Payback, Angel Style


AUTHOR: CORDELIA’S DESTINY (aka JULIE)
SUMMARY: Cordelia makes a request of Angel, and he agrees with a condition of his own.
RATING: NC17
POSTED: 8 Apr 2004
CATEGORY: FLUFF / CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
CONTENT/PAIRING: C/A and X/Anya
WARNINGS: Sexual Content
FICPIC CREDIT: N/A
AUTHOR NOTES:No Connor; Visions are painful but not deadly; “Epiphany” anchored his soul.


Prologue:
“Oh, c’mon, Angel, please? Please? Pretty please?”

Cordelia’s beautiful hazel eyes threatened to mesmerize Angel as they shone with her excitement. Literally bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, she was so excited her energy couldn’t be contained.

All Angel wanted to do was smile at her and agree to anything, but losing his tenuous control around Cordelia would be disastrous. She could practically push him over with a feather as it was. Angel didn’t need any more excuses to give in to her.

Cordy was oblivious to his inner dilemma, still waiting with sparkling eyes and a cheeky grin that tugged at his un-beating heart.

Sighing long-sufferingly, Angel closed his eyes and shook his head. “Cordelia, I don’t want to.”

“Angel!” She looked shocked, hurt even, that he’d said that. “Please? When was the last time I asked you for something? Anything?”

Angel’s raised eyebrows betrayed his disbelief.

She frowned when she realized what she’d just said. “Okay, so don’t answer that. Silly question. But I really, really need you to do this. You’re my only hope!”

“What about Wesley? Can’t you get him to do it?” Angel asked hopefully.

“Wesley?” She looked at him askance like he’d lost his marbles. “Um, no. No way. Wesley wouldn’t work for this at all. Nobody’d believe him.” Waving a hand in his face preemptively, she added, “And before you say anything, Gunn’s busy. I already tried him.”

“You asked Gunn before you asked me?” The question came out before Angel could take it back. He didn’t want to do this in the first place; why did he care if she asked Gunn first?

She looked at him strangely again. “Yeah. And Fred’s a girl. Can’t do it with another girl.” Her looked turned thoughtful. “Well, I can, but I just . . . no.” Her face scrunched up. “That wouldn’t be in the neighborhood of normal for me. Eww.”

A grunt escaped Angel as he shook his head and stared at her, his arms crossed.

Cordy tried to stare him down, but her impatience finally won out. In a gesture of exasperation, she threw up her hands. “Please, Angel! I promise, I’ll never ask for anything again. Honest! Cross my heart and hope to die!”

He couldn’t help but smile. “That serious, huh?”

“Angel! Pay attention!” Marching up to him, she crossed her arms over her chest and stood up to her full height, as if that would intimidate him. “Yes or no?” She stepped closer to him, nose to nose.

Not to be out done, Angel said nothing, his dark eyes boring into hers.

“Yes or no?” she hissed, eyes flashing.

He sighed again. Why fight the inevitable? “Fine. I’ll do it. But on one condition.”

“Thank you thank you thank you!!!!” she squealed, jumping and throwing her arms around his neck, kissing his cheek and squeezing him so hard it would’ve cracked the bones of a mortal.

Once he’d managed to disengage her from his neck, he held her shoulders and made meaningful eye contact.

“One condition, Cordelia,” he said again.

“Okay, what?” she said, beaming, not really caring what he was going to say.

“You owe me, Cordy. I’m going to cash in this favor, and you’re going to pay me back. In full. And I guarantee you, it will be something you don’t want to do. Do you promise to pay me back?”

“Yeah, okay, whatever!!” she said, shrugging him off. Squealing again, she bounded away, throwing her last comment over her shoulder. “This is going to be the best cruise EVER!”

Her footsteps echoed around the corner before Angel picked his jaw up off the floor.

“Cruise?!?” He shouted after her. “Cordy, you just said a vacation! I can’t go on a cruise!”

“Too late now, Angel! You’re mine!” she called back, her disembodied voice echoing from her desk.

Angel sighed, shaking his head. Taking stock of the situation, he remembered the one bright spot in this craziness and a slow smile spread across his face. Cordelia owed him. Normally, he wouldn’t go anywhere near what she was asking of him. At the thought of being locked away in a tiny, airless room below decks while she partied it up in the sunshine, Angel shuddered.

She was going to pay dearly for this.

Part 1

“Okay, Angel, these are the rules.”

They were standing in the lobby the day before they were to set sail. Cordelia had dragged Angel away from his weapon’s practice, so he wasn’t too happy already, and here she was, making demands of him right off the bat.

“Rules? Aren’t I doing you a favor just by going with you, Cordelia?” Angel’s face was a disbelieving contortion of arched eyebrows and a furrowed forehead. “I think you’re pushing it a little.”

“Tough luck,” she said, grinning up at him. “You agreed, fair and square, even demanded your little payback, and you’re going to do this my way. That, or I’ll leave you in the cabin all by your lonesome while I lay out by the pool in my itty bitty bikini and flirt with the lifeguards.”

Angel gulped at the image that flashed before his eyes. Cordy. Itty Bitty Bikini. Since when had the idea of viewing so much of Cordelia’s skin become so enticing?

He cleared his throat and pushed the frown firmly back on his face. “Okay, fine. What rules are we talking about here?”

She was all business. “You’d better sit down.”

“I’m fine, Cor.” He was leaned up against the counter in the lobby, black button-up shirt and black chinos. Shiny shoes gleamed in the low lights, his hair spiky and tousled.

She was momentarily distracted by the rugged picture he made. Salty Goodness, most definitely. Too bad he was hands-off to her.

“Well, I’m sitting,” she said, feeling somewhat dizzy. Why did he have to be so good-looking? It interfered with her workplace efficiency. Damn him!

Snuggling back into the couch, she crossed her legs and opened her Cruise Notebook. No harm in being organized for something as important as this. Quickly, she flipped to the “Game Plan” tab and began to review her notes.

“Okay. Here’s the deal.” Her eyes raised to his face. A frown replaced her smile when she saw that his eyes were slightly glazed, fixed on her golden calf, bobbing as she kept a rhythm that calmed her excited jitters.

She snapped her fingers loudly and his eyes whipped up to hers. “Pay attention, Angel! This is important!”

“Yeah, okay,” he said, clearing his throat and trying to concentrate. Maybe he should outlaw miniskirts in the workplace.

“Now, it wouldn’t be my first choice, since I prefer tropical destinations, but our cruise is actually going to Alaska. It’s the last cruise of the season, and it will get dark early most of the time when we get there,” she added for his benefit.

He nodded approvingly. The last thing he wanted was to be cooped up in a stateroom while Cordelia meandered sunny beaches without him.

“This is a couples-only cruise, one that caters to newlyweds and in-love couples who want to spice up their love lives a little bit.”

He frowned at that and shifted uncomfortably against the counter.

“But we don’t’ have to do any of the really coupley stuff,” she reassured him with a sweet smile. It turned to a disgusted grimace as she reviewed the ship’s brochure. “They have some really kinky workshops, like ‘The Delights of Kama Sutra’ and ‘Tantric Sex for Beginners’ and ‘Amateur Home Video 101’, but I think we should steer clear of that.”

He gulped again, images of naked, sweaty sauna sessions and partnered massages popping into his brain. “Uh, yeah. That would be a good idea, I think.”

“Yeah, I think so, too.” She pulled her collar away from her neck, suddenly aware of the thick tension in the room. Was it hot in here?

“Since we’re just pretending.”

God, was her heart racing?

“Ahem, well . . .” Cordelia said with a shaky laugh. “There’s lots of other things to do. Dance classes, massage therapy, spas, parties, and of course, all-you-can-eat buffets.”

“Speaking of eating. . .” Angel said, realizing he’d have to figure out how to smuggle his liquid diet on board.

“Oh, that’s no problem.” Cordelia waved him away with an airy hand. “I already called ahead and said we had to have a fridge and microwave in our room because you’re on a special protein-shake diet. They’re totally into that stuff anyway. No problem.”

“Good.” Angel sounded relieved.

“So, anyway, back to the rules.” She perused her notes again. “It sounds like everyone will be out really late and getting up late, so nobody will blink an eye if we don’t leave the stateroom until late afternoon.”

“So, what, they’ll think we’ve been making hot monkey love all day?” He asked, his face pure innocence.

Hot monkey love? Her Angel just didn’t say things like that. Her face was a shocked blankness, she blinked owlishly at him before continuing.

“So we have to be a couple. Like kiss and stuff, just so we can convince them. They were really insistent about this when I was setting it up. They said that we had to be a couple, had to be together, and sleeping together, or they wouldn’t let us on board. Said it would mess up the atmosphere or whatever.”

Angel just raised his eyebrows at this.

“Basically, I just want you to act like you can’t take your eyes off me, act like you love me. You know, that kind of thing, okay?”

She smiled brightly at him again and he couldn’t help but grin back. The only problem was that his grin was accompanied by a mischievous twinkle in the depths of his brown eyes, and it made Cordelia’s own eyes widen, then dart away nervously.

Oh, crap. It was so unnerving when he got like that. Like a hint of Angelus popping out, all wriggly eyebrows, tight leather pants and half-unbuttoned shirt to say, “Hey, baby, what’re YOU doin’?”

“So that’s it? All I have to do is touch you and kiss you, fawn all over you like you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen?” Angel summed up.

“Yeah, exactly,” she nodded, pleased that he got the picture.

He sighed resignedly, tucking his humor away so that she saw no hint of it behind his eyes.

“I guess I can do that,” he said dejectedly, shaking his head and looking down at the floor. “If I have to.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to strain yourself or anything,” Cordelia said scathingly. Geez, like it would be such a freakin’ burden to pretend he thought she was breathtaking.

“What?” he asked, the picture of innocence. “I can pretend I think you’re beautiful. No problem!”

“I am beautiful!” she huffed, her nose scrunched up in irritation.

He shook his head at her again, giving her a pitying look. “Really, Cor, you should watch that vanity thing. It isn’t good to think so highly of yourself. Makes you sound like a snob.”

“Shut up, Angel!”

“Geez, what did I do?” he put on his best hurt look.

“You’re yanking my chain, that’s what you’re doing! Knock it off!” she glowered at him, crossing her arms.

He just smirked at her. “Anything else I should know, honey?”

“No,” she said, still frowning. “I think that’s it. We fly out of LAX tomorrow night at 8 p.m., land in Seattle and take the ship from there. We can board anywhere from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. day after tomorrow, and its supposed to rain so we shouldn’t have any trouble with sun or anything.”

“Sounds good,” he said. “I’ll be ready.”

“You’d better be,” she said under her breath, then turned to walk back to her desk.

“Oh, Cordy?” Angel said lightly, causing her to turn back to him before she disappeared.

“I’ll be collecting that payback sometime on this cruise, just so you know,” he said, a cheeky grin on his face, the twinkle back, sparkling like a diamond in his eye.

She cleared her throat, suddenly nervous. “Sure, whatever, Angel,” she said, then scurried out of the room.

He smiled evilly after her, unable to tamp down the joy his demon was feeling at this very moment. The idea of having Cordelia completely under his control was a heady feeling. Oh, he had so many great options as to how he would make her pay for the hell this cruise was sure to be.

This was going to be so much damn fun!

* * * * * * * *

Seattle, Washington
Docking Pier of the ship Paradise
Eros Cruise Lines
2 p.m.

The ship loomed in front of them, a gleaming pearl in spite of the dreary, overcast weather. Looking up at the sky, Angel noted the tightly packed blanket of clouds and was thankful for the ability to be outside during the day, for once. It didn’t happen very often.

“C’mon, Angel! We’re going to miss it if you don’t hurry!”

“Cordy, we have like 7 hours left before they leave us behind. I don’t think we’ll miss it,” he said dryly.

She rolled her eyes and blew her hair out of her face in exasperation. “Well, you’re like super vamp and all, so what’s the big deal with the luggage? Can’t you carry my bags, too?”

Angel looked down at himself. He dragged two large suitcases on wheels behind him, a backpack was slung on his back, two duffle bags hung from his shoulders, and another carry-on dangled from around his neck.

Only one of the bags was his.

“If you didn’t pack your whole damn apartment into this stuff I wouldn’t be so slow, Cordy,” he grumbled.

“Well, duh,” she said, glaring at him scathingly. “You have to bring lots of clothes for a cruise. You have to dress up for dinner, then you have to have work-out and lounging clothes, and casual clothes, and bathing suits. And we’re going to Alaska, so that meant I needed sweaters, and thermal underwear, jeans, pants and scarves, and hats, and gloves, and snow boots. That’s all, Angel.”

“Oh. Sure you didn’t forget anything?” he said sarcastically.

“Well just because you have no body temperature and can’t feel the frigid cold of the Klondike doesn’t mean you have to be prejudiced against my inferior human body.”

He didn’t think he’d go so far as to call her body inferior. Eyeing her curves appreciatively, he couldn’t help but notice her backside swaying enticingly, the muscles in her ass squeezing and releasing as she walked.

Before he knew it, he’d drooled a little on his chin. Feeling like a doofus, he looked around Looking around quickly to see if anyone noticed. These heated thoughts had to be shoved away now.

At his side, Cordy whispered under her breath as they approached the gangplank. “Showtime!” she said, grinning cheekily at him.

Walking up to the fresh-faced young attendant, she handed him their tickets.

“Cordelia and Angel Chase checking in, please,” she said, smiling coyly at the young man. They’d decided last minute that it would be easier to pretend they were married instead of just boyfriend/girlfriend. What with Angel having no last name and all. Gunn had known some guy from his old life who could get Angel the right kind of documentation.

A red flush crept up from the attendant’s neck, spreading over his pale face as the pretty young woman flirted with him. Angel growled low at the insolent young man. Kids these days had no sense of how to treat a lady.

“Here you go, Mrs. Chase,” the young man said, handing two stamped tickets back to her, along with a pamphlet with the ship’s logo in gold foil on the front cover. “Your itinerary for the cruise is in this folder, so please don’t lose it. You’ve been scheduled for several activities while you’re on board with us. Thank you for sailing with Eros Cruise Lines. Bon Voyage!”

The last greeting was said with a flourish of his gloved hand to the gangplank, and Cordelia smiled at him reassuringly. She turned to Angel and winked.

“Ready, loverboy?”

“Of course, muffin,” he said back, then grinned wider when her frown was forced back into prominence by his cheesy nickname.

“Eww, Angel, come up with a pet name sexier than that,” she whispered heatedly.

“Like what?” he asked innocently. “Honey bunch? Sugar Pie? Sweetiekins? Hot Lips?” He whispered them, too, but wasn’t able to keep the laughter out of his hushed tones.

With each name, her eyes flashed brighter. “No! Ew! Those are crusty old married couple pet names, not ‘oh-god-I-want-to-see-you-naked’ newlywed nicknames!” she hissed.

“You want to see me naked?” he asked.

“Angel!” she hissed. “Shut. Up!”

“Okay! Geez! You brought it up, Cor.”

“Just forget it!”

“Fine,” he said, grinning again. “Whatever you want, baby doll.”

The steward took their bags to their stateroom and unlocked it for them, handing them the key card and accepting the tip without a word. Cordelia gasped as she entered the bedroom, stopping just inside the door and staring in disbelief.

Angel came in behind her, then came to an abrupt halt himself.

They were looking at a room that resembled a set used for a porn magazine photo shoot. Absent were the run-of-the-mill floral bedspreads, Formica counter tops, and wood-laminate dressers. In their place was an amazing variety of silk, leather, satin, and fur. Vibrant tones of scarlet, fuschia, royal purple, and burgundy swathed every surface. A huge bed took up the majority of the small stateroom, set on a dais in the middle of lush, thick-pile carpet. It seemed like thousands of pillows covered the bed, luxuriously overstuffed, begging to be snuggled into.

“Oh, god,” Cordelia whispered. “This is straight off the Playboy channel,” she moaned.

“And you know that how?” Angel asked.

“Shut up, dumb ass,” she shot back, casting him a withering glance.

“It looks comfortable,” he said, trying to make it sound better.

“It looks like Aladdin’s boudoir, only he went for the ‘pimp chic’ decor,” she said, not varnishing the truth at all. She eyed the bed again with a practiced eye. “But you’re right, it does look kind of comfy. Kinky, though.”

“Where’s the bathroom?” Angel asked, looking for a door. It was hard to find one, being that nearly every surface, save the floor, was mirrored.

“Over there, I think,” Cordelia said, crossing the room to a small doorway, no door covering it. She entered it cautiously.

Again, she came to an abrupt stop just over the threshold. “There’s a Jacuzzi tub in here big enough for three people,” she whispered, awed. “And a two-person shower.” The toilet was ensconced behind a mirrored door, a tiny closet that she almost missed.

“I thought they tried to save space on a ship like this,” Angel commented.

“They do, usually,” Cordelia said, finally looking back at him. “But the brochure says that since this is an exclusive line; they expanded the space and have fewer staterooms. That leaves them more room for ‘amenities’ like this.”

He walked in behind her and took a look at the bathroom. “The tub’s wall is glass.”

“So?” she said, gesturing her hands for him to get to the point.

“So, you can’t hide under bubbles,” he said, a dark glint in his eye. “You take a bath by yourself, I walk in and . . .” he let the sentence trail off.

“Oh, god,” she said quietly, her eyes wide.

“Yeah,” he agreed, not able to keep his body from reacting to that fantasy.

They backed out of the bathroom and warily perused the rest of the room, opening closets and dresser drawers.

Not three minutes later Cordelia shrieked as she opened the drawer of one of the bedside tables, then slammed it shut and jumped back. “EWWWW!!!” she shrieked, her face contorted in a grimace of pure disgust.

“What?” Angel asked, trying hard not to laugh at her.

“There are. . . there are. . .” she seemed like she couldn’t bring herself to say it. She shuddered. “There are toys in there!” she finally whispered disgustedly.

“Oh, really?” Angel said, purposefully putting on a hopeful, eager look. “What kind? Let me see!”

“Oh, god, Angel. You’re such a perv!” she said in disgust.

He just laughed at her, going over and sitting on the bed, propping back up on the pillows and crossing his arms. He wiggled his eyebrows at her and nodded over at the closet he’d checked. “There are some costumes in that one if you’re interested.”

She gulped. “Costumes?”

“Yeah, you know, for role playing. There was a cheerleader outfit, a fireman’s uniform, a nurse’s uniform, cop’s blues, a catholic school girl get-up—,”

She rushed over and clamped her hand over his mouth, bringing his running inventory to a grinding halt. “Just—Just stop, Angel! I can’t take it.” She shuddered again.

“What, does this den of iniquity offend your delicate sensibilities?” he asked, laughing at her again.

Her standard withering glare was back in place, turned up full volume. “Shut up, Angel. It just makes me uncomfortable, okay? I mean, it’s not like we’re going to use any of this.”

“We aren’t?” He managed to sound disappointed and pouted just a fraction.

“Angel!” She hit him. Hard.

“Ow, Cordy!” He frowned at her.

“Oh, shut up, you big baby,” she admonished. “Scoot over.” She shoved at his shoulder, forcing him to move to the center of the bed.

He patted the opened space next to him. “Bed’s comfy,” he commented. “It’s got a lot of bounce.” He bounced once as if to underscore the point.

She looked at him warily. There had to be a sexual innuendo in there somewhere, but she wasn’t going to encourage him any more. God, what had she gotten herself into this time?

He finally took pity on her and smiled genuinely. “Let’s go explore the rest of the ship, okay? We’re bound to find some normal things around here, things that are less ‘pimp chic’ as you put it.”

Her eyes lit up at the prospect of finding something that didn’t resemble a brothel. “Okay! Maybe we should check out the indoor swimming pool!”

“You got it,” he agreed, and they both sprang off the bed and bounced out of the room.

Angel gave one glance back at the room before he shut and locked the door, smiling inwardly. Good thing he’d kept the pay slot for bed vibration to himself.

* * * * * * * *

Two hours later found the ‘newlyweds’ having a strawberry daiquiri in one of the cafés lining the promenade. The ship had an amazing array of shops, both clothing and otherwise, but it wasn’t without its more risqué elements. Cordy had shuffled hurriedly past two sex shops, a plethora of lingerie boutiques, and one novelty store that advertised “Body Frosting—Buy One, get One Free.” But they’d perused book stores, gift shops, and two pricey jewelry stores, one that even had a great selection of antique rings, pendants, and brooches. Cordelia had looked longingly at that display for nearly twenty minutes before Angel dragged her on to the next store.

They’d been wandering for nearly four hours, and they hadn’t covered more than two decks. There were seven that were devoted to entertainment in one form or another. Good thing this cruise lasted for a week.

Sitting in companionable silence, each of them was left to his or her own thoughts. Cordelia was quietly sipping her drink when she suddenly began coughing and sputtering, pointing shakily behind Angel. Her eyes were wide, and from across the table, Angel could sense her quickening heartbeat. A frown crossed his face that there might be danger nearby, but when he turned around, his own mouth dropped open in shock.

Anya and Xander were ordering drinks at the bar.

“Oh, god!” Cordelia whispered. “Of all the places, we see somebody we know. Here! What the hell are we going to do, Angel? We can’t hide, it’s too late! They’ll see us!”

“Calm down, Cordelia!” Angel whispered back. “Just act natural, okay? Pretend we’re together like we’ve been planning, and we’ll deal with the aftermath after the cruise is over.”

“But if they know that we’re together, that means—” she shuddered at the ramifications, her eyes closed in mortification.

“I know,” he agreed, his eyes serious. “But we don’t want to miss this, right? I mean, it’s a cruise. How often do we get a vacation like this?”

“You’re right,” she agreed. “We’ll have to fool them, too. But why did it have to be them, Angel? Of all the people, it would just have to be these Xander and Anya! The two people on earth least likely to keep a secret!” Her statement was a moan, eyes sliding shut in horror.

Angel’s frown matched hers. This cruise had suddenly turned into hell.

Part 2

“Shh, hurry, Angel, don’t look like you noticed them! Maybe they’ll just go away!” Cordelia hissed, yanking on the sleeve of his black sweater, pulling his attention back to her and away from Xander and Anya, who were busy ordering drinks from the bartender.

He frowned at his diminished view, then realized he could see them in the reflection of the window behind Cordelia. He smirked a little, letting the chauvinistic satisfaction bloom in his chest when he realized that the whelp was being ordered around by his girlfriend. Anya was gesturing wildly at something behind the bar, and Xander threw his hands up in exasperation as he acquiesced, bowled over by her. Some things never changed.

Cordelia was oblivious to Angel’s thoughts, holding her breath as she gripped the edge of the table with whitened knuckles, darting her eyes nervously over to the bar. She was prepared to turn away at a moment’s notice if they recognized her.

She gasped when Xander turned around, both drinks in hand, and squinted at her. Even though she knew the movement was futile, she shrugged down into the seat and put her hand over her eyes like she was shielding herself from the glare of the sun.

Peeking once, she moaned. “Oh, god, Angel, they’re coming over here! Do something!” she kicked him under the table for good measure.

“What the hell am I supposed to do?” he hissed back, wanting nothing more than to plant a solid kick to her shin in retaliation, but he had to settle for glaring at her before he plastered a smile on his face as Xander and Anya approached their table.

Xander’s mouth was open so wide a hive of wasps could’ve set up shop. He and Anya stopped right in front of them, the condensation from the drinks in his shaky hands dripping on the linen napkins at the edge of the table.

Anya didn’t wait for him to get it together. She spoke up right away, knowing that if it was up to Xander, they’d stand here gawking for hours.

“Well, if it isn’t Xander’s ex-girlfriend,” she said, frowning, then glaring at Cordelia. “Why are you ruining our vacation by being here?”

Geez, and they think I’m the tactless one, Cordelia thought to herself.

“Anya, right?” she said, smiling up at the other woman.

Anya nodded vigorously, her curly hair bouncing. “Yes. I’m Anya. And Xander is mine now!”

Cordy couldn’t help but smile. “I know he is; Willow’s kept me updated. I’m actually here with Angel,” she said calmly gesturing to her companion.

“Hey,” Angel said, smiling tightly.

“Hello again,” Anya said, smiling congenially back at him. She gave him a clinical once over. Still dark and brooding, but very handsome in his own way. Nothing like her Xander, of course, but she had an inkling that he could give bone tingling pleasure to some very lucky woman.

Angel just sat still under her scrutiny, knowing that the ex-demon had to size him up, just as he was doing the same to her. After their perusal was finished, all three turned to stare at the silent Xander, who stood with his mouth still open, his fingers affixed on the entwined hands of Angel and Cordelia.

Anya frowned and poked him in the ribs. “Xander, honey, you’re drooling. Close your mouth.”

He shut it abruptly. Shakily, he said, “Hey, Cordy, how’z it going?”

She smiled at him, actually meant it, even to her own surprise. “Fine, Xander. How are you?”

“Umm, okay, I guess.” He barely made eye contact, then looked away, trying to strike a nonchalant pose by resting all of his weight on one sneaker-clad foot.

The awkward silence resumed after that exchange, and Xander shifted his weight to his other foot, still holding both drinks and dripping on the table.

Finally, Angel took pity on them. “Would you like to join us?” he asked, his smile obviously forced, although his tone was genuine.

Anya smiled brightly. “We would!” she said, nodding vigorously, then backed up so Angel could slide out of his side of the booth they were occupying. He slid in next to Cordelia on the other side, and Xander and Anya took up the bench he’d just vacated. Cordelia tried to glare at Angel for not getting rid of them, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes. He just sat down next to her and threw his arm over her shoulder, putting her neck in the crook of his elbow and dangling his hand precariously close to her breast.

Xander finally seemed to get a grip on himself when they were settled, and slid Anya’s drink over to her. She took a big drink, downing half of her Bahama Mama in a few swallows. Xander didn’t seem to notice.

“So, you two are like, together now?” Xander asked in disbelief.

Angel smirked at him and tightened his grip on Cordelia, his fingers brushing her breast just faintly, yet Cordelia felt the touch zing all the way to her toes. She bit back a gasp and pinched his thigh under the table as a silent admonishment to behave himself.

“Yep. Cor and I have been together for six months now. Hot, steamy months, right baby doll?” He smiled heatedly at Cordelia, and she nearly forgot to breathe as she saw the hooded passion in his eyes. Then she frowned inside as she saw that it was mixed with laughter.

After a charged moment of staring at each other, Cordelia remembered to answer. “Right, Angel. Six blissful months together.” She turned to Anya. “He’s so . . . demanding,” she sighed happily, rolling her eyes and leaning into him playfully. “I just can’t keep up sometimes. You know that vampire stamina.”

Anya sighed herself. “Sadly, no. I’ve never had a vampire lover. But Xander does quite well, for a human,” she finished, beaming at her boyfriend.

He smiled tightly at her, feeling like he’d just been insulted, but couldn’t quite figure out how.

“So how did you two get here?” he asked, desperately wanting to keep the conversation moving.

Angel smirked at him. “Cordy won this little trip on a radio station contest, and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to spice up our lives together. There are a lot of things we haven’t taken the time to try yet.” he said. Then he dropped his voice to a whisper, turning to Xander conspiratorially. “She’s a hellcat in bed, this one,” he said with a wink.

Cordelia pinched him hard under the table, then dredged up the Oscar winning actress within, Cordelia turned a thousand-watt smile on him, her eyes seemingly melting into pools of liquid heat as they looked at him.

“Thanks, baby,” she crooned softly, letting herself get lost in the beauty of his eyes. Problem was, once she got lost, she had trouble finding her way back out again.

Xander looked across the table suspiciously. What had happened to Angel’s curse? He was about to ask, but Cordy interrupted him.

“And you? What are you two doing here?”

Anya answered for him. “Xander and I have been together for awhile now, but he’s kind of a prude when it comes to some things. He gives great orgasms, I’ll give him that, but he doesn’t have very much imagination, and I need more.” She paused to take a dainty sip of her drink.

Xander squirmed nervously, and Angel and Cordelia gaped at Anya’s frankness. She continued, oblivious to their disbelief. “I saw the brochure for this cruise and I knew we had to take it. There are so many great seminars. Have you seen the list?” She asked Cordelia.

Cordy nodded mutely.

Anya smiled at her. “We’re signed up for some great ones, like ‘The Delights of Kama Sutra’ and ‘Home Video 101.’ I can’t wait to try that one!” she giggled and smiled at Xander.

Xander’s face had become the color of the ketchup on the table in front of him. “Ahn, honey, we’ve talked about this before. Our sex life shouldn’t be discussed in public, remember?”

“Oh, public schmublic. These are our friends, right? I mean, she even slept with you, so she knows what I’m talking about.”

Cordelia gasped audibly. “I did not sleep with Xander!” Her eyes narrowed and she shot a dirty look at her ex. “What have you been saying about me?” she asked him accusingly.

Xander’s hands went up, palms facing out to ward off her anger. “Nothing, Cordy! I swear. I haven’t said anything to anybody. Anya just assumed!” He turned to his misinformed girlfriend. “Anya, Cordy and I were together in high school. We just made out in the janitor’s closet a lot, but we never slept together.”

She frowned at him. “So that skanky slayer Faith was your first?” she asked, her nose scrunched in distaste.

“You SLEPT with FAITH?” Cordelia asked, shocked.

Xander looked sheepish. “Yeah. It was a moment of weakness, and she was, um. . .persuasive.”

Angel snorted, then took a sip of his drink. “I’ll bet she was,” he commented, and it sounded like he was sympathizing.

Cordelia turned to look at him. “What was that supposed to mean?” she asked suspiciously.

Angel looked puzzled, his handsome face the epitome of confused innocence. “What?”

Cordy wasn’t about to let him get away with a loaded, cryptic comment like that. She decided that she might as well lay it all on the table. “Did YOU sleep with Faith?” she asked, eye brows raised.

Angel laughed nervously. “Me and Faith? Ha! Funny, Cor,” he said, not meeting her eyes. This was not good. Talking about fooling around with other women meant talking about Darla, eventually. He had to avoid that at all costs. Cordelia just wouldn’t understand.

“You did! You slept with Faith!” Her mouth was open in shock, her eyes filled with something that looked suspiciously like hurt and betrayal. “Geez, what the hell is it with you and Slayers? When did this happen?”

“I didn’t sleep with her, okay? We just kinda fooled around. It was when we were trying to defeat the Mayor and Buffy wanted me to pretend like I’d lost my soul and was with Faith instead of her.” He wrapped his arm more tightly around her, rubbing the tips of his fingers against her collar bone to soothe her.

He placed a kiss on her temple, then said low into her ear, “Besides, baby doll, you know there’s no one I’m more hot for than you.”

Xander gaped at them, hanging on every word, like he had front row seats at the latest blockbuster movie.

His sexy voice made her body thrum, and she nearly forgot what they were talking about. She felt obligated to maintain the pretense, so she flashed him a coy, secret smile, reaching a hand up to rub his chest lightly.

“I guess I can forgive that, Angel, since we weren’t together then,” she conceded.

Angel breathed a sigh of relief. He already had one big secret from her, his little indiscretion with Darla, and the last thing he needed was for her to find out about it. He knew she would totally freak out, feel like he’d betrayed her by chancing his soul like that. To have her censure him for something he already regretted fiercely, especially now that he was in love with her, well, it would hurt like a bitch.

Wait a second, did he just say that he was in love with her? In love with Cordelia?

He turned to stare at her as the big secret, veiled in the corner of his heart, was suddenly bathed in sunlight and he realized what a fool he’d been.

Anya didn’t give him time to absorb his reflective discovery.

“Well, anyway,” she said, obviously bored by a conversation that didn’t concern her, “Xander needed some pointers so I thought this cruise would give us some help. What are you two signed up for?”

“Signed up for?” Cordy asked, her mind still foggy from Angel’s light and distracting touches. She was stunned that he would affect her like this. Angel was her friend, not her boyfriend. Friends weren’t supposed to make you want to drag them back to your stateroom and kiss them senseless.

“Yes. What classes are you going to?” Anya asked again.

“I don’t think we’ve signed up for any yet,” Cordelia asked, finding the thread of the conversation once again. “At least, I haven’t seen anything.”

Her attention was diverted almost immediately when Angel reached his free hand under the table and began to rub her thigh, lightly squeezing and caressing her. She squirmed as Anya gasped with shock, the ex-demon setting her drink down on the table and putting one palm over her heart.

“You have to know! When you boarded the ship, they gave you a folder with the ship’s logo on it. You haven’t looked at your itinerary yet?” Anya asked, incredulous. “That’s so important! You could have already missed your first class!”

The vampire and his seer just stared at her across the table, still both hazy, caught up in their almost non-existent flirting and not quite into the conversation. What folder?

“Go!” Anya motioned with her hands. “Quickly! Check your itinerary! You could be having orgasms at this very moment instead of talking to us!”

At the mention of sex, both Cordelia and Angel squirmed, their minds flooded with the idea of making love to each other.

God, this is getting out of hand, Cordelia thought, then forced a bright smile and turned to Angel.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Anya’s right. We need to find out what’s on our itinerary. Let’s go!” she said, shoving him towards the opening at his end of the booth. He scooted out, then held his hand out to help her up. She steadfastly ignored it, wanting to put a lid on her quavering insides.

“I’m sure we’ll see you around later,” Cordelia said with an impressive level of false cheerfulness as she got to her feet. “What’s your first class?” she asked Anya.

“We’re signed up for a sensual massage class at 9 p.m. tonight,” she said excitedly. “It’ll be great foreplay, right, honey?” she smiled at her beleaguered boyfriend again.

He just nodded mutely and sipped his drink.

“Well, then, bye,” Cordy said lamely, and she walked away, Angel hurrying to catch up, leaving Xander and Anya staring at them as they left.

Anya shook her head sadly. “They’re so confused,” she sighed. “Obviously some unresolved sexual tension there. You would think, with two centuries of experience at pleasing women, he’d have her so relaxed all the time, but she’s so tense. They need to work through those issues.”

Xander tried to ignore her but look interested at the same time.

Her look turned thoughtful. “Maybe we should sign them up for the Kama Sutra class with us, Xan,” she mused.

Xander spewed a colorful spray of his Sex on the Beach across the table as the images flooded his brain. It was an overload to imagine practicing sexual positions with Anya right next to Cordelia and Angel doing the same exact thing.

He gulped. “I think maybe we’d better let them work this out on their own, Ahn,” he said, trying not to retch.

“Maybe you’re right,” she sighed, and went back to her drink.

* * * * * * * *

The trip back to the stateroom was a silent one. Cordelia was still trying to calm her rapidly beating heart. Angel hadn’t done much, only kissed her on the forehead and touched her thigh, arm, and shoulder lightly. But damn, what sensations those few brushes caused. She already knew that she had a weakness where he was concerned lately. Ever since he’d come back to work with them, he’d been different. She’d seen flashes of insecurity in him that hadn’t been there before, and all she’d wanted to do, despite the pain and hurt she felt at his abandonment, was to grab him and cradle his head against her chest. She wanted to soothe him, reassure him, let him know that she cared about him and would always be his friend. The problem was, she now thought she might want to be more than his friend. And that was scarier than everything else put together.

And what about the payback he’d wrangled out of this? What would he demand she do in repayment for dragging him on this cruise? She shuddered, then pushed it from her mind. She couldn’t think about it now, or she’d work herself into a nervous frenzy. Better to deal with one problem at a time.

Beside her, Angel was still trying to sort through the flood of feelings he’d experienced when he realized he was falling in love with his seer. Before now, he had acknowledged an attraction to her and a deep friendship, but love had not been on his mind at all. Lately, nearly all of his dreams had been featuring her, usually in some skimpy outfit (or none at all), and he’d know that he was in for some trouble where she was concerned. But until today, until their carefully orchestrated plan had been derailed by Xander and Anya, he hadn’t realized the true depth of his feelings for her. Now that he recognized them within himself, it was difficult to keep from grabbing her and kissing her senseless.

A mortifying thought struck him in the middle of his musings.

What would she do when she found out about Darla?

A few minutes later found them back in the lush gaudiness of their stateroom. Angel went over to the bed and burrowed down into the cushions, crossing his feet at the ankles and linking his arms over his chest. He watched quietly as Cordelia went looking for the folder she’d stowed away as they boarded the ship. She came over to him and stood next to the bed, just holding the folder and staring at him. Finally, he reached out and took her hand, pulling her up next to him. She gave him a small smile, tucked her hair behind her ear, and wiggled in next to him.

“Okay, so I guess this is what we need, right?” she asked.

He nodded. “Looks like what Anya was talking about. And the kid who checked us in at the pier said it was a list of our activities on the ship for this week.”

“Well, here goes nothing,” Cordelia said, her pulse racing with apprehension. She opened the folder carefully and began to rifle through the contents. She found a map of the ship, a room service menu, and a list of the shows that were going on at the theaters here on board. There was also a list of all the restaurants and stores, as well as the ships vast array of amenities, including a casino, five pools, a sauna, a spa, a gym, and an internet café. Buried under all of that, she found their itinerary.

“Here it is,” she said, pulling it out from the back of the folder. It was on bright fuchsia paper, just so they wouldn’t miss it. “Okay, it says check in on Saturday from 9 am. to 9 p.m..”

“Done that already,” he commented.

“Nuh-uh, really?” She shot back sarcastically. “Then, it says we have our first class tonight, 9 p.m.” And then she was silent.

“Well, what’s the class?”

She gasped, and he poked her with his elbow. “What?”

“They’re all bad, Angel!” she said, looking up at him with incredulity. “Every class is . . . really personal! And the other stuff they’ve signed us up for!”

“Cordy,” he said sternly when she pulled the itinerary out of his grasp as he reached for it. “What class do we have tonight?”

“It’s not that bad, I guess,” she stalled. “Hey!” she brightened. “Maybe we won’t have to go! I can pretend I’m sick or something.”

“This is the last time I’m going to ask before I take that itinerary from you by force,” he threatened emptily. Both of them knew he’d never do anything of the sort. “What’s our class tonight?”

She just looked up at him, then laughed nervously before answering. “Yoga for lovers.”

Angel’s eyes widened at the possibilities for this evening. Anything that got him closer to Cordelia was fine by him.
Part 3

“Touch is the foundation of a romantic relationship. It is air to our love, the water to our souls. Yoga is a way to explore that foundation in a meaningful way. Thank you for joining us today.”

The instructor’s melodic voice wafted over Cordelia and Angel like a soft breeze as they stood in a small room with fifteen other couples, awaiting further instruction.

Cordy was acutely aware of Angel standing just to her left, his arm merely centimeters from hers. If she swayed slightly, her arm would brush his, and she knew the contact would send sparkles of electricity up her arm and make her shiver. She didn’t need to look over at him to know how sexy he looked, either.

Her eyes had widened as she saw his attire back in the stateroom. He’d been standing just a few feet away, arms crossed over his powerful chest, sculpted with muscle. She’d gulped at the sight of his bare chest, letting her eyes quickly peruse the rest of him. Knit pants hung low on his hips, just below his belly button, the drawstring tied in a little bow. His feet were even sexy, strong toes peeking at the edge of his sandals. Not wanting to be caught staring, her eyes had jerked back up to his face.

A slight blush coloring her features, she’d quickly walked over to the suitcase to get her shoes.

Beside her, Angel was trying not to notice Cordelia, either, but it was hard to keep the image of her off his mind. She’d come out of the bathroom before they left for the session, and he couldn’t help but notice how she’d checked him out. He’d stood still for her perusal, but it was hard not to flex and preen before her. Then she’d gotten all flustered and he’d been given an unobstructed view of her as she fished in her suitcase.

She hadn’t been able to see him in the mirror in front of her, so he’d felt safe in letting his eyes rove hungrily over her figure as she bent over her luggage for her shoes. The cotton shorts hugged her ass in all the right places, so short that he could see the slight seam where her butt cheek met her thigh. Her toned stomach looked flat and smooth, and he ached to graze it with his lips. With any luck, he’d be able to touch her all he wanted to in just a few minutes.

His fingers itched for the contact.

Both of them forced themselves to tune back in to what the Yoga instructor had to say.

Their teacher was a small woman, thin and slight with a birdlike appearance and a smile wide enough for three people. Her hair was dark brown liberally streaked with grey, and she was wearing a long, flowing robe that added to her peaceful, friendly countenance. She was pacing in front of them, her movements graceful as a gazelle, walking slowly to and fro in front of her small group of students.

After a moment, she paused, turning to them, clasping her hands in front of her as if in prayer. Her melodic voice seemed to permeate every surface in the room, its light timbre tingling over Angel’s delicate eardrums. “Yoga is an ancient practice designed to improve both physical and spiritual health. Generally, it is an individual practice, but over centuries, asanas, or poses, have been created to encourage and strengthen the bond between lovers.”

She turned and faced them, her smile stretching across her face, and raised her arms wide, encompassing the entire group.

“With these asanas, I will be able to help you connect to one another on a purely spiritual plane, blending auras and allowing you to center each other’s energies. Such a connection will facilitate a compatible, loving relationship.”

Cordy visibly relaxed, letting the woman’s speech flow over her soothingly like warm bath water. What she said didn’t sound so bad. Angel was going to touch her, but it wouldn’t be too invasive. It would feel good, right?

At her side, Angel’s reaction was completely opposite. He coiled up more tightly at their teacher’s description of the art they were about to learn. He knew what was coming. He’d been a student of this type of exercise before, and it always touched feelings deep within him, stirring up his soul like a spoon stirring tea. His long-held practice of Tae Chi had always had a profound effect on him, and that was an individual art. He could only imagine what it would do to his control when he accessed his deepest emotions with Cordelia so close.

The instructor was oblivious to his inner turmoil. “We will begin with a brief meditation exercise. Sit on the floor, legs crossed, facing one another. Your knees should be touching.”

Every couple in the room carved out a space for themselves on the lush carpet, sitting cross-legged across from each other. Cordy and Angel sat down carefully, their knees touching just barely as they faced each other. Cordy looked down at Angel’s crossed legs, suppressing the urge within her to reach out and stroke the delicate skin on the insides of his ankles. She didn’t want to look at his face. He was too close, and her feelings were too crazy mixed-up right now to be tested like that.

The instructor had other ideas. “Very good,” she praised, beaming at her pupils as she slowly walked the room, checking everyone’s poses. “We will begin with a mind-clearing meditation. Place your hands in a prayerful position, your thumbs resting back against your chest, directly between your pectoral muscles.”

Cordy smirked at the woman’s efficient way of avoiding discussion of breasts and the male equivalent, but she did as she was asked. Her eyes remained downcast, and she stared unfocused at Angel’s midsection. it was only after a moment that she realized she’d been staring unseeingly at his crotch, her eyes darting away as she blushed in mortification.

Angel smiled softly as he saw her discomfort. He, too, was in the prayer posture, awaiting further instruction, taking the short opportunity to study the beauty in front of him. His eyes traveled the soft lines of her face, noting the flushed color and recognizing her embarrassment. It was secondary in his mind as he was still marveling over the fact that he hadn’t realized his love for her before. Now when faced with her, it seemed clear as day. But as obvious as it was to him now, he was still damn scared. He had no idea what to do with these feelings. What if she didn’t want to be with a vampire? What if she didn’t love him back? What if she found out about Darla and didn’t forgive him? What if—

Their instructor’s words interrupted his growing panic.

“Now, close your eyes,” she continued, “maintaining your prayerful posture. Clear your mind of any fears, doubts, and distractions. You must each take this moment of silence to tune into your sacred center, accessing that part of yourself that houses the energy within all of us. The energy that makes up our spiritual essence. Breathe deeply, three times, along with me.”

She led them through the deep breathing, the silence in the room broken only by the steady hiss of air leaving lungs and refilling them.

Cordelia felt herself relax as she breathed deeply. She concentrated on clearing her mind, and she was successful. Every doubt fled, every apprehensive thought, until she was in a place of peace.

Angel relaxed as the air oxygenated his dead lungs and gave him a sense of calm. He cleared his mind as instructed, and his fears over his love for Cordy vanished as if they were nothing more than raindrops being dried by the healing rays of the sun.

The instructor was already giving further directions. “Now, you must open your eyes and find the eyes of your partner. Stare deeply into one another’s eyes, acknowledging your partner’s sacred center. Project every ounce of love and passion within you in your gaze. Open your soul to your partner and deepen your connection by projecting positive thoughts.”

She walked around the room as they followed her instructions. Pausing just near Angel and Cordelia, her eyes reviewed their positions and noted the still-tense line of their shoulders. Despite their relaxed positions, neither of them had completely let go.

“Finally,” she continued, “Project this positive thought to your partner. Say it in your mind as your eyes are connected. ‘Our love transcends all. It binds us together. Our lovemaking will be a passionate, blissful experience for both of us.”

Cordelia gulped as she repeated the words in her head. Images flashed in her mind of the two of them making love, and she had to work to suppress the flush that threatened to creep through her entire body.

Angel was having a difficult time not responding physically to the instructor’s words. The thought of making love to Cordelia nearly unmanned him. He worked furiously at tamping down his response, not wanting an ill-timed reaction to be prominent in the middle of this session. It wouldn’t do any good to get all worked up when they couldn’t do anything about it. Not only that, but he was nearly certain that Cordy wasn’t ready for that yet.

“Very good!” the instructor’s cheerful voice broke them out of their trances. “Now, we will move on to other asanas designed to further unite your auras and balance your energies.”

Their instructor had them stand up, proceeding to lead them through several positions that tested the limits of their control. At one point, Angel was on his back on the floor, his feet in the air with Cordelia balanced on them at the small of her back. She relaxed above him, boneless, limp, her hair gently swinging. Her hands linked back with Angel’s and he squeezed them reassuringly as they met together on a spiritual plane.

“Together,” the instructor said, “you are one. One being in two bodies. One soul, broken in half and contained in two vessels. Your energies blend, bringing you closer and closer to the total harmony for which you search. And here,” she paused, regarding the posed couples around the room, one partner balanced so gracefully on the feet of the other, “you are in a position of complete and total trust. Remember this feeling of closeness the next time negative energy threatens to destroy the balance between you. Remember, you are one.”

Silence descended over the room as they absorbed this, and Cordelia felt filled with an undeniable peace. It was true; she did feel closer to Angel at this moment than she ever had before. She could feel him beneath her, almost sense his soul intermingling with hers.

Under her, Angel was in full-fledged panic mode. He, too, could sense his soul reaching out to her, and it frightened him. Angelus stirred within him, pulling at the now-permanent chains that restrained him. Even though Angel knew that a moment of perfect happiness wouldn’t unleash his darker side upon the world, he knew that Angelus still had the power to destroy him. Angel was still a demon, no matter how much the soul tamed him. Cordelia had never really seen that side of him. She thought she had, but she really had no idea what he was really like when his demon side took control. And if things around her got any spicier. . . well, let’s just say that Angelus liked to play. A lot.
Part 4
Cordelia stood in the shower in their stateroom, water pounding directly into her forehead and streaming down her face. She had her mouth open, breathing in through the cracks in the fall of water, her weight braced by her hands up against the tiled wall. The rough pulsation of the water on her face was soothing, helping to ease away her tension. With it, the fear that had been building inside her over the last few days began to finally wash away as well.

It was a mystery to Cordelia how she’d been able to survive the last three days with her emotions intact. They’d attended at least five classes, anywhere from Romantic Cooking to The Sensual Art of Tango. There had been light moments laced with laughter and fun, but she’d realized that Angel was feeling some of the same, unnamed pressure she was feeling. White-hot lightening had arced between them more than once, and it could all be traced back to that first yoga class.

Inside that room, during the middle of their yoga session, Cordelia had felt at peace with herself, at peace with her as yet unnamed feelings for Angel, at peace with her unknown future.

But the moment their instructor had eased them out of their last pose, she’d felt it all come crashing back. It was as if, as soon as her concentration had broken, the dam had burst, all of her negative feelings crashing back. Along for the ride were some emotions she hadn’t realized were there until they came barreling back into her mind. It was almost too much to take.

Warily, she glanced back toward the starkly open doorway to the bathroom. She cursed the shipbuilders and their concept of romance again for what seemed like the thousandth time since they’d opened their stateroom door. The only place in this entire room that had some concept of privacy was the toilet closet, and there was barely enough room for her to sit down in there. She’d wondered, a smirk on her face, how a man would have been able to take care of his number two business if her own knees were knocking against the wall. She was by no means tall, and it was a tight fit. Angel should be thankful that he didn’t have to deal with it.

As her thoughts turned back to her “husband,” Cordelia glanced again at the open doorway. Angel had said that he’d go out for awhile to give her some privacy while she showered, but she wouldn’t put it past him to sneak quietly into the stateroom and stand just outside the door, ogling her via her reflection. She wouldn’t be able to see his; it was a peeping tom’s dream. Well, a vampire peeping tom’s, anyway. She knew that Angel played it cool all the time, like he would never—with a hand to the heart and horrified expression—invade her privacy like that.

The same thought had plagued her during every shower during the last few days. That and the thought that underneath it all, Angel was still a man. A man who had a very healthy sexual appetite, even if he couldn’t act on it because of his curse. Not to mention two hundred plus years of experience. . .

At that thought, she sighed and rested her forehead against the tiled wall, right between her hands. God, the things he must know. . . but she couldn’t go there in her mind. If she did, she’d be admitting to herself that there was something between them. And admitting that, even admitting to simply lust, opened a Pandora’s box of problems that she didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with.

Thank god for Angel’s curse. If Angel had no restraints on him, Cordelia might be tempted to throw caution to the wind and herself right at him. As things currently stood, there was nothing to be gained by revealing her secret love for him. Having her feelings out in the open would only bring her pain, and on the extremely off-chance those feelings were reciprocated, it would only bring Angel frustration and depression. And nobody liked Mr. Grumpy Vamp.

No, she thought, sighing again. It would be better if she just played out the charade and cleansed herself of the naughty feelings that had surged through her every time she’d seen him lately. Ever since he’d played the devoted lover for a captivated audience of Xander and Anya.

If she could just remember that they were playacting, she could manage her crazy feelings.

Unless he demanded his payback. . . whatever the hell his devious mind would come up with.

She shuddered and switched off the water. That thought scared her more than everything else combined.

Angel traced a random pattern in the condensation that collected outside of his glass of beer. It collected on his fingertip as he drew in it, then gathered into a drop and rolled down the curved surface and puddle into a ring on the table. It sat nearly untouched, Angel’s eyes staring unfocused into the amber liquid as if it held the answers to the meaning of life.

So far, the stubborn beverage had refused to give up its secrets.

Frowning, Angel wondered if he’d wasted enough time and he could go back to the stateroom. He’d been trying valiantly to keep his thoughts off of Cordelia. His treacherous mind was aching to conjure up visions of her in the shower, but he’d steadfastly pushed them aside. He’d filled his mind with every other topic he could think of, even some he hadn’t even considered before. Like why bars put pretzels in a basket. Like why bartenders always seemed to stay busy when he was the only customer.

Like why champions couldn’t seem to help falling in love with their seers.

He sighed, bringing his finger down onto the bar and pulling condensation from the puddle at the bottom of the glass, using it as a pen to draw on the gleaming surface. He traced a few indiscernible shapes, then one that took on the shape of a heart. His eyes darting around, he quickly obliterated it in a way strangely similar to that of a junior high girl who’d been caught doodling her crush’s name on her notebook. Sitting up after he’d tampered with the evidence and clearing his throat, he shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

With a determined move, Angel grasped the glass firmly in his fist and brought it to his mouth, downing half the contents in a strong gulp.

He nearly choked when the voice interrupted him.

“Hey, Deadboy. Drowning your sorrows?” Xander said, a smile on his face. He sat down next to Angel, motioning for the bartender. He ordered a beer, same as Angel’s, and turned to the vampire as the bartender moved away.

A gleeful smile lit up his face as his chair moved. “Ooh, swivel chairs!” he said with the enthusiasm of a five year old. “Way cool.” He swiveled a few times in the sedentary version of the twist.

Angel rolled his eyes, waiting for Xander to spin all the way around with his hands raised in the air, but the childishness was short lived.

“What are you doing here?” Angel asked, not looking at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be giving your girlfriend orgasms or something?”

Xander had the grace to blush as the bartender plunked his drink in front of him, smirking. He’d obviously overheard Angel’s comment.

“Yeah, well, she got mad at me during our dance class.”

“What did you do?” Angel asked, surprised that he was actually curious.

“Oh, I don’t have great rhythm. I stepped on her toes a few times.”

Angel raised his eyebrows. “And for that she kicked you out?” Anya didn’t seem to be the type to let a few bruised toes stand in the way of her sexual euphoria.

“Well. . .” Xander trailed off, looking sheepishly into his glass. “That, and there was another woman there who really reminded me of Buffy, except she had way bigger boobs. I kept staring at her, trying to decide if I was imagining things, and Anya didn’t like that so much.”

Smirking, Angel took another sip of his drink. “Not too smart there, boy.”

“Well, what do you know?” Xander said defensively. “It’s not as if your track record with women is flawless.”

Angel frowned as he realized that Xander didn’t even know the half of it. He remained silent.

“So what’s the deal with you and Cordy, anyway?” Xander said, obviously wanting to get the skinny on his former girlfriend. “Last I knew, you were still a hands-off kinda guy.”

Angel shrugged. “Things change.”

It was Xander’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Not things like that.”

He was answered by Angel’s silence, and for a few moments, Xander thought that was all he was going to get. He was startled to watch Angel’s mouth open as if to say something, the close again as he frowned.

Xander smirked at him, then clapped a hand on the vampire’s broad back. “Go ahead, buddy. Tell me all about it. I can keep a secret.”

Angel glared at him with enough heat to make Xander quickly remove his hand. “What?” the younger man said defensively. “It’s not like we’re enemies. Not really, right? I mean, you’ve got a soul. You’re good. Sort of.”

Angel just snorted, then shook his head. What the hell? It was only Xander. He was practically harmless. “Last year was kind of rough, okay? I went through this depressing period and I kind of slept with Darla.”

Xander choked on his beer. “Darla? As in your sire Darla? As in the one that Buffy STAKED?”

“Yup,” Angel said. “That’s her. Wolfram & Hart resurrected her as a human, but she got turned again by Drucilla, and it kind of all went downhill from there.”

“Geez. You’d think there was only the Pony Express between L.A. and Sunnydale with the amount of news we’ve heard. You guys ever hear of this new-fangled invention called a phone?”

A low growl warned Xander to cut the sarcasm.

Xander ignored it and went on. “And what does sleeping with Darla have to do with your curse?”

Angel explained his epiphany and the anchoring of his curse, and Xander took a moment to digest it.

“So why, exactly, didn’t you come back to Buffy when you found out about this?”

Angel looked uncomfortable. “The reasons Buffy and I broke up weren’t only about the curse, Xander. There were other things involved. She’s the Slayer. I’m a vampire. Not exactly a good combination.”

“Spike doesn’t seem to think so,” Xander muttered.

“Spike?” Angel growled, his vampiric hearing catching Xander’s comment. “Buffy’s dating Spike?!?”

“Dating?” Xander laughed mirthlessly. “I wouldn’t call it dating, exactly. He claims he’s in love with her. She beats him up. That’s about it.”

Angel was silent for a moment. “She does know that beating him up will only make him want her more, right?”

A look of distaste passed over Xander’s face. “That’s just sick,” he commented. “But this isn’t about Buffy and Spike. This is obviously about you and Cordy. Guess you guys are having lots of . . . um. . . fun together.”

“Yeah,” Angel said, but his tone said exactly the opposite.

A light dawned in Xander’s mind as he carefully watched Angel’s face. “You aren’t sleeping together, are you?” he said slowly.

“What?” Angel had a stricken look of panic in his eyes. “Of course we are!”

“You’re not!” Xander grinned, pointing at him triumphantly. “You haven’t told her about the curse, have you? Have you?” Xander was practically jumping up and down in his seat, stoked beyond belief that he’d figured the cryptic dead guy out.

“Shhh!” Angel hissed angrily. “If the people on this cruise find out we aren’t having sex, they’ll kick us off at the next port. Shut up!”

“But you’re in love with her, aren’t you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yeah,” Angel sighed, then frowned as he was suddenly struck with the realization that Xander Harris had just become his confidante. He looked at his beer, then the bartender, suspiciously. There had to be something wrong with the universe.

“Dude, you’d better make a move soon. Cordy doesn’t hang around forever.”

“Maybe not for you.”

“Hey!” Xander glared at him, then frowned. “Well, I guess cheating on her kind of ruined my chances.”

“Well, ‘duh,’ as she would say.”

They sat in a few more moments of companionable silence.

“So what are you going to do about it?” Xander asked finally.

“Nothing.”

Xander stared at him in disbelief. “You’re in love with her, you can sleep with her now, and you aren’t going to do anything? What’s wrong with you?”

Angel shook his head. “I just can’t figure out how to tell her. I mean, if I seduce her, then tell her about the curse, she’ll hate me because I didn’t tell her. If I tell her now, she won’t trust me when I tell her I love her. And if I don’t tell her now and she finds out by accident, then she’ll hate me even more. I’m totally screwed.”

Xander pondered this thoughtfully for a moment. “You’re right; you are screwed. But I think there’s still a way to salvage this. You can make it work.”

Angel looked at Xander cautiously, wondering at his own sanity as he considered taking relationship advice from a twenty-something with the relationship experience of a house plant. After a moment, he sighed, then thought, what the hell? It wasn’t as if he could figure this out on his own.

“How?”

Xander smiled with satisfaction, leaning back in his chair. “So here’s what I think you should do.”

* * * * * * * *

Standing in front of the stateroom door, Angel wasn’t so sure that Xander’s advice was the best course of action. Sure, the reasoning he’d given was sound, but this was Xander. The kid who’s relationship experience constituted a strange affair with an ex-demon and a high school fling broken up by infidelity. Not exactly a Dr. Phil-caliber résumé.

On the other hand, Angel’s own romantic history wasn’t exactly a bed of roses. His numerous liaisons as Liam had left him an unhappy young man, searching for fulfillment. His emptiness had led him straight to Darla’s arms. She’d delivered a world infinitely more empty than his human one. It wasn’t until he’d met Buffy that he’d finally glimpsed what it felt like to be whole, if only for a second.

And it wasn’t until he’d let Cordelia worm her way into the recesses of his heart that he’d been able to hang on to that feeling.

Clenching his fists, Angel sighed and closed his eyes, turning his face away from the closed door in front of him. His feet felt bolted to the corridor’s plush carpeting, the heaviness in his heart keeping him from moving. There was so much at stake here. If he put this plan into action, if he told her about Darla—

A shudder rippled through him. Like a thunderhead rolling, gaining speed and intensity, Angel’s fears built one upon the other and consumed his mind for the space of a few seconds that felt like infinitely more. He imagined what it would feel like to lay out his heart, flay it open and wait as Cordelia pronounced judgment on him for his indiscretions. Intense, freezing cold swept through him. She would reject him. He knew she would. It was inevitable.

It was simple, really. Angel never received forgiveness.

And then, just as quickly as they’d overwhelmed him, the morose thoughts dissipated. It didn’t really matter what the outcome was; Angel knew he’d have to tell Cordelia about what happened. She’d find out somehow, he knew it in his gut, and whatever her reaction, Angel wanted to be in control.

As goofy as he was about most things, Xander was right about this. Angel had to come clean. There were no other options. And if what Xander said was right, if Cordelia cared about him enough, she’d forgive him. Eventually.

Taking a deep breath to fortify himself, Angel grabbed the doorknob and twisted. He was completely unprepared for the sight that greeted him.

* * * * * * * *

Steam wafting in wispy clouds around her, Cordelia stepped out of the shower and reached for a luxurious, fluffy towel on the rack in the bathroom. Angel would probably be back any moment, so she had to hurry. A quick swipe of the towel across her skin whisked away most of the moisture, and she hurried into the bedroom for her clothes.

Rifling through her suitcase, Cordelia found clothes and tossed them haphazardly on the bed. Butterflies swarmed in her stomach, her nervousness at being caught half-clothed making her fingers clumsy and but beads of water still clung here and there, glittering in the half-light. Quickly, she reached for her panties.

Just as she was sliding them up, a click echoed in the stillness of the room, making her lose her balance and fall back against the bed. Hands scrambling to cover her breasts, her eyes found Angel’s, their gazes locking with magnetic attraction. Time stood still for an instant.

Angel broke eye contact first, his gaze dropping slowly down her figure with the laziness of a gentle caress. Feeling her body warm with the sweep of his eyes, Cordy felt a wash of embarrassment flow over her. Turning her back, she pulled on and secured her bra. A quick snap fastened her jeans, and she reached for her t-shirt, pulling it swiftly over her head. Only when she was finished did Cordelia feel secure enough to meet Angel’s eyes again.

What she saw there made her breath catch.

A thousand somber emotions swirled in his dark eyes, none clear enough for her to identify. The serious intensity in them was frightening, her heart clenching in response. It felt as though the axe was about to drop.

“You got a minute?” Angel’s voice was soft, but its deep tones reverberated in the room.

“Yeah,” she answered, taking a deep breath. Moving back, she sat down on the bed and patted the space beside her.

Angel shook his head slightly. “I think I need to stand.”

Cordelia raised an eyebrow warily. “That serious, huh?”

His silence made her nervous. “Whatever it is, just say it, Angel. You’re freaking me out.”

Turning to her, he half-smiled an apology and sighed, rubbing his face with one hand. “I have something I need to tell you and you aren’t going to like it.”

“I figured that part out, thanks,” she said dryly. “What?”

Staring at her intently, Angel sighed. “Last year, after I fired you and Wes and Gunn, I slept with Darla.”

Cordelia blinked.

When she remained silent, Angel grew worried. “Did you hear me?”

“I don’t think so,” Cordelia said, her eyes wide. “Because I don’t think you would do something so completely and utterly stupid.”

“I did.”

“You had sex with Darla,” she clarified.

Angel sighed. “Yes.”

“The hoe-bag who ruined your life more than once.”

“Yes.”

“The most evil woman on the planet, the one you SWORE to me you hadn’t touched.”

Angel winced. “Yes.”

Silence choked him as he waited for her reply.

Finally, Cordelia spoke. “I see,” she said, and stood abruptly, walking briskly over to the porthole and staring out into the inky blackness.

Warily, Angel crossed the room and stood behind her. Reaching out, he moved to put his hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me,” Cordelia whispered, jerking her shoulder away as she sensed his nearness.

They stood there, inches apart, and let the misery waft around them.

“You lied to me,” Cordelia finally said, tears in her voice.

“I’m so sorry, Cordelia,” he said simply, and somehow she knew he meant it much more than he could ever express, but that knowledge did nothing to diminish the knife twisting in her heart at his confession.

Face crumbling at her obvious distress, he reached out again, turning her around and placing his hands firmly on her upper arms. Surprise caught him when she just looked up, tears spilling, but didn’t pull away.

“Why, Angel?” she asked again in a whisper. “Why would you risk your soul and sleep with Darla? Why would you even think of doing that?”

Seeing how it affected her, and knowing how much he loved her, his heart broke.

“Cordelia, I have no excuse for what I did,” he admitted, the remorse obvious on his face. He cracked a little further as he watched her lip tremble. “I was so low then that I thought I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t take the guilt of everything I’d done, and all I wanted was the purity of a life without a conscience. Without guilt. Without remorse. So I tried to throw it all away, but it didn’t work.”

“Why didn’t you come to us, Angel? Why did you fire us in the first place? We would have helped you. We care about you,” she whispered, reaching her hands up to lay them on his chest. Her fingers stroked him absently, even as her tears dampened her cheeks. “I care about you.”

He swallowed convulsively, her words cutting him deeper than any insult would have done. “I didn’t want to expose you to the darkness in me then, Cor. I cared too much about you. So I fired you. And Wesley and Gunn, so I could chase my demons on my own and not expose you to the evil inside me.”

His hand came up to caress her cheek. “As awful as it was to hit rock bottom with Darla, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, because it made me see how wrong I’d been about it all. And it gave me my soul, Cordy. I can’t ignore that.”

It took only a few moments for that last declaration to sink in. “It gave you your soul?” she repeated, stunned.

Angel nodded. “My soul is permanent now.”

In a flash, Cordelia’s sadness flared up into anger. Jerking away from him, she moved to a safe distance and crossed her arms over her chest. Staring him down, she asked, “And just how long have you known this?”

Eyes widening, Angel scrambled for an answer. He hadn’t planned for this question, hadn’t evaluated his answer and studied it from every angle. Every answer that echoed in his head sounded unusable.

Eventually, he settled for the truth. If he was digging his own grave, he might as well do it right. “I realized that night.”

“The night you screwed Darla?”

At the derision and contempt in her voice, Angel’s anger flared. “Damn it, Cordy, do you have to say it like that?”

She arched an eyebrow coolly. “Wasn’t that what it was? And I can think of a whole list of other ways to say it, buddy. Wanna hear ‘em?”

“No!” he growled, turning away. This wasn’t going as he’d planned, damn it!

“So you screwed Darla,” she said, emphasizing the word he’d hated, “had an epiphany that told you your soul was there for good, and you didn’t think this was important enough to tell anybody?”

“I told Wesley!” he said defensively, immediately regretting the words as he saw her face grow slack with incredulity and an even stronger sense of betrayal.

“You told Wesley and you didn’t tell me?” she whispered, tears flooding her eyes again. “Why, am I not important enough?”

He strode over to her, grabbing her arms and forcing her to look at him. “No! that’s not what I meant. I had to tell Wesley so he could confirm it. But I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know how. I would’ve had to tell you I’d slept with Darla and I didn’t think you’d forgive me.”

She yanked her arm away from him. “You thought right,” she said bitterly, turning away and hugging herself.

“Cordy, don’t do this,” he pleaded. “You’re my best friend.”

“Not by my definition,” she retorted. “Best friends don’t lie to each other. Best friends don’t keep huge, earth-shattering information from each other.”

“Cordy,” he tried again, only to be cut off by her hand slashing the air.

“Just leave me alone, Angel.” Her voice was strained, fatigued.

“We can’t leave it like this.” She couldn’t reject him like this, could she?

“I said get out,” she whispered.

“Wait—”

“GET OUT!” she shouted, no longer able to hold the anger and hurt back.

Angel jerked visibly at the volume of her words. A few quick strides took him outside the room, and the click of the door behind him made him flinch.

The betrayal in her expression haunted him for the rest of the night.

* * * * * * *

Making almost no sound, Angel snuck back into the stateroom just before dawn. Slipping out of his coat, shirt and shoes, he moved silently over to the bed and stood at its side, gazing down on the woman who had run him through the blender just by being in his life.

Cordy lay sprawled out, her body angled in such a way that she took up the maximum amount of space on the massive bed. The covers tangled around her legs, one slim limb peeking out of the covers and tempting him with its smooth, golden length. Her arms stretched above her head, one underneath her pillow, the other on top, her fingers clutching the sheets. Fluttering, her hair moved with each even exhalation.

Angel felt as though he’d stood there for hours just watching her, hoping against everything that she would come around in time. But who was he kidding? He’d be the luckiest man in history if she even deigned to give him the time of day again, let alone allowed him back into her good graces.

But in the end, he couldn’t help himself. Kneeling softly on the bed, he gently nudged her over and slid in beside her. He intended to scoot her far enough away so that she wouldn’t have to touch him again, but in her sleep, Cordelia had different ideas. As soon as he was stretched out beside her, she curled into him and snuggled into his side, her leg sliding up and over him so that her warm body was flush against his. Sighing, she settled back into an even sleep.

Shocked, Angel could only tighten his arm around her and thank his lucky stars. When she woke up, he knew the hell would begin again.
Part 5
Anya had never been one for girl talk, but she prided herself on being able to offer her friends the absolute, unvarnished truth about their problems and concerns. While it was true that her opinions were often unsolicited, Anya knew that everyone around her was secretly grateful for her blunt honesty. Like the swiftness of a beheading, Anya’s kernels of truth were often painful, but only for an instant. Other people’s advice tended to be more like death by a shot to the stomach, a slowly bleeding drain of life. They doled out words of advice in such diluted quantities that it often caused more harm than good.

These thoughts spurred Anya into action late on the fifth day of their cruise. She’d taken a much needed respite from Xander’s fumbling attentions, and while she’d had more physically pleasurable experiences on this sea voyage than she’d had in a long time, even nymphomaniacs needed time off. So far, her mini-vacation had led her on a slow wandering of the ship’s many entertainment decks, and she’d found some really good deals on lingerie and accessories.

Feet tired, Anya had stopped in at a small cafe near the promenade and ordered a mocha with the intention of watching the choppy waves out the panoramic window. She’d barely scoped out the seating area for a place to rest when she spotted Cordelia, hands clutching a large mug of coffee as she stared out at the sea.

Immediately, Anya had considered leaving, knowing that Cordelia probably didn’t like her very much. And who could blame her? Anya would be devastated if she were in Cordelia’s position, having to see Xander in a committed, sexually exhilarating relationship with another woman. Especially after the way Xander had left Cordelia. But on the other hand, Cordelia did have Angel, a strong, virile and highly-sexed male in his own right.

In the end, the look of utter weariness and dejection on Cordelia’s face brought out Anya’s nurturing side. Cordelia obviously needed someone to talk to, and heaven knew that Xander would be absolutely no help.

Anya walked briskly over to Cordelia’s table. Sitting down, she set her mocha in front of her and dumped her purchases on the empty chair. Cordelia looked startled and stared at her.

“God, I never thought shopping could be such a chore,” Anya complained by way of introduction. “The bargains I got were fabulous, but really, they didn’t have to make this place so huge. I’ve never seen so much lace and leather in my life, and I’ve been in my share of Victoria’s Secret stores.”

Cordelia managed a small smile and sighed, realizing that Anya wasn’t going anywhere. “What did you buy?” she asked, her voice soft.

Anya searched her face a minute before answering. “Just some lingerie. A teddy, a merry widow, a peignoir, and some absolutely fabulous push-up bras. I didn’t know I could have so much cleavage. I thought for a minute I’d body-snatched Pamela Anderson while I was in the dressing room.”

Cordy laughed, the first happy sound she’d made in two days.

“So I haven’t seen you in awhile,” Anya said, settling back into her chair. “How have your classes been?”

Cordy’s eyes immediately dropped down to the tabletop. “Fine.”

“Hmm.” Anya’s raised eyebrows conveyed her skepticism. “Doesn’t sound fine to me. Is Angel being an ass?”

Having heard rumors of Anya’s bluntness, Cordelia was only slightly taken aback by Anya’s question.

“Is he ever anything else?” she said bitterly.

“Ouch,” Anya said, wincing. “He must’ve been a complete bastard for you to be so angry with him. The other day, you two couldn’t keep your hands off each other.”

Cordy wanted to explain how she and Angel weren’t really together, but that meant it would most certainly get back to Buffy, and that was the last thing she wanted. The damage control from what Xander and Anya had already seen would be bad enough. She took a sip of her drink as Anya continued.

“Was he flirting with one of the cheap, skinny little twits they have in hordes on this boat? I swear, Xander must have magnets to silicone in his eyes; it takes all his willpower to keep from ogling all the over-inflated double D’s we’ve seen on this trip.”

At the mental image Anya’s words invoked, Cordelia choked on her coffee. “No,” she finally gasped when she’d caught her breath. “Angel hasn’t been like that.”

“Well be thankful for small miracles,” Anya advised her. “But the classes haven’t helped?”

Shaking her head, Cordelia thought back to the last forty eight hours since Angel had shattered her world. They’d been to four classes and thankfully, every one of them had been low-contact. They’d managed to perform with a bare minimum of visible awkwardness, but the knots in Cordelia’s stomach had only tightened with every hour she spent in Angel’s company. She’d desperately needed time away, and her escape had led her to this coffee shop.

When Cordelia remained silent, Anya pressed her. “So what is it? I’m sure I can help you.”

Sighing, Cordy shook her head. “I don’t think anyone can help, but thanks anyway.”

“Oh, come on. Being a demon for so many years has taught me a thing or two. Give me a try. Who else are you going to talk to?”

“I guess you’re right,” Cordy admitted, setting her cup down and running her thumb absently along the handle. “It’s kind of a long story.”

“I’ve got time. Xander’s dead to the world right now. I wore him out.”

Cordelia smirked and then grew sober. “Did Xander or the rest of the group ever tell you about Darla?”

“I think she might’ve been mentioned. Wasn’t she Angel’s sire?”

A nod was Cordelia’s answer. She quickly outlined the recent history of Darla & Angel, without the sex.

“That sucks.”

“Tell me about it,” Cordy agreed.

“So what does this have to do with Angel being an ass?”

Cordy raised pained eyes to meet Anya’s concerned ones. “He told me day before yesterday that he slept with her.”

“Bastard!” Anya said, shaking her head.

“No kidding.” Cordy’s tone was bitter. “And to top it all off, the experience was so horrendous that it secured his soul. That would be a good thing, but he didn’t tell me about it and it’s been nearly six months since he found out.”

“So this is why you’re so upset? Because he kept this from you?”

She nodded, tears filling her eyes.

“It’s true he’s a lying jerk-off, but there isn’t much you can do about it. At least he told you.”

“But he slept with her!”

“So?” Anya’s frankness was almost cruel, but the sympathy in her eyes softened the impact. “You love him, don’t you?”

Cordy gaped a minute before answering. “Yeah, I guess, but—“

“And he loves you, right?”

Nodding because she knew Anya expected it, Cordy wondered miserably if that were true.

“Well, then, there you go,” Anya said, sipping her mocha decisively. “You have to forgive him.”

“I can’t. It’s too soon. Just the thought of her, and him, and–” she shuddered.

“Get over it, Cordelia,” Anya said forcefully. “That’s the best advice I can give you. If you want Angel in your life, you have to forgive him and move past it.”

The two women sat in silence as Cordelia rebelled at what Anya suggested. In theory, she understood why Angel had kept this revelation from her. He had predicted this reaction and she hadn’t disappointed him. But that didn’t change anything. He’d still betrayed her, and Cordelia didn’t know if she’d be able to get over that.

“Geez, look at the time,” Anya said, glancing at her watch. “I’ve gotta go.”

“Another class?” Cordy asked, smiling slightly. Despite Anya’s forthrightness, Cordy had enjoyed her company, if only for the distraction it provided.

“No,” Anya answered, smiling. “We have a romantic dinner planned at Chez Francois. Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?”

At Cordy’s nod, Anya stood and gathered her things. “Think about what I’ve said, Cordelia. You shouldn’t let this ruin what you have with Angel. Even I can see it’s something worth saving, and I don’t even know you.”

With a little wave, she was gone, leaving Cordelia in a state of confusion. What Anya had said rang true. But did Cordelia have it in her to follow her advice?
* * * * * * *
At the rate she’d been going, Cordelia figured she could’ve climbed to the top of the Empire State Building at least three times on this Stairmaster. Her legs were so tired they burned and her body dripped with sweat. None of it mattered. This insane workout was dulling the pain inside just enough to take the edge off, and that was worth every excruciating step.

Catching sight of herself in the mirror on the wall of the gym, Cordelia grimaced and closed her eyes, gripping the bars to keep her balance. With every step the pain ebbed just slightly, and for that she was thankful. But if she stopped. . . Cordy shuddered. Somehow, she knew it would come rushing back, and this time, she didn’t think she could handle the intensity of her feelings.

But thinking about her feelings only brought her back to the reason for being here. Anya had said she needed to get over it. To forgive Angel and move on, salvaging their relationship and giving Angel unconditional love. But could she do that when she wasn’t sure of his feelings for her?

Forgive him.

Such simple words, yet so difficult. Her mind glommed on to the rhythm of her steps and tortured her with the words, repeating them until she was ready to go insane with it.

As if she were destined for self-annihilation, Cordy’s mind drifted to earlier that week, the morning after Angel had told her his secret. She’d awoken completely refreshed, content, and happy. It had taken a good two minutes for her brain to register two very important facts. One, she was sprawled out on top of Angel with the limp languidness of a wet noodle. Two, Angel was a lying bastard.

It had taken all of her will power to keep from jumping off him as if escaping with her life. She’d forced herself to relax, inching slowly away from him until she breathed a sigh of relief at being free. Dressing in record time, she’d slipped out and found solace in the gym. Every day she’d come back here, seeking relief, but it was only temporary. She’d have to actually talk about this to Angel at some point.

But she hoped it wouldn’t be soon.

“Cordelia?”

Angel’s voice behind her startled her so badly that Cordy stumbled and nearly fell off the Stairmaster. Catching her balance, she found her rhythm again and kept going as if he hadn’t spoken at all.

Not to be deterred, Angel walked around the machine until he was directly in front of her.

“Cordy, you can’t hide from me forever. We need to talk.”

She stared at the wall above his head.

“We can’t keep this up,” he tried again. “The last two days have been ridiculous.”

She agreed but was hell bent on acknowledging it. Finally gracing him with a split-second glance, she looked away again. “So talk.”

Angel seemed taken aback by her order. Every explanation he’d rehearsed had fallen short anyway, and he knew that there wasn’t much more he could say to convince her. Time seemed to be the only advantage he had, but he couldn’t seem to make himself be patient. He could feel her slipping from his grasp and the thought of losing her terrified him.

Watching her as she practically killed herself on the treadmill, Angel reached deep within himself for some way to fix everything. That’s when it hit him. The payback she’d promised him. Maybe he could use that to his advantage.

“We’re going home tomorrow,” he began, and the ‘you’re an idiot’ look she gave him made him falter slightly before regaining his composure. “And I want to ask something of you.”

She met his eyes again, silently telling him to continue as she turned off the Stairmaster and slowed her steps.

“I want to attend our last class together tonight.”

“The kissing class?” she asked in disbelief. Legs feeling like rubber bands, she climbed off the machine and faced him.

Angel nodded.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m not.” The complete seriousness covering his face gave her no doubt as to his sincerity, but she still couldn’t believe he’d even suggested it. In a flash, her frustration at her own inability to decide what to do about this situation flared into anger.

“Have you been slipping a little LSD in your blood lately? I’m can’t stand to be in the same room with you right now. Why would think I’d even consider making out with you? In public? With instructions?”

“Because you owe me,” he said simply, and with that reminder, her shoulders wilted.

“I don’t want to pay you back this way.” Her glare could’ve ignited a glacier.

“Too bad.”

Her gasp of disbelief didn’t phase him.

“You owe me for dragging me on this trip, Cordelia, and I’m demanding my payback. I told you I’d collect before the trip was over, and I mean to do just that.”

Jaw clenched in frustration, she muttered, “Well, why don’t you just demand that I forgive you, then, huh? Isn’t that what you’re after?”

Angel shook his head. “I can’t force you to forgive me, Cordelia. But I can force you to go to this class with me.”

Her chin raised stubbornly. There was no way she could get out of this, but at least she could salvage her pride. “Okay. Whatever. Be the overbearing, stubborn bastard. But don’t expect it to change anything.”

Turning to walk away from him, Cordelia made for the door, but Angel caught her arm and wouldn’t let go.

“This is all,” he added. “If you come tonight, your debt to me will be repaid.”

“Jeez, enough already!” She jerked out of his grip again.

“I’ll be by the room to get you at seven,” he added as she reached the door.

“You’re not coming back?” Surprise colored her tone. At he very least, she thought he’d be hovering in her space all afternoon, rubbing it in.

“Not until tonight.”

Shivering at the look in his eyes, Cordelia escaped. His words held a promise she couldn’t ignore.
Part 6

The butterflies in Cordelia’s stomach had turned into bats. They fluttered, her stomach clenching, as she perched on the edge of the bed in the stateroom and watched in agony as the clock turned over another number. 6:50. Angel wasn’t even late yet.

Cordelia, desperately trying to avoid a repeat of earlier in the week when Angel had caught her topless, had gotten dressed early. She’d been completely ready by 6:30 and had spent the last twenty minutes in torturous, nerve-wracking silence. She’d paced, primped, twitched, and growled, but nothing had made the time pass more quickly.

Dressing in and of itself had been a trying ordeal. Should she go casual or dressed up? Comfortable or sexy? Sexy and comfortable? Did she want to project an approachable air, despite her anger at Angel, or did she want to be aloof? Every one of these questions made her limited supply of clothing seem that much more inadequate. She’d finally settled for a pair of black, hip-hugging pants and a knit shirt that clung to her curves without being trampy. The colors were dark, colors she felt safe and warm in, and they covered her skin enough to make her feel less vulnerable.

Even make-up had become a problem. This was a kissing class, so she didn’t want products that would rub off. She’d tried on every color lipstick and every sheer shade of lip gloss she’d brought with her before finally settling on plain old cherry-flavored Chapstick. Her other make-up was understated as well. Surprisingly, she had felt pleased when she looked in the mirror to survey the final result.

More serious trepidations had made her grooming seem trite in comparison. On one hand, she was glad that at last, there was no mystery to this payback that Angel had demanded. When unknown, the debt hanging over her head had taken on monstrous forms, and her imagination had run away with her. It was a small relief to know that after tonight, her debt would be repaid and she could move on with her life.

But on the other, and significantly more prominent, hand, was a gigantic worry as to how she would survive this payback intact. Had Angel asked for anything more sexual, she could be disgusted by it and tune herself out. Had he asked for anything more platonic, she could gird herself with her best emotional armor and battle through it.

But kissing?

Just thinking about it now made her shiver. Kisses shared with Angel had been few and far between, and most of those had been slight, if anything. But taking her past relationships into consideration, Cordelia knew she was a sucker for a good kiss, her marathon make-out sessions in countless broom closets with Xander would attest to that. And Angel, having had two centuries worth of experience perfecting the art? He would be devastating.

It wasn’t the kissing itself that was the problem; it was the emotions attached to it. Cordelia knew from her previous experience that she was not a woman capable of detaching herself from a prolonged kiss. It was full, whole-hearted immersion or nothing. Her one exception had been the day after the visions, and that had been an anomaly. Loving Angel, despite her current anger toward him, would most likely come to the fore at the first instant his lips touched hers.

In short, she was doomed.

Sighing again, Cordelia strained to listen for sounds outside the door. As she sat, she pessimistically decided that walking barefoot over broken glass would’ve been easier than waiting for Angel to arrive.

A knock sounded outside the door, three short raps that sounded like gunshots and made Cordelia jump to her feet. Taking one last glance in the mirror and straightening the hem of her shirt, she moved to open the door.

Angel stood on the other side looking for all the world like God’s gift to women. Cordelia drank him in, from the still-damp, tousled hair to the gray and black ensemble that showed his muscled form to perfection. The sight of him, combined with an overwhelming flood of nervousness, stole her voice.

Letting her look her fill, Angel tried to calm his nerves, nonexistent until she’d opened the door.

Angel wasn’t usually one for unsteady nerves; generally they were of the strongest steel. The only other times in his life he could remember being nervous were around women. He’d been nervous when Darla had first approached him, despite his cocky demeanor. He’d been visibly nervous and shifty around Buffy, more out of fear that he’d destroy her or ruin her life, especially after Angelus. Keeping that in mind, it stood to reason that he would be nervous with Cordelia, but it still felt wrong.

Shrugging it off, Angel spoke. “Are you ready?”

Cordy nodded. “I just have to get my key.” She turned around and walked back into the room, leaving the door open behind her. Angel crossed the threshold and closed the door softly. As she turned back around, Cordy started at the sight of the closed door.

“I thought we were leaving.”

“We are,” Angel agreed. “But I wanted to make sure we had our game plan straight.”

Her eyebrows raised. “Game plan?”

“Yes.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she asked, suddenly suspicious at the closed look in his eye.

Angel regarded her intensely for a few moments. “This is your payback to me, so our ground rules are going to change a bit from what we’ve followed on the rest of this trip.”

Screw that, Cordelia thought incredulously. “How, exactly?”

Deliberately stepping into her personal bubble, Angel slid his hands into his pockets and looked down on her imperiously. “You’re going to do exactly as I say.”

“Apparently they have lobotomy services for vampires on this ship, because the Angel I know wouldn’t be stupid enough to suggest that.”

A slow smile spread across Angel’s face, one that didn’t warm his eyes in the slightest, eliciting a shiver from Cordy that she was able to keep from showing. “Oh, you’ll do it,” he predicted. “Because otherwise, you still owe me. And you know I’m letting you off easy by demanding this class as my payback.

Easy? Ha! Not likely, Cordy wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead, she shrugged apathetically. “Whatever. Let’s just get the hell out of here and get this ridiculous thing over with.”

“You’ll do everything I say, Cordelia,” Angel said again, coming up behind her and bending his mouth down to her ear. He whispered, “Everything.”

This time, Cordy couldn’t prevent the shiver from visibly appearing.

Hand-in-hand, a pretense Angel had insisted on to Cordelia’s dismay, they walked into the conference room where their “Kissing for Committed Lovers” class was being held. Cordy came to a halt immediately inside the doorway, drinking the room in with big, wary eyes. Beside her, Angel tensed; the atmosphere was a little cozier than they had expected.

All around the room, luxurious, double-sized chaise lounges were scattered at random. The backs were all placed at odd angles, none facing each other. Each chaise was draped with luxurious throws of chenille, silk, and satin, strewn haphazardly. Pillows of the same materials cushioned the backs of the already plump chaises. The result was a riot of color not unlike Cordelia and Angel’s stateroom. There was a subtle difference, however; the sleazy quotient was absent, replaced by an understated elegance.

“Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen,” a solemn voice boomed from across the room.

It took a moment for Cordelia and Angel to locate him; their surroundings being so overpowering to the senses. Nodding his head regally at the couples entering the room, the austere man gestured to the chaises surrounding him.

As she walked closer, Cordelia surreptitiously examined their teacher. Standing well over six feet, shoulders broad and rigid, he seemed to take up the room, soaking up all of the energy into himself. His steel-gray hair was longish, a roman cut that reminded her of marble busts depicting ancient emperors. His suit was a dark charcoal gray, the undershirt a slightly lighter shade. The monochromatic state of his wardrobe seemed to be a perfect complement to his demeanor.

“Come,” he intoned again, brilliant blue eyes piercing. “Choose a place for yourself and your loved one. Make yourselves as comfortable as possible, as our time together will not be easy.”

A few bewildered glances were exchanged between classmates. Kissing wouldn’t be easy? What did this guy have up his sleeve?

Choosing a scarlet-colored chaise for himself and Cordelia, Angel adjusted the pillows so that he could nestle back into the corner. He brought his leg up to rest on the seat cushion along the sloping back of the lounge, placing his other foot on the floor, creating a wide V between his legs. Meaningfully, he looked up at Cordelia.

Cordy took one look at his splayed legs and shook her head minutely before clenching her jaw. She wasn’t going to sit there, nestled against him so intimately, while they received instructions on proper make-out techniques. She’d just sit right here on the corner and—

“Cordelia,” Angel said softly, his tone warning, and Cordelia sighed, her shoulders wilting. Her hadn’t said it, but she knew he was reminding her of their deal. His way or no way.

Muttering unintelligibly, Cordy sat down and leaned against him reluctantly. Angel brought his arms around her and rested his hands on her hips and stomach, and Cordelia felt branded by the cool touch. Angel was staking his claim, and she didn’t like it at all. It created one more crack in her armor.

“Now that you are all settled,” the instructor began, “I should like to introduce myself.”

He raised himself slightly higher, his spine stiffening as he addressed them. “I am Dr. Cornelius Talbot, and I will be your guide today. I have been schooled in psychology at several prestigious schools, and I currently write academic articles on the effects of physical touch in relationships. I hope that my qualifications will reassure you.”

Several people looked at each other in disbelief, a few smirks exchanged. No one had expected such a formal atmosphere in a class like this.

The surreptitious glances didn’t seem to faze Dr. Talbot. “For many of you, this will be your last instructional opportunity on this voyage. Therefore, it is my hope that you will seek to gain as much from the experience as possible.”

A slight twitter reverberated throughout the room as everyone let their minds flow freely into the gutter. As if caught off guard by their humor, the instructor gave a half-smile and shook his head.

“No, ladies and gentlemen, what you’re thinking is not what I was alluding to.”

He turned to face the first couple on his right, and looked at them meaningfully, then proceeded to move around the room to each couple as he spoke.

“We are here today for a reason much more important than the improvement of foreplay. Our goal in this session will be to strengthen our relationships, not to get laid.”

A few eyebrows raised, surprised at the common vulgarity coming from such a cultured mouth.

“Our task at hand is to look at kissing as an integral part of a meaningful romantic relationship. To even, I would suggest, go beyond the romantic and to the elemental.”

His words were an admonishment of sorts, his stare intense, and a hush fell over the room. It was as if they were on the cusp of learning something priceless, something that each couple had missed up to this point. For Angel and Cordelia, in their pseudo-relationship, curiosity warred with the pressure of maintaining an believable facade.

“We can all agree that when a relationship is going well, kisses are in abundance. They fuel our passion, heighten our pleasure, increase the level of intimacy.” Dr. Talbot was directing his speech at the couple nearest Cordelia and Angel, and Cordy’s butterflies returned with a vengeance as she realized that they’d be the next subjects for his scrutiny.

His next words drilled into their souls with amazing accuracy. “But kisses, as pleasurable as they are, are equally important when partners are at odds with each other. In fact, it can even be argued that kissing, and physical intimacy in general, is even more important during difficult times. It reminds us of the bond we share with our partner and how important physical touch is to that bond.”

Dr. Talbot moved slightly, turning his eyes on Cordy and Angel. He fell silent for a moment and studied them, cocking his head slightly and squinting as if he detected some hint of charade in them. Squirming slightly, Cordy squeezed Angel’s hand without thought.

“It’s easy to kiss each other when passion is high or when one’s mood is pleasant, but it takes a special talent to be able to kiss with more somber emotion.” The doctor’s stare was penetrating, and what was merely seconds, Cordy felt as though she’d spent eons under his gaze, like a squirming moth on a pin. He seemed to peel her back with his eyes, layer by layer, until her greatest fears were exposed.

“When kissing, the most basic of intimate physical touches, is absent from our relationships, it is a sign of trouble that should not be ignored. That is why we will be focusing on the serious side of kissing today. This will not be a make-out session designed as foreplay. It will be a serious study and practice of kissing with serious emotion.”

Relief flooded Cordelia when he turned away.

Gesturing widely to the entire group, he added, “Let us begin.”

Beside Cordelia, Angel relaxed as everyone in the room shifted towards his or her partner. Dr. Talbot had been staring at Cordy but Angel had felt as though he’d been dissecting him just as thoroughly. It was unnerving how he’d looked at them so intently and knowledgeably, as if he’d guessed all their secrets and found them wanting.

“Let’s begin with something easy, shall we?” For the first time, Dr. Talbot smiled, and Cordelia was amazed at the transformation of his face. It lit up, his smile infectious, and everyone in the room visibly relaxed.

“Our first kiss will be a hello of sorts, but this is the greeting you give when you’ve just come home from a very long day’s work. You’re tired, you’re cranky, you’re miserable, and the last thing you want to do is be bothered with anything. You’ve just stepped into the house and your partner is already at home. You see him or her and are overcome with the need to show them how you feel, but you cannot find the words. Distractions abound around you, calling you both away, but you kiss your partner hello, using that contact to show them all of your emotions.”

Everyone looked around, a bit mystified.

Dr. Talbot smiled. “I anticipated that you might be confused, so I will demonstrate. Felicia?”

To his left, an older woman stood gracefully from an overstuffed chair. She was day to his night, clothed entirely in white, her snowy gray hair brushing her shoulders. Soft brown eyes looked out upon the room, her easy smile brightening the room.

“This is my wife, Felicia,” Dr. Talbot introduced. “Watch closely. You will be able to get some idea of the emotion I was discussing.”

With that, Dr. Talbot turned to his wife, slid one arm around her waist, and fitted his body to hers. He cupped her face in one hand and his lips descended, a quick, hard kiss.

As he watched, Angel was amazed to discover that he could see every emotion Dr. Talbot had mentioned as the kiss unfolded. Frustration, misery, and weariness tempered by gratitude for the sight and touch of a loved one. The kiss was short, and Dr. Talbot released Felicia, turning back to the room.

Smiles spread throughout the room as understanding dawned, and Dr. Talbot nodded. “All too often, kisses between lovers are only passionate. They are bedroom kisses, often the only ones that have meaning. Other kisses shared between lovers are perfunctory, a duty to be performed. In this class, we seek to move beyond that obstacle and enhance our bonds with each other. Turn to your partner, and recreate this kiss for yourselves.”

Cordy swallowed, wide-eyed. This was only the first kiss? Of how many?

She didn’t have time to estimate the number. Angel was turning, pushing her hips so that she slid across the silky surface of the cushion and turned sideways. Reaching out to cup her jaw, Angel turned her face to his and stared at her for a brief, intense second before his lips descended on hers.

Stiffening, Cordelia kept her hands in her lap, fists tightly clenched. Angel’s kiss was everything it was required to be, a mixture of frustration and weariness that tugged at Cordelia’s heart, making her want to lean into him and deepen it. Steeling herself against those softer feelings that threatened her control, she tried to maintain a distance, her mouth barely open, her body out of reach. She worked to make sure that it looked like she was kissing him, a participant, albeit a timid one. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself and get individual instruction from their teacher.

Sensing her reluctance, Angel felt his stomach tighten with apprehension. Cordelia usually softened rapidly under his touches, as rare as they were, and he counted on physical contact being his ace-in-the-hole where she was concerned. Often, it took no more than a brush of his fingers to her arm to make her warm up to him, but not this time. He could literally feel the walls she’d erected between them, vibrating with the intensity of a high-voltage fence, and it was all his fault.

But, oh, God, the taste of her; a sweet hint of cherries mixed with the creamy, warm honey of Cordelia herself. He couldn’t get enough. Slowing down, Angel began to kiss her more lightly, softly, desperately needing to savor this chance to be so close to the woman he loved. She was ambrosia, lips warm and moist, inviting despite her reluctant posture, and Angel was helpless against her, addicted.

When Angel’s kisses softened, his tongue darting out to move against the closed seam of her lips, Cordelia’s mission to maintain her defenses was attacked yet again. His kisses turned even lighter, feathery against her mouth, taking on a helpless quality as he pulled away, turning his head as if to stop, only to move back quickly to taste her just one more time. Every touch was lighter than the one before it, brief swipes of his cool tongue across her lips, a barely brushing contact that made her whole body tingle.

He made her feel as though she provided an elixir that would cure the misery and weariness he was trying to be rid of, and sensing how much he needed her, Cordy found it even harder to maintain emotional distance. Clenching her fists even more tightly, nails digging half-moons into her palms, Cordelia desperately tried to stand against the tidal wave of Angel’s seduction.

Damn it, he was always doing this to her! Okay, so maybe not the kissing, but definitely the confusing non-verbal communication. Cryptic guy, making with the oh-so-intense touches and stares that confused her more than anything she’d ever faced. And now? Was this kiss for real? Was he really trying to tell her how much he cared about her, or was he just playing it up for their audience? Were these drugging, mind-numbing kisses heartfelt or contrived?

It didn’t seem to matter. Incommunicative jerk or not, Angel was an expert at turning Cordelia’s knees to jelly.

Just as she felt her resolve weakening irrevocably, the kiss drew to an impossibly slow finish, his mouth now downy soft against hers. Leaning back, Angel cupped her face in his hands, and she could feel the scorching heat of his gaze on her face.

“Cordelia.” Her name was a whisper, a breath of cool air on her cheek as he leaned forward and touched his forehead to hers. “Cordelia, please. Look at me.”

While every angry cell in Cordelia’s body screamed for her to deny him, she couldn’t help herself and raised her eyes to meet his as he backed away slightly. His eyes held a mystery she still couldn’t unlock, something pure and deep and molten, something she’d never seen before so blatantly directed at her. Searching for it, she tried to draw it out of him, tried to divine it’s meaning, but it escaped her.

In that moment of bitter struggle to find the key to the secrets hidden in Angel’s unfathomable eyes, Cordelia felt something inside her snap. Bitterness and anger swept through her as she realized that he was always holding back from her. Always denying her the secret to unlocking his innermost thoughts, always holding her at arm’s length. Deep down, she knew that the problem lay with Angel and his inherent inability to communicate verbally like normal people, but it didn’t stop her from feeling like he was playing her, and worse yet, that he knew it and was using these kisses to melt her defenses.

He was trying to get her buttered up so that she’d forgive him, just like she always did.

Narrowing her eyes, Cordelia pulled away from him with quick force, shaking her head minutely as her jaw clenched. She was not going to let him manipulate her into filling in the blanks herself this time. Every damn time Angel had something important to say, he’d start the sentence, waiting for her to finish it. She couldn’t count the number of times he would say, “Cordy, I…I…” and stammer off into nothingness, his eyes pleading for her to understand. And every time, Cordy would feel her the edges of her heart soften toward him and she’d fill in that blank with whatever she’d been needing to hear from him. She’d take his loaded silence and substitute an “I’m sorry, Cordy” or “I never meant to hurt you, Cordy” or her usual favorite, “I was a big fat dumbass, Cordy, and I hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Well this time, Cordelia Chase was not going to be so easy to manipulate. This immature man-pire needed to finish his own damn sentences for once.

Angel saw the barely banked coals of Cordelia’s fury and swallowed hard. He knew going into this that it would be difficult to walk a fine line between charade and reality, and that worse yet, he wouldn’t really be able to talk to her. But didn’t actions speak a thousand words? And for him, more like 100,000 words? Cordy would understand. She had to. Hadn’t she every time before this?

Deciding to go for broke, Angel gripped her shoulders and whispered, “Cordy, just give this a chance, please? You know I’m not good with words, and I need to show you . . . I need you to know. . .” His eyes pleaded with her to comprehend what he couldn’t begin to say.

“No,” she interrupted, eyes flashing. “You aren’t going to do this to me again, Angel. Say the words or be quiet!”

Trying again, Angel raised a hand to stroke her face softly, but Cordy jerked away from him, the touch tingling despite her anger. “No!” she hissed. “Go ahead and put your lame-ass moves on me because we have to for this stupid class, but I’m not going to fall for it. You’re manipulating me, and I’m not going to let you get away with it.”

A tiny sound tinkled off to her left and Cordelia looked, startled, at the incongruous sight of Dr. Talbot ringing a crystal bell. He smiled, setting it down on a small table near his hip, and clapped his hands together. Cordelia spun away from Angel, crossing her arms over her chest and staring at Dr. Talbot.

As if drawn in by her negative energy, Dr. Talbot turned and looked directly at Cordelia, a frown forming on his face.

“Excellent work, ladies and gentlemen, for your first foray into the world of communication through kissing. However, let us remember that we are here to improve our relationships, not ruin them. Let’s leave our disagreements outside for today, shall we?” His eyebrow raised to punctuate this last statement, and Cordelia felt a sliver of guilt creep into her mind, duly chastised. Okay, so she was being pretty close-minded, but Angel was being a Class A jerk right now, so she felt justified.

Dr. Talbot’s frown smoothed out as his eyes swept over the rest of the room.

“And some of you,” he added, “moved beyond the assignment and back into the bedroom.” He stared meaningfully at a few overly-flushed couples in the room whose clothing was slightly more rumpled than was decorous for the occasion. Dr. Talbot’s stern expression was undermined by the twinkle in his eye, and when the chastised couples ducked their heads in good-natured shame, he shook his head in the way of an indulgent schoolmaster and moved on.

“Our next kissing assignment will be one of the most difficult. I gave you an easier one with which to warm up, but I believe that it is important, once we are familiar with this therapeutic technique, that we tackle the most challenging assignments first.”

Moving across the room, Dr. Talbot clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing. “I have interviewed hundreds of couples in my years of relationship therapy, and I have discovered that there is one time when all couples have difficulty showing affection through kissing. Couples find that when they are angry with one another, they cease physical contact, and kissing is the first thing to go.”

“Hello, Captain Obvious,” Cordelia muttered.

Dr. Talbot spun around and looked sternly in her direction, and Cordelia’s eyes darted away, her face flushing. Thankfully, the doctor continued without commenting on her poor behavior. He continued his explanation, but Cordelia’s mortification stayed with her so that she missed most of it. The end of his little speech caught her attention.

“When you begin the kiss, let one partner take over and express his or her anger thorough it. Once that partner takes control, the other should allow them to continue in that way until the control is relinquished. In addition, an angry kiss is not biting, lest any of you get ideas. I wish for no blood to be drawn. But much of anger involves hurt, pain, and betrayal, and those are the emotions that you should be exploring. You’re telling your partner that you still love them, but they’ve cut you deeply and you don’t know how to express it through words.” He stepped back, raising his arms to them. “Begin!”

Later, Cordelia would wonder what came over her in that instant. The word “control” had jumped out at her like manna from heaven as she realized that for once, she could hold the reins in this relationship. Spinning around in her seat, she slid one foot off onto the floor and half stood, half knelt, between Angel’s outspread legs. He looked up at her, surprised, as she grabbed his face between her hands and lowered her lips swiftly to his.

Angel was overcome by the intensity of her kisses. Grasping her waist, Angel held tight while Cordelia took complete control, her mouth slanting hard over his, her tongue coming in to tangle with his in a game of tag that left him reeling. Despite the fact that Dr. Talbot had said no biting, Cordelia still nipped at him, hard enough to sting without drawing blood, their teeth clashing.

Like the tide sweeping out to sea, Cordelia began to feel her anger ebb away in that kiss. With each aggressive movement of her mouth against his, some of the pain swept away, some of the helplessness left, and Cordy realized just how Angel felt when he couldn’t express his deepest emotions. No words were possible to express what she was feeling when she kissed him like this. Oh, he knew she was angry. There was no doubt about that; her actions for the past few days were impossible to ignore. But there was an element of the mystical about this kiss, as if when her lips touched his, they were connected on a deeper level that she’d somehow missed before. It suddenly struck her that she’d been demanding that they communicate her way, and now, she was being forced to communicate his way.

And damn it, did she have a lot to say to him.

After a minute or two of Cordelia’s dominance, Angel began to get restless, raising his hands to hold her face and take control of the kiss back. Growling at him, Cordy pushed his hands away and moved closer, both knees resting on the seat now as she sank down and brought them more to eye level. Slowing down, Cordelia was no less dominant, pulling his lower lip into her mouth and biting it, this time drawing blood. Angel growled at the surge of lust that overcame him.

Pulling away slightly, Cordelia mumbled against his lips. “Perv. You would like that, wouldn’t you?”

Angel’s answering growl was somehow playful, in that instant, Cordelia’s anger released its choke-hold on her heart. She finally gentled the kiss, leaning into him and wrapping her arms around his neck, molding her soft curves to his solid frame. Not able to help himself, Angel touched his fingers to her face, reverence stealing over him as he recognized the beginning of the end of her anger toward him. Cradling her face in his hands, thumbs sweeping over her cheeks, he groaned as he found the wetness of her tears there. He released her, ending the kiss.

“You’re crying,” he whispered, his eyes full of pain.

Cordy looked surprised. “I am?”

He nodded. “I knew you were angry at me, but damn it, Cordelia.”

She bit her lip, tears flooding her eyes as she looked away. “You hurt me more than I can say, Angel.”

“I’m so sorry I slept with her, baby,” the endearment slipped out before he could stop it. “I can’t tell you how much.”

“It’s not that!” she whispered, her eyes searching his. “I mean, I hate that you did, but I hate more that you lied to me. About Darla, about how she hurt you, about your curse being fixed. You shut me out at a time when I needed to be your best friend just as much as you needed to have one.”

Angel wanted to say something more, in fact, he’d opened his mouth to do just that, but Dr. Talbot’s little bell tinkled again. Lowering her eyes, Cordy turned away from him, but when Angel reached for her hand to clasp it in his, she didn’t pull away.

Dr. Talbot surveyed his pupils intensely. “I see that this experience was difficult for some of you, but I think you might agree that it was therapeutic.”

Cordelia couldn’t help but agree. The blinding rage she’d felt only minutes before was fading, purged with the forceful kisses she’d given. What was more important was that Angel, with his expertise in non-verbal communication, probably understood her thoughts better through the kiss she’d given him than he ever would’ve by words she could’ve spoken.

Continuing, Dr. Talbot added, “After anger, the guilty party generally offers an apology that is accepted by the offended party. Use these next few minutes to express that apology and acceptance of it.”

The look that Angel gave her was intense enough to melt steel, and Cordy felt a wave of longing wash over her. She wanted this to be over so badly. She wanted the pain to go away, wanted him to—

Angel’s lips descended on hers.

–wanted him to kiss her. Oh, god, his kisses were so good. Aggression, anger, pain, betrayal, hurt: all were gone, replaced by an apology that she could literally feel passing from his lips to hers. With every gentle glide of his tongue, she felt him saying he was sorry, so deeply and utterly remorseful about lying and shutting her out. She could taste his pain, taste his need for her forgiveness, taste the salt of her tears as she delved so deeply into his guilt over hurting her.

Pulling her closer, Angel splayed his hands over her back, cupping her shoulders and pulling her chest into his, desperately needing to hold her close to him. His mouth was gentle yet relentless, each movement tender as he begged her without words to forgive him, to love him, to need him. And as the kiss moved on, her movements, every single one of them, spoke of forgiveness. Light touches, designed to comfort him, to soothe him, welled up in Cordelia until she couldn’t help but play them out. Her fingers ran through the back of his hair, massaged the back of his neck, lightly fluttered over his cheek, stroked down his chest, as she returned the kiss and accepted the apology that he so freely offered to her.

Separating at the sound of Dr. Talbot’s bell, Angel and Cordelia couldn’t manage to unlock their eyes from each other. Angel couldn’t believe that Cordelia had forgiven him. Cordy couldn’t believe that her anger was gone and that Angel’s cryptic behavior actually made sense.

The air in the room was thick with emotion. Other couples around the room were crying softly, hiccups and hitches in breathing audible. It seemed that Dr. Talbot’s methods had the power to break them down into their most elemental beings, until they were Adam and Eve facing their first real struggles all alone.

This time, Dr. Talbot’s powerful voice was soft. “I know that some of you feel emotionally drained at this point, but I would ask that you not shut down completely until we come full circle. This session is meant to be a healing one, and we have barely begun to treat the wounds we have opened. We have one more kiss, designed to bring you closer to your partner.”

Cordelia leaned forward, resting her forehead on Angel’s shoulder. Wrapping his arms tightly around her, Angel kissed her hair lightly.

“An apology,” Dr. Talbot continued, “Would not be complete without an affirmation of the love that brought you together in the first place. This, ladies and gentlemen,” he said with a smile, “is the proper time to inject passion into your kiss. You have faced tribulation and been made stronger. The bonds that tie you together have been reinforced. Now is the time to show your partner how much you care.”

Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Cordelia’s eyes searched Angel’s for one last clue to the sincerity of his feelings. When their lips had been touching, she’d felt so certain of his apology, so sure of the depths of his feeling for her, but now, looking at those eyes that seemed to shift and fade as shadows swirled in their depths, she was uncertain. He’d never actually said he loved her, and despite all of his kisses, she still didn’t know. Biting her lip and raising her hand to cup his jaw, she implored him silently to put his feelings into words.

Angel’s smile was barely a hint of a curve to his lips, but the warmth that flooded his gaze was unmistakable. Leaning in, he gently, reverently touched his lips to hers in a kiss that spoke volumes. But he didn’t stop there. His mouth brushed her cheek, her nose, her forehead, her jaw, and finally, when she felt an intake of breath against her ear, her heart slowed to a skittering halt.

“I’m in love with you, Cordelia,” he whispered, cool breath releasing with the words, fluttering against her face as she melted in his arms.

“No,” she whispered against his cheek, so badly needing his words to be truthful, yet fearing that somehow they were not. “You don’t mean it, Angel. You can’t.”

Her whole body held it’s breath as she waited for the reassurance she so desperately needed. Angel pushed her away far enough so that he could look into her eyes.

“I do, Cordy,” he said solemnly. “I love you. Forever.”

She could see it, all of it, written all over his face. The intensity of his stare, the stubborn set of his jaw, the tenderness in his touch and the sincere curve of his smile. She touched his face reverently, amazed that she could actually understand him. Know him.

Angel was still desperate to prove himself, needing to show her in his own way how much he loved her. Pulling her closer, he kissed her so slowly, so thoroughly, that Cordelia melted by degrees in his arms until she was boneless against him. Everywhere his hands touched, she felt the strength of his love and was reassured by it. Tongue caressing every inch of her mouth, he searched her out, drew Cordelia’s very soul to the surface and bathed it in his love until she felt as though she would be scorched with its passion.

The bell tinkled again as if through a haze, and they pulled apart, Cordelia’s breath coming in short pants as she stared into eyes that were finally fathomable. Finally understandable. Finally open.

Epilogue

One Month Later

“Ooo, Angel, I hate you!” Cordelia muttered, glowering at him with her arms crossed.

They were standing in the lobby of the hotel, Angel leaning against the counter. It had been four blissful weeks since their cruise and subsequent emotional awakening, but that didn’t mean they’d changed into different people. Cordelia was still Cordelia, feistiness and all.

“Really.” His voice was dry. “Didn’t sound like you hated me last night,” he added with a smirk.

God, he loved to watch Cordelia try to talk him into something. Half the fun was watching her changing emotions as she glowered, flirted, cried, or his very favorite, pouted with those full, luscious lips of hers. Just like she was doing right now.

Cordy blushed. “Okay, so I don’t hate you hate you. But you’re still being a stubborn, pig-headed dumbass.”

Angel shrugged. “Tough shit. I’m still not gonna do it.”

“Please, Angel?” Cordy walked up to him and placed her arms around his waist, looking up at him with wide eyes fringed by fluttering eyelashes. “I’ll make it worth your while,” she said, rubbing against him suggestively.

Not able to resist, Angel took her unspoken offer and kissed her thoroughly, so thoroughly in fact that Cordelia looked up at him dazedly when he pulled away.

“Okay,” he finally said, sighing, trying to hide his smile.

“Okay, what?” she asked, blinking in confusion, her eyes still slightly unfocused.

Angel grinned at her. “Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll take this class with you or whatever the hell it is.”

One of Cordy’s signature smiles spread across her face and her eyes lit up. She squealed, crushing him in a bear hug and peppering his face with kisses. “You’ll love it, Angel. It’ll be so cool! I’m going to go sign us up right now!”

“Wait!” Angel grabbed her arm when she would’ve run off. “I really don’t want to do this, Cordy, so you’re going to owe me again.”

Cordelia groaned. “Owe you? As in another payback?”

Angel nodded, an evil glint in his eye. “Yup.”

Rolling her eyes, Cordy sighed and shrugged. “Whatever. But you said yes, so you can’t back out now!” With that, she was gone, skipping out of the room with excitement.

It occurred to Angel as Cordelia disappeared around the corner that he hadn’t actually figured out what he’d gotten himself into. Feeling a strange sense of deja vu, Angel called out, “What are you signing us up for?”

Cordy popped her head back around the corner of the office. “Anya wants us to take a ballroom dancing class with her and Xander! Won’t that be great?” She disappeared again.

It was Angel’s turn to roll his eyes. He loved the girl, but damn it. Why the hell did he have to be such a sucker? This was going to be hell.

After a moment’s pity party, a smile grew on Angel’s face. At least he’d be getting something out of it, and Angel planned to go all out. Last time had worked out so well, he planned to put his imagination to good use when he demanded his payment.

This time, the payback would be even sweeter.


…THE END…


 

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