The Cost of Surrender


AUTHOR: CORDELIA’S DESTINY (aka JULIE)
SUMMARY: Four friends try their best to deal with love and life.
RATING: R
POSTED: Aug 2003
CATEGORY: Angst / Challenge Fic (Califi)
CONTENT/PAIRING: C/A, B/S, B/A, C/S
WARNINGS: None listed.
FICPIC CREDIT: CALIFI
AUTHOR NOTES: Based on a challenge from Califi. It’s too lengthy and too spoilery to include here, but if you really want to check it out, look at the Hiatus Challenge thread, Califi’s Challenge #2.


Prologue

Surrender is a funny thing.

It comes as a last resort, only after all other options have been tried and have failed miserably and the only two choices left are that or death. At first glance, death looks pretty appealing. Who wants to let your enemy win, to gloat and sneer, to breathe the putrid hot breath of superiority in your face as you admit defeat? Death would let you get the last laugh, right? The most graphic, poetic display of flipping the proverbial bird?

Maybe not.

When it comes right down to it, death just leaves your loved ones to pick up the pieces of the war you’ve fought, to struggle to survive without your protection. Death may let you pee on your enemy’s victory parade, but it won’t do anything to alleviate the suffering of those most important to you. The loss of your presence, your protection, only serves to exacerbate their anguish and destroy all you fought to protect.

Choosing death over surrender at the end of war is the choice of cowards and arrogant narcissists who think they’re making the ultimate statement, one that will assure them posthumous victory emotionally, if not physically.

Death is a cop out.

Surrender wears the veneer of cowardice, but when those layers are peeled back, true strength of character resides underneath. Surrender forces you to face your own demons and own up to your own mistakes, and continue to be the shield for your family and friends. Surrender keeps you alive to find a way to revolt and take back what’s rightfully yours.

But surrender, while the more valiant option, is never easy. It may give you the opportunity to fight again someday, but it doesn’t make any promises of happiness. In fact, it guarantees a life of backward glances, “what ifs” and guilt. It is a blunt, rusty knife that twists in your gut and scrambles your insides until you can’t figure out which way to turn. It demands the forfeit of your very essence, and it may mean that you have to make so many sacrifices along with your freedom that any one of them could be considered the ultimate one.

It may mean that you have to lose your closest friends to their addictions, whether they be celebrity, power, science, or knowledge, all in the name of protecting their souls and futures.

It may mean that you have to watch your son lose all memory of his life with you, no matter how painful, and give him a family that he’s always wanted.

It may mean that you have to stand by helplessly as your best friend lies in a coma, oblivious to the pain and havoc that her possessed body caused you, stifling the love for her that grew inside of you until it withers and dies from neglect and despair.

It may mean that you have to protect a woman you once loved as she waxes lyrical about metaphoric cookie dough and acknowledge that your feelings for her may be the only real thing you have left, the only chance for a future with any measure of happiness.

It may mean that you have to become the man you’ve always hated more than your demon, the man that makes a mockery of the soul you’ve strived so hard to keep, the man that takes you further and further away from promised redemption and humanity with each compromise, the footsteps echoing like gunshots in your brain. You may not have sold your soul to the devil, but you feel like you might as well have.

Surrender is the only righteous option, but your soul won’t come away unscathed. You sacrifice your very being and are changed forever. Your surrender begins to look like a terrible mistake as it is reflected in the mirror of time. As your despair grows, it seems like nothing, no one, will change you back. . .

Part 1

The annoying buzz of the intercom echoed in the tomb that was Angel’s office. He grunted, staring at the phone as if it would bite him, then grudgingly pressed the button that connected him to the secretary he didn’t think he needed.

“Yes?” he said, his tone caustic.

“Mr. Wyndam-Price is here to see you, sir.”

Wesley. Well, at least someone he could tolerate was here for once. If he had to look one more time at the evilly angelic face of that Lilah wanna be one more time, he thought he might throw up. At least Wesley’s eccentricities were familiar.

“Send him in,” he said, immediately severing the connection and turning to face the evening sky out his window.

On the other side of the double doors, the electronic filter of Angel’s terse reply couldn’t hide the vampire’s foul mood, worrying Wesley as he stood next to the secretary’s desk. He’d come to convey some very important information and it was important that Angel was open and receptive to it.

Wesley sighed, knowing that getting an open and receptive Angel these days was like asking for a Popsicle not to melt in July weather. The vampire had severely regressed to a state that was reminiscent of Darla’s unfortunate return a few years ago. Then, he’d managed to pull out of his misery, although it had taken everyone a long time to trust him again. Wesley doubted that kind of turnaround was on the horizon this time, considering how the light of Angel’s life was currently oblivious a few floors below in a hospital bed.

The efficient woman in front of him was used to Angel’s behavior, not reacting to the darkness in her boss’s voice any more. “You can go right on in, Mr. Wyndam-Price.”

She smiled coyly up at him, batting her eyelashes and arching her back so that her breasts pressed provocatively against the low neckline of her suit.

Wesley stifled the urge to roll his eyes. He’d never been one to attract women in his younger days, but it had amazed him how a bad mood and a little bit of stubble made women salivate and throw themselves at him. It wasn’t any wonder; just look at Angel. He may not have the stubble, but his bad mood was enough to make up for it and then some. It seemed that the darker Angel was, the more women found him irresistible.

Pushing through the double doors to Angel’s office, Wesley scanned the darkened room for his employer. He had reflected many times since they’d taken over Wolfram & Hart on the irony of the situation. Originally, Angel had been the boss. Then he went into his “beige” period and lost it, running to Darla and firing them. When he’d come back, Wesley became the boss. Then Wesley lost it, abducting Connor and unleashing hell on earth. Then Angel took over Wolfram & Hart and hired Wesley, becoming the boss again. Now, it appeared that Angel was regressing back to some serious “beige” period characteristics, and Wesley wondered if a change of management wasn’t in their future once more.

He, for one, wouldn’t be at all upset if they imploded the evil law firm and got the hell outta Dodge, bringing what was left of their little family back to some sense of normalcy. But for now, the vampire still signed the checks and Wesley remained to act as his conscience. It was becoming more and more obvious that Angel was having trouble listening to his own.

“What do you want, Wesley?” Angel said, not being able to stop the coldness of his words. He didn’t want to alienate the closest friend he had left, but he couldn’t seem to keep from being a bastard to anyone that cared about him.

Wesley ignored the icy tone, recognizing the desperation underlying the words. He walked wordlessly over to the chair in front of Angel’s desk and sat down, reaching out to flick on the light in front of him, bathing the room in a soft glow. Angel swiveled around in the big leather chair, his empty eyes resting on Wesley’s.

The Englishman decided that bluntness was probably the best course of action. “I found a patch for your curse.”

Angel raised an eyebrow. “A what?”

“A patch. Something to sew up the loopholes.”

Angel regarded him solidly, disdain now permeating his features. “I don’t think happiness is going to be a problem for me, Wesley,” Angel said.

Wesley sat back, unruffled by the vampire’s short temper. “It’s not happiness that’s a problem, Angel. We may run Wolfram & Hart, but we can’t control all of its employees or clients. And the firm is not our only enemy.”

“I am aware of that,” Angel said, growling as he clenched his teeth, his patience rapidly disappearing at this seemingly useless conversation.

“The problem with your curse is that it allows the possibility of your soul being removed. While happiness has, so far, been the only thing to separate it from your body, it is definitely not the only thing that can.”

Wesley stood and walked to the side of Angel’s desk, facing the window and crossing his arms.

“I have no doubt that someone will again try to remove your soul, Angel. I don’t know who or when, but the possibility of unleashing Angelus and attempting to harness his power is just too tempting for some.” He paused, wanting to continue but dreading Angel’s reaction. “And this time I’m not so sure that you’d try to stop them.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Angel exploded, vaulting out of the chair and shoving his face into Wesley’s.

The former watcher remained calm. “It’s no secret, at least to me, that you’re in a bad way, Angel. Losing . . . someone so close to you has obviously taken its toll. I don’t blame you for wanting to escape the pain.” Even Wesley knew better than to mention Cordelia’s name in Angel’s presence.

The fire of Angel’s temper died as quickly as it rose and he sank back down into the soft leather of his chair. He may not be angry anymore, but he still didn’t want to talk about Cordelia. Back to the matter at hand.

“So this ‘patch’ would make my soul inseparable from my body?”

Wesley turned back to face him. “Yes, except in death. But then you wouldn’t need your soul, anyway.”

Angel actually smiled slightly at Wesley’s lame comment. Of course he wouldn’t need his soul if he were dust. His glower returned as he realized that he’d smiled. He didn’t deserve to smile.

“Fine. Do it,” he said, turning his gaze back to the window and the skyline beyond it.

“Very well,” Wesley said, reaching into his pocket for a piece of paper.

He chanted seven Latin words, Angel’s gaze whipping to his face at the sound of his voice. The vampire gasped, a glow shining in his eyes as he clutched his chest. It was over almost as abruptly as it began, and Wesley placed the paper back in his pocket.

Dazed, Angel stared at Wesley. He had no doubt that something had occurred, but despite the pain, he didn’t feel anything different. He still felt desperation clawing at him, hopelessness saturating his very being. He’d always thought that having a permanent soul would make him feel more secure. If anything, he felt more uncertain than ever.

“That’s it?” he asked in disbelief.

“Yes,” Wesley said simply. “Let me know if you have any problems, any pain or symptoms that could be side effects.”

“Yeah, okay,” Angel replied automatically, still in shock.

Wesley glanced at his watch. “I have a meeting with my staff in ten minutes. I’ll see you later, Angel,” he said, then turned and left the room.

Angel just stared after him, his gaze resting on the closed doors for many minutes after Wesley’s departure.

As the shock wore off, Angel reflected on how this might have an impact on his life. It was definitely true that having a permanent soul did make some things better. Life may never be as good as it once was, but he did have some options.

Maybe it was time to take matters into his own hands and stop expecting the sacrifices he’d made to pay dividends.

Before he could change his mind, Angel reached for the phone on his desk and dialed a number from memory. The other end rang, and Angel tensed.

At the greeting from the other end, Angel’s deep voice filled the room. “Hey, Buffy. I have some really good news.”

***

Wolfram & Hart
Subterranean Level Two
Room 46

Cordelia’s first sensation upon waking was the feel of something smooth and cool brushing over the nail of her third finger on her right hand. It dragged from the base of her nail to the tip, then moved over a fraction of an inch, and repeated. She felt the sensation move from her third finger to her fourth. A warm hand grasped hers gently, holding her finger out and away from the others as the cool substance was spread over her nail.

Drowsily, she opened her eyes to mere slits, peering through her eyelashes at the person at her bedside. It was a thin woman in a nurses uniform, her pretty face a study in concentration as she dipped the brush back into some light pink nail polish and withdrew it, applying the reloaded brush to Cordelia’s nail. The woman’s red hair was pulled back into a sensible ponytail at the nape of her neck, one tendril floating down to her cheek. She blew on it once, and it floated up, only to settle back to the exact place on her skin where it had been annoying her.

Something about the scene wasn’t right, but Cordelia couldn’t pinpoint it. Her mind was too fuzzy to concentrate, and she didn’t have the energy to chase her random wonderings down and string them together into coherent thought. She was just about to drift off to sleep again when another person entered the room. It was a doctor this time, her stethoscope and uniform setting her apart from the RN at Cordelia’s beside.

The nurse looked up and smiled, setting Cordelia’s hand back on the mattress and screwing the cap back onto the nail polish.

“Dr. Walters! How nice to see you,” the nurse greeted, her face wreathed in a smile.

Dr. Walters smiled back. “Hello, Cyndi. You’re always so cheerful.” She looked over at Cordelia, noting the fact that the young woman’s color looked much better. Walking over the bed, Dr. Walter’s grabbed Cordelia’s chart, making notations as she flipped the pages.

“Has she shown any signs of waking, Cyndi?”

“No, ma’am,” Cyndi answered, her face grave. “We’ve made certain that she’s stable, but we’ve made every effort to keep her coma intact as the Partners have requested.”

Cordelia gasped inwardly at this response, her lucidity returning as the conversation began to make sense. Wolfram & Hart had her? In a COMA? It was very difficult to remain completely still. Her fingers itched to reach up and squeeze the life out of the women in front of her, but she knew she didn’t have the strength.

Dr. Walter’s voice interrupted her raging thoughts. “And the levitation?”

“Unpredictable as always. It seems that she’s still very much a seer, but we have no way of knowing what she sees, or any way of predicting when the visions will happen.”

Frowning, Dr. Walter’s replaced the clipboard on the end of Cordelia’s bed. She glanced at her watch. “Her next dose of meds are in thirty minutes. Make sure that you aren’t late. Without them, she would have woken weeks ago. We can’t take the chance that our efforts will be thwarted. The Partners are adamant that she remain inactive.”

Cyndi nodded vigorously, her ponytail bouncing. “Of course, Dr. Walters. I was just going to prepare them now.” She stood, pushing the chair against the wall and following the doctor out of the room. The door closed softly behind her, leaving Cordelia in the soft glow of light emanating from one bedside table.

As soon as the women left, Cordelia opened her eyes fully and looked around the room. Desperate to escape, she tried to sit up, only to discover that she was dizzy and still very groggy. She looked down at the IV in her arm, then up to the bag that was empty. She noticed a drip coming from the corner and followed it to a puddle on the floor. Apparently, Nurse Cyndi hadn’t been paying much attention last time she’d started the medication and the bag had leaked. Thank God. The IV came loose with one painful jerk, and Cordelia threw it violently away from her.

Her mind now rapidly clearing, Cordelia thought back to the last thing she remembered before today. It was the highway and Skip, that conniving “guide” of hers, telling her she had to ascend to a higher plane. Her eyes narrowed as she realized that she’d been duped somehow. There was no memory of ascension, and a legitimate ascension would not land her smack dab in the pit of the hell that was Wolfram & Hart.

Her heart wrenched as she remembered her ill-fated appointment with Angel on the cliffs. He must have been going frantic trying to find her. She knew he’d still be looking, but he would have had no way of knowing where she was or if she was okay. She had to get out of here on her own and find him.

Summoning her strength, Cordelia dragged her legs out from under the covers and slid off the bed, wobbling as she stood. She felt as if she might pass out for a moment, but she gritted her teeth and the sensation passed. Tentatively, she walked to the closet, opening it to find clothing in her size. She was puzzled as to why there would be clothes for her if she was supposed to be in a coma, but she just shrugged, not wanting to try to figure it out. Only when she reached to take off the hospital gown did she realize she wasn’t wearing one. She had on regular clothes: a pair of low-rise khaki pants and a knit top. She was barefoot and there were no shoes in the closet, but that didn’t surprise her.

“These people are nuts,” she muttered, closing the closet. She searched the room for something to subdue her captors when they returned. Her eyes rested on the folding chair that Cyndi had left against the wall. Folded flat, it would make an excellent weapon. Cordelia grabbed the chair, flipped off the light and sank into a darkened corner to wait.

Just minutes later, Cordelia heard footsteps outside her door and watched anxiously as the knob turned. Cyndi entered, frowning when she realized the light had been shut off.

“Damn light bulbs. That’s the second time this week,” she complained, pulling the cart in behind her. Flipping on the overhead light, she said, “Sorry, Miss Chase, I know the bright light bothers you.”

Cordelia raised her eyebrows, wondering how Cyndi could possibly figure that, and tightened her grip on the folding chair. Cyndi busied herself preparing the meds, still not looking at the empty bed. She finally pulled the bag up and examined it, then turned to face the bed.

“Here we go, Miss—Oh, my God!!” she gasped. She looked up frantically, searching the room. Whirling around, she came face to face with a very angry Cordelia.

“Contrary to popular belief,” Cordelia said sarcastically, “Comas are not restful.”

She brought the folding chair down hard on the wide-eyed woman’s head. Cyndi’s body crumpled and she fell to the floor, sprawled out with all the stiffness of a wet noodle.

“Let me know later if you agree,” Cordelia said, leaning the chair back against the wall.

Kneeling down next to Cyndi, she pulled off the nurse’s uniform, followed by her own clothes. She pulled the uniform on, then somehow dragged Cyndi onto the bed, drawing the covers over her face. She adjusted the ID tag and swipe card on her lapel so that the picture was hidden, then smoothed her hair down. Catching sight of the open door to the bathroom, Cordelia rushed in and looked at herself in the mirror. She was surprised to find that she had make-up on and her hair looked fabulous; thick, healthy, and much longer than it had the last time she’d looked in a mirror. One thing she could say for the evil law firm; they knew their cosmetics.

She frowned, realizing that she must’ve been in a coma longer than she’d originally thought. Oh, well. All the more reason to get out of here as fast as possible.

Sneaking out of her room, she darted eyes up and down the hallway. Satisfied that she was alone, Cordelia began walking confidently away from her room, searching for an elevator. Finding one, she swiped her card and pressed the button. The doors swung open, and she entered. She frowned as she realized that the buttons only indicated subterranean levels, nothing above ground. She must have to access another elevator for that. She pushed the button for “Sub Level One.”

She was dismayed to find that the doors opened to some type of medical reception room. The room was a buzz of activity, not conducive to hiding. Noticing the reception desk, Cordelia made a command decision. Time to put that acting talent to good use.

Straightening her shoulders, Cordelia walked confidently up to the blonde woman behind the desk.

“Excuse me,” Cordelia said softly, keeping her tone purposefully shy.

“Yes?” the woman responded, her manner efficient but friendly.

“This is so embarrassing,” Cordelia darted her eyes down and forced a blush. “I just started working here, and I can’t remember how to get back outside to my car.”

The woman’s eyes warmed and her features softened as she smiled. “Don’t worry, hon. This place is a labyrinth, all right. The rest of us get lost occasionally, too. You came up the Sub elevator?” She said, pointing to the elevator Cordelia had just exited.

Cordelia nodded.

“Okay. Go across the lobby,” she pointed in the other direction, “And take the elevator with the big gold sign saying ‘Wolfram & Hart, Attorney’s at Law’.”

Cordelia raised her eyebrows.

The woman laughed. “I know, they’re pompous asses up there, have to write their names on everything, including the toilet paper. But what can I say? They own the building and the research facility, and they sign my checks. Who am I to complain?”

“Thanks for your help,” Cordelia said, turning to walk away.

“Don’t forget it’s payday, hon. That always makes things better,” the woman called after her.

Cordelia turned back. “Oh, really? What date is it again?”

“I know how you feel. Sometimes I even forget what year it is. It’s August 2, good old 2003. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Time flies so fast.”

Her world reeling, Cordelia just nodded back and thanked her again weakly, then walked away on shaky legs.

2003. Oh. My. God. She’d been in a coma, like, forever.

And where the hell was Angel?!?
Part 2

The skyline outside Angel’s window had not changed much since Wesley had come and gone. He’d had the tinting on the windows turned almost to black when the former Watcher had been there, making the room as dark as night. Now, after ending his phone call to Buffy, he strode over to the controls and lightened the room. It seemed fitting to adjust the ambiance to match the drastic changes he’d just made in his life. The late afternoon sun now streaming harmlessly through the necro-tinted windows should have looked like bright rays of hope and a promise of happiness, but all they seemed to do was magnify the flaws in Angel’s most recent decisions.

In the last hour, he’d had his loyalties questioned, his soul secured, and the supposed love of his life had given him what could be considered a verbal cold shoulder. Well, maybe not cold, exactly, but Buffy was definitely less enthusiastic than he would have imagined she would be given his soul’s new status and their last meeting in the Sunnydale Cemetery. He was lucky he’d convinced her to come.

He thought back to their conversation, trying to view it clinically and objectively. He conceded that he probably shouldn’t have just opened with, “I have some really good news.” Knowing Buffy and the way she analyzed things, she probably translated that to mean “When can I sleep with you again?” after he told her about his soul. She’d responded to his announcement with something less than what he’d anticipated.

“Angel, I thought we already talked our future the last time you came to visit.”

He was stunned. Hadn’t she always wanted to be with him? Even when she was with someone else? Come on, it’s not like Riley was much of a replacement. And Spike? Ha! Please. If that wasn’t a desperate attempt to Xerox her lost love, what was?

He found his voice after a few moments. “Yeah, I remember what you said, but I thought that this changed things.”

She was silent for a moment, thinking. “It does, kinda.” She paused again, and Angel could tell she was trying to find the right words. “Angel, when we said goodbye the last time, right before I fought The First, I said that I wasn’t done baking yet. That I needed some time.”

Angel gritted his teeth in irritation. That girl and her damn metaphors. “I get the idea, Buffy. You wanted some time to figure out who you were. But I thought that was just a smokescreen because I still had the curse and not much had changed.”

“It wasn’t a smokescreen, Angel. I really did need some time to work things out. I wanted to see if I could be someone apart from the Slayer. If I could have a real life.”

“And can you?” he prompted, hoping she would say no. “Maybe” or “Yes” equaled “no lovin’ for Angel.”

She sighed. “It’s been a month and a half since Sunnydale was destroyed, and I can’t seem to get away from the Hellmouth. Sure, it hasn’t followed me here, but I still slay. I still deal in the paranormal. I can’t escape it. It’s my life.”

“It’s your destiny, Buffy. Even if there are a million other Slayers in the world, you’ll still feel that pull,” he added softly.

“That’s what I think, too,” she agreed, sounding reluctant.

“So what does that mean for us?” He asked, wanting to get some kind of an answer out of her.

She turned the question back around on him. “What do you want from me, Angel?”

His hastily rehearsed speech fled his mind. “Um, well. . . I had hoped that you’d come here to visit.”

“For what, exactly?”

“To see me?” He sounded like he was fishing for her to tell him what he wanted.

“To sleep with you, you mean,” her voice was emotionless, and Angel knew that to be dangerous.

“No, Buffy, that’s not it.” He let out an unnecessary breath in an attempt to release some of his tension. “Look. A lot has happened here in the last year. While you were out fighting the invisible evil, we were fighting some serious badness of our own up here. I lost . . . some people who were very important to me. Cordelia was one of them.”

Buffy gasped. “Cordelia is dead? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“She isn’t dead, Buffy. She’s in a coma. The entity that we fought last year possessed Cordelia and wreaked havoc on our lives in a way that nothing has ever done before. For half the time she was being controlled by this being, we didn’t even know it wasn’t Cordy. She started doing some really un-Cordy things, but because it looked and sounded like her, we didn’t question it. It wasn’t until she turned violent and a whole lot of other nasty things happened that we realized it wasn’t really her.”

It was Angel’s turn to pause and reflect. “I haven’t seen the genuine version of my best friend since last May, Buffy. I don’t even know if Cordy knew what was going on and couldn’t control it, or what. All I know is that I’ve lost her, and she’s not the only person.” He wisely left out the fact that he’d been in love with her, too.

Buffy was quiet on the other end, absorbing everything he’d said. “I’m sorry, Angel. I had no idea.”

“Yeah, well, you had your own problems to deal with,” he said, the comment dismissing but the tone bitter.

“Anyway,” he continued after a moment, “the only way to salvage everything and save the world was to take over management of the law firm that has been our worst enemy since the moment I set foot in L.A. Let’s just say that this place has taken its toll on what’s left of the staff of Angel Investigations. I rarely see anyone anymore, except Wesley, and quite frankly, I was hoping you’d come here so that I could start to heal from all of this.”

He could almost hear her softening through the phone line.

“I trust you, Buffy. I need you here, even if it’s only as my friend.” He took a deep breath to calm himself, then dropped the big one. “But I won’t deny that I want you as more than that. What we had was special, Buffy, and it would mean a lot to me to see that you still think so, too.”

Even as the words left his mouth, the statement reverberated in his head, echoing with the hollow sound of self-serving pretense. He shook himself mentally, reminding himself once again that he wanted Buffy back. He did. She was all he had left.

The silence from her end roared in his ears as he waited for her response.

“I can’t come right away, Angel. I have to take care of some things here for a few days, tie up some loose ends. I could probably be there in a couple of days.” Although she had agreed, she sounded peculiarly apathetic.

Disturbingly, her acquiescence left him with an empty, gnawing feeling in his soul, not the flood of warmth and happy anticipation that he had expected. He cleared his throat and shrugged off the disquieting emotions.

“That would be fine. Do you have any idea how long you can stay?”

“Yeah, well, its kind of funny this should come up now. I’m in the process of moving again. Visiting you would be kind of a stop over in the move.”

“It’s not working out in San Diego?”

“Not really,” she said, sounding uncomfortable. “Everyone else has left. Willow and Xander went to New York, Faith went to Miami, and Giles went back to England. Last week I heard from Wills, and it sounds like everyone is heading to the Hellmouth in Cleveland. It seems that Giles was contacted by the Watchers’ Council and they want him to head up some kind of Slayer Headquarters from there. He wants me to move there, too, to help him run it.”

“And you don’t want to?”

“I don’t know, Angel. I guess that coming to L.A. would give me the perfect excuse to put Giles off for awhile while I figure out what I want. So it works out for my benefit, too.”

“So basically you want to bring all your stuff and dump it at my place,” he said, forced amusement hiding behind the dry words.

She laughed harshly. “Hey, it’s not like I’ve got much. Hello, house buried in dirt and ash. Couldn’t salvage much furniture from the bottom of a crater.”

“Been there, done that,” Angel responded. “So, I can expect you in a couple of days?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” she said softly.

“Thanks, Buffy,” he said simply, ending the conversation. They hung up shortly thereafter.

Now, looking out at the late afternoon sky, Angel was filled with a mixture of anticipation at her return and dread at his spontaneity. He wouldn’t even let himself acknowledge the other, more volatile emotions that were swirling beneath the surface.

Did he really want Buffy back?

He refused to contemplate the answer to that question. The only reason for him to say “no” to a renewed romantic relationship with Buffy was in a coma indefinitely. He could not allow “what ifs” to spoil his chance at happiness. The time for second guessing had come and gone. What was done, was done. Buffy was coming to L.A., and he would be happy with her, goddamn it.

For the second time that evening, Angel reached for the telephone and dialed a number from memory. As usual, Wesley’s formal greeting came through after one and a half rings. Even after everything he’d been through, Wesley was still as predictable as always.

“Wesley.” It was a statement laced with command.

“Hello, Angel. You aren’t having any side effects from the spell, are you?” He sounded somewhat anxious.

“No, it’s nothing like that.” Angel twisted the curled phone cord between his fingers as he spoke. “I know you’re always thorough, but I’d like you to double check the authenticity of the spell just in case. Buffy is coming to town, and I want to know for sure that Angelus is not a possibility.”

Wesley was silent for a moment and Angel could imagine the scowl on his face. “I can state with certainty that the spell is authentic, but I will check it again if that’s what you want.”

“It is,” Angel said firmly. “I don’t want anything screwing this up for me.”

***

Cordelia stared at the outside of Wesley’s front door with a dangerously high level of apprehension. Her heart was racing, her palms were sweating, and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. She wasn’t nervous to see Wesley, exactly. She was scared of what he might tell her. There were so many unanswered questions, and it seemed like more and more popped up everywhere she turned. In short, she was scared to death that the life she wanted back so badly had been wiped from the face of the earth.

As soon as she’d safely exited Wolfram & Hart, she’d walked the long stretch back to the Hyperion. Expecting to open the door and see Fred behind the counter, or Gunn practicing with his weapons in the lobby, she’d been flabbergasted to find the place practically boarded up. The front door was locked soundly, and it was only after a search of several windows that she was able to find one she could jimmy open and slide in. She walked around the building in a near catatonic state, flooded with memories and finding nothing to answer her questions but more questions.

The place was stripped. It looked as though something had caused some structural damage before they’d moved out because there were walls with holes and doors that had been seemingly ripped off their hinges. There was no order to anything; it was as if someone had caused random destruction throughout the hotel. In almost every room, Cordelia got a very creepy feeling, as if the place were filled with some sort of residual evil. Cold, bony fingers seemed to tickle the back of her neck and make her shiver.

The only room that seemed to be free of that eerie sensation was Angel’s suite. There was no furniture left, but it was as though she could feel his presence in the air. She didn’t know if it was real or imagined, but for nearly an hour, she sat cross legged in the middle of the floor with her eyes closed, just breathing in the comfort that his presence always gave her.

She’d left the hotel and not looked back. She knew she wanted to move back in, and she would, as soon as she could find Angel and figure out what was going on. A simple cleansing spell should take care of the heebie jeebies, and then she could sit in Angel’s room all day and seek the healing comfort that she needed.

Now, though, she had to face Wesley. The last thing she remembered, he and Angel weren’t on speaking terms. He’d kidnapped Connor and had been summarily banished. It had torn her heart in two to see him leave like that and head down a path of self-destruction, but her loyalties had lain with Angel. It scared her to death to see which direction Wesley had gone in the last year: further into misery or back to his old self. She prayed it was the latter.

Before she could chicken out, she raised her fist to the door and knocked rapidly. She heard some shuffling behind the door and then it opened, revealing a scruffy-faced Wesley who was more ruggedly appealing than she’d ever remembered. She couldn’t help but smile at his disheveled but sexy appearance. Sexy Wesley. Who’dve thought.

He gaped at her, reaching up to adjust his glasses in a reflex action. “C-Cordelia?” He said, his voice nearly a whisper.

“Hi, Wes,” she said softly, smiling slightly.

“Oh, god. Cordelia!” Wesley said, his voice breaking. He reached for her, enveloping her in tight, soul-healing hug.

It was more than Cordy could take. She stopped breathing for a moment, then the next breath came out in a sob. Her arms wrapped around his back and she squeezed him with all her might, her tears flowing unchecked as sobs wracked her body.

Wesley loosened his grip somewhat, bringing one hand to stroke her hair as the other rubbed her back tenderly.

“I can’t believe it’s you, Cordelia,” Wesley said brokenly. “We thought we’d lost you forever.”

His touch soothed her more than she’d ever thought possible. After a moment, she pulled back from him and looked at him through blurry eyes.

“Everything’s changed, Wesley. It’s all so different. I went to the hotel and there was nobody there. I was so scared—.”

He led her to the couch and they sat down, hands grasped firmly.

Wesley looked at her, concerned. “How did you get out of the basement hospital, Cordelia? My staff was receiving regular reports on you, and so were Angel and the Partners. The doctors said that you were in a coma and weren’t likely to awake soon, if ever.”

Alarm bells went off in her brain at his statement. “What staff, Wesley? The Partners? What the hell is going on?”

“So much has happened, Cordelia. I don’t even know where to start. What do you last remember?”

She eyed him suspiciously for a moment, almost afraid to trust him. But this was Wesley, damn it. He wouldn’t betray her, would he?

“The last thing I remember was being on the freeway, on my way to see Angel last May. Skip stopped me in the middle of traffic and told me that I was supposed to ascend to a higher plane because I had fulfilled my destiny here on earth. And I fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.”

He blinked, stunned that she’d lost so much. “Would you like some coffee, Cordelia? This is going to be a very, very long explanation.”

Part 3

There was only so much cheery sunshine a vampire could take. Angel scowled around his bright office, going back over to the controls and plunging the room into darkness once again. For added measure, he closed the curtains with a dramatic swish. His stilted conversation with Wesley had ruined what little good mood he’d managed to make. It was obvious that Wesley thought he was being irrational and selfish.

The problem was that Angel agreed with him.

His glower increased tenfold at that involuntary admission. It had to be this office, this building. This entire place was evil. It stank of it. He stank of it. It was like working in a bar; the cigarette smoke permeates everything and no matter how many times you shower, it takes days to rid yourself of all traces. Wolfram & Hart had the same effect. Everything he touched felt oily with the filth of evil. It didn’t matter how much he tried to varnish it over with good intentions, the evil was still underneath. For not the first time since he’d agreed to take over this office, Angel cursed his decision. If it weren’t for the safety and future of both Cordelia and Connor, he’d never have taken up their offer. He was starting to think that he’d have been better off rejecting it even if the consequences were less than favorable.

Second-guessing himself might not get him anything but misery, but he still didn’t have to sit around this place and let the stench of his failed life overwhelm him. He strode toward his private elevator and entered, firmly pushing the buttons to the garage. Once there, he climbed into his necro-tinted Mustang and squealed out of the garage for a soul-healing afternoon drive.

Not fifteen yards out of the garage, he nearly mowed over four pedestrians and a dog, not to mention a narrow miss of the limousine parked at the curb in front of the building. He came screeching to a halt, his eyes wide and his mouth dropped open in shock. His jaw snapped quickly shut and his lips pressed into a grim line as he angrily took in the sight that had startled him so much.

Spike. That mouthy, irritating little prick of a childe of his was walking, in broad daylight, no less, right in the front doors of Wolfram & Hart. The sun seemed to gleam off his blonde locks, his once-pale skin now bronzed and glowing. Angel growled involuntarily at the disturbing picture. Even from here and at this angle, Angel could see the stark blue of his eyes, made more striking against the golden tan of his face. The leather duster was still very firmly in place, black jeans, combat boots, and a red shirt completing his traditional ensemble. It was clear that he was still a vampire, because a human couldn’t handle late summer weather in LA while wearing full-length leather. But vampires didn’t walk around in the daylight unprotected. And vampires sure as hell didn’t tan.

What was Spike up to?

With a lurid curse, Angel swerved the car around in the light traffic and sped back into the garage. The tires squealed as he stopped abruptly, yanking the keys out of the ignition and walked determinedly back to the elevator, punching the buttons to his office.

The doors opened to his office just in time for him to hear his secretary’s voice over the intercom for the second time that afternoon.

“Mr. Angel?” She asked in that irritatingly efficient tone of hers.

“Yes, Melanie?” he growled, sitting heavily into his chair.

“A Mr. Spike is here to see you, sir. He does not have an appointment,” she said, the distaste obvious in her voice. She’d left the connection open, and Angel could hear Spike’s voice in the background.

“Oh, c’mon, luv. I can’t be that bad. I haven’t had any complaints before.”

This time the growl nearly turned into a roar. Taking a deep, calming breath, Angel called upon his frighteningly low reserve of patience. “Send him in, Melanie. And I don’t want to be disturbed for the rest of the evening. Not for any reason, do you hear me? None.”

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir,” she said meekly, for once frightened by the power in his tone.

Angel sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, watching with unconcealed anger and irritation as the blonde vampire strode confidently through the door and sat down dramatically across from him, slouching into a comfortable position and draping his lean frame in the chair.

“Nice digs, Peaches,” Spike said with a smirk, reaching into his duster pocket and pulling out his cigarettes. He lit one and the room filled with smoke. The scent only served to fuel Angel’s anger.

In a fluid move perfected by 250 years of practice, Angel had Spike shoved up against the wall with his hands around his childe’s throat before Spike could blink.

“What the bloody hell, Angel?” Spike growled, struggling against the stronger vampire’s hold. “Can’t a vamp come for a friendly visit to his grandsire?”

“Shut up, Spike,” Angel spat, tightening his hold on the other vampire’s neck. “Explain yourself. NOW.”

The last word was underlined with a flash of amber fire and the promise of swift retribution if Spike dilly dallied any longer.

Angel was nearly at the end of his control. Spike had better explain himself, and quick. None of his usual bullshit would be tolerated. Angel was his sire, goddamn it, and he wasn’t going to put up with Spike’s antics. Not this time.

***

The only indication that Cordelia was in sensory overload was the slight whitening of her knuckles as she gripped the coffee mug in her hands. What Wesley had just told her was mind-boggling, and she had yet to remark on anything he’d told her.

Wesley just sat in silence, feeling wholly inadequate to console her. How did a friend go about comforting someone whose body had been the source of destruction of her family’s happiness? Especially when said friend didn’t remember any of it?

“This Jasmine,” Cordelia said, wanting some clarification, “she possessed me, and then I gave birth to her? She needed human DNA to become corporeal?”

“Yes,” Wesley said, nodding when he couldn’t think of anything else to add.

“This is. . .unbelievable, Wesley. I don’t know what to think,” she admitted, staring down at her reflection in the dark liquid in her mug.

He sighed. “I don’t blame you, Cordelia. I would have a hard time believing it, too. But I’m not lying to you. That’s everything that I can remember.”

A disturbing thought suddenly occurred to her. “Who was the father of this evil baby, Wesley?”

He raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. “Father? I . . . I don’t know, Cordelia. We never found out if there even was one. She could’ve just planted the pregnancy within you.”

She pursed her lips and frowned in disapproval. “It’s not like you to leave loose ends like that, Wesley. I’m sure that Angel would’ve wanted to know who knocked me up. I mean, look at what he did to Wilson, and we weren’t nearly as close then.”

He started to look really confused, as if he were truly doubting what he believed to be the gospel truth. “Angel was really angry then, Cordelia. He felt like you’d betrayed him somehow. We didn’t know you weren’t you when you announced your pregnancy. You kind of threw it in his face.”

“Why would he be angry with me if someone forced this on me? That would be the same as saying that it was my fault I was raped, and Angel would never do that, no matter how angry he was.”

“You’re right about that,” Wesley conceded. “I have to admit that that whole time period is kind of fuzzy for me. It was a difficult time for all of us.”

Fuzzy memory, my ass. Cordelia thought wryly. More like altered memory. “I must’ve been willing, or at least the possessed Jasmine in me was willing. The father must’ve been someone that he was really close to, someone so close that he’d feel betrayed if I slept with him.”

She considered the options. Obviously not Wesley. Gunn maybe, but that wouldn’t anger Angel so much. The only human left was . . .The answer hit her like a ton of bricks, her breath leaving her in a whoosh and making her light headed. “Oh, god.”

She looked at him with wide, stricken eyes. “Connor!” The very wthought of exploiting that boy’s innocence was enough to make her stomach roil, but the answer rang disturbingly true.

If it was possible, he looked even more confused. “Connor? Who’s Connor?”

She was stunned. “Who’s Connor? What do you mean, who’s Connor? You don’t remember him?”

Wesley raised an eyebrow, his look concerned. “No, Cordy. Should I?”

Her expression turned thoughtful. There were so many things here that didn’t make sense. She had no doubt that Wesley was telling her what he knew, what he remembered, but there were some glaring holes. Holes that stank of memory erasure. Selective memory erasure.

Whatever the hell was going on, Wesley was obviously an innocent pawn in all of it. She left the disturbing topic behind them for now, determined to find answers to how all of this started.

She changed the subject back to the other stomach lurching aspect of Wesley’s story. “Explain to me Angel’s takeover of Wolfram & Hart again. Why did he do it?”

Wesley let her earlier question go as he answered this one. “As I told you, Wolfram & Hart offered him an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. Their resources are fathomless, and he knew that his fight could be infinitely more effective if he used what they were offering him. They’d basically said that he had done them a favor by ending world peace with the destruction of Jasmine, and they were bowing out of the LA scene. He could take it and do as he wanted.”

Wesley looked down at his own drink as he paused. “And the most compelling reason he accepted the deal was because they promised they could heal you. It wasn’t until a month or so into the takeover that they told him you weren’t ever going to wake up and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.”

Cordelia didn’t buy that for a minute. Angel had had multiple opportunities in other instances to gain access to a wealth of information far greater and far less tainted than that of Wolfram & Hart, but he’d always refused on principle. She didn’t doubt that he cared about her, but him putting her in Wolfram & Hart’s less than clean hands was a ludicrous idea. There had to be another explanation. He had to have had another motivation besides what Wesley had told her. And Connor seemed to be the answer to that question.

Knowing what she knew about Connor and his attitude toward Angel, she wouldn’t be surprised if he had had some sort of emotional breakdown and Angel had opted for a cleansing of his memory and mind to heal him. Only someone like Wolfram & Hart could manage to arrange that, and Cordelia knew that they’d hold an offer like that over Angel’s head until he couldn’t help but accept.

“I have to see Angel, Wesley,” Cordelia said, her eyes searching his. She saw the questions in his eyes, the ones that wondered how she’d woken up and escaped from the hospital. Something was holding her back from answering those questions, though. Her forced coma was something that she knew Wesley had nothing to do with, but she was still wary of letting him know. She didn’t know what he might do if he went looking for answers, and she couldn’t afford to upset the apple cart just yet.

“Cordelia,” Wesley said, obviously uncomfortable with what he was about to say. “Angel has been different in the last few months. When we found out you weren’t you, something inside him died. He’s been regressing to his darker nature, much like he was when Darla was back and he fired us.”

She gasped involuntarily. “He’s gone beigey again?”

“Not completely, but he’s rapidly approaching that state. I found some information lately that led me to a cure for his curse, and I made his soul permanent just this afternoon. I was hoping that it would allow him a chance for some happiness and reverse this downward spiral he’s been set on.”

“Wesley,” she breathed, “That’s wonderful! Angel’s soul is permanent. Wow!” The excitement permeated her; she couldn’t help it.

He smiled too, but it was less enthusiastic than it should have been. “Buffy’s coming to L.A., Cordelia. To be with Angel.”

She forgot to breathe for a moment. “Oh.” Her attention turned downward again and she swirled the liquid in her half empty mug.

“Well, I’m happy that he’s getting what he’s always wanted,” she said with false cheerfulness, her heart crumbling at Wesley’s news.

“He doesn’t know you’re awake yet, Cordy,” Wesley said, hoping to give her some encouragement.

“That won’t change anything, Wes, and you know it. He’s always wanted Buffy and I’m happy for them. Really. Either way, I still want to see him. I have to see him.”

He frowned, wanting to argue with her about Angel’s true desires, but knowing she wouldn’t believe him. “Very well. He’ll be home in a few hours. We can go over to his place then.”

“Great!” she said, the word sounding so empty and broken. Her heart felt battered and her soul was torn. Angel didn’t love her; he’d forgotten her. And she was still so very much in love with him.

***

Angel eased his grip on Spike’s neck and let him slide back down to the floor.

“Talk, Spike,” he ordered, backing up to lean on the edge of his desk, his arms folded across his chest.

Spike glared at him and adjusted his wrinkled shirt. “Nice way to treat a relative, Peaches,” he complained.

His only answer was a low growl of impatience.

“Fine,” he said, leaning against the far wall and taking on a defensive stance of his own, albeit one with much more nonchalance than Angel’s.

“That little bit of jewelry you sent Sunnydale way awhile back? The one for a Champion?” he smirked at that. “Well, you’re looking at the Champion that used it. It turns out that the little bauble packed quite a punch. Made me nearly invincible. Oh, I can still be staked, I suppose, but the sun is harmless. And the best part is, I still have my soul.”

Angel couldn’t help but snort in derision, but he refrained from commenting.

Spike glared at the rude noise. “You’re not the only soul-having undead fighter in the world anymore, Angel. Get used to it.”

This time Angel couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “I’m still the original,” he said, trying not to sound like a petulant two-year-old.

Spike rolled his eyes. “And that’s a good thing?” he said, his scarred eyebrow raised. “Seems to me like it took you a hundred years to make that soul at home in your body. And it’s so flighty, always wanting to go on vacation and leave Angelus to maim and kill in its wake.” He whistled low and long as his eyes roved over the rich opulence of Angel’s office. “He would’ve loved the power you have at your fingers these days, Peaches.”

Angel ignored that last comment. “And what, you had no trouble adjusting to a soul?” Angel scoffed, knowing that Spike couldn’t have had an easy time of it.

“Of course I did. I’m undead, you moron, not meant to have a soul. It hurt like hell. I nearly ended my own life a couple of times there at the beginning. But I had someone that helped me get through it.”

Angel clenched his teeth. “Buffy.”

Spike smiled wistfully. “Yeah, she’s a piece of work, my girl is.”

“Your girl?” Angel said scornfully. “Then how come she’s coming here to live with me?”

Spike straightened up like a shot, coming nose to nose with Angel in a nanosecond. “She’s what?” he whispered.

It was Angel’s turn to be smug, and damn, it felt good. “Wesley found a way to make my ‘flighty’ soul stick around for good. I called Buffy, and she’s moving up here.”

Okay, so Spike didn’t have to know that she wasn’t too excited about it. Let him think she was dying to jump him.

The younger vampire took a moment to calm his rapidly rising anger. Then he remembered something he’d heard recently. Something about Angel’s affections having shifted from Buffy to someone else. “What about the cheerleader, Angel? She screw you over for that pansy-assed ex-watcher?” he mocked.

Angel vamped out in his rage, grabbing Spike by the throat again. “Do not talk like that about Cordy!” Angel released him with a shove. “She’s in a coma. She’s not going to wake up.” His voice broke on the last words, a telling sign of the true nature of his affections, even if he wouldn’t admit them to himself.

Spike snorted disdainfully. “So you go crawling back to Buffy. I’ve got news for you, Angel. She doesn’t love you anymore.”

“And just who do you think she does love? You?” Angel scoffed in disbelief. “She feels sorry for you, maybe, I’ll give you that. But in love with you? Face it, Spike. You’re not man enough for her,” Angel challenged. “She’s always wanted me, and only me. You were just a sad attempt at replacement when I wasn’t available.”

His eyes nearly crossing in an attempt to control his fury, Spike stood his ground. “We’ll see about that, Peaches. She doesn’t know that I’m alive. She thinks I was killed in the explosion at the Hellmouth. When she sees me again, we’ll see who makes her heartbeat speed up, her breath catch, and her thighs tingle. Last I checked, you didn’t do anything of the sort. Even that lousy peck in the crypt when you came to SunnyD wasn’t enough to light her fire.”

He smirked confidently, then shoved his face in Angel’s. “There’s no way I could miss the smell of her when she’s all hot and bothered. She’s been that way for me more times than I can count. Face it, old man, you’ve lost your touch.”

Angel didn’t dignify Spike’s rough talk with a reply, and the two vampires stared at each other with amber fire flashing between them. After a moment of tense, non-verbal confrontation, Spike turned and walked out of the room, back down and out into the sunlight where Angel couldn’t follow.

Showy prick, Angel thought jealously. That little upstart was going to throw a monkey wrench into his well-developed plans. Angel, despite his grandstanding, knew that Spike held a very special place in Buffy’s heart, and it was going to be difficult to beat that. After all, he didn’t have a flashy re-emergence from hell going for him this time.
Part 4

Just when it looks like you’ve hit rock bottom and there is no place to go but up, rock bottom always seems to sink a few more feet down and you crash helplessly as it drops. Maybe it’s Murphy’s Law, or rotten luck, or the odd dozen bad oysters you had for lunch, but life never fails to drag you down just when you think you can’t take anymore.

These pessimistic thoughts kept running through Angel’s head as he poured his third glass of whiskey and sank down into the plush softness of his leather couch, taking comfort in the semi-darkness of his new apartment. He leaned his head wearily on the back of the couch and pinched the bridge of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his free hand. In the other, he swirled the liquor in the tumbler, a tiny amber whirlpool with ice that clinked delicately against the glass.

His mind wandered unbidden back to his recent encounter with Spike. Even now, the thought of that little upstart ruining his life was enough to make his blood boil and his stomach churn. At one point in his long life, Angel had actually come to tolerate Spike, maybe even like him a little bit, but that was a time very, very long ago. Long enough ago to be a time when he was still Angelus and Spike was still very firmly under his controlling thumb. Ever since Angel had gained his soul and Spike had taken off with Dru, their relationship had dwindled to petty insult hurling interspersed with sporadic bouts of violence. Their last major encounter had been over the Gem of Amara. Shortly thereafter, Spike had been captured by the Initiative and taken out of the running for the “Biggest Badass Vampire in Southern California” title.

Angel supposed that what bothered him most about Spike was the fact that he had a soul now. Angel didn’t like how jealous and petty he felt himself becoming every time Spike’s soul was mentioned, but truth be told, Angel felt threatened. He had kind of liked the fact that he was unique. A vampire with a soul is an enigma, and it seemed impossible that it could have happened to another vampire, much less Spike. But now that he had one, Angel had to face the fact that Spike might be the only other being in this dimension that could truly understand what Angel went through day in and day out: the struggle of the soul versus the demon. Ironically, the fact that Spike understood Angel’s struggle only made Angel want to push the younger vampire as far away from him as possible. Spike’s soul-having presence threatened what little stability Angel had left, and he was bound and determined to see that his grand childe didn’t ruin everything for him.

The grating ring of the telephone jerked Angel out of his morose contemplation. He snatched up the receiver in his hand and lifted it to his ear. The greeting on the other end was apologetic, but urgent.

“What?” Angel’s reply was rough, irritation at having been disturbed blatantly obvious.

Pause.

“She what?”

Longer pause.

“How the hell did that happen? I thought you told me she was a lost cause.”

Silence on the other end, then frantic explanation, followed by more startling declarations.

“She WHAT??”

More rapid talking, the excuses coming from the caller doing nothing to make the growing dark cloud of anger on Angel’s face diminish.

“I want to know who’s responsible for this, and I want to know NOW. I also want to know where she is, and I want to know that FIVE MINUTES AGO. Do you understand me?”

The voice on the other end of the phone spoke again rapidly in frightened apology.

“Don’t call me back until you have answers.”

He slammed the phone back down so hard that the black plastic housing cracked and the lamp on the table scooted over a few inches from the vibration. Angel downed the rest of his drink in one long gulp, not even grimacing as the fiery liquid burned his throat, the ice rattling violently as he tipped the glass upright and slammed it onto the end table next to the broken phone.

Rock bottom had just gotten a few feet deeper.

***

Much as she had stared at Wesley’s door several hours earlier, Cordelia regarded Angel’s front door apprehensively from a small distance down the hall. Whereas she had felt minor butterflies in her stomach and some nervousness at seeing Wesley again, this time, the feelings were intense enough to nauseate her. The thought of seeing Angel, especially after hearing most of the story of last year from Wesley, was enough to make her want to run screaming in the other direction. But there was this little, nagging emotion that kept popping up and dancing in front of her face every time Angel was mentioned: love.

Despite the fact that she had been in a coma for several weeks and absent from her body for several months, Cordelia Chase was still very much in love with Angel. It was that love that kept her feet glued to the floor and her eyes fixed on the unfamiliar, nondescript gray front door of his apartment. It was also that love that made her reject Wesley’s offer to accompany her here. She just couldn’t see Angel again with someone, even Wesley, watching their reunion. She didn’t know what to expect, and having Wesley there was a variable she didn’t want to have to deal with.

After a few deep, cleansing breaths, Cordelia moved closer to the door and raised her hand to knock. She held it there, suspended, for seconds that seemed like hours. Then, in a boost of confidence, she brought her knuckles in contact with the door and rapped three times, then stepped back and crossed her arms anxiously.

Minutes later, the door swung open to reveal Angel, and her heart nearly stopped. The apartment behind him would have been completely dark except for a lamp that was turned on. The soft light backlit him in an ethereal glow, giving him a halo-effect that complemented his name. He was so much the person she remembered, and yet, he was so different. Her eyes took in the familiar black-on-black ensemble, the spiky hair, the chiseled features, the chocolate brown eyes that seemed bottomless. But where all of this was familiar, there was a hardened edge to everything that showed her how much he’d changed in such a short time. His clothes were slightly wrinkled, his hair mussed, his strong jaw clenched, and his eyes were almost empty, as if the light he’d found before she ascended had left him once again.

They stood there, staring at each other, for a few minutes that dragged on like hours. Finally, she cleared her throat and the sound seemed to bring Angel back from wherever it was he’d gone.

“Hi, Angel,” she said softly, a small smile caressing her face.

“Cordelia,” he said simply, the word completely devoid of emotion.

Her smile left with the fleetingness of a ghost as she felt his apathy wash over her.

Angel’s examination of her was as thorough as hers had been earlier. He’d known it was her for a few minutes before she opened the door. He’d heard and recognized the rhythm of her heartbeat, faint though it was, from down the hall. The thought of seeing her again had sent his mind into a tailspin, his remembered love for her warring with his recent promise and past love to Buffy. Then when she moved closer, he’d schooled his thoughts, determined to make sure that she was all right and take it from there.

But after opening the door and seeing her familiar, beautiful face again, it was all Angel could do not to run back into the apartment and slam the door shut. Every memory he had from the time she was possessed came rushing to the forefront of his mind and tainted what should have been a joyous reunion of two best friends. He saw her pretty face and silky brown hair in front of him, then a flash of that beautiful face contorted in pleasure beneath his son’s body. He saw the sweet smile as she greeted him, then a flash of the evil smile she’d fooled Angelus with as she offered him her body in exchange for information. He saw the gentle curves of her figure, then a flash of her swollen stomach as she descended the stairs of the hotel and flaunted her pregnancy and her affair with his son in his face.

He knew he couldn’t blame her for what happened, whether she remembered it or not, but he couldn’t erase the painful memories and clawing sting of betrayal.

“Um, can I come in?” she asked tentatively, that soft, sweet voice breaking into his unpleasant memories.

It was obvious that this conversation was going to be difficult, even more so than Cordelia had thought, but she wasn’t going to have it in the hallway if she could help it.

He said nothing, only backed into the apartment and held the door open for her. She walked in behind him and took in the sparse but expensive furnishings with a wide sweep of her eyes, then sat down on the leather couch. She didn’t sink all the way back in, just perched on the edge and clasped her purse in her lap, as if she was preparing herself for a hasty departure.

She fiddled with the handle on her bag for a few minutes before bringing her eyes up to his. He was just standing there, his hands in his pockets, three feet away from her and staring at her in an expression that was nerve-wrackingly unreadable.

The silence was killing Cordelia. He hadn’t asked her to leave, so he obviously felt they would have something to say to each other, but she had no idea what he was thinking. There was a time when she could predict what he would say before he said it, but now, it was like she was staring into a familiar face that housed the soul of a complete stranger.

Wanting desperately to break the silence, Cordelia said the first thing that came to mind.

“You don’t seem very surprised to see me.” Her eyes darted up to lock with his.

“I got a phone call about ten minutes ago that you woke up and then disappeared,” Angel said, still struggling with his jumbled thoughts. Half of him wanted to run to her and scoop her up into his arms, the other wanted to grab her and throw her bodily out into the hallway and tell her never to come back.

“Oh.” She didn’t know what else to say.

“Where did you go?” he asked, his tone still unreadable.

She looked back down at her purse. “I actually went to the hotel first, but when I didn’t find anyone there, I went to Wesley’s. I didn’t know where you were living and I hoped he was still in the same place. He . . . he filled me in on what happened while I was gone.”

“While you were gone?” he repeated, having a suspicion of her meaning but wanting confirmation.

She opened her mouth and took a breath, then closed it and pursed her lips in indecision. She wasn’t sure where to start or what to say. Everything she knew and loved had been broken apart like a building out of Lego’s, then thrown into a bin, tossed around, and scattered across the landscape in a hundred different pieces.

“Wesley told me what he remembered of last year. Basically, he said some evil, jacked up being possessed me because she needed my DNA to become corporeal and take over the world. He said her name was Jasmine, and that she controlled my body and led everyone to think that I was still me. Then I got pregnant with her and gave birth to her, slipped into a coma, and here I am.”

Angel nodded once. “That’s about it. You don’t remember anything?”

He was torn. Would her ignorance of that time be a blessing or a curse?

“No,” she said, her eyes coming up and searching his. “I remember nothing, nothing at all, since Skip stopped me on the highway and told me I was destined for the higher realms.” The look on her face turned to pure irritation as she remembered how she’d been duped.

She moved past that and paused for a moment, remembering her hunch about Connor’s involvement in her pregnancy. Something, though, was telling her that now was not the time to bring the topic of Angel’s son into the conversation. There were to many other unanswered questions.

She jumped in with the hardest one first, taking his silence to mean that she should continue. “Why did you take over Wolfram & Hart, Angel? They’ve been a pain in our asses since Day 1. Why would you trust them like this?”

Angel’s shoulder’s stiffened at the accusation and mistrust in her tone. With jaw clenched, he said, “I had my reasons, Cordelia.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “What reason could you possibly have to give in to pure evil? To run the place, for pete’s sake. You’ve had the opportunity to get your hands on other sources of information and power before, and you always turned them down. Why now?”

He shrugged as if he didn’t have to explain his reasons, but inside he was angry. She had no right to question his judgment, no right! He’d done this partly because of her, and he did regret it, every damn day. The only thing that had kept him from walking out into the afternoon sunlight and dusting himself was the knowledge that the firm could do whatever it pleased with her and Connor if he wasn’t around. He’d done this for her, and now she was questioning his motives?

But he said only, “At the time, it seemed like a good idea. They had something I needed, and I thought it would be best if I took them up on their offer.”

She snorted in disbelief. “Geez, cryptic, much? That’s a lame excuse and you know it, Angel. I would rather have my teeth extracted with a dirty, blunt knife than have anything to do with any of those evil lawyers and there was a time when you would’ve said the same.”

His nostrils flared as he held back what he really thought. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, Cordelia, so drop the subject. What’s done is done.”

“The hell it is!” she muttered as she jumped out of her seat, her comment earning a flash of amber eyes from the vampire.

Inwardly, she cringed at his harsh words. Who the hell did he think he was, shutting her out like this? She’d told him after his beige period with Darla that he couldn’t expect to keep her in the dark and maintain their friendship. But then again, Buffy was coming to town. And Buffy changed everything.

At the thought of Angel’s soon-to-be-ex-ex-girlfriend, Cordelia’s jealousy reared its ugly head.

“Wesley tells me that Buffy is coming to live here,” she said, crossing her arms defensively over her chest and trying to keep the snark out of her voice. She failed miserably.

“Yes, she is,” Angel said, his expression daring her to challenge him.

She rolled her eyes at him and heaved a sigh of disappointment. “Really, Angel, I thought you’d gotten past that. You haven’t brooded about her in months.”

He shrugged again as if to dismiss her comments. “Buffy has always understood me in a way that no one else can, in a way that no one else ever will. She has the ability to make me happy like no one else ever has, and I wanted that back since Angelus isn’t a threat anymore.”

He knew the little speech was as much for his own benefit as hers, and it seemed to make his decision to get back together with Buffy sound so much more appealing than it had a few hours earlier.

His words were a knife in Cordelia’s heart, the pain of them bringing feelings to the surface that she’d been trying so hard to hide since she saw his unsmiling face and felt the coldness of their reunion. The love she felt for him gave way to righteous indignation as he took their friendship and undeclared love and shoved them under the rug as if they were no more important than yesterday’s newspaper.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing Angel, but you have some weird, twisted ideas. I don’t know how you think that Buffy is a good thing for you right now, but that’s beside the point. No, let me finish!” she hissed at his attempt to break into her diatribe, her hand up as if to physically ward off his unspoken words.

“When I last saw you, the real me, anyway, you were finally becoming the person I always knew you could be. You were fighting for your redemption like you have been since I met you, but you were finally getting to a place in your life where you could be happy. Now, you’ve let everything that happened last year turn you into Mr. Pity Party!”

She stared him down as she took a deep breath, the grim set of his lips and the anger in his eyes not enough to keep her from continuing.

“You’d better take a good, long look at yourself and fix what you’ve become before its too late. You’re turning into the dark, ultra-broody Angel that tried to commit soul suicide with Darla, not the man I loved and admired.”

Her eyes narrowed as she dealt the final blow.

“Whatever it is that’s bothering you, Angel, get over it. Deal with it. Move past it. There are battles to be fought here and we don’t have time to deal with your ‘poor me’ fest.”

His head reeled as her words sunk in. He was immediately transported back to the days after he’d seen her with Connor, after he’d watched from the nearby building as she writhed wantonly beneath his son and broke his heart into a million pieces. She’d had the nerve to come up to his room and tell him to “get over” whatever was bothering him then, too. At the time, he hadn’t known that she wasn’t really Cordelia, and her words had made him so angry, not to mention heartbroken.

They had no less of an effect now. Whatever love he had left for Cordelia Chase was squished and shoved into a box in the far recesses of his mind at those few words. She may be the woman that he fell in love with a year ago, but he was no longer the man he was then. She didn’t have what he needed anymore. She didn’t understand him, couldn’t understand what he was going through. Only Buffy could. Buffy, he could love. Cordelia, well, he didn’t know what he could do with her, but right now, love wasn’t anywhere in the horizon.

He stepped closer to her, his eyes now full of more fire and passion than they had been in months. It was angry fire and passion, but it was something.

“Get over it?” he said hoarsely, grabbing her by the upper arms and jerking her once. “Get over it?!?”

His voice got softer and more threatening with each sentence. “You, little girl, have no idea what hell I’ve been through in the last year. Your body may have been there, but you sure as hell weren’t. I fought battles worse than any we’ve ever faced, and you have no idea what I sacrificed so I could get the job done. You weren’t there, you didn’t experience the pain and heartache, so don’t tell me to get over it. You have no right to do that, Cordelia. You abandoned me when I needed you the most, so don’t tell me what to do!!”

By the end of his tirade, Angel’s voice was an angry, hateful growl. His face was scant inches from hers, his fingers digging cruelly into her upper arms.

Cordelia gasped at the pain of his strong grip, her heart breaking at his hateful words. She hadn’t abandoned him on purpose, and he knew it. He was hurting and miserable, but he wouldn’t let her get close. Not after what Jasmine had done with her body.

It was a lost battle, and she knew it. She’d gone too far, and now she had to pay the price. He was right, in a way. She didn’t have any idea what he’d been through. If he’d share it with her, maybe she would. But he wanted Buffy now, not her.

She pulled away from him stiffly and he let her go. She hid the tears that were welling up in her eyes. “I want to move back into the hotel.”

He took a deep breath to calm himself, crossing his arms over his chest and tamping down the anger, retreating behind his mask of indifference once more.

“I don’t care what you do, Cordelia. I don’t have anything to do with the hotel, so you can move in there if you want to.”

“Fine,” she said, still not in control enough to turn around and face him. He was making her so angry! He had it all backwards, just like he always did. That’s why he needed her. That’s why they’d been so good together. She understood him like no one else did, knew how to mirror him in a way that made him see what he really was, and what he could be.

That’s why being with Buffy was so, so wrong. Cordelia understood Angel so much better than Buffy ever could. She loved him and could make him happier than he’d ever been with Buffy. But would he see that? Would he ever see past the Slayer to what was really good for him? Pfft. No. Just like him, the dumbass. Always taking the easy way out. The familiar way out. First Darla, now Buffy. Never wants to face his true future, his true love.

She suddenly remembered the rest of their little family.

“What happened to Fred, Gunn, and Lorne?” Cordelia asked, her voice neutral.

“They still work for me.”

Rolling her eyes even though he couldn’t see her, she answered, “Oh, so now you’ve corrupted them, too?”

“That’s unfair, Cordelia, and you know it. They came willingly.”

“They came because you didn’t give them a choice. They feel obligated to you, Angel. They’d follow you anywhere.”

He shook his head. “They had both eyes open, Cordelia. And we’re doing some good there.”

“Good being evil, you mean.”

The angry glint was back in his eyes and he opened his mouth to shout back at her, but the doorbell beat him to it. Both of them jumped at the sound, then Angel glared at her for another minute and stormed over to the door. Wrenching it open, he fully intended to growl at the person on the other side and scare them away so he could take Cordelia down a peg or two. No one was more surprised than him when he opened the door to find Buffy waiting on the other side.

Cordelia looked around him and raised an eyebrow at his visitor. Nothing had the capacity to shock her after tonight’s mess. Not even the blonde powerhouse standing out in the hall.

“Hey, Angel!” Buffy said excitedly. She lunged forward and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him fiercely. “After I got off the phone with you, I just decided, what the hell. Why not come now? So here I am!”

His face softened as he took in her pretty face and smile. “I’m so glad you are! Come on in.”

Buffy stopped abruptly when she saw Cordelia standing a few feet away. “Cordy!” she said, then looked at Angel with a puzzled expression. “Angel told me you were, um. . .” she trailed off.

“In a coma?” Cordelia prompted. “Yeah, not that anyone cared,” she said with a pointed look at Angel.

She turned to the other woman. “Welcome to Hell-A, Buffy. I was just leaving.” She forced a smile, then strode toward the door. Angel followed her and grabbed her arm just before she reached it.

“Let go of me, dumbass,” she hissed, glaring at him.

“This conversation is not over, Cordelia. You and I are going to talk about this. Soon.”

She pinned him with a steely glare worthy of Queen C. “This conversation is most definitely over. I have nothing more to say to you, Angel. Come and talk to me when you get your balls back.”

With that, she stormed out the door, slamming it as she left.

Angel struggled against the temptation to vamp out in his rage. He felt a warm hand glide into his, and he nearly threw Buffy across the room in his anger, but he stopped himself just in time.

“Everything okay, Angel?” The slayer asked innocently.

“Yeah,” he said through clenched teeth. “Everything’s fine.”
Part 5

Two days later

They say it takes two to tango. But when one of the dancers refuses to hear the music, resists the pull of the pulsing beat, his would-be partner is left a forlorn figure on the dance floor. She hears the music, the haunting rhythm echoing in her ears, and she tries desperately to quash the longing to be in the arms of her partner. She sees thousands of other couples lost in the dance, slaves to the rhythm, and the yearning becomes unbearable.

All the while, she sees the man she loves, his face set in a determined expression, and she knows that he hears the music too. It pains her to see that he refuses to succumb to his destiny. Instead of choosing the frenzy of the tango, he’s chosen the wrong partner and is trudging through the polka, determined to make it work.

This deliberate rejection is the most painful part of all.

***

Angel eyed the half full glass of liquor on his desk with distaste. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, practically breakfast time for him, and he was already on his second glass. He wasn’t really an alcoholic; vampires didn’t succumb to that addiction in the same way humans did, but he was dangerously close to forming a habit of medicating himself with the stuff on a regular basis. Ever since they’d defeated Jasmine, his drinking had increased steadily. He felt like he needed the numbness that the liquor provided him. It took the edge off the pain, and he definitely had his share of that.

He picked up the glass reluctantly and took a swallow, the golden liquid burning his insides on the way down. Against his wishes, his mind wandered back to a few nights ago and its disturbing events, just as it had nearly every hour since that fateful night. Remembering Buffy’s unexpected arrival brought a warm fuzzy feeling to his mind. They’d talked late into the early morning hours, then went to bed separately. Buffy had been considerate enough to leave Cordelia out of their talk, sensing his volatile feelings and respecting them. The days since then had been filled with a warm camaraderie, and they had yet to even kiss, let alone share a bed. It just seemed right to take it slow.

Angel was glad Buffy was there, but even though it was nice, he was having a hard time conjuring up passion-filled emotions for their rekindled relationship. He was getting his soul mate back, wasn’t he? Finally, a chance at happiness? Somehow what was supposed to be solid gold was suddenly looking like lead with gold plating. But he loved Buffy. He’d always loved Buffy, and he always would. He knew they could make it work, he just had to try harder.

It was the thoughts of Cordelia and their argument that really brought his emotions to life, though. The memories of his harsh words and attitude towards her burned him from the inside out much more harshly than the liquor had. He’d had no right to blame her for what had happened when she was possessed by Jasmine, and in the harsh light of day, his actions shamed him.

It wasn’t Cordelia that killed Lilah.

It wasn’t Cordelia that slept with Connor.

It wasn’t Cordelia that stole his soul.

It wasn’t Cordelia that offered Angelus her body.

It wasn’t Cordelia that flaunted her pregnancy in front of him.

It wasn’t Cordelia that flung his unspoken love back in his face.

The litany kept echoing in his mind, and it had been ever since he’d shut the door to his bedroom after she’d left and the stillness of the night had revealed his fear and anger for what it really was. She’d come to him for support, as a best friend who needed reassurance and comfort, and he’d shoved her away with every word he’d spoken.

She’d asked him questions that were piercing, but he’d owed her honest answers. He hadn’t given any. He’d just made illogical excuses in his anger.

He’d failed her. Just like he always had. She’d given him everything but her love, and he’d failed to protect her, not even noticing that she wasn’t his Cordy until it was way, way too late. Then he’d gone and acted like a total ass, driving her away when he should’ve grabbed her and held on tight.

In short, he felt like shit.

***

Twenty minutes later, the buzzer on Angel’s intercom clawed viciously at his sensitive hearing. Every time Melanie used it, he swore up and down that he was going to get something quieter. But every time, the message she sent through the intercom made that vow disappear into nothingness. She always saved the most shocking news for the intercom.

Today was no different.

“What?” He growled his usual response.

“A Ms. Chase is here to see you, Mr. Angel. She has no appointment, but she insists on speaking with you.” Just as with Spike, the disdain in Melanie’s voice was blatantly obvious. The woman thrived on order, and not having an appointment was akin to selling your soul to the devil.

“Send her in, Melanie,” Angel said, severing the connection and leaning back in his chair. He crossed his arms over his chest, and if he’d had a working heart, it would’ve been beating out of his chest. What was Cordelia doing here?

She breezed into the room and just like always, her presence lit up the space like nothing else could. It didn’t matter that she wore an expression of careful neutrality, or that she was dressed more severely than he’d ever seen her. It was just her; her scent, her glow, her very existence, that filled the room and overpowered his senses. Unconsciously, he drank it all in and allowed her presence to comfort him. Consciously, he registered that he wasn’t angry with her anymore, just disgusted with himself.

Before he could open his mouth to apologize, Cordelia dropped a manila folder in front of him and sat gingerly in one of the chairs by his desk. He couldn’t help but notice her beauty on display, admiring the golden length of her legs as they crossed gracefully when she sat. He didn’t acknowledge the thought, just felt it.

“Hi, Angel,” she said breezily, a forced smile on her lips. “I just brought by some papers for you to sign about the hotel. Apparently I can’t live there without the owner’s consent, and I totally want to be legal. Wesley gave me his key, so I’m all set, but I just need you to sign at the red flags, there.” She pointed at the manila folder and the little red flags sticking out of the edge.

He just looked at her, suddenly tongue-tied. Maybe if he’d had more warning, he could’ve practiced an apology, but—

“Really, Angel,” Cordelia said, sounding impatient and irritated. “I’m not asking you for a whole lot. Just a signature, okay? So pick up the pen, and sign where I’ve marked it. Then I’ll be out of your way and you can get back to Buffy and whatever it is you’re doing with your life.”

He frowned at her, then picked up the pen as she’d directed and scrawled his signature on the lines she’d marked. Then he spoke for the first time since she’d entered his office.

“Are you sure you’re okay there alone, Cordelia? I mean, the place is kind of torn up.”

“It is,” she conceded. “But I’ve already started working on it and I like it. It makes me feel useful.”

She closed her mouth abruptly, as if she had more to say but was unhappy that she’d already revealed that much.

He just nodded, still at a loss for words. What was it about this woman that stole every bit of his limited ability to make conversation? Sometimes she was so beautiful that he just couldn’t help but—

Wait just a goddamn second, here, he thought as the thoughts registered this time. Buffy was supposed to be the one he was thinking about as beautiful.Buffy was supposed to be the one that brought x-rated images to the forefront of his mind with her presence. Buffy was the one he loved, not Cordelia. Mentally flogging himself, Angel schooled his traitorous thoughts and conjured up images of the blonde Slayer in his mind to dispel the lingering beauty of Cordelia.

Across from him, Cordelia was less introspective and more . . . furious. She was furious with herself for coming here in the first place, an action she felt was degrading considering their argument a few days ago. She was furious with him for being so damn close-mouthed. She was even furious at herself for being furious. But what she was most upset about was something that she almost wouldn’t admit to herself, and something that she definitely wouldn’t acknowledge fully until she was safe in the confines of the elevator and away from his powerful presence.

She still loved him.

In spite of it all, in spite of his cruel words, his apathy, his blatant rejection, and his lame-brained decision making, she loved him. She loved him so much that her heart nearly disintegrated when she walked through his office door and saw him sitting there, wallowing in his own misery. She wanted so badly to walk around the desk and sink into his lap, bring his head to her chest and comfort him with her touch. Her fingers ached to touch his face and smooth away the frown lines, to run her hands over his cheek and soothe the battle she knew warred within him.

But she didn’t do any of those things. She couldn’t. He wouldn’t let her get close. He’d rejected her, and she had no recourse but to bury her love behind a mask of indifference.

These feelings that she’d sworn she’d ignore until she got out of his office began to seep into her conscious thought, so she sprang out of her seat and grabbed up the folder off his desk.

“Thanks, Angel. I’ll see you around, okay?” She smiled at him, one that didn’t reach her eyes, and breezed out of the room, the door closing behind her.

He’d stood up abruptly as she taken the folder from him and reached for her arm, wanting to stop her and apologize. But he’d only just opened his mouth to speak her name when she was gone, and he was left empty-handed, feeling the chill of a life without Cordelia Chase more acutely than he ever had before.

It was a good thing he still had Buffy, or he might have let this get to him.

***
Cordelia didn’t even acknowledge the crowd of attorneys swarming the hallway as she barreled through, diving for the elevator doors as they opened. Two suits pushed passed her and one non-suit stayed in, but she was oblivious. She pushed the button for the first floor frantically, desperate to escape to her car where she could cry her eyes out and then drive home. God, why did it have to hurt so much?

“Don’t let the poof get to you, Cheerleader,” a deep voice echoed in the small space, startling her so much that she whirled around and backed into the wall, hard.

“S-Spike?” she squeaked, holding a hand to her racing heart.

He flashed that handsome grin of his and said, “One and the same, luv. I take it you’re all better now?”

Cordy frowned, darkness clouding her pretty eyes. “Oh yeah, I’m all better,” she said, sounding anything but better, the pain of the moment overshadowing the fact that she was trapped in the elevator with an evil vampire.

He smiled softly at her. “Wanna talk about it?”

She looked at him strangely, really looked at him, since she’d first stepped into the small space. “Why do you care?” she asked suspiciously.

Rolling his eyes, Spike sighed. “Jeez. The lines of communication between Sunnydale and L.A. are appalling. You’d think, what with everyone fighting on the same side and all, Giles and Wesley, at least, would share some information once in awhile.”

The ding of the elevator reaching its destination interrupted him, and he gestured for her to exit. She did, never taking her eyes off of him.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Cordelia asked.

He stopped and turned, and so did she. They were nearly to the door, a bright square patch of sunlight just a few feet away on the marble floor of the lobby. “I have my soul. I went through hell to get it, but I have it. I won’t hurt you, luv.”

She was astonished. The last time she’d seen or heard anything of Spike was when he’d come to steal the Gem of Amara and he was anything but nice then. It was amazing that he could make a change like that, but she’d seen the very evident difference between Angelus and Angel, so she knew it was possible. Spike, though, was still very much himself. Just softer around the edges, less defensive, more sensitive.

Shutting her gaping mouth, Cordelia just turned away and walked through the front door. After everything that had happened with Angel, Spike’s revelation was just one weird thing too many. So she did what she always did when confronted with a persistent vampire: escape into the sun.

Although this time it didn’t work. She jumped nearly a foot when a cold hand encircled her bare elbow. A squeak escaped her lips as she whipped her head around and saw Spike standing by her. She went through her mental list.

Standing in sunlight: check.

Vampire at my side: check.

Vampire standing in sunlight at my side: check check.

“What the hell? Spike, find some shade!” she said, panicking, shoving him up against the building where a small patch of shade rested near the afternoon sun.

He just laughed at her. “I’m okay, Cordelia. I’m immune to the sun now.”

At the increase in the intensity of her astonished expression, Spike laughed harder. “It’s a long story, pet. Nice to know you’ve forgiven me, though.”

Spike pulled her back out into the sun and they walked toward her car. He reached out a hand and lightly squeezed her shoulder. “Rough day, huh?” he said, trying to get her to talk.

“Yeah.” The pain of the last few days and hours came rushing back to the front of her mind and her eyes flooded with tears.

“Let’s go get something to drink, okay?” He said consolingly. “Then you can tell ol’ Spikey all about it.”

She rolled her eyes and Pfft’d. “Just so long as you spill what’s making your eyes so sad, you’ve got yourself a date.”

His confident grin disappeared as the mask fell slightly, his own pain flashing in his eyes. “I’d say that sounds fair,” he agreed.

A half hour later they were ensconced in the cozy, sunny corner of an outdoor café. Giant tropical plants bordered them on three sides, both muffling the passing traffic and shielding them from the curious stares of passers-by. They’d ordered a bottle of wine and were waiting for their food to arrive, but neither was paying much attention to the happenings around them. Both were too engrossed in the stories of each other’s misery to acknowledge anything else.

“So you watched them?” Cordelia said in disbelief, her dismay evident.

“Yeah,” he said, remembering bitterly. “And that First psycho was there right next to me in the shadows, in Buffy’s form, no less, whispering what a bitch she was and how she didn’t deserve me, driving the stake so much farther in that I couldn’t take it and I left.”

Cordelia just shook her head. Part of her was still reeling from the fact that while she was in a coma, Angel was off sucking face with his ex-girlfriend. It was true that Cordelia didn’t really have a claim on him then, but she still felt betrayed.

Spike continued with his story. “I didn’t get very far away before morbid curiosity got the better of me and I went creeping back. They were outside the crypt talking, and it was bloody awful.”

He grimaced at the memory and downed the rest of his wine in a big gulp. “She was talking some stupid nonsense about cookie dough and how she wasn’t done yet or some metaphorical rot like that. She did say, and I quote, ‘Spike is in my heart,’ but she turned right around and practically promised that all Angel had to do was wait around and eventually she’d come crawling back. Damn near broke my heart in two right there on the spot.”

Cordelia swallowed a big gulp of wine too, taking comfort in the tinglies that were already starting to soften the edges of her pain. “So then you got immune to the sun, huh?”

Smiling at that, Spike continued. “Peaches brought this mystical necklace that helped us defeat the First. I wore it as a ‘Champion’, if you can imagine that, and went up in flames for Buffy. She told me she loved me, but it was obvious in her eyes that she didn’t love me like I wanted her to. I knew then that she probably never would, so when I crawled out of the rubble and found out I could walk in the sunlight, I just disappeared. She doesn’t know I survived.”

Eyeing him surreptitiously, Cordelia warred with herself as to whether she should tell him that Buffy was here. It was obvious that Spike was as heartbroken as she was, and she knew that the knowledge would only add to his pain. But finding out by surprise was going to be even worse, and she didn’t want him to go through that.

“Spike, Buffy’s here,” she said simply, softly to cushion the blow.

His head jerked up and his beautiful blue eyes searched hers. “Here? In L.A.? I thought she was in San Diego.”

Cordelia nodded. “Angel’s soul is permanent. Wesley found some kind of patch or something that makes it as secure as yours, like he’d sought it himself instead of being cursed.”

Spike nearly growled at her words. He’d gone through countless forms of torture to get this soul, and Angel got his handed to him on a silver platter? Totally unfair.

She continued, unaware of his indignation. “Then he called Buffy, and she came running to be with him. I guess post-Sunnydale slayage isn’t all that great after all.”

“Buffy’s staying with the poof?” Spike asked, hoping she’d say no.

“Yup. All cuddly at his new apartment,” she said bitterly.

“I need to see her,” Spike said, his eyes staring off into nothingness as he anticipated their reunion.

She smiled at him and raised her eyebrow. “I thought you’d given up on her,” she reminded him.

He frowned and rolled his eyes. “That’s what I tell myself, every single minute of the day. But you know as well as I do that you never really give up. You can’t tell me that you don’t go through the same thing with Angel.”

Suddenly the pain in Cordelia’s eyes nearly overwhelmed him. In a twisted way it comforted him, knowing that someone else suffered as much as he did.

“I love him, Spike. I try not to. God, I try, but I can’t help it.”

She looked down at the table, her vision blurry as she rubbed her index finger over the edge of her wineglass. “I lost almost a year of my life when I was body snatched, and Angel can’t seem to get past it. I can see it in his eyes. He can’t look at me without remembering the awful things that my evil twin did, and I can’t apologize because I didn’t do any of it. He’s punishing me for everything I didn’t do, and I don’t know how to fix it.”

Each word she spoke grew softer and thicker with the tears clogging her throat, and at the end, they welled up and spilled over, rolling down her cheeks.

“And now he’s with Buffy. His soul is permanent, and he’s trying to find the happiness that has always eluded him.”

Her tortured eyes came up and locked with Spike’s, his face as intense as hers as he listened in pained silence.

“More than anything, I just want my best friend back. It’s true that I’m in love with him, but I would settle for what we had before because I don’t want to lose him completely. The pitiful thing is that I would let Buffy have him if I knew that it would make him happy. I would stand back and watch them together, as painful as that would be, if I knew that he could find perfect happiness with her.”

She paused, the intensity becoming too much. Spike waited, feeling her pain as keenly as he felt his own.

“But I don’t think he can be happy with her, not anymore. She needs you, not him. He needs me, not her. And that’s not the selfishness in me talking, it’s the truth.”

Spike nodded, sensing the rightness of her words. “You’ve got it, pet. The problem is, I don’t think we’ll get them to see that truth until they both fall apart.”

“But you still have to see her, don’t you,” Cordelia said. It was a statement, not a question.

“Yeah,” he said wryly. “I’m a glutton for punishment. But I have to know how she feels. I have to look her in the eyes as she tells me that she loves him, not me. I can’t leave the hope behind unless she does.”

Cordelia silently agreed with him, but she knew that even hearing those words and seeing the determination in the eyes of your loved one wouldn’t even succeed in erasing the hope or the love. Angel had told her point blank the other night that he wanted Buffy, not her, and it hadn’t let her move on. But she understood what Spike was saying.

As she looked across the table at her partner in misery, Cordelia was struck with a flash of brilliance.

“Spike, where are you staying?”

He just stared at her for a moment, trying to process the change in topic. “Staying? Uh, nowhere, really. A hotel.”

“I’ve got a hotel,” she said, smiling slightly. “Wanna move in?”

He grinned at her, the first real smile she’d seen from him since they’d entered the café. “You’re still at Angel’s hotel?”

“Yeah,” she said, sighing. “It has comforting memories, and I don’t feel at home anywhere else. I could use a roommate, if you’re interested.”

He reached his hand across the table and squeezed hers. “Thanks, cheerleader, but I think I’m going to try to make it on my own for awhile. I’ll make sure I visit, though.”

Just then, the waiter arrived with her meal. As he placed the food in front of her, Cordelia tried to hide her disappointment. Living with Spike was something she’d never, ever thought she’d want, but after just one afternoon with him, she knew she’d found a friend that would stand by her through anything. Having his presence in the hotel would take away some of the pain of losing Angel, and she was sad that he didn’t accept her offer.

“If you change your mind, come on by,” she said, her eyes begging him to reconsider.

“Thanks, luv,” Spike said. “I’ll definitely remember that.”

She dug into her food, suddenly ravenous after spilling her guts. Already, she was feeling her pain beginning to recede in the warmth of a friendly presence. As she ate, Spike began to entertain her with stories of Xander and his dorkiness right up to the final battle, and the afternoon slowly turned from torture to healing.
Part 6

Unrequited love is a lot like water torture. It’s a steady drip-drip-drip of water on the middle of your forehead, soft enough to be harmless but hard enough to notice. Each encounter with the one you love feels like one of those drops, spaced just far enough apart to let you put your guard down, then DRIP, you see her beautiful face and feel that rejection so keenly once again.

You walk away from the encounter stunned and jolted, your insides whipped into a froth of confusion and pain, and you become determined to find a way to avoid these heart-wrenching emotions the next time you see her. You’re a strong individual; you can find a way to beat this. If she doesn’t want you, then by god, you can find a way to stop that drip and take away the torture and misery.

Then, just when you think you’ve fixed the leak, that you’ve found the one thing to patch it up so you won’t have to deal with those hurtful feelings anymore, there she is again. This time, drip has quickened, each drop stronger and more painful than you thought possible. The drops come harder and faster, suddenly running into a stream of water that blinds your eyes and courses hotly down your cheeks like tears.

Finally, there comes a point where you tilt your head back, open your mouth and pray to drown, giving in to the hopelessness and clinging to the only foreseeable means of escape.

***

Stalking the streets of L.A. really isn’t that much different than stalking the streets of Sunnydale. Sure, the asphalt is oilier, the air is smoggier, the nasties are nastier, but when push comes to shove, demons are still demons, and patrolling isn’t really all that different.

Buffy, despite the months that had passed since she’d become not the only Slayer but one of many, still felt that compulsion to patrol. She still felt the need to seek out evil and destroy it, no matter what city she was calling her home. L.A. had more than its share of bad guys, and Buffy was glad that she could do some good here. It took the edge off the gnawing emptiness in her gut to be able to kill something every now and then.

She’d put up a good front for Angel since she’d gotten here, but she was far from the relaxed, settled person she projected every day. She made out like she was happy she wasn’t the only Slayer anymore, that she could retire with ease and let someone else handle the inevitable apocalypses.

In reality, she longed for the days when black was black and white was white, when good was distinguishable from bad and she knew her mission in life. She’d only felt that clarity once since being resurrected three years ago, and that was the night before they fought the final battle with the First, the last night she’d spent in the strong, comforting arms of Spike.

If she’d admit it to herself, her heart was still branded with the touch, taste, and feel of Spike. She knew that she’d never really get over him. When she told him she loved him on the night he sacrificed himself for her cause, she had been surprised to realize that she meant it. He hadn’t believed her, and she hadn’t had time to insist, but she’d run up those stairs with the lead weight of remorse in her gut, dragging her down.

Ever since then, she’d walked around wondering if she had acknowledged that love sooner, would it have made a difference? She was haunted by dreams of him nearly every night, dreams in which she was able to save him, to love him, to beg his forgiveness for the harshness of her words and actions.

If only to be given a second chance.

But then again, she had. She’d been given a second chance with the former owner of her heart, and was content to be here in L.A., content to sleep in Angel’s spare room. Her heart beat rapidly as she anticipated the day they would stoke the flames of their old love into a bonfire. She even felt a little tingly at the thought of kissing him again, feeling his strong arms around her as they were finally free to explore their relationship in the fullest sense possible.

She always felt they’d been cheated the first time around, their first and only physical joining tainted by the return of Angelus. The memories of that night were still burned in her brain, the tenderness of Angel’s embrace, his soft words of love, his worshipful appreciation of her body and her innocence.

But even though she remembered that night fondly, and part of her wanted that again, she couldn’t help but feel that the time for rekindling that flame had passed. That she’d given her heart into the keeping of another, and giving it back to Angel would be a traitorous action to that one person who’d sacrificed everything for her, the one person she’d never given anything in return.

***

Hanging back a block or so, Spike’s dead heart swelled in his chest as he watched Buffy walk purposefully down a filthy alley near downtown L.A. His mind was racing, his thoughts running in ten thousand different directions as he geared himself up for this reunion. He still wanted her, so very badly, that he could hardly calm himself down enough to approach her. So much was riding on this. He had to find out for himself that she wanted Angel, not him.

Even now, his gut clenched as he thought about Buffy back in the arms of his grandsire. He growled without even thinking about it, his hands becoming tight fists in his anger.

Cordelia was right: Angel wasn’t what Buffy needed. He was. And damn it, he wanted so badly to make her see that. But deep down, he knew it had to be her decision. He’d tried to force her once, and all that had brought him was several lifetimes of guilt.

Before he let himself get too engrossed in his volatile emotions, Spike hurriedly closed the distance between himself and the small blonde in front of him. Just as he was about to reveal his presence, two vampires jumped out from a cross alley and attacked her. Leaning against the building nearby, he watched her fight, his mouth turned up in a proud smile as Buffy reduced the fledglings to dust in a matter of minutes. She was music personified, her hands and feet moving gracefully with each punch and kick. He grinned at her wisecrack she delivered just before she plunged her stake into the heart of the second vampire.

Walking forward, his casual bearing hiding his ruffled nerves, Spike began to clap, the slap of his hands echoing like gunshots in the small alleyway. Buffy spun around, her stake at the ready, then swayed on her feet as she saw the apparition before her.

“I see you’ve still got your moves, Slayer,” Spike said with a small smile, coming to stand just feet in front of her. “Wouldn’t do for the Chosen One to get out of practice, now would it?”

“S-Spike?” She whispered, lowering her stake and shoving it into her pocket. Her eyes were wide, her mouth slightly open as she gasped for breath in her surprise, tears stinging her eyes. “Oh, god. Spike!”

Her cry was music to his ears as she rushed at him, jumping and throwing her arms around his neck and squeezing tightly. “How is this possible? You’re supposed to be dead!” she whispered in his ear. She held tightly, her toes barely brushing the ground. The torrent of emotions flowing through her was bowling her over, so much so that at first, she didn’t realize he wasn’t hugging her back.

Having her arms around him was just too much for Spike. He could smell Angel on her and it angered him. He could tell they hadn’t had sex, at least not recently, but the thought of her in Angel’s care made him so jealous he couldn’t see straight. He was desperate to get away from the scent.

After a moment of silence, she untangled her arms from around his neck and dropped to the ground, stepping back from him and searching his face in confusion. His expression was a neutral mask, not at all the loving welcome she’d imagined in her dreams

She spoke, her heart still pounding as she drank in the sight of him. She was desperate for answers, so desperate that she was willing to ignore his coldness for now.

“What happened to you?” she asked in a rush. “I thought the explosion at the Hellmouth killed you!”

He shrugged, still cautious and trying to control his anger over Angel’s interference. “That little necklace scorched me right through, but I came away from it a little better off. Made me able to walk in daylight, nearly invincible.”

She stared at him in shock as she digested this, still reeling at his nonchalant attitude. She knew him well enough to realize that it was a front, a mask covering his more painful emotions, but she didn’t know where they stemmed from, not yet.

“Why didn’t you find me?” she asked quietly.

“You were always saying you were better off without me, so I finally listened,” he said with a shrug. “’Sides, word is that you’re back with the Poof now, anyway.”

Gaping at him, Buffy didn’t know what to say. Just seeing him again brought back a flood of feelings she hadn’t begun to deal with, and now he wanted her to explain Angel? Obviously that was where his hang-up was coming from. It always came back to this. Her and Angel.

She decided to address his reasons for abandoning her first.

“My life was better with you in it, Spike, and you know it,” she admonished him. “And Angel,” she paused, searching for words. “Angel understands what I’m going through. He asked me to come here, and I needed to be with him.”

Spike’s heart splintered at her words. Even after what he’d done for her, how much he’d shown he loved her, she still didn’t want him. Yet he still clung to a sliver of hope. Maybe, just maybe, she would chose him.

“I seem to remember you telling me you loved me,” Spike reminded her, trying not to sound too needy.

She smiled slightly at him. “And you didn’t believe me, did you?” she answered.

He shrugged. “You still said it, luv. And here I see that you’re all cozy with your ex, and I’m not even dust.”

“But I didn’t know that!” she said, exasperated.

“And now that you know I’m still around? Does it make any difference?” He sounded nonchalant, but inside, every muscle tensed in anticipation of her answer.

She was quiet all of a sudden. Too quiet. Her mouth opened and closed as she tried to find the words to say.

Spike stiffened as he saw her hesitate. That hesitation was the death knell to his hope, the silence rushing in his ears.

With jerky motions, he dragged his pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one quickly, taking a drag to calm his nerves.

“Well, so that’s the way its going to be, eh?” he said, the corners of his mouth curling up into a mockery of a smile.

“Spike. . .” she said, trailing off. “Angel and I . . . I’ll always have feelings for him, but you and I—” She paused, still trying to find the words to tell him how much he still meant to her, how much she loved him, but they escaped her.

He didn’t let her finish. He was going to come out the winner here, damn it, and he was going to go out in a blaze of glory.

His voice was cold, almost accusing. “No, I get it. You can finally have him, just like you’ve always wanted. You’re precious, soul-having, broody vampire. I know I’ve always been dead last with you, Slayer. I was in love with you once, remember? You made sure I knew I never had a chance, so I guess it’s a good thing I got over that rot.”

Her air left her in a whoosh as if he’d punched her. ‘In love with you once’? As in not in love anymore? She felt a ripping sensation in her chest, suspiciously like that of a heart breaking.

His next words laid her out cold, emotionally speaking.

“It’s bloody wonderful that you’re with your Angel, ‘cause I’ve moved on too. Found me a woman that understands me, one with a body I could touch for eternity and enough fire to warm me until I explode.”

He flicked the ash from his cigarette on the ground and watched the glowing ember as it fell, refusing to meet her eyes as he lied through his teeth.

“Who is she?” Buffy whispered, her still unspoken declaration of love now choking her. She was both dying to hear his explanation and dreading it.

Finally, he looked at her, his eyes icier and more lifeless than she’d ever seen since he’d gained his soul. “Cordelia, my own little cheerleader. Beauty and fire, that one’s got. And lord, what she can do and say with that ripe mouth of hers. . .” he trailed off, a small smile of manufactured pride gracing his lips.

He looked off into the distance, as if he was already with Cordelia in spirit. “And you know what the best part is, Slayer?” he asked softly, the pain in his heart needing retribution, making him want to hurt her like he was hurting.

Buffy numbly shook her head. The thought of Cordelia in Spike’s arms tore her apart, any joy she had at finding Spike alive destroyed with his words.

He continued, his eyes boring into hers as he drove the spikes into her heart. “The best part is that she knows what its like to be tossed aside, ignored, and abused by you bleedin’ hero types. And because of that, she understands how to be loyal.”

Buffy’s jaw dropped as his implications struck home. Cordelia was loyal, but she wasn’t. Her arch rival, the girl she’d always envied, the woman who’d always gotten everything Buffy had ever wanted, was once again taking the one thing she needed to survive. Only Buffy didn’t realize it until it was too late. Spike had moved on, and she was left holding the pieces of her broken heart.

Finally, she found her voice again. “You’re living with her,” she said, a statement, not a question.

He nodded, throwing the remains of his cigarette on the ground and grinding it under his boot. “In Peaches’ old place, the Hyperion.”

Her shoulders stiffened, and she gathered the tattered remains of her pride.

“Well, I hope you’ll be happy with her, Spike.” She tried to come off as supportive, but her tone was tainted with bitter jealousy.

“Oh, I will be, Slayer,” he said, a self-confident smile on his lips. “I will be. See you around.”

With one last defiant look, he turned and strode away, desperate to escape.

Buffy watched him walk away, cut to the core, finally letting her tears fall. She was never more glad that she’d come to Angel than she was right then. At least he still loved her. At least she could run home to him, find solace in his arms, when she was denied the one person she knew she needed more than anyone else. Angel loved her, and she needed to put her feelings for Spike to rest where they belonged.

As he lengthened the distance between them, Spike hated himself a thousand times over. He just couldn’t stand to be there when she turned around and walked away from him, back into the arms of the one man he hated more than anyone else on earth. He’d just slammed the lid to his coffin, every lie he’d told becoming a nail driven in to seal it.

All he’d done was make things worse, and now he had another item to add to his long list of regrets relating to one Buffy Summers, Vampire Slayer.

***

Lost in the world of Dante’s Inferno, Angel was startled as the front door to his apartment slammed open and Buffy came rushing in, her eyes red and puffy from crying. Immediately, he set down the ancient book and stood up, pulling her to his chest and wrapping his strong arms around her.

Buffy sighed at the feel of his embrace, reassuring herself that this was where she belonged. She drank in his scent, staunchly ignoring the twinge of pain as she noted the absence of cigarettes and leather.

“What happened, Buffy?” Angel asked, concerned for her well being. It wasn’t often that he saw the strong young woman so upset over anything, and it was worrisome to see her in this state.

“Just hold me Angel, please?” she whispered, her breath warm against his chest. Her breath hitched as she surrendered to the pain, her hot tears soaking the front of his shirt and burning his cool skin. They stood like that for several moments, Buffy crying silently as Angel stroked her back, his chin resting on her head.

Finally, he pulled back from her and tilted her face up to him, running a finger across her cheek and wiping away her tears. Softly, he leaned down and brushed his lips against hers, tasting the salt of her tears. She leaned into him, opening her mouth for him, and his tongue swooped in, exploring the familiar space and reveling in the taste. She brought back so many memories, so many of them good. It was soft and warm and comforting, but something was missing.

Buffy took solace in the familiarity of the kiss, studiously blocking out the memories of another, the passionate, breath stealing kisses that she’d come to crave only when it was too late.

As their lips brushed each other, in the back of both of their minds came the stark, unsettling realization that something was absent: the fire of their old relationship was gone, leaving a cold pile of ashes in its place.

Both Angel and Buffy quashed the unpleasant discovery and pulled apart, forcing themselves to enjoy the warmth of the kiss instead of dwelling on the lack of fire.

“Are you going to tell me what happened?” he asked softly, knowing that she needed to talk it out.

“I saw Spike,” she said, her lip trembling. “He isn’t dead like I thought, Angel, and . . .” she trailed off, not wanting to reveal the intensity of her feelings to him, even though her behavior told him how upset she was.

Immediately, Angel felt guilty. He knew, after their conversation in the graveyard a few months ago, that Buffy had strong feelings for Spike and would want to know he was still among the undead. But his own anger and animosity towards Spike had prevented him from telling her anything. He should have prepared her, but he hadn’t. He should have warned her, but he didn’t. And now he was left to clean up the emotional mess he could have prevented.

“It bothered you to see him?” he prompted, not wanting to talk about Spike but knowing there was no other way to calm her down.

She sighed, trying not to cry again. “Yeah, it bothered me. And then to find out that he’s with Cordelia now. . . it was just too much to take in at once, you know?”

Her glistening eyes searched his, and Angel felt like he’d been sucker punched. Spike with Cordelia? In what universe was THAT a possibility? The thought of it was ludicrous.

“Spike’s not with Cordelia,” he said emphatically. “He can’t be.”

“Oh, he is,” Buffy said bitterly, biting her lip as she remembered the painful conversation. “He didn’t come right out and say it, but he implied major kissage, if not more. He said he’s living with her at your old hotel.”

Buffy had no idea that her words had just driven a hot poker through Angel’s gut; his outward expression gave away none of his feelings. But the thought of Spike’s hands on Cordelia was enough to make Angel livid. Spike was so wrong for her. He didn’t deserve her.

Controlling his raging emotions, Angel reminded himself once again of his reasons for being here, his reason for having this woman in his arms. Buffy was his key to happiness. But it didn’t mean he had to let his friends make huge mistakes. Cordelia was out of her mind if she wanted Spike.

“Don’t think about him, Buffy. He’s not worth your time. You’re with me. You belong with me. We’ve always wanted this, and we have the rest of our lives to love each other. I don’t want Spike to ruin this chance we have at happiness.”

She looked up at him sadly, trying to take his words to heart, but they sounded like hollow promises to her ears. “You’re right Angel, I just need some time.”

Pulling away from him, she turned to go to her room. Stopping at the entrance of the hallway, she turned back to him. “Thanks, Angel, for everything.”

Forcing a smile, he nodded. “You’re welcome, Buffy. Sweet dreams.”

She turned and disappeared down the darkened hallway, and it wasn’t until he heard the click of her door shutting that he let his features give way to the rage that was flowing inside of him. He refused to explore the reason why, but he needed to kill something. Now. Only the sound and smell of death could soothe his demon tonight.

He shrugged on his coat and stalked off into the night. Maybe he could find a blonde vampire to stake. That would help a whole helluva lot.
Part 7

Spike eyed the front door of the Hyperion hotel with something akin to dread. The sun was about to rise, and his instincts were screaming at him to find shelter, despite his recent immunity to its rays. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Cordelia; on the contrary, he was looking forward to spending more time with the empathetic young woman. It was just that walking through those doors meant surrendering to his defeat. It meant that he’d truly given up on patching things up with Buffy, that he was moving on, and it was a bitter pill to swallow.

Finally coming to a decision, he marched up to the front door and knocked loudly. After several minutes, he waited, then when there was no response, he pounded again. He knew that even though this was a hotel, he wouldn’t gain entrance without an invitation. This was Cordelia’s home now, hotel or not.

His next several knocks went unanswered and he became worried about her safety. He opened the door, deciding to try the entrance anyway. He stuck his hand through the portal, and was surprised to find that no barrier stopped him. Smiling, he crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him.

“I did tell you to come over any time you wanted, dork.” Cordelia’s sleepy voice came from somewhere above him, and he searched the dim lobby, finding her trailing down the stairs slowly.

Yawning widely, she came to stand in front of him, searching his face with bleary eyes.

“Didn’t work out like you’d planned, huh?” she asked, a wry smile on her face.

He laughed humorlessly. “Nope. Pure torture, through and through.”

“Well I could’ve told you that,” she said, rolling her eyes. She turned and walked across the lobby, motioning for him to follow her. She led him into the kitchen, where she turned on the coffee maker, took out a box of cereal, and to his surprise, a jug of blood from the refrigerator.

At his questioning look, she smiled. “Somehow, I knew you’d be here. Went shopping yesterday and it seemed to make sense to stock up.”

Putting a mug of blood in the microwave for him, she proceeded to fix her cereal. After the microwave dinged, she removed the mug, and balanced it and her bowl on her arm as she came back across the kitchen and sat in front of him.

“98.6, just like you fang boys like. I know pigs’ blood isn’t exactly gourmet, but I guess it will do, huh?”

Smiling his thanks, he took a small sip. “It’ll be fine, cheerleader. Thanks for looking out for me.”

She smiled back, a weary, defeated one, but a smile nonetheless. “Well, it looks like all we’ve got is each other, right?”

“Seems that way, pet. Guess we’ll have to make the best of it.”

Taking a big bite of her cereal, Cordelia chewed steadily and peered at him across the table. After swallowing, she asked, “Wanna talk about it?”

He grimaced. “Not really.”

Pausing, he took a sip of his breakfast. He frowned again when he remembered how he’d involved her in his lies to Buffy.

“I guess you should know that I kind of hinted to Buffy that I was shagging you,” he said, figuring that blunt honesty was best with this woman.

She only raised an eyebrow, her spoon pausing halfway to her mouth. “Trying to make her jealous?”

“Yeah, fat lot of good that did. She didn’t exactly fight to keep me, or anything.”

Cordelia seemed to think about it for a moment, then shrugged. “Let her think that. She’ll tell Angel, and it’ll probably make him mad. That’s fine by me.”

The coffee maker buzzed, signaling the end of its cycle. She got up and walked to it, pouring herself a cup of the steaming liquid. With her back turned, she continued her comments, taking her anger out on the hapless appliance.

“I don’t really care what either of them think, anyway. Both of us sacrificed everything for them, and they’ve given up on us, ground our sacrifice into the dirt. I’ll shave my head and walk naked down Hollywood Boulevard before I do anything for Angel again.”

Spike was comforted by her support of his duplicity. He was glad once again that someone else felt this pain as keenly as he did.

Desperate to lighten the somber mood, he set down his mug and perused her face. After a moment, he changed the subject.

“So, cheerleader. What’ve you got for me to do around here? I wouldn’t want to be accused of not earning my keep.”

She squinted at him and assessed his features. “How are you with a hammer and nails?”

He smirked at that. “Well, railroad spikes are generally my tool of choice, but I think I can handle something smaller.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Ha, ha. Funny, blondie. Finish up your piggy cocktail there, and we’ll get started. There’s a lot to do to make this place livable again.”

He watched with fascination as she attacked her cereal, slurping and chewing in a delicate way that was both feminine and efficient. This might not be his first choice of living conditions, but it was bound to be anything but boring. And maybe, just maybe, he and this equally heartbroken woman could help each other heal from the heartless words and actions of those they were trying desperately to leave behind.

***

For what seemed like the millionth time in the last two weeks, Cordelia dipped her tattered paint roller into the tray and coated it with white paint, then brought it up to drag onto the wall. She was speckled with the stuff from head to toe, her fingernails seemingly permanently white, as if she’d gotten bored with the White-Out and used it for fingernail polish instead.

Not wanting to add to the mess, she blew on a stray hair in steady puffs, trying to relocate it to a place where it wasn’t tickling her cheek. She wasn’t successful, but she kept painting, determined to be done. She was on the last room they’d set aside to fix, Fred’s old room, and she was bound and determined to finish today.

“What’s next, Cordy?” Spike’s voice came from behind her, and she paused in her painting long enough to glance back at him.

“You’re done fixing the railing already?”

“Yep. All done. Good as new. Polished and everything, princess,” he said, rather proud of himself for being so domestic.

“Well, grab a roller. This painting is about all we have left. I still want to clean up the basement, but I think that can wait for another day.”

He did as she asked, and they painted in companionable silence for a while. It had been like this for the last two weeks, the two of them working together to get the Hyperion back into livable condition, restoring some of the hominess it had lost in Cordelia’s absence.

Two weeks. Fourteen days, three hours, and twenty two minutes since she’d walked out of Angel’s office and seen Spike. Fourteen days of Angel free living. Every minute of it cruel torture.

This last weekend, she and Spike had rented a few sappy movies and shared a bottle of Jack Daniels, marinating in their misery together. After the liquor had made them a little freer with their feelings, she told him about her “Angel Free” countdown, and he’d nodded in supportive camaraderie. In a way, they were like dried out alcoholics. They were both completely, miserably addicted to these two people, knowing deep down that they’d never really get over them.

But one day at time, with the support of each other, they were surviving. It was hard. Damn hard. Sleepless nights and days full of memories were difficult to get through, but they hadn’t died yet. Every day, they got up and worked themselves to the bone, taking pride in their progress and looking forward to the day when they could be happy again. That day would come if they could only hang on long enough to see it.

Spike’s voice once again intruded into Cordelia’s morose thoughts. “So what do you say we go out tonight, cheerleader?”

She frowned, not wanting to go out and party. “Like to a club?” she asked, sounding anything but enthusiastic.

“Well, maybe not dancing, but we could go have dinner or a drink. Something new, eh?”

“I guess,” she said, not breaking the rhythm of her strokes. “There’s this new Mexican restaurant that I—ahh!”

Dropping her roller, Cordelia’s head whipped back and her eyes glazed over, then shut, as she began to float off the ground. Her hands went out, palms raised, as the vision flashed before her eyes. Spike stood open-mouthed as she levitated, shocked at the sight.

As quickly as it had begun, Cordelia’s vision ended and she floated to the ground, her eyes back to normal.

She smiled at him, a little wobbly, but knowing he needed reassurance. “Whoa, that was kinda freaky. I’d almost forgotten what that feels like. So totally better than the pre demony vision pain, but still major wiggage.”

“That was a vision?” he asked, skeptical.

“Yep,” she nodded. “Whole big techicolor, smelly, brain mushing message from the Powers. Guess they missed the memo where I QUIT!!” she shouted, looking at the ceiling as if she expected the Powers to be floating up there somewhere.

Spike just laughed at her and set his roller down in the pan. Painting seemed to be done for the day.

“I don’t think you can just quit something like that, Cordy,” he said.

“I know,” she said, obviously irritated. She snatched up her roller and put it in the pan, then turned and walked out of the room, stalking down the stairs into the lobby. Spike followed, pausing as she stopped in front of the reception desk.

Whipping around to face him, Cordelia’s expression was pure frustration. “They’re supposed to be all-knowing and crap. You’d think they’d look down here and realize, Hello! their Champion’s gone AWOL, all misguided and obsessed with the law firm from hell. Not exactly in the business of helping the helpless anymore. Who’s supposed to take care of this?”

She crossed her arms and began pacing in front of him. He just leaned against the desk and watched her, smiling inwardly at her angry passion.

“I mean, I can fight and everything, but a slime demon isn’t exactly something I can handle on my own. And they know that, too. And Gunn and Wesley are totally MIA, despite Wesley’s initial good intentions, so what am I supposed to do?”

Spike raised his scarred eyebrow and stared at her as if she were nuts. “I’m not just devilishly handsome, pet, I can fight, too. I can take care of these visions for you. I may not be the ‘chosen’ champion of the powers and all, but I can still help the helpless. I fight better than Angel, anyway,” he bragged.

She smiled beautifully at him. “That’s so sweet, Spike, but I don’t want to get you involved. This is my problem; you’re already doing so much. I don’t want to bother you with this.”

He was insulted. “I’m a master vampire, Cordelia Chase, not some weak fledgling. I can do this. Angel’s being completely irresponsible and its my duty to take care of you.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, trying not to get too excited.

“Of course,” he scoffed. “Piece o’ cake, luv.”

Coming up to him, she caressed his face with her hand. “Thanks, Spike. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

“You’ve been a life saver, Cordelia, it’s the least I can do.”

They shared a moment of miserable silence, not yet able to forget the losses they had in common.

Spike was the first to shake it off. “Now about that vision. . .”

***

The interior of Angel’s office was the darkened tomb it usually was, but the main difference this time was that it was actually night outside, not artificial darkness. His standard glass of whiskey was at his elbow, poured but untouched, and he stared off into the starry night as he pondered the mess that was his life.

He hadn’t seen Cordelia in two weeks, but she consumed his thoughts, a fact that caused him no small amount of irritation. He was constantly forcing his mind back to his girlfriend, back to Buffy, but his traitorous thoughts kept straying to the brown-haired beauty that he couldn’t seem to forget.

He’d begun dreaming about her, the images including his blonde-headed childe. Last night’s had been the most disturbing, an intensely erotic scene of the two of them intertwined in his bed at the hotel, Spike loving Cordelia slowly and tenderly, the way Angel had once dreamed of doing. He’d woken up in vamp face, enraged and desperate to kill Spike slowly and painfully.

Giving in to his frustration, Angel picked up the glass of whisky and downed it in one big gulp, taking comfort in the false warmth it gave him. Cordelia was taking over his life, even if she was no longer in it, and it was getting in the way of his happiness with Buffy.

Maybe if he could just see her, convince her to stay away from Spike, he could move past this and get on with his life. That was it. He would go to the hotel, a friend concerned for her well being, and that should be enough to stop this endless worrying. It had to work. Because if it didn’t, he didn’t know what the hell he was going to do.

***

“Oh, stop whining, you big baby. If you would’ve let me help, you wouldn’t even be hurt.”

Spike winced, his hand holding his side, as Cordelia dragged him out of the car and back into the hotel. It was dark in the lobby, and with her dragging him, she with the inferior night vision, he could only hang on as she tripped down the stairs, jolting him with her. She pulled him to the couch, then went over to turn on the light.

“I told you, Cordelia, I didn’t want you getting hurt. You did your job with the visions. Mine is to fight, remember?” he said, trying not to focus on the pain.

She narrowed her eyes at him, shaking her head and glaring. Stomping over behind the reception desk, she got out the newly restocked first aid kit and brought it back over to him.

“Take off your shirt,” she ordered, wrenching open the kit and bringing out some antiseptic and bandages. “God, you’re so infuriating. It must be a vampire thing. I’m not a helpless, eighteenth century woman here, Spike. Hello! part demon seer who knows how to use an axe. I can decapitate demons with the best of them, so don’t tell me I can’t help.”

He grasped her wrist firmly just before she attacked him with the antiseptic. “Watch it there, cheerleader. You’re supposed to make it better, not worse,” he joked.

“Ha, ha. Very funny, blondie bear,” she said snidely, smirking as she dabbed lightly at his wound.

He groaned, rolling his head back until it rested on the back of the couch, closing his eyes tightly. “God, why did I ever tell you about that? I should’ve known that you’d torture me with it.”

She rolled her eyes. “Pfft. Please. Like I could pass that up? I still can’t believe you were desperate enough to be with Harmony, of all people. And people say I’m an airhead,” she scoffed.

He raised his head again and looked down as she fastened the bandage to his side. “What can I say? I was seriously damaged at the time. Dru had left me and I was obsessed with killing Buffy. Things like that can make a bloke crazy, you know?”

Smiling, she pressed down the last of the tape. “I know,” she said. “But you’re all okay now, right?”

“Yep. Bloody fantastic,” he said, admiring her handiwork. “Good job, pet. Looks like you’ve had some practice.”

At her sudden uncomfortable look, he said, “What, no kiss to make it feel better?”

She giggled at him, rolling her eyes. “Such a whiner,” she said, but leaned down to kiss the snow white bandage on his chiseled stomach. “There, all better!”

But Spike didn’t notice, his chest rumbling in a low growl as he sat up abruptly, pulling Cordelia to the side as he peered into the shadows.

After a moment, Spike sat back, the darkness in his features smoothing out into a self-satisfied smirk. He tightened his grip on Cordelia’s hand, pulling her down next to him on the couch and wrapping his arm around her.

Cordelia’s head whipped toward him in shock as he said, “What the hell do you want, Peaches?”
Part 8
Some say that rage is like a fire, but it’s not. A fire, fearsome though it may be, burns and consumes its fuel quickly, leaving nothing behind but ashes. A fire is over quickly, a passionate flame that burns and dies within minutes. Its life span is short.

Rage embodies an entirely different idea. It creeps up on you like quicksand, first only a mud puddle in your mind, appearing so innocuous that you don’t even notice. It cloaks itself as its less sinister cousins, annoyance or jealousy. It’s a minor irritation, as if you’d stepped in some damp dirt and couldn’t quite scrape it all off your shoes. It’s a tiny niggling that colors your decisions and keeps you awake a few minutes later at night, peppers your dreams with images of a woman you won’t admit you love resting in the arms of someone else. But Rage is still there, whether you notice it or not, and it grows.

Pretty soon, that once harmless dirt clinging to your shoes turns to mud, then to clay that sucks at your feet and slows you down. But despite the hindrance it causes, you explain it away. You say that it’s concern for a friend’s well being, nothing more. She doesn’t know how dangerous he is, but you do. You have to protect her. You aren’t angry, really. You’re just acting righteously on her behalf.

Even though you deny it its rightful name, Rage still holds its power. It begins to consume your thoughts, affecting your sleep and your work and every other facet of your life. But still, you don’t acknowledge it. You trudge on, the sticky substance creeping higher and making your legs heavier and heavier with every step. When you finally notice your folly, it’s too late. You’re waist deep in a quicksand of intense anger that has you trapped, unable to move or get out. And every action you take seems to make you sink, further and further, until you’re up to your chin in a substance so thick you can barely breathe.

As debilitating as rage is, there is a means of escape. If you’ll acknowledge the source of your raging anger and deal with it, you’ll be freed. If you recognize the love for her that caused your rage, you’ll escape. The quicksand will spit you out onto dry land and you’ll walk away with nothing more than a hefty dry cleaning bill. You’ll be free to live your life and explore that love, finding a happiness and joy that has always eluded you.

The only catch is to confront the source before you are smothered by the rage that denial causes. If you don’t acknowledge it, though, if you ignore the love you have inside, if you give in to the jealousy and the rage and the pain, the quicksand will consume you. Your soul will suffocate and leave behind a shell of the person you once were. You’ll destroy yourself, and her, in the process.

***

“What the hell do you want, Peaches?” Spike’s self-satisfied voice made Angel’s already boiling rage come nearly to the point of eruption. Clenching his fists and drawing on what was left of his control, Angel stalked forward and stepped into the edge of the light spilling from the lobby.

“Yes, what do you want, Angel?” Cordelia echoed Spike, her surprise at their visitor now firmly ensconced behind a cold mask of indifference.

Angel came a few steps closer to them, the distance unable to hide the struggle in his features. He was fighting his demon, the edge of his irises rimmed with gold as he warred with the intense feelings inside of him. Every cell in his body was screaming at him to walk over to that couch and yank Cordelia into his arms and shove her far, far away from Spike.

But he didn’t do that. He just stood there, his fists clenched, his jaw set, as he tried to come up with a viable excuse for being there. He finally settled on one, lame though it was.

“I just wanted to see if you were settled in okay, Cordelia,” Angel said softly, unable to hide the edge in his voice.

She arched an eyebrow at him and sunk further back into the cushions.

“We’re settling in just fine, Angel,” she said, putting an emphasis on the collective pronoun. “Spike’s been helping out a lot. We have the place almost back to normal.” She smiled at him, but it was an icy, polite smile, one that chilled even his unnaturally cool self.

“Good,” he said, a ghost of a smile on his face for an instant. “I’m glad its working out for you.”

They lapsed into a silent staring contest, the breaths of one person the only sounds in the room. Knowing it would irritate Angel, Cordelia snuggled in a little closer to Spike. In response, the blonde vampire wrapped his arm more tightly around her, his hand hovering less than an inch from her breast. He flexed his fingers as if he’d reach to stroke her, but didn’t. Inwardly he grinned as he watched Angel tense even more. If looks could kill, Spike would be dust.

Angel’s rage intensified at Spike’s obviously territorial gesture. It already galled him that Spike’s scent was firmly entrenched in this space, and he knew that Cordelia would smell almost as much like Spike as she did like herself. To the vampire in him, it felt as though his property was being tainted, sullied by his grandchile’s presence. To the man in him, he felt the last vestiges of his precarious control over Cordelia slipping away, and he was desperate to find a way to hang on to her.

His eyes narrowed as he zoomed in on the problem.

Spike.

Spike shouldn’t be here. He was dangerous. Spike could hurt her. Spike didn’t deserve to touch her. She was Angel’s best friend, not Spike’s. In that moment of clarity, Angel decided he would see hell freeze over before he’d let Spike get the upper hand.

Shaking the stiffness of his anger out of his shoulders, Angel walked slowly over to the couch opposite the one that Spike and Cordelia were occupying. With tiger-like grace, he draped his big body over the cushions, slouching into the seat, his legs spread wide as he faced them. He shrugged his broad shoulders comfortably into the backrest and propped one booted foot up on the coffee table. Hanging one hand lazily over his thigh and the other along the back of the couch, he took over the space, his presence filling it up as if he lived there once again. Everything in his manner and bearing shouted “control”, and he was not about to relinquish an ounce to the blonde interloper across from him. This was his town. His hotel. His woman. Wait, no, his best friend, he corrected himself.

Time to play dirty.

“So, what have you been doing to fix the place up?” Angel began nonchalantly, as if he were settling in for a long night of idle chitchat. The only telltale sign of his plan to unnerve them was the hot gaze he sent in Cordelia’s direction. “Done some painting, I see.”

Cordelia gritted her teeth and tried not to notice the butterflies in her stomach as he stretched his gorgeous body out in front of her. God, how could she not notice how the dark gray shirt fit him like a second skin? How it hugged every one of the magnificent muscles in his upper body, sculpting his pectorals in a way that made her want to drool as she ran her fingers over him? It was unnerving. And he was doing it on purpose.

“Yeah, we’ve done some painting. And Spike fixed the railing. All we really have left is the basement, and we’ll take care of that next week.”

Angel just nodded, flicking the wrist on his leg in time with his head movement. Automatically, the movement drew Cordelia’s eyes to the apex of his thighs, to the bulge under the fly of his black pants, and her cheeks burned as she looked longer than a few seconds. Okay, so she still wanted him. Badly. But he didn’t have to know that.

In retaliation for his sad little attempts at flustering her, Cordelia curled her legs up under her on the couch and leaned completely into Spike. Looking up at him with an expression of pure concern and sweetness, she gently placed her hand on his chest near the newly applied bandage. Stroking her fingers lightly over his skin, she asked, “How’re you feeling, baby?”

Even Spike was shocked at the endearment, but he recovered quickly, his mouth turning up in a self-satisfied smirk. Running his hand along her arm, he grinned down at her, the perfect picture of a man well pleased by his woman.

The moment that Cordelia’s hand had stroked Spike’s chest, Angel had felt the touch as if it had been for him. Immediately, his plan turned back on him in full force. He’d meant to fluster Cordelia and annoy Spike, but now the joke was on him. His body responded to her fondling of Spike’s chest, hardening instantly and pressing uncomfortably against his fly. Against his will, his mind went back to fantasies he’d conjured months before Cordelia was possessed, fantasies of her tending to his wounds. In his dreams, she’d touch him just like she’d just touched Spike, only her hot mouth would follow the feather-light whisper of her fingers against his skin. Her tongue would reach out, the heat of it burning his skin in a wake of wet fire. He’d curl his fingers in her hair, drawing her lips up to his, stroking the depths of her mouth with his tongue. His hands would curl around her breasts—

Spike’s voice interrupted his fantasy, snapping him cruelly back to the present.

“Yeah, luv,” he answered in a deep, sultry tone. “I’m feelin’ right as rain. Thanks to your magic hands.”

Angel’s jaw tightened at Spike’s possessive tone of voice. Contrary to his lazy position just moments earlier, Angel shot up stiffly, getting to his feet. He towered over Cordelia, his best glowering face in place, and stared her down.

“Can I speak with you for a moment, Cordelia?” he said through clenched teeth.

She glared back up at him, the defiance on her face not betraying the war within her. She wanted to talk to him, to give him a piece of her mind, to scream and rant at him for leaving her alone when she needed him most. But she knew instinctively that if she got away from her security blanket, away from Spike’s reassuring presence, she couldn’t be responsible for what she said. She might fall apart, or she might explode. Not having control like that scared her.

But in the end, she gave up.

“Fine.” She spat the word at him, her reluctance dripping from it. “We’ll talk in Wes’s old office.” She jumped up from the chair and breezed past him, walking purposefully towards the office. Once there, she whirled around and faced him, crossing her arms in a protective gesture.

Seeing her in that stance, her face fixed with the determined, no-nonsense look that he’d fallen in love with, nearly overwhelmed Angel. For a moment, Buffy was nowhere in his mind, and he was back in the old office they’d shared the first year they were all in L.A. The time when Cordelia was her old, bitchy self, when he’d felt the first stirrings of attraction for her. The birth of his love for her. Something inside him broke, a dam feelings that flooded him. He looked at her, the soft curves of her body, the beautiful planes of her face, and he felt a pull that went beyond lust. A longing for her that lent heat to his cold frame.

As quickly as the flood of unacknowledged emotion had come, it departed, and he berated himself for the disloyalty of his body. One wayward thought about Cordelia. . . okay, maybe a few wayward thoughts about Cordelia . . . had his mind and body in a flood of lustful sensations. And to be reminded by his grandchilde’s very presence that she wasn’t his, was never his, was now someone else’s. . . it was just too much.

Even if he didn’t want her anymore. Because he didn’t. Really.

But that didn’t mean she had to make a stupid mistake like this. And he wasn’t going to let her ruin her life without a fight.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Cordy?” Angel hissed, bringing his face within inches of hers.

Okay, so maybe attack mode wasn’t the smartest way to get her back on his side.

“Since when do you care what I do, Angel?” Cordy shot back.

“I will always care about you, Cordelia,” he said softly. “Don’t ruin your life like this. Don’t let Spike in. He’ll hurt you. He doesn’t love you, Cordelia. He can’t.”

She scoffed, a sound that was a harsh echo of her anger. “Please, Angel. Don’t give me that crap. Spike has a soul. Like you. He has a conscience, a grasp on the idea of right and wrong. A desire to preserve life. He won’t hurt me.”

“He might not hurt you physically, Cordelia, but he could take advantage of you.”

She looked at him like he had the intelligence of a turnip. “Are you hard of hearing in your old age, Angel? I said don’t give me that crap. Spike won’t hurt me.”

She turned away from him and began to pace the office in front of him. “You know what really frosts my cookies, Angel? Your almighty, ‘I am god’ attitude about all this. You think you have my best intentions at heart, but you don’t. You’re selfish. You don’t want me, you loathe me, in fact, despite your protestations, but you don’t want to see me with anyone else. You don’t want me with Spike because you don’t want me with anyone.”

Stopping in front of him again, her face flushed in the heat of her indignation.

“You told me the other day that I abandoned you. You knew it was a lie, but you said it anyway.”

There were tears glistening in her eyes, the anger and pain taking a physical, saltwater form. She got right up in his face. “The truth is, Angel, that you abandoned me. I needed you, I needed you more than anyone when I woke up, scared and alone, from that coma. When I’d lost nearly a year of my life. When I’d found out that my body was used to cause terror and destruction to my family. But you shoved me away. You left me, all alone, to pick up the pieces of my life and move on.”

“Cordelia—,” he began, but she cut him off with a swift swipe of her hand.

“Just shut up, Angel. I don’t want to hear it. I’m with Spike now whether you like it or not. I know he doesn’t love me, and I don’t love him. Not yet. But he understands me. He knows what I’m going through like no one else does. He comforts me, pleasures me, completes me in a way that I desperately need right now.”

Her tears spilled over, making angry, wet trails down her cheeks. She welcomed the sting, using them as a reminder of why she was here. why she was pushing him away.

Her voice dropped to a pained whisper. “So don’t come up in here and tell me what’s good for me or what’s not good for me. You gave up that right when you practically slammed your door in my face.”

He opened his mouth as if to speak again, but then thought better of it.

She turned her back on him, wiping at her tears. “Get out, Angel. Get out, and don’t come back. I don’t want you here. Spike doesn’t want you here. Go back to Buffy, try to find your happiness. I want you out of my life, once and for all.”

There was silence behind her, so she turned back around, only to see him staring at her with an undecided look on his face. It was as if he didn’t believe her, didn’t think she really wanted him gone.

He was wrong.

“Get THE HELL OUT OF MY HOTEL, Angel!” she screamed, pointing a finger at the door. “LEAVE!”

At her screech, his face darkened and his eyes flashed gold for just a brief moment. He turned away, striding purposefully toward the door. Without a backward glance at her or Spike, he melted into the shadows of the night.

The silence in the lobby was thick, the tears now coursing freely down Cordy’s face. She’d trailed out of Wes’s office back into the lobby, staring unseeingly at the door that Angel had just exited. Spike walked up behind her, wrapping his arms around her and settling his chin on her head. She turned in his arms, burying her face in his chest, and sobbed. She cried for the loss of her best friend, the loss of her memory, the loss of her family, the loss of the only man she’d ever loved enough to die for. He was gone, and she felt like there was a huge, jagged hole where her heart should be.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

***

The satisfying whoosh of a vamp turning into dust had not been nearly as therapeutic as Angel would have liked. Right after leaving the hotel, he’d sought some physical violence, hoping it would stem the flood of anger that coursed through him. He was livid, infuriated, and underneath it all, desperate. He’d lost the only person who’d stuck by him through everything, despite his good intentions. He’d lost her to the one person he hated more than anyone else.

The anger was consuming him. He needed a distraction. He needed something to help him get his priorities back in line. He needed something that would let him vent his passion and distract him from his anger and pain.

He needed Buffy.

A smile curved his lips as he thought about his girlfriend. She was so beautiful. Always had been. He thought about what it would be like to make love to her, the right way this time, taking all night to relearn her body, to give her the pleasure she’d been denied the first time they’d been together. He quickened his pace in anticipation. That’s what he needed tonight. He needed Buffy’s comfort. He needed her reassurance, her love, to help dispel this feeling of gloom he had after his argument with Cordelia. Making love to Buffy would put everything in perspective again.

He reached his apartment within minutes, flinging open the door and striding in purposefully. He caught Buffy on her way from the bedroom to the kitchen, an empty water glass in her hand. Without so much as a hello, Angel grabbed her, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her close against him.

His mouth descended on hers with barely a warning, crushing his lips to hers in a bruising, passionate kiss. He wasn’t gentle, wasn’t considerate, wasn’t kind. The kiss was meant to wipe away everything but the hunger for her, the passion of it meant to be all consuming. Again and again, his mouth slanted over hers, his tongue plunging deep within her mouth and exploring every crevasse, every dark corner. She tasted of strawberries and mint, the warm bouquet of her flavor savored on his tongue.

A few moments after he’d attacked her with his mouth, he felt her pushing against his chest. He ignored her. She shoved harder, and when he still didn’t respond, she slammed her fists against his chest, shoving him halfway across the room.

Gasping and panting for breath, Buffy turned a flushed face to him. “Geez, Angel? Trying to suffocate me?” she said, making a joke out of it.

He closed the distance she’d put between them, wrapping his arm around her more gently this time. He kissed her again, this time softly and sensually, a reverent taste of her lips.

“No,” he said in answer to her question. “But I want you, Buffy. I need you.”

She searched his eyes, her intuition shouting that he wasn’t telling the whole story. Seeing the secrets hidden in his eyes, she suddenly felt cheap, as if he wasn’t making love with her because he loved her, but because he needed to escape from something else.

She wasn’t about to be his therapy.

Gently pushing him away from her, she smiled softly at him. “Angel, I’m not ready for that yet. I feel like I just got here, like we still have a lot of catching up to do. We’re different people than we were five years ago. I’ve grown and changed a lot since then, and I want you to know the new me, love the new me, before we get physical again.”

He frowned at her, not liking the direction of this conversation. He’d hoped to be in the throes of an orgasm by now, but apparently the fates had other ideas. Figures.

“Please, Angel?” she said, biting her lower lip and looking up at him coyly. “I promise, I’ll make it worth the wait.”

He gave a small smile at that, pulling her into his arms again and giving her a kiss that should have melted her to her toes. “Okay,” he agreed, pulling back. “But I’m going to hold you to that promise.”

“Thanks,” she said, slipping out of his embrace and walking back to her bedroom. As soon as her face was turned away, the soft expression fell, leaving in its place a look of pure guilt.

Tonight, while she’d been on patrol, Buffy had come across a vamp that had reminded her so much of Spike that her heart nearly stopped. The blonde fledgling had been a perfect model of Spike’s cockiness, his fighting dirty and erratic like Spike’s had always been. Not being the master that Spike was, he’d met a dusty end at the point of her stake, but the memories his presence had dredged up had ruined any chance of a romantic entanglement with Angel tonight.

She hadn’t told Angel the truth. She couldn’t sleep with him. Not yet. Not when his kisses did nothing more than incite a lukewarm lust. She wanted to burn for him, but she didn’t. She wanted to dream about him, but she didn’t. Until she could find a way to love him passionately again, she wouldn’t sleep with him.

At least, not until she saw Spike one last time. And if he still didn’t want her, maybe she’d see if she could dredge up a bonfire from the ashes of her first love.

Back in the living room, Angel watched Buffy disappear into the hallway with a feeling suspiciously like relief in his mind. He refused to acknowledge it. So she didn’t want to sleep with him. Fine. There were plenty of other opportunities later.

Going over to the cabinet, he poured himself a glass of whiskey and sat before the fire, staring into the flames. Without trying, his thoughts went back to this evening’s disastrous events.

Cordelia was just upset, he decided. In a few days, when she’d calmed down, he’d go and talk to her, smooth things over. She wouldn’t stay mad at him forever, would she?

***

Spike rocked Cordelia gently in his arms, her sobs having subsided to mere hiccups. He gently rubbed circles on her back, her tears drying on his chest as he comforted her.

“How you doing, luv?” he asked softly, running his hand through her hair.

She pulled her head back and looked up at him, her smile wobbly. “I’m okay now, I think. He just makes me so angry.”

“I know he does, Cordy. And you have every right to want to hack his balls off.”

She choked in her laughter at his vivid word picture. “That would be kinda satisfying. Messy, but satisfying.”

He chuckled. “I think I’d pay to see that, too.”

“You and the rest of the vampire population of L.A.” she added.

Sighing, she snuggled further into his arms. “I still love him,” she admitted. “Even after all that, I can’t let go. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to, Spike. What if I can’t ever let him go?”

Her eyes searched his, the tears welling up again.

“You will, Cordelia. It will work out somehow.”

“He just makes me so angry. Why does he have to be such a heartless jerk?” she groused.

“Well, he did see you do a whole helluva lot of evil things, even if it wasn’t really you, pet.”

“I know.”

“It had to be hard on him. Didn’t you say you thought he loved you at one time?”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice breaking. “We never said it, but I know he did. It was there in everything he did, every word, every touch. But I didn’t realize it until I saw him now, saw how cold he was to me.”

Spike thought about that for a moment. “He was protecting himself by giving up on you. Sorry ass excuse, I know, but I do the same thing.” His statement echoing back in his head brought a low growl of frustration to Spike’s chest. The last thing he wanted to do was defend his sorry ass grandsire, but it looked like he was doing just that.

“Well he’s still a goober.”

Spike laughed. “That’s quite the insult, luv.”

“I ran out of good ones.” She smiled up at him, his blue eyes twinkling and sympathetic all at the same time.

He’s such a good friend, she thought to herself. And God, so yummy.

She’s such a strong woman, he thought to himself. And gorgeous.

Reaching a hand up to stroke his cheek, Cordelia blasted him with one of her mega-watt smiles.

“Thanks for being here for me, Blondie Bear,” she said, taking the pitiful nickname and making it special.

He didn’t respond, cupping her cheek as she was doing with his. Suddenly, the atmosphere changed between them, crackling with a new electricity that hadn’t been there before. Their smiles fell, and his eyes darkened slightly. Her breathing increased, her heart speeding up. It was as if they’d just discovered each other, this playacting at being together taking on a semblance of reality.

And in their pain, in their desperate need for comfort, the reached for each other. Grasping in the dark corners of their sadness, the found reassurance in each other’s eyes.

As if drawn together by magnetic force, Spike’s mouth lowered and briefly touched Cordelia’s. They both froze, Cordelia holding her breath, as they felt the spark of that touch. After a mere moment’s hesitation, Spike repeated the contact, deepening the kiss. In moments, it grew heavier, thicker, the lust in the air becoming nearly tangible. Their mouths moved in fury against each other, their tongues seeking contact as if it were necessary to their very survival.

Giving her room to breathe, Spike pulled his mouth away from hers and trailed cool kisses down the smooth column of her throat, lingering on the tantalizing beat of her pulse. He licked her there, nipping at the skin and making her moan. His hands came up, toying with the hem of her shirt, inching it slowly upwards towards her breasts. His mouth journeyed up again, finding hers and searing her with a cool fire that threatened to swallow her whole. His fingers stroked her flat tummy, dancing a path up to her breast.

But the moment his finger glanced over her nipple, Cordelia jerked her mouth away from his and backed up. Breathing heavily, she stared at him, her eyes wild.

“Spike, what the hell are we doing?”
Part 9

Comfort sex is like bad tequila. Looks great in the bottle, but once you open it, the rottenness pervades everything. It tastes awful and ruins your attempt to drown yourself in your sorrows.

Not all kinds of comfort are dangerous, of course. Most comfort is a good thing. There’s a comforting hug, always a good idea. I mean, who wouldn’t want the arms of a friend around you in a time of crisis? Then there’s the comfort chat, where your best friend verbally castrates your enemy, vowing to see that justice is served. So maybe your friend will never actually will send humiliating nude pictures of your boyfriend to his mother, but you feel vindicated all the same. Finally, there’s familial comfort, when the quirkiness of your family makes you glad that you’re not the only crazy one in the world. You were born that way; you can’t help it.

But the danger lies in comfort sex. It seems so, so right in the beginning. You’re sad. He’s sad. The people you both love are idiots and wouldn’t know love if it bit them in their asses. Your sexual frustration level is off the charts, and he’s the epitome of dead sexy. Your body thrums when he’s near, just reacting to the pure maleness, the electric nature of his being. What you long for is to lose yourself in the passion, forget what can’t ever be, and get some satisfaction wherever you can. With someone who feels your pain because it is his own.

But then, just as you embark on your quest for the ultimate comfort orgasm, you realize just how cheap and wrong this is. Not only are you detached emotionally from him, but your mind has begun to make him into the person you’re trying to escape. Unwillingly, your brain begins to fill in the gaps, to imagine that his chest is bigger, that his biceps are larger, that his hair is darker. You begin to imagine that he doesn’t smell like cigarettes and leather, but like silk and hair gel. And you know, underneath it all, that he’s doing the same thing to you, turning you into someone you’re not.

In your search for comfort, you’ve only compounded the problem. You’ve begun to live the fantasy you wouldn’t let yourself approach in the middle of the night. The thoughts pull you deeper into the vortex of misery, and if you don’t stop this foolish endeavor while you can, you’ll let the comfort turn into the most gut-wrenching pain of all.

***

Cordelia stared at Spike, her eyes wide, lips slightly parted, as she began to realize the ramifications of what they had started.

“Spike, what the hell are we doing?”

For a moment, he just stared back at her, trying to calm his screaming libido.

“I don’t know, Cordelia, but I think we should stop before it gets out of hand.”

They had backed away from each other, like prizefighters seeking the safety of their corners between rounds, and just as wary. Cordelia settled into the far corner of one of the couches and Spike backed against the reception counter, crossing his arms over his bare and bandaged chest as if to put another barrier up between them.

Cordelia’s breath came out in ragged pants as she stared back into Spike’s dark blue eyes. Still tingling from the passion of his mouth on hers, Cordelia felt thousands of little jolts race through her. But even though he’d made her body come alive, her mind screamed at her that she was betraying her true love. Never mind the fact that her so-called true love had just walked out the door. Probably forever.

Spike was just as flustered as Cordelia was. As good as she had tasted, as lush as her curves had been, he’d found himself wishing for someone else. For a shorter frame, a less-curvy body, longer hair, more aggressive mouth. He’d missed Buffy, and it made him angry. He didn’t want to miss her. She didn’t want him. But he couldn’t help the longing that flooded him anyway.

It wasn’t that they didn’t want each other, because on some level, they did. They truly cared about each other as friends, they definitely found each other attractive, and they were both desperately in need for some physical comfort and reassurance. But neither of them could truthfully say that some horizontal wacky could bring them anything more than pain. in the long run, anyway.

“So, are we just going to forget the ill-advised tonsil hockey?” Cordelia asked with a soft smile.

Spike smirked at her, finally able to collect himself enough to tease. “I don’t think I can forget kissing you, pet, but I know what you mean.”

They stared at each other in now-comfortable silence, each thinking about what might have happened if they hadn’t stopped.

“Well, Blondie, I gotta say. You’re one helluva kisser,” Cordelia complimented.

“Thanks, Cheerleader. You’re not to bad yourself. Had some practice, have you?”

She laughed at that, thinking back on her lip lock partners. “Most of my formative kissing phase was logged in various Sunnydale high broom closets with Xander. Can’t say it was necessarily quality time, but quantity does count, doesn’t it?”

Spike made a face like he’d swallowed some really bad blood. “That’s disgusting, Cordelia. I can’t believe you gave that ponce a second glance, let alone spent time snogging him. He didn’t deserve you, then or now.”

She just shrugged. “Maybe not. Xander isn’t exactly my favorite person, but the guy does know how to kiss. But I never let HIM know that, of course.”

He just chuckled. “Devious.”

“Had to keep him under my thumb somehow.” She sighed, a frown returning as she remembered her present circumstances. “If only other people were as easy to manipulate.”

“You wouldn’t love him so much if you could screw with him like that,” Spike said.

She frowned at him. “Yeah, I guess.”

“So what do you say we go out and get that dinner after all?”

“Dinner?”

“We were going to go out tonight, remember? Why should we let Peaches piss on our picnic?”

Cordelia stood up and walked over to him, taking his hand and pulling him upstairs. “You’re right. I’m through with him. Let’s get you changed and we can go out and paint the town red.”

He let her lead him, enjoying the feeling of her warm hand in his. “You do know where that expression comes from, don’t you, luv?” he said with a smile.

She paused for a minute in her trek upstairs, turning back to look at him with a puzzled look. Then his insinuation dawned, and her face scrunched up in disgust.

“Ewww! Please. Don’t tell me everything comes back to some gory vampire lore.”

“Of course it does. Everything comes back to us.”

“Pfft. Is it always a part of the turning to come back with an ego the size of Texas?”

***

One Week Later

The silky, hunter green satin felt heavenly under Buffy’s fingers as she perused the merchandise at Victoria’s Secret. She’d gone out for a day of pampering, a day to herself, something she hadn’t done in years. She’d had time, especially since coming to L.A., but she just hadn’t felt up to it. The last few weeks of lazy relaxation, interspersed with therapeutic, run-of-the-mill patrolling, had rejuvenated her like nothing else had. But the girl in her needed something more. Shopping was the cure-all she needed.

Today, she’d already had a pedicure, a facial, a foot massage, and her colors done. She’d also had her make-up and hair done at the ritziest salon she could find, all paid for under the “Consultant” tab at her boyfriend’s new company. There were some definite benefits to being the girlfriend of the CEO at a major law firm.

She’d walked by the lingerie shop slowly, peering in the windows and trying to decide if she wanted to go in. Eventually, her longing for pretty clothes had won over, and she found herself stroking satin and lace like she hadn’t seen it in ages. It had been awhile since she’d bought lingerie with an intention of someone other than herself enjoying it. Not that she felt any serious heat at the idea of wearing a teddy for Angel. It still bothered her that she felt nothing more than warm loyalty and friendship for him. But try as she might, her lust for him was going nowhere fast. That standstill in their love life had prompted her to seek some help outside of herself. Sexy lingerie just might do the trick.

Sighing, she let the nightgown slip out of her fingers and turned away, glancing at the hundreds of other items in the room. They were a swath of color, every conceivable shade and texture, all constructed for the pleasures of the flesh. After a moment’s glance around the store, one item in particular caught her eye. She wandered over to a display dripping with attire in blood red. One baby doll nightie stood out, the satin and lace confection drawing her to its beauty. She touched it reverently, the color and style bringing a longing to her heart that seemed almost painful. This vivid color, the sexiness of the nightwear, brought back so many memories, all of them of Spike.

Everything seemed to come back to him lately.

It had been nearly three weeks since she saw him in that alley, and her heart was still bruised. Okay, so maybe Spike didn’t want her. Maybe he didn’t love her. Maybe she didn’t love him anymore. But she still lusted after him. She still burned for his touch, still longed to feel his lips beneath hers, longed to feel him inside of her. It wasn’t so much that she wanted him back, because she didn’t. Really. But this lust she had for him was getting in the way of her future with Angel. And that was just unacceptable.

She’d wanted Angel for so long she almost couldn’t remember not wanting him. First, it had been the mystique, the somber, dark beauty that held in her in thrall. He was supposed to be her enemy, but he wasn’t. He was supposed to be evil, but he wasn’t. And that dichotomy, the man inside the demon, had drawn her in like nothing ever had. She’d fallen for him so hard that it had taken her years to recover. It was true that she’d thought herself in love with Riley, but as much as his leaving had hurt her, it had been nothing like when Angel left. With Riley, her pride had been scraped. With Angel, her heart had been torn from her chest, pulverized, and stuffed back in. She’d never been quite the same since.

Now, with the opportunity to rekindle their old relationship, she’d jumped at the chance. She’d sounded less than reluctant when Angel had first called her, but she’d already been in a lonely funk then, anyway. But the moment he’d hung up, she realized that she had a genuine chance at the life she’d always dreamed about. Angel’s arms around her for the rest of her life. His stoic presence at her side. It was more than she’d ever hoped for, and now it was within her grasp.

But then Spike had come back into her life and he was making a mess of everything. His mere presence had set her body on fire, bringing heat to the surface that had lain dormant since their affair after her resurrection. Heat that should have been flooding through her at Angel’s touch. Not to mention that his presence reminded her of her mistake, of the fact that she realized she loved him only too late. Of course, she’d put that love to rest now. It didn’t have anything to do with this lust for him. Nothing at all.

She’d been thinking about seeing Spike for awhile now in an attempt to put her wayward urges to rest. The only thing that had kept her from running to the Hyperion was the fact that Cordelia was there. The last thing Buffy wanted was a confrontation with her high school rival, especially when Cordelia was sleeping with Spike. The thought of them together was enough to make Buffy want to rip the brunette’s head off, and she’d been afraid that she wouldn’t be able to control her anger. But she knew, without a doubt, that if she didn’t see Spike, if she didn’t see them together and know that her own future with Spike was impossible, she wouldn’t be able to put these lustful feelings behind her.

Suddenly, it was as if it all seemed clearer. With renewed determination, Buffy turned her back on the pretty lingerie and exited the store, then the mall. Twenty minutes later, she was standing in front of the doors to the old hotel, nervousness eating away at her. But it had to be done. She had to see him. One last time, and then it would be over. It had to be.

***

Cordelia observed the drying paint with a practiced eye. It looked like even coverage to her, the rich red paint vivid on the wood detailing. It had given just the effect she wanted; stylish, art deco, bringing back some of the hotel’s original charm. It had highlighted the architecture in the lobby in just the right way, making the space come alive and warming it up drastically. She was perched on the top of a wobbly old ladder, unwisely balanced at the foot of the stairs. Her descent proved to be more difficult than she thought, and before she knew it, her foot was sliding and she was dropping the last five rungs. Just before her head hit the floor, strong arms wrapped around her, stopping her.

“Better be careful, there, Cheerleader. Wouldn’t want to lose my only friend.”

Letting out the breath she’d been holding in her terror, Cordy smiled gratefully up at Spike. “I knew you were around here for a reason,” she joked. She placed her hands on his biceps as she straightened herself to her feet, gazing up at him in friendly acceptance. Their bodies brushed each other, but unlike last week, the sparks had dissipated, and what remained was pure, loving friendship.

That was how Buffy found them. Spike with his arms wrapped around Cordelia, Cordy with her hands stroking his arms and staring up at him, one of her signature smiles on her face. They looked like a freakin’ hallmark commercial, and it made Buffy want to puke. Either that or turn and run screaming out the door.

But she was the Slayer. And she would be damned before she would give either of them the satisfaction of seeing her pain.

Stepping into the lobby, she startled the couple with her greeting. “Hey, you two. What’s up?” She sounded cheerful, but was anything but. And Spike and Cordelia knew it, too.

Cordelia gently extracted herself from Spike’s grip, which had turned harsh as he became aware of Buffy’s presence. She also noticed how his jaw had tensed, how his bearing had slouched into his “I’m a badass vampire and nobody better mess with me!” stance. The one that needed a cigarette to fully pull off, and true to form, he was reaching in his coat pocket for his pack and lighter.

Spike wouldn’t let her get very far. Just as she started to step away, he threw his free arm out and draped it over her shoulder, pulling her back against his chest. She sighed, knowing he needed the reassurance of her touch to face Buffy.

Smiling at their guest, Cordelia resigned herself to her fate as Spike’s security blanket.

“Hey, Buffy. How’s it going?”

Buffy stared her down, shooting fire from her eyes as she took in their cozy entanglement. “I’m fine, thanks. I need to talk to Spike, though. D’ya mind?”

She raised an eyebrow at Cordelia, punctuating her annoyance at the brunette’s presence.

Spike just tightened his grip. “Anything you have to say can be said in front of Cordelia. We don’t have any secrets from each other.”

“Spike,” Cordelia said, turning in his arms and looking up at him. “I have stuff to do and Buffy wants to talk to you alone. I’m okay with it.” Silently, she mouthed, “Don’t mess this up, dumbass!”

He frowned at her, but let go.

“Fine. But don’t go far, luv.”

Cordelia just smiled and shook her head at him. “Bye, Buffy.” She waved and left for Wes’s office. Once inside, she left the door open a crack and stood to listen. There was bound to be a lot of heated conversation coming up, and she didn’t want to miss it.

She wasn’t disappointed.

“Spike, I just wanted to see how you were doing,” Buffy said, her hands clasped in front of her as she looked nervously up at him. Usually, she was so calm and collected around him, her hardened walls up. Today, though, she felt soft. Girly. Unable to bury her emotional trauma. She must be PMS’ing. That had to be it. Nothing else would make her insides turn to Jell-o around Spike except for crazy hormones. Because after all, she didn’t love him anymore.

“Sure you did,” Spike said, totally unaware of the battle going on within the Slayer. His own pain was blinding him, and all he could see that she had come back to throw her relationship with Angel in his face. “Since when do you care what I do, Slayer?”

“I’ve cared about you for a long time, Spike,” she said, her eyes searching his. “You know that.”

He snorted, his lip curling up into a sneer. “I don’t need your pity, luv. Go live your fantasy life with Peaches and leave me the hell alone. I’m doing fine without your exalted presence mucking everything up.”

Hurt slammed through her at his words. There was a time when he would’ve said that he couldn’t live without her.

“Spike, I just can’t stand back and let you make a mistake like this. I mean, c’mon. Cordelia? She’s not exactly the brightest lightbulb in the box. You could do so much better.”

The vampire’s gaze turned dark, true anger for the slander of his friend coming to the fore. He may not be in love with the chit, but he did know she was one smart cookie.

“Cordelia’s got ‘nuf brains for three people. Not to mention beauty in spades. What’sa matter, Slayer. Jealous?”

“Ha! Please!” Buffy looked insulted. “Cordelia doesn’t have a damn thing that I want.”

Oops. She realized that mistake the moment it left her mouth.

Spike’s jaw tightened at her inadvertent blow to his ego.

“I didn’t mean it that way, Spike,” Buffy said, stepping closer and reaching her hand out to touch his arm. He shrugged away from her touch as if she were diseased.

“No skin off my back, luv. It’s no secret that you never loved me. I was a fool for ever thinking it would be different.”

“I know that my being with Angel bothers you,” she said, and his whole bearing tensed even more at her words. “Please don’t take this so hard, Spike. You’ve always known where you stood with me. I . . . I could never love you like I loved Angel.” Neither of them noticed her use of the past tense. Cordelia did, though, in her eavesdropping.

“God, I should hope not,” Spike said, scoffing at her. “I’d never want to be in a miserable, god-awful, ill-fated relationship like that. Bloody star-crossed lovers and all that mindless rot.”

She didn’t take his insult well. “What the hell do you mean by that?”

“Just what I said. Your relationship with the Poof has ruined you for anyone else. It was an unhealthy relationship, Buffy, and it still is. You’re not meant for each other. Okay, so you fell in love. Hoo-frickin’-ray. But love does nothing when you aren’t good for each other.”

“Angel is good for me,” she argued. “You just hate him, so you can’t see that.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with it, and you know it,” he said. Walking up to her, he stood right in front of her, staring down at her face. His face was hard, the angled lines of his cheekbone and jaw standing out as his muscles clenched in control. “Maybe all you and I had were a few good shags, but at least we were real with each other. I loved you despite your flaws, and there’s a very long list. There was no pretense between us, no unreal expectations. You knew what I was and you came to me anyway. I knew you didn’t love me, but I loved you anyway. We were real with each other, Buffy, and that’s what’s important.”

“Angel and I are real with each other!” she argued, her eyes flashing.

“You are so delusional, Buffy. Angel has so much emotional baggage it’s a wonder you can even move. He’s always been too wrapped up in his own drama to be the kind of man you need. The kind of demon you need.”

At her now dangerous look, he forged on. “Yeah, pet, I know you don’t want to hear it, but you do need some monster in your man. I’ve told you that before, and I stand by it. Angel may have that, but he loathes it. He doesn’t accept his demon, not like I do. He’s so wrapped up in his own bloody misery that he can’t be the one you need. You need someone who will absorb the violence and the darkness that you need to let off all the time. You need someone who will reflect the light you have back at you.”

He raised his hands and grasped her lightly at the shoulders, drawing her closer. His voice dropped to a low growl in his determination. “You’ve got this rosy picture painted for your future with Angel, but what you can’t see is that it’s fake. An illusion. There’s no possible way it can work for you. You’re both too miserable to help each other out. He isn’t what you need, Buffy. I am.”

He paused and looked down at her, watching the struggle as she warred with her emotions. He could see that she still wanted him, but she didn’t want to accept it. As he watched, he realized that his heart couldn’t take another rejection from Buffy. This time, he wanted to beat her to the punch.

So he let the axe fall.

“I’m the one you need, Buffy, and you’ll realize that one day. But by then, it will be too late. Because I don’t love you anymore.”

In the office, Cordelia knocked her head against the door jamb. Dumbass! He had her so close, and then he went and threw it all away.

Buffy’s mouth had dropped open slightly in surprise. He didn’t love her? Dammit! He was supposed to love her forever, whether she loved him back or not. Against her will, her eyes began to sting with unshed tears.

Seeing her shiny eyes only strengthened Spike’s resolve. “I don’t love you anymore, not when I have someone who loves me for me. Someone who is real, who doesn’t toss my love around like yesterday’s laundry. She’s a real woman, not a silly little girl. Not that you would know what that means.”

Buffy finally found her voice, her anger nearly consuming her. “Shut the hell up, Spike. I don’t know why I even bothered to come over here. You’re obviously in denial.”

She jerked away from him, backing up and heading for the door. “Angel and I are going to work, and you’re wrong. About everything. Cordelia is going to drive you nuts, but you deserve every bit of it.”

Opening the door, she turned her head back for one parting shot. “I hope you’re miserable with your ‘real’ woman.”

With a violent slam of the door, she was gone.

It was silent for a few moments as Spike’s folly echoed in the empty lobby. God, he really had a knack for stabbing himself in the gut and twisting the knife.

“Well that was brilliant, Valentino,” Cordelia said, striding back out into the lobby. “You almost had her convinced, then you went and screwed it all up. You’re never going to get her back if you keep throwing a non-existent love affair in her face,” she pointed out.

“I know that,” he said, still staring at the door. “She can usually see through my bullshit, but I guess she forgot how to do that.”

Cordelia thought about that for a moment. “You know, I noticed something when she was talking. She said ‘I could never love you like I loved Angel.’’

“Why don’t you shove that stake in a little deeper, luv,” he said wryly.

“No, you’re not listening, dork. She said ‘loved.’ as in past tense.”

He stared at her for a moment, then shook his head. “Even if she did, it was just a mistake. She made it clear what she feels.”

“I don’t think so,” Cordelia disagreed. “I think she and Angel are trying to find the spark again and it isn’t there.”

“That’s not just wishful thinking on your part, is it, pet?” Spike said, finally lighting up his cigarette.

“Pfft. No. She just looked sexually frustrated. And you’d think she’d be all glowy with the post-coital love now that she and Angel are shacking up.”

“Wait,” Spike said, beginning to pace. “You’re right. I didn’t smell that on her.”

“Eww! Please don’t share your smelling evidence with me, Please!! That’s totally in overshare territory.”

He ignored her. “I totally would’ve noticed that. And it wasn’t there. I mean, she smells like him, but not that much like him.”

Stopping in front of her, Spike let a huge smile spread over his face. “They aren’t shagging. They aren’t happy. That’s the best news I’ve had in a very long time.”

“Let’s just hope you didn’t drive her to his bed with your little pep talk,” Cordelia said with a smile.

Spike’s smile turned into a grimace. “You just had to go and ruin my good mood. You’re evil, cheerleader.”

“So they tell me.”

***

The book in Angel’s hands had changed from Inferno to War and Peace, but the scene was nearly identical to the one a few weeks ago. Buffy, having just come from a heart-wrenching confrontation with Spike, burst into Angel’s apartment, tears streaming down her face and anger making her cheeks rosy. She’d killed a pack of vampires on her way home, but that had done almost nothing to salve her wounds.

But although the scenes had begun so similarly, the outcome was very, very different.

Angel set the book down on the coffee table, rising to catch her as she barreled past. “Whoa, Buffy. Slow down. What’s going on?”

“I’m just . . . I’m just . . .” more tears spilled over as she looked up at him, her whole body trembling with her frustration and anger.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, her mouth closing firmly.

He raised an eyebrow at her as he stroked her upper arms with his thumbs, trying to soothe her. “Um, okay.”

He was totally at a loss for words. No big surprise there.

She looked up at him, her eyes shiny, her breathing shallow. She took in his features, his beautiful face and eyes, and Spike’s words came flooding back.Your relationship with the Poof has ruined you for anyone else. It was an unhealthy relationship, Buffy, and it still is. You’re not meant for each other. He isn’t what you need, Buffy.

“He’s so wrong,” she whispered, her hand trailing up to cup Angel’s face. “We’re good together, aren’t we, Angel?”

“Yeah, Buffy.” He looked puzzled. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing, Angel. Nothing at all. I just need you, that’s all. I need to be with you. I need to know that we’re forever. That we’ll be together like we’ve always wanted. I need to know that you love me, Angel.”

He didn’t say anything. She stood there, waiting, looking up at him with glistening eyes, and the words were stuck in his throat. How many times had he told her he loved her? How many times had he told her since she’d come here? And now, when the moment was made for those words, he couldn’t force them past his lips. So instead, when words wouldn’t come, he showed her the only way he knew how. But even that seemed wrong. Seemed inadequate. Seemed traitorous. To whom, he wouldn’t say. But something about it just wasn’t right.

Carefully and tenderly, he lowered his lips to hers, tasting her slowly. Their mouths moved together, brushing against each other in a kiss that was perfect in its sweetness. They tasted the past on each other’s lips, their love borne so long ago flowering between them in that moment. But instead of being a beginning to their future, it seemed, in a way, to be a eulogy for their past. A reverent goodbye for the love that would never be again.

Both steadfastly ignoring the warning signs, they plunged on ahead. Buffy’s hands came up to stroke Angel’s chest, teasing his nipples through the thin material of his shirt. Her fingernails lightly scraped him, the sensation pleasant but not arousing. His hands stroked her breasts, squeezing and cupping skillfully, his thumbs rubbing the tips until they couldn’t help but harden, but she felt detached. As if her body were responding without her.

Furious at her inability to surrender to the passion, Buffy became more aggressive. She shoved Angel back down onto the sofa, straddling his hips. Breaking their kiss, she reached for the hem of his shirt and pulled it up over his head. He did the same with hers, reaching around to unfasten her bra. He took a moment to admire the beauty of her body, but strangely, he found himself wishing that she were built differently. He shook the thought off, knowing it was wrong.

He brought her mouth back down to his, claiming it voraciously, making up with skill what he currently lacked in passion. Their hands wandered once again, his delving beneath her pants, unzipping the front and reaching inside, finding that she was damp, but not wet like he knew she should be. She trailed her fingers over his abs, noting that the muscles barely twitched at her touch.

Even amidst all that groping, all the touching that should’ve sent sparks of desire hurtling through their flushed bodies, their eyes never met. They never connected on that emotional level that had always brought them the frenzied oblivion of two lovers who couldn’t get enough of each other. But still, they ignored it.

Her hand strayed to his fly, unbuttoning and unzipping, only to find that he wasn’t even hard yet. Despite the hunger of his mouth, his body told a completely different story. They both stilled as her hand closed around him, their eyes still not meeting. In that moment, the wrongness of this whole endeavor crashed around them both.

Gently, Angel pulled Buffy’s hand away from him, then zipped his pants back up. she grabbed her shirt and slipped it back on, and once their nakedness was covered, they looked into each other’s eyes.

“Buffy, I—,” Angel stopped, not knowing what to say.

She held her finger to his lips, smiling softly. “I know, Angel. The time isn’t right. I guess I’m not as ready as I thought, and neither are you.”

“I’m sorry, Buffy,” he said, his face the picture of contrition.

“It’s okay,” she said. “We have plenty of time to get it right. Why don’t we just hit the sack for tonight?”

She stood up, pulling him with her. “Will you sleep with me, Angel? Just sleep? Hold me?”

He smiled at her softly and nodded.

Without saying another word, Buffy took his hand and pulled him back to his bedroom, closing the door softly behind them.

***

“Angel, you’re such a dumbass. Just let me put some ointment on it, okay?”

“Cordy, vampire here. Got supernatural healing abilities.”

“Duh! But even supernatural isn’t instantaneous. ‘Sides, the ointment keeps infection away.”

He sighed. “Fine. Do whatever makes you feel better.”

Her smile turned sultry as she approached him with the ointment. She placed one hand on the uninjured portion of his chest and pushed him back onto the sofa. Once he was seated, she hiked up her skirt to mid thigh, then straddled him, her thighs squeezing his, her bottom snuggled between his outspread legs.

“Oh, I know what would make me feel better, grr guy.” She unscrewed the cap and squeezed a bit of the medicine out, then spread it on his healing wound.

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?” he asked, distracted by the feel of her fingers on his chest.

“Some more field research on vampire stamina.”

It took a moment, but the light dawned. He reached up and grasped her hips, his fingers pulling her skirt even higher. “I think that can be arranged, Miss Chase. Your test subject is primed and ready.”

She grinned, screwing the cap back onto the tube and putting it aside. She took one finger and ran it slowly down his chest, beginning at the collarbone and ending just below his navel. There, her hand spread out, her palm reaching down to caress the bulge in his pants. “I do believe you’re correct. The subject is definitely primed and ready.”

He growled, his mouth coming up to nip at her chin. He captured her mouth with his, a demanding, breath-stealing kiss that lasted until Cordelia pulled away, gasping for air.

Her tenuous control made him smile. “Shall we commence with the test?”

“Angel!” she breathed. “Enough with the silly roleplaying already. Just make love to me, okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said breathily, running his hands under her skirt. He growled in pleasure when he realized she’d left her underwear at home. “God, I love you so much, Cordy.”

He made short work of her buttons, removing her shirt and bra in record time, and before Cordelia could catch her breath, she was naked atop him.

Her beauty nearly blinded him. High, perfect breasts stared at him, the nipples dark against the rest of her pale flesh. Just seeing her like this, her skin rosy with passion, her mouth swollen from his kisses, made him so painfully hard that he could barely stand it.

Reverently, he reached one hand up to grasp a breast, rolling the tip between his fingers.

“Cordelia—,” he moaned, his mouth descending to taste her. . .

“Angel,” Buffy’s voice roused him from the dream, only to find that he had her in a tight hold, his arm wrapped around her waist and her breast firmly in his grip. His heavy arousal was poking directly into her ass; in fact, as he awoke, he found he was actually grinding himself into her. Once fully awake, he yanked his hand away as if he’d been burned, then scooted a few feet away across the bed.

“Buffy, I’m sorry, I was dreaming, and I—,” he stopped, not wanting to explain any further.

She smiled at him softly. “I know. And I think we have a lot to talk about.”

“I apologized. Isn’t that enough?” He looked scared that she might want him to explain further.

“That’s not what I meant. I just think that a serious conversation is in order when my boyfriend is moaning another woman’s name in his sleep.”

Oh, crap.

“And . . . ,” she paused, a shadow of pain crossing her eyes. “And when I wish that it was someone else grinding his hard-on into my ass.”

He just blinked at her.

“I think a talk might be a good idea,” he said after a moment of enlightening silence. “After a shower. A very cold shower.”
Part 10

Denial is like a hurricane. Somewhere in the midst of it, in the thick of your refusal to admit the truth, there is a serene place, like the eye of the storm. It seems calm; no furious wind, no torrential downpour. You can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the peaceful silence. If you were smart, you’d look around you and see the winds whirling not so far away, the lives being destroyed, the property being damaged.

But instead, you look up at the sky, focusing only on the clarity, not the madness. You cling to the calmness as if it’s your salvation. You pretend that if you just keep moving with the storm, you can keep yourself ensconced in this little corner of oblivion. You keep telling yourself the comfortable lies, hoping in the back of your mind that they won’t blow away and expose the truth you’re trying so hard to ignore.

But inevitably, the storm overtakes you. The wind encircles you, cuts through you. The lies you’ve told yourself whip around you, tearing at your clothes, pelting sand and hail into your face and stinging your eyes. The truth is begging to be heard, and you can’t help but heed it. As you do, your foolishness soaks through you like rain, seeping into every corner of your mind and chilling you to the bone. The stupidity of your denial permeates everything, forcing you to face up to the truth. Forcing you to admit that you love her. Forcing you to take charge and take back what you should never have given up in the first place.

But even though the storm takes its toll, it doesn’t destroy you. The landscape of your life may be littered with the refuse of your bad choices, the carefully erected walls around your heart may have tumbled to nothing more than rubble, but you still have hope. She is still there, still accessible, still malleable. She may swear that she hates you with the fire of a thousand suns, but you know that somewhere in her heart, there resides a soft spot for you. A devotion that you don’t deserve, but you’re determined to get back.

So you shake the rain off, pick up the pieces of your shattered pride, and find a way to rebuild your life. Only this time, you refuse to brave the horrific storms of life without her. This time, you acknowledge the one ingredient that will shelter you from any storm: her love.

***

The hot water pounded on Angel’s back as he rested his forehead on the cold tiled wall of the shower. His raging body had quieted, the stark reality of his miserable life like ice to his desire. He was so desperately in love with Cordelia Chase that it consumed him. He’d walled off the feelings, refused to acknowledge them, but they’d refused to be ignored. His dreams of late had all been themed with her, all of them leaving him hard and aching.

Last night hadn’t been the worst one, but he knew it would’ve been if he’d been alone. Buffy’s presence had prevented him from experiencing the entire dream, and he was strangely thankful. Since the dream hadn’t finished, he’d been forced to acknowledge his feelings. He had to get her back. She was everything to him, and he was desperate not to lose her.

But she was with Spike now.

Unable to control himself, Angel released a low growl that reverberated off the tiled walls. Spike had always been a thorn in his side, but now, he was standing directly between him and the one thing he couldn’t live without. And the worst part was, Cordelia acted like she wanted Spike, not him anymore.

He really had no legitimate reason to want to kill Spike other than his current relationship with Cordelia, and that made Angel feel guilty. Spike was his family, one of the vampires in his line, and the demon in him felt the strong pull of allegiance and loyalty. He was bound as the head of his order to protect Spike, and his soul wasn’t even arguing with that anymore. Spike had a soul himself. He fought on the good side now. That made him family, true family, once again.

Angel just hoped that Cordelia would see reason and he wouldn’t have to challenge Spike for her. That would cause a serious problem.

Now, though, he had to go back out and tell a woman that he truly cared about that he wasn’t in love with her anymore. He had suspicions that she was in love with Spike, but still, he didn’t want to break her heart.

Quickly, he turned to bury his head under the flow of water, then lathered and rinsed his hair. He was anxious to get out and get this over with. Anxious to start looking for a way to get Cordelia back.

***

Buffy listened as the water shut off in the bathroom. The faucets squeaked as he turned the knobs, then she heard the faint rustle of the shower curtain’s rings on the metal bar. Listening to the sounds of Angel’s ablutions, she tried not to think of the mess she now found herself in.

Actually, she’d been in this mess for awhile now, she just hadn’t acknowledged it. After seeing Spike in that alley a few weeks ago, she’d thought she’d done a great job of getting over him. She thought that the naughty dreams at night were just an echo effect. She thought that her lack of interest in Angel was just cold feet, just a hurdle to be jumped because of their long separation.

But now that she knew where his affections lay, the reason he had been so unsure about their relationship, she was able to see her own feelings for what they were. She loved Spike. There were no two ways about it.

And Angel loved Cordelia.

That was still a bitter pill to swallow, even if her own love for the dark vampire was a thing of the past.

“Ready for that heart to heart now, Buffy?”

She looked up to see him standing in front of her, black chinos and unbuttoned silk shirt, his hair slicked down from his shower. Nodding, she stood up and followed him back to the living room. They sat across from each other; she curled up in the chair, he sprawled out on the couch.

They sat for a moment, the silence thick and stifling. Neither of them wanted to say anything, part of their hearts not wanting to let go of the relationship they’d tried so hard to save.

But in the end, the death knell of their love echoed around them. This couldn’t happen. They couldn’t make love. They couldn’t have sex. They couldn’t get back the fiery love they’d once shared.

Because they were both totally, passionately, irrevocably in love with other people.

Clearing his throat, Angel finally raised his eyes to meet Buffy’s. “I don’t know if there’s an easy way to say this.”

“Just say it, Angel. If we owe each other anything, it’s honesty.”

He regarded her for a moment more. “I’m in love with Cordelia.”

Buffy was amazed to feel a flood of relief at his words. The last thing she’d wanted was to break his heart.

Oblivious, Angel continued. “I thought I’d gotten over her, that I’d been able to put those feelings behind me. I even thought that the time she was possessed had erased what love I had for her. But I was lying to myself.”

She smiled slightly. “I kinda figured that out this morning. Dreams have a funny way of telling us what we aren’t willing to admit.”

He only nodded.

After a moment, she asked the question she knew she shouldn’t. “Why Cordelia, Angel? It’s no secret that we don’t like each other, but even looking at her objectively, I don’t see that you two have a whole lot in common.”

Angel tried not to take offense at her words; he knew that she was trying to be diplomatic. But he couldn’t help the rush of anger that came up in defense of Cordelia. He looked for a way to explain that would make Buffy understand.

“She’s not the same person you knew in high school, Buffy. It’s not even that she’s gotten older and matured; that’s what everybody does. Getting the visions made her reevaluate her priorities in a way that brought out the best qualities in her. She didn’t lose the personality that makes her Cordelia Chase, but she honed it and tuned it until she was less self-centered and more compassionate. Having the visions, experiencing the pain of others made my mission hers. It made her see how important her role in all of this is.”

Pausing for a moment, he searched for the words he needed. “We do have a lot in common, Cordelia and I, especially since the nightmare of last year. But even without that, there’s something that makes Cordelia special, something that has drawn me to her from the beginning.”

Knowing that his next words would be a roundabout insult to Buffy’s love for him, Angel looked away from her, his eyes focusing on his fingers as they gripped the arm of the sofa.

“Cordelia accepted me. All of me. The demon and the man, no questions asked. She was wary of my demon, but she realized that I am Angelus, and she loved me anyway. She loved the demon in me, nurtured the demon and the man.”

He raised his head, his eyes searching her down-turned face. “She loved me unconditionally, demon and all. No one has ever done that before.”

Buffy squirmed uncomfortably in her chair, picking at the fringed edge of the pillow she’d squished in her lap. She knew that what he said was true. The Slayer in her couldn’t accept the vampire in him. She, the girl, had fallen in love with him, the man, the soul, but the vampire in him had always been something to be tolerated, not loved and accepted. And now that they were acknowledging the fact that their relationship wasn’t meant to be, it made so much more sense.

“I just hope it’s not to late to get her back,” Angel finished, the worry evident in his voice.

Finally looking up at him, Buffy’s eyes were contrite. “I don’t think it’s too late, Angel. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t be that person for you. Not back in Sunnydale, and not here. But I know that if things were different, if you weren’t in love with Cordelia and I wasn’t in love with Spike, I’m at a place now where I could love your demon. Because I fell in love with Spike when he didn’t have a soul. How it was possible, I don’t know, but it happened.”

“Now it’s my turn,” Angel said with a wry expression. “Why Spike?”

She laughed softly. “I know. There’s no love lost between you and him either, is there?”

He shook his head ruefully. “Spike and I have been at odds with each other since Druscilla turned him. At first, it was Angelus’ need to dominate. But then, later on when he became a master in his own right, it was just intense dislike. He annoys me. Always has. And even the compassion my soul gives me hasn’t helped me tolerate him any better.”

“But you’d die for him,” Buffy stated, daring him to deny it.

His eyes stared back into hers with a dark steadiness. “Damn straight. He may not be my favorite person, but he’s part of my family. Normally, that wouldn’t make a difference, since my family consists of evil vampires, but he’s got a soul now. That puts us back on the same side, and as much as I hate to admit it, that makes me duty bound to protect him with my life.”

Smiling at him, Buffy let her shoulders relax. The last thing she wanted before trying to get Spike back was Angel’s disapproval.

“But I don’t have to like it.”

She laughed. “Nobody expects that of you, Angel.”

“You haven’t answered my question yet,” Angel said. “Why Spike?”

She thought for a moment before answering. “A lot of things, I guess. When I first came back, I was a total wreck. I was spiraling into a really bad place, and Spike was the only real thing I had. Whenever we . . . um,” her eyes darted away from him nervously and she stopped.

Angel just grunted. “I know, Buffy. I don’t like it, but I know. Go on.”

“Whenever I was with him, I felt real. It was so intense, so physical, that it made me come alive again. All of me. Like I wasn’t just a walking corpse anymore. But then I realized how much he loved me and how numb I was inside, how I couldn’t love him back like that. So I broke it off. It was the best thing I ever did.”

“Then why do you want to be with him again, if it was so self-destructive?”

“It wasn’t the relationship with him that was the problem, it was my attitude towards it. I had to become a whole person again before I could open myself up to loving him. But he didn’t understand that. Something in his nature told him that I was his, I just wasn’t admitting it. He didn’t realize that I’d come back to him eventually, because I couldn’t tell him that. I didn’t even know it myself.”

Tears flooded her eyes and she looked blurrily down at the pillow in her lap, her fingers rapidly worrying the edges. “Then he . . . he became so desperate that he tried to force me, and I think it broke him. It was a turning point for both of us. I realized how obsessed he’d become, what I’d done to him, and he realized that he couldn’t stay. So he left in search of his soul.”

“But it wasn’t what he thought it would be.” Of all people, Angel would know.

“No, it wasn’t. He tried to become what he thought I wanted, but when he did, he didn’t think he deserved me. So he played it off, never letting me in again until the end. And that’s when I realized I loved him. When he was about to die and it was too late.”

She didn’t notice, but tears were coursing down her face. “He loves me, Angel. He understands me in a way no one else ever has. There’s just something about him, a pragmatic optimism that just won’t die, won’t let go, won’t give up. Just when I think there’s no hope, there he is with just the words I need to keep going. He knows that I’m susceptible to the darkness in my life, that I’ll run myself down until I’m teetering on the edge of insanity, and no one knows but him. Giles, Willow and Xander have always seen me as this strong, unshakeable person, but Spike knows its just an act. He makes me face up to my fears and confront them, and he helps me see my strengths and weaknesses in a constructive, healthy way. He loves me unconditionally.”

The words were profound in the quiet room, a delayed echo of Angel’s words about Cordelia.

“That’s always been our problem, hasn’t it?” Angel said.

“What?”

Angel sat forward, his elbows resting on his knees. “We’ve never loved each other unconditionally, Buffy. I’ve always held back because I didn’t want to hurt you, because I thought I didn’t deserve you. You’ve always held back, at first because I was a vampire, and then later because of Angelus. We never let go and just trusted each other. I never trusted you to put me first, and you never did, either.”

“You’re right,” she agreed, then let the silence descend once again.

Angel sighed, rubbing a hand over his face, stopping to scratch his jaw. “Looks like we might have a second chance with them, though.”

She smiled half-heartedly. “If they haven’t given up on us all together.”

“I don’t think they’re sleeping together, so maybe we’re not too late.”

She snorted in disbelief. “Of course they’re sleeping together. We threw them aside and made them believe we’re together, like ‘together’ together, and they probably needed the comfort. Just like we tried to get.”

Angel’s eyes narrowed. He doubted Spike would have the same trouble he’d had getting into a heated moment, especially with Cordelia. That woman could melt a glacier; Spike didn’t stand a chance of maintaining control if he wanted to, and Angel doubted he would want to. Spike had always been a spur-of-the-moment kind of vampire.

More to convince himself than anything else, Angel shook his head vehemently. “No, they aren’t. At least not before last week.”

“And how do you know?” Buffy’s gaze was skeptical.

He raised an eyebrow knowingly. “Vampire senses.”

“Oh. OH! Eww! That’s a major overshare, Angel.”

His look turned brooding as her words reverberated. They sounded so much like Cordelia’s words that it made his heart ache.

He had to see her.

Now.

“Let’s go, Buffy. I can’t sit around her and wait any more. The more time we waste, the more they’ll hate us.”

“It’s daylight, Angel.”

He frowned. “Damn. Then sunset. Not a minute later.”

She stood up and faced him. “No arguments here. Grovel batteries charged and ready.”

He groaned. “I hate groveling.”

She smirked at him. “I know, it sucks. But think of the rewards.”

A slow grin spread across Angel’s face as he thought of all the ways he could ‘apologize’ to Cordelia. Lots of naked ways. There may be something to this groveling business after all.

***

“Hurry, Spike! We don’t have much time!”

Cordelia was in a full sprint, quite a feat considering her non-running footwear. She raced up one of the streets nearest the hotel, oblivious to any danger to herself. All she could think about was the child in her vision, the angelic little face that would be destroyed if they didn’t hurry.

“Damn, pet. We should’ve brought a car if you were going to run so fast,” he complained. It wasn’t like he couldn’t move quickly, because he could. Supernatural abilities and all. But he didn’t like to. Especially when Cordelia was taking no precautions for her own safety.

Abruptly, Cordelia stopped, Spike nearly slamming into the back of her. She held up her hand for silence, trying to calm her breathing.

“This is it,” she whispered, nodding toward an alley just a few feet ahead.

“It’s a demon, you said?” Spike asked.

Cordelia nodded. “Yeah. But I don’t know what kind. It’s something I’ve never seen before. It has some really sharp claws, and three rows of teeth. Like those sharks in Australia.”

“The PTB’s give you any instructions for killing it?” Spike said as he pulled a sword from under his coat. He much preferred to fight hand to hand, but hand to claw wasn’t as effective and much messier. Looked like he’d have to use weapons this time.

Looking at him strangely, Cordelia pulled a crossbow from her bag and loaded it. “The Powers are never that specific, Spike. Just slice and dice it, before it does the same to you.”

He sighed, then nodded. “When?”

She glanced at her watch. “I saw the boys watch in my vision. 11:49 p.m. That’s three minutes.”

Just then, they heard the slap of tennis shoes on pavement, the sound growing louder with each step. Hurrying over to the entrance to the alley, they peeked around the corner.

A small boy, no older than eight, was running for his life, turning his head every few seconds to see if the monster was still there.

It was.

Spike would’ve forgot to breathe for a moment if he were human. As it were, he just grasped the handle of his sword more tightly, then stepped casually out in to the alley between the demon and the child. Cordelia jumped in front of the boy and caught him, dragging his struggling form away and off to the side. Once he realized she was trying to help him, he clung to her and sobbed.

“It’s okay, baby,” she whispered, rubbing her hand over his small back. “He won’t hurt you anymore.”

The little boy pried his head away from her chest, the tears coursing down his face. He gasped for breath, then choked out, “The monster will kill him.”

“Spike?” Cordy asked. “My friend?”

The little boy nodded, his face scrunching up as the tears flowed again.

“No,” Cordy reassured him. “Spike’s a superhero. The monster can’t kill him.”

Cordelia just prayed that she was right.

Spike was growing more and more anxious. The moment he’d stepped between the demon and the child, the monster had stopped abruptly, searching Spike with his black eyes and just swaying on his feet. He seemed to be mesmerized by the sight of the vampire, the only sound he made were his claws scraping against each other as he flexed his hands.

Then, it was as if the demon shook himself out of a trance. He looked rapidly around and noticed that his prey had disappeared. Tilting his head back, he let out a loud roar of indignation.

“Bullocks,” Spike muttered, raising his sword to the ready. He may not have an ice cube’s chance in hell, but at least he would go out fighting.

***

“They should be here,” Angel said worriedly for the fifth time.

Buffy gritted her teeth. God, when had she ever thought his anxiety was sexy? Now it was just downright annoying.

She looked around the hotel lobby, noting the cold cup of coffee and half-eaten pizza on the counter. “Looks like they left in a hurry.”

“Or were taken in a hurry,” Angel added.

Buffy paused a moment to think. “Maybe Cordelia had a vision,” she suggested.

Angel looked at her strangely for a moment, then slowly shook his head. “No. She hasn’t had visions since she woke up. She would’ve told me.”

Raising an eyebrow at him in disbelief, Buffy crossed her arms over her chest. “Oh, really? And why would she do that? You told her you didn’t want her anymore. You were living with me. You said she abandoned you. So why exactly would she come to you?”

Hearing Buffy defend Cordelia was something Angel thought he’d never survive to see. But just because she was defending her didn’t mean she was right.

“They’re messages for me. Why wouldn’t she tell me? Who else would take care of them?”

Buffy just stared at him, a ‘hello? Duh!’ look on her face. Sometimes he was so dense.

The light dawned, and Angel’s jaw clenched. “Spike,” he growled, his hands fisting.

“He’s a champion, too, you know,” Buffy reminded him, the words like salt to his emotional wounds.

“But those are MY visions. And she knows that.”

“No, she doesn’t, not anymore,” Buffy said softly, finally taking pity on him. “She thinks you’ve written her off, so she took what resources she had available to her. Spike can handle it just as well as you can.”

Angel resisted the urge to punch his fist into the marble column just behind him. Growling, he walked over to the weapons cabinet and jerked it open. Yanking out a double-sided axe and a broadsword, he jerked his head toward the door.

“Let’s go.”

Buffy smiled slightly at his determination. She grabbed a short sword and a couple of stakes, tucking them into her sleeves. Following him out the door, she asked, “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know. But I’m following Cordelia’s scent. I don’t think they’re too far away.

***

Spike had known this fight would be difficult, but he still wasn’t prepared. The demon’s claws were nearly as long as his sword, and their length combined with the demon’s arm span made decapitation nearly impossible. So far, Spike had done nothing more than dodge the claws, ducking and rolling, trying to get underneath and swing up. It hadn’t worked.

Cordelia was anxious as she looked on. It seemed as if Spike were losing, as if he couldn’t get the right angle to kill the beast. The child she held watched in morbid fascination, his lips moving in silent prayer as his guardian angel took on the big bad monster. But even to his young eyes, the situation seemed to be getting grimmer. He whimpered as he imagined what would happen if the blonde man was killed.

Noticing his distress, Cordelia whispered, “Do you live far from here?”

The little boy shook his head and sniffled. Pointing to a building across the street from the end of the alley, he said, “I live there.”

She turned him around to face her, momentarily ignoring Spike’s frustrated growls and the sickening sound of metal scraping against claw.

“Go,” she told the child, pushing him away from the fight and toward his home. “You’ll be safe. Go inside and don’t come out again until morning.”

He nodded, fresh tears streaming down his face. “Don’t let him die,” he said, his voice breaking.

“I won’t,” Cordelia promised, her eyes not leaving him until he was safely behind the doors of the apartment building. Only then did she turn back to the battle.

She couldn’t have picked a worse time. Spike had feinted left, but the demon had outsmarted him. One moment, Spike was swaying on the balls of his feet, looking for an opening to thrust his sword, and the next, two huge claws were sliding into his torso like stickpins into a cushion. Cordelia shrieked, her hands covering her mouth as she sank to her knees. Spike’s mouth opened wide in pain and shock, barely able to grip his sword. He looked down as the beast began to lift him off the ground, his feet dangling.

It was then that Spike realized his opportunity. Being skewered had lessened the distance between his sword and the demon, and it gave him the extra room he needed to get the job done.

Blocking out the pain, Spike raised his sword and swung. It sliced cleanly through the demon’s neck, his head sliding off the body and landing with a gruesome plop on the sidewalk. As the body fell, the claws slowly slid out of his body and he slumped on the sidewalk.

Cordelia ran up to his side, tears streaming down her face. “Oh, my god, Spike.”

She placed a hand over the gaping wounds in his stomach, his borrowed blood already slowing. “We’ve got to get you back to the hotel.”

He gritted his teeth and groaned. “Don’t think I’ve had an injury quite like this one,” he muttered, struggling to his feet.

Raising a bloody hand to his face, Cordelia stroked his jaw. Kissing him on the cheek, she wrapped her arm firmly around him. “Good thing we’re close to home. Close to blood to heal you up and a bed to rest in.”

“Good thing you’re around, Cheerleader,” he said, trying not to hiss with the pain as they began to move.

“That’s me, first aid girl,” Cordelia said, trying to sound cheerful. “And it’s a good thing you’re around. There’s no way I could’ve taken on that demon by myself and survived. Besides,” she added, “Playing nurse is always fun.” She winked at him saucily.

Just as she’d predicted, the comment brought a smile to his face. “Just as long as you give me a sponge bath, we’ll call it even.”

“You got it, Blondie Bear.”

From the other end of the alley, two tortured souls looked on. One, the vampire, seethed with anger as he watched his love comfort another. Any thoughts of loyalty to and acceptance of his childer had flown to the four winds. He burned with rage as he watched his grandchilde tightly grasp her waist, heard his suggestive comments. This entire situation was completely unacceptable.

The other soul, the Slayer, was just as upset, but her anger was tinged with a bit of helplessness. She’d watched her love be shish-ka-bobbed by the demon, her heart beating rapidly as she feared for his safety. She’d felt a rush of pride as he’d pushed aside his pain and killed it. Desperate to rush to his aid, she’d nearly run over to him and thrown the other young woman aside, wanting to tend to him by herself. But she’d had no time. Before either she or her companion could interfere, the couple had already started toward home, moving away from them.
Part 11

Cordelia opened the door to the hotel, pulling Spike in behind her. They walked carefully, Spike’s steps uncertain, his face contorted in pain. When she’d tended to his wounds awhile back, they had been nowhere near this serious. But at least he wasn’t dust. At least he would recover, even if it was painful.

Escorting him over to the sofa, Cordelia made sure he was somewhat comfortable before she left to get the first aid kit. While she was gone, Spike stripped off his shirt and inspected his wounds. They were ugly, a set of nearly two inch round puncture marks that went all the way through, right where his lungs were. If he’d been living, he would’ve died mere moments after he was skewered. They were already starting to heal, one of the many benefits of immortality.

Mere minutes later, Cordelia was back at his side, thrusting a mug of blood into his hand and scrutinizing his injuries with a practiced eye. She blocked out her worry for him, blocked out everything but her need to patch him up.

“Turn over, let me do the back first.” He did as she asked, kneeling on the sofa so he wouldn’t rub the wounds on his stomach.

Taking a bandage out of the kit, she poured some antiseptic on it and gingerly cleansed the two holes.

Spike hissed with pain at her ministrations. “This déjà vu thing is not all its cracked up to be, pet,” he said, his forehead resting on the back of the couch.

He barely felt her put the bandages on, her touch was so gentle.

“Turn back over,” she said softly, pushing at him gently.

He did, slumping in the seat so that his head could rest on the cushions. Once he was settled, she straddled him, sitting far back on his knees, wanting the best access for patching him up.

“Déjà vu? What, you mean you don’t like me playing nurse?” she said with a smile, remembering the last time she’d patched him up and their grope-fest afterward.

He took a gulp from the nearly-forgotten mug before answering. “Oh, having your hands on me is about as far from misery as possible, but I don’t like what I have to do to get it. You’d think a bloke could just smile and wink, but you modern girls make a man work for his jollies.”

“Hell yeah. I don’t put out for just any cute undead guy I see.” Their light banter helped him focus on something other than the pain. Actually, though, it was lessening. The blood was doing its magic, and he was already well on his way to recovery. She placed the last of the tape on the bandages, then sat back, her hands resting on his thighs, and smiled at him.

“All better, Blondie Bear,” she grinned. He just rolled his eyes and chuckled.

“Blondie bear? What kind of lame ass nickname is that?”

Both Cordelia and Spike’s eyes whipped over to the owner of the voice, Spike’s chest clenching and Cordelia’s anger rising. Buffy’s sarcasm wasn’t lost on either of them.

“I thought we’d gotten rid of you, Slayer,” Spike said, the words nearly emotionless. Right now he couldn’t think, he’d been so caught off guard.

“Are you okay, Spike?” Buffy said, a softness creeping into her voice, her eyes searching him.

She and Angel had entered the hotel just as Cordelia had come back into the lobby, and stood silently as she patched him up. Both of them ached to be a player in that scene, Buffy to be the one on Spike’s lap, Angel to be the one that Cordy was fussing over. But after a moment of guilty observation, Buffy’s longing turned to anger. Cordelia had no right to have her hands all over Spike. He loved her, not Cordelia. All of a sudden, the long list of Cordelia’s faults began to run through her head. This was not going to happen, not if she could help it.

She moved closer, blocking Cordelia’s presence out in her concern for him.

Cordelia wouldn’t be so easily pushed aside. Knowing that Spike was torn up whenever Buffy was around, she felt an urge to protect him.

“He’s fine. Healing nicely, as vamps are known to do. What do you want?” Cordelia asked harshly. Her breath caught as Angel melted out of the shadows, coming to stand near Buffy.

“I want to talk to you, and Buffy wants to talk to Spike,” Angel said carefully. His observation of the scene had been less heated, but not by much. Now that he’d acknowledged his feelings for Cordelia, all he wanted to do was declare them. But it didn’t stop his demon from howling with rage at the sight of another vampire fondling his property. He had a tight lid on his instincts, trying not to explode at Cordelia’s all-too-friendly position on Spike’s lap.

“Well, that’s kinda funny. Cuz neither of us give a damn about talking to you,” Cordelia said, her eyes flashing as she glared first at Angel, then Buffy. “We’ve got lots of stuff to do, so get lost.”

Spike just smiled up at her, loving how protective she was being. He didn’t need it, but it made him feel good just the same.

“Oh, sure. Stuff. Like what?” Buffy said skeptically.

“Spike’s going to take me shopping. There are some Jimmy Choo’s I’ve been dying to pick up,” Cordelia said, falling back on the stereotype she knew Buffy still held about her. Why should she try to convince the other woman that she was different? She didn’t want to believe it, anyway.

“This is important, Cordy,” Angel said, moving closer to her. He stood directly behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Please?”

He gazed down at her with one of those puppy dog expressions that had always melted her anger and made her want to cuddle up with him forever. She felt herself beginning to succumb, and she hated herself for it.

But Spike wouldn’t let her be the bitch she wanted to be. “S’okay, luv. I’m all right with it if you are.”

“Are you sure?” she said, her eyes concerned.

“Yeah.” Maybe this time it’ll be over, his expression silently said.

“Fine,” she said, turning shuttered eyes up to Angel. “We’ll go out into the courtyard. You two,” she looked at Buffy with a warning in her eyes, “can talk in here.”

Angel followed her as she walked out into the small courtyard, the scent of jasmine thick in the air. The scent nearly shredded his resolve, the images of Cordelia’s possessed self flooding back in his mind. He fought for control, fought to regain the confidence in loving her that he’d so recently accepted. Wanting to get back some of his composure, he started with what he figured would be the easiest question first.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were still having visions, Cordelia?”

***

The tension between Buffy and Spike nearly strangled them both. Once Angel and Cordelia had left for the courtyard, it seemed as if the atmosphere had been completely vacuumed out of the space, leaving only the two of them and their raw emotions. They felt flayed, exposed, vulnerable. Spike was afraid that she would tell him that Angel was better than she’d ever dreamed. Buffy was afraid that Spike would talk about how happy he was with Cordy. Neither of them wanted to be the first to put his or her heart on the chopping block, so they’d settled for silence.

The only problem with that silence was that it allowed Buffy’s misplaced anger at Cordelia to grow, to swell and broil until it pushed aside the apology and declaration of love she’d come here to deliver. All she could think was that she’d lost him, to Cordelia of all people, and she wasn’t going to get him back.

Of course, it was all Cordelia’s fault. Cordelia was a conniving, manipulative little bitch who always wanted what Buffy wanted.

“What is it with you and superficial women, Spike?” Buffy said, sounding one hundred times more condescending than she’d intended. But she ignored it and plowed on in her pain and anger. “I mean, first there was Dru, not exactly the poster girl for either sanity or depth of character. Then there was Harmony. Now that was an example of shallowness personified if I ever saw it.”

Steadfastly ignoring the dark cloud appearing on Spike’s face, Buffy laid the last blow down. “And Cordelia? She may act all goody goody, but underneath, she’s still the conceited, self-centered bitch she was in high school.”

Spike shot up from his chair, ignoring the twinge of pain at the movement. He stalked over to Buffy, growling down into her face. She held her ground, but inside she was shaking. She knew she’d gone too far.

“First, Slayer,” he spat, the word no longer an endearment but an insult. “Dru was my sire. Didn’t have much choice in that, now, did I? And second, Harmony was a mistake. I knew it and she knew it. I couldn’t have Dru or you, so I settled for her. And Cordelia?”

He paused, shaking his head at her as if she were a small child who didn’t understand the simplest of problems. “Cordelia is anything but shallow. She’s got some serious depth, layers upon layers that very few people have had the privilege to explore. She’s been my friend when I’ve had no one else. When the woman I loved was too stupid to love me back. She’s comforted me when I needed it most. Don’t you dare tell me she’s shallow. You don’t know shit about Cordelia, so leave her the hell alone!”

His little speech was enough to shake Buffy to the core. She knew she’d been wrong, that her thoughts about Cordelia were unjustified. She knew that what Angel had told her about Cordelia’s personality transformation was true, but still, in her anger, she’d clung to the jealousy that had been born and nurtured so long ago.

Spike had said she was his friend. But was that all she was?

“Is that all she is, Spike? A friend?” Buffy asked softly, the anger still there but now softened by anxious worry. She wanted to know if they’d slept together, but at the same time, she didn’t. It was torturous.

Spike hesitated before he answered, and it cost him.

Buffy’s jaw clenched as the silence dragged on. Obviously, they’d slept together and Spike wasn’t going to kiss and tell.

“Fine. I get it. Enough said,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. She turned to leave, but he grabbed her arm.

“Buffy—,” he started, but she yanked her arm away, her eyes flashing.

“You have some of the worst decision making skills I’ve ever seen, Spike. Do you honestly think a fuck buddy relationship with Cordelia is good for you? Do you think you’ll get something more out of it than your ‘jollies’?” she said, echoing his joke to Cordelia earlier.

She got closer to him, her voice dropping to a whisper. “You haven’t changed at all. You say your soul made you different, made you a better man. What soul? From where I stand it doesn’t look like you’ve changed at all!”

That was all Spike needed to unleash his angry demon. Growling, he vamped out, grabbed Buffy’s arms, and crushed his lips to hers in a bruising kiss. His fangs scraped her lips as he intended to hurt her, to punish her for her cruel words. But moments after their mouths met, he was lost. He couldn’t hurt her, couldn’t punish her. Just the taste of her was enough to make him weak-kneed. His human features slid back on, and his mouth turned tender. His kisses became loving, sensual. He poured all of his pent up emotion for her into that contact, fearing that it would be his last chance.

The change from furious to gentle nearly undid Buffy’s control. She whimpered under his sweet attack, her tongue seeking his. Tasting him was like coming home, and she melted into his arms, pressing herself fully against him. She loved him so fully, and she put all of that into her kiss. But after a few minutes, it became too much. He didn’t want her. He didn’t love her, he’d slept with Cordelia. And knowing that made the desperation so much more acute.

Spike let her shove him away, but he reached out a hand and turned her face so that she was looking at him. “I told you before, and I’ll tell you again. You can never be happy with Angel because he isn’t what you need. I am. I love you, Buffy, and I always will. I hope that some day you’ll accept that, and then I’ll be here for you.”

He didn’t bother to reassure her that his relationship with Cordelia was platonic. He wanted Buffy to accept him even if he had slept with the cheerleader. Because he almost had. He’d wanted to. And in his mind, that was nearly the same thing.

They stared at each other for a moment more. Then Spike turned and strode up the stairs, away from Buffy, away from the pain.

She just watched him go, her heart torn in two. She wanted him so desperately, but the pain that the knowledge of his relationship with Cordelia brought was just too much to handle right now. If he’d denied it, she would’ve grabbed him and never let go. But he hadn’t. And that was something she’d have to accept before she gave herself to him irrevocably.

***

Outside in the courtyard, Cordelia regarded Angel with nothing short of disdain as he asked her about the visions. She still loved him, there was no doubt about that, but right now she disliked him intensely.

Finally, after a moment of contemplation, she answered him.

“I didn’t tell you I was still having visions because you didn’t seem to care about me one way or the other. Why should I tell you?”

He frowned as he remembered Buffy’s nearly identical words earlier. He still didn’t agree. “I’m the Champion for the Powers, not Spike. I should be the one fighting.”

She snorted indelicately. “You’ve got the evil law firm to run now, don’t you?” she reminded him.

“So?” he said, sounding like a three-year-old.

“So, you’re busy. Besides, like I said, you don’t care anymore.”

“Of course I care!” he shouted. “This is my redemption we’re talking about here, not some side job.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Cordelia muttered. More loudly, she said, “It doesn’t matter, anyway. Spike’s perfectly capable of handling it. He’s a champion, too. He proved that in Sunnydale. So you just go on, play Lawyer Vamp, and have a good time. Just don’t come back.”

Her last words were punctuated by a death glare, the likes of which Angel had never seen. He didn’t know her eyes could express such hatred for him, and it unnerved him.

“Is this what you really want, Cordelia? To never see each other again? We were best friends. We cared about each other, didn’t we? Doesn’t that deserve some recognition?”

In his mind, he was asking for a second chance. But Cordelia took it as manipulation to get what he wanted. To her, it sounded like he was reducing their friendship to a bargaining chip.

Raising her chin and setting her jaw, she nodded once. “Yes. I want you gone, Angel. Go back to Buffy and leave me alone. Please, just leave.”

She spun around on the last phrase, her eyes welling up with tears. She desperately wanted to beg him to stay, to hold her and love her, but he’d made it abundantly clear that he didn’t want her anymore.

“Fine, Cordelia.” Angel finally agreed, staring at her back with longing and sorrow. He’d blown it. She was gone, and he wasn’t getting her back. It felt like his heart was being squished.

“Wait, Angel, I—,” Cordelia spun around, suddenly recognizing her last chance. But he was gone, having left silently at her insistence.

God, she was a fool.

***

God, he was a fool.

The admonishment echoed in his brain with every step that Angel took away from the hotel. He knew he’d blown it. He knew it, because he’d seen a flash of love and longing in her eyes back there, right in the moment when he talked about their relationship. He knew she still loved him, but he’d let himself be swayed by her anger. He hadn’t told her he loved her, and he’d let her push him away.

This time, he wasn’t going to give in to the guilt and brood. This time, he was going to do something about it. He was going to get her back, even if he had to tie her up and play dirty. She wanted him, he wanted her, and they were meant to be together, damn it.
Part 12

Acknowledging your inevitable destiny is like finding shelter in the middle of a blizzard. You’ve been trekking through the blinding white of life, sludging through the problems that you’ve created around yourself, not knowing which way to the warm haven of safety. And in this barren landscape of your inner self, this blizzard isn’t made harmless by your lack of body temperature. You can’t adjust the mental thermostat to compensate like you can the physical. This blizzard of the mind bites and stings as if you were a warm-blooded, breathing, teeth-chattering human being.

You’re mostly geared up for the cold, having erected walls around your heart and in your mind that stand up to the fiercest of winds and the deepest, bone-chilling cold. But even the warmest, snuggest coat of self-preservation is useless against the wearing of time. Your nose has become icy cold as the words of others remind you of your bad choices. Your feet are numb in your thick boots as you stumble, the woolen socks no longer able to keep out the freezing temperature or protect you from the sharp edges of the rocks in your path. Rocks that you threw there yourself, in the midst of making ill-fated alliances and crushing the bond between yourself and friends that would have eased your difficult trek.

You know that you must eventually find shelter, that you must own up to the future that you’re trying so hard to avoid, that you think you’ll never be worthy of. You know that the warm, cheery fire of her love is waiting there for you. That she’s splayed out on the rug before the hearth, waiting to envelop you in her heat and give you the bliss you’ve always dreamed of. You know that in her embrace, you’ll find the happiness that has eluded you for centuries.

But still, you plod on, not seeing the glowing light through the blinding, swirling snow. Your pride has dulled your vision. Your sense of unworthiness has kept your head down, facing the snowy path instead of searching for the guiding light. One thing keeps your eyes fixed on the ice instead of the warm light: her anger. Her pain. She’s seen your denial, felt your rejection of the lifeline she provides you, and it hurts her. Her fear and the soreness of her abused heart have made her strike out, have put a rickety fence between you and the haven you seek. You fear that you won’t be able to scale the barrier, and that fear keeps you out in the cold, away from her.

As you walk along, though, the squeak of the snow beneath your feet, you begin to realize that she’ll take you back, even as she shouts at you to leave and never come back. And that knowledge is ultimately what breaks you, what brings your chin up, what straightens your shoulders and turns your feet in the direction of the flickering light in the distance. It’s what gives you the strength to put your shaky hands on the doorknob and turn it, stumbling into the warm haven of her love and shaking the snow of your folly off onto the floor to melt into nothingness.

In her arms, you’ll find the shelter from the storm. In her presence, you’ll find the home you’ve been denied, the acceptance you’ve craved, and the love-filled bliss that will protect you from the bitterest blizzards that are sure to appear in your future.

***

Angel stood in front of the door of the Hyperion, gearing himself up to enter. He’d gotten halfway back to his apartment when he realized he was making the biggest mistake of his life. He’d given himself a serious pep talk about how he was going to make Cordelia listen to him, make her understand how much he loved her and how sorry he was for being such a cold-hearted prick. But he’d just kept walking toward his home, lost in thought. It took having to pause to cross the street to get him to wake up and realize he should be doing this now. He should be walking back to the Hyperion and talking to her this instant, not waiting for the ‘right time.’ He’d already squandered so much time; he didn’t want to waste any more.

But now that he was in front of the double doors leading into the lobby, hiding in the shadows, he was scared. It galled him; he was two and a half centuries old. He should have nerves of steel. But everything about Cordelia was sacred. Everything about the love they’d shared was too precious to risk. Angel was scared to the marrow of his bones that she’d really meant it when she told him to go away and never come back.

He clung to the hope, though. He’d seen flashes of pain in her eyes, pain that wouldn’t be there if she was indifferent. He’d seen longing in those beautiful hazel depths, longing that wouldn’t be there if she weren’t still in love with him. And he’d seen nothing but friendship in her eyes when she looked at Spike, despite their physical closeness. Once he’d taken off the blinders jealousy had given him, he saw that he had nothing to fear from her relationship with his grandchilde.

Gathering up every reserve of confidence he had, Angel took a calming breath and strode through the doors. The lobby was empty; silent. He knew that Spike was in the building; he sensed the familial bond, but knew that the younger vampire was somewhere away, probably upstairs. Cordelia was harder to detect. He listened for a moment, as still as stone, and zeroed in on the tiny sounds that a human wouldn’t notice. The hum of the refrigerator from the nearby kitchen. The air conditioner as it clicked on. And finally, after he’d listened long enough, the sound of a fist meeting leather and the panting breaths that followed.

A slow smile spread across his face as he walked over to the door to the basement and descended the stairs noiselessly. She was exercising, working out her frustrations on a punching bag that he’d abandoned there. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d come down here after a vivid dream about her, needing some way to release his tension and frustration. It was comforting to realize that she had the same needs.

Silently, he moved behind her, watching as she punched the bag with rapid precision. Her skills at combat had improved so much since he’d first met her. Way back when they’d first hooked up in L.A., she hadn’t been able to do much more than shoot holy water from a water gun. Now she could take on a vamp on her own and reduce it to dust with almost no effort. Pride coursed through him as he watched her, graceful in all of her movements.

Suddenly not able to help himself, he spoke. “I love you, Cordelia.”

His voice was soft, but the deep sound echoed in the small, enclosed space.

For a moment, the only indication that she’d heard him was the fact that she froze mid-punch. She swayed a bit on her feet, holding her breath. Then she spun around and socked him hard in the upper chest.

“What do you think you’re doing, Angel?” she whispered angrily, tears glistening in her eyes as she looked up at him. “I told you to get the hell out of my life.”

“But you didn’t mean it,” he countered, suddenly scared that she might have.

Cordelia just stared at him, her lips tightly pressed together as if she were holding everything back.

“I love you, Cordelia.” Just as it had the first time, the pledge ricocheted in the room, seeming to magnify with each reverberation.

The words broke the dam of her emotions. Tears spilled over from her eyes, coursing down her cheeks. She just stood in front of him, crying. He froze for a moment, then reached for her. Cordelia would have none of it.

“No!” she sobbed, pushing him away, then began punching him as hard as she could in his upper chest and arms. Her hits were little more than beestings to him, but he held still and took every one, knowing she needed the release, knowing he deserved that and so much more. With each punch, her sobbing increased, the hits becoming weaker and slower, until finally she didn’t resist when he pulled her into his arms.

“I love you, Cordy,” he vowed again, this time his words whispered into her hair as he grasped her tightly.

After a few moments, her crying stopped enough so that she caught her breath and was able to speak. Her voice was surprisingly strong. Pulling back, she didn’t loosen her grip on him at all, but her eyes were wary. “What are you talking about, Angel? You don’t love me. You left me. You abandoned me. How can you say that you love me?”

Her accusations nearly broke him. It was everything he’d been beating himself up about, everything he’d denied that he’d done, and the guilt was overwhelming. He knew he’d failed her. He knew he didn’t deserve her, but god, he needed her.

“I’ve been in love with you for so long now, Cordy, practically since Doyle died. I didn’t realize it until the ballet, but then Groo came back and you left with him. And then Connor came and I got distracted. When we tried to meet and you disappeared, the next time I saw you, you weren’t you anymore.”

He paused again, breaking their gaze because the memories were too painful. “So much happened when Jasmine had control of your body. I felt used, betrayed, and abandoned. The entire time that I thought it was you, really you, the love I had for you was torn in so many pieces that I thought it couldn’t ever be put back together. But then when I realized it wasn’t you, when I realized that you weren’t in control of your body, I was so confused.”

He stopped again, and Cordelia felt the pressure to say something. “I can’t apologize for it, Angel. I can’t apologize for what I don’t remember, what I didn’t do, even if it was my body.”

He released the grip of one hand and brought it up to stroke her cheek, his eyes once again locked with hers. “I know, Cordy. And I don’t expect you to. But when you woke from your coma and I saw you again, all of those confusing feelings came flooding back. And at my apartment that night you came back, when you yelled at me for taking over Wolfram & Hart, when you took everything I’d sacrificed for us and flung it back in my face, I felt betrayed all over again. So I crept back into myself and clung to the familiar, went to Buffy when she was the last person I needed.”

The moment Angel had mentioned Wolfram & Hart and Cordelia’s initial reaction to his agreement with them, she’d broken her eye contact and looked away guiltily. She almost didn’t hear him talk about Buffy. Almost.

“I know now why you did what you did, Angel. Why you made the deal with Wolfram & Hart.” She still wouldn’t look at him.

“You do?” he asked, his tone cautious. “Why do you think I did it?”

“Well, partly because of me, because they said they could save me.” Finally, she raised her gaze back to his. “And because you wanted to save Connor.”

If he could’ve gasped, he would’ve. “You remember him?” his voice broke on the words, the pain of the loss of his son coming back as fresh as it was the day it happened.

She nodded. “I knew there was something wrong the first day when I went to Wesley. I asked him about Connor, and he didn’t know what I was talking about. He had no clue who Connor was, and there were some other fuzzy memory problems with him, too. He said you were angry at the Jasmine me because I slept with someone else and you felt betrayed. I couldn’t figure out what would make you angry enough to reject me completely. I went through everyone we knew and tried to figure out the one person I could have sex with that would break you like that, and even though it sickened me, the only person I could think of was Connor.”

If she’d ever had any doubt that her possessed self had seduced Angel’s son, those doubts were washed away by the hauntingly painful look in the vampire’s eyes. He searched her face, looking for any trace of remembrance, any trace of the Cordelia that had hurt him so much, and to his relief, could find none of the cold, calculating woman in her eyes.

“You did, I mean, she did. Sleep with Connor. And I saw it,” his voice was a hoarse whisper, his eyes filling with tears at the excruciating memory.

Hot tears filled Cordelia’s eyes at his admission, unable to imagine what pain that must’ve caused him. Suddenly an apology seemed appropriate, even if it wasn’t for her evil twin’s behavior. “I’m sorry, Angel. I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. I never, NEVER, would have allowed that to happen if I’d had any way to control the situation.”

Finally, he seemed to come back to himself and looked at her with clear, less-angry eyes. “I know, Cordy. I know you didn’t do it, but it still helps to have you apologize.”

“This whole thing is kinda creepy if you ask me,” she said, trying to smile and lighten the mood.

“Creepy doesn’t even begin to describe it,” he answered, tightening his hold on her. “So you knew I did it for both you and Connor?” he asked, wanting to get her entire explanation.

“Yeah. I knew when Wesley didn’t remember him that you’d probably done the deal with the evil law firm so that Connor’s memory would be erased and he could have a happy life with the family he’d always wanted. So he could forget that his parents had been vampires and he’d been raised in a hell dimension. He was so unhappy the way I remember him, and I can just imagine that it got a million times worse.”

He nodded, the pain in his heart turning to a dull, familiar ache. “He’s happy. I check on him every once in awhile.”

“Angel–,” Cordelia said, then stopped. She broke their eye contact, biting her lip as she tried to find a way to tell him how Wolfram & Hart had screwed him over.

“What, Cordy?” he said softly, his fingers raising her chin and her eyes back to his.

“I was in a coma for a lot longer than I should’ve been,” she said, her expression trying to make him understand.

He didn’t comprehend her cryptic statement, but just grasped her tighter, his hands rubbing her back reassuringly. “I know, baby, but you’re safe now, and that’s all that matters.”

“No, Angel. You don’t get it. They kept me in a coma at Wolfram & Hart. Somebody forgot to change the IV bag and I woke up. I heard them talking about how the senior partners wanted to keep me out of the loop, wanted to keep you bound to them. They said I would’ve been awake and okay only a week or so after you signed the papers, if they hadn’t kept me sedated.”

Angel’s face darkened significantly and his eyes flashed gold. “Somebody is going to die for this,” he vowed, the thought of being manipulated by this elusive enemy getting the better of him.

Cordelia squeezed his arm. “Don’t go all Rambo Vamp on me, Angel. We still have to worry about Connor and his well-being. If you cross them, you could be putting him in danger.”

He growled in frustration. “I hate this. I hate how they always have the upper hand, no matter what I do.”

“We’ll figure out a way, Angel,” she said softly, bringing a hand up to stroke his jaw in a soothing gesture. “It took awhile, but we managed to find a way out from under their control, right?”

He nodded.

After a moment of reflective silence, she asked the one thing she’d worried about since he’d said those few words that meant the world to her.

“What about Buffy, Angel?” she asked, nearly kicking herself as she wanted to bite back the words and just shove that painful subject under the carpet.

Angel took her chin and brought her gaze back to his. The certainty in his eyes left no room for doubt. “I care about Buffy; I suppose I always will. But she isn’t the one for me. You are. She and I are too much alike. We make life miserable for each other, and we aren’t meant to be. Nothing happened between us, nothing more than kissing, anyway.”

She was satisfied by that, the jealousy there but manageable.

“Did you mean what you said, Angel?” she asked, worry making her bite her lip and look at him through shuttered, nervous eyes.

“That I love you?” he clarified.

“Yeah,” she said, looking away.

“Yes, Cordelia, I do. I didn’t realize it until I’d lost you, but you are the other half of my soul. You bring so much to my life, keep me from the darkness like no one I’ve ever met. You keep me true to my mission, keep me on track and out of trouble. And when I didn’t have you, my life fell apart.”

“Mine did, too,” she said softly, remembering the misery of the past few weeks without him.

He continued, his gaze becoming intense again as his deep brown eyes bored into hers, his soul reflected in their depths. “You told me awhile back that I needed to take a good look at myself, because I wasn’t the man I used to be. That I wasn’t the man you’d loved and respected. It took me awhile, but I finally did as you asked, and I didn’t like what I saw. I took the sacrifices I’d made, the surrender to Wolfram & Hart, and made that my reason for living. But there was no hope there. I suddenly had nothing worth living for, and it wasn’t until you came back that I saw how far I’d let myself go.”

He brought both hands from around her waist and cupped her jaw, his thumbs stroking her chin and bottom lip, his fingers memorizing the precious lines of her face.

“I was so wrong, Cordelia. I became the person I’d always loathed, a shell of the person I’d tried so hard to make. You, your friendship, made me into someone worthy, and I ruined it, even with all of my good intentions. Not only that, when you came back, instead of grasping at the one good thing I had left, I tossed you aside because you reminded me of what a failure I’d become.”

“You aren’t a failure, Angel,” Cordelia tried to reassure him, but he placed two fingers over her mouth, stilling her before she could elaborate.

“I’m not anymore, and I won’t be, if you’ll take me back. I love you with everything that I am and I’m sorry, so sorry for what I’ve put you through.”

More than anything, more than even his declaration of love, his apology meant so much to her.

Her tears welled up once again, the hot drops spilling over and making tracks through her emotion-filled smile. “I love you so much, Angel. I can’t believe you came back to me.”

“I’ll never leave you again, Cordy. I promise.”

She took that opportunity to sock him again, this time, playfully. “You’d better not, dumbass. I’ve put up with a lot of crap from you and its about time that you try to make it up to me.”

He smiled with relief at her easy forgiveness and his eyes began to twinkle with barley concealed mischief. “I think I can figure out some way to make it up to you.”

“Yeah?” she said softly, running her hands over his chest and shoulders, then up to intertwine behind his neck. She pressed her body up against his, sighing as she felt them align and fit as if they were always meant to be that way.

He didn’t answer her, just lowered his head and claimed her mouth with his. The kiss began slowly, a mere brush of their lips against each other. His demon pushed at his conscience, demanding that he take over and take her back with the brutal passion that threatened to consume him. His demon and his soul both recognized their mates in this enigmatic woman, and he reacted with a level of intensity that made any other attraction in his long life seem like puppy love.

Despite his demon’s impatience, Angel held back the more forceful part of his psyche, not wanting to be cheated out of such a powerful moment. He wanted this bliss, this happiness, to last for eternity. Again and again he brushed his lips across hers, the feather-lightest of touches, her breath teasing him as the speed of it increased. She’d opened her mouth slightly, pressing her body in closer to his, an obvious invitation for him to deepen the contact. But still, he teased her with his mouth, not increasing the pressure of his mouth to hers.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity to Cordelia, Angel’s tongue darted out and stroked her bottom lip, tasting her sweetness. In that same, agonizingly slow way, he explored the hot depths of her mouth, learning every crevasse, every succulent corner, every hard edge of her teeth. Trying to get him to hurry, Cordelia attempted to thrust her tongue into his mouth, but he wouldn’t let her pass. She groaned against him, sliding one of her bare feet up against his calf and rubbing him as his tongue and mouth made her body throb in pleasure. Slowly but surely, the intensity of the kiss built until Angel pulled away, Cordelia gasping for breath as she leaned her forehead down onto his shoulder.

After she regained her breath, she raised heated eyes to his and slid her body against his, the friction making them both gasp. “Please, Angel. Take me upstairs and make love to me. I’ve wanted you for so long, and I need you so much.”

His answer was a kiss that scorched her, its intensity so fierce that she was consumed by it. His hands ran all over her body, stroking and teasing, barely touching her but still branding her with every caress. Pulling back again, he cupped her butt in his big hands, pulling her up until she straddled his waist, her legs wrapping around him and her ankles locking behind his back. He nearly groaned as his hard arousal rubbed up against her heat with a mere two layers of clothing between them, but he gritted his teeth and tried to concentrate as he navigated the stairs up to the lobby.

Cordelia was no help at all.

The moment he began to ascend the stairs, she buried her mouth in the crook of his neck and began to tease him with her hot tongue, licking and nipping at the sensitive skin there. She sucked at the point where his pulse would have been, knowing that if she’d been a vampire as his mate, that’s where she’d fix her teeth and claim him as hers. As it were, her blunt teeth scraped him and he hissed, growing harder and pressing against her core.

He got all the way across the lobby before it came too much, and he backed her against one of the pillars, dragging her head away from his neck and kissing her senseless. This time, he allowed her to be an equal partner in the kiss, and he was lit on fire by her obvious enthusiasm. Her tongue met his thrust for thrust, and she rubbed against him rhythmically, his arousal brushing up against her clit with each beat, the clothing adding an extra friction that made her gasp.

Forcefully but not violently, he grabbed her calves and pried her legs from around his waist, separating them. It was as difficult as peeling the skin from a grape; she didn’t want to let go for anything. She frowned at him when he finally got free and tried to draw him back, but he didn’t allow it.

“I want to get up stairs, Cordy, not take you here on the lobby floor.”

“Why not?” she said, frowning at him in a lust-glazed way that made him want to forget where they were and just bury himself inside of her until they were both screaming from the pleasure of it.

“Huh?” he said, forgetting what he’d said as the power of his need overtook him.

“Why can’t we do it here on the lobby floor? I’ve had a couple of fantasies about that, haven’t you?”

This time, he stepped away from her, not touching her at all. “Yeah,” he said, his eyes black with want. “I have. But I want to be up in your bed this time. The last thing I want is for Buffy or Spike to interrupt us. I want all night with you, Cordy. And in a soft bed, not on a hard floor.”

“Fine,” she pouted, crossing her arms and staring at him. “What are you doing way over there, anyway?”

“Go upstairs, Cordy,” he said, ignoring her question. “I’ll follow you.”

“Why don’t you carry me?” she suggested, a wicked smile lighting her face as she placed one hand on her hip and struck a sultry pose.

“Because we wouldn’t make it upstairs if I did. Now, go,” he ordered, and was relieved when she did.

His relief was short lived as she turned her back on him and began to saunter up the stairs. His heart seemed to pump in his dead chest as he watched her reach her hands to the hem of her top and drag it up over her head as she walked. Without looking back, she tossed it back at him, and he caught it with his mouth open. Never missing a step, she stripped on the way up the stairs. As her pink bra found its way back to him, Angel hoped through the lust-laden fog of his mind that Spike was far, far away.

The rest of her clothing was shed before she reached the top of the stairs, her skirt and panties just sliding off her legs as she walked, just stepping out of them. He bent to pick them up, nearly tripping as his view angle changed and he got an enticing glimpse of the glistening between her thighs as she stepped on the last stair before the second floor. Within minutes, she was inside his old room, her room now, and he followed her blindly into the darkness, like a moth drawn to a flame.

She glided over to the bedside, turning on the lamp and bathing the room in a golden glow. Without turning to face him, she crawled up onto the bed, her backside swaying hypnotically in his direction, then settled herself back on her elbows, her chest thrust out, her knees slightly bent, her legs mere inches apart, hiding her secrets from him. She was spread out in the pose of a seductress, her blatant, confident sexuality drawing him in. Now that she knew he wanted her, wanted no one but her, she was surrendering completely to him, the sureness of their love giving her strength and boldness that fueled the fiery passion already burning within both of them.

Angel dropped the load of clothing he’d gathered on the way upstairs, coming to stand directly in front of her, his eyes scanning her hungrily. He took in the gentle rise and fall of her breasts, noting how they were already hardened with desire. He drank in the sight of her well-kissed lips, her passion-darkened eyes, and felt the love for her nearly consume him.

Her voice brought him out of his concentration.

“One of us has entirely too much clothing on,” she said with a smirk, raising an eyebrow at him.

“I think I can fix that,” he said, his fingers curling around the hem of his shirt and pulling it over his head.

Cordelia had to work to keep her breathing even as his beautiful body was exposed to her. The muscles in his stomach rippled as he took off his shirt, his sculpted body more beautiful than anything she’d ever seen. His skin was pale but not sickly looking; in fact, it seemed to glow with a cool fire that was unique to him and very enticing. Her fingers itched to stroke him, to explore the body that she had admired for so long but to which she had been denied access. Her gaze traveled downward as his hands moved to his fly. He made quick work of the closure, his pants and boxers removed with a swiftness that left her breathless. As every inch of him was bared to her view, her heartbeat quickened, her breath caught as she saw his hard beauty in its entirety. He was gorgeous, and he was hers.

Angel waited impatiently as she perused his body as he had done with her. Finally, she dragged her gaze away from his lower half and her hot eyes met his. Not trusting her voice to speak, she shifted her weight to one elbow and raised her other arm, reaching her hand out to him. He took the offering, curling his strong, cool fingers around hers, kneeling on the bed in front of her before finally stretching out and pressing his body fully against her. They both sighed with the wonder of that contact, realizing how perfect it felt and knowing that they’d both been fools for denying themselves this bliss for so long.

The look that passed between them said it all. The love, the forgiveness, the passion overwhelmed them both, and they responded in the only way they knew how, the only way that was worthy of the love they shared. His mouth fused with hers again, a perfect blend of sweetness and violence, teeth nipping and tongues dueling. Growls of pleasure pulsed from his chest, the vibration soothing the worst of the ache in her breasts. He lifted himself off of her after a moment and she arched her back to follow him, but he wormed his hand between them anyway, searching for places that would heighten her pleasure. He found them, nearly all of them, skimming the sensitive area of her underarms, squeezing and rolling her nipples between his fingers, circling her navel and exploring its delicate depth.

Finally, his hand found the sensitive, swollen folds of her core, and his fingers were magic, making her mewl with the pleasure of his touch. Her hands clenched at his back, her fingernails scoring his shoulders, her mouth sucking at his neck as he brought her to the brink of ecstasy. His thumb and forefinger pinched at just the right place, making her arch off the bed and moan as the white-hot heat of arousal coursed all the way to her toes. Just as she was about to find release he stopped, and she panted as clarity began to return.

He poised over her, the tip of him just caressing her intimately, and stared down into her eyes. He curled his fingers into hers, gripping their hands together, his chest rasping against hers.

Reverently kissing her, he intended to declare his love before he plunged inside of her, making her his own once and for all. She beat him to it.

“I love you, Angel,” she whispered feverishly, suddenly twitching her hips and forcing him to enter her part way.

He jerked and moaned at the wet heat partially enveloping him, his eyes flashing gold as he stared down at her, his mouth open. “God, Cordelia, I love you,” he panted, then sheathed himself to the hilt.

They paused there, joined completely, fully, and time seemed to stand still as they were fused into one being, one soul, one person, just as it was intended from the beginning of time. And then, just as countless lovers before them, and yet in their own, special way, they began the rhythm that would lead them toward fulfillment. With each stroke, the friction sent bolts of pleasure throughout their bodies, the pace and intensity increasing until they exploded, her scream of pleasure mingling with his groan, echoing off the walls as she shuddered around him and he spilled himself inside of her.

Exhausted, Angel rolled onto his side and pulled Cordelia into the curve of his body, wrapping his arms around her and never wanting to let go. The rightness of this, the strength of their love, surrounded them like a warm blanket, lulling them into the security of sleep and dreams of a future full of promise.

In surrendering to each other, they’d found the freedom that had eluded them for so long. In each other’s arms, the bliss they’d been craving had been waiting to be snatched up. And in finding it, they felt whole. Fulfilled. Finally.
Part 13

Spike awoke to a scream from Cordelia down the hall. Even though he was startled, he still recognized the scream’s caliber for what it was, and it was anything but fright. His mouth curved into a harsh smile as he realized that his sire had finally got his balls back and was doing what he should’ve been doing for a month now. He was happy for Cordelia; he really was. But the knowledge that they’d made up only intensified the loss of Buffy, only increased the pain that he felt.

Knowing it was nearly dawn, Spike dragged himself from bed even as his body screamed to remain asleep. He’d only been out for an hour at most, his internal clock keeping vampire hours despite his immunity to the sun. It was hard to adjust to human hours, but Spike had discovered the beauty of the sunrise, and he made it a point to view it as often as possible.

Throwing on his jeans and avoiding his shirt, Spike strode out of the room and walked down stairs, ignoring his rumbling stomach as the first rays of light began to cast a dim glow over the lobby. He walked outside into the courtyard, pulling a newly purchased chaise lounge out into what was certain to be the path of the morning sun.

Facing east, he reclined on the lounge and smiled wanly as the sun began to turn the sky from midnight blue to a pretty violet, then fingers of pink and orange as it peaked over the horizon. He waited, needing the warmth of the sun to reassure him that he was alive, to help him get through this life that seemed less worth living with every day that passed. He needed Buffy so badly, but it was over. His immortal existence wasn’t going to be brightened by her presence, and he had to get used to the idea.

“Spike.” The words came from behind him, from the shadows, so softly he thought his mind was playing tricks on him. Her scent surrounded him and he groaned. Closing his eyes, he raised hands to his temples and shook his head.

“Stop it,” he begged. “I had enough with the god-awful mind games on the hell mouth. She’s not coming back, mate. She doesn’t love you. Be a man and ignore it!” His little self-deprecating speech did nothing to dim the strength of her scent or the taunting buzz of her presence.

“Spike.” Her voice was stronger now, and he watched with wonder as she materialized from the shadows, her blonde hair gleaming in the first fingers of early morning light. He could see tears glistening in her eyes as she looked at him, her mouth pursed as she tried to keep from crying. Her fingers fisted at her sides as if she itched to touch him, but wouldn’t let herself.

Buffy stared at him with a mixture of longing and love, but a healthy dose of uncertainty stopped her from acting on those feelings. She’d walked all around the city this morning, mindlessly, knowing that she would end up back here but unsure as to whether he would take her back. She loved him, whether he’d slept with Cordelia or not. She needed him. She needed him so badly that she was afraid she’d shrivel up and die without him.

Once, long ago, he’d said that she belonged in the darkness with him. At the time, he was half right. She did belong with him, although not in the darkness. She belonged in the light, with him in the light. Since getting his soul, he was the one person that kept her from the darkness, as ironic as that was, and she was afraid that she’d squandered her last chance.

“I’m sorry, Spike.” Her voice was barely a whisper, but he hung onto every word like it would save his life. “I love you and I’m sorry,” she said, coming closer to him until she was just inches away, the air between them buzzing with the electricity of their nearness.

“What are you sorry for, luv?” he said hoarsely. He didn’t want her to go through the pain, but he needed her to say it. He needed to know that she realized they were meant to be, not just thrown together.

The tears spilled over as the hateful words she’d said rang back in her head. “I’m sorry for accusing you of ignoring your soul. I’m sorry for being such a bitch to you when you tried to tell me you loved me. And I’m sorry for doubting you.”

Still not touching her, Spike gazed up into her face as her apology washed over him. But his own guilt remained, and it need to be dealt with. “I didn’t sleep with the cheerleader, Slayer. I didn’t touch her like that, because you’re all that I need, all that I want. I’m sorry I rubbed our friendship in your face and made it out to be more than it was, but I was hurting so badly, watching you with Angel, that I needed you to hurt, too.”

She smiled wryly through her tears. “It worked,” she said.

The cleared air hovered between them, the relief making both of their bodies sag as the tension drained away. Suddenly not being able to take the separation any longer, Spike bounded up from the chair and towered over her, cupping her face in his hands.

“Are you here forever, Buffy? Are you going to stay with me and love me like I love you?” he asked, his blue eyes deep with intensity.

She nodded, her cheeks rubbing against his roughened palms. “I’m here forever, Spike. I’m still the Slayer, and I can’t turn my back on that, but I want you by my side, in my bed, in my life until I die. I love you.”

“God, I love you, Buffy,” he breathed, and his mouth finally collided with hers. Their passion was frenzied, a strong flame that was stoked and nurtured until it consumed them both. She jumped until her legs were wrapped around him, her mouth slanted over his as he tilted his head up to adjust for the new angle. Fingers and hands stroked everywhere, his making their way up inside her top, grazing the untethered breasts that hardened and swelled for him. His mouth broke away from hers and he latched his cool lips around one distended nipple, her back arching as his mouth sent fingers of pleasure all the way to the tips of her hair and toenails. Her hands roamed the narrow expanse of his back, teasing the muscles there. She brought them around the front, gently caressing the nearly-healed puncture wounds from last night, fleetingly realizing how close she’d come to losing him. Frantic at the thought, she rubbed against him, his arousal pressing against the worn fly of his jeans and into the junction of her thighs.

Finally pulling his head back, Spike looked up at her with arouse-glazed eyes, loving the way her face was flushed and her eyes had dilated to nearly black.

Their position suddenly reminded them both of their first time together, that first violent mating in the abandoned building in Sunnydale that had brought them, kicking and screaming, into a relationship that would both destroy and complete them both. They stopped, their bodies throbbing, as everything came full circle. Suddenly, it all seemed right, all seemed complete. He backed up until he was against a pillar, the morning light spilling over their disheveled, glistening bodies, and brought into this reminiscent act the one ingredient that had been missing that fateful night so long ago.

“I love you, Buffy,” he whispered, his hand squeezing her ass as he pulled her against him.

She leaned down, kissing him hotly, her tongue tracing his teeth and the inside of his lips, then pulled back. “I love you, too, Spike. Forever,” she vowed.

Reaching down, she unzipped his fly and freed him, he pushed aside her skirt and panties and entered her in one swift thrust. They both groaned as the bittersweet memories of their first time were washed away by the amazing sensations of now, by the joining that finally seemed to bring them both the fulfillment that they’d always sought but had not yet found. Their souls felt whole as their bodies joined, the act of making love finally brining them the peace that had eluded them for so long.

Locking their gazes together, Buffy began to move against him, impaling herself on him, and the pleasure spiraled nearly out of control. As the pressure built, she whispered her love, then he whispered his, and it became a chant between them, a mantra that solidified and cemented their commitment.

In the moment of her climax, Buffy screamed the words, “I love you!” her eyes never leaving his, even as her body convulsed around him.

His cry echoed hers as he emptied himself inside of her, clutching her to him as if he’d never let her go. On wobbly legs, he brought them, still joined, to the chaise lounge, lowering himself into it and bringing her to rest on top of him. She snuggled against him, burying her face in the crook of his neck and kissing him languidly, the warmth of the morning sun surrounding them in a warm cocoon of security.

She had been right, that painful day so long ago. She had been right when she said that their relationship was killing her, that she couldn’t go on like they had been. Because even though he’d loved her with every fiber of his demonic being, two very important things had been missing. He didn’t have a soul, and couldn’t love her in the way she craved to be loved. And she didn’t have hope, didn’t have the will to continue a life that threatened to destroy her.

Now, though, he’d found his soul and was complete with it. And in doing so, he became that hope that she needed. He filled the hole that had been ripped in her being when she was torn from heaven. It had been a long, difficult journey apart from each other, but they were finally at a place where they were meant to be. Because of that painful time apart, they were able to be fused together, their souls, hearts, and minds, in a healthy, loving way that would see them through to the end of their existence.

***

Cordelia awoke before Angel, her eyes sliding open heavily as she took in the darkened room, barely lit by the tiny slivers of light that escaped from the edges of the heavy drapes. Angel had a solid grip on her waist, pulling her back into him, her bottom pressing up against his dream-induced arousal.

Smiling, she turned in his arms, giggling as he growled and tightened his grip as if he thought she were trying to escape. Face to face with him, she let her nose brush against his in the briefest of Eskimo kisses, inhaling the cool scent that was uniquely Angel. She touched her lips to his forehead, then between his eyes, then his nose, his chin, and finally his lips. Her tongue darted out to taste him, knowing somehow that he was still between sleep and awake, just enjoying the sensation of her lips on him.

The moment her tongue touched his lips, Angel gripped her tighter and took over the kiss. She squealed in surprise, then opened her mouth to his assault. He plundered her, sucking her tongue into his mouth and stroking it with his own. She rubbed against him, moaning, and he cupped her ass to keep her there.

Finally, he moved away and stared down at her, his hair disheveled from sleep, spikier than normal.

“Morning, baby,” he said in a half-growl. “You’re playing with fire, you know that?”

“Um-hmm,” she answered lazily. “Just looking for a little morning nookie.” Her eyes sparkled. “What’s the harm in that?”

“Nookie?” he said, the strange term rolling off his tongue. “If that’s what I think it means, I’m very happy to accommodate you.”

“Great!” she practically breathed as his mouth attached itself to her neck, his tongue and teeth scraping over her pulse point. He licked her there, fighting his demon to keep from claiming her, knowing she wasn’t ready for that yet.

Reaching a hand down between them, Angel found that she was more than ready for him. Without any warning, he entered her swiftly and she sighed, her eyes crossing before they closed. “I think I could get used to this kind of alarm clock,” she said breathlessly as he began to move.

He just smiled wickedly and used his body to bring her to a screamingly pleasurable orgasm. Only then did he release himself inside her, shuddering with the intensity of it, just as he had so many times the night before.

Cordelia snuggled up against him as he rolled away from her, assuming the position she’d woken in. Now that she was sated, satisfied, she brought up the one remaining question from their talk last night.

“So what are we going to do about Connor?” she asked point blank.

“Connor?” Angel asked, startled. He peered down at her with a puzzled expression. “Nothing. Connor’s happy. Happier than he’s ever been, and I don’t want to take that away from him.”

“But you’re not, Angel. You aren’t happy because you don’t have him. Even making up with me, as great as that is, doesn’t bring you the bliss you deserve. You need your son back.”

“I know that I’m not as happy as I could be, but it’s way more than I ever expected and it’s enough. Connor’s happiness is more important,” he said emphatically, and Cordelia knew the discussion was closed. For now, anyway.

They were quiet for a moment more before Angel spoke. “I really need to get out of the firm. After what they did to you. . .”

She could feel the tension building in his body. “Shhh, Angel,” she soothed, stroking his chest. “We’ll figure out a way to make them pay.”

“I just don’t like being in charge of so much evil. The line between good and bad has been so muddled that I can hardly make sense out of it. And since you’re safe now, I just want to get out.”

“Maybe Wesley can help,” Cordelia said. “I haven’t seen him since I came back, but he didn’t seem very happy to be working there, either.”

“I think you’re right,” Angel agreed. “We’ll talk to him soon, okay?”

She nodded, and snuggled into him. They may actually be getting somewhere. Their lives were back together, aligned for once, and only one, albeit huge, obstacle marred the expanse of their paradise. Somehow they’d find a way around the evil law firm that threatened to destroy them. Someday.

Part 14

A few hours later, Angel and Cordelia descended the stairs, feeling smothered as they’d donned their clothes again. All they wanted was to lose themselves in each other for the rest of eternity, but their rumbling stomachs had had other ideas. After a much-longer than intended, but extremely satisfying shower, they’d finally dragged themselves from the safe haven of Cordelia’s room and made their way downstairs.

Cordelia’s face lit up into a smile as she saw the scene that awaited them. In the kitchen, cuddled up at the table, were Spike and Buffy. They were talking softly to each other, both drenched in each other’s scent and oblivious to anything further than three inches away from each other.

Angel cleared his throat loudly and they broke apart, looking up at the other couple with no trace of embarrassment in their eyes. They were both too happy.

Cordelia raised her eyebrow and smiled at them before walking over to the refrigerator. “Looks like you two have patched things up,” she commented.

“Yeah,” Spike said with a grin as he tightened his grasp on Buffy. “And I heard the two of you going at it last night. Sounded like a brothel.”

Angel just chuckled as he sat down across from them, surprised that he felt nothing but joy for his friends as he watched Buffy and Spike together.

Cordelia blushed, but she was saved anyone noticing because her back was turned. She’d pulled a jug of blood from the fridge and was fixing Angel his breakfast.

Pointedly ignoring his bawdy insinuations, Cordelia asked, “Had breakfast yet, Spike?”

“Nope,” he said.

“I haven’t given him time,” Buffy said slyly, snuggling in closer.

Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Please, I don’t need the details. I’m in my own post mind-blowing sex haze here, don’t need it polluted by yours.”

Buffy looked up from Spike finally, noticing that Cordelia was pulling another mug from the cabinet and filling it with blood. She popped both of them into the microwave, pushing the buttons to warm them to just the right temperature.

Scrunching up her nose, Buffy rose from Spike’s lap and walked over to the microwave, peering inside.

“Eww. There’s just something so wrong about this. It’s like giving an alcoholic a bottle of Jack Daniels or something.”

“Actually, it’s pretty far from it,” Cordelia defended. “It’s more like giving a starving man a sandwich, if you ask me. And its part of who they are, Buffy. You can’t get away from it.”

“I know,” she said. Looking up at Cordelia, she saw the friendship reflected in the other woman’s eyes. “I don’t want to get away from it.”

As if to punctuate her statement, Buffy pulled the mugs out of the microwave when it beeped at the end of the cycle. Handing one to Cordelia, she took the other over to Spike and handed it to him, lifting it to his lips as he drank.

For Spike, the moment was poignant. In that one, simple gesture, Buffy was showing that she loved him. All of him. That she was willing to accept him, just like Cordelia had always so blithely accepted Angel’s demon.

Angel sighed with satisfaction as he enjoyed both his breakfast and the warm body snuggled up against him. Cordelia had pulled a chair over close to him, picked up his arm, and draped it around her. She had one leg hooked over his knee, pulling herself fully into his side.

He saw the looks that Buffy and Spike were exchanging, and decided it was time to begin working on the rocky relationship he’d always had with his grandchilde. He may not care for Spike all that much, but at least he was likable now, what with his soul and all.

Staring across the edge of his mug at the blonde couple, he said, “Glad to see I’m not the only whipped vampire around here.”

Spike nearly choked on his blood as he glared at Angel. “I am not whipped,” he groused.

“Spike,” Buffy said in a sultry, sing-song voice. His eyes immediately shot toward hers, and she pushed her bottom lip out in a pouty, cute way. “Will you do something for me? Please?” She stroked his chest in a spot she’d discovered was ultra sensitive. He shuddered, his nerves still raw from their previous encounters that morning.

“Anything, pet,” he said, purring under the words.

She just smiled at him, then looked over at Angel, who smirked. “See?” he said, laughing.

“Bloody hell,” Spike muttered, gulping down the rest of the blood as he’d seen how he’d been manipulated. “Good thing I love you, Slayer, or I would make you pay for that.”

“You can still make me pay, Spike,” she whispered in his ear, low enough so that Angel even had to strain to make out the words. Not that he wanted to. She licked, then bit his earlobe softly, making him squirm. “You can make me pay until I scream if you want.”

He gulped, only stroking her back as his mind played back fantasies that he’d suppressed during their long separation.

Desperately needing the change in subject to get a hold on his rapidly unmanageable libido, Spike pushed Buffy off of his lap and set her gently in a nearby chair. He turned to Angel, a determined look on his face.

“So, I guess we’ll be out of your hair pretty soon, then,” he said, his face unreadable.

Cordelia sat up straight. “You’re leaving?” she said in dismay. “You’ve hardly been here.”

Spike looked over at Buffy, grabbing her hand and stroking the back of it. He couldn’t stand not touching her for more than a few moments, now that he could. “Buffy’s got commitments to keep, and my place is with her.”

“Spike,” Angel began, then stopped. He squeezed Cordelia tighter, his hand grasping her arm and stroking it as if he needed the reassurance of her presence to continue. “I wouldn’t normally ask this of you, but—”

The heavy silence hung between them as he stopped again.

“Spit it out, Angel,” Cordelia encouraged.

“I need your help, Spike. And yours too, Buffy. I would—” Cordelia elbowed him, and he corrected, “WE would really appreciate it if you could stick around for awhile.”

“Why, Peaches? Big, poofy vamp that you are, can’t handle this on your own?” he mocked, unable to break the old habits so quickly.

Angel stiffened, and it was only Cordelia’s soothing touch on his chest that kept him from growling at his grandchilde. Sometimes, Spike was so damn annoying.

Cordelia explained before Angel took Spike down a few notches. They needed their help, not their anger. “We’ve got a problem, and you two are our best shot at fixing it.”

Buffy and Spike looked at each other, an unreadable message passing between them.

Buffy spoke first. “What do you need?” she said, holding Spike’s hand firmly. “After all, we’re family,” she said, looking from Spike to Angel. Angel nodded, silently thanking her for her blanket acceptance.

“Yeah, Angel. Whatever you need,” Spike sighed, giving into the inevitable. “So what are we talking here? World-ending apocalypses? Master vampires? Out of control demon babies?”

“Not exactly,” Angel said, frowning. He looked down at Cordelia, suddenly afraid to make the declaration of war that would certainly turn their lives inside out.

“God, Angel,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s no big deal. We’ll win. We always do. It’s our destiny, remember?”

He nodded, suddenly strengthened by her confidence. He turned to the Slayer and vampire across from him.

“Either of you up for kicking some evil lawyer ass?”

Epilogue

Surrender is a funny thing.

When all is said and done, surrender, the act of sacrificing your body, your heart, your soul, all for the sake of your loved ones, becomes your redemption. The pain and heartache that comes with the sacrifice masks any hope of happiness for the future, but it doesn’t take it away. Happiness is there waiting for you, only to be discovered and snatched up, caressed and cherished as the rare state of being that it is.

Most people never find happiness in the wake of surrender because they can’t get past the ramifications of their selfless act. They wallow in the pain and misery their sacrifice creates, falling into the trap of denial, believing the propaganda and the lies that the enemy floods them with. They see glimpses of the potential to rise up and fight again, but their strength wanes and they lose themselves in desperation that pervades their very existence, draining them of hope for the future. They give up and die anyway, convinced that their dreams are flights of fancy and unattainable, their surrender becoming a loss rather than a delayed victory.

Most people fail at surrender, but you didn’t. They do because they don’t have someone on the outside fighting for them, someone to break through the barriers of denial and self-preservation erected as byproducts of your surrender.

You did.

You had someone that fought for you time and time again, someone that cracked the hard shell you’d constructed around yourself, one that had come up stronger and harder than the one you’d erected when you’d made the worst mistake of your existence and screwed your sire.

You had someone that loved you despite your regression to a relationship with your ex-girlfriend that sucked more precious essence from both your hurting souls rather than replenish them.

You had someone that refused to put up with your wallow in self-pity and asked, no, demanded, that you look within yourself and find the man that made her fall in love with you, that made her believe in you.

You had someone who understood why you surrendered in the first place and loved you for your sacrifice.

Because of her, your best friend, your soul mate, surrender became your salvation.


…THE END…


 

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