others in his department warned him constantly of the lack of security he would have living in one of the few buildings not owned by his employer. But he could care less. He’d accepted the risk and lifestyle, along with the salary, of a Wolfram and Hart employee long ago. He knew he wouldn’t last long in this world when he had signed his contract, in blood no less, but in return he would live out his short life in style, with respect. Sure, the ten foot iron bars that surrounded the place wouldn’t keep out the things that a Wolfram and Hart residence might, but they looked damn good from the street.

But tonight, the little thrill of his position in life seemed subdued. His thoughts, which were normally focused, controlled and calculating, were chaotic and unsure. A deadly concoction in his line of work. Cordelia had done that. Aroused something in him that had been silent for quite awhile. And as hard as he had tried to put her out of his mind, realize she was just another pawn in another of what would be many more games that Wolfram and Hart played, he could not shake the feeling of want when it came to her. The feeling of a future. A ‘what could have been’ scenario.

Lust. It had to be.

She was a beautiful young woman who would invade any man’s mind. He could shake it.

But even a trip to his favorite strip club earlier hadn’t helped the urges he was feeling. Maybe it was the old ‘forbidden fruit’ thing. Cordelia was off-limits. Either way. If Wolfram and Hart defeated Angel she was theirs, and if they didn’t, well, Lindsay wasn’t too sure if he wanted her bad enough to go through a legendary vampire.

Reaching the dim corridor that led from the garage to the elevators, Lindsay felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He turned and eyed the brightly lit garage that lay still and silent behind him in the late hour of the night. He shook off the feeling and entered the corridor, heading for the elevators just steps away.

Lindsay stopped at the first set of round buttons and reached his hand out, but before he could touch the round, plastic button marked ‘up’, a cold hand circled around his neck from behind, lifting him and pushing him to the far wall.

Angel’s human face was a tight mask of fury as he held Lindsay firmly to the brick, his hand grasping the man’s windpipe just enough to be uncomfortable.

“They were there for me. Weren’t they?” Angel bit out.

Lindsay tried to still the tremble that the attack had set off in his body. So Angel knew. He could work with that. He’d learned a long time ago not to fight the current when the game switched directions. Fighting was always a sure way to drown. He tried to shrug his shoulders nonchalantly, but Angel’s iron grip prevented the action. “They were there for you,” he confirmed. “But the little delay in the lobby,” his voice rasped out, “And the idiotic semi-confession of one our men cut that route short.”

“What does Wolfram and Hart want with me?” he growled and exerted a little more pressure.

“The hell if I know? But they want you alive. My guess is they want you on their side,” he struggled to answer.

“And they thought that sending you in to play head-games with Cordelia would convince me?” Angel fought to stay in control at the thought of what this would mean to her. The hopes it would dash. He grasped Lindsay even tighter and tossed him effortlessly to the opposite wall.

Lindsay’s head hit hard against the brick and he slipped down with a plop to the concrete floor below, rubbing his raw neck and fighting off the spots forming in front of his eyes. When he blinked his eyes into focus and looked up, Angel stood before him, his human face now transformed into his demonic one. The tremble returned.

“Been a long time since I drank straight from the tap,” Angel’s voice was malevolence itself.

“So you’re going to kill me? Before you even know what it is they want with you?”

“No.” Angel moved with inhuman speed, pulling Lindsay up by his shirt. “I’m going to kill you for the bruise on her face,” his golden eyes burned through Lindsay, “for the disappointment I’ll see there when she finds out what I already knew.” Angel pushed Lindsay’s head roughly to the side, focusing in on the jumping pulse in his neck.

“Think she’ll forgive you when they find the body?” Lindsay was desperate now, no longer able to hide the fear in his voice. “She’ll know. She’s a smart girl.”

“Won’t find a body,” Angel continued to stare at the racing pulse, letting the man’s fear wash over him, call to him. “Just a pile of dust.”

Lindsay tried to swallow then, realizing just what Angel’s words meant. He’d turn him, then dust him. His instinct to live kicked in as his peripheral vision caught the descent of Angel’s head. “We have her father!” He breathed quickly, feeling the first touch of Angel’s fangs.

Angel stilled for a moment, pulled his head away and stared at the man before him. “What?” he growled.

“Her father,” Lindsay’s breath was heavier now that Angel had loosened his grip slightly. “He came to us to find her. When we realized she was with you, we thought we could use it.”

Angel’s golden eyes stared unblinking at the man, as if trying to weigh the credibility in Lindsay’s words.

“I can get him for you,” Lindsay was all salesman now. Bargaining for his life.

“Where is he?” Angel bit out.

Lindsay shook his head slightly against Angel’s grasp. “If you go to him they’ll know. You’ll give them exactly what they want.”

“I suppose you have a suggestion.”

“Let me bring him to you. Tomorrow night. Loading dock eleven at the pier. There is an old storage warehouse just behind. You’ll find him there.”

“You think I trust you?” Angel’s voice dripped with hatred.

“No. But I’m the only link you have to her dad.”

“I can sense a heartbeat a mile away. If you try to bring your little militia, I’ll know if it’s a trap before I even get close.”

“We’ll be alone.”

Angel held him there for several moments, deciding.

He released his hold on Lindsay, but his deadly gaze still penetrated him. “If anything goes wrong or if you’re screwing with me…….. Let’s just say what almost happened here will be your new wet dream.”

“Tomorrow night,” Lindsay ignored the warning.

Angel nodded.

***

Cordelia loved good dreams. As a small child she would dream almost every night. She remembered the feel of snuggling into her safe, warm bed, anticipating what fascinating things her vivid imagination would show her next. And she remembered each and every one too; although she had found out later that was not a common thing, still, she relished each of them.

Until a few months ago.

For just as her imagination had not failed her in her years of blissful innocence, it was just as active in darker times, even more so it seemed. Each dream of late had been filled with demons and fear. And betrayal.

Until tonight. She smiled in her sleep as a picture of Angel came into her mind. He was ….smiling? The dream focused, became clearer, and she could see that he was smiling at a woman who stood by his side. At her. They were standing on a balcony, bathed in the light of a full moon, looking at each other as if they had finally found something, seen something in each other they had been looking for, waiting for.

He touched her cheek gently as he stared at her, “You didn’t have to,” he said to her dream self.

She watched as her smile widened then, “Yes I did.”

His smile faded only slightly, his face turning serious, “I love you, Cordelia.”

She was going to answer him, tell him that she loved him too, but the dream began to blur, then fade.

“Cordelia,” she heard a whisper, an echo.

She reached for the dream, still feeling the stroke of Angel’s hand on her cheek.

“Cordelia,” the voice whispered again.

Cordelia’s eyes blinked and slowly opened, focusing in on Angel who sat on the side of the bed, gently stoking her cheek.

“Good morning,” he whispered.

Cordelia stretched and smiled. He looked so serious that she wanted to reach up and wipe away the worried line on his brow. “Good morning,” she whispered back, the feeling in her dream overflowing into reality.

Until reality hit.

Cordelia’s smile faded and she shot up off the pillow. “Morning?” she glanced breathlessly to the balcony and the heavy drapes pulled together to block out the early sun. “I can’t believe I slept all night, wasted so much time, I’ve got to get up and….”

Angel placed his hands gently on her shoulders, stopping her frantic exit from the bed. “I know where he is,” was all he had to say to freeze her. He watched her carefully, her eyes never blinking, her body gone still as stone. For a moment he thought she had stopped breathing.

“Where is he?” she finally asked as calmly as she could.

Angel paused for a moment. Last night he would have given anything to show up her runt of a lawyer. Now his petty vengeance brought about by jealousy seemed insignificant to the pain he knew the revelation would cause her. She had been betrayed. Again.

“The law firm that your friend works for, Wolfram and Hart, has him.”

“What do you mean, ‘has him’.”

“It seems his connection to them prompted him to ask for their help in finding you. When they realized that you were here with me, a vampire they were trying to recruit, they saw it as an opportunity to get close.”

Cordelia stared at him for a moment and he saw the anger begin to boil to the surface before she pushed passed him off the bed, heading for the door. He was there in a second, blocking her way. “Where are going?”

“To get my father from that lying, slimy, son-of-a-bitch,” she was shaking now with anger at being fooled, being led down another dark path. She couldn’t trust anyone. She knew that. What had possessed her to think that Lindsay would be just a normal guy willing to help? She could trust no one.

No one but Angel.

Her eyes softened a bit as she looked up at him through unshed tears. “You’re the only one, aren’t you? The only one I trust with my father’s life. And mine.” She had felt it before, but knew it emphatically now and it warmed her heart.

He didn’t answer her, not with words. He simply pulled her to him and embraced her, dropping a kiss to the top of her head.

Cordelia absorbed the feel of his arms around her, nestling into the only place in the world that gave her some sort of stability, peace.

“So what’s the plan?” her voice softly vibrated against his chest.

“We meet the asshole lawyer tonight. He’ll turn over your dad.”

“And in return he gets!?”

“To live,” Angel answered unashamedly.

They held each other another moment and Angel was grateful to feel some of the tension finally leave her. “I wish I could change things for you, Cordelia. I wish that the world wasn’t a dark and terrible place. You deserve so much more, so much better than what the world is showing you. I imagine over the past few months you’ve had to learn a hard lesson fast. Had to beg and bargain for….” he closed his eyes and held her tighter, burying his face in her hair, “Even from me,” he finished in a desperate whisper. “I’m sorry.”

She pulled away slightly but kept her arms firmly around his waist. “Which thing are you sorry for, Angel? Saving my life, taking me in, rescuing my father, warning me about Lindsay, finding out the truth?”

“Making you pay for those things by forcing you to stay here with something like me. For last night! for making you! ..pretend,” each word seemed painful. “So you’re sorry for last night?” she didn’t give him a real chance to answer before continuing. “Well, I’m not. And I never will be, Angel. Not as long as I live.”

His deep brown eyes were full of puzzlement as he stared down at her. How could she not be disgusted by his demand the night before?

“You’re right you know,” she said softly. “I’m learning a lot about the way the world works, how hard and selfish people, and non-people, can be. How the things we want out of life will probably never come without a price. That all of us are searching for something that we would be willing to bargain with just about anything for. I guess we just have to make sure that what we want is worth it, worth the bargain I mean, and that we’re willing to pay the price.

“None of us are immune to it. Not even you,” she reached up then with one of her arms and touched his face with the back of her hand. “What were you looking for in Sunnydale, Angel? Acceptance, worth,…..love?”

His jaw tightened at her accuracy and his eyes slid away from her face.

“You tried to bargain your strength and assistance for it in Sunnydale but they turned you away. You tried here, with strangers, but they didn’t know you, couldn’t accept what you were. Last night, you looked for it in me. Don’t be sorry for that. Because I couldn’t bear it if you were sorry now that you’ve finally found it.”

Angel’s eyes darted back to her face.

Cordelia laid her palm on his cheek. “I love you, Angel. I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone or anything as much as I love you. And I’m telling you now, here, in the light of day because I know you’re just dumb enough not to realize that I meant it last night.”

“Cordelia,” her name sounded like a desperate plea. “I can’t walk in the sun, can’t father children, won’t age, won’t ever…..”

“And I don’t have super strength,” she interrupted. “Can’t cook for my life, will grow old and wrinkly while you still look like Salty Goodness, and on occasion I can be a tiny bit strong willed. Do those things make you love me any less? That is, if you do love?” her voice suddenly sounded unsure.

“Love you?” Angel almost wanted to laugh. Dipping his head to hers, he captured her lips passionately.

When they finally broke away, Cordelia was breathless and dazed, “So that’s a yes I take it?”

“Yes, I love you. And whatever the price, it’s worth it if you love me in return.”

***

Wesley, Gunn, and Fred sat on the crimson lobby sofa while Angel and Cordelia stood before them, explaining Angel’s discovery and the plan to retrieve her father that night. When they were finished and the few remaining questions were asked and answered, the group began to disperse. Gunn and Fred decided on an early lunch. Wesley and Cordelia declined their invitation; Wesley burying himself back inside his office and Cordelia content to just be near Angel, enjoying the small smile that flashed across his face now and again at her. Reaching out, she took his hand when they were finally alone in the lobby. She felt a thrill of happiness shoot through her at the feel of his hand in hers, the way his fingers intertwined with her own and gave a small squeeze. Angel was coming out of his shell, out from behind his mask, and she loved him more and more each minute.

“Angel,” the sound of his name on her lips and the feel of her hand in his, that she had been the one to reach for him, made him full of a happiness that had never existed inside of him. For once in his existence, he had something he desired. Something good and kind and wonderful. He knew that he would never measure up. Never be near what she deserved, but as long as she would let him, he would try. Pulling her into an embrace, he looked down at her and gave her another one of the small smiles that he seemed unable to control ever since she said that she loved him.

She loved him.

Dipping his head down, he gave her a soft, short kiss, remembering almost instantly that they were not completely alone. When he lifted his head, he glanced to the office windows.

Cordelia followed his gaze, then looked back to him. “You need to talk to him. He’s been tormenting himself over not telling you.”

“Good.”

“Angel, he’s your friend. I know that’s a new concept for you, but he is. And you’re his. Go in there and talk to him. Make him feel better. No matter the way he handled things, his intentions were good. His only thought was to help you.”

Angel blew out a sigh of defeat and reluctantly let her go before heading into the office.

Wesley sat behind a mountain of books and files. The only part of him visible was from the forehead up. “Angel,” he addressed with some surprise as the office door closed. Wesley stood but didn’t round the desk.

“Cordelia said we should talk,” Angel commented uncomfortably.

“Well, yes. I suppose we should. First, I want to say that….I’m sorry for keeping you in the dark about your condition. I thought it best.”

“It’s alright. It probably was. In any case, it doesn’t matter now.”

“So your ability to transform has completely returned?” Wesley went into science mode.

“Seems so. It was slow going the first few times, but no real trouble after that.”

“And your human form, it’s not difficult or painful to hold?”

Angel shook his head.

Wesley smiled, “Excellent,” then sobered again. “So, you forgive me? For the omission?”

Angel thought of Cordelia’s words that morning, about the price of things that come into each person’s life. “You did it to protect me. That alone makes it worth forgiving.”

Wesley gave a tentative smile and Angel turned to go.

“Angel, wait,” Wesley rounded the desk.

Angel paused and when Wesley looked out to Cordelia who sat lounged on the lobby couch, Angel took the silent cue and shut the office door.

“Since, as you now know, I had already found what I thought to be the cause of your condition, I began several weeks ago looking into the other mystery that has haunted you. The fact of your soul.”

“What about my soul?”

“Why it was restored? Who restored it?”

“And?” Angel seemed almost bored at the topic. The truth was that he had never really cared why on that one night he had awoken different, changed. For the first few years he had even deemed it a curse, the guilt of his soulless life almost too much to bear. Now he knew not to question it. It just was. And in truth, he feared that if he dug too deeply, he might not like what he found.

“Well, I haven’t found anything substantial. But there is a prophecy…”

Angel rolled his eyes at that. Everyone knew that prophecies were semi-truthful at best. And at worst, out right fantasy.

“Please, Angel, hear me out. There is a prophecy, written by the Diocian Sect in ancient Greece. They were said to be priests and guards to the Oracles. Some of it has been destroyed, but the part that remains intact mentions a warrior who will come to his destiny in this time. One who is dead yet can live, possesses a strength born in darkness but a soul born from light. It says that only he can defeat his own kind, and create the rest to come.”

“The rest what?”

“I’m not sure,” Wesley sighed with disappointment. “But I have located a spell, one said to grant an individual an audience with the Oracles. I think if we want to find out why you were given a soul, or a purpose that you may be chosen to fulfill….”

“Right now my purpose is to get Cordelia’s father back. The rest, and I’m not saying that I believe any of this, can come after that.”

Wesley’s shoulders slumped as Angel turned and grasped the doorknob then paused before leaving. Without turning, he said, “Just that you care, that you spent so much time on this, means something to me. Thanks,” he finished and then left the office.

***

Lindsay’s heart began to beat slightly faster as he approached his office and saw the look on his secretary’s face. She averted her eyes as soon as he reached her desk and he knew that trouble was waiting behind his door. Entering his office with practiced coolness, he gave Mr. Manners, his two right hand assassins, and Lilah Morgan a passing glance before shutting the door.

“Did I miss a memo?” he turned to the group.

Holland Manners motioned for one of the men to lean down and whispered an inaudible order into the man’s ear. The man nodded to the other assassin and both men left the room. Lindsay tried not to break a sweat as his boss’s attention turned to him. “Lindsay,” he began with a smile that was far from warm. “I assume since I didn’t hear from you last night, or this morning, that you were going to provide me with a full written report of your little….meeting last night. I mean, anything less would be…..deceitful.”

Lindsay’s face paled visibly and he noted the huge grin that had spread across Lilah’s face.

“I was going to come see you personally, sir. I know how important Angel is to you and I didn’t want any interference on this,” he tried, with a cutting look to Lilah.

“Really? You know, it’s come to my attention that your interest in this case might not be so loyal, your judgment not so clear.”

Lindsay was silent.

“She’s very pretty, Lindsay. But she’s one in a sea of millions. I mean, if you’re really that taken with her, my wife Candy can give you the number to her plastic surgeon. He can make anyone look like ….well, anyone. You can create your own version of her and get passed this ridiculous stumbling block.”

“Sir…”

“I mean, honestly Lindsay. Did you really think that by living in an independent complex that we wouldn’t know every move you make? Every deal?”

“I wouldn’t actually have turned him over, sir.”

“Yes, you would have. Lucky for you, the idea sprung an inspiring new direction thought up by our own Lilah,” Mr. Manners smiled up at Lilah.

“It was nothing, sir. Just being a team player,” she directed the last comment to Lindsay.

“Keep the meeting as is. You’ll go alone, with her father.”

“And?”

“And that’s it. After reviewing the situation and talking it over with Ms. Morgan, I’ve decided that the way to get to Angel is through the girl. And the way to get to the girl is through her father. We’ve offered him a deal and he has accepted. Now, with her father working for us, she can be convinced to join our little team too. And once we have her, Angel’s a given.”

Lindsay gave his employer a look of suspicion.

“Why so quiet?” Mr. Manners ask him with a smile. “It’s a perfect, uncomplicated plan. Simplicity at its best,” he stood then and crossed the room, Lilah following like a dog on the heels of its master. “Oh, and Lindsay,” he paused at the door, his face void of the fake smile before. “This is going in your permanent file,” he said before he and Lilah finally left the room.

Lindsay walked to his desk and sat down hard in the chair, blowing out a deep breath. The where and when of the plan might be the same, but the presence of the two Wolfram and Hart assassins told Lindsay that Holland Manners had made alterations. And that was bad news even in a portal to hell like this one.

***

The drive to the docks had been quiet. The five occupants staring ahead as the pier came into view. Angel had planned to leave Cordelia and Fred behind, taking the two men with him in case of trouble. And keeping Cordelia and Fred far from it. But that had caused Cordelia’s sweet disposition caused by their new found love to turn into something that made even Angel quake with fear.

He tried not to let a smile break out on his face as he passed a glance to her sitting stiffly next to him in the front seat. He had tried everything he could to make her stay behind, and she had fought him tooth-and-nail. They had both been furious. And she had been a force to be reckoned with. A tigress.

Angel reached over the leather seat with his free hand as he steered with the other and grasped one of hers balled tightly into a fist in her lap. Pulling her hand a little closer across the seat, he twined their fingers and gave a squeeze. So they had fought. It wasn’t the end of the world and it certainly wouldn’t be their last knock-down-drag-out. In truth, it was nice to have someone to fight with. And to make-up with.

Cordelia’s features softened and she squeezed his hand in response, turning to look at the side of his face. Her eyes held deep emotion. God, she loved this man or vampire or whatever the hell he was. And the fight had just strengthened her belief that they were good together, why being together was so right. Yes, he was possessive and overbearing and had a head as hard as steal. But he didn’t scare her. And he was the only person that she had ever met that could take one of her tongue lashings and want to hold her hand just fifteen minutes later.

The thing was, along with the strong physical attraction and the deep soulful love that they felt for one another, that they understood one another. Cordelia understood that Angel had very few things in his existence that truly were precious to him. Therefore, he guarded them to the point of near suffocation. And Angel understood that Cordelia would never leave his side, or abandon anyone she cared for. She would never let another person fight her battles for her, or walk alone into one they had taken on together. Her smile widened and she looked at the side of his head for one more moment before turning her gaze back to the road.

Angel broke a smile too, his eyes staying focused on the building ahead of them as they pulled into the lot. They had apologized to one another without a word. He had never imagined that a relationship with another being could be so powerful.

Reluctantly, Angel let go of Cordelia’s hand to turn off the engine and exit the car. He glanced back to Gunn who held up his trusty ax. They had armed themselves sparingly, ready for trouble, but light so they could get in and get out fast.

Angel scanned the lot as they all exited the car, zeroing in on a heartbeat just around the corner of the building. Lindsay. He glanced to the others and than led the way to the side of the building, Cordelia close at his side.

Lindsay stood leaned against a cedar lamppost just a few feet from a side entrance to the building.

“Where is he?” Cordelia was the first to ask.

“Here, just as I promised. He’s inside, waiting on you. I found him. Just like I said I would. No matter what he’s told you, remember that,” he looked at Cordelia with almost believable innocence and reached out and touched her arm. She recoiled at the feel of his skin on hers, jerking her arm away. Lindsay might be human, but he was more of a monster than anything she had come across. And the thought of him now made her sick.

Angel stared at Lindsay’s hand for a moment, remembering that same hand touching Cordelia in the hotel lobby. A blind rage dropped its veil over his mind as a low, rumbling growl escaped him unchecked.

“What is it?” Wesley asked. “You sense danger?”

Angel pulled himself to focus and scanned the area, but couldn’t sense a trap of any kind. Even so, he caught Cordelia’s arm when she reached out for the door. “Let Wesley and Gunn go in first. Okay?” he asked softy.

She nodded her head and let the two men pass to the door.

“You’d better go too, Fred.”

“Ain’t you comin?” Gunn turned to ask just in front of the door.

“In a minute,” Angel’s eyes never left Lindsay’s, an animal zeroing in on its prey.

“Angel,” Cordelia tried.

“It’s okay, Cordy,” he used the nickname for the first time, thrilling them both. “I won’t kill him. I just need to make sure that this ends now.”

She seemed unsure, but then nodded her agreement. All she wanted to do was go to her father now. To make sure he was safe, that he would stay that way, and to start her life with Angel.

“And Gunn,” Angel addressed the man before he entered the building. “Leave the ax.”

Gunn never missed a step as he tossed the heavy weapon instantly to Angel, shooting Lindsay a shitty grin before leading the way for the others into the building.

When the door was closed and the others were safely inside where Angel sensed no assassins’ heartbeats and no immediate danger, his gaze dropped down to Lindsay’s right hand. “That’s the second time I’ve watched you touch her. It’s offensive. And you know what they say,” Angel gave the ax a practice swing. “If your right hand offends me……”

***

The warehouse was dark and musty. And completely silent. “Dad?” Cordelia called, answered only by her echo.

“Maybe he’s hidin’,” Fred offered hopefully.

“Dad? It’s me. Cordelia,” her heart was beginning to sink at the silence that answered them.

“Stay here,” Gunn offered sympathetically. “Wes and I’ll take a look around.”

Cordelia nodded and Gunn and Wesley began to walk away in the darkness. Only a few feet away from the girls, they froze when they heard Cordelia gasp, “Dad?”

Wesley and Gunn turned to see Cordelia and Fred looking up to the metal landing that hung a few yards away from them. It was set high, accessible only by the metal stairs in front of it, and was engulfed in shadows. But there was someone there, the silhouette of a man answered back. “Cordy? Baby?”

“Oh my god,” Cordelia breathed before racing to the stairs. “Dad.”

Gunn began to follow, but Wesley placed a hand on his shoulder. “Give them a moment,” he urged gently as he watched Cordelia bound up the noisy stairs, his heart overflowing for her and her happiness.

Cordelia reached the top and stopped, her breath caught in her throat as she looked at the man just a couple of feet from her. Her father. She ran and embraced him, then pulled away to look at him again, to make sure he was real. “Lindsay said you were here, but I was so afraid it was another lie. Are you alright?” her eyes began to rove over him, visually inspecting him for injuries.

Clinton smiled, “I’m fine sweetheart. Just a little worried about you.”

“So they didn’t hurt you are anything?” she needed reassurance. She had envisioned so many terrible things, imagined the worst of what could have happened to him during her time in L.A.. She needed to hear it from his own lips that he was safe, that he would be alright.

“Hurt me? Of course not. They’ve been great. They’ve taken care of me, even fixed that little heart problem that seemed to be creeping up on me. And they’ve offered me a job, honey.”

“Oh, dad,” Cordelia felt tears burning her eyes. He hadn’t changed. He still thought that the perfect job and enough money would make him happy. But he couldn’t seem to understand that life would never be perfect, for anyone, and no amount of money is ever enough when you count on it for happiness.

***

Angel entered the warehouse and walked up behind his three housemates who stared to the landing above them. “Where’s Cordy?” he asked as he handed the bloodied ax to Gunn.

Gunn stared down at his favorite weapon and then back to Angel with a cocked brow, “Run into something big and bloody outside?” he asked.

Angel shrugged carelessly as he made out Cordelia and her father on the metal floor above and ahead. “Lindsay got a little out of hand.”

“He’s not, you didn’t, I mean….”

“No, Fred. He’s alive. I made sure of that,” Angel said with eerie satisfaction. “So he was here?” he changed the subject as he tried not to eavesdrop on the conversation between the two shadowed figures ahead.

“It would appear so,” Wesley commented. “And you still sense no danger?”

Angel opened his senses again, scanning the interior of the building, “No,” he answered as he focused on the heartbeats of the inhabitants of the warehouse. “It’s weird though,” he continued, counting off the heartbeats of Wesley, Fred, and Gunn. “Everything in me says this is a trap, but I just can’t….” his voice trailed off as he sensed the vamp. “There’s a vamp in the building. Damn it,” he started looking frantically from one wall to the next. “I was scanning for humans. They must have vampires working for them as well. But the scent, it’s….familiar….” his gaze shot back to the landing. “Oh God,” he whispered.

***

Tears slipped unchecked down Cordelia’s face. “Daddy, money isn’t everything. It can’t make you a better man.”

“But they have made me better, honey,” he took the step that was between them and embraced her. “And you’re right. Money isn’t everything.”

Cordelia hugged him back tightly, burying her face against his shoulder. So he still longed for wealth at any price. She was grateful just to have him back. They could work on the rest later. “It’s alright, Dad. As long as you’re safe. That’s all that matters.”

“I just want to take care of you, and your mother, Cordelia. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Cordelia hugged him tighter again, listening to the vibrations of his voice against her ear. She felt like a child again, being comforted by her father. She closed her eyes and snuggled close to him, remembering the way she used to lay her head on his chest as a child and listen to the rumbling of his deep voice and the reassuring thump of his strong heart.

Cordelia frowned.

“And now that I have you back, we can make our way back to your mother, convince her to join with us,” his voice vibrated in his chest but the reassuring heartbeat…..

Join with us? What did that mean?

“You won’t find it you know. I missed it at first too.”

Cordelia felt sick. She pulled back slowly, or maybe it was quickly, but it felt like forever as she looked up at her father. Except he wasn’t her father anymore. Not really. She swallowed hard, fighting away the bile that rose in her throat at the sight of her father’s vampiric face.

He kept a strong hold on her. “It’s just a small price to pay, honey,” he looked at her as if she was the one that had lost her mind. “The sun, a heartbeat. Those are small things compared to what you get in return. With my powers, and with Wolfram and Hart backing me, there’s no limit to what I can do,” his boast fell on deaf ears. Cordelia couldn’t think, much less hear or feel. She just shook her head, again and again, as if denying what had happened would make it untrue.

“No, no, no,” she whispered.

“Don’t worry, sweetie. It only hurts for a moment. Now be still.”

Cordelia struggled against him, pushing at his shoulders uselessly as he bent toward her neck.

“Be a good girl, Cordelia. Don’t fight your father,” he said against her neck.

“No,” she whispered as she felt the small prick of his fangs. She closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable.

But it never came.

Clinton froze, his body rigid as he pulled away from her, a pained look on his demonic face before bursting wordlessly into dust, leaving only Angel standing before her.

Angel felt a terrible pain shoot through him as he watch Cordelia grasp wildly at the particles of dust that filled the air. She reached for them, followed them to the metal floor as she sunk to her knees and wept. “Daddy,” she sobbed.

It was the only word she spoke. And it pierced Angel straight through his heart. He stepped forward to her as she sobbed, her head bowed down in her hands where what few bits of dust she had grabbed remained. He paused, her sobs racking his entire body. Looking over her to the stairs, he saw Wesley, Gunn, and Fred standing in stunned silence. “Take her home,” his whispered plea was hoarse and laced with his own tortured emotions.

He looked back to her for a moment, then turned to go.

***

Wesley closed the door to Cordelia’s room softly, thankful that after a full night of nonstop crying, she was finally asleep.

Intent on getting some rest himself, he turned and ran into the last face he’d expected to see in the new hours of the day. “Angel,” his voice showed his surprise. “You disappeared so suddenly last night that I thought….” Wesley trailed off the rehearsed chastising he had planned for Angel and his disappearance. The vampire looked terrible. A picture of tortured agony. In that moment Wesley forgave him. He guessed that Angel had needed a night away to digest what he had been forced to do, just as Cordelia needed the breakdown she was experiencing to cope. “I’m glad you’ve returned,” he settled. Cordelia needed Angel now more than anyone else.

As Wesley turned to lead the way back to Cordelia’s door, Angel stopped him. “I’m not staying,” he stared at the door instead of Wesley. “I just wanted to make sure she was…..alright,” the last word seemed to break a little.

“Well, she is not. She needs you, Angel.”

“Why”” he turned to his friend, “So I can hunt down and kill another member of her family?” he bit out the disgust with himself.

“Angel, you can’t leave her like this,” Wesley was angry now.

“I have to. And I don’t have time to argue,” he said as he handed a small file to Wesley. “It’s everything I have. Bank accounts, safe deposits, etc.. Some you already know about, some you don’t. I want you, Gunn, and Fred to have a fraction of it,” he continued as Wesley took the file and thumbed through the pages, realizing that a fraction of Angel’s net worth was a fortune. “The rest I want to go to Cordy,” his voice threatened to leave him again at the nickname he had just begun to use. “The hotel, everything. She deserves….” his voice did fail him then as he looked back to the door.

“She won’t understand this.”

Angel gave a short, humorless laugh, “Yes, she will. Tell her that I’m sorry. Tell her…..tell her that I never even deserved the fantasy, much less the real thing,” Angel said before touching the door to her suite. He paused there for a moment, then turned to leave.

“Angel,” Wesley called to his back.

Angel didn’t turn, or slow his dragging steps.

Part 12

Three months. That was how long it had taken him to get to Europe, realize what a mistake he had made, and travel back to Los Angeles. What had he been thinking?

He hadn’t, and that was the problem.

And now he stood in front of the old….. strike that…. new hotel. For that’s what it was beginning to look like with the obvious changes that had been made to it. Only one side of the old building still looked like itself, but the scaffolding that rose half way up the old stone wall hinted that that too soon would be changed.

It was different.

It was palatial.

It was Cordelia.

Angel looked up at one of the few things that hadn’t changed, the white flowers still blooming on the balcony above. A soft light poured out into the cloud covered darkness from the opened French doors as the cool night wind whipped and pulled at the gauzy, inner panels of drapery that hung in the room beyond.

He caught a small whiff of her perfume on the breeze and closed his eyes for a moment. He tried to picture her in the room above, what she was doing in that moment.

He knew what she HAD been doing the last three months. He’d gotten that information from the streets as soon as he had arrived back in town, sparking an anger he was determined to control.

He had given her a fortune. If that word could even begin to describe the obscene amount of money that he had left her. The last thing he had expected her to do, wanted her to do was to stay here. In the place that held such a horrible memory.

Angel’s jaw clenched and his stomach turned as his mind played for him the image and feeling he kept trying to forget.

She had tried so hard to convince him, and herself, that he was not a monster. And for a few precious days he had believed her. But one swift move had changed all that. It hadn’t mattered in that moment that it was her father. All Angel had seen, all that his heart and mind would let him see, was a danger to her. His only thought was to save her. Protect her. And in doing so he had destroyed the only good thing left for her.

So he had left. Giving her everything he had, for taking everything from her. Sure it was only money and wouldn’t begin to ease the pain of her father’s death. But it could have made her life easier. Given her a way to escape the hell her once perfect life had become.

He had wanted her to live the life she deserved. Travel. Go to sunny beaches, exotic resorts. Sell the hotel and buy a mansion surrounded by one of those fences that let people know just what kind of house lay beyond.

A very large fence, he thought absently as his eyes stared at the vulnerability of her open balcony.

Preferably wired with an electrical current.

Top of the line security to keep her forever safe.

And dogs. Big ones. Roaming the grounds. Seven or eight of them.

But had she done any of that? No. She was still in this place. With old memories and no security what-so-ever. Laying helplessly in her room, doors wide open, with a vampire staring up at her window getting hard off the smell of her perfume.

One leap. That’s all it would take. Christ, he could be anyone. Anyone or anything could get to her at anytime and that feeling turned Angel’s aching guilt into a sharp, acute pain.

How could he have left her like this?

Unprotected.

Alone.

Never mind that the others had decided to stay. They clearly were not watching out for her, or themselves for that matter.

And now, to find out on the street that not only had she stayed but that she had been using the money he had left her to help anyone, or anything, that came to her or the others in need. Even the green demon bar owner knew about Cordelia Chase and her “secret” charity.

Well it didn’t seem to be such a secret on the street.

And it sure as hell wasn’t safe.

Angel’s eyes darted to the balcony as the light inside disappeared, plunging the opened doors into darkness.

***

Cordelia lay in the darkened room, closing her eyes, trying to sleep. But as she tossed restlessly a short breeze puffed through the room, bringing with it the aroma of the flowers outside. She groaned and punched her pillow before burrowing her head into the down fluffiness. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would do what she had been promising herself she would do for the last few weeks and cut down those damn flowers.

At first, when Wesley had told her about Angel leaving, the blooms and their torturous smell had been a comfort. A hope of sorts that Angel would come to his senses and return, bring back the only good thing she had left. But that was before the second month came and anger struck. Anger that he could just leave her like this. Anger that he didn’t realize that he was the only one that could have gotten her through her father’s death. Oh, Wesley, Fred, and Gunn were sweet enough, nursing her through the first few blubbering weeks of mourning. But they weren’t what she needed. He was. And he had left her.

And he wasn’t coming back.

So, in the second month, the truth of the situation along with the anger of Angel’s abandonment and her father’s unnecessary death, helped her to pull what was left of herself together. To resolve, in true Cordelia fashion, to accept her life for what it was.

Deciding to help others with the money Angel had left just seemed a logical next step. A therapy of sorts. And she did have enough money now for ten luxury filled lifetimes. What else should she do with it? Buy a mansion? Travel the world? Those kind of things didn’t hold much appeal for her any longer. She didn’t want to leave the hotel. It had been the first place in a long time that she had felt truly safe. And when she approached the others with the idea, they seemed excited by the challenge of taking what Angel had started one step further.

The work, so far, was fulfilling for the others at least. They had helped two men, three women, one green guy that owned a bar on 26th Street, and a family of five that thought they had a possessed fifteen year old son. The last one was the only case that hadn’t been what it seemed. Turned out the family just had a fifteen year old who was starving for some attention. But the rest, the rest had been real. Some of it dangerous, which pleased Gunn to no end.

But while the others reveled in their new found purpose, Cordelia simply went through the motions, living her “Nuevo Riche” life as if seeing it from a distance. Watching how the money and means Angel had left her changed the lives of others, gave some a future. All the while knowing that her own future without him was as dark and empty as the abandoned suite above her.

So what. That was life. At least her life anyway. But, unlike Angel, she would not run away from it, would not hide in the shadows forever, mourning what could have been. She would face the life she had been given. Live it the best she could.

Alone.

Without him.

She swallowed down the ever present lump in her throat and turned back toward the darkened balcony, breathing in deeply the scent of the flowers hidden in the darkness, glad she was unable to see them. Tomorrow. She would cut them down when the blooms were closed and they looked more like a creeping vine than a precious gift from someone she missed more than she ever thought possible.

Every muscle in Cordelia’s body suddenly tensed, her eyes going wide, trying in vain to adjust to the pitch black room.

It had been a mere whisper of sound, a brush of fabric maybe. Imagined? Maybe. But suddenly all those lectures that Gunn had given on security and locked doors taunted her. They had helped a lot of people, had promised to help more. The work had been good. But it had also made a lot of enemies. And the few threats they had gotten in the beginning were now triple in number and more graphic than ever.

Why had she turned away from her nightstand?

Imagined or not, Cordelia slipped her hand slowly behind her, stretching it closer to the nightstand which held her small arsenal of weapons.

“I have weapons,” she said to what was probably a little wind and a lot of imagination. But she wasn’t going to take that chance. “And a housemate that sleeps with an axe. Last time I checked that could kill just about anything.” Her hand was shaking a little now as she inched backward on the bed, getting closer and closer to her goal.

“That’s your defense?” the familiar voice was all irritation. “A bottle of holy water under a back issue of Cosmo and a scream to Gunn? Jesus, Cordy! I could have been anyone.”

Cordelia’s heart began to pound as she slowly set up in bed. Excitement and anger warred with one another. “Angel?” she whispered.

Angel’s body clenched at the sound of her voice. He stared at her, unable to move in the darkness as he watched her sitting on the bed looking just left of him, unaware of his exact position in the dark room. She was all soft curves and warmth. He wanted to rush to her, cover her body with his and force her forgiveness. Make her accept the unacceptable. How had he ever left? Why had he come back? The torture of seeing her again, knowing he could never be what she needed, what she deserved, ran a close second to hell itself.

Cordelia rose slowly from the bed and stood, a look of lost hope on her face as Angel crossed the room to stand in front of her. His soul leapt as she reached out for him, blindly touching his face in the dark as if to assure herself that he was real and in front of her.

His cool skin absorbed the warmth of her soft touch, and then…….

It wasn’t so much the slap to the face or the insignificant stomp to the foot that had brought him down. It was more the piercingly painful knee to the groin that did him in. Angel reached for the bed from his now embarrassing position at Cordelia‘s feet, lifted himself up and sat, waiting for the pain to pass quicker than it would have for any regular man. Hell, any regular man wouldn’t have been a man any longer after a kick like that.

“How could you do that to me!” Cordelia yelled. “After everything….how could you?” her voice quivered and the cracks in her armor began to show, giving Angel a glimpse at the deep hurt that lay beneath her initial violent outburst.

Angel righted himself and stood, the excruciating pain now a mere ache. “Cordelia, I know what I did hurt you, but I can’t say I’m sorry for it,” he confessed. “Even though I know I should be groveling at your feet for forgiveness for what I’ve done to you, I just can’t. I thought I could, but I can’t. It was instinct, and it was necessary. Faced with the situation again, I can honestly say I would have made the same decision.”

Cordelia’s face looked as if it could crumble. “Leaving me is an instinct?”

“Cordy….” he reached for her.

“Don’t touch me!” she pushed away from him and nearly tumbled over a pair of forgotten shoes on the floor before Angel caught her. For a moment her body betrayed what she was truly feeling and relaxed in his arms. But just for a moment. Cordelia struggled away. “Keep your hands off me, you big jerk.”

“Cordelia, I’m not sorry for what I did in the warehouse that night,” he emphasized the right words so she understood him, what he had meant. “I feel guilt and a tremendous amount of remorse, but only for the hurt it caused you, not for …..for what I did. God, Cordelia. Can’t you see now? See what I really am? Faced with that decision a hundred more times, I’d do the same thing. With no regret. I killed your father, Cordy. And the only thing I felt in that moment was peace. The peace in knowing you were safe. The remorse only came later, when I saw what it did to you. Now do you see? Do you finally see? I might have the ability to look like a man. But only a monster kills without remorse.”

Cordelia was silent for a moment, tears slipped down her cheeks at the memory of that night. She reached out to him again, all the anger that had been bottled up inside of her turning to deep sorrow; sorrow for her dad, herself, and for Angel. He blamed himself. Of course he would. And from the ache in his voice, he had needed her comfort as much as she had needed his. She reached up and found his face, finally noticing as she touched the ridges and fangs gently with the pads of her fingers that Angel’s face had returned to what it had been before. To what he thought he truly was.

“Oh, Angel,” she said with a small sob as she touched his face. “You didn’t kill my dad,” the tears flowed freely. “Wolfram and Hart and a true monster killed my dad when they turned him. That thing you killed wasn’t him. As much as it hurts to have lost him, I know that. I never blamed you for that. But you left me here. Left me alone to deal with it. After everything that happened between us. Why?” she tried to reign in her sobs.

Angel pulled her to him quickly, unable to face her tears. He had expected the anger, rejection even, but not the sobs that were shaking her body now. It was killing him. “I had taken so much away from you,” he said softly as he held her close, letting her cry. “You’d been through so much. I was afraid of what it would do to you, to us, when I knew that every time you looked at me you’d be reminded of the way your father died.”

He held her there in the darkness for several moments until she was no longer crying. “I needed you,” her muffled voice came from his shoulder. “I would have never left you like that.”

Angel closed his eyes and held her tighter. But he didn’t speak. Couldn’t respond to something like that. What could he say? I’m sorry. I’m an idiot, a jackass. Take me back. None of that was sufficient for what he had done to her.

Gently taking her by the shoulders, he pulled her away slightly so that he could look at her face. The remnants of tears still glistened in her eyes and before he could stop himself, Angel leaned down and kissed them away.

When he lifted his head again, he spoke. “I don’t know how to be the person you think I am,” he said softly. “I love you, Cordelia. I know I mean those words when I say them to you, yet even that love is different than what it should be, what you deserve, what I want for you. It isn’t soft and kind. It isn’t the cupid’s arrow, puffy heart kind of love. It’s hard and desperate and fierce. I don’t merely want you, I need you, crave you. The sight of you, your face, your voice, all make me believe things that should be impossible. Make me want to be the impossible. Your lips, skin….“ he trailed off as his hand feathered her cheek. “The taste of you is more potent than blood, Cordy. And your unique scent, that aroma that sets every human apart, it calls to me. Makes me feel more like a savage animal searching out its mate than a human. That’s how I love you, Cordelia. That’s what it feels like to me.” The room fell silent.

Cordelia was frozen. She loved Angel. And she had always felt, through all her anger and his stupidity, that he truly did love her as well. But she had never imagined the depth of it, was shocked at his primitive yet eloquent expression of his feelings. Did he think she didn’t love him the same way? Desperately, with an almost animalistic need? He seemed to think of her as some untouchable purity. Seemed to think that his heart stopping definition of love would be too crude for her, too basic. Inhuman. Yet she doubted that any human man had ever expressed himself so clearly, laid himself so bare.

Her arms circled around his neck, pulling him down to her, kissing him with the same fierce love he had just described.

Angel’s face softened and jagged fangs receded as he completely embraced her, kissing her back until he himself was dazed and Cordelia was breathless.

When the kiss was over and he still held her close, he took one of her hands and brushed it across his now smooth face, letting her feel what her kiss had done. “You’re the only thing that can bring me back from that,” he whispered. He kissed her hand, her cheek, her neck, “And God help me, Cordelia,” he continued softly, “Even though I know it makes your life less than it could be, I can’t leave you.”

“My life would be less than it should be if you did. And so would yours,” she answered with confidence.

His body vibrated with the truth of her remark. He bent his head and took her lips, ravishing her mouth with his. His tongue swept against hers and his now blunt teeth nipped at her lips.

She heard his untamed, rumbling growl as he trailed his lips down her jaw and buried them against her throat.

She wanted to make him pay for leaving her, to punish him the way she had felt punished in his absence. But as he began to lick and tease her neck while he pushed down the straps of her night gown, those things didn’t seem important any longer. He was home and he was safe. Cordelia closed her eyes and leaned her head back as his kisses followed the fall of her gown, stopping when he reached her swollen, throbbing breasts.

She shivered as he took one hard peek into his mouth, rolling it over his tongue and growling again. And when the wind blew a small breeze into the room, carrying with it the scent of the moon flowers, Cordelia sighed, threading her fingers through his hair, holding him closer to her.

Angel pulled away, shrugged off his coat and pulled his black sweater over his head. And when he reached for the button of his black trousers, he found Cordelia’s hand there before him, freeing him from the now tight and confining material. Her fingers feathered over his arousal as he kicked his boots and pants away and he caught her wrist, pulling her heavenly touch away, afraid of losing himself before he’d even begun.

He lifted her, kissing her as he made his way to the bed. The feel of her warm body pressed against his elicited a moan from deep in his throat. He laid her gently on the soft bed, his body following, covering hers. His hands and mouth began an exploration, the touch and feel of her so much better than the memory he had cherished for the last three months.

Cordelia began to lose herself in some blissful ecstasy as his cool fingers and lips stroked and delved, sending her into a writhing torment. Her body quivered with a small thrill when she heard the tear of the strappy thong that separated them. Moaned when she felt his hand rip it away and cried out as his mouth found the burning core of her. He devoured her until she thought she couldn’t stand anymore. She tried to move away but he held her still, unrelenting in his assault. Her body wound tight, tighter still until, throwing her head back into the pillow, she cried out his name as waves of ecstasy tore through her.

He could wait no longer. Angel made his way back up her body even as the aftershocks of her orgasm still shook her. And when he finally slid himself into her slick warmth, filling her completely, they both let out an audible sigh.

She trailed her hands over his shoulders to the muscles of his back, loving the way they rippled and flexed with every sensual stroke as he moved above her. She felt her body climbing again as Angel’s thrust became hard and frantic. “I’ll never leave you again, Cordelia,” his voice was ragged and hoarse with emotion. He sat back on his knees, taking her with him, holding her sure and strong. Her body upright with his now, she straddled him, her legs wrapped around him as he lifted her with each powerful thrust. Harder. Faster. Stronger. Until Cordelia threw her head back, screaming his name one powerful thrust before he joined her, pulsing and throbbing into her. He buried his head in her neck as his body shuddered in and around hers, her name and confessions of love tearing from his lips, his heart. They stayed there, holding each other tightly, reveling in the way their bodied felt locked together, joined as one.

It was Angel who broke the moment, laying them back down onto the bed, never withdrawing from the comfort of her. Still hard, he began a slow rocking motion inside of her that sent little sparks and tingles throughout her body. The dark and cloudy sky outside had cleared some, and the moon finally made an appearance. Looking up at him, Cordelia smiled and traced the handsome planes and masculine edges of his face with her fingertips.

“What?” he smiled back at her and Cordelia thought she had never seen anything more beautiful in all her life. “What is it?” he asked again when she didn’t answer.

She cupped the side of his cheek. “You’re so beautiful like this,” she whispered.

He turned his head and kissed her palm before turning back to her. “I think that’s supposed to be my line,” he smiled again and Cordelia made a secret wish to keep him just as he was in that moment; smiling, content, loving her.

Cordelia shivered beneath him, her body completely sated but tired and her spirit still weary from the last three months. Angel slowed his movements and reluctantly withdrew, forcing down his desires for the moment. It would do them both no good for him to take her again before her body was ready. Besides, they still had a long night ahead, a lifetime of long nights together. So, he rolled over, taking her with him until she lay atop him, her head pillowed against his chest. As she snuggled close, he dropped a kiss to the top of her head, then relaxed into the silence, feeling the rhythmic thump of her heartbeat against his still body.

As she began to dose lightly, he vowed to himself and to whomever was listening that someday, someday he would deserve her. That he would be the impossible. That the man and the beast in him would both be anything and everything she needed. And in that moment, with that vow, Angel felt something he had not felt in over two-hundred years. He felt real, whole, accepted himself for what he was. For the first time, regardless of the human or vampire façade, he didn’t see himself as a monster, a beast. In the past that was all he had ever been to himself, and the world had seemed to agree with him. So, he had hid himself away in the shadows, filled with fury and shame, never believing he could be anything different. Until one rainy night when Cordelia Chase, braving the fears of others, entered the darkness that hid a monster. And in the shadows of that beast, in the dark corners of self-loathing and pity, found and saved the man.

Angel closed his eyes, held her a little tighter, and pushed back the tears that threatened to surface. “I’ll never leave you, again,” he whispered into the quiet room.

“I know,” came her drowsy reply as she burrowed even closer to him.
…THE END…


 

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