Just What the Doctor Ordered


AUTHOR: CORDELIA’S DESTINY (aka Jules)
SUMMARY: Wesley insists that Cordelia and Angel get help for their interpersonal strife.
RATING: NC17
POSTED: 6 Nov 2003
CATEGORY: Drama / Romance / Smut / Humor / Challenge Fic
CONTENT/PAIRING: C.A
WARNINGS: Sexual Content
FICPIC CREDIT:
AUTHOR NOTES: Based on DamnSkippy’s Challenge. See notes at end of fic.


Part 1

“Give. It. Back.”

His voice was so low, so quiet, it nearly disappeared into the thick silence of the room, but the menace in it was unmistakable. His eyes were nearly slits as he towered over her, punctuating his anger as his broad shoulders cast a long shadow across her face.

She wasn’t intimidated in the slightest. She pinned him with her haughtiest glare and stared him down.

“Hell no, jackass! It’s mine, fair and square.”

“I had it first, Cordy. You will give it back to me.”

“’You will give it back to me’?” she imitated, her voice dropping into a low mockery of his. “What are you, Jedi Vamp? The power of suggestion doesn’t work with me, dork.”

“It’s mine,” he growled, stepping closer, his face now inches from hers, his eyes rimmed in gold as he fought his demon. “Fork it over, Cordy.”

When she stubbornly ignored him, he added, “God, sometimes you can be such a bitch.”

Her mouth dropped open in shock. “Bitch? BITCH??”

Her eyes narrowed to slits, her voice dropping to a threatening whisper. Angel was chagrined to realize that it sent chills of dread up his spine. And so it should. An unhappy Cordy was a terrifying Cordy.

She marched right up to him and poked her well-manicured index finger into the solid mass of his chest, repeating the gesture throughout her statement as if to highlight the important words. “Oh, you just signed your death warrant, bucko. You are so, so dead.”

He growled, a deep rumble of pure frustration that reverberated in the room. Desperate, he shot out his arm in a blur of motion, grabbing for the coveted object in her hand.

He missed, and got a handful of firm breast instead. They both froze for a second, then he jerked his hand back as if she’d been drenched with holy water. He glowered at his error. Damn it. He wasn’t supposed to miss.

Cordelia regained her wits and shrieked, jerking back from him. “What, I won’t give it to you, so you try to take it, and you GROPE me when you don’t get it?”

Her eyes flashing hazel fire, she jumped up from the sofa, marched over to the chair and planted herself firmly in its soft depths. She took her prize and buried it deep in the cushions, far from his reach. Crossing her arms over her chest, she stood sentry, her mouth set in a grim line that dared him to challenge her again.

He stalked over to the chair, planting his hands on either arm and shoving his face into hers.

“Give it back, Cordy. Now.”

“No!”

“Give it! Or else!” he threatened emptily.

“Or else what? You’ll growl me to death?” She snorted indelicately. “I don’t think so.”

“I’ll make your life a living hell, Cordy.”

“Been there, done that,” she yawned widely, uncrossing and recrossing her arms over her chest in a nonchalant display of defiance. “Try again, dumbass.”

He shook his head, a feral gleam in his eye. “I’ll never respect your personal bubble again.”

“I can handle that,” she said, her jaw locked in determination.

“I’ll take back all of the clothes I bought you.”

“Go ahead,” she challenged, her eyebrow arched in defiance. “I didn’t like your lousy K-Mart style, anyway.”

Angel frowned for a minute as he filtered through his remaining options. The right answer suddenly jumped out at him as if it were ringed in flashing neon lights. He stood back, crossed his arms, and smirked evilly.

The expression was so evil that it was Cordelia’s turn to get shivers as she had a déjà vu moment of Angelus before he spoke.

His voice was sinfully confident, a rich velvet resonance. “I’ll call Xander and tell him your still in love with him. I’ll make him believe you have hot, erotic dreams about him every night and that you’re nearly suicidal over losing him.”

Her mouth dropped open in shock. “You wouldn’t!”

He smirked, finally realizing he had a bargaining chip. “I would. I’d even call Sunnydale and tell them how concerned I am, ask them to help me ‘save’ you from your misery.”

She closed her mouth and shot poisoned arrows with her eyes as he grinned his triumph.

Feeling he had won, he stated his demand again. “Give it back.”

She frowned, her mind warring with itself. Was it worth it? Was it worth the trauma that he would undoubtedly cause?

Yes, damn it. It wasn’t even about that, anymore. It was about making Angel pay.

“No,” she said, determinedly. “Take your best shot, freak. I can handle whatever it is you throw at me. I will not give it up, and I won’t let you use your lame ass, demon mafia intimidation tactics to get it back, either.”

He couldn’t take it. He roared so loudly that it bounced off the walls, his face now morphing into the visage of his true anger. He gripped the arms of the chair so tightly that he had ripped holes into the fabric.

“Give it back, Cordy! This is the last time I’m going to tell you!”

“No!”

“Give it, or I won’t be responsible for your safety!”

“Screw you! No!”

The stared at each other, both breathing heavily, as they each struggled for domination.

Just as Angel began to snap and reach for her to take it back, Wesley’s exasperated voice finally penetrated the thick, throbbing haze of emotion around them.

“Bloody hell, it’s just a damn remote control! You two are worse than nursery school children!”

Wesley’s admonishment seemed to give Angel time to grasp the tattered remains of his control. With great care, he removed his hands from the battered chair and stood back, putting some distance between himself and the pouting brunette he wanted to strangle.

Either that or screw her until she screamed for him never to stop.

He stopped cold at that errant thought. Geez, he really had to get a grip on himself. Wesley once again penetrated the fog of his swirling emotions.

“I don’t know what the hell has gotten into you two lately, but it had bloody well better stop here and now or I won’t be responsible for my actions.” He pinned Angel to the wall with a withering stare, daring him to test their fledgling boss/employee relationship.

Angel weighed his options for a split second. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but the former watcher was actually pretty scary when he was angry. That man knew things. Things about how to make a vampire suffer, ways that were undetectable until it was too late.

“She started it,” Angel said petulantly, not able to resist the barb and feeling a need to defend himself as he bowed under the pressure of Wesley’s menacing stare.

“Ah!” Cordelia gasped, her mouth open in indignation. “I did not! It’s not my fault that you hate Martha Stewart. It just so happens that she’s doing a show about homemade spa treatments, and I have to watch it. I HAVE to! Wesley doesn’t pay me enough to go to Elizabeth Arden. Go find another TV!”

“Martha Stewart is a demon! An evil one! And besides, this TV is the best one. You don’t care about surround sound. Go upstairs!”

“That’s enough, you two,” Wesley said in his best authoritative adult voice, trying to intervene again.

They ignored him.

“No! I was here first!” Cordelia yelled, her two-year-old tone a perfect match for Angel’s.

“But I had the remote in my hand and you stole it!” Angel countered, closing the distance between them again.

“What were you going to watch?” she scoffed, sneering at him. “Mr. Tightass over there won’t fork over the money for cable—”

“Hey!” Wesley interrupted.

“—and the only other shows on are The Munstersand Full House. Don’t tell me you have a thing for John Stamos!”

Angel looked at her like she had two heads, but there was a guilty sparkle in his eyes, like he didn’t want his total lack of cool to be discovered.

“I do not have a thing for John Stamos,” he denied as if it were the most ridiculous idea in the world, “but the show’s funny. And those twins are really cute.”

She gave him a disgusted look. “Yuck! That’s totally gross. They’re like, infants.”

“Ugh, Cordelia! I may be a freak, but not like that.”

“Whatever,” she said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand and a practiced roll of her eyes. “Yours is a rerun. Mine’s an original. So I automatically take precedence.”

“The hell you do! This is my hotel! Find your own damn TV!”

“No!”

“Yes, damn it!”

“WILL THE TWO OF YOU SHUT THE BLOODY HELL UP!” Wesley screamed, his voice cracking at the volume. Both Angel and Cordelia jumped, visibly startled by Wesley’s break from his usually calm manner.

“You! Over there!” Wesley growled, pointing a finger at Angel, then stabbing it in the direction of the sofa nearest him.

Cordelia smirked at him as he walked by, smug that he was being ordered around by Wesley and she’d escaped.

Her smugness was short-lived.

“You!” Wesley’s bony finger jabbed in her direction. “There!” he ordered, indicating the chair she’d abandoned. “And give me that!” he said, snatching the offending remote out of her hand.

Wesley began to pace in front of them, pausing occasionally to glare at each of them, obviously seething as he worked out what should be done about them. He paced for so long that both Angel and Cordelia began to feel bad about their argument. Just a little bit, but not enough so that they were ready to apologize or admit that they’d been stupid.

It was just that Wesley was so angry that it made them both nervous. There was no telling what deviousness the man might be capable of when pushed to the limit. Both of them feared they’d pushed him too far.

Of course, they’d been fighting a lot lately. Always over stupid things, like drinking the last of the coffee or messing with each other’s stuff. Until now, all of them had been fights about things that were semi-legitimate, things that any co-workers might be in a tiff about at one time or another. It wasn’t until today that they’d exploded about something so unbelievably foolish. Both of them knew it. Both of them realized that they’d crossed the threshold from annoyingly petty to utterly ridiculous.

Wesley finally stopped and stared at them, his eyes boring into each of them in turn until they squirmed like kindergarteners who’d forgotten to use the bathroom at recess.

“This foolishness is going to stop. Right here, right now,” he began, his tone brooking no hint of insubordination. “The two of you have been bickering like junkyard dogs ever since Angel came back to the Agency, and I’ve had enough.”

“But, Wesley, he—” Cordelia raised her hand to begin, but he pursed his lips and stared her into silence.

“Don’t, Cordy. Just shut up!” he shouted finally when he could see her open her mouth to speak in spite of his visual warning. “I don’t want to hear it. From you, either, Angel!” he said preemptively, shooting a glare at him that would dare him to defy his order. He just glared at them, looking like an 11th grade schoolmaster who’d had his last nerve frayed to nothing by his unruly students.

Angel reluctantly shut his mouth, letting Cordelia’s half-said excuse go unanswered.

“This is how its going to be, and I’m not going to take any arguments. I am the boss,” he stated imperiously. “You put me in charge, willingly I might add, and I’m laying down the law.”

It was obvious that Wesley was just getting wound up, and both Angel and Cordelia suppressed groans at what was bound to be a lengthy lecture.

Wesley surprised them both with the terseness of his ultimatum. “It is abundantly clear to me that the two of you need professional help. Either get some, or you’re fired.”

Cordelia’s mouth dropped open. “You would fire me? After what happened? After everything that we went through together?” Tears stung the corners of her eyes as she realized that he meant it. Wesley firing her would be akin to losing her big brother, her protector.

Wesley’s eyes softened just a fraction. “Yes, Cordy, I would. I love you, but I won’t let this behavior continue.”

Angel took Wesley’s softened features as a chink in his armor. “We don’t need professional help, Wes. Maybe a fifth of Jack Daniels, but not professional help. A shrink wouldn’t help anyway. I can’t tell them my story, so how would that be productive?”

Angel mentally patted himself on the back as he swiftly maneuvered himself out of Wesley’s plan, or so he thought. His face visibly fell at his friend’s next words.

Every ounce of determination was once again firmly in the planes of Wesley’s face. “Oh, I’ll take care of that. I have the perfect counselor for the two of you. I met her not too long ago at a conference on supernatural and paranormal activity.”

“The one in Sacramento last year?” Cordelia asked quietly.

Wesley nodded. “Yes. Her name is Dr. Marsha Van Buren. She is a renowned therapist whose clients are both human and demon. Her reputation is impeccable, and she will, undoubtedly, be able to help you work through some of your issues.”

“We were fighting over a remote control, Wesley. It’s not like its any big deal,” Cordelia rationalized, using her eyes to plead with him to take back his ultimatum. She didn’t want to get all soul-baring with Angel. Not when here feelings towards the enigmatic vampire were so volatile.

“No, Cordy. It’s because you were fighting over something so trivial that you need help. It was clear that Angel was barely able to restrain his demon, and all he wanted was a piece of plastic with some batteries in it. And you were just as clearly unwilling to give it over, when it was not something that should have been so important. No,” he said, shaking his head. “There are obviously some deep-seeded issues here that need examining.”

Angel and Cordy stared down at their hands in silence, both too shocked to say anything. Wesley’s determined tone was rife with sincerity, and they knew, seer and vampire or not, that they’d be out on their asses if they didn’t comply.

Angel was the first to speak. He knew that Wesley was right, but he didn’t want to comply so easily. “How long do we have to go?” he asked gruffly.

“Six months,” Wesley said firmly. “No less. If you quit, for any reason other than your death, you’re out.”

“How about three months?” Cordelia asked, her voice carefully devoid of emotion as she attempted to negotiate.

“This is non-negotiable, Cordy,” Wesley said sternly. “Six months, or you’re fired.”

“Okay, Wes,” Cordelia said, her voice resigned. “Set up the appointments.”

“Angel?” Wesley asked, looking to the vampire for confirmation.

“Do it, Wesley,” Angel said, obviously reluctant. He didn’t want to bare his soul to Cordelia, but he could probably fake it. He had 250+ years experience in manipulating people, and he planned to put that experience to good use.

“Excellent,” Wesley said, nodding. “I’ll make your first appointment for as soon as possible. Please try to stay out of each other’s way until then, all right?” he said, raising an eyebrow at them, then returning to his office and leaving them in uncomfortable silence.

They refused to look at each other, both knowing that this was bound to take them to a level they’d never achieved in their relationship. It remained to be seen whether it would be the seventh level of Hell or the bliss-filled planes of Nirvana.

* * *

Two days later found the intrepid duo in the antiseptic, but strangely comforting waiting room of Dr. Marsha Van Buren. The woman was obviously a professional, her office tastefully done in moss greens and deep browns, earthy colors that were both cold and warm at the same time. A receptionist sat behind a gleaming mahogany desk, a hands-free headset facilitating her already anal efficiency. She typed with an economy of motion that mesmerized Cordelia as she watched the perfectly manicured fingers fly effortlessly over the keys.

Absently, Cordelia realized that she was looking at a model of what she should be in her own job. She supposed that Dr. Van Buren’s secretary could be the poster child for “What to Do” and Cordelia the “What Not to Do” in a secretary’s handbook. Cordelia’s inefficiency didn’t bother her that much, but this lazy train of inconsequential thought helped occupy her mind and kept her thoughts firmly away from the stoic figure on her left.

Angel sat just as quietly, his body completely still, his hands folded neatly on his stomach. He stared unblinkingly at a Monet print on the wall, remembering the artist himself when he’d met him in Europe. The man had been annoying, so much so that Angelus had nearly eaten him just to shut him up. But one look at the man’s paintings had silenced the moody vampire, had soothed him like no other artwork had. The smudged colors, the beauty of the work was ethereal. Not a taste one would have readily attributed to a vicious killer, but Angelus had been enthralled. Even now, Claude Monet’s paintings smoothed the wrinkled, nervous soul of the vampire and soothed the irritation of his demon.

“Angel and Cordelia?” The soft, feminine voice came from a door to their left, and both of them turned to look at the speaker. Dr. Van Buren, a petite, chestnut-haired woman in a burgundy sweater and gray slacks, smiled at them and ushered them into her office. She gestured to a leather sofa across from the chair she languidly occupied, and the sometime friends sat down, leaving plenty of distance between them.

“So, shall we begin?” Dr. Van Buren said, smiling at both of them. “I’d like to start with a simple question, all right?”

Her patients nodded silently and waited anxiously for her words.

“This question is for each of you, individually, not about your relationship together, okay?”

Again, they nodded.

She smiled brightly, dangerously white teeth flashing as she asked, “How would you describe your sex life?”

Part 2
“How would you describe your sex life?”

Dr. Marsha Van Buren’s million dollar question seemed to splat on the walls of the room like a rotten tomato. There was a stunned silence for a moment as the discomfort set in, and Dr. Van Buren took that opportunity to study her patients.

Cordelia gaped at her with a deer-in-the-headlights look. She blinked once, then delicately closed her full mouth and swallowed, her eyes darting away and down to the purse she clutched like a lifeline in her lap.

Angel was also shocked, although the evidence was less apparent. He didn’t move at all, not even a little bit, but his eyes dilated and grew noticeably darker. After a moment, a muscle in his jaw twitched, and Dr. Van Buren saw that he was fighting for control of his instincts. It was clear that he was considering this a show down. The stubborn line of his jaw said it all.

What was most clear to her was that neither of them wanted to answer the question. Not that she’d expected them to. This was a first session, after all. She didn’t really expect them to discuss the intimate details of their sex lives with her, in front of each other, at this first meeting. But Dr. Van Buren had found, in her many years of practice, that if she began with an earth-shaking question, her patients were much more likely to be forthcoming about other issues. Anything to avoid answering the first question she’d posed.

As Dr. Van Buren collected the data on her patients, Cordelia’s mind was rushing in a vortex of panicked thought that threatened to overload her brain.
She looked resolutely down at her lap, wanting to avoid eye contact with the evil, uncaring woman who was supposed to be her therapist.

What the hell kind of question was that? Cordelia thought angrily. My sex life? What sex life? Um, let’s see. Got screwed by a jerk who impregnated me with demon babies, and I’ve been kinda gun-shy ever since. I can’t stand to be in the same room as the vampire that I’m insanely attracted to because his presence does things to my body that “alone time” just can’t salve. Does that about cover it?

Instead, she cleared her throat and spoke, realizing that Angel might as well have been carved out of marble. It was clear that he wasn’t going to talk first.

“Do I have to answer that?” she asked timidly, her fingers, toes, ankles, and eyes crossed, just for good measure. Please, oh, please, God, make her say no.

Dr. Van Buren just smiled again, a toothy, white smile that reminded Cordelia of a piranha. All she needed to do to complete the image was to file her teeth down to a sharp point. The woman was obviously into some seriously dark shit; there was no way a person could legitimately manage to look so innocent while asking a loaded question like that.

“I’ll tell you what, Cordelia. Why don’t we save that question for later, okay?”

Cordelia nodded in relief. Never would be better, but for now, this would do.

“Is that okay with you, Angel?” Dr. Van Buren asked the silent vampire, wanting to at least hear his voice once.

“Yes,” he said tersely, staring her down.

“Very good,” the therapist said, nodding. With an efficiency of movement that could only come from years of practice, she flipped open the notepad on her lap. Scanning her notes, she made some affirming noises in the back of her throat, then looked up at the couple in front of her. Neatly folding her hands on top of the notepad, she looked them both over thoroughly. It was obvious, just from the tension in their postures alone, that she would have to work very hard to make marked progress in these short six months.

Dr. Van Buren pinned Cordelia and Angel with her eyes as she spoke. “Mr. Wyndham-Pryce tells me that the two of you are having some interpersonal problems that are affecting your work. As your employer, he felt it necessary to seek professional help for you so that he wouldn’t have to resort to letting you go. It is unfortunate that the discord in your relationship has caused strife in the workplace, but it is wonderful that the two of you have the opportunity, because of this problem, to work out the differences between you and to bring your relationship back to the rewarding place it once was.”

They just stared at her, Cordelia squirming uncomfortably and swallowing. Angel uncrossed his arms, only to re-cross them in the opposite position. Their postures were most definitely closed.

Dr. Van Buren’s speech didn’t stop despite her patients’ reluctance. “It is highly unusual, but Mr. Wyndham-Pryce will be reporting your activities at the workplace to me as part of your therapy. We both feel that this six months must be as productive as possible, since it is clear that you do not desire further treatment. It is my professional opinion that we can have many of the issues between you resolved by that point.”

She scanned her notes one more time, then snapped the notebook shut and flashed another of her toothy smiles.

“So,” she concluded. “Let’s begin with a less intimidating question, shall we?”

Cordelia breathed a sigh of relief and let a ghost of a smile fleet across her face. Angel’s shoulders relaxed just a bit, and the dark anger in his eyes receded just a fraction.

“I’ve informed you of what Mr. Wyndham-Pryce told me about why you are here, but I’d like to hear it from you. Cordelia, do you think your relationship with Angel has problems?”

She frowned, but nodded. “Yes. We fight all the time now, and its not ever about something important. I didn’t want to agree with him, but Wesley’s right. That’s not a good thing.”

“Angel?” Dr. Van Buren asked.

“Yeah, we have problems. But everyone fights, right?”

“Yes,” Dr. Van Buren conceded, “but the types of disagreements that you’re describing are not healthy ones. They only serve to separate you from each other even further. So, since you both agree that at least on the surface, your problems manifest themselves in arguments, lets explore some of that now.”

Cordelia grimaced and Angel visibly squirmed.

“Cordelia, what is something that Angel does that bothers you?”

“Do I have to do this?” she said, looking sideways at Angel.

“I’ll give you a choice,” Dr. Van Buren said wickedly. “I’ll let you answer my first question if you don’t want to answer this one.”

Cordelia answered so quickly she nearly overlapped her words with Dr. Van Buren’s. “He slurps his blood when he drinks it.” Dr. Van Buren’s threat had worked.

Angel frowned at her. “I do not,” he said.

“Yes, you do,” Cordelia said. “You aren’t loud about it, but when I’m standing close to you, I can hear it. It’s like you’re sipping through a straw with a hole in it, and it bugs me.”

“I can’t help that,” he said. “My fangs make it hard to swallow like a human.”

“But you don’t even vamp out when you drink!” she said.

“Not completely, but I do extend my teeth. Besides, its not like your eating habits are perfect.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said indignantly. “I have impeccable table manners.”

“Aren’t you the one who eats a piece of pizza in three bites?”

“I was hungry! And that was only that one time.”

“You scarfed it like a pig, Cordy. Admit it.”

“I did not!”

“Yes, you did. And you belch with the best of them. That’s not rude?”

Cordelia blushed furiously. “I was drunk! All people do stupid stuff when they drink.”

“I suppose you should know,” he said cryptically.

“What is that supposed to mean?” she said again, realizing she’d uttered that phrase more times than she could count lately.

He shrugged, that evil smile covering his face again. “I’ve seen you do some pretty wild stuff when you drink, Cordy.”

“Like what, Mr. Perfect?” she challenged

“Remember last summer when we were living in your apartment, and you went out with Monica?”

“Yeah,” she said suspiciously, the dread growing. She’d come home plastered and didn’t remember anything beyond stumbling out of the cab into her apartment. Angel had been gone, or so she’d thought.

“You were smashed when you came home, and you offered me a lap dance. You said that Monica had dragged you to a strip club and you’d been given a few lessons in proper technique.”

Okay, so it was an all-out lie. She’d stumbled into the apartment and to her bed without even noticing him. But god, was it fun to watch her squirm.

“I did NOT say that!” she said. Oh, god, please don’t let me have said that!

He just raised his eyebrows and dared her to question him.

“What did I do?” she whispered, biting her lip.

“You walked over to the stereo, put in a CD you thought was sexy, and started to strip. It would have been sexy, too, if it hadn’t been ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’.”

“Oh, god,” she whispered, her face flaming.

He made it worse, unfurling the talents of manipulation that had lain dormant since he’d acquired his soul. He was savoring every second. “You took off your shirt, but you got the zipper on your skirt stuck. You tried to get me to help you, but you tripped over your shirt on the floor and then passed out. I had to put you in bed.”

She wanted to melt into the carpet. She remembered waking up without her shirt on and her skirt half unzipped, her shoes barely clinging to her feet.

In an attempt to salvage her pride, she gathered up her dignity and said, with her chin thrust in the air, “You’re not exactly Mr. Personality when you’re drunk, either, Angel,” she said.

“That’s true,” he admitted, turning the tables on her and making the fun drain out of her insult like air leaking from a balloon. “My soul is less inhibited when I drink and my demon gets either mean, or horny.”

Dr. Van Buren decided this was the best point to change the subject. “Okay, I think we’ve established that complaint,” Dr. Van Buren cut in dryly. “Angel, it’s your turn.”

“But he’s humiliated me already!” Cordelia complained.

“It’s still his turn,” Dr. Van Buren said, her eyes forcing Cordelia’s compliance. “You began the last topic of conversation. Angel, what does Cordelia do that bothers you?”

The sullen brunette just sunk further back into the sofa and crossed her arms defiantly.

“I hate how she parades around in indecent outfits all the time,” Angel said truthfully. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t going to be completely dishonest during these sessions.

“I’m not indecent!” she argued.

“You are, too,” Angel argued back, getting caught up in his complaint. “Like today. What’s up with that? A skirt so short that Dr. Van Buren can probably see everything? And your shirt! It’s white, and your bra is white and sheer. Need I say more? On top of that, rain was forecasted for today, and you forgot your coat. How blatant is that?”

Cordelia knew he was right, but she wasn’t going to let him win. “Like you’re Mr. Conservative,” she shot back. “You walk around in sweatpants that leave nothing to the imagination and your chest bare. And the black on black thing fits you like a glove. Like right now! I can see every muscle in your chest and you don’t even have to take your shirt off!”

“What about Cordelia’s clothing bothers you, Angel?” Dr. Van Buren asked.

“It’s not safe,” Angel said reluctantly. “Men gape at her wherever we go, and I have to protect her. She’s like a walking Fredrick’s of Hollywood ad half the time. If she draws less attention, I don’t have to worry about it so much.”

“I wear Victoria’s Secret, moron, and you weren’t there to protect me a few months ago. I did fine without your sorry ass then,” she reminded him bitterly.

“But you had Gunn there, and he did what he could. Alone, you wouldn’t survive,” he said, not realizing how macho and man-centric he sounded.

“That is so sexist, Angel!”

He shrugged. “It’s true.”

Dr. Van Buren entered the conversation again. “It bothers you to have other men look at Cordelia?”

“Hell yeah,” Angel said. “She’s putting herself in danger by taunting men that way. She’s my seer, and I need her alive.”

“Do you think there might be other emotions involved beyond a need to protect her?” Dr. Van Buren asked.

“What?” he said, confused. Why had he ever been honest? He’d forgotten his role, and now he was losing his grasp of the conversation.

“You’ve been angry and distant from each other recently, just coming back from being separated, and you don’t like other men are looking at her. What emotion does that sound like to you?”

“It sounds like jealousy,” Cordelia answered for him, her anger fading as she was intrigued by the possibility.

Dr. Van Buren frowned at her. “Cordelia, it would be beneficial for Angel to answer the question for himself.”

Angel was just staring at Cordelia, glaring at her, actually. “I am not jealous!” his eyes whipped back to Dr. Van Buren. “Jealousy is not it. It isn’t! I don’t care who she goes out with. She doesn’t answer to me about her dates. We’re not dating, and I’m not her boss anymore. I don’t have any say in her life.”

“How does it make you feel, no longer having her undivided attention?”

“Nothing! It makes me feel nothing,” Angel practically growled, the intensity of his emotions getting in the way of his ability to control this situation. Had he really thought he could manipulate the therapist? Maybe the talents he thought he possessed were just the arrogant posturing of his demon. He’d certainly been turned inside out in the last ten minutes.

Dr. Van Buren realized she wasn’t going to get anymore out of him about this. She turned to Cordelia, hoping to get to Angel through her. “Cordelia, you said you feel that Angel is jealous. Would you explain what you mean, please?”

“He acts like he owns me half the time,” she said honestly. “You saw how he feels about my clothes, and I don’t dress nearly as provocatively as I used to. I like to look pretty. What’s the harm in that?” she asked rhetorically.

“How does his jealousy, as you call it, make you feel?”

“I like it and hate it at the same time. It makes me feel cared for, but also smothered. I guess it bugs me that he considers me his property, kinda. I never thought of it like that. It explains a helluva lot about his chauvinistic behavior. Maybe it’s a vamp thing,” she said, shrugging.

Angel was agog at her roundabout acceptance of his claim. Sure, his demon considered Cordelia his property. Maybe not his mate, but definitely in his family. The last thing he’d expected was for her to accept that, even if it was in her own, illogical way.

Shrugging it off, he used cocky arrogance and domination to rebuild his confidence and try to regain control of the situation. “As far as I’m concerned, as long as she stops dressing like she’s auditioning for a Hustler photo shoot, its all good.”

Cordelia gaped at him. Hustler? ‘It’s all good’? The man had obviously been taking advantage of cable while they’d had it.

“I would never pose for Hustler,” she huffed. “I have more taste than that.” Smiling wickedly to herself, she added as an afterthought, “I’d only pose for Playboy or Maxim. Their layouts are tastefully done.”

He snarled at her, jealousy flaring despite his denial, then said, “You could give Pamela Anderson a run for her money, Cordelia.”

“Take that back! I do not dress or act like a skanky ho!”

He just snorted, so she socked him once in his ribs. Hard.

“Knock it off, Cordelia!” he growled, finally acknowledging that he couldn’t control anything in the state he was currently in. Maybe he did need professional help. She certainly wasn’t bringing out the best in him lately. “Don’t touch me right now, okay?”

She raised an eyebrow, forgetting Dr. Van Buren again in her irritation. “Don’t touch you? Why not? Afraid you’ll get cooties?” she taunted.

“Cooties?” he said, his glare turning withering. “Hardly. I’m afraid of what I might do to you if you continue.”

“Like what?” Dr. Van Buren asked. “When Cordelia annoys you, what do you want to do to her?”

Should he answer that? Truthfully?

“Please be honest, Angel. There should be no secrets here.” Apparently Dr. Van Buren was a mind-reader, too.

He decided to be honest. Or at least mostly. He didn’t think either Dr. Van Buren or Cordelia were prepared for the unfiltered thoughts of his demon where Cordelia was concerned. “Honestly, I’m torn. But I usually am. The two strongest emotions are frustration and lust. Neither of those help to resolve the argument, they only fan the flames.”

For a moment he froze, berating himself for admitting that. He wasn’t usually so spontaneous. Why did he agree to this, again?

Cordelia just gaped at him as the word ‘lust’ jumped out at her. “When we’re arguing, you think about making love?”

“Never mind, Cordelia. Just forget I said anything, and don’t touch me when I’m angry, okay?”

She just stared at him, the thoughts churning in her head about what he’d meant.

“So physical touch is an important catalyst for your emotions, then,” Dr. Van Buren concluded.

Angel just nodded.

“And for you, Cordelia? What role does touch play in your emotions where Angel is concerned?”

She thought about it for a moment. “I want to touch him in the middle of an argument because I know it riles him up. He lights up like a house on fire, and its amazing to watch. And sometimes when we aren’t arguing, I want to touch him just to see if I get the same reaction. But I don’t.” she added hastily.

“I see,” Dr. Van Buren said, writing furiously on her notepad for the first time in the session. The two patients just sat and waited for a few moments as she finished.

Finally, she raised her head and perused their features. “I believe we have gotten off to an excellent start. We have identified that the hurt and anger you have between you manifests itself in petty disagreements. We have identified some of those disagreements, and have determined that physical touch in the heat of the moment only makes those disagreements worse. I believe that is a step in the right direction.”

She contemplated them for a moment longer before she continued. “One integral part of this therapy is a set of homework assignments that I will be giving you. You will be seeing me two days a week for the next six months, and on the second day of the week I will be assigning you homework. To get into that routine, I will be giving you an assignment to be completed in the days between now and Tuesday, our next session.”

As they realized that the session was ending, both Cordelia and Angel visibly relaxed, the tension draining out of them. But as Dr. Van Buren mentioned homework, frowns took residence on their faces again.

“What kind of homework?” Cordelia asked suspiciously. School was not a pleasant memory.

Dr. Van Buren smiled her piranha smile again. “It will be easy this time. I would like you to go home and go about your daily routines. When you find yourselves annoyed by each other, I would like you to immediately leave the room and write down what it was that annoyed you. This should not only curb any arguments for the time being, but it should give us something to work with during our next session.”

Angel and Cordelia nodded, visibly relieved that the assignment would be easy. Dr. Van Buren wasn’t finished, however. “In light of the fact that touch is extremely important in your relationship, I would like to caution you against touching each other until next Tuesday, even in moments not heated by anger. We will explore this avenue in future homework assignments, but doing so at this juncture would be counter-productive.”

Both Angel and Cordelia showed no outward evidence of the dismay they felt at Dr. Van Buren’s words. Not touch each other? Okay, so they’d never realized it was so important before.

Cordelia nearly groaned at the thought that she wouldn’t be able to walk up behind him and lightly touch his arm, or slap him in playful anger. She hadn’t ever noticed how much that meant to her.

Angel’s demon roared at not being able to touch Cordelia, but he refused to explore those thoughts any further. Besides, touching her was usually innocuous. A light hand on her back as they walked out a door. A soft stroke of her shoulder. A light touch of his fingers on her arm. Those touches were all that kept his demon tightly restrained. Without that, he didn’t know if he could hold on.

Not only that, but Cordelia’s visions were painful enough to cause collapse, and he wouldn’t risk her safety for the sake of therapy. He felt pressured to say as much. “Dr. Van Buren, I don’t think its wise to deny us all physical contact. Cordelia’s visions as my seer are painful, sometimes causing her to be dizzy or fall, and I’m often the only thing between her and injury.”

“I see,” the psychologist nodded. “Very well, then, we’ll modify your assignment. No touching when you’re feeling angry or annoyed with each other. Is that clear?”

They nodded.

Satisfied, Dr. Van Buren stood. Shaking each of their hands in turn, she said, “I look forward to our future sessions. Please remember to follow your instructions, so that this therapy can be as productive as possible.”

They nodded again, then left. Walking out to the car in silence, Angel’s hand absently stroked Cordelia’s back as they walked. He didn’t even notice he’d done it, despite their recent discussion. Cordelia didn’t either, although someplace in the back of her mind, his touch served to soothe her, to smooth her wrinkled nerves.

It seemed that despite their anger, despite their volatile emotions, there was something buried deep within them that was trying to come out. Something that would shatter and shake their lives in a way that would change them forever.

And when it began to rain, Angel shrugged off his coat without a word, and Cordelia silently shrugged into it, the unspoken agreement between them a testament to the beginnings of a step in the right direction.

* * *

Dr. Marsha Van Buren watched the door close softly behind her newest patients, then let her professional façade relax into something more friendly. She always hated to be aloof with her patients, especially the new ones, when her first instinct was to be reassuring. It was important as a therapist, however, to be clinically detached. Warm, but not let your own emotions worm their way into the therapy. When that happened, therapists would often think they saw progress, when the patient was actually just piggybacking on their doctor’s own emotions.

If her emotions were going to interfere with any of her patients, this couple would be the most likely to make her break her own rules.

Standing up from the chair, she crossed the room to the gleaming mahogany desk just behind the sofa that Cordelia and Angel had occupied earlier. She sat in the warm burgundy chair, enjoying the soft supple feel of the fabric against the back of her legs. She stared off into space for a moment, contemplating the decisions she was making regarding these two enigmatic clients, when she seemed to come to a decision.

With resolve, she picked up the black handset and dialed a number from memory. A husky, heavily accented deep voice answered in the middle of the second ring.

“’ello?” There was a crackle on the line for a moment, as if the connection weren’t the greatest, before it smoothed out and she could hear clearly.

“Uncle Ivan, it’s Marsha,” she said, smiling as she imagined the scowl that would cross his face at the sound of her voice.

“Ah, Marshanya,” her aging uncle sighed, a sound that was equal parts resignation and irritation. “Calling me again so soon?”

“Of course, Uncle. I wouldn’t want you to feel neglected,” she said.

He just snorted and waited for her to state her business. It never took her very long.

“I trust you’ve made the arrangements with the Elders as I requested?”

He sighed again, and his voice was muffled as he spoke, as if he were running his hand over his face and rubbing it tiredly. “Marshanya, these things take time. The Elders are reluctant to discuss something that is so controversial. What is done, is done. It is not up to us to question the decisions of our ancestors, young one.”

She frowned, irritated by his excuses. “The Elders will see me, Uncle. I can tell from your voice that you have arranged that much.”

“I have,” he confirmed reluctantly. “But they will not agree.”

“They don’t have to agree,” she said imperiously. “My status does not require me to consult them. I do so only out of respect for our people. This travesty cannot continue, and if the Elders do not do something, I will.”

“But Marshanya,” her uncle said, “our ways are important, and to circumvent them would defy tradition. If you go against the wishes of the Elders, you will upset the balance we rely so strongly upon.”

“I am the embodiment of tradition, Uncle Ivan. I am the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter, the mystical and spiritual leader for our people. I, not the Elders, am the highest authority of our people. I have only allowed things to remain as they have been because I did not wish to cause dissention among our people. But this issue must be resolved.”

“But to do so with so little regard for the consequences?” he asked, risking her anger but feeling it must be said. He had promised the Elders as much.

Surprisingly, she did not get angry with him. “It is because of the consequences that it must be done, Uncle. If it is not, the ramifications of Mother Sasha’s actions so long ago will destroy everything. The balance that you cling to so tightly will dissolve beneath your fingers. The fates have decreed it, and I must comply as is my duty.”

“Very well, Marshanya. If you are so resolved, I will support you as I should,” Ivan said, sounding more tired and more old than he ever had.

“I am so resolved. The curse must be lifted.”
Part 3

One Month Later

“This is absolutely ridiculous.” Her voice was an annoyed hiss, sizzling across his ears.

“Hey, you’ve got no argument from me,” he answered, his own feelings on the issue perfectly in line with hers. But damn, this was awkward. “Move your leg a little to the right.”

She complied.

“Yeah, that’s it,” he sighed, much more comfortable with the adjustment.

“Ahhh!” she moaned, her leg twitching.

“What?”

“Cramp! CRAMP! Shit! I have to stand up, Angel, I just can’t get my body into this position without permanent damage. Can’t we just do this the old fashioned way? You know, cheat?”

“It’s too late for that, Cordy. We’re nearly there. Just a few more minutes, and I promise, you’ll be sighing with relief. You have to stay there, Cordy,” he said, sounding desperate. “If you don’t, we have to start this all over again.”

“I can’t stay here, dumbass! I’m balancing in a way that would make David Copperfield jealous! My leg is cramping, my ass is in the air, and all the blood is rushing to my head so I’m dizzy. I can’t do this!”

“But we have to, Cordy,” he said, the desperation now clearly audible. “Doesn’t it feel good? Even just a little bit?” Even he knew he was grasping at straws. It would take a very kinky person to think this was comfortable.

She sighed, trying not to concentrate on the pain in her left leg. “Maybe if you’d help me a little, I wouldn’t be in so much pain. Besides, its your fault anyway. If you weren’t so freaking huge, I wouldn’t be in so much pain.”

He had to agree with her, if only silently. But could he help it? Not exactly. It wasn’t like he’d gotten any complaints before. Most women liked his size. But then again, Cordelia wasn’t most women.

“How is that?” he said, reaching his last free hand down and massaging her, bringing life back to her contorted body.

“Oh. . .unh. . .god, that feels so good,” she groaned as he stroked her.

“Are you two quite finished?” Wesley’s voice, off to their left, broke into their studied concentration.

Cordy sighed again, finally opening her eyes and looking up at him through the fall of her short hair. “Yeah, Wes, go ahead. We’re ready for you.”

“It’s about time,” he muttered, turning to the object in his hand. He flicked his index finger once, and a loud rhythmic clicking was heard. Then, “Angel, left hand, blue.”

“Blue!” he groaned, eyeing the large circle all the way across the plastic mat. To put his left hand there, he’d have to practically plant his face in Cordy’s ass.

Whoever invented Twister needed to have his fingernails removed with hot, dirty pliers.

He squirmed a bit, not losing his place but figuring out how to get his fingers on the blue spot without molesting his seer unnecessarily. His compromise didn’t bring his face into her butt, but it did put his cheek against her side, and that was almost as bad. He couldn’t help but inhale her scent, a spicy combination that seemed almost indefinable. It smelled like home, like security, like friendship, like destiny. And lately, it had suspiciously begun to smell like something that was infinitely more than all of those combined.

“Are you ready, Cordy?” Wesley asked, his hand poised on the spinner again.

“Yeah, whatever,” she griped, blowing a puff of air to move the hair out of her eyes. Angel’s new position had moved his big body in a more comfortable position against hers, helping her regain her balance and reduce the pain. It hadn’t improved her mood, though. “How much longer?”

“Dr. Van Buren’s instructions were quite clear. You are to play this game for one hour. If you quit, you must begin again. The hour is up in . . . fifteen minutes. The person with the highest number of wins is required to be the other person’s servant all day tomorrow.”

“Oh. Yeah. Color me ecstatic.” Her monotone conveyed her lack of enthusiasm.

Angel just smiled , his cheek brushing the soft cotton of her shirt. These homework assignments were definitely among the ridiculous, but he had to admit that they’d definitely been making some progress in their relationship. They’d been with Dr. Van Buren for a month now, and each homework assignment taught them something new about each other. Sometimes the lesson was overt, sometimes subtle. But they’d learned the hard way that blowing off their homework brought more trouble than it was worth.

Just two weeks earlier, Cordelia had opened their third homework assignment. Dr. Van Buren had begun handing them an envelope or a box on their way out the door of the session, not giving them any verbal instructions at all. Their homework assignments had ranged from going to a dance class together to writing notes to each other. But as the time progressed, those assignments had gotten more crazy, and what was more disturbing, the physical contact was increasing in measurable levels.

He smiled as he remembered her reaction to their first “Grope Fest” assignment, as Cordelia had taken to calling them. That smile turned to a grimace as he remembered the torture that followed.

Her tone had been disgusted, her nose scrunched up as she held the sheaf of papers daintily by their edges as if she feared the absurdity of their contents would contaminate her by osmosis. The box it had come from and its remaining contents were scattered near her on the sofa.

“C’mon, Cordy. It can’t be that bad,” Angel said. He stood in front of her, legs spread in a comfortable stance, his arms crossed over his chest. The pose pulled his sweater tight against his shoulders and biceps, accentuating the masculine curves in a way that distracted Cordelia for a moment as she looked up at him.

It was becoming harder and harder not to notice his purely male beauty. The side effects of these touchy-feely sessions with Dr. Van Buren were starting to unnerve her.

After merely a split second, Cordelia shook herself out of the admiration she was sinking into and frowned up at him.

“It is that bad. You haven’t read it yet, have you?” she said, her tone nearly accusing.

“No. You done yet?” he said, raising an eyebrow and holding a hand out for the papers.

She handed them to him silently, then crossed her own arms over her chest and stood waiting as he perused them.

It was satisfying to watch him hold back a growl as he read the directions, then the questions on the papers.

“This is ridiculous,” he muttered, glowering. He turned the page, his frown increasing as the directions became more outrageous. “I do notwant to do this,” he said, finally looking up from the papers and looking to Cordelia for some agreement.

“Me either. Give ‘em back,” she demanded, and he placed the papers in her hand. She reread them, a look of disgust marring her pretty face.

Dr. Van Buren had asked them to sit back to back in Angel’s bedroom, their spines aligned and their legs crossed away from each other. They were to lean their heads back against each other until they touched, resting their weight against each other as if leaning up against a wall. Then they were to ask each other a series of questions related to their relationship, and be completely honest in their answers.

After reading the instructions, Cordelia had just rolled her eyes and Pfft’d. Angel had laughed once derisively, and they’d agreed, in a silent visual communication, that there was no way in hell they were going to do something as stupid as that.

When they’d gone to the next session, they’d made the mistake of admitting they hadn’t done the homework. Dr. Van Buren took one look at them, then demanded that they complete the assignment in her presence.

The session had started out all right, each of them feeling like if they just didn’t have to look at one another, they could make it through this. But then Dr. Van Buren went and sent the whole thing to hell in a hand basket. That woman and her damn probing questions. They were here to work on their relationship, not have an emotional enema, damn it.

The therapist stared at Angel’s stoic countenance, then at Cordelia’s neutral one in the reflection of the plate glass window. It was unnerving that she could see both of their expressions at once, when they couldn’t see each other at all. After a moment of palpable silence, she smiled, a wicked baring of teeth that made Cordelia’s original piranha comparison soft, warm and fuzzy. The only true appellation now was ‘demonic.’

Okay, so maybe Cordelia was overreacting. But she was nervous, damn it.

The therapist’s smile held for just a moment longer, then she flayed their chests open with her words. “I gave you a list of questions to answer, questions that would help you to fill in some of the blanks in your knowledge and understanding of each other. You chose to disregard your homework assignment, so now you must deal with the consequences. The questions I gave you were relatively innocuous; uncomfortable at points, but not unbearable. Now that I’m able to be here to monitor your responses, I believe I shall increase the level of intensity. We haven’t been working together very long, but I believe this strategy can be successful.”

She stopped in front of Angel, staring down on him imperiously, looking for all the world like a general who was sending her troops to their untimely deaths.

Even though she held the unflinching gaze of the vampire, it was his seer that she addressed. This first question turned out to be nearly as bad as the one she’d asked the first day in her office.

“Cordelia, you’re answering first. When, most recently, did you have feelings of lust towards Angel?”

Cordelia visibly flinched at the question. Okay, so she’d been having these little tinglies about Angel for awhile now, practically since she’d met the guy. Her emotions had nothing to do with it; it was pure sexual attraction. But what woman in her right mind wouldn’t salivate, even just a little bit, when presented with a face and body like his? Her guard immediately went up, her spine stiffening, as she tried to find an answer to the question that wouldn’t leave her dignity scattered across the carpet like soil from an overturned plant.

“Cordelia?” Dr. Van Buren prompted when Cordelia was silent for a few moments.

“I’m thinking, okay?” Cordelia snapped impatiently. Finally, she sighed, a sound that was equal parts resignation and irritation. Finally, she answered, her voice so soft that she almost couldn’t be heard.

“This afternoon,” she answered reluctantly.

She felt Angel’s back tense against hers. She could practically sense his ears perking up, that vampire hearing monitoring her heart rate and breathing. It wasn’t fair, damn it.

“You had feelings of lust toward Angel this afternoon?” Dr. Van Buren clarified, interrupting her thoughts.

“Yes,” Cordelia answered, gritting her teeth.

“Describe them, please,” Dr. Van Buren ordered. “What were the circumstances? What triggered the feelings?”

Cordelia stared unseeingly through her reflection to the night sky beyond. Her face was neutral now, her voice sounding almost detached as she tried to remove herself emotionally from this situation.

“I came to work early, well, for me, early, anyway. I usually get there late afternoon, after Angel wakes up, but today I got there around noon. I was the only one there; Wesley had gone out for lunch. Angel walked down the stairs from his bedroom, just dressed in sweatpants, heading for his breakfast. He was barefoot, obviously having just woken up, his hair all messed up and his eyes sleepy. I looked up at him, and I felt my stomach flip as he stepped into the lobby.”

Angel relaxed against her back. He remembered that moment this morning, had recognized the appreciative look in her eyes in the instant she let it flare, but thought he’d just imagined it. She hid it well, and her arousal wasn’t even noticeable. Not even to him.

But now, in the retelling of it, with her so close, his nostrils flared as he experienced the faint, but heady scent of her lust before she controlled her body’s reactions and it faded. So light was the scent that again, he felt as thought he’d imagined it. It was surreal. He’d never, ever experienced this side of Cordy. She’d never let him this close before. But now, she couldn’t escape. Neither of them could.

Behind him, even in the sterile environment of Dr. Van Buren’s office, Cordelia relived the memory of that afternoon and the stomach clench was there again, the nether regions of her body throbbing in reaction. Then reality set in again, and she remembered that it was Angel she’d lusted after. God, it was embarrassing. She wasn’t in love with him or anything, so why couldn’t she get over this unnatural attraction to him?

Dr. Van Buren prompted her to continue. “What caused this feeling, do you think?”

In answer, she scrunched her face up, forcing the lustful feelings aside, shoving them into a box and analyzing them clinically. “It’s weird. I’ve always thought Angel was attractive; I even tried to snag him in high school before I knew he was a vampire. But after I found out, it kind of turned me off. Then after I’d been working for him a couple of months, after I got to know him, he started to look like a hottie again. Sometimes, the woman in me, the primitive cave woman,” she stressed, wanting to make sure that it was clear to the therapist that this wasn’t really her true feelings, “feels this weird lustful pull toward him as a man. But I have that when I watch Keanu Reeves movies, too.”

At that comment, Angel frowned. What was the girl’s fixation with the eccentric, dark haired actor? It bugged him that she salivated over him, that she was turned on just by watching a movie with him in it.

Oblivious to Angel’s irritation, she looked up into Dr. Van Buren’s eyes, her own glazing over just a little bit. “You know, right? I mean, you’re a woman, too. Sometimes, there’s just something about a good looking man that makes your stomach clench, your body flush, your jaw drop, and your heart race. Like when Russell Crowe takes off his helmet in Gladiator and reveals his identity. Or when you see a beautiful, shirtless man with arms that could crush steel cuddling a baby.”

She stopped and swallowed, her heart racing. “Or when your vampire boss flaunts his sinfully perfect chest and arms in the lobby of your workplace. It’s just lust, just pure horniness, nothing more.”

She breathed a sigh of relief at the last words, confident that she’d explained herself with some dignity. Well, as much dignity as a girl can when she’s talking about getting all hot and bothered.

Angel’s chest nearly burst with male satisfaction at her roundabout compliment, then glowered when she chalked it up to nothing more than raging hormones.

So lost was he in the conflicting emotions racing through his brain that he missed Dr. Van Buren’s transition of the question to him. It was a jab of Cordelia’s elbow into his kidney that brought him back.

“What?” he asked, confused.

“It’s your turn, Angel,” Dr. Van Buren said patiently, coming to stand in front of him once again. “When did you last feel lust toward Cordelia?”

That was an easy answer. “In the car on the way over here.”

It was all Cordelia could do not to whip around and stare at him. She hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary. She’d even dressed conservatively today.

It turned out that it was that very choice of clothing that had turned him on.

“She’s been dressing less provocatively lately, and I’ve noticed,” he said. His voice turned wry as he continued. “The problem is, by covering it up, there are times when I just imagine what I’m missing. That’s almost worse than before.”

“And in the car?” Dr. Van Buren prompted.

“You see the skirt she’s wearing?” he asked rhetorically. “It has a slit up the front.”

Cordelia looked down at her outfit. She was wearing an A-line, floor length denim skirt with raw edges at the bottom. There was a slit going up the front, so she didn’t have to walk like Morticia Adams all the time. It wasn’t until she noticed that the slit went up to mid thigh that she realized what had happened.

He was still talking as she made her discovery. “My car is low to the ground, and when she stepped in, I saw the length of her leg before she sat down.”

He stopped, looking up at Dr. Van Buren. He didn’t like the stare she was giving him, and felt a sudden, unavoidable urge to justify himself.

“I mean, Cordelia is a beautiful woman, after all. Every man I’ve ever seen notices her. It would be unnatural not to. But it’s just lust. Intermittent, infrequent lust at that. Sometimes my demon just pops up to the surface and I lust after her. I care about her, but it isn’t like I’m in love with her, or anything.”

Cordelia was irritated at his words, and equally angry at herself for that irritation. Why should she care about his lack of romantic feelings toward her?

“Anyway, I didn’t see anything, um, really personal, but it was enough to . . .” he trailed off.

“Flip your switch?” Dr. Van Buren said with a smile. Euphemisms were always so much fun.

Her patients looked at her with raised eyebrows.

“I know it wasn’t a clinical term, but sometimes comfort in terminology is more beneficial than professionalism.”

They just stared at her. This woman was certifiable, and she was their therapist. Wasn’t there something wrong with that?

Seeming to shake herself out of a mental wandering, Dr. Van Buren’s smile slipped from her face. Back to work.

“Very good, both of you. Admitting feelings of lust toward friends is not easy, but they are a fact of life. Those lustful pulls are not necessarily indicative of stronger feelings, but they are important to this therapy none the less. Now then, let’s move on.”

Somehow, both of them knew at that point that this uncomfortable subject would be revisited.

After that, Dr. Van Buren had made them go through even more questions, exploring tense emotions, including anger, frustration, joy, and sadness. Not seeing each other’s faces had made their declarations and revelations flow freely. It wasn’t until late in the session that they began to realize the repercussions of their loose tongues.

Angel and Cordelia had been so uncomfortable by the end of the session that they’d nearly gone home separately. Not looking at each other while they bared their souls had unearthed a mountain of uncertainty, and they’d been too worked up to work through it. What had seemed like a blessing at the beginning, not being able to see each other, had turned into a curse. With each revelation forced from them, being denied the body language of each other’s reactions was torturous. As they recalled their words, the answers they’d given to her queries about each emotion, it felt as though they’d been struck with a whip, their skin shredded until their souls were laid raw and bleeding before each other. They couldn’t gauge where they stood with each other, and revealing such intimate details without eye contact was threatening to destroy them emotionally.

After a tense day of separation, they’d met at the office and quietly agreed never to defy the psychiatrist again, never to ignore their homework, no matter how silly it sounded. There was no telling what she might want them to do next.

Shaking himself out of the uncomfortable memory of that session, Angel reluctantly admitted that their agreement to follow Dr. Van Buren’s instructions hadn’t made following this particular assignment any easier, though.

“Cordelia, left foot, yellow,” Wesley’s bored voice brought him completely back to the present and this ridiculous game they were playing.

The memories of their discussion of lust were fresh on the surface of his mind, and Angel watched with barely disguised appreciation as Cordelia’s body shifted as she found her new position on the plastic mat, contorting her body so that she was facing him now. In the process, her neckline drooped, giving him a teenage boy’s fantasy view down the front of her shirt.

Cordelia noticed the direction of his stare, then looked down at herself. Sure enough, the girls were displayed in all their glory. She just smiled and shook her head, cocking an eyebrow at him.

“Perv,” she teased, making the word sound like an endearment.

She watched his face color just slightly, the vampire’s version of a blush. Had she not known him so well, she never would’ve noticed it. She smiled inwardly, gleeful that she could unnerve him once in awhile.

As Wesley gave Angel his next instruction, it was Cordelia’s turn to contemplate, her sigh a soft breath of air in the near silence. She, too, remembered the directions in that third homework assignment that had seemed like a death warrant. In a way, it was. It was a death warrant to her anger, to the grudge she’d held against Angel since the day he’d fired her. She’d known that if she had to ask and answer the questions on those papers, if she had to bare her soul to him and have him do the same for her, she’d be lost. That was why she’d scoffed at the assignment and blown it off.

Then when they’d had to do the assignment in front of Dr. Van Buren, it had just proved her fears correct. After those questions, those intimate, probing questions, she had been lost. She’d lost a battle within herself: her battle to hold on to her anger at Angel.

Because damn it, she was actually starting to likehim again. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Sure, she loved him with a loyalty that hadn’t died even when he’d abandoned her, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever actually enjoyed him before, took pleasure in his presence. Really liked him, as a friend, someone she could hang out with and laugh with. When she was first hired, he’d been a kind of pet project to her, someone she needed to cheer up, someone she worked on to live a little, to come into the 21st century and loosen up a little bit. But she’d never actually considered him her best friend.

That one assignment, one hour of emotional torture, had only underscored the fact that Angel meant more to her than anyone. By answering the questions out loud, she’d had to admit to herself that he was fast becoming the most important person in her life, the one person who had the power to uplift or destroy her. It wasn’t that she was in love with him, because it was on a completely different level. It was a binding of souls, a connection on a plane that she’d never known existed.

Ever since that day, the glacier they’d erected between them had begun to melt. Now, she anticipated Angel walking into the room. She tingled when he was near. It was a very intense experience, something that she had yet to figure out.

“Cordy, right hand, green.”

“Oh, god,” she groaned, figuring out that if she moved like that, she’d have to straddle Angel or slide under him. Neither was safe. Straddling meant that her breasts would be pressed against his shoulders, her face at his lower back. Sliding under him meant that she’d be practically kissing his fly. She opted for straddling.

She didn’t make it. One slight slip of her sock on the mat and she came crashing down, pausing briefly as she hit Angel and he tried to hold her, then crashing to the floor together.

They just laid there for a minute, her face buried in the small of his back, one hand gripping his ass and the other his bicep, his head at her side, before she began to giggle. She rolled off of him, laughing hysterically, releasing the tension that had gripped her at their close proximity.

Angel just stared at her for a moment, then a smile slowly stretched across his face, his laugh starting deep within his chest and spreading outward like booming thunder. They laughed until they cried, tears streaming down their faces, Cordelia clutching her sides as if she were afraid they would burst.

Wesley just looked on, shaking his head, smiling slightly as he saw the progress that they were making. They may not actually be reconciled yet, but they were well on their way to a healthy relationship.

* * * * * * * *

Across the city, the therapist sat in her darkened office, staring out the window at the night sky. The city’s lights twinkled back at her, a field of stars that were no less beautiful in their artificiality than the night sky itself.

Something was troubling her greatly. Dr. Van Buren’s star patients were not on their way to a healthy relationship. Despite all of her efforts, each session with Cordelia and Angel brought evidence that they had not yet admitted their feelings to one another. The latest assignment, a ridiculous game that practically forced physical contact, had been a desperate scramble at the last minute. It was obvious that some drastic measures needed to be taken, but Dr. Van Buren had yet to figure out what they were.

Time was definitely not on her side.

Her meeting with the Elders had not gone well. She’d met with them, made her case politely, but had been summarily shoved aside as if she were a teenager asking for permission to use the school gym. Her anger had swelled, making it difficult for her to control the power that flowed through her. Angel’s curse was an abomination, a blemish on the hallowed history of her people, and she was determined to see it removed. The Elders had made it clear that they were entirely apathetic to the situation, and Dr. Van Buren took that to mean that she had license to do as she wished.

Not that she needed their approval, anyway. After the disastrous meeting, she’d set plans in motion for Angel’s curse to be modified immediately. Her people had chanted the words from afar less than two days later, retracting the old curse and initiating the new one simultaneously. The new version of the curse still granted Angel his soul. But instead of losing it when achieving perfect happiness, it would be secured for eternity in that moment of bliss.

The only catch, and it was a big one, was that the curse had a time limit. If Angel didn’t experience perfect happiness again within the next month, the curse would lift and Angel’s soul would depart forever. Angelus would be loosed upon the world again, and nothing but death would stop him this time.

There was only one clear answer. Dr. Marsha Van Buren, world-renowned licensed sex therapist, had to get Angel and Cordelia to make love. But the trouble with those two was that it wouldn’t do just to lock them in a bedroom for a couple of days. She had to be subtle, yet intense. She had to be convincing. She had to be manipulative. She had to get them to admit they were in love with each other even though they denied it.

With purpose, she turned away from the window and rifled through a stack of books on her desk.

“Where is that damn thing?” she muttered.

She sighed with relief as she spied the slim volume. Snatching it up, she read the title reverently to herself, her voice a soft whisper in the silent room.

“Touch Me, Baby: A Lover’s Guide to Sexual Nirvana.” She stroked the embossed letters on the well-worn cover as if caressing the face of a dear friend. “Well, looks like you’re my last hope. Don’t let me down, okay?”
Part 4

Dr. Marsha Van Buren sat in the quiet corner of her office, her eyes once again on the backside of the door where her most interesting patients had just left. She’d given them a doozy of an assignment, the first one that really promised some results. She’d known that she had little time, but she hadn’t counted on the fact that the book she’d chosen would give her so many good ideas.

The first chapter, entitled “Sensual Massage: A Pleasure Map of Your Partner’s Body,” had given her an insane yet totally logical idea. She’d written the assignment with shaky hands, then slid it into the envelope and sent it along with her unsuspecting patients. Her own body tightened at the image of those two beautiful people touching each other in such a sensual yet platonic way.

That, coupled with their other instructions, was bound to make the sparks fly. It had to work. It just had to. Because there were only three weeks left, and she only had a few tricks left up her sleeve.

If Cordelia and Angel didn’t get their groove on soon, Angel’s psyche would be split, and she’d have to figure out how to give therapy to a psychotic killer. What little she’d heard of Angelus made her teeth chatter in trepidation; she was bound and determined to see that the crazy vampire was banished forever.

* * * * * * * *

The thwack of Angel’s fist hitting the punching bag reverberated off the basement walls. He punched it again, his hits repeating so quickly that his fists were nearly blurs of movement. The force was so much that he was hitting the bag farther and further back, not allowing time for it to settle to vertical again. His frustrations were mounting, and the physical exertion was doing nothing to alleviate them.

His mind was obviously preoccupied. It wasn‘t in this basement, in his head where it was supposed to be. His mind was upstairs, in his room, with Cordelia an hour or so in the future. His mind was on their next homework assignment.

The problem was that his mind kept trying to add some extra credit. Very pleasurable extra credit. He imagined going beyond their assignment, beyond the instructions and making love to her. Touching her all over, bringing her pleasure so great that she wept with it. And once the imaginary scenes of making love to her began playing in his head, he couldn’t make them stop.

Their homework assignment tonight involved a lot more physical contact than they’d had before, and while he mostly bought Dr. Van Buren’s theories on the importance of physical touch in his relationship with Cordy, he wasn’t so sure that he could restrain himself if she kept cooking up these erotic scenes for them. Okay, so maybe playing Twister wasn’t erotic in anyone else’s mind, but getting such a close view of Cordelia’s body, not to mention the heightened sensation of her scent surrounding him, had nearly destroyed his carefully erected emotional walls.

During the game, he’d been okay, his mind on other things, but afterward, all day long, her scent had taunted him. Such close proximity to her had awakened something in him, a hunger for intimacy that had lain dormant since he’d realized his relationship with Buffy was doomed to failure.

Now, he was faced with a strangely similar yet startlingly different scenario with Cordelia. He wasn’t in love with her, not yet, but he found every part of his being infused with her in a way that made him nervous. The common bond between his relationship with Cordy and his past love of Buffy was that both women brought very strong, very protective feelings of loyalty to the surface of his soul. They both called to his humanity, called to him to be a man in his own right, not just a man-demon hybrid. They both arose in him a fierce need to protect, nurture and love.

It was the loving that scared him.

Loving Buffy had nearly killed him. Leaving her was harder than he’d ever thought possible, even though he’d always known in the back of his mind that his relationship with Buffy was doomed. Even when he’d first glimpsed her, first felt the stirrings of attraction in him that were so new, so different, he’d known that a vampire and a Slayer couldn’t last. He hadn’t known about the insane clause in his curse then, but he’d known that being with her forever was impossible. And as they’d fallen in love with each other, he’d begun to understand that it wasn’t just because of their roles, it wasn’t just because he was a vampire and she was the Slayer. It was also because of whothey were. It was because they were Angel and Buffy. Their personalities meshed well in some ways, but in others, especially the most important ways, they were too much alike.

Although he’d known they couldn’t last, he’d tried to make it work anyway. Angel’s heart had been stolen by Buffy, and he couldn’t just give up. But when he realized what life would be like for her with him, when he’d realized that her life would be a constant balancing act between her natural instincts and her love for him, he knew he had to leave.

More importantly, he’d left for himself. For his own mental health. For his own self-image, his own identity. Sunnydale, the place that had witnessed his salvation, had become his prison, and he needed to get out and make a name for himself by himself. He had to be a person, an entity, a force for good on his own, not just as the vampire boyfriend of the Slayer. Not just a man who tried to hide the darker side of himself, whose girlfriend wished daily that he were fully human and not the demon that he was. It didn’t matter that he had the same wish. What mattered was that she couldn’t truly accept him, all of him, and that was the hardest thing of all to love about her.

But where Buffy had reluctantly tolerated his demon and embraced his man, Cordelia whole-heartedly embraced them both. There were times when he even thought she was more comfortable with his demon that she was with him as a man. Up until they’d begun these sessions with Dr. Van Buren, Angel had thought that Cordelia was just a breath of fresh air. Okay, maybe a whirlwind instead of a breath sometimes, but still, she was a force of humanity in his life that couldn’t and wouldn’t be ignored. At first, he’d tolerated her foibles, then allowed himself to be annoyed by her. But eventually, he’d gone from being irritated with her to needing her. To relying on her to make him laugh inside, to make him smile. To be her quirky, friendly self and chase away the darkness that always haunted him.

Leaving because of Darla was the worst mistake he could’ve made.

Even now, beating the hell out of this punching bag, he mentally flagellated himself for his stupidity. It didn’t matter that he’d finally hit lower than rock bottom and realized how much he needed her. How much he needed Wesley and Gunn, too. The worst mistake, by far, was that he’d taken Cordelia’s loyalty, her friendship, and ground it under his heel like yesterday’s trash. He’d thought he didn’t need her, and he had never been more wrong.

When he finally came to his senses and returned, there’d been a rift so wide between them that it might as well have been the Grand Canyon. He’d done everything he’d thought possible to get back in her good graces, even buying her new clothes to replace the ones he’d so thoughtlessly given away. But doing that had almost made the situation worse. That’s when their arguing had begun. Over petty things. She was the queen of petty arguments. She was always finding something he’d done and making it seem like he’d just ordered her execution. So he’d get mad and yell back.

And here they were, a month after Wesley had had enough, still mired in confusion and no closer to a comfortable relationship than they had been when they’d started.

Okay, so the discomfort had shifted somewhat. At the beginning, the only sexual awareness he’d had of Cordelia was when his demon spoke its lascivious thoughts in his ear. The same demon that made the same types of comments about any curvy blond or brunette that he saw, whether she was the waitress at Starbucks or the delivery girl. He’d just chalked the errant thoughts up to the impulsivity of his demon, nothing more.

Now, though, thoughts of making love to Cordelia haunted his dreams. The Twister game last week had only served to increase his confusion, with her drugging, intoxicating scent playing havoc with his senses and infiltrating his thoughts. He couldn’t’ seem to escape her, couldn’t seem to think about anyone but her, and it was frustrating him to no end.

So here he was, taking his anger, confusion and frustration out on a defenseless piece of cowhide and stuffing. His knuckles were undoubtedly bruised, but the pain felt good. The pain was real. The pain was something he could deal with. These swirling emotions that bound the soul, the demon, and the man in a tangled web of desire were disconcerting. They didn’t make sense. If anything, she was his best friend, not a sex object.

And yet, in less than an hour. He had to see her naked. Well, nearly naked. And he had to touch her.

What would that do to his dreams?

* * * * * * * *

Carefully, Cordelia struck the match to the side of the box and it flared to life with a hiss. She placed the burning match against the wick of the candle, watching as the flame transferred and the candle began to glow. She repeated the process with several more candles, until Angel’s room was suffused with a soft golden light, and the very faint scent of vanilla frosted the air.

The Zen-like quality of lighting the candles helped to calm her, but it only delayed the inevitable nervousness that she’d been holding back since they’d opened their homework assignment this afternoon. A quick glance at the clock both relieved her and intensified her jitters. 32 minutes and counting. 32 minutes until Angel would join her in this cozy, golden den. 32 minutes until she would stand with a towel clutched securely around her, and he with one around him. 32 minutes until she would release it, lay down, and feel his hands on her body.

32 minutes until total, complete psychological and emotional meltdown.

Because sure as she was standing here, feeling Angel’s hands on her skin was going to make her burn from the inside out. Feeling him touch her back, trace the line of her spine with his thick, long fingers, would be her undoing. He wasn’t even here in the room with her right now, and already her skin felt hot. Her face was flushed, her heartbeat elevated, her breathing erratic. If just thinking about him made her like this, how would the real thing affect her?

Cordelia couldn’t say for sure when this transition from buddies to would-be lovers had happened. Even a week ago, before the Twister assignment, she’d still only thought of him as a friend. Okay, so a sinfully good looking, hot-bodied, emotionally close friend, but a friend nonetheless. But during the twister game, remembering their sessions with Dr. Van Buren and the talks about lust and their feelings, had stirred to life something inside her that she wasn’t sure had ever been evoked before. She’d felt desire before, felt physical pleasure, but she didn’t ever remember her very essence being challenged by someone. Her attraction to Angel had wormed its way down to her very soul, and she wasn’t sure how to handle it. How to process it. Or even worse, how to control it around him.

Still more frustrating were the dreams she’d had every night for the past week. The first night had been a faceless onslaught of pleasure, only a shadow above her that stirred her body to life and taunted her until she woke up in a breathless, dizzy sweat, wanting, needing and craving some satisfaction. It wasn’t until two nights later that the shadow had been given a face. That the shadow became Angel. That she’d realized with startling, jump-in-a-cold-lake clarity that she lusted after Angel in more than just a casual way.

Tonight’s homework assignment wasn’t going to help matters at all. Shaking herself out of her growing worries, Cordelia walked into the adjoining bathroom and retrieved several fluffy towels, then took them to the make-shift table set up in the middle of the room next to Angel’s bed. Candles surrounded her on all sides, and in the dim light, the shadows wavered as she shook a few of the towels out and placed them strategically on the table top. A small stand nearby held various fragrant oils, and she shook them up for a bit before rearranging them fussily. Then, placing a rolled towel at the head of the table, she stood back and surveyed her work.

With nothing to do, her mind immediately went back to the instructions for tonight. They were both to strip naked, then wrap themselves in towels, and give each other full body (or as full-body as they dared) massages. During the massage, the massager was instructed to talk about his or her past loves, to state why they’d fallen in love (or been attracted), what the relationship had been like, and why they’d parted. They were to spare no details, and the person being massaged was allowed to ask any clarifying questions he or she wanted.

Cordy wasn’t nervous at all about going through her rather short list of exes. She hadn’t been truly in love with any of them, even Xander, and it would be no problem to rehash all of that with Angel. He knew most of it anyway.

The part that worried her was hearing him talk about Buffy.

She didn’t know why it brought such fear to her heart, but it did. If anything, Cordelia just wanted to pretend that Buffy didn’t exist. These weird, new, disconcerting feelings for Angel aside, Buffy’s return, or more aptly, Angel’s return to Buffy, meant a total upheaval of Cordelia’s life. Even if Cordy and Angel never got to a point where they were together as lovers, Buffy’s return to his life would still feel like a total abandonment. Cordy would be losing, at the very least, her best friend, and it hurt to think about him leaving again.

She would just rather not talk about it at all. She didn’t want to hear him say he was still in love with the Slayer. She didn’t want to hear him lament the curse and how he’d be with her if he didn’t have it. She didn’t want to hear him reminisce about the time before he found out about the Angelus clause, and she didn’t want to sit around and wither inside as the topic made him sink further back into his broody self and away from her.

But she had to. She had to listen to him talk about her, because that was their assignment. And she had to listen to it with the added torture of his strong hands on her skin.

A glance at the clock again. Oh, god. 21 minutes. 21 minutes until her life was over.
Part 5

The door to his own suite had never looked more foreboding than it did right now. Angel stood outside it, still as a stone, storing up his nerve until he had enough to turn the handle and go in. The faint scent of vanilla wafted under the door and tickled his nose, and he knew instinctively that Cordelia’s own scent would mix with it and overpower him with sensations when he entered.

He took a deep, calming breath, letting the oxygen permeate his dead lungs and suffuse him with borrowed courage. Opening his eyes, it was a quick turn of the handle that allowed him to cross the threshold into the room.

Cordelia’s head whipped around when he opened the door, then closed it softly behind him. She was standing there in a fluffy white robe, a towel clutched in her hand and she looked almost startled for a moment as his eyes caught hers.

Suddenly, it hit him. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t stand around and let her touch him without imploding. He couldn’t touch her without loving her. He had to set up some emotional walls, and quickly. The only way to do that was to escape for a little while, so he did.

He smiled tightly at her, then it fell away as if the expression had never been there at all.

“I’m going to take a quick shower,” he said, looking away from her and striding across the room to the bathroom. “I’ll be out in a few minutes. I guess everything’s ready?” the last question was thrown over his shoulder as he entered the bathroom, almost as if he didn’t expect an answer.

“Yeah, it’s ready,” she said, shock at his hurried, nonchalant attitude making her voice neutral. Was he really so unaffected by this?

“Great!” he said, the false cheerfulness adding a veneer to his words. It struck her that he was covering for something, but she had no clue as to what. The only thing she knew was that he wasn’t being himself, and that brought her guard up as well.

Cordelia couldn’t have said later what changed while he was in the shower, but something did. It started with an errant thought that here she was, waxed, moisturized, and perfumed, way too dressed up for a ridiculous massage session with a friend, when he hadn’t even bothered to shower yet? What had he been doing, polishing his weapons?

It felt damn good to put her heated emotions somewhere other than where they’d been all afternoon.

Her eyes narrowed. The jerk! No time for her, no time to prepare for this, this . . . bawdy, ill-advised massage.

Her hands fisted at her sides. She was the one who’d taken the time to make this bearable. She was the one who’d found the candles, set up the table, and arranged the towels.

Her eyes flashed. Just like a man. No, just like a vampire. A self-absorbed, brooding, ill-mannered vampire who didn’t even acknowledge the hard work she’d put in to make this homework assignment less scary.

Her teeth clenched. Lusting after Angel of all people. Hah! Please. She had more taste than that. So what if he had a hard body. He didn’t really care about her, not if he ignored her and then expected her to do all the work.

Raising her eyebrows and setting her mouth in a straight, rigid line, Cordelia sat down on the edge of the bed facing the bathroom door, Crossed her legs and her arms, and waited.

And waited.

And waited!!

How long does scrubbing take? Or gelling, which he was undoubtedly doing. She rolled her eyes and blew at the bangs that had fallen in her face. He was such a prissy man. So concerned with his appearance when he couldn’t even see his reflection.

In the bathroom, Angel stood beneath the spray, stalling. For some unknown reason, his frustration and bottled-up desire had morphed into anger at Cordelia. From the moment he walked into this bathroom and shut the door, he’d begun to seethe at her, letting himself get more and more angry at her.

All of those candles! What the hell was she thinking? This isn’t some kind of brothel, or anything. it’s just a stupid massage! She didn’t have to make it all cozy and romantic.

The robe! Tied loosely like that, taunting him, gaping open just enough for him to see the skin between her breasts, knowing what was under there but knowing he wouldn’t be allowed to touch her except under the guise of a massage.

Her attitude! That look of surprise when he’d walked into the door. So coy. So obvious! Who did she think she was fooling? Ha! not him. Definitely not this vampire. This vampire wasn’t going to be swayed by her feminine manipulations.

Finally, the door swung open and he stood there, angry, worked into a frenzy of irritation at her. He was wrapped only in a towel, and that was slung low on his hips, hinting at what was waiting underneath. Tiny drops of water clung to his chest in an enticing way, glittering like little diamonds in the half-light.

Cordy swallowed, caught up in his beauty for a moment.

While she stared, he looked his fill. Her knee had separated the bottom half of her robe, pulling the ends apart so that they barely met in her midsection. Her delicately arched foot bounced as she kicked it in her impatience, her arms crossed under her breasts, thrusting them into prominence.

He swallowed, caught up in her beauty for a moment.

Then, in just a few words, he succeeded in bringing himself back to earth. And ruining whatever chance they had left for a civil, soul-baring evening.

“So? What are you just sitting there for? Let’s get this over with,” he said, his eyes darkened with remembered irritation. He walked over to the table and fluffed the towel that would serve as a makeshift pillow.

Oh, that was it, Cordelia thought, her eyes narrowing. “Excuse me?” she said, the anger in her voice barely controlled. “I have been waiting for you forever, and you ask what I’m waiting for?”

“Geez, Cordelia,” Angel shook his head. “Get over it. You wanna go first?” He knew he was pushing her, but she deserved it. They should’ve done this in the basement. In the smelly, cold basement where nothing was warm and cozy and romantic. Then maybe he wouldn’t want to touch her so badly. Maybe he wouldn’t be drowning in her scent. The scent that brought him peace and frustrated the hell out of him at the same time.

She nearly screamed with the sudden, irrational rage that flooded her over his attitude. She didn’t say anything, just stomped over to the table and laid down on her stomach.

“Turn around,” she said coldly, and he did as she asked. She took off her robe, then shifted a towel to lay across her ass so that she was covered, but her back and legs were bare.

“Okay, I’m ready,” she said reluctantly, and sensed Angel turn around. She laid her head to one side, bringing her arms up and crossing them, moving the towel-pillow out of the way and placing her head on her arms.

Angel selected an unscented massage oil as Cordelia lay there and fumed. He breathed deeply, trying to calm himself and push aside his frustration. He knew that if he touched her with all of these volatile emotions, his “extra credit” from earlier would take over his mind. He’d start imagining what it would be like to move aside that towel and touch her, to kiss her, to taste her. . . He closed his eyes and breathed in again, clearing his mind. Only then did he allow his hands to descend to her back.

Cordelia had her eyes squeezed tightly shut as she tried to control her anger. She didn’t want to be here. She didn’t want him to touch her. She didn’t want his hands on her, she didn’t want. . .

Oh, god, that felt so good. His hands were placing gentle pressure on either side of her spine, working upwards from the small of her back. She felt the massage oil pool in the hollow at the base of her spine, then his fingers dipping into it and working it into her tense muscles.

As pleasant as it was, the soothing massage did nothing to help them ignore the other half of their assignment. The part where Dr. Van Buren, the torture queen, insisted that they talk about their ex loves in great detail.

Angel grimaced as he realized how far from fun talking about his exes would be. His fingers kneaded a little harder as his nervousness grew.

“Let’s get this over with,” Angel said, his voice low and rumbling. It was obvious that he didn’t want to be here, and that in itself only served to fuel Cordelia’s anger at him.

“By all means,” she said haughtily, her voice muffled. “Get started. Heaven knows you have enough women in your past to last through fifty massages.”

He glared at her down-turned head and couldn’t stop the growl from rumbling through his chest.

She had enough sense to ignore the sound, even though it sent pleasurable shivers down her spine.

He gritted his teeth and continued. “You want chronological or order of importance?” he asked, stalling.

She raised an eyebrow in question, even though she knew he couldn’t see her. “Chronological, I guess. If we must.” Her sigh was pure irritation.

“Okay,” he said, sounding bored. “First love was Molly in Ireland. I was thirteen.”

As he worked his fingers over her back, working out knots and kinks she hadn’t known existed, he told her about Molly, his first love. About Jana and Rachel and Moira, and any number of looser and looser women that came after that. As he reminisced, his anger slowly began to dissipate, and his voice turned from a monotonous boredom to a sound resembling golden, thick honey.

Cordelia found herself being soothed by him, soothed by the sound of his voice. She was transported to his past, drawn in by his bald recollection of his errant youth. But instead of feeling repulsed by his licentious behavior, she found herself feeling sorry for young Liam. Because with every girl that he spoke of, every story he told, she saw more and more how lost he’d been, how he’d been searching for something outside of himself.

And then there was Darla.

“Were you attracted to her from the beginning?” Cordelia asked, now caught up in his story telling. Her irritation at him remained, keeping the desire his massage would have released tightly at bay. It simmered on the back burner of her mind, still boiling, but covered, for now.

“Oh, yeah,” Angel said, his eyes far away as he remembered. “I thought she was my salvation. Instead, she was my death.”

He was silent, his hands still upon her back as he relived that fateful night so many years ago and the recent events that had brought those painful memories so close to the surface. Remembering how he’d been so obsessed with her this fall only brought his anger at Cordelia rushing back to the surface, though. He remembered his earlier thoughts about how much he’d needed Cordelia and had been too stupid to see it. And here she was, soft and pliant beneath his hands, and it was too much.

Finally, he spoke. “Turn over,” he said gruffly, and turned away.

Cordelia sat up, then turned on her back and laid back down. She arranged the towel over her waist, then draped a smaller one across her breasts, leaving most of them, the tops and bottoms, exposed.

“Okay,” she said softly, and he turned back to her, pouring massage oil into his hands again and laying them on her right thigh. He seemed disinclined to speak again as his fingers worked the oil into her leg.

Cordelia wasn’t so patient. “And after Darla?”

“I was with Darla, and really only Darla, until Buffy. I had other women, other obsessions, like Dru, but I was devoted to Darla.”

He switched to the other leg.

“I can’t say that I ever really loved her, though. I was loyal, but she didn’t have me like Dru had Spike. I stayed with Darla because I hadn’t found anyone better. Then when I got my soul,” he paused, his hands hovering at her ankles. He moved to stand at the foot of the table, his thumbs lightly grazing the arches of her feet and sending tingles all the way up her spine.

“When I got my soul, it was like I’d been cast into the sunlight, given all of the pain and torture of burning, but wasn’t allowed to die. Darla detested me, and I realized I detested her. I tried to make it work, but I couldn’t. My soul wouldn’t let me. It would be another hundred years before I was able to find someone that I could care for so deeply again.”

He stopped, not wanting to go any further. He didn’t want to keep talking about Darla, because talking about her meant talking about his stupidity of late. And that inevitably led back to the enigmatic woman with him. What a cruel, vicious cycle.

But maybe his most recent love was a safe subject. He nearly laughed at that thought. Yeah, right. Buffy, a safe topic with Cordelia Chase? Ha!

“Buffy,” Cordelia whispered, unable to dislodge the lump in her throat as she anticipated his worship of her.

“Buffy,” Angel confirmed, setting his jaw and giving in to the inevitable. Might as well get it over with quickly. “She taught me to love again,” he said simply, his hands moving up to Cordelia’s torso, working the oil into her hips and her belly, brushing the undersides of her breasts with his palms. Angel was mesmerized for a moment, recognizing the impact he was having on her and hating himself for the responses of his own body at merely touching her skin.

God, this was torture.

Cordelia was similarly uncomfortable. As his hands stroked her, so close to so many erogenous zones, she responded despite her unwilling attitude. Under the towel, her body betrayed her, her breasts hardening and tightening at his touch.

“Buffy made me feel alive again. I’ll always love her for that,” Angel said, his hands stilling for a moment, only to resume again swiftly. God, why had he said that? It didn’t matter if it was true. He knew that Cordelia would take it the wrong way. She would think he was still obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, when slowly, the Slayer had worked her way out of his heart. Absently, he moved up to her shoulders and her upper chest in silence.

He didn’t say anything else, and neither did she. He finished working on her neck and shoulders, then stepped back.

“You’re done,” he said, an edge to his voice.

“Thanks,” she bit back, her eyes icy. “Your turn.”

Angel just stared at her for a moment, then laid down on the massage table on his stomach. In a sudden show of defiance, he didn’t bother covering himself up, just yanked off the towel and laid there in all of his hard muscled glory.

Cordy bit back a gasp as she was treated to the beautiful, uninterrupted planes of his back side. Her eyes lingered a little too long on his ass. She seethed at herself, then at him for flaunting himself that way.

As if Angel could feel her gaze, he said, “Stop ogling me, woman, and start massaging.” Inside, his pride swelled as he realized that his ploy had worked. He’d gotten her attention, all right.

“Woman?” she quoted indignantly, pouring oil into her hand and then vigorously rubbing his back. She massaged him in silence, her teeth clenched.

“Ah, there we go,” he sighed as she hit a tender spot on his back. “On to your exes. How about Wilson?”

“Wilson was not an ex. He wasn’t even close. Just a creep, but you already know that.” she paused for a moment at the bottom of his back and looked warily at the firm globes beneath. Uh-uh, not going to go there, she thought, skipping his ass and working on the backs of his thighs.

Angel smiled inwardly as she avoided his ass. Obviously, she was just as affected by his body as he had been by hers. She moved down his legs in silence, working her small fingers into the crevices of his ankles and feet, bringing blissful relaxation to his body at her touch.

“Turn over,” she said as she finished his feet.

“You missed a spot,” he said, laying still, smiling evilly where she couldn’t see him.

“No way,” she said, her face scrunched up in disgust. “I’m not touching your ass, Angel.”

“Aw, c’mon, Cordy. I mean its not like you want me, or anything,” he taunted. “’sides, isn’t this supposed to be a full body massage?” He knew he was provoking her, but he couldn’t help it.

“Uh-uh,” she said, her hair swinging. “And just what are you going to tell me on the front side? If I’m not touching your butt, I’m definitely not touching anything down there,” she said with disgust. Or she projected disgust anyway, and let the anticipation and longing be squelched inside.

“Fine,” he sighed reluctantly, smiling again when she whipped away as he flipped over and just laid there, not making any move to cover himself. Let her imagination do some calisthenics while she stood turned away from him.

“Put a towel on, Angel,” Cordelia said, irritated and knowing what he was up to. She heard a rustle, then peeked to check if he was sufficiently covered. She ignored the twinge of disappointment when she saw that he was.

“So I know about Wilson. Xander was the one before that?” Angel carefully kept the disgust out of his voice at the mention of the whelp who’d had the audacity to call him Deadboy. What Cordelia ever saw in him was beyond Angel.

“Yeah, Xander.” The fingertips digging so pleasantly into his shins and calves got a little rougher. “That was a mistake. Groping in broom closets isn’t exactly a great thing to add to my resume. I still can’t figure out why I liked him. He was totally in love with Buffy, not me. Or Willow, again, not me. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“You must have cared for him a little bit,” Angel said, honestly intrigued by why she’d let the boy into her heart.

“Yeah, I did. It was weird. Most of the time he annoyed me and I was embarrassed to be with him. And then there were moments, snatches in time, where he’d be sweet and loving, and that’s what got me.” She moved up to his thighs, her small fingers working into his skin.

“And then he went and made out with Willow, and I got impaled by a rebar. End of story,” her massage had increased until it began to resemble torture.

“Cordelia, I know I’m tough, but you don’t have to try to gouge your fingers through my skin,” he said, and she whipped her eyes to him as if she’d forgotten that she was even touching him in the first place.

“Sorry,” she said absently, lightening her touch. Her fingers played over his stomach, rubbing his belly and sides, tracing the hard lines defining his six pack.

“And before Xander? Anyone else?”

“No one serious. I had a few dates, but no one I could claim I loved. The closest was probably Darrel, a football player who was older than me. But he died in a freak accident, then came back as a zombie that Buffy had to kill. Not exactly a great track record.”

He wisely kept his mouth shut.

At her own mention of Angel’s ex-girlfriend, his earlier words came back to haunt her. She made me feel alive again. I’ll always love her for that.His words echoed inside Cordelia’s brain, and the hope she hadn’t known existed was drowned by despair. He was still in love with Buffy, just as she’d thought.

And in the strong, glaring emotion of newfound jealousy, Cordelia fanned the flames of their barely stoked anger with each other.

“Speaking again of your violence loving ex, I never could figure out what you saw in Buffy, Angel,” she said, her voice neutral enough not to anger him, only irritate.

“It wasn’t your business then, Cordy,” he reminded her as she rubbed his upper chest and shoulders. He was back to being annoyed with her, what with that skimpy towel she had around her barely clinging to her chest. What was she trying to do, torture him? The little tease!

“Of course it was my business,” she said pettily, frowning as she grazed his nipples, ignoring the twitch his body inadvertently gave at the pleasant sensations. “The two of you in your ill-advised, star-crossed lover dramatic crap made it everyone’s business when you slept together.”

Okay, now she’d really crossed the line. He’d been in love with Buffy. In-love people had sex. How was that a crime?

“I didn’t even know about the curse, Cordelia, how was she supposed to?”

She just pfft’d.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, indignant.

“Did I say anything?” she asked innocently.

Oh, that did it. “You pfft’d. That’s saying something,” he said, glaring up at her.

“Well, it’s just that Buffy should’ve known that everything wouldn’t be perfect. Sex is bad. We all know that,” Cordy said.

“But it still wasn’t her fault,” Angel argued. “And I made her life hell after that.”

“You made all our lives hell, Angel. Even evil, you were obsessed with her,” she spat, her fingers digging into his neck and shoulders.

As she finished the massage, her anger took over her words, making her say things she shouldn’t have even thought, much less said. Jealousy had a funny way of making her talk too much.

“What’s so great about Buffy, anyway? All of you men are so in love with her. So she’s got supernatural strength, so what? She’s got passable looks, I’ll give her that, even if she’s got bad taste in clothes. But her blonde is from a bottle, and she tries too hard. All ‘poor me, my life is tragic’ all the time. Please.” Cordelia rolled her eyes, standing back from Angel and crossing her arms, the massage more than finished.

Angel sat up and glared at her. So he wasn’t in love with Buffy any more. So what? He didn’t have to sit here and let Cordelia malign her like that. Not when Cordelia herself was flaunting her body in front of him and wreaking havoc with his senses.

“You’re just jealous of her, Cordelia,” he said.

Boy, howdy, was that the wrong thing to say.

“Jealous?” Cordelia said, eyes flashing. “I am not jealous of that little twit. What the hell would I have to be jealous of?”

“Well, in high school, because all of the attention was on her when you wanted it to be on you.”

Ouch, that hurt. “Ha! Funny. I don’t think so! She may have had attention all the time, but that’s because she pouted if she didn’t get it. She thought she deserved to be the center of everything, and all of you catered to her every whim. It was pathetic.” She unfolded her arms and gestured aimlessly as she talked, one hand clutching at her towel. “And now? What exactly do I have to be jealous of now, huh? Enlighten me, o wise one,” she sneered.

“Now?” he shrugged. “Maybe because I still care about her,” he said, looking at her closely as he lied through his teeth. If Cordelia returned one iota of the feelings that were burgeoning in him, he wanted to know. Her next words dashed his hopes.

“Pfft! Please,” she scoffed. “Like I care about your long list of skanky ex girlfriends. You can have your little perverted fantasies about whoever you want, even if it’s someone like Buffy.”

“Buffy is not skanky, Cordelia, and you know it,” Angel admonished. “Besides, I think you arejealous. You’ve flirted with me before. I know you think I’m hot.”

Oh, he knew he was digging his own grave, but he had to hold his own in this. He had to control this conversation before it got completely out of hand.

“Please!” she said again, aghast. “That was years ago. Before I knew what you were,” she said, somehow making it sound like his vampirism was loathsome.

His need for control flew out the window as he was struck by what he perceived as her snobbery. Hadn’t he just been thinking that she accepted his demon? Accepted all of him? What a fool he’d been.

“Oh, so now you know what I am, and I’m not good enough?” he said.

“Oh, come on, Angel,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You and I are just friends, it couldn’t be anything more than that.” She shook her head at him as if he were a two year old child who was having trouble understanding why he couldn’t have ice cream at 9 a.m.

He felt like she’d slapped him, his barely acknowledged feelings squashed into nothing. “You’re right, it couldn’t be any more than that.” His lips were stiff as he said it, wanting it to be a lie.

Now she felt like she’d been slapped. She could reject him, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to stand around and let him reject her.

“Why not?” she asked. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Huh?” he said, confused. One minute she’s saying they can’t be more than friends, the next, she wants to know why he thinks so, too. “Didn’t you just say there couldn’t be anything between us?” He didn’t want to answer her question.

“Well, duh!” she said, frustrated. “Weren’t you listening? I just want to know why you think it wouldn’t work with us. Do you actually think I’m not good enough for you?” Her incredulity was obvious.

“Just forget it, Cordelia,” he said angrily. “I don’t want to go into this now.”

“You think I’m not good enough for you, and you want me to just forget about it?” she asked. She marched up to him and poked her finger into his chest, much like she had weeks before when they were fighting over the remote control.

“Please! you’re going to tell me what, in your twisted mind, you think is wrong with me, and you’re going to tell me now. Even if I wanted you, which I DON’T,” she insisted, her chin in the air, “I deserve to know.”

“Cordy—“ Angel pled, suddenly overwhelmed. “I said. Not. Now!” This conversation had gotten so out of control!

“Yes, now, damn it! What the hell kind of problem do you have with me?”

As she stood there in front of him, her eyes flashing, her chest heaving indignation, the lust he felt for her hit him in full force. His demon went wild, the scent and taste of her angry arousal in front of him consuming him as if he’d been thrown into a bonfire made entirely of her. His body reacted, hardening, his eyes dilated, his teeth clenched. He struggled for control, struggled to keep his demon leashed, tightly locked within.

Cordelia’s eyes grew wide as she watched the anger play on his face, his irises rimming with gold as he fought his demon and his volatile emotions. She was struck in that moment by just how beautiful he really was in all of his glory, in the full fledged onslaught of his demon. It didn’t matter that his face hadn’t changed. It didn’t matter that he still looked just as human as he had five minutes before. Because she knew, without a doubt, that it this moment, she was looking into the eyes of the whole Angel, the demon, the man and the soul, all vying for supremacy in this one perfect body.

In that moment, her own body recognized its mate in his, and she was overcome. Her body pulsed with his nearness, a drumbeat of desire that only intensified as the silence thickened around them. And in her own indignation over her loss of control, her anger at him grew. It grew so quickly, so intensely, that soon it consumed everything until her own eyes were dilated in both passion and anger.

Angel finally reined in his demon and spoke, his teeth clenched as he tried to remember the thread of their conversation. How did they get from Buffy to each other? He was so confused.

“I don’t know how the hell we got onto this stupid topic, but I will not stand here and let you tell me what to do, Cordy. It doesn’t come down to there being something wrong with you, or something wrong with me. The fact is, we wouldn’t work, and that’s it. We just wouldn’t.”

She felt like she’d been doused with cold water, his rejection stinging her like a whip’s cruel lash. “We just wouldn’t? What kind of lame ass reason is that, Angel?”

He shrugged, that one gesture dismissing her completely. “Face it, Cordy. We could screw our brains out and probably like it, but we aren’t meant to be together. We just aren’t. We can’t. We won’t. We never will be.”

He said it to mock fate. He said it to convince her. But most importantly, he said it to convince himself.

But Fate, Cordelia, and every part of his splintered personality knew that his answer was shit. It was further from the truth than any lie ever could be. But he wasn’t ready to acknowledge it. He could acknowledge that he wanted to sleep with her, wanted to take pleasure from her body, wanted to sink himself inside her until he forgot his own name, but he wouldn’t acknowledge that he needed her more than he already had. He couldn’t.

And neither could she. Not yet. There were too many obstacles to overcome in her own mind. There were too many signals to sort through, too many messages to work out. Her brain was telling her one thing, her body something else, and her heart something even different. She couldn’t figure out which way was up, and she felt like she’d drown if she didn’t escape soon.

But one thing did stand out at her. One reason to blame for his reluctance to be with her, which shouldn’t be so important to her in the first place, damn it!

“We never will be, huh? Because of Buffy. Because you can’t let go of her. Because you brood until you’re a shell of yourself and pine for a love that can never happen, and you say that I have problems?”

He didn’t even bother to correct her because he’d be there until next year if he did.

She shook her head. “Fine, Angel. Whatever,” she said, standing back and glaring at him. “Like I said, there’s no way I’d ever want to be with you, anyway, so what’s the point of talking about it? It’s not even a hypothetical.”

They stared at each other for a moment, so much said, yet so much left unsaid. They’d both said all the wrong things tonight, and it was too late to take any of them back. She finally broke the stare, walked over to her pile of clothes and gathered them in front of her like a shield.

“I’ll be here tomorrow at 4 p.m. to go to the session,” she said, then looked at him one last time with an unreadable expression as she walked out of the door.

He sank down onto the edge of the bed and stared at the door, feeling like she’d just walked out of his life. Quickly, before it could consume him, he tamped down the feeling and latched back on to his anger.

Lately, Cordelia made him so, so angry. Why she did was still a mystery. All of the animosity they’d had toward each other in the past couple of months, before Dr. Van Buren and her touchy feely homework, had turned from petty disagreements in to hurtful, mud-slinging shouting matches.

How had they ever let themselves get to this point?

He knew the answer was out there somewhere, but it had decided to hide from him. And tomorrow, with Dr. Van Buren, the hits were sure to just keep on coming.
Part 6

“I mean, can you believe he said that? That I wasn’t good enough for him?” she scoffed. “I mean, please! What man wouldn’t want me?!?” Cordelia’s face was scrunched up in irritation, her pretty nose wrinkled and her lips set in a frown. She stubbornly ignored the voice in her head that echoed the fact that he hadn’t actually said that. She’d said it, taken it from his cryptic words. But oh, he’d meant it, all right. Hadn’t he?

The air around her in the Mystique Salon, saturated with the strong smell of acetone, served as a soothing balm to Cordelia’s shattered nerves. The massage session with Angel had worn down every last defense she’d had, and her only recourse had been to look for something totally frivolous, a selfish pampering, that would help her deal with the crazy mixed-up emotions she had toward the broody vampire. A manicure had seemed like the best idea.

Kiki, her manicurist, was efficiently filing down her ninth nail and listening intently to Cordelia’s tirade. She was a pretty blonde, hair short and layered, flipped jauntily around her head. She was overweight but she carried it well, her wide smile and sparkling brown eyes drawing everyone to her pretty face. On top of all that, she was a whiz at manicures, and she had a way of listening that made her clients feel like they could tell her anything.

Pausing when she realized Cordelia had stopped, Kiki cast a concerned glance at Cordelia. It was the first quiet moment since the brunette had sat heavily into the chair across from her, a dramatic sigh escaping the pouting lips in a way that had made Kiki frown in concern.

“Go on, hon,” Kiki said, her round face turning up in a smile as she looked at one of her most loyal clients. She adopted a southern accent and drawled, “Tell me how that man done you wrong.”

“He didn’t do me wrong, exactly,” Cordelia admitted, squirming a little bit. The guilt over her own actions last night kept prodding at her in the most inconvenient times. “We’re going to counseling, that’s all, and the therapist has been making us do these really crazy homework assignments. It’s driving me nuts. One moment I want to jump him and the next moment I want to claw his eyes out. It’s so frustrating!”

Kiki smiled knowingly. “What kind of homework? Like role-playing games?”

Cordy’s frown grew fiercer. “Not exactly. Why, you know what I’m talking about?”

The manicurist dropped Cordy’s hand and went for some nail solution. She nodded as she went back to work. “Brad and I, my first husband, you remember him?”

At Cordy’s nod she continued. “Well, he and I tried to get some marriage counseling when he was sleeping around. I agreed to it, mainly because my lawyer said it would look better when it came time to divvy up our assets. Anyhow, the therapist was a firm believer in creative sex as a salve for any married problems. It kind of fell apart when I drew the line at bondage.”

Cordelia’s eyebrows went up into her hairline. “Your therapist wanted him to tie you up?” she asked in disbelief. “After what he did to you?”

Kiki laughed. “Nope. Wanted me to tie him up. Then do whatever I wanted to him. I wouldn’t do it, ‘case I knew that the moment he was helpless I’d do something illegal. I didn’t want to set myself up for a lifetime in the slammer.”

They shared a laugh over Kiki’s good judgment.

“So, anyway, hon, go on about Angel. Does it really bother you so much to work through this?” she asked as she put Cordy’s hands in the solution to soak.

“No. I actually want to work it out. I care about him; he’s probably the closest friend I have in the world.” She paused, not quite sure where she was headed with this.

Wisely keeping silent, Kiki worked steadily as Cordelia sifted through the emotions to figure it out.

“It’s just—,” she paused, frowning. “It’s just that I feel like he’s holding back from me. Like he won’t trust me or something. Because he’s still in love with his ex.”

“It hurts when the man you love won’t give everything to you,” Kiki stated sympathetically.

“Huh?” Cordelia asked, confused. “I don’t love him. Not like that,” she added hastily. “We’re just co-workers. And friends. Really good friends.”

An indelicate snort escaped Kiki and she smirked knowingly at Cordelia. “Sure, honey, and I’m Playboy’s Playmate of the month,” she laughed, thrusting her ample hip out of the chair and striking a mockery of a sultry pose.

“I’m not in love with him!” Cordy said emphatically, but her eyes wouldn’t meet Kiki’s.

The manicurist’s arched eyebrow nearly disappeared into her hairline as she stared Cordelia down. The younger woman squirmed, then broke.

“All right! So I’m insanely attracted to the guy. So what? Okay, so my heart races, my breath catches, and I get really really hot around him. And I can’t help but drool when I think about seeing him naked. Big deal! I haven’t gotten any in a little while. I’m just horny. That’s all!”

Kik’s smile was gentle. “You ever heard that saying that ‘De Nile’ isn’t just a river in Egypt?”

Cordy made face at her. “Ha, ha. Funny. Shut up!”

They sat in a moment of friendly silence and reflection. Kiki gently removed Cordelia’s hands from the solution, dried them off, and began to work again. “Girl, your eyes light up every time you talk about him. Every other time you’ve been in here, you haven’t been able to stop talking about him in one way or another.”

Cordelia tried hard not to listen, but it wasn’t working. “Not only that, but your anger at him is based in hurt, not irritation, and face it, that’s a sure sign of love.”

Cordelia’s face crumpled and she looked like she wanted to cry. “I can’t be in love with him, Kiki. I just can’t. I can’t afford to be, emotionally. Not when he’s still in love with Buffy. Not when he won’t trust me.” Her voice was barely a whisper, her eyes brimming with tears.

Kiki sighed sympathetically. “I know, honey. Believe me, I know.” She shook her head ruefully as she applied the clear basecoat to Cordy’s nails. “Heartache is never an easy thing. But if you do love him—,” she stopped, looking up and catching Cordelia’s gaze, her eyes earnest. “Honey, if you do love him, you have to fight for him. That other girl, no matter how great she might be, isn’t here. She gave up, too, even if he’s the one who left. And you’re here picking up the pieces even now.”

Cordy’s breath caught in her throat as she realized the wisdom in Kiki’s words.

The manicurist continued, the polish frozen in her hand as she displayed the naked truth. “You’re here. She’s not. You love him, and from everything you tell me, it sounds like he thinks the world of you. Even if you think he’s holding back, he doesn’t know that you love him, right? You have a chance here, kiddo, to get the man of your dreams. Don’t let fear take that chance away from you.”

One tear spilled over and tracked down Cordelia’s cheek. She took up her unoccupied hand and wiped it away, sniffling a little bit as she tried to get a hold of herself.

“Thanks, Kiki, you always know what to say.” Her smile was wobbly, but genuine.

“Sure, hon. You know me. The advice comes free. It’s the beauty you have to pay for.” She grinned at her cheekiness.

Cordy’s friendly gaze stared back, but the dark clouds remained behind her eyes. What Kiki said made sense. But it made sense only if Angel wasn’t Angel. Only if Angel was a normal human guy with a normal, safe job. With a soul that wasn’t trying to escape every time he got a break in life. Because the underlying problem here wasn’t his love for Buffy, not really. That was important, but it wasn’t the crux of the issue. The problem was his curse. They could only go so far together before he would cross that line and the man she loved would disappear, a psychotic killer in his place.

She wanted to fight for him. Madly. Desperately. Wanted to take back every hurtful thing she’d said the night before, replay the incident and beg him to love her the way that she loved him. But she couldn’t. If she ignored the curse to seek her happiness, she knew that eventually, she wouldn’t be able to hold back, and she knew, that if he returned her feelings, he wouldn’t be able to either.

So she was back to square one. Alone, miserable, and in love.

* * * * * * * *

Angel paced the dimly lit lobby, waiting for Cordelia to arrive so they could head over to Dr. Van Buren’s for their next session. He’d been up all night, as vampires were wont to do, pacing and rerunning the entire miserable fiasco of the massage in his mind. Every wrong thing he said seem to shout back at him in his brain, and her hurtful comments twisted in his gut. He knew she hadn’t meant much of what she said, but there was a ring of truth behind some of it, and it scared him. Now, more than ever, he realized how much he needed her, and he couldn’t afford for her to distance herself now.

More disturbing was the question that had haunted him, after he’d finally managed to suppress the memories of their argument, continued to call to him even now.

Was he in love with Cordelia?

He paused in the middle of the lobby to reflect again. He desired her, that much was without question. Every time she was in the room his body seemed to come alive. His dreams were saturated with her, his list of fantasies involving her, endless. And what’s more, he knew that she was just as attracted to him. On a more emotional level, he valued her as a person, wanted her as a regular fixture in his life. Doyle had said once that Cordelia was his link to humanity. That she’d keep him connected to people and not let him go back to brooding like he had been before L.A. She’d been that and so much more. Not only would she not let him brood, she also managed to find his buried sense of humor. She made him feel like a man, and no one, not even Buffy, had been able to reach his soul quite the way that Cordelia did.

The only thing that kept him from saying he was in love with Cordelia was the fact that he couldn’t give her a future. With the curse still firmly in place, he knew that any love shared between them was lost before they even took hold of it. It made him despair, to know that he could never really love her. Not like he wanted to.

Just listening to his thoughts, it struck him. He was in love with Cordelia. It had happened when he’d least expected it, but it was there within him just the same. And knowing that he could do nothing brought him to the deepest level of regret he’d ever faced. She deserved a better life. Somehow, though, he knew that she would still choose him.

* * * * * * * *

Cordelia had managed to get a handle on her emotions by the time she walked back into the hotel and found Angel standing there in the dark, staring off into space. She was a little late, having arrived closer to 5 p.m. than she’d wanted, but she felt that the delay was worthwhile. She’d repaired her make-up, given herself a rousing pep talk, and had taken several deep, calming breaths before she walked into the lobby.

All of that preparation did nothing to alleviate the response of her body and soul when she saw him again, though. Despite all of the problems of last night, her recent realization of her growing feelings for him assaulted her from every angle.

She walked into the lobby noiselessly, slowly, both dreading and anticipating the moment he’d turn and look at her. When he didn’t, she just stood there quietly, watching him. He was beautiful in his silence; a stoic, modern-day epic hero. He was poetry in repose, all hard angles and lines, an intriguing blend of dark hues that blended into the shadows, drawing her to him.

Something stirred inside her as she watched him, something primal, something needy, her body and soul thirsting for him at an elemental level. She nearly burst into tears on the spot, the magnetism was so powerful yet so heart wrenching. In that moment, she was truly undone.

The night before, in the heat and intensity of their anger, she’d felt a similar yearning of her body to his, but had chalked it up to nothing more than angry lust, sparked by her volatile emotions at the time. Now, though, the draw to him was unmistakable, a recognition in the very depths of her being that he was the one she’d been looking for her entire life.

Funny how she hadn’t known she’d ever begun looking in the first place.

Yet here he was, in front of her, the perfect mate for her soul, mind, and body, and he was unattainable. She knew it. He knew it. And the desperation that clawed at her when she understood that they would never be was devastating. In a bid to control the despair swirling inside her, she drew herself up and put on her most comfortable façade. The one that kept her popular, yet safe. Friendly, yet distanced. The Cordelia that she’d been when she first met Angel, and the Cordelia that knew how to keep her distance but cheer him up at the same time.

“Hey, big guy,” she said, trying to interject a smile into her voice. It was important that he understand that last night was forgotten. That she wanted to ignore it, or get past it. “Ready to go visit Dr. Pain and Torture?”

He seemed startled by her voice, his shoulders twitching almost imperceptibly before he turned to face her. She knew that anyone who didn’t know him so well would’ve thought he’d heard her coming, but she knew that he’d been so deep within himself that his senses had been muffled. It was a dangerous place for him, to go so far that he’d let his guard down, and it made her heart break for him that much more. He wouldn’t have retreated like that if he hadn’t been so hurt.

He put on a small smile for her benefit, then his eyes roamed over her figure. She realized he was checking her to make sure she was safe and unharmed, and it warmed her to her toes. Since when had his chauvinistic, protective behavior been so comforting?

After reassuring himself that she was fine, his smile fell away, but he still didn’t say anything. He stared into her eyes, the pain and despair he was feeling muted but still present. Finally, he found his words.

“About last night, Cordy,” he began, but she shushed him.

“Angel, last night was a mess. We both said things we didn’t mean, or at least shouldn’t have said. We’re supposed to be working through our problems, not making them worse, right?”

He nodded, the relief at her easy acceptance exuding from every pore.

“So let’s just go see if Dr. Van Buren can fix the mess we made, okay?” Her smile was gentle, her eyes sparkling. “Besides, wouldn’t do to have you all broody and crap when we go to the session. I think she’s hot for that dark and silent thing you’ve got going.”

He looked startled, the frowned fiercely. “She is not hot for me, Cordelia.”

She rolled her eyes and pfft’d, then turned away to walk toward the doors, heading for the car. “Please, Angel. Women can tell these things about other women. She thinks you’re hot. She wants your butt, preferably naked. She practically has to wipe the drool off when you get all dark and broody in her office.”

“Whatever, Cordelia,” he said, shaking his head as he followed her, but not able to keep the smile from creeping onto his face. “So what if she is? I can’t exactly help it if women like how I look.”

She snorted in disbelief. “Yeah right, vamp guy. You love it that women drool over you. Admit it!” She was grinning cheekily as she opened the passenger door to the Plymouth and slid in.

He just shrugged as he slid in beside her. “It’s a distraction when women flirt with me. I don’t need that.”

She rolled her eyes. “Stop. Please! This is Cordy you’re talking to here. I’ve watched all the women parade in and out of your life since Buffy. The entire flirty, giggly lot of them.”

“There weren’t any giggly ones,” he countered, confirming her point even with that denial.

She smirked in triumph. “Oh, maybe not giggly ones. But maybe some of those,” she raised her voice to a high pitched, breathy note, clasped her hand over her heart, and mocked, “’Oh, Angel! Save me, please! With your big, strong muscles and your attractively spikey hair! And your swishy dark coat is so sexy, too!’” She pouted, still in character, and fluttered her eyelashes at him. “’You’re my hero, Angel! Take me to bed and love me forever!’”

Then she giggled hysterically at the chagrined look on his face. She watched, amazed, as the smile started at the corners of his mouth, then slowly consumed his entire face, until even his eyes were sparkling back at her. He lit up like a house afire, and it was beautiful. Quickly, her amusement turned to teary sorrow. Sorrow that this light moment and others like it were coming fewer and farther between. That they were losing the connection they once had even as their feelings for each other deepened.

Angel hadn’t noticed her distress, not yet, his eyes still on the road. He was grinning as he thought how accurately she’d mimicked some of the women he’d pulled out of harm’s way, and it made him laugh. So he did. A rich, deep, full bodied sound that wrenched Cordelia out of her pain and back into the joy of the moment. His joy, as fleeting as it was.

He said something to tease her back, continuing the banter and maintaining the veneer of normalcy that they fought so hard to keep lately. And in that sweet, perfect moment, she seized the day and forced down the pain. She had a lifetime of misery ahead of her, and she planned to make some good memories if she could.

* * * * * * * *

If Cordelia had thought that Angel’s frowns were fierce, they didn’t hold a candle to Dr. Van Buren’s. The woman had asked for a run-down of their last homework session, and Cordelia had reluctantly complied, nearly everything spilling out in a play-by-play that was painful in its retelling. Dr. Van Buren’s frown had grown and grown, until her entire face contorted in a grimace that was nearly satanic.

They didn’t know that the distress within her over the time bomb of Angel’s curse had her quivering like a leaf. They only had two short weeks left before the proverbial shit hit the fan. Quickly finding a grip on her spiraling sanity, she channeled her nervousness into irritation at her patients.

“This is not promising,” she said darkly. “Are you sure you followed my instructions to the letter?” she asked accusingly.

Cordy frowned, affronted that she would ask that. “Of course we did! But what did you think would happen? Talking about our exes is a sore subject with both of us already. How would increasing our vulnerability make it any better?”

The psychiatrist was silent for a moment. She stood, pacing in front of the quiet couple on the couch. She stopped abruptly and faced them.

“I have to ask you to do something in front of me that will seem uncomfortable to you. But I ask that you trust me, for the good of your therapy.”

Angel and Cordelia nodded. they were used to this by now, or at least they should be.

“Very good then,” Dr. Van Buren nodded, satisfied with their compliance. “You.” She pointed to Angel. “Kiss her.” Her look entertained no idea of argument.

“Wh-What?” Cordelia gasped. Not this, not now. Please god, not now, not when she was so weak in her defenses against him.

Angel’s entire being tightened up at the doctor’s order. He quickly contained the bolt of desire that shot through him, and forced himself to maintain control. He turned to face Cordelia, his eyes shuttered.

Seeing his eyes so cut off from her strangely gave Cordelia strength. She was able to distance herself, shove her feelings down into the corner of her heart, and wait for his lips to claim hers.

“I did mean today,” Dr. Van Buren urged dryly, then sat down in the chair across from them. Angel just glared at her, then turned back to Cordy.

He met her gaze steadily, his eyes fathomless, and raised one cool hand to cup her jaw. He pulled her gently toward him, meeting her halfway, and softly settled his lips on hers.

Dr. Van Buren could have sworn she saw sparks when their lips met. She watched in fascination as Angel controlled the kiss, devouring Cordelia’s mouth in a way that made her own legs shake.

Cordelia had been unprepared for the onslaught of emotion when Angel’s lips touched hers. She gasped for breath at the jolt of electricity that passed between them, her hands coming up to grip his shoulders, then slide up to his neck and into his hair. She was drowning, and clinging to him was her only salvation.

His mouth melded to hers in a perfection of fit that seemed to defy logic. She tasted sweet and spicy at the same time, her strawberry lip gloss tantalizing his usually unresponsive taste buds, but it was the exotic flavor of Cordelia herself that etched at Angel’s control like acid on metal. He deepened the kiss, his tongue probing into her mouth and curling around hers, sweeping the dark interior and lapping up whatever taste of her he could find. He was drugged by the power of her, lost in the heady emotion of being so intimately connected with the woman he loved.

Cordelia pulled back just long enough to gasp for air, then resumed the contact almost as if they’d never separated at all. She worked at his iron will, every touch tantalizing him and tempting him further toward destruction. One thumb stroked over the place where his pulse point should’ve been, and that intimate touch, so important to a vampire, made him growl in painful frustration and release her.

Gasping for air, Cordelia stared at him with wonder. He chanced a look back at her, then quickly turned away. The provocative picture she made was too much of a temptation. The vision seared into his brain: her flushed cheeks, swollen lips, glistening eyes, rapid pulse. All of it swirled together into a cocktail so potent it threatened to consume him.

After a moment to get themselves together, Cordelia and Angel turned back to Dr. Van Buren, looks of accusation on their faces. Why she felt it necessary to put them through torture like that was beyond either of them.

The therapist stared back resolutely. “Thank you for your cooperation. I know that was difficult for the both of you, but it answered many questions for me.” She straightened up and stood, crossing her arms and positioning herself in front and above them.

“Now, I have several questions for you that may seem invasive and unnecessary, but I request, for the good of your therapy, that you answer them and answer them truthfully. Angel, I’ll begin with you.”

He struggled to regain the control of his emotions. Right now, all he wanted to do was flay the skin from her body for teasing him with Cordelia and then denying him. Now what would she make him do? Cut out his fingernails with a butter knife?

She was oblivious to the straining leash of his demon. “Angel, when you first began to feel angry with Cordelia last night, were any feelings of lust or sexual attraction involved?”

He nearly choked. “Yes,” he growled, trying not to hate the woman. God, she was cruel.

Cordy’s stomach clenched at that revelation. Their kiss had revealed his attraction to her, but she hadn’t known it had played a part last night.

Dr. Van Buren continued. “And as the massage progressed, did those feelings intensify, despite your attempts to control them?”

He nodded.

“I see,” she said, deep in thought. “When you got your angriest, were your feelings of lust equally strong?”

“Yes, damn it! Why the hell do we have to talk about this?” he yelled, his fists clenched. He’d had just about enough of this goddamn nonsense!

Her own eyes narrowed. “As we’ve discussed before, lust and passion with the two of you are interlinked. Strong feelings, strong emotions and lust are interlinked. Touch and lust are interlinked. The interaction between you just moments ago is evidence enough of that.

She paused as she clinically sorted through the facts. “It seems as though the underlying problem here isn’t the touching, as I’d first suspected. It’s the lust itself.”

They just stared at her, both too buzzed in too many ways to be active participants.

“Cordelia,” Dr. Van Buren turned to the trembling brunette.

“Wait,” Cordy interrupted her. “If you’re going to ask me the same questions you asked him, the answers are all yes. Okay?”

Dr. Van Buren nodded. “Very well. I see that we have made a break through with this discovery, and its clear to me that we must bring these feelings to the surface, to their most powerful, to be able to expel them and cleanse your relationship with one another. To bring back its purity.”

“Expel them?” Cordy said shakily. She kind of liked being hot for Angel, not that she’d ever say that out loud.

Angel’s thoughts were running a similar path. There was no way in hell he’d be able to ‘expel’ the lust he felt for Cordelia. Not when it was so firmly intertwined with the burgeoning love that threatened to consume his soul.

“Yes,” Dr. Van Buren confirmed. “Expel. Eradicate. Destroy.” She said each synonym with the rapid fire of a machine gun. The results were nearly as devastating. The couple felt as though the sofa had been yanked out from underneath them.

“I see only two outcomes from this present course,” Dr. Van Buren postulated. “One, you get so angry with one another that your relationship ceases to exist on any level. Two, you tamp down your emotions so much that you slowly drift apart, afraid to deepen your friendship for fear that you will destroy each other.”

Her conclusions echoed their own misgivings about their current path.

“I see only one viable treatment for this unenviable situation,” she concluded. She turned and faced them, her imperious stare pinning them both to the couch like a spider skewering its prey.

Cordelia and Angel waited with baited breath as the hammer posed to drop. They were not disappointed in the shocking revelation of their therapist.

“The only logical solution is that you sleep together.”
Part 7
“S-Sleep together?” Cordelia whispered, her breath seeming to escape her. She couldn’t find it, and she was beginning to see spots of color behind her eyelids when she blinked. “You can’t be serious!”

Dr. Van Buren’s expression was unmistakable. “Of course I’m serious. I wouldn’t have suggested it otherwise.” She stared down at both of them, crossing her arms, trying not to be afraid of the growing darkness on Angel’s face. She knew she might have pushed them both too hard, but she had no choice. There was a time schedule to maintain here, one that meant the difference between life and death.

She had wavered more than once on her recent decision to keep Angel in the dark about the new circumstances of his curse. It was important that his moment of perfect happiness be genuine and not contrived. Dr. Van Buren would take no chances, not on such a short notice. If he felt forced in declaring his love for Cordelia, if he tried too hard, the elements that powered the altered gypsy curse would recognize the illegitimacy and deny him his soul. That could not be allowed.

No, she thought emphatically. Her only recourse now was to put them in such close, constant proximity that eventually they would give in to the pressure, throw caution to the wind, and declare their love for each other. She knew that at that point, there would need to be some revelation on her part so they would actually consummate the relationship, but she had yet to work the details of that out. Now, though, it was up to her to manipulate them into moving in together.

Bringing herself back once again from the precipice of insanity, Dr. Van Buren assumed her most martinet glare. “Yes,” she nodded forcefully. “I am definitely serious.”

“But having sex would ruin everything!” Cordelia wailed. “We’re just starting to get along again, and we all know that sex is bad. Really, really bad! We would be even more confused with each other, and—”

Dr. Van Buren interrupted her with a haughty set of raised eyebrows. “Who said anything about having sex?”

“What?” Angel asked, the first word he felt safe in uttering since her startling proclamation. This woman was certifiable. If she thought he could survive living with Cordelia, sleeping with her, she was crazy.

She stared at them as if they were missing a few screws. “I didn’t say anything about having sex. I said ‘sleeping together.’ There’s a distinct difference, despite our culture’s pollution of the words into a hackneyed euphemism.”

Both Angel and Cordelia felt the pressure around their hearts contract just a little bit at the Doctor’s clarification. That relief was followed by an immediate feeling of disappointment. They both resolutely shoved that aside. They knew they weren’t meant to be. It wasn’t worth it to dwell on it.

Dr. Van Buren was continuing her explanation, utilizing reverse psychology from her bag of tricks. “No, having sex at this juncture would definitely hinder your ability to repair your relationship. That wasn’t what I was suggesting at all. What I was suggesting, no, demanding, is that you move in together. That you spend every day, nearly every hour with each other until you are able to deal with these feelings of lust as if they were no more than breathing. Or talking. Or sleeping.”

“I still don’t get it,” Cordelia said skeptically. “How is that going to help? The time we spend together already is charged with anger or tension. How will seeing him more often make any difference?”

Dr. Van Buren nodded. “I, too, believe that the problem you’re facing stems from the amount of time you spend together. But I believe it isn’t enough time. You see each other nearly every day, and during that time, you work yourselves up into an emotional, lustful frenzy that results in some sort of negative confrontation. Then, you separate, reevaluate, and come back together to start the cycle over again. The problem is that you don’t deal with the lust, you just release the unresolved sexual tension via anger.”

They just stared at her.

She continued. “To truly work through these issues, you need to have the element of escape taken out of the equation. I believe, that when you are faced with feelings of lust and are living together, you will have no choice but to deal with them. You will have to learn how to cope with these feelings in order to release them and get on with your lives. In order to maintain the balance of your relationship that is so important to you.”

Angel’s frown had lessened somewhat as he let himself be drawn in by her argument. She did make some sense. They did manage to get themselves all worked up around each other, then escape to stew in their own juices. By the next time they met, they were either back to indifference or so torqued up that they could barely function. Neither option was preferable.

But nearly as quickly, Angel realized how easily he’d acquiesced to this obviously evil woman’s demands. She expected him to share the same room with Cordelia and not touch her? To breathe in the heady intoxication of her scent and keep his hands to himself? To watch her sleep beside him and not slake the demands his body was sure to make? He clenched his jaw and forced down the angry growl growing in his throat. He may have to follow this woman’s orders, but he didn’t have to like it.

Next to him, Cordelia sighed. She knew she wasn’t going to be able to get out of this one, but she didn’t know if she was going to be able to keep her hands, and feelings, to herself if she moved in with Angel, or he with her. It was scary to think about what might happen if they lost their inhibitions for one reason or another.

To give her some time to process the myriad of emotions swirling in her mind, Cordelia asked, “What exactly do you have in mind?”

Dr. Van Buren smiled at what she determined was Cordelia’s acceptance of the situation. “As I understand from Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, Angel lives in the same location as the agency, correct?”

Angel refused to answer, only glaring at her. Cordelia frowned at his silence, then answered in the affirmative.

“Then it seems entirely logical that Cordelia move into the hotel. Her apartment is close, but not close enough. I would like the two of you to spend as much time together as possible. I realize that you will need some alone time for your own sanity, but that alone time should be relatively short. It is important to keep the intensity high in these first few days to give you plenty of opportunities to learn how to live with these feelings.”

Angel felt the anger pervade nearly every cell in his body as she continued making plans for them. His insides were a churning mass of unreleased rage, a lava that burned at him to be released. He was angry with Cordelia for tempting him, angry with Dr. Van Buren for her machinations.

But most of all, he was angry at himself. Angry for being so weak around Cordelia. Angry with himself for falling so deeply in love when he’d vowed to himself he never would again. He’d said after Buffy that it wasn’t worth the pain, but somehow time had lessened the impact. He’d made himself vulnerable again, his feelings an exposed, angry wound. Now, Dr. Pain and Torture was prodding a hot poker into his already tender emotions. He was starting to feel like a caged tiger, restless and wary.

Dr. Van Buren continued, briefly noting the dark clouds swarming over Angel’s face but steadfastly ignoring them. “These are the rules. You are to keep the same sleeping and waking hours. I understand that as a vampire, Angel stays up later. You should each adjust your sleeping patterns and meet somewhere in the middle.”

She began pacing, as if she were a general giving marching orders to her troops. “Second, you are to sleep not only in the same room, but the same bed. Finally, you are required to kiss each other both good morning and good night.” She stopped and turned, frowning at them as if she’d caught them with their hands in the cookie jar.

“And I don’t mean a peck on the cheek, either. I mean something like what you showed me earlier. Something with feeling. Something guaranteed to force you to deal with the more elemental feelings. These instructions are to begin immediately. Do I make myself clear?”

The couple nodded reluctantly. In a fit of irritation, a last ditch effort to save himself from total emotional annihilation, Angel asked, “And if we don’t?”

Dr. Van Buren smiled her evil little smile. “I have the full backing of Mr. Wyndham-Pryce on this situation. I have already informed him of the circumstances, and he is willing to back me up one hundred percent. If you should entertain thoughts of abandoning this portion of your therapy, you will find yourselves out of a job.”

Angel’s teeth gritted at her answer. He clenched his jaw, tense, as he tried to hold back the part of him that wanted to rip her throat out savagely with his teeth.

* * * * * * * *

Yanking a suitcase out of her closet, Cordelia slammed the door shut with a muttered curse and flung the luggage on her bed. Immediately, she stalked over to the bureau and began pulling clothes from the drawers, not bothering to keep them in a neat pile. She was whispering under her breath the entire time, every action punctuated by some part of her irritated diatribe. She didn’t notice the tears trickling down her face.

She had thought she could handle moving in with Angel. She’d sat in Dr. Van Buren’s office and kissed Angel, losing herself in it, but she’d thought she could put her feelings aside and do as the therapist demanded. But then Angel had to go and make it all weird on the way home. He had to say something that would break her heart and raise her ire all at once. He just HAD to, damn him.

Trying not to think about the car ride home and its disastrous details, Cordy finished emptying her dresser of anything remotely packable and moved on to the closet. Pulling out items furiously, flinging hangers across the room as she did so, she cursed him a million times over. Stupid vampire. Stupid, dumb, irritating vampire. Stupid, dumb, beautiful vampire. Stupid, beautiful sexy vampire.

Beautiful, sexy vampire who doesn’t love me, she thought, pausing mid pull at the door of her closet. She retrieved the unseen garment slowly, staring off into space, and clutched the soft fabric to her chest. She backed up and sank down onto the edge of the bed, the torrent of tears she hadn’t noticed before now feeling like trails of fire down her cheeks.

That’s what it all came down to. Angel didn’t love her, but she had to sleep with him and kiss him anyway. It was like forcing a drug addict to take a hit of marijuana every day, but not take any more. She raised a corner of the soft sweater to her cheek, wiping away the tears and darkening the lavender wool until it was a muddy royal purple. She stared blurrily at the item in her hands, the wadded it up in her fists and let her face fall, her tears flowing freely as she sobbed.

It was as if the floodgates of her pain had opened, and with them came the memories of the drive home and the pain of Angel’s response to their latest assignment.

He’d stalked out to the car, boots clomping and duster swirling, until he’d made it to the car and wrenched the door open on his side. He nearly forgot to unlock her side, but at the last minute, he reached over and yanked up the lock, then scrunched back on his side of the car.

Cordelia had been at a loss. In the session, he’d almost seemed to agree with Dr. Van Buren’s assessment of their situation. How could she have missed the downward spiral in less than ten minutes into this glowery, scary Angel? He wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t make eye contact, would barely acknowledge her presence.

Warily climbing into the passenger seat, Cordelia sat carefully, adjusting her clothing and fastening her seatbelt. Not once did Angel turn to look at her. He merely waited in stony silence until she was settled, then put the car into gear and moved off. Again, she was baffled. It was as if he were angry with her somehow. But that made no sense at all.

She waited a few more blocks in silence before she gave up because she couldn’t take the pressure.

“What’s with the silent treatment, Angel?” She asked, trying to put a smile in her voice, hoping he’d take it as a joke.

He didn’t. His jaw twitched and he kept his eyes on the road, acting as if she weren’t there.

That made her angry. Okay, so this wasn’t exactly what either of them wanted. But, hello! She was being tortured here, too. It wasn’t like he was the only sacrificial lamb.

“Hmph. Fine, whatever,” she grumbled, crossing her arms and slouching down in the seat. “Don’t talk to me. Be an ass.”

This time he did growl. “I don’t want to talk about it, Cordelia,” he said, his tone menacing.

“The hell you don’t,” Cordelia shot back. “Whenever you get like this, you do want to talk about it. You’re just convinced that if you ignore it, it will go away. Well, I’ve got news for you this time, grr guy. I’m going to be in your bed tonight so we have to work through this before then.”

He was silent again, but she knew it wasn’t because he was refusing to speak. She knew he had to find the right words to express what he was feeling.

She’d had no idea that those words would be so painful.

A few minutes later, he broke the silence, his voice gravelly in the stillness of the car. “This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard of in my life. This woman is nuts if she thinks this will make us actually improve our relationship,” he scoffed. “C’mon. I can hardly stand to be in the same room with you. Does she really think that more of you will help me out?”

They were back at the hotel, and he pulled the car up to the parking space with a lurch, nearly pulling the gearshift out of its housing as he thrust the car into park, then ran his fingers through his hair in frustration.

Her jaw dropped at the crushing words. He really loathed her that much? He couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her? God, was she really that horrible? Almost immediately, the suffocating pain of his anger towards her turned to anger of her own. She responded in the only way she knew how.

“Well, excuse me for living, Angel,” she spat at him, her eyes flashing. “If I’d known you hated me so much, I would’ve left your pathetic, sorry, unfeeling dead ass a long time ago, visions or not.”

She wrenched the passenger door open and threw her feet out. Before standing, she shot over her shoulder, “I’ll be back to ruin the rest of your life in two hours. I hope you can bring yourself to stomach my presence by then.”

At that, she’d pulled herself from the car and slammed the door with enough force to make the window rattle. She’d walked over to her car with steps echoing like gunshots, her eyes burning with tears of hurt and anger.

Those same tears were still flowing here a few hours later as she tried to pack up her belongings to move into the bowels of hell with the man she loved. It was true. She did love him, but he obviously didn’t love her. It was undeniable that he lusted after her; their kiss awhile ago was evidence of that. But love? She laughed humorlessly. Angel didn’t love. He couldn’t afford to.

* * * * * * * *

Angel paced his suite like a caged animal, the growls rumbling from his chest only adding to the effect. He hadn’t listened to his words before he spoke them in the car earlier, and he never would’ve imagined that Cordelia would have taken them so totally the wrong way anyway. Now, of course, he could see how his words must’ve sounded to her. She though he hated her. She thought his hatred grew with every day, that he couldn’t wait to be rid of her, despite his physical attraction to her.

She couldn’t be further from the truth. Somehow he had to explain it to her. Seeing the pain in her eyes, the pain at the perceived rejection in his words was enough to make his heart wrench. He loved her, damn it, more than he’d ever loved anyone before, and it killed him to see her in pain. To see her in emotional pain that he had caused made the guilt ten times worse.

The only problem was that he couldn’t exactly declare his love to her. If he did, what would they do then? They couldn’t sleep together because of the curse. And it was undeniable that both of them were very tactile beings. Even as friends, when their relationship was completely platonic, they touched each other regularly. He caught her when the visions came. They brushed hands or arms on a regular basis. He guided her through a doorway with his hand on her lower back. She’d touch or slap his arm playfully as she laughed at him.

Dr. Van Buren was right on that account. Touch was like water to their relationship. Without it, they withered up and died.

No. There was no way that they could knowingly declare their love for each other and stand to stay at arms length. The frustration would eat them alive until they resented each other. She deserved to be loved completely, to have her young body tingle with the pleasure it was created for. If anyone was ever created for pleasures of the flesh, it was Cordelia. Her body was perfect, the epitome of beauty, and she deserved to be worshiped in a manner befitting her beautiful features and personality. Angel would never be able to keep his distance; even now, the thought of it tore him up in knots.

His one ray of hope was that they could find the balance they’d once had. That they could find a way to get back to the easy friendship that had made them both into better, stronger people. If that meant shoving his love and lust for her in a tiny box, so be it. He needed her, even if it was only as friends. He couldn’t risk losing her.

He had to smooth things over with her, and quickly.
Part 8

Dragging several suitcases on wheels behind her, Cordelia struggled into the lobby of the hotel. Her face was freshly scrubbed, her eyes dry. The only telltale sign of her sob fest was a slight puffiness around her eyes, but even that wasn’t noticeable unless one looked closely. She hoped that no one would.

Seeing Gunn lounging on the couch in the lobby, she grinned widely and dropped her things.

“Gunn!” Her smile was wide and genuine. “Where the hell have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages!”

She walked over to him and hugged him tightly.

“I been around, girl,” Gunn said, his handsome face in a broad smile. “Heard you’ve been having some trouble, though. English tells me you and the vamp ain’t been getting along so great.”

The sparkle went out of Cordelia’s eyes as her smile wobbled. “It’s been kinda hard, but we’re working on it.”

“Well, good. Wouldn’t want you to get fired, or anything.”

She frowned. “Wes is a big ol’ goober for pulling that on us. I mean, we’ve been through a lot, right? Firing me would just be vicious.”

Gunn nodded in sympathy. “Yeah, maybe. But he has your best intentions at heart, ya know.”

She sighed. “Yeah, I know.”

They were silent for a moment. She finally looked back up at him after a bit, then smiled again. “Wanna help me carry my stuff upstairs before you go?”

“How’d you know I was gonna go?” he asked.

“Because its after midnight. You almost never stay this late.”

“Just waitin’ to see you, Barbie,” he grinned. “That your stuff?” he pointed to the foreboding pile on the stairs.

She nodded, and together, they managed to cart everything up to the second floor. At the top, she stopped him and said, “I can take it from here, Gunn, thanks.” She placed her hand on his upper arm and gave it a light squeeze before leaving with two of the suitcases. She’d come back and get the others later.

“Hey, Cordy,” he said, stopping her halfway to Angel’s room.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“You know it will all work out, right?” he said.

Her smile was soft, her eyes sad. “I hope so, Gunn. I hope so.”

Gunn watched her go, then turned and headed back downstairs, bounding down two steps at a time. He found Wesley engrossed in some research in his office.

“Is she situated?” Wes asked without looking up.

“Yup. All her stuff is upstairs and she just went into his room.”

“Good,” Wesley said, nodding succinctly.

“Are you sure this therapist knows what she’s doing?” Gunn asked, sounding skeptical.

“Yes, quite,” Wesley said, confident. “In fact, I just spoke with her at length after Angel and Cordelia left. It seems that she’s managed to circumvent Angel’s curse. She was sketchy on the details, and Angel walked in before she could fully explain it to me. But it sounds promising.”

Gunn grinned. “A little freaky deaky would go a long way in working out the kinks between those two.”

Wesley grimaced. “Please, Gunn. While I tend to agree, I don’t want to think about it.”

“You don’t think about Cordelia naked?” Gunn asked in disbelief.

Wes got a deer-in-the-headlights look and a blush to match. “Well, ah,”

Gunn’s grin got wider, and he clapped Wes on the back hard enough to make the other man choke. “S’okay, Englsh. We all do it, you know. The girl’s a hottie. Can’t be helped.”

“Can we please talk of something else?” Wes sounded as if he were strangling.

“Sure, why not?” Gunn said goodnaturedly. “So, ah,. . . ever seen Barbie in a bikini?”

“Gunn!”

His laugh echoed off the walls of the lobby.

* * * * * * * *

The atmosphere in Angel’s suite had changed significantly since the massage the night before. Gone were the candles she’d placed all over the room, and the scent of vanilla had diffused along with them. The table had been secreted away, the towels placed in the laundry. His room looked like it had so many other times she’d been in here. Masculine, dark, and filled with the unique scent of Angel.

Her heart clenched in her chest as she caught sight of the bed nearby. A movement in the corner both distracted and frightened her at the same time. Angel emerged, his shadow slowly separating from the darkness engulfing him. His eyes were sad, his face in classic brood mode. Her heart softened as she saw him, even as her mind screamed at him for his thoughtless words in the car. She knew, deep down, that he hadn’t meant it like that, but it still hurt. She’d heard it, and she couldn’t help but interpret his words that way. But aside from that, true or not, she was nervous to be here.

“Cordelia,” Angel said softly in greeting.

“Hi, Angel,” Cordy sighed. “I’m kind of tired, so I’m just going to get ready for bed, okay?” she said, smiling weakly.

He nodded, and she walked past him toward the bathroom. As she passed, he wrapped his fingers around her arm and pulled her to a stop.

“What, Angel?” she asked wearily, not meeting his eyes.

“I’m sorry about what I said in the car, Cordy. I didn’t mean it like that.” Something left over from his humanity made his chest constrict as he waited anxiously to see if she would accept his apology.

“I know you didn’t, Angel,” she said with a sigh. “We just keep doing this, don’t we?” Her eyes finally locked with his, tears glistening in the low light.

“Doing what?” He searched her face, his fingers flexing on her arm.

“Hurting each other,” she said simply. “Whatever we say or do, one of us ends up hurting. We have to make this work, Angel. I can’t keep going on like this, and I don’t want to lose you.”

He didn’t say anything, his words escaping him at her admission. She gently pulled from his grasp, then escaped into the bathroom and closed the door with a soft click behind her.

He stood and stared at the closed portal for a few moments, then finally raised a hand to rub his jaw and sighed. This entire situation was untenable.

Taking advantage of the time she was occupied, Angel removed his clothing and put on a pair of drawstring pajama pants for her benefit. He usually slept without clothes, preferring to be as unconfined as possible, but he knew she wouldn’t be happy to sleep with him in his natural state. Besides, he needed some barrier between them, even something as thin as cotton, to help along his will power. What used to be nerves of steel were sure to be tested with rust and acid of many forms, Cordelia’s warm, young body not being the least of them.

Crossed arms over bare chest, he stood stoically as he listened to her finish in the bathroom. He could practically see in his mind where she was, having recognized the sounds of her actions through the thin door. He saw her washing her face, brushing her teeth. Staring nervously at her reflection as she tried to not to make too much of her appearance before coming out to him. He knew she was nervous; hell, he was too.

Finally, she emerged slowly from the bathroom, and they stood facing each other in the half-light. The lamp next to the bed set a glow in the room, but it was dim, putting the angular planes of his face into a contrast of light and shadows. Cordelia swallowed the lump forming in her throat as she was overcome by the hopelessness of their situation. God, she loved him.

He was momentarily rendered speechless by the beautiful picture she painted, standing there in her tank top and pajama pants, her hair slightly tousled from her time in the bathroom. The light behind her cast a halo-like glow behind her head, and he didn’t think he’d ever seen her more beautiful. His name may have been Angel, but she was the angelic one. God, he loved her.

“Well,” he said, breaking the silence. “Guess we’d better get this kiss out of the way so we can sleep, huh?”

More like not sleep, she thought, but answered, “Yeah. Guess so.” She smiled briefly, but it left her just as quickly.

He closed the distance between them, raised his hand, and cupped her jaw. He tried not to look closely into her eyes, knowing that he could lose himself in their depths, but they seemed to be drawn to one another with a magnetism that wouldn’t let up.

The moment Cordelia’s eyes locked with Angel’s, she felt as though she were suffocating. She swallowed repeatedly, trying to maintain her equilibrium, but she got lost in the brown depths until she couldn’t find herself again. They were moving toward each other, slowly, as he guided her mouth to his with the hand he had on her jaw. He stroked her chin with his thumb, a feather light touch that sent chills through her like lightening. When they finally met halfway, his cool lips touching her warm ones, they both stopped, as if freezing that moment would help them get through the rest of the kiss.

It didn’t help. Angel’s whole body tightened at the feel of her soft mouth, and he had the sudden urge to sweep his tongue out and taste her. He forced it down, brushing his lips against hers again and again and again, airy touches that unnerved and aroused her in their intermittent unpredictability. Carefully, he kept a rein on his lust, controlling the kiss, deepening it by fractioning degrees.

And then Cordelia had to go ahead and make him lose the thin thread he had on his control. It was one slight thing, one tiny, miniscule movement that he shouldn’t even have noticed. But he did, and it did him in.

She hadn’t done much since the kiss began, just moving her own mouth gently against his, her hands gripping his forearms. But as the kiss lengthened, she sighed, a mere breath of air that teased him, and moved her hips in line with his. They fit like the intricate pieces of a Chinese puzzle box, her notches fitting his angles. The moment he felt her body align to his, he was lost. He tried for a millisecond to hold back the urge to taste her, but he couldn’t. One swipe of his tongue and he was addicted. Again. He paused for a moment, drinking her in, then voraciously resumed his assault on her mouth.

Hands traveling up and gripping the back of his neck, Cordelia hung on for dear life. If she’d thought the kiss in Dr. Van Buren’s office was overwhelming, this one left it in the dust. The earlier kiss had been a slight breeze; this one was a hurricane. The moment his tongue touched her, she moaned and melted into him, knowing that she couldn’t hold back, couldn’t deny herself the chance to show him some of the pent up feeling inside.

But just as quickly, she realized the futility of the entire exercise. The despair welled up inside her and swelled, until she thought she might burst from the pain. Joy from the feel of his mouth on hers was quickly obscured by the darkness of their bleak future. A sob welled up and escaped against his mouth, her eyes filling, and she jerked back from him, turning away.

He listened to her harsh breathing and tried to get control of his electrified senses. He knew they had to stop, knew they needed space, and it was inevitable that if they kept kissing like this, they would cross the line that would mean the death of their relationship, both literally and figuratively.

After a moment, she turned back to face him, eyes downcast. “Goodnight, Angel,” she said simply, barely above a whisper, then turned away and walked toward the bed, sliding in and turning away from him.

He just stood there, watching her, the emotions roiling around inside him but unable to escape. How were they ever going to cope with this for one more day, let alone indefinitely?

Part 9

I can handle this. I can handle this. I can!Cordelia thought, trying to smooth her rumpled emotions. She stood in the office, facing her computer, but staring at it blankly. Angel hovered nearby, waiting for her to access the information that would help solve their latest case. The only problem was that, in his stress, he’d placed his hands on her shoulders and was kneading her taut muscles gently. All she wanted to do was sigh and lean her shoulders back into his solid midsection, then roll her head forward and groan as he worked his magic. And damn, did the man have magic fingers. Magic everything, practically. It had to be preternatural, because no normal human guy could have this effect on her.

It had been a week since they’d moved in together. Surprisingly, they’d both managed to find a way to work through this without either of them spontaneously combusting. It was strange, but Dr. Van Buren’s theory had actually worked. After the initial painful sizzle of that first night, they’d managed to find their stride. They did, on a frequent basis, experience overwhelming surges of lust for each other, but they were able to face those urges and work through them.

The only time they found themselves totally, completely in awkward vulnerability was in the innocent honesty of sleep. Every night, they went to bed with a space wide enough for two people between them in Angel’s bed, and every morning, they woke up entangled together like two necklaces in a jewelry box. Cordelia had learned his body intimately just from her positions as she awoke, and it was all she could do to keep from snuggling deeper into his embrace and trailing her lips down the marble contours that she found so mouth-wateringly appealing.

During the day, they’d found ways to cope with their feelings. One defense mechanism they’d managed to develop was this weird, non-verbal code, a kind of look that they gave each other when a “hands-off” time was imminent. Whenever they felt too crazy, they’d just look at each other and know. The only problem was that sometimes, like right now when Angel had his hands on Cordy’s shoulders absentmindedly, that the forbidden pleasure was just too fabulous to pass up.

Her mind wandered back to the lazy, haze-inducing kiss they’d shared that morning in a darkened corner of the lobby. They’d had some great ones so far, always keeping them away from the bedroom after the awkwardness of that first night. If kisses were menu items at Starbucks, they’d tried nearly everything from a sweet mocha frappuccino to the tantalizing caramel macchiato. They’d both managed to avoid the double shot espresso, knowing that it would be playing with fire.

Of all the tasty kisses they’d shared in the last week, though, this morning’s kiss had surpassed them all. She’d immediately likened it to her newest Starbucks favorite, Tazo chai; a homey, pumpkin-pie spiced coffee alternative that made her want to snuggle into Angel’s embrace by a warm fire and rest in the safe haven of his arms forever. His mouth on hers had never seemed so warm, so comforting, so beautiful. It had been like coming home, and it was all she could do to pull away and face the harsh light of day.

Bringing herself back to the present, she took a deep, calming breath, and moved the mouse to click on the link to the page she needed. Within minutes, they were in full investigation mode, checking out a weird cult that had moved into the area and was trying to summon a very nasty demon. Of course, the morons didn’t realize that their “god” was going to devour them with the zealousness of an overweight teen inhaling deep fried Twinkies, but then again, these types rarely played with a full deck.

Behind her, Angel reluctantly removed his hands from her shoulders when he realized that he was only prolonging his misery. Touching her had lately become like blood to him; it was necessary for his survival. He’d begun to live for the sweet, barely restrained kisses they shared both morning and night as part of their current arrangement. But every time he touched her, he felt like he had to have more. He was addicted, totally and hopelessly, and he knew there was no 12-step program to help him out of it.

On top of everything, Dr. Van Buren had been acting really strangely at their sessions. More so than normal. She’d always been a little quirky, ever since the beginning, but in the past two sessions, ever since they’d moved in together, she seemed increasingly nervous. It almost seemed like she desperately wanted to say something, but kept holding it back. Angel feared she might be losing it herself, and it would be bad, very bad, for their therapist to need a therapist of her own.

He thought his questions might be answered at this evening’s session, though. Dr. Van Buren told them at the last appointment that they’d never truly debriefed the subject of each other’s past loves, and it was important to clear the air on that issue. Now that time had passed since the disastrous massage discussion on the same topic, both Angel and Cordelia felt that they could handle a mature conversation about it. Neither wanted to hit that hornet’s nest again, but it seemed inevitable. Besides, every other assignment Dr. Van Buren had given to them had proved to be invaluable to their relationship, so it made sense that she wouldn’t fail them this time, either.

“Finally,” Cordelia muttered in front of him as the next page loaded, and he smiled as he watched a wayward strand of her hair fly up as she blew it out of her eyes. “We’ve got to talk Wes into getting a high-speed connection, Angel. The guy may be good with a budget, but there is such a thing as productivity. With a slow dial-up like this, we may have an apocalypse come and go before we can even check our e-mail.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Angel promised absently, staring down at her as his fingers itched to touch her again.

Just then, Cordelia glanced over at the clock next to the monitor. She gasped, then double checked the time on her watch. “Angel! It’s so late. We have to be at our appointment in a half hour! I have to go get ready.”

“You look fine, Cordelia,” Angel soothed.

She frowned at him. “Then I definitely need to change. Fine isn’t good enough.”

He stopped her with a hand on her arm. “You’re beautiful, Cordy, no matter what you wear.”

She smiled at him, reaching her hand up to squeeze his where he touched her. “Thanks, Angel, but I think its kind of a faux pas to go out wearing a ketchup stain from lunch,” she said, pointing to a small red spot on her light yellow blouse.

“Oh,” he said, flustered by the attention drawn to her open collar and the cleavage exposed beneath. He dropped her arm quickly, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Go get ready then. I’ll wait.”

She hurried away, and he sighed for what seemed like the millionth time in the last week. It wasn’t until Cordelia screamed that he looked up, then utilized his superhuman reflexes to catch her before her head struck the hard floor.

Wesley and Gunn came running from the other office, frowns of concern on their faces.

“Vision?” Gunn asked.

Angel nodded. “Looks like a bad one.”

Cordy clutched her head with one hand and gripped Angel’s upper arm with the other as he steadied her gently. “Cult freaks,” she gasped, eyes closed tightly shut. “They’ve gone ahead with it. Demony guy looks pretty nasty. Oh, eww!” she groaned after a moment, her mouth dropping open in disgust, her eyes opening and the haze in them clearing after a moment. “He’s going to bite their heads off. Soon. Like in an hour or so if you don’t get there.”

“Where?” Angel asked, absently pulling her closer and rubbing the back of her neck with his fingers, soothing the throbbing in her head.

“Venice Beach. Something about the salty air, I guess.”

“Okay, we’re on it,” Gunn said, striding over to the weapons cabinet and grabbing his favorite axe. He retrieved a sword and tossed it to Wesley.

“It’s the same demon we’ve been researching, Cordelia?” Wesley asked, concerned.

“Yep, horns and all,” she said, sighing and rubbing her temples. After a minute, her eyes shot open and she looked at Angel in panic. “Oh, god, the session! We have to call Dr. Van Buren and tell her we aren’t coming.”

“But the demon—,” Angel began, but she interrupted.

“No, you have to before you go. I can’t deal with it right now, not with the USC marching band doing their thing in my head. Go,” she said, shoving at him ineffectually. “Call her. Please!”

He nodded, then turned to Wes and Gunn. “Go, I’ll catch up.”

They agreed and took off. Angel settled Cordelia on the sofa and then turned to the office. A minute later, he called back, “You have her number here somewhere?”

“Ah, no,” she said, trying to think. “And she isn’t in the phone book. It’s too old and we haven’t gotten a new one. Check the internet.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Me? The Internet?” he finally said, sounding terrified.

If she could’ve, she would’ve giggled at the fear in his tone. “You can handle it, big guy,” she said, the humor in her voice unmistakable, even through the pain. “Click on my favorites button, the little star on top.”

He was silent again, then, “Got it!”

“Okay, now click on the shortcut to Google.”

“Okay, got it.”

“Then type her full name with quotation marks around it, and hit search. Check the links, and you’ll probably find her website.”

“She has a website?” Angel asked, incredulous. God, he was a technological doofus. He hated times like this, when his age caught up with him.

He clicked the link that looked the best from the description, then waited for the page to load. When it popped up, his mouth dropped open. It was her website, all right. Dr. Van Buren’s smile was front and center, her picture clearly professional and airbrushed. The site was done in the same warm colors as her office, and her phone number and address were prominently displayed.

It wasn’t any of those things that had startled him, however. It was the slogan on the top of the page. Dr. Van Buren’s business motto, and her title, in prominent view.

There, in bold, elegant letters, was the heading: Dr. Marsha Van Buren, Sex Therapy. And in quotation marks next to her picture: “Turning the dying embers of stale relationships back to the passionate infernos of first love, one couple at a time.”

“Damn,” Angel’s mind was reeling. “Well,” he said with a dry laugh. “Now the massage and Twister make perfect sense.”
Part 10
Angel managed to close his mouth after moments of staring blankly at the computer screen in front of him. Dr. Van Buren was a sex therapist. He shook his head. It made so much more sense now. All the focus on lust and feelings, all the focus on touching, the emphasis on kissing.

How did they end up with her?

His eyes narrowed as he remembered Wesley. Angel would be his undead life that Wesley had known exactly what was going on the entire time. The little sneak. But the only way that Wesley would send them to a sex therapist knowingly was if he thought Dr. Van Buren could . . .

No way. No way in hell would Wesley take a chance like that unless . . . unless there was some way around the curse.

Hot damn, that’s what the woman was hiding. It had to be.

So should he tell Cordelia? Or wait?

Her voice interrupted his musings.

“Hey, did you find some blonde bimbo porn on there or something? You’re taking forever, and I don’t think Wes and Gunn can handle the demon in my vision all by themselves.”

Angel clicked out of the browser and closed down the computer, pleased with himself that he could do it without directions. He walked back into the room and looked at Cordelia, noting her drawn and tired features, as well as the wrinkle in the middle of her forehead that always accompanied vision pain.

With his first question, he closed the door on his secret and saved it for a more appropriate time.

“How are you feeling?” he asked softly, coming to stand in front of her. He looked casual, as if he had all the time in the world.

“I’d feel better if you go out and kill that thing. Go, Angel. I don’t want to worry about Wes and Gunn on top of the vision pain.”

He nodded, then reached a hand out, brushing the backs of his fingers against her soft cheek. Her startled eyes met his, then they softened and she smiled slightly.

“Be careful, Angel,” she whispered, biting her lip.

“Always,” he answered, then curled his hand around the back of her neck and leaned down, placing a cool kiss on the top of her head. In a moment, he was gone.

Cordelia turned her eyes to watch him go out the door, but he had vanished before she could even make the move. She rolled her eyes and shook her head at his theatrics. All the guy needs is his own theme song, she thought, smiling. Suddenly, she remembered the ill-fated commercial she’d tried to make around the time of Doyle’s death. What had she called him? The Dark Avenger? Angel did have charisma, despite his dorkiness around her, and he had it in spades. The guy oozed dark mystery, and truth be told, it was one of the things she loved most about him.

Wearily, she got up with the stiffness of an old, arthritic woman and trudged up the stairs into the bedroom she shared with Angel. Methodically divesting herself of clothing and donning one of Angel’s oversized t-shirts, she slid into the cool sheets and snuggled into the softness of her pillow. She closed her eyes, sighing dreamily as she looked for sleep to ease the throbbing in her temples. And for those few moments, in the ethereal, misty place between asleep and awake, she let herself live the dream of loving him, without the guilt or pain. The soothing thoughts carried her safely into healing, contented sleep.

* * * * * * * *

Dr. Van Buren waited anxiously for her most important patients to arrive to their make-up appointment. When they’d called yesterday and said that Cordelia had had a vision and was not in any shape to attend, it was all Dr. Van Buren could do not to scream in frustration. At that session, she was going to push the envelope. She was going to force them to talk about their pasts, to clear the air that hung between them over this unresolved issue. She’d hoped that by getting them to see that there were no obstacles in their way, they would see a clearer path to being together.

Now, though, nearly 24 hours later, Dr. Van Buren decided it was best that they hadn’t brought up that topic. For all she knew, the couple may already be engaging in some pre-coital activity, and dredging up past aches and pains may hinder progress rather than facilitate it. In the interim between the cancelled appointment and this rescheduled one, the therapist decided that this session would be more of a probe by her as to their current feelings and activities, rather than a truly thoughtful discussion about her patients and their therapy.

She squirmed a bit in her chair as she realized how this plan smacked of unethical behavior, but the fate of Los Angeles, hell, the whole world, depended on these two working out their differences and finding love together. It wouldn’t do to have Angelus terrorizing the countryside again. Against her will, images of bloody throats and broken bodies flashed in her brain, and the eerie sound of maniacal laughter echoed as a morbid sound track. She bit her lip and closed her eyes, trying to squeeze the unpleasant thoughts out of her mind, but it wasn’t working.

God, she felt so guilty. If she hadn’t been so self-righteous about the injustice of Angel’s suffering, she wouldn’t be here. If she hadn’t thought she could fix everything, tie it all up in a nice, neat little package with her connections and good intentions, she wouldn’t be on the verge of insanity. There was only one week between today and destruction, and it was entirely her fault.

Getting up from her seat, Dr. Van Buren began pacing, so anxious that her thoughts couldn’t form a linear pattern. The nearer the clock inched toward the appointment time, the more stressed she became. Desperate for some mental clarity to get her through the next hour, she fell back on her meditation techniques, hoping that they would calm her. They did, but the guilty self-flagellation still echoed in the back of her mind like a the annoying drip of a leaky faucet.

If she managed to survive to see a positive outcome, Dr. Van Buren swore that she’d never use her position within the Gypsy clan in such a potentially destructive way again.

* * * * * * * *

Amazingly, Dr. Van Buren looked to the outside world like she’d spent the day writing a book on relaxation and meditation. Her face was serene, unlined. Her eyes were clear, bright, and intelligent. None of the stress she was currently facing showed in her expression. She was very proud of herself.

Unbeknownst to her, Angel had noticed a change in her. Due to his enhanced sensibilities, he caught the rapid rate of her heart, her unsteady breathing, and the twitching of her muscles that she frantically tried to suppress. His face darkened slightly as he confirmed what he’d already suspected: Dr. Van Buren had a secret, one that affected him and Cordelia. But now was not the time to confront her with it. Angel was willing to sit back and see how this appointment fared, then go from there.

Next to him, Cordelia was oblivious to the undercurrent of tension in the room. She was actually beginning to feel comfortable in Dr. Van Buren’s care, despite the probing and personal questions that the woman tortured them with. Cordy didn’t know why she felt this way, considering that the last few sessions had been especially pervasive, but she did. At this point, she refused to question it. She felt good, her vision pain was nonexistent at the moment, and she and Angel were on very good terms.

Her eyes glazed as she remembered the kisses from last night and this morning. She’d been struggling to stay awake when Angel had returned from slaying the demon, and the relief that flooded through her at seeing him uninjured had brought tears to her eyes. She’d run to him, smiling, then stopped abruptly, uncertain. He’d just smiled back at her, reaching out and pulling her into his embrace, and lightly kissed her goodnight. It had been a short kiss, but it was sweet, and so, so tender. It gave her goose bumps even now to think of it.

And this morning’s kiss? Hello, wow! He’d come down the stairs, grabbed her like something out of Gone With the Wind, and planted a wet, sultry kiss on her that left her grasping for breath. Then he’d practically dropped her and sauntered into the kitchen for his breakfast like nothing had ever happened. When Cordy’s heart rate had finally returned to normal, she hadn’t been able to keep the smile off her face, despite the gloomy outlook on their future. Might as well live in the moment. Carpe Diem and all that.

She shook herself out of her memories to listen to Dr. Van Buren’s opening statements.

“. . . not talk about your prior relationships, as I’d indicated last time,” she was saying. “I think its best that we save that topic for later in your therapy. You seem to be doing very well, for all intents and purposes, and I wouldn’t want to rock the boat too soon.”

Cordelia was surprised to find that she was disappointed. Everything that had been said the night of the massage wasn’t reliable; they’d both been really angry and had said things they didn’t mean. She’d been looking forward to hearing Angel’s true feelings about Buffy with Dr. Van Buren there as a mediator. It would be nice, once and for all, to hear the whole story. She had a feeling that it wasn’t going to be as bad as she’d thought.

“What are we going to talk about, then?” Angel asked, surprised that she’d changed her mind when she’d been so adamant before.

“Oh, a few things,” she said vaguely. “I actually think this appointment will be rather short, since we had to reschedule and squeeze you in. I have another appointment in. . . ,” she consulted her watch, “fifteen minutes.”

Cordelia’s jaw dropped. “Fifteen minutes? How are we supposed to get anything done? Why did we even come?”

Dr. Van Buren frowned and stared Cordelia back into her seat. “Fifteen minutes is plenty of time to get some valuable information. And since you seem so reluctant, let’s begin with you, shall we?”

A wrinkled nose and a practiced eye rolling were Dr. Van Buren’s only answers. Cordelia didn’t care if she looked like a petulant teenager. She was irritated. Dr. Van Buren was playing them again, and she hated being manipulated. Even for therapy.

“Okay, so go ahead. Whatever,” she said, waving her hand dismissively.

Dr. Van Buren let that one pass. “Let’s begin by a description of how the cohabitation arrangement is proceeding. Have you noted any progress?”

Angel fought the urge to roll his eyes. This woman was definitely a kindred spirit to Wesley. She liked to use big words arranged in sentences that had to be translated to everyday English.

“It’s fine,” Angel said, not elaborating.

“And sleeping together?” she prompted.

“Sleeping’s sleeping,” Cordelia said with a shrug. “What did you expect? Angel doesn’t breathe so he doesn’t snore, so I have no complaints.”

“Me either,” Angel said. Definitely no complaints.

Sighing, Dr. Van Buren rolled her own eyes. “That is not what I meant, and you know it. The entire reason this experiment was undertaken was so that you could explore and work through your feelings of lust for each other. How is that portion of your arrangement going?”

The couple was silent for a moment, but Cordelia gave in and answered eventually. “It’s okay, I guess. We’re doing the kissy thing like you asked, and its been nice. Kind of hard, sometimes, when it gets really personal, but I think we’re dealing. You were right, I guess, about the escape thing. When I can’t get away from him, I have to deal with it, and it gets easier.”

Dr. Van Buren nodded, frowning, then looked at Angel.

He smiled slightly. “What she said,” he answered, pointing over at Cordelia.

The good doctor gritted her teeth in annoyance. It was obvious that these two were just as clueless as they had been before they began sleeping in the same bed. Maybe the exes talk would have been better. Still, she had to salvage this somehow.

“Obviously,” she continued, looking every inch the irritated martinet, “you are not being candid with me. You mean to tell me that you’ve been living together for a week, kissing each other at least two times a day, and you’ve never had the urge to tear each other’s clothes off? You’ve never imagined yourselves reaching across the bed in the darkest part of the night and stroking each other intimately? Never imagined a hot, sweaty, curvy body writing against a cool, hard, glistening one?”

Angel and Cordelia gulped in unison as Dr. Van Buren painted a word picture worthy of Skinimax’s “Up All Night” marathon.

At their silence and obvious discomfort, Dr. Van Buren allowed herself a small surge of triumph. Now she was getting somewhere.

“Well, have you?” she demanded, an eyebrow raised.

“S-sure,” Cordy said, stammering slightly. “Yeah, of course. It was inevitable.”

Dr. Van Buren pinned Cordelia to the couch with her laser-like stare. “And its never become overwhelming? You’ve never felt that surge of heat and desire that’s nearly impossible to control? The need to reach over and slide your hand under his shirt, touching him, stroking him, teasing him, until you feel like you’re going to explode from wanting him?”

“Well, um—” she stopped, her eyes darting around nervously, extremely uncomfortable. She laughed once, a nervous twitter, then swallowed. God, she had to get out from under this woman’s microscope. What could she distract her with? Somehow, she didn’t think a gasp and a ‘Oh, god! What’s that?’ with a point and a surprised face would work this time. But maybe . . .

Angel! That’s it, he could take it.

“What about him?” Cordy asked pointing frantically to the stoic vampire on her right. “Ask him!”

“Me?” Angel said, startled out of his safe spot in the shadows beyond Dr. Van Buren’s spotlight. “Why me? What did I do?”

“Yes, Angel, what have you done?” Dr. Van Buren asked calmly, her eyes pinning him now.

Cordelia breathed a sigh of relief. Reprieve for now.

“What has the last week been like for you, Angel? Doesn’t your soul long to join with hers? To connect on a deeply elemental level? To slide inside the liquid heat of her and lose yourself in her goodness?

Angel glared at the cruel woman again. She may be up to something, all right, but she still had her arsenal primed and ready. She definitely knew how to find the jugular and go for it.

“Well?” she prompted when he remained silent.

“Of course my soul longs for a connection with someone I care about,” he sidestepped, making it sound like friendship.

“And your demon?” She continued, a verbal bulldozer on the quest for truth. “Do you feel your demon whispering nasty little thoughts into your head? About how you want to take her? How you want to dominate her, subdue her, claim her?”

Feeling like he’d been crushed as she seemingly read his mind, he swallowed, then forced himself to answer. “Yes.” It was a pained, hoarse whisper.

Cordy nearly gasped. What the hell? Did his demon really think that kind of stuff? That was . . . well, that wasn’t nearly as much of a turn off as it should be. Yikes.

“Very well,” she said, straightening up and switching the heat of her gaze off so quickly that a chill swept through the room. “It is clear to me that the two of you have yet to work off your lustful feelings for each other. If you do not try harder to bring these feelings to the surface and purge them, this entire course of treatment will be ineffective. I suggest that you examine your feelings more closely in the next twenty-four hours before your next session. If you’re feeling especially vulnerable, talk it over with each other and study the feelings clinically. I believe it will help you discover the source of these feelings, and by extension, solve the imbalance in your relationship.”

She stood, straightening her skirt. Motioning for them to get up, she smiled tightly. “Thank you for taking time to reschedule. I realize this was a short meeting, but I believe an effective one regardless of some skepticism.” She looked pointedly at Cordelia, who felt duly guilty.

Guiding them quickly out the door, Cordelia and Angel were surprised to find the door closed in their faces. They turned to each other and laughed simultaneously, still feeling the charged electricity between them but sharing the humor in the situation nonetheless.

“That woman is wacky,” Cordelia said as they walked toward the exit and the car.

“uh-huh,” Angel said, nodding absently. The woman was definitely up to something. Looks like he was going to have to have a little heart-to-heart with the good doctor.
Part 11

Staring absently at the computer screen in front of her, Cordelia twisted and untwisted a section of her hair repeatedly as she lost herself in her thoughts. They’d been back at the hotel for an hour already since their appointment, and she was still caught up in one brief exchange between Dr. Van Buren and Angel. One brief, three question portion of the conversation that had her all glassy-eyed and turned on. A part of the conversation that no normal, healthy woman should be turned on by. At least, she didn’t think so.

The words echoed in her brain.

“Do you feel your demon whispering nasty little thoughts into your head? About how you want to take her? How you want to dominate her, subdue her, claim her?”

“Yes.”

Here at her desk, Cordelia swallowed audibly and squirmed in her seat. Unbidden, images of being bound and at Angel’s mercy assaulted her, tickling her in wicked places until she could barely sit still. She knew his demon was a part of him, loved even the Angelus in him, but she’d never thought about the proclivities of demon sex before today. She knew that it was wild and probably dangerous for a human to participate in, but she also knew that Angel, in any variation, was capable of inducing pleasure beyond her limited imagination. If the man could kiss in a way that made her melt from the inside out, she knew that if he unleashed his demon’s passionate nature on her, she’d be nothing but charred ashes when he was though. Totally sated, completely satisfied and eternally content ashes, though.

“Did you find the info yet, Cor?”

Angel’s voice behind her startled her, then sent her into a panic. Oh, god, she was all turned on and he was behind her. Close enough to smell her. Oh, god. Ewww. Sometimes she hated knowing so much about him.

“Um, no, not yet. Got a little distracted.” Quickly, she reached for the mouse and found the pages with the information they needed, writing down the phone number and passing it to him.

Angel tried desperately to fight the urge to inhale deeply. Whatever she’d been thinking about, it had definitely had an impact on her body. She was ambrosia to him right now, a scent that made practically made him high on its potency. God, he’d love to sink himself so damn deep that—

“So are you going to go already, or what?” Cordelia said, derailing the lust train running through his head and looking at him strangely. It was only then that he noticed the scent had dissipated somewhat.

Sighing, he turned to leave, then stopped again. He had to be out longer than this errand required, or he’d never be able to make it back here tonight and not force himself on her.

“I think I’m going to go for a walk after I get the info, Cordelia,” he said, his look far away. “I think I need some alone time.”

Her gaze turned serious. “Sounds like a good idea,” she said. “I could use some of that, too. If I’m asleep when you get back, wake me up.”

He nodded, favored her with a tender smile, then left, all swishing coat and salty goodness.

She sighed, looking after him. Definitely, alone time was of the good tonight. She could relax in a soothing bubble bath without fear that Angel would interrupt her. She could bury herself in a book and forget reality for awhile. Anything but revisit those nasty but so enticing thoughts of bondage and Angel.

Oh, god. Shouldn’t have gone there again, she thought, eyes glazing again. No. Bad Cordelia. Focus. On anything but Angel. And handcuffs. And leather. Oh, god!

But somewhere within herself, the defense mechanism popped up to relieve her of her lust-induced haze and drag her back to the pain of reality. Nasty bondage thoughts of Angel, no matter how alluring, were pointless, because they would never happen. Not because they were bad, but because she could never have Angel. They weren’t to be, and no matter what kind it was, there would be no physical love between them. There couldn’t be.

Despair had a great way of ruining all her fun.

* * * * * * * *

She hadn’t even seen him coming. One minute, she was staring out the large window into the twinkling lights of L.A. at nighttime, and the next, she was being yanked out of her chair by a dark figure with a menacing scowl. He pushed her up against the window, pressing her cheek against the cold glass, and she gasped with the pain and fear.

“You’re going to tell me what your up to, Dr. Van Buren, and you’re going to tell me now,” the stranger said, and it was only the deep timbre of his voice that made her relax just slightly. It was just Angel.

Wait, Angel was a vampire. A potentially dangerous, mean vampire, when pushed too far. Okay, maybe this was bad.

“You’re hurting me, Angel,” she whimpered, struggling against him.

He released his grip slightly, letting her turn her head toward him. She was surprised to see that there was no anger in his face, only solid determination.

“What are you hiding from us?” he asked point blank.

She sighed, her eyes compassionate, as she realized the game was up. She reached a hand up and grasped his forearm, stroking him soothingly. “Angel, I will explain everything to you, but I’d like to do it in a calm, civilized manner if you don’t mind.”

Feeling a little ashamed at his heavy-handed tactics, Angel released his grip on her and backed away. With perfect composure, she straightened her mussed collar and returned to her seat, gesturing to one of the empty chairs nearby. He sank into one, his posture controlled, like a panther ready for a fight.

She smiled slightly, her eyes open and honest for the first time since their initial session. Angel hadn’t noticed the steady increase of shadows in her eyes until he was faced with the clarity of her honesty staring back at him. He knew she was going to be candid with him, and it made him relax.

Her next question threw him off guard.

“Angel, I have to ask you something before I answer your questions, and I know you’re not going to like it. But understand that to reveal what I’ve hidden from you I have to know your true feelings on this. It’s important, vital even, to your relationship with Cordelia, maybe even to her very life.”

That got his attention.

“Okay,” he said, eyes wide. “What is it?”

She paused, then let the bomb drop. “Are you in love with Cordelia?”

He seemed startled by the question. Okay, so he’d already admitted it to himself, but saying it out loud was another thing entirely. Hearing it made it real, and it made it that much more painful. He knew he couldn’t have her, and the only protection he had against complete and utter despair was verbal, if not internal, denial.

“What? No! Why would you think that?” he said, laughing nervously, looking anywhere but her eyes. “Of course I love her, she’s my best friend. But I’m not in love with her. No way.”

She just raised an eyebrow at him, then shook her head with a sad smile on her face.

“Wrong answer, Angel. Try again. You’re forgetting that I’ve seen the interaction between you two for over a month now. You’re electric, the two of you, and if there are no feelings on your side of this relationship I’d be extremely surprised.”

He finally met her gaze and saw the compassion there, the understanding as to why he chose to deny his feelings to her. After a moment, he sighed, then ran his fingers through his hair.

“Yeah, okay? I’m in love with her. More in love with her than I’ve been with anyone in my life. But I can’t have her.”

“Maybe you can,” Dr. Van Buren said softly.

“No,” he said with a humorless laugh. “You don’t understand. I have a curse that denies me perfect happiness if I want to keep my soul. I was cursed by Gypsies as punishment for killing one of their favored daughters. I deserved the punishment, all right, but it sucks to live with it.”

“I know about the curse, Angel.”

“Oh, right. Wesley told you.”

“No, I knew of it even before Wesley and I met.”

“What?” he said, staring at her.

“I am the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter, spiritual leader of the Gypsy people, Angel.”

His eyes grew huge and he shrank away from her, fearing the worst.

She smiled compassionately at him, her countenance soothing. “No, Angel. I’m not here to punish you further. In fact, I tried to get your curse lifted. I tried to make it so that you could find the happiness that you crave. And I succeeded, in part.”

“You did what?” he whispered, in awe. “There’s no curse anymore?”

The sparkle in her eyes faded and she turned away from him to look at some unseen point out the window. “No, there’s still a curse, all right.” Her mouth curled up in a mockery of a smile. “I had your curse removed, then reinvoked with a different clause.”

This was not sounding good. Angel’s nervousness grew. At least before, he knew what he was up against. What had she done?

“The new curse allows you to keep your soul, and it is made permanent in a moment of true happiness.”

He visibly relaxed. Well, that was good news. No, better than good news! He could go home and find his perfect happiness, right now. Today. With Cordelia. A wide grin began to spread across his face.

Dr. Van Buren noticed and doused his happiness with cold water. “There’s more, Angel. If you don’t experience that perfect happiness by next week, your soul will leave you, never to return. Angelus will be back. For good.”

Immediately, a growl of frustration escaped him. “Why didn’t you tell me this?” he demanded. “I could’ve been working on this for a month or more now, and you hid it from me?”

“Did you know you were in love with Cordy a month ago?” she asked knowingly.

That stopped him. “No,” he admitted.

“Then you understand why I couldn’t tell you. Your happiness must be genuine, Angel, or the powers behind the curse will know. Your moment of pure happiness can not be forced. I take a chance telling you, even now.”

“But I can find my happiness with Cordelia now. I can tell her I love her and we can find it together.” But even he had doubts. What if Cordelia turned him down? What if she didn’t love him? What if she didn’t want him, didn’t want all of him? If she couldn’t accept his demon like he needed her to, he couldn’t be happy. Not perfectly happy.

Dr. Van Buren’s face was sad.

“I hope so, Angel, I hope so.”

* * * * * * * *

The walk home from Dr. Van Buren’s office gave Angel plenty of time to contemplate his fate. Plenty of time to think of a thousand ways to screw it up. A thousand ways that his happiness could escape him again, just when it was within his grasp.

Just when he’d thought he was going to implode with the stress of it all, he happened upon a demon, the extra slimy kind, and it was exactly the treatment he needed. Pure, unadulterated violence was always good for working out the wrinkles in one’s psyche.

The demon’s death had been quick and precise, a decapitation that was beautiful in its deathly grace. One swing of the sword concealed beneath his coat had done the job, but the mess it created more than made up for the quickness of the fight. Now walking into the lobby, alone, yet satisfied, Angel felt as though he’d had glue dumped over him and left to dry.

Filmy clumps of slime, the consistency and color of snot, had landed in various places on his body, clinging to his hair and clothes despite his efforts to scrape them off. They were merely uncomfortable, not toxic, but walking home had been especially irritating. The time it took to return to the hotel had made the substance dry, making his clothing stick to his skin in some really annoying places.

Walking into the empty lobby, Angel first stored his weapons away in the cabinet, then began the trek upstairs where he knew Cordelia was waiting. His chest tightened in anticipation at seeing her again. The feeling was quickly replaced by irritation as part of his hand began to itch under the drying slime. As he climbed the stairs, he began undressing, one layer at a time, carefully peeling back the stiffened, soiled clothing until he was shirtless, pants unbuttoned, and walking through the door to his suite.

At the threshold, he stopped and stared at Cordelia, asleep in the bed and completely oblivious to his presence. His enhanced night vision gave him a perfect view of her face, flushed in sleep, her body curled up and around itself, her knees pulled in close to her chest. Her hands were pressed together, as if in prayer, and tucked underneath her pillow. The sheet and blankets rode low on her hips, leaving her upper body exposed. The soft fabric of his t-shirt hugged her curves as if it had been caught somewhere underneath her, pulled taught against the front of her body.

He stood there, lost in the rhythm of her even breathing and steady heartbeat, thrumming with the strength of his love and desire for her, before suddenly moving back into action and quickly crossing the room without a sound at all. Along the way, he lost the rest of his clothing, his socks and shoes, and made his way quietly into the bathroom. A quick, cold shower rid him of the slimy residue of his hard work, and he slid on his pajama pants as he walked back into the silent sleeping room. She lay there still, oblivious to his movements.

It wasn’t until he slid under the sheets next to her that she acknowledged his presence. With a somnambulist’s innocence, she sighed, then turned over and snuggled into his side, burrowing the top of her head under his chin and laying her cheek across his upper chest. One of her legs draped over his thigh, and she reached down, pulling the blanket up to cover them both.

He stiffened for a moment at her change in position, then wrapped his arm around her, pulling her even tighter against him. He ran his fingers lightly through her hair, caressing her, hoping that her dreams were pleasant in the gift of sleep. He lightly kissed the top of her head, but paused as his lips touched her scalp.

He had to wake her up. He had to tell her about the curse, tell her that they could be together and love each other just like they’d been dreaming of.

Well, just as he’d been dreaming of. He had no idea what her thoughts on the subject were, and the fear of her rejection stopped him cold. No, he decided emphatically, he wouldn’t do that. Not yet. He’d kiss her, just as he had every night for the last week, but let her think it a dream. Tomorrow he would probe her feelings to see if she felt the same way he did.

Scooting down underneath her, he brought his face level to hers and tilted her chin up so that her mouth was in line with his. Briefly, with a touch lighter than a ghost’s, he brushed his lips to hers, then flicked his tongue out to taste her. She whimpered in her sleep, opening her mouth slightly and bathing him with the scent that drove him wild. Groaning, he leaned in and tasted her again, sampling, nipping, barely touching but meaning so much at the same time. She sighed and curled into him, returning the kiss even in her dreams.

And as he broke away from her, seeing the contented smile on her face, he felt safe to say what was in his heart. His pledge echoed in the quiet night, despite the low resonance.

“I love you, Cordelia.”

And in that moment, his happiness was nearly complete.

* * * * * * * *

Contentment washed over Cordelia as she felt the first fingers of consciousness prod her mind. She sighed, snuggling further into the cool length beside her. It was mere moments before she came fully awake and realized that the pillow she was burrowing into was Angel. She fought the urge to jump away in shame, knowing that it would wake him. One glance at the light behind the curtains told her it was way too early for Angel to be up, and she didn’t want to disturb him. She hadn’t even heard him come in last night, so it must have been late.

As it was, she was happy to just pull back a little bit, rest her head on her own pillow, and watch him in the quiet stillness of sleep. It was disconcerting to her that he showed no signs of life when he slept, no breathing, no heartbeat, no twitching or muscle spasms like humans had in their sleep. It was as if he were a statue, a beautiful marble work of art waiting to be set on a tomb and admired by tourists for centuries.

He stirred briefly, as if in defiance to her thoughts, and his eyes fluttered as he turned to face her. They opened slowly, unfocused, as he centered in on her face. She smiled at him tenderly, loving the gentle battle he fought with sleep.

“G’morning, big guy,” she said softly.

“Morning,” he said back, his voice husky with an early morning growl.

Just as she was about to say something else, his arm around her tightened, bringing her closer to him. His other hand came up from under the covers and cupped her cheek, his thumb stroking her gently. His eyes liquefied, turning to pure, undiluted love as he looked at her. She nearly gasped at the openness in his gaze, and it was almost more than she could take. Again, she tried to speak, and again, he rendered her speechless. This time, with his mouth.

The kiss was tender, passionate, and wild all at the same time. His tongue moved out to taste her, and the control left him at that brief contact. Cordy whimpered underneath his assault, and opened her mouth freely to him, bringing her own tongue to rub against his. In a replica of the actions above, their bodies began to rub against each other beneath the covers, her heated core coming briefly in contact with his cool hardness.

In a desperate bid for clarity before it became impossible, Cordelia pulled back, then pulled back again when Angel followed her. She shook her head, turning her lips away from him, and pled, “Angel, wait!”

“What is it, baby?” he said, his voice husky with desire now. He moved down to her neck, kissing, licking, tasting, hitting places that made Cordelia’s eyes cross as she struggled to regain her hold on reality.

“Angel, we can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

He stopped, pulling back from her and staring into her eyes. “I need you so badly, Cordelia. Just let me love you, baby.” He kissed her, a passionate melding of their mouths that stole all of Cordelia’s fears away and replaced them with liquid desire. He stopped again, his voice ragged. “Don’t worry, Cor, We need this. We need to be together like this.”

The roar of desire deafened her to his words, and with lust-filled eyes, she focused on him, breathing heavily. She brought her hands to the back of his head, pulling him down to her for yet another kiss, this one wilder, more primitive than any they had shared before. He tasted of so many things, like the smooth, thick headiness of deep, dark coffee, an addicting taste that had her panting and writhing beneath him. Her hands covered his face, stroking his jaw, his brow, his cheeks, resting her palm against his cheek and feeling the movement of his tongue inside her mouth.

Angel was overwhelmed by the full-on, undiluted onslaught of Cordelia Chase. He was drowning in her, in her scent, her taste, her feel, knowing that he had to have her or he wouldn’t be whole. Knowing that without being inside her, he would never be complete. His hands wandered her body, cupping, stroking, caressing, until she was one mass of exposed and quivering nerves, trembling from the force of her desire.

Slowly, he pulled up the t-shirt of his she was wearing, exposing her perfect body to his hot gaze. His mouth followed the trail of exposed skin, brushing her belly with his lips, lightly tonguing the dip between her breasts, breathily kissing her collar bone, sucking on her pulse point and feeling her life flow beneath her skin. Eventually, he found her mouth again, sliding the t-shirt over her head and flinging it away. He grasped her hands with his, holding them above her head as they frantically kissed, mouths moving in frenzy against each other.

Cordelia was not going to let her occupied hands stop her quest to see him equally naked. She spread her legs, bringing him closer to her center, so, so close, yet not close enough. She undulated beneath him, moving until her feet were free to wrap around him. She scooted up, hooking one toe into the waistband of his drawstring pants and slowly sliding them down his body. He let her struggle with his clothing, smiling against her mouth at her creativity. When she’d shoved as far as she could, he finished, pulling the pants down and off, out of the way.

He made equally quick work of her underwear, until they were laying, skin to skin, mouth to mouth. Cordelia groaned with the perfection of the feel of his body against hers, and it nearly undid her to know that soon, the burning inside her would be replaced with the cool length of him.

But Angel wasn’t to be hurried. Despite his initial frenzied passion, he was determined to love Cordelia like she deserved. His mouth traveled from hers, back down her body until he found her unattended breast. He cupped it in his big hand, stroking the tip with his roughened fingers, smiling in satisfaction as he realized it was already hard from his attention to the rest of her body.

Cordelia looked down at him, her body taut with unresolved lust, and it nearly burst as his mouth closed over her nipple. She moaned as he sucked, his cheeks hollowing with the effort, and she thrust up underneath him, hoping for a friction that would ease the ache.

He ignored her attempts and lazily continued his worship of her body. He stayed at her breasts for awhile, sucking and licking until Cordelia felt like she’d explode from the torment. When he left them, intending to travel further south, she growled, a low feminine rumbling, and yanked on his biceps until he looked up at her in amusement.

She was panting, her eyes glittering and black with desire. Forcing past the haze to get her words out, she said, “If you don’t get up here now, Angel, I’m going to stake you. I swear,” she threatened.

He smiled, but did as his lady asked. Within moments, he was poised at her entrance, the tip of him kissing her wetness, when clarity returned full force to Cordelia. Oh, god. What was she doing?

She loved him, that was without a doubt. But Angel wouldn’t be doing this with her unless he was sure that he couldn’t be happy with her. Unless he was sure that Angelus wasn’t a threat. Despite his attention to her body, despite his obvious lust, it was clear that Angel didn’t love her. The love she thought she’d seen so clearly in his gaze was clouded over with the ambiguity of now, and she questioned what she’d so clearly accepted just moments ago. He cared about her, that much was obvious. But love her? That was impossible. She choked back a sob, the movement brushing his hardness against her clit, and she gasped, closing her eyes against the painful intensity of his gaze.

Angel realized there was something wrong the moment he aligned himself with her entrance. The moment he pressed against her and her eyes widened. He was about to open his mouth to declare his love, when he saw something in her eyes, something that shouldn’t be there. He watched in disbelief as sadness, and regret washed over her eyes, mixed with the desire until the sunlight he’d seen there was obscured by clouds of doubt. He felt his heart break as he realized she was pushing him back, pushing him away, even as her body was opening to accept him.

And yet neither of them could deny the strength of their desire for one another. They hung in that painful moment for what seemed like years, both struggling with their desire and their tumultuous emotions, before Cordelia took the initiative to bring them to fulfillment. She turned tear filled eyes back to Angel and uttered one word that undid him.

“Please,” she begged, arching against him. “Please, Angel, I need you inside me.”

Her breathy whisper propelled him forward and he gasped at the heated, silky glove that enveloped him. Her arms wrapped around his back, her legs tightened around his hips, and she held him there, tears streaming down her face as she experienced the beauty of Angel’s body and the despair of her heart breaking in two.

The misery in Angel’s heart was just as acute. She felt so good, better than anything he’d ever felt, ever experienced, in all his many years of life. But the joy of this first time with her was being stolen from him by the knowledge that she didn’t love him, couldn’t trust him with her heart. So he did the only thing he could in his blinding love for her: he gave her everything he had, moving against her, thrusting, creating friction that brought them both gasping and panting to the edge of oblivion. Oblivion that would deliver them from the pain, if only for a moment.

Cordelia buried her face in his neck as she neared completion, refusing to meet his eyes. The pain and joy mingled together into a macabre river that flowed through her, washing her away. She wailed as he lifted her hips, changing angles, hitting places inside that made her come apart, bursting into a thousand glittering pieces. Her eyelashes fluttered as her eyes rolled back in her head, her mouth dropping open as she panted, and still, he moved inside her.

It wasn’t long before Angel gave up, gave in to the demands of his body and released himself inside her. There was joy in the fulfillment, but the pain overshadowed it, and his hopes for the achievement of perfect happiness were dispelled, whisked away on the winds of fear, regret, and unconfessed secrets.
Part 12

Cordelia sat and stared aimlessly at the rain pouring outside the window of Starbucks. She held a steaming cup of coffee in both hands, her eyes unfocused as her gaze penetrated the trickles of water sliding down the outside of the glass. In its own way, this crazy spring storm soothed her. It seemed to fit her mood: the world was weeping, and she was weeping with it.

Her heart ached unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She thought she’d had her heart broken before, when Xander had betrayed her with Willow, but that experience was a paper cut compared to this brutal stab to her gut. Her heart felt more than bruised; it was pounded and pulverized, the pain so great she could barely breathe.

Having lost count of the number of tears she’d shed in the last 24 hours, Cordelia felt numb save that constant ache in her heart. She’d sought solace here, alone amongst the masses, hoping that the steady pulse of life around her would take away some of the bleakness of her life. Unwillingly, her mind traveled back to the morning after they’d slept together, two days ago. It made her eyes well up even now to think about it.

They’d both been exhausted from the intensity of their joining, but that hadn’t stopped them from turning away from each other. They’d acted ashamed of themselves, embarrassed, uncertain, and the chill in the air had been enough to bring goose bumps to Cordelia’s skin. They’d awkwardly pulled themselves from the bed, Cordelia retreating into the bathroom for a shower, Angel going down the hall to an empty room for the same. They’d met in silence over breakfast.

Cordy’s attitude had plummeted the moment Angel said nothing at breakfast. He almost didn’t look at her, and she felt as though she’d been found unworthy somehow. She felt that the problem wasn’t with herself, but with him. So who the hell was he to ignore her? It should be the other way around. They’d gotten in a huge fight that day over whose turn it was to empty the garbage. Wesley had finally yelled at them and taken it out himself.

The rest of the day had gone even further down hill. They were both irritable, angry, and hurting, and they weren’t willing to talk about it. Sleeping together that night had been out of the question, and Cordelia was grateful that Angel had disappeared sometime around midnight and hadn’t returned until very early in the morning. She’d clung to her side of the bed, huddled up and miserable.

The next day hadn’t been any better. They’d walked on eggshells around each other all day, studiously avoiding one another. It wasn’t until that night that things came to a head again. She shuddered even now at the ice that had surrounded them in bed. They’d forced themselves to kiss each other as their homework demanded, but it had been a dry, unfeeling touch that left them both aching for the intimacy they’d somehow lost.

Unbidden, her mind drifted back to the pain and torture of that night.

She’d been wrapped up tightly in a layer of old, worn pajamas and bed sheets, the only part of her that could be seen were her wide, expressionless eyes. Black pupils swallowed the hazel, leaving a bright corona of toffee rimming the dark orbs. The last place she wanted to be was here, in this bed, with him. Not when he so obviously didn’t want her. Not when he’d touched her so passionately and now couldn’t stand to be so close to her. She quivered inside with the pain of it.

Next to her, Angel lay in a similar position, only his hands were clasped across his chest on top of the sheets. His dark oak gaze staring unseeing around the dark and unlit ceiling. God, why did she have to be so close, so tempting? It was painful; a throbbing ache that wouldn’t leave him, both in his heart and his groin.

He could feel the nervousness flowing off the girl next to him in invisible waves as she forced her breathing to be expelled in even puffs of air. He steeled himself against reaching for her to comfort her. She didn’t want him. Her eyes had said as much, even as he’d slid inside her. He avoided the sound of her heart rate beating loudly in her chest, so hard that he was sure it was painful for her. He wouldn’t pay attention.

Even as he studiously ignored her, Cordelia’s body ached with laying in the same position for so long. But she didn’t dare move for fear of what would happen. She didn’t even dare straighten her legs in case her feet brushed against his.

Oh, god, she thought, keeping her eyes pointed straight up at the same ceiling he was looking at. The silence in the room was deafening with only passing vehicles and noises from outside to disturb the peace-less atmosphere.

Like his seer, Angel didn’t dare move an inch and he didn’t dare clear his throat. Doing so would break his hard-won concentration on anything but her. This had to be the longest night of his existence and that included all the hours he’d spent in hell.

After another hour of silence, the vampire’s tune had changed dramatically. He’d had pretty much had enough with the situation and of not moving. It was his bed, he had the right to move if he wanted too and therefore he was going to move.

Cordelia tensed right up when she felt the mattress shift a tiny bit and her fingers dug into the sheets she had been fisting since getting into bed. Her eyes flicked to grant Angel a dirty glance, telling him exactly what she thought of his movement.

“What?” he growled, “I needed to move”

“Did I say anything?” she snapped in response and settled down after a few moments of following silence. She could feel the contour of his leg which couldn’t have been more than two inches away from hers, the closeness making her give in to the need to move.

Angel tensed up himself when he felt the brunette move further away from him and he couldn’t help but relish the extra space at his disposal and shifted closer to the middle of the bed.

After that, Cordy had gritted her teeth and forced her eyes shut. The rest of the night had passed in a similarly uncomfortable manner, every breath of movement catalogued and groaned over. By the morning, they were both exhausted and tense, pulled on a tight string that made the tension impossibly higher.

Today, in reflection, she knew that she wasn’t the only one who’d been hurting. She knew deep down that there was more to Angel’s reaction to their lovemaking than he was revealing; otherwise, he wouldn’t have started things up in the first place. The only thing that kept her from running to him was her biggest fear. She was afraid that the reason he was acting this way was because he felt, in hindsight, that he’d betrayed Buffy and he couldn’t live with himself.

Hearing that from him would be worse than the most uncomfortable of silences.

“Hi, Cordy!” A friendly, feminine voice jerked Cordelia out of her miserable reverie. Her eyes widened at the woman near her, then a timid smile broke out onto her face.

“Hey, Kiki,” she said softly, immensely comforted to see her friendly manicurist. “I thought you worked today,” she said conversationally, trying to look normal.

The buxom blonde sat down across from her, hanging her purse and shopping bags on the chair’s back, then setting her latte on the table in front of her. She smiled reassuringly at Cordelia.

“I took the afternoon off. Thought I deserved it, you know? Can’t work all the time.”

“Yeah,” Cordy sighed, her mind elsewhere. Her gaze drifted back out the window again, her eyes following the pedestrians as they scurried past in the rain.
The women sat in silence for a few moments, Kiki quietly searching Cordelia’s face before she began to work her magic.

“So are you going to tell me what happened?” she said after a moment.

Cordy’s eyes whipped back in Kiki’s direction. All it took for her to lose it again was the sympathy that melted in the deep brown eyes of her friend. Eyes welling up with tears, Cordelia bit her full bottom lip and quickly looked away again.

Kiki waited for Cordelia to find her voice.

“We slept together,” Cordelia whispered, one tear trickling down her cheek. “We had sex, and it was beautiful.”

Kiki’s eyes grew wide, but she kept her voice neutral. “Then what’s the problem?”

Cordy’s eyes searched Kiki’s face in earnest. “It’s always drama with us, Kiki. Let’s just say that Angel has major issues, none of which can be ignored. Like yacht-loads of them.”

Kiki lowered her voice to a quiet murmur. “Does this have anything to do with Angel being a vampire?”

Cordelia’s mouth dropped open. “How do you know that?”

“Remember when you had that ‘headache’ during your manicure a couple of months back?”

Cordelia nodded. She’d had a particularly painful vision during the middle of that afternoon, and she’d had to call Angel from the salon. He’d been frustrated that he couldn’t come get her, and he’d almost not let her go back the next time she’d scheduled an appointment. Wesley had picked her up and the vision had been dealt with, but it didn’t seem as though it was really that big of a deal.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Cordelia finally said, not wanting to go into detail about her visions.

Taking a sip of her latte, Kiki kept her face carefully neutral. “I worked late that night, and it was winter so nightfall came early. I was just cleaning up my station to leave when this guy walked over and stood in front of me. I looked up, and of course, my first impression was to let my jaw drop.”

Cordy smiled faintly.

“I was like, ‘Damn; come to Mama,’” Kiki said in a flirty voice, her cheeky grin in place as she winked and wiggled her eyebrows at Cordelia across the table. “But he seemed so serious. It made me get serious in a hurry, too. He just stood there for a minute, then after he made sure it was me, he told me who he was and that you work for him.”

“Why?” Cordelia asked, her eyebrows raised in genuine confusion. “Why would he need to tell you?”

Kiki shrugged. “I got the impression he was checking to make sure I wasn’t psycho or something. He said that you get really horrible headaches, and that they’re his fault. He wouldn’t go into detail, but he did say that he needed to be called immediately if that ever happened again.”

Shaking her head, Cordy’s eyes got a faraway look in them. Angel was always so overprotective. But it didn’t bother her now, not like it used to. And toda of all days, this reminder of his protection only served to highlight what she feared she was losing.

Kiki was continuing across from her. “It wasn’t until he turned to leave that I realized only my reflection was in the mirror across the room. After that, it made so much more sense.”

“What did?”

“All the little stuff you start to say and then don’t. The way that your business is mostly after hours when most PI’s keep daytime office hours.”

“But vampires?” Cordy said, skeptical. “Most normal people don’t believe in them, even when reality bites them in the ass. What made you a true believer?”

Kiki just smiled and leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms. “You’re not the only one with ties to Sunnyhell, chica. My favorite cousin lives there, and I used to spend summers with her. Our idea of fun was playing hide and seek in the graveyard behind her house. I saw my share of vampires, stupid little twit that I was.”

Cordy raised an eyebrow, then shook her head in wonderment that Kiki had lived to tell the tale. Her life came crashing back in a hurry, though, and she turned to look out the window as she sipped her coffee.

After a moment, Kiki said, “So what does Angel being a vampire have to do with you sleeping together?”

Cordelia’s jaw tightened and she grimaced. She explained about the curse and the happiness clause. As she spoke, Kiki’s face grew even more sympathetic.

“Oh, hon,” she sighed. “I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks,” Cordelia whispered, a tear running down her cheek as she swallowed back the lump in her throat.

“But curse or no curse, it doesn’t change the fact that you love him and he loves you.”

“He doesn’t love me,” Cordelia said sadly, staring at the remaining dark liquid in her cup.

“Oh, Please,” Kiki snorted. “Of course he loves you. Why else would he sleep with you?”

“But he didn’t lose his soul!” Cordy argued.

“He can still love you and not lose his soul. He probably saw the fear in your eyes and misinterpreted it as regret.”

Cordy forgot to breathe for a moment as she contemplated the possibilities. “You think so?” she said, the thought sparking hope in her again.

“I’d bet my front row seats to Ricky on it.”

Cordy smiled, knowing how much the other woman swooned over Ricky Martin. “Must be serious, then, if you’re willing to put those on the line.”

“Damn straight, girlfriend. I wouldn’t risk a missing the luscious view of my Ricky’s bon-bon unless I was certain.”

Despite her sadness, Cordy couldn’t help but giggle.

After a moment, she brought up her last remaining fear. “I know he cares about me, Kiki. He might even love me. I just don’t think he loves me more than he loves her, and I can’t live with that.”

“Who, that Bambi chick?”

“Buffy,” Cordy corrected with a wry grin.

“Whatever,” Kiki waved her correction away. “Like I said before. You’re here. She’s not. And he’d be a fool to pass up a gem like you.”

“Well, we have our appointment this afternoon, so keep your fingers crossed.”

“Of course, hon. I’ll have all my fingers crossed. And my toes crossed. And my legs crossed.”

“Thanks,” Cordy said, bringing her cup up to drain the last of her coffee.

“Unless Ricky comes by,” Kiki said thoughtfully as Cordelia drank. “Then I’ll have to forget about that last one.”

She had to pat Cordelia’s back as the younger woman laughed mid-sip and choked on her coffee.

“Sorry, hon,” she said sympathetically. “I gotta stop throwing those out there when people have their mouths full.”
Part 13

Dr. Van Buren stared across the room at her two clients, hoping that this was the last time she’d ever see their faces. It was more than obvious that she had her work cut out for her in this short session, but the clock was ticking. They had less than 24 hours to see that Angel’s soul was made permanent, and it she wouldn’t allow herself to think about the possibility of failing. She had to get through to them, and right now, or there would truly be no hope.

She sighed and shook her head, her eyes resigned as she caught each one’s gaze and held it for a brief moment before turning away.

“I see that not much has changed.”

Both remained stubbornly silent.

“Would either of you mind explaining what happened?”

The silence thickened.

“No?” she said sardonically, an eyebrow raised. “Guess I’ll have to up the stakes then. You,” she pointed at Cordelia. “Waiting room. Now.”

“Huh?” she asked, momentarily nonplussed.

“In the waiting room. I want to talk to Angel alone.”

“I don’t think—,” Cordy began, but a death glare form Dr. Van Buren stopped her. “Okay, okay,” Cordy grumbled, pulling herself out of the chair. “Fine. I’ll go in the waiting room.” She stalked away, sending a death glare of her own back at the therapist.

The moment the door snapped shut behind her, Dr. Van Buren dropped in the seat in front of Angel. “What the hell happened?” She demanded.

Angel grimaced. “Everything. Nothing,” he said, sighing. “God, this is such a damn mess.”

“I gathered that,” she said dryly. “But what happened?”

Angel finally raised his eyes to meet hers. “We slept together.”

Dr. Van Buren forgot to breathe for a moment. “And?” she said anxiously.

“It was a disaster. I was so close to perfect happiness, then I just saw something in her eyes. . .” he trailed off, then stood up and began to pace in frustration. “I think she loves me. No,” he stopped and faced her. “I know she loves me. But she doesn’t trust me. And that hurt too much at the time. I couldn’t overcome it. I need her to get lost in it, too. Otherwise, I can’t be truly happy.”

Dr. Van Buren nodded, then stood. “Okay. Look, here’s what’s going to happen.” She began to pace as she outlined the plan. Angel’s trepidation grew, but he also knew that her plan made sense. After a few moments of talking, she whirled around and pinned him with her steely stare. “Got it?”

Oh, he got it all right. “Yeah, okay,” he said, swallowing hard. “Bring her in.”

Within moments, Cordelia was ensconced next to Angel on the couch, clasping her hands nervously in front of her. What had they talked about in here?

Sitting gracefully across from them once again, Dr. Van Buren smiled comfortingly at the nervous young woman. “Cordelia, I’m going to ask Angel a series of questions. He’s agreed to answer them truthfully and completely. These questions are ones that you need answers to. I believe that once you hear what he has to say, the problems between you will melt away like sugar in the rain.”

“Okay,” Cordy said, puzzled, but intrigued.

“Very well,” Dr. Van Buren said, straightening her shoulders. “Angel, I’d like you to turn and face Cordelia, taking her hands in yours.”

He did as she asked, and he was amazed by the calm that stole over him just at the touch of her skin.

And the inquisition began.

“Angel, how do you feel about Cordelia?”

“I love her.” His simple statement, accompanied by the warm chocolate intensity of his gaze, brought tears to Cordy’s eyes.

“And how do you love her? Like a sister? A best friend?”

“No,” he said quietly. “Like the woman I see myself spending eternity with.”

Cordelia forgot to breathe, her heart pounding in her chest.

“Why do you love her, Angel?”

If it were possible, the intensity of his eyes grew deeper. “I love her because she makes me laugh. I love her because she keeps me on the right path. I love her because she loves all of me, the demon, the soul and the man. And I love her because she believes in me.”

The tears spilled over, and streamed down her face. Unable to help herself, Cordelia raised a hand up and stroked his cheek, her thumb brushing his jaw as she returned the love wordlessly in her gaze.

Dr. Van Buren ruined Cordelia’s bliss like an oven opened on a soufflé. “And how do you feel about Buffy Summers?”

Cordy bit her lip, her gaze looking down at their clasped hands as she shied away from what she feared would be in Angel’s eyes. He wouldn’t let her get away with it. His fingers grasped her chin, bringing it up and forcing her eyes to meet his.

“I will always love her for making me feel human again. BUT,” he added as Cordelia’s eyes welled up and she tried to look away. “I’m not in love with her anymore. I’m in love with Cordelia.”

When Cordy would have questioned him further, Dr. Van Buren interrupted her. “And if given a choice between Cordelia and Buffy, all other things being equal, whom would you choose?”

“Cordy,” he said without hesitation. “Buffy and I don’t belong together. Not anymore.”

Dr. Van Buren nodded once, decisively. “Very well. I believe that ends our session for today.” She consulted her watch, then gasped. “My word! The two of you must leave immediately. I have a much more important client coming in less than five minutes. Go! Shoo! You can work the rest of this out on your own.”

Her mind a whirlwind, Cordelia was totally flummoxed by Dr. Van Buren’s cavalier attitude. Hadn’t she said they needed to get rid of these feelings for each other? What was the woman up to now?

“Let’s go, Cor,” Angel said softly, standing, then pulling her up beside him. He laid his hand on the small of her back and guided her to the door. Over her head, he looked back at Dr. Van Buren, who winked at him saucily.

He couldn’t help but smile back.

As the door closed abruptly behind them, Cordelia snorted indelicately. “God, does that woman ever act normal?”

“Probably not,” Angel said with a smile, inwardly glad that Wesley’s connections had proven so trustworthy.
Part 14

Angel sat in the darkness of his bedroom suite, a two-thirds full bottle of Jack Daniels resting on his muscular thigh. With an unneeded sigh, he raised the bottle to his lips and took a long drink, enjoying the fire of the liquid as it burned him on the way down. He hated this, the uncertainty. This hadn’t gone according to his plan. Cordelia was confusing him, and he didn’t like it.

She’d been strangely silent on the way home, and as soon as they’d pulled in the parking space at the hotel, she’d hopped out with a false smile and made some exuse about needing the bathroom. Two hours later, she was still hiding, and Angel was at a loss as to what to do. He’d imagined that once he declared his love and reassured her about his feelings for Buffy, she’d practically jump into his arms. God, what a chump he’d been. Obviously, there were still some unresolved issues here. If he could just pin her down for a few minutes—

“Hey, big guy,” her soft voice behind him made him jump.

“Damn, Cordy, I have got to get you a bell,” he said as he swiped at the growing stain on his pant leg where his booze had spilled. He must’ve been really deep in his musings for her to sneak up on him like that.

“Hey, that’s my line, doofus,” she said, her white teeth flashing in the dark as she smiled. She came up to him, standing in front of him, her body blocking the moonlight and creating a fetching silhouette.

“Hey, um,” she began, and he could see her half smile, then smiled himself as he watched it disappear as she bit her lip in her nervousness. She placed her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and shifted nervously on her feet.

“Hey um what?” he asked, smirking.

She made a face at him. “Hey, um, I have a question.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Okay,” he said slowly, perplexed. He’d told her loved her. What more did she want?

“Did you get your curse fixed or something?”

“Huh?” he asked, taken aback. This was the last thing he’d expected.

“I mean, cause, if you did, then that would be great. Because we could make love and everything and it would be fantastic, mind blowing even, if it didn’t end up like the other night, when you didn’t lose your soul even though you had the curse. And why is that, exactly?”

It took a moment for that to sink in. He opened his mouth to explain it to her, but then thought better of it. Like Dr. Van Buren had said, it wouldn’t work if the moment were contrived. He needed Cordelia to give herself to him, to trust him completely, even if she wasn’t sure that things would be okay. He needed her to believe him when he said that he wouldn’t let anything hurt her, not even himself.

He stood in front of her, grasping her shoulders in his big hands.

“Cordelia, I love you.”

“I know,” she said, biting her lip and refusing to meet his eyes. “I love you, too.”

“No, I don’t think you do know,” he said, forcing her gaze up to meet his. “I love you. I love you so much that I would die for you, Cordy. I’m so deeply in love with you that I can’t see or think straight, and I can’t think about anything else but you.

Her mind spun. How could she argue with that? Her eyes came back to his. “Say it again,” she whispered.

“I’m in love with you, Cordy. I’m so in love with you I ache with it.”

“Me, too, Angel,” she said, her eyes glittering.

“You asked me to explain about the curse. I can’t. Not yet.”

He raised a finger to her mouth when she would have protested. “I need you to trust me, Cordelia. I need you to let go and get lost in this amazing bond between us. I need to touch you, to taste you, to be inside of you, and I need you to give yourself to me, Cordy. All of you.”

She stood there for a moment, searching his face, afraid to give up control, but knowing that she needed it, too.

“Okay,” she said softly, finally. “I love you, Angel, and I trust you.”

A smile stretched across his face in an expression that she’d never seen before. The peace and happiness in his face was almost tangible, almost surreal. She felt her breath catch as the beauty of his happiness bathed her in its light. He was gorgeous, and he was hers.

“Take me, Angel,” she whispered, cupping his face in both her small hands. “Make me yours, for real this time.” The last sentence was said with a wry smile, a goodbye to the strife between them over the last two days.

Before she could prepare herself, his mouth descended on hers swiftly and without mercy. He nearly crushed her to him, his mouth cool and demanding as his tongue ferreted out every ounce of flavor she had stored in her mouth. She met him without resistance, molding her body to his, wrapping her arms around his neck and losing herself in the love that flowed around them.

She couldn’t have said later how they ended up on the bed, her top open and his mouth at her breast, but she would remember the feel of his tongue bathing her nipple until the day that she died. She arched her back, gasping, her fingernails digging into his shoulder blades as the bolts of sensation shot through to her toes. His fingers worried her other nipple, satiating the ache yet increasing its yearning for the same treatment its twin was receiving. And just when she thought she could lay there forever and feel him there, he moved again, further up her body, sucking at the pulse point in her neck, and she gasped anew. She’d never thought such a place could be so erotic, but here it was, a vampire mere centimeters from her jugular, and all she could think was that it would feel so good to be claimed by him.

Not giving her time to continue that line of thinking, Angel moved back up to her mouth, claiming hers with his own in a lazy dance of dominance and submission. She gave herself to him completely, and he accepted her, giving himself in return. His fingers flew expertly across the buttons of her fly and his, disrobing them both completely until there was nothing but scant air between them, and then not even that much. He ached with wanting her, but she wasn’t frantic enough, not even close.

Needing to catch up with the feelings, Cordelia grasped his head in both her hands and forced him to look at her.

“Angel,” she gasped. “You’re killing me here.”

“I know,” he said with a smirk, though his eyes were hot. “But you love it.”

She nodded, and he tried to pull away from her to wander back down her body.

“No,” she said softly, stopping him. He looked at her questioningly. “Change, Angel,” she said. “I need to see all of you.”

He frowned, not wanting to unleash his demon on her, but knowing that she loved even that part of him.

“Please,” she whispered, and he did as she asked, the demonic features sliding over his face in a silent beauty all its own.

With reverence, she traced the bumps and ridges on his face, gazed deeply into the beautiful golden eyes of his demon, and then raised her mouth to his. Sensually, she melded their mouths together, her tongue carefully tracing his teeth and caressing the roof of his mouth where his fangs began. He growled deep in his throat at the thrill that coursed through him, his hips jerking in a sudden burst of lust. She giggled against his mouth, then impaled her tongue deliberately on one fang, letting her blood drip into his mouth.

Angel stiffened as the ambrosia of her blood hit his tastebuds. His eyes closed in bliss, and he carefully pulled away from her, closing his mouth and savoring the earthy blend of spices that encompassed the love of his life. He tasted strength, lust, humor, love, and most of all: trust. His eyes flew open as he realized the evidence she’d provided him with, the proof he needed that she was his. And not just now, but forever.

With a growl, Angel grasped her more tightly to him, rolling onto his back and pulling her on top of him as his features effortlessly glided back to human ones. She lost her breath for a moment as his hard length rubbed against her, and then he increased the intensity by pulling her up slightly, then slowly sliding her down on top of him. Her eyes closed and her head rolled back as she got lost in the sensations of being filled by him, being stretched and completed by him. She felt him throbbing inside of her, felt him touching her womb, and marveled in the beautiful simplicity of their joining.

He didn’t give her much chance to ponder the existential nature of it. He slowly undulated his hips underneath her, forcing her upwards, then back down again, creating an intermittent rhythm that both frustrated her and heightened her desire. Adding to the pleasure was his thumb and forefinger gently pinching and rubbing her clit in a way that sent white-hot heat tingling through her body. Before long, Cordy had picked up the rhythm herself, their thrusts matching in time and strength until they lost themselves in it. Just as the intensity threatened to overtake her, Cordelia dropped her head forward again, her glazed eyes opening and locking with Angel’s black ones. Her fingers ran across the planes of his chest, tweaking his nipples even as she impaled herself on him.

Just as she was about to fly over the edge, dots of color behind her eyelids, he swiftly rolled and moved her beneath him again. He brought her arms up above her head, interlocking their fingers and thrusting against her. He stilled, buried fully inside of her, and caught her eyes with his.

“Say it, Cordy,” he said, his voice hoarse with the strain of holding back his passion.

“I love you, Angel,” she whispered, then brushed her mouth against his and writhed beneath him. “I love you,” she repeated, never losing contact with his eyes as he guided them, with quick thrusts deeply into her, over the edge into bliss.

In the moment that he burst inside her, Angel felt something happen inside himself. It was as if two interlocking pieces suddenly shifted in the region of his soul, sliding until they fit perfectly nestled into each other with a resounding click, and his soul and body were whole. He felt the transformation of his soul into permanency, and it overwhelmed him. His eyes flashed a brilliant white glow, making Cordy’s mouth drop open in amazement even as she panted in an attempt to catch her breath.

Angel just closed his eyes for a moment, leaning his forehead down and burying his face into the crook of her neck, nuzzling her skin and enjoying the feel of being joined with her in this moment of perfect happiness.

It would be hours and several moments of perfect happiness later before Cordelia got her answers.
Epilogue

“Give. It. Back.”

His voice was so low, so quiet, it nearly disappeared into the thick silence of the room, but the nearly evil playfulness in it was unmistakable. His eyes sparkled with mischief and a promise of shudderingly pleasurable retribution as his broad shoulders cast a long shadow across her face.

She wasn’t intimidated in the slightest, but she couldn’t help the tingle of excitement that charged up her spine. She pinned him with her most unaffected haughty smirk and stared him down.

“Hell no, pretty boy. It’s mine, fair and square.”

“I had it first, Cordy. You will give it back to me.” He wiggled his eyebrows and cast a lewd wink in her direction.

“’You will give it back to me’?” she imitated, her voice dropping into a bad imitation of his. “What, are you taking lessons from Dracula now? I don’t fall for the thrall, big boy.”

“It’s mine, Cordelia,” he said, his voice a deep rumble as he stepped closer His face was now inches from hers, his eyes rimmed in gold as he let his demon out to toy with his favorite playmate. “Fork it over, Cordy.”

She raised her eyebrows and a challenging glitter sparkled in her eyes. “Why don’t you make me, Mr. Bad Ass.”

“Make you?” he said, a huge, malevolent smirk crossing his face even as the hungrily playful sparkle in his eyes cancelled it out. “Oh yeah, baby, I’ll make you. I’ll make you beg me to take it back.”

She shook her head sadly. “Promises, promises. And yet, I see no results. I think you’re all talk and no action, baby.”

He stepped closer to her, throwing his arm around her waist and pulling her hips in line with the already rock-hard bulge in his pants. “Oh, I’m plenty of action. And I think you saw plenty of results last night, if your screams were any indication.”

Cordy had the grace to blush. Her eyes narrowed with a calculating gleam, and she drew his head down next to hers. Running her tongue along the outer shell of his ear and then dipping it in the orifice. Angel purred his pleasure as her touch sent shocks of pleasure up his spine. She was amazing. A horny Cordy was an insatiable Cordy.

Coyly, she pulled away from him and twitched her hips in his direction as she put space between them. Looking back at him over her shoulder, she said, “I’ll just go watch my show now. You let me know when you want to continue this conversation.”

He literally shook his head free of the cobwebs as her words sunk in and he realized he’d nearly lost the fight by default. “You’re going to give it back, Cordy,” he said confidently. “It doesn’t matter anyway.” He kept his voice deliberately neutral. “Your little seduction routine doesn’t work with me. I know how you operate and you can’t control me that easily.”

She sighed, shaking her head sadly at his stupidity, then marched up to him and poked her well-manicured index finger into the solid mass of his chest, repeating the gesture throughout her statement as if to highlight the important words. “Oh, you have no idea what you’ve just gotten yourself into, bucko. You are so, so gone.”

He growled, a deep rumble of dissent that echoed in the room. He stood, feet spread apart, arms crossed across his chest, eyebrows raised in challenging defiance. “Okay, little girl. You think you can make me fall apart? Go ahead and try. If you can break me in ten minutes, you win.”

She smiled evilly. “You’re on.”

Angel swallowed. God, what had he gotten himself into?

Five minutes later he was panting with the exertion of keeping his mouth shut and forcing himself to stay silent. She’d done one little thing that had totally screwed with his concentration: she’d kept her clothes on. The only other thing she’d done was walk over to him, stand on tiptoe so that her mouth was in line with his ear, and she began to describe, in vivid, startling detail, every single naughty thought she’d ever had about the two of them together. Ever. When they were in Sunnydale. When he was with Buffy. When they were first in L.A. When she’d stayed at his apartment. When he’d stayed at her apartment. When they’d slept together platonically in his bed. She told him the minutiae of her erotic fantasies, positions she’d wanted to try, places she’d wanted to make love, games she’d wanted to play.

And then she really warmed up.

“Angel,” she whispered, her breath tickling his ear. “Everything I’ve told you is true. I want you to do all of that to me until I scream. But you know what?”

He shook his head and gulped.

“There’s one last thing I want from you.” She pulled back until she met his eyes. “I want you to claim me.”

She watched with feminine satisfaction as the brown rims of his eyes disappeared and darkened to black.

“I want you to slide your fangs into my neck, piercing my skin, drawing my blood into your mouth and tasting the intensity of my love for you. And you know what?”

He shook his head again.

“I’ll bet you that when you do that, I’ll come so hard I won’t be able to scream. I probably won’t be able to breathe.”

“Oh, god, Cordy,” he moaned, his eyes closing. “Please, baby, stop,” he muttered.

She jumped away from him, a triumphant smirk on her face.

“Ha! I won! You lost!” she sang, dancing her victory dance around the room.

“You little . . .” he growled, trying to hold back the smile on his face.

“Little what?” she challenged.

he didn’t rise to the bait, he just attacked her, making her breathless.

Three minutes later, a shout broke through the haze they’d created.

“Bloody hell, can’t the two of you find a room? You’re worse than teenagers!”

They just smiled and ignored him. Perfect happiness was hard to come by, and there was no way that they were going to waste a minute of it.

 


…THE END…


DAMNSKIPPY’S CHALLENGE:
Hey, my first challenge! This came to me while falling asleep last night.
After Epiphany. The gang is back together with Wes as the boss. Angel and Cordy are fighting like cats and junkyard dogs. Wes has had enough Their bickering is affecting the gang’s performance (perhaps Angel is so distracted that he almost gets staked by a baby vamp after a particularly bitter battle with Cordy). They have to get over their differences so they can work as a team again.
Wes gives them an ultimatum (or somehow convinces them) that they must go to counseling to work through their issues. He picks the counselor and sets it up for them.
Unbeknownst to them and Wes (or perhaps Wes knows, it’s up to you), the counselor is actually a sex therapist. In my mind, the couselor doesn’t realize they are NOT a couple (hence confusion on both parts), but that’s up to you.
The first few sessions go like any typical counseling session, but eventually the counselor begins giving them “homework” behaviors (like they must hug 5 times a day or they must spend 15 minutes each day touching, etc.) to practice that seem strange to them, but they do it begrudgingly. These assignments should progress from simple and disgustingly carried out, to hotter and hotter and both of them secretly looking forward to not only the assignments but, of course, putting in more effort than necessary. At some point the revelation that the counselor is a sex therapist should be divulged and C/A goodness should be the goal.
A possible twist could be Wes finding out about the therapist and not telling them, reveling in their homework assignments OR either Angel or Cordy finding out and not telling the other.
Any psychologists or psychology students out there want to flex your muscles??


 

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