Title: Angel’s Songs AS ficpic
Posted: Dec 30 2004
Rating: Soft NC-17
Category: Schmangst – Schmoopy Angst
Summary: Angel tries to surprise Cordy with something she really wants for Christmas.
Spoilers: Who hasn’t seen this show? Okay, S3 through DoN if you’re picky
Disclaimer: The characters in the Angelverse were created by Joss Whedon & David Greenwalt. No infringement is intended, no profit is made.
Notes: This is set during Christmas in S3 some months after WiTW. Cordy is half demon, but there was no pregnant Darla, hence no Connor, and no Groo. Angel, being Angel, was still unable to tell Cordy how he felt after the ballet. Btw, my real time and the episodes’ air times don’t coincide. I don’t believe they’re supposed to. For example, Birthday was aired in February 2002, but I firmly believe Cordy’s birthday is May 22nd. So this is actually Christmas 2002 which some would say is S4, but phooey on them. A/N 2: I’m all note-y today. This is really two – count ‘em – Two fics in one. If you’re not in the mood for angst and just want the gooey center, do NOT read the Prologue and Epilogue. Those are angst minefields. But, if you want the full story, don’t skip the pain. I think it’s worth it. Oh, yeah – this is pretty long so get a cup of coffee or tea and make yourself comfy.
Thanks/Dedication:I am dedicating this to Daisy simply because the subject matter is right up her alley and she wants me – badly. (You realize that will be archived everywhere forever and ever.) Thanks goes to Lissette for her beta time and both she and Helen for their wonderful encouragement. I love you guys and will never let you go.
Christmas Eve 2019
The plain cardboard box lay in the middle of the bed.
The colorless twilight of the world invaded the once bright hideaway that had been shared by two lovers not that long ago. But only one remained, and he sat unblinking, cold, and frightened. Afraid to move…terrified that if he disturbed the stillness with the fan of an eyelash or spoke or even sighed, the illusion created from hazy light and dusky shadows would disappear.
It was Christmas Eve. There – only a few feet away and hidden behind flimsy corrugated paper – was possibly the last and greatest gift he would ever receive, but Angel couldn’t make himself touch it.
He stared at the handwriting and the words on the label and once again convinced himself it wasn’t possible. It had to be a trick from some enemy old or new. There were so many now there would be no way to narrow them down even if he had the energy to care.
The sheer cream curtains covering the French doors lazily danced on the wings of a draft and broke the trance he’d been in for the hour since the delivery. He practically convinced himself his imagination was playing tricks when the wind brought with its cold fingers the scent he knew so well – the one that had left when she did. The one he would never be able to forget, not even after he was relieved of this wretched existence and was sent to a better hell not on this earth.
He almost laughed but it choked in his gut. He never thought he’d forget how to laugh after so many years of the sound of it echoing in every room and hallway of this huge hotel, but it didn’t take that long. All it took was her leaving and the laughter vanished like a wisp of smoke in the swirl of her wake. Simple really.
Unaided by conscious thought, his hand crossed the gap between wishes and reality and touched the seemingly solid cardboard. His dry fingertips scraped along the edges, mapping its width, length and height as if geometry would make it more substantial than his own senses were telling him.
The switchblade felt just as solid in his fingers as it always did giving Angel some hope that he hadn’t slipped into dementia. Pulling it from his soft gray pants pocket and pressing the button by instinct, the sound of the clasp releasing and the scraping of the sharp edge as it whooshed from its casing finally caused him to blink.
His eyes momentarily diverted from the brown box still gripped in one hand to the glint of steel in his other. He watched almost mesmerized as the tip dipped into the crease held together by thin but strong packing tape and began to slice. Cutting a meandering trail through the strapping material, his trembling hands released the bound flaps one painstaking edge at a time. The instant the last strip was severed the box popped open, the contents seemingly pushing outward from inside bursting to be free.
Angel carefully flipped the blade back into its sheath one-handed while the other began to gingerly reveal the contents. The rasp of the crisp and flimsy tissue paper sounded like the crunch of boots on hard-packed snow, the glide of a sleigh on an icy path, the wind of the first snow storm through tall pines… Instantly his hand stilled and his eyes felt hot with the sting of tears he had refused to shed as the memories exploded free from his mental vault.
It was their first real Christmas together. They didn’t bother with celebrating the year Doyle died. The only gift either of them wanted was their friend back and that wish had already been refused. The following year, he’d been vacationing in beige town, population one, so the stockings were pretty bare although the Christmas cheer was flowing freely.
But by Christmas of their third year together, things were finally settled into something resembling peace and harmony.
December 3, 2002
“Horses, horses, horses, horses…”
Angel’s hand began to shake and his left eye twitched.
“Horses, horses, horses, horses…”
“Cordy, could you please stop singing or whatever it is you call that.” Angel let out an exasperated breath before loudly turning the crisp pages of the LA Times to the sports section and straightening out the crinkles with a few manly shakes.
“Pfft. Like Meg Ryan’s got such a great voice. Oh, right, she’s blonde so nobody tells her to shut up. Let’s all pick on the vocally challenged brunette. Well, get over it because I’ll be doing a lot more singing over the next few weeks.”
The muscles in Angel’s neck and shoulders snapped, and his whole body shuddered violently. If he’d been facing her, he would have seen how his trembling at the thought of more of her Christmas “spirit” stoked excitement in her new demon genes.
A sudden twinkle sparkled in her eyes directed at the formidable wall of the office Scrooge’s back. “You know, Christmas songs are some of the most difficult melodies to master, so my ‘whatever it is I do’ will be especially annoying.”
Leaning over the edge of her desk until her mouth was just behind his left ear, she began to softly annihilate “Ave Maria.”
Angel closed the paper slowly. With every warble and cracked note so high that a cartoon dog would come running, he carefully folded the newsprint and then doubled it over again and again. Leisurely running the creases between his thumb and index finger after each fold, he almost cut himself on the razor sharp edges. He then casually shifted the ruler-sized rectangle to his left palm. Before she could blink and without turning around, Angel reached back and thwacked her on the head with it.
“Ow!” Cordy retaliated with a swift slap on his bicep.
Angel twirled his chair around and swatted at the offending palm but missed.
“Hey, no fair. You’ve got a weapon.” Cordy eyed the weapons cabinet. Angel merely smirked and dared her to go for it.
“Children. Am I going to have to separate you two for the next three weeks in order to keep some semblance of office propriety?” Spanning the gap of his office doors with his hands on his hips, elbows bent so sharply they cut the room in half like a craft knife, shoulders hunched, and glasses precariously perched on the tip of his nose, Wesley looked every ounce the mother of two brats who had just reached the end of her rope. Add a flour covered face, a rolling pin and an apron and you could slap the name Norman Rockwell on the picture and make a few grand.
“Hey, she started it with the singing from hell and trust me, I know.”
“Yeah, well, he hit me with the paper when I was singing a religious song. That’s…that’s just…wrong.”
“Angel, no more hitting. Cordy, please keep your singing to a soft hum or better yet let the radio and professionals do it for you. I think you both would enjoy the season more if you stayed as far away from each other as possible between now and Christmas and allow the rest of us to actually experience the good will towards men aspect of the season.”
With a backward step and a swoosh of wind as he shut the double doors to his office, Wesley left them alone and momentarily stunned.
The radio softly said Johnny Mathis was busy roasting chestnuts in an open fire while Angel turned around and looked at Cordy. She was his gauge in situations like this, and he wasn’t sure if Wesley’s little meltdown should be considered amusing or worrisome.
Cordy wasn’t much help when she said, “Kathleen Turner – Serial Mom.”
When he just stared blankly, she continued.
“Get it? Wesley! Just now with his little rant. Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom!”
“Cordy, what are the chances that I’ve actually seen that movie to know what you’re talking about?”
“It’s Christmas. I was hoping for a miracle!” Angel rolled his eyes. “Fine, I’ll explain. Most of the time he’s the loving mother hen – quietly graceful and pristine. But put a kink in his perfect fantasy life and you’d better have a taste tester handy to check out the banana pecan pancakes for razor blades. I so got an Aunt Jemima on PCP vibe just now.”
Angel was having a hard time trying to picture a hopped up Aunt Jemima, but any thought of Wesley as a woman much less a mother was enough to make his smile return and the chortles start.
Once Angel lost control Cordy couldn’t resist joining him. In seconds they were holding their hands over their mouths trying to stifle the sounds of their irreverent mocking while supporting their weakening knees by leaning over opposite sides of the counter.
When their quaking shoulders settled and Cordy’s gasps for air lessened, she reached over and grabbed his forearm. Her eyes wide and mischievous, she licked her lips before stretching forward further to whisper something, and he had no choice but to bend down to meet her in the middle.
Angel realized at that moment he had a dilemma.
On the one hand, he could spend hours watching her glistening, red mouth that his vision had darted to the instant her tongue had swept out to slide along its path. He knew how dangerous it was to get lost in the hypnotizing motion of her plump lips, especially that bottom one that tempted him daily to take between his and nip repeatedly, because he really should be listening to whatever it was she was saying.
On the other hand, how could he listen when he was torn between her lips and her cleavage? Angelus couldn’t have planned this position better: her body stretched toward his with her mouth dangerously close to his, her breath smelling of candy cane mint and coffee; her breasts resting on her arm and her antique white blouse unbuttoned just enough so he could see every delicious inch of the confluence of those firm yet supple mounds that his palms itched to weigh.
“Huh, what?” He didn’t take his eyes away from the view he so seldom got to indulge in.
“I said what do you think about my plan?”
Cordy used her free hand to slap his arm. “Angel, stop checking out my rack and listen to me. I’ve got a pair of something else you could look at.”
Angel’s eyes moved back to her lips. Oh, yes. I’d almost forgotten about the lips.
Another slap finally got his attention and he jerked back rubbing his arm. “Ouch! Watch the nails.”
“My eyes, dorkweed! You might want to change it up every so often and look at them when I’m talking to you. You know, just to throw me off.”
He did look at her eyes and knew at once there wasn’t any place on her body that he could safely gaze upon and not get distracted. She would just have to get over the fact that he was obsessed. Or, rather, he’d just have to get used to being pummeled by her very strong right hook. The demon in her was apparently quite the featherweight champ.
“Hello!” Cordy’s fingers became snapping castanets mere inches from his face, and he was mesmerized by the blur of red nails.
“I give up,” she said as she threw up her hands in disgust and stomped back to her desk.
“No, wait. You said something about a plan. What kind of plan?”
“Forget about it. The moment’s gone.” She sat and pulled a candy cane from her drawer. She split the cellophane and tossed it in the trash can under her desk as she continued. “It was just the most brilliant idea to make actual steam come out of Wesley’s ears, but I don’t think you’re capable of focusing long enough to carry it off.”
She pushed the long, straight end of the candy into her mouth and sucked as she pulled it out between her lips and mumbled between licks, “Sheesh, you’d think Angelus could pop his head out every now and then even if your soul is glued down. Could be fun.”
Angel didn’t really hear that last part. He was too busy fantasizing about Cordy’s mouth wrapped around something else which was quickly and noticeably rising to the mental stimulation. This is exactly what happened earlier which is why he had been sitting at his desk with his back to her reading the paper. Twice in the span of an hour. He really needed to get rid of every last one of those damn candy canes.
“Ho, ho, ho. The lunch elves are here!”
Angel tried to disguise his lunge for cover as a saunter but wasn’t sure he had succeeded. Casually he sat and pulled his lower body beneath his desk before Fred and Gunn made it around the counter.
“Lunch fairy,” Gunn said, correcting Fred. “Ain’t no way I’m dressing in green felt and wearing those pointy hats and shoes.”
“Ah, but a tutu and wings scream macho demon killing machine,” Fred said with a wink.
He tweaked her nose after setting down the food on the counter. “It says classy and graceful macho demon killing machine.”
“Angel, you’ve created a monster,” Cordy said, shooting him an accusing glare as she crossed to the counter to scrounge for her tuna melt. “As for you, Gunn, I think it’s time your ballet privileges were revoked. I could swear you did a tour jeté last night before you sliced that Halvrak’s arm off.”
Angel rose feeling the need to defend Gunn’s newest obsession. “Don’t knock ballet moves. There have been plenty of times a graceful turn or leap has saved my hide.”
“Please. You’re about as graceful as a blind, three-legged dog, but it does explain why just watching you guys train can put me right to sleep.”
He pursed his lips ready to refute her insult, but she smiled and winked taking all the wounded indignation out of him and replacing it with a flush of heat that raced from the top of his head to the ends of his toes.
He’d been having that reaction a lot lately. Ever since he realized just how deep his feelings for her were when she’d almost died on her birthday. After that horrifying ordeal, he’d begun to relish any bit of kindness or affection she threw his way.
Then the ballet incident! All that touching, kissing and moaning, while sending his heart soaring, had almost undone him. He was still kicking his ass all over town for not taking the opportunity to say something to her that night. It was the perfect moment, but he’d wasted precious time fumbling with words that stuck in his throat until Cordy finally gave up on his babbling. He watched stone-faced as her concentration and concern shifted to Wesley who was not handling the hookup between Fred and Gunn very well.
Now, every day, he felt the right time would never come again, and she was slipping further and further out of his grasp even though his feelings were intensifying. He wasn’t sure exactly why he just didn’t tell her except that part of him knew that timing was a big deal in relationships and his had always sucked. He had no natural rhythm for dancing and definitely none for judging when to say the right thing.
But more importantly, he was scared to death she didn’t feel the same, and he’d lose what closeness they had. He had good evidence to support that conclusion considering Cordy had made light of everything that happened at the ballet and made sure he knew she didn’t want to ever discuss it again. Never once had she looked at him in the same way he knew he was looking at her – with undisguised lust and unbridled love.
Was she just blind or maybe what he thought was so clearly written all over him looked to her like constipation? Damn, that girl was frustrating the hell out of him!
With every sway of her hips, unconscious sigh, twirl of her hair, or nip of her bottom lip his body hummed with desire and tingled with anticipation of the next moment. That’s why something as simple as her sucking on a candy cane was destroying his fragile grip on self control. They were obviously created by an evil, evil creature to torture him and had to be eliminated from the planet.
“Hey, look!” Fred gleefully announced as she pulled something from the plastic Rite-Aid’s bag. “We bought more candy canes since they seem to be such a popular item. We got two packs for the price of one!”
“Great,” Angel deadpanned and sighed melodramatically while plopping into his chair.
“Here ya go, Cordy.” Fred started emptying the rest of the drug store purchases onto Cordy’s desk. “One bottle of Devilishly Deep nail polish, glossy not crème, a three-pack of VCR tapes for recording all the holiday specials in case some evil demons try throwin’ some salt on our game…”
“Fred,” Gunn sighed. “Speak white-girl English, please, and save my sanity.”
“Mine, too,” Cordy and Angel said together.
“Slang party poopers,” Fred said, pushing her bottom lip out every bit as effectively as Cordy, and then suddenly looking quite puzzled as she pulled out the few remaining items from the bag.
“And last but not least, the magazines you wanted. I still don’t get why you wanted these. I mean I know I’ve been gone awhile, but aren’t these the ones old ladies like to read?”
Angel was intrigued. A change in Cordy’s magazine habit was certainly newsworthy and could possibly offer a big hint for what to get her for Christmas. He’d been stumped for weeks trying to decide what to do. He wanted it to be something personal to give her a clue about his feelings but not too personal to avoid any awkwardness in case she didn’t share his feelings.
Thus far he’d eliminated the usual: clothes, perfume, movies, CDs, books, magazine subscriptions and money – although he might hide some just to have some fun watching her find it. Jewelry was still a possibility but that could be tricky, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to maneuver through the whole diamonds vs. rubies vs. emeralds and what they signify minefield.
“Fred, you have so much to learn, don’t you? Yes, you’re right. For ten months out of the year, Better Homes and Gardens and The Ladies Home Journal are the stuff of old ladies with big, floppy gardening hats’ dreams, but come Thanksgiving and Christmas they rule for holiday decorating tips. You went pretty gah-gah over my Thanksgiving centerpiece and that came straight from the November issue of BH&G.” Cordy flashed the current month’s glossy magazine cover to emphasize her point.
“Wow! Can I look at them when you’re done? I want to do something festive with my room, but I’m kinda sick of garland, tinsel and mistletoe.”
“What’s wrong with mistletoe?” Gunn asked. “It’s the one time of the year that a plant actually serves a purpose besides just sitting there annoyingly waiting to be watered. Who needs that guilt when kissing is so much more fun? Speaking of, I think you’re standing under some right now.”
All eyes went to the ceiling except Gunn’s stare which was focusing on Fred’s lips.
Angel mentally kicked himself again. Why didn’t I see that before and how long has it been there? We were standing right there five minutes ago. Damn!
“Eww,” Cordy said. “That’s coming down today. You guys do that lip smacking stuff enough. We really don’t need mistletoe forcing you to do it more.”
Angel sighed as Cordy’s words shot down his last hope for a freebie this Christmas.
“C’mon, girl. You’re just jealous. Get your fine Barbie butt up here, and I’ll share the love.”
Angel’s world collided with the sun and exploded as he watched a giggly Cordy rise from her chair, fall into Gunn’s outstretched arms and accept his lips on hers for the most disgusting public display of affection he had ever witnessed.
He couldn’t stop the little mewling whine that escaped his lips.
Three pairs of curious eyes turned toward him.
“What’s the matter, bro? Feeling a little left out? I’m feeling pretty generous right now so come here and get your chocolate Christmas treat.” Gunn started blowing air kisses at Angel and wriggled his fingers at him to coax him into his arms.
Cordy started to snigger and back-handed his chest. “Stop it, Gunn. We all know who Angel wants to kiss even if he’s too shy to admit it.”
She dipped her head and locked eyes with Angel. Under the veil of her thick lashes, her eyes beckoned him and then flashing her most devastating smile, she made sure the message was clear.
“Angel,” Cordy coyly murmured while curling her index finger at him to come hither.
He hoped he hadn’t gotten up and skipped to Cordy’s side too fast, but he didn’t think he had because it seemed like it was taking forever to float to her. He stared into her shimmering eyes and watched her tongue once again moisten her lips. His right leg began to shake as he slowly lowered his head toward hers.
Cordy groaned softly and never blinked as she watched first his eyes and then his mouth move closer and closer. He could hear her heart begin to speed up and felt a clammy film on his palms. Oh, God, maybe she really does want me.
He was three inches from the taste and warmth he still recalled vividly from the ballet when Cordy unexpectedly jumped back and yelled toward the space behind him.
“Wesley! Get out here! Angel has something he wants to give you.”
As the sound of three laughing former friends drowned out everything around him, Angel knew one thing. Cordy was very lucky Angelus was tied down.
“Come on, Angel. Stop pouting. Admit it. It was pretty darn funny, and I did manage to get that steam out of someone’s ears. They just ended up being your ears instead of Wesley’s.”
Cordy was unrepentant and fully convinced she hadn’t done anything wrong. Angel, if he were being honest with himself, would have laughed his ass off if she’d pulled that on anyone else, but he wasn’t in the mood for honesty. He wanted to strangle her and ravish her at the same time and that bothered him because he was never into erotic asphyxiation before. That clinched it. Cordy was divinely evil, and he loved her for it.
However, he still wasn’t in the mood to forgive her, so he continued to ignore her and flip through the book Wesley had given him to read as punishment for his share of the humiliation. As he sat there, his legs stretched and feet perched on his desk with the book in his lap, he pondered for the hundredth time why he was being punished for something Cordelia had done. But somehow in the explanation that flew from her mouth, he had become a sex-crazed, gay eunuch with a mistletoe fetish and she was just an innocent bystander.
“If you stop being mad at me, I’ll tell you what I got you for Christmas.”
She donned her bedroom eyes and her warmest smile and the womanly manipulation game was on. He merely tilted his head – his most manly version of her verbal “as if” – which she quickly interpreted and replied jutting out her lower lip.
Angel was about to call her pouty lip and raise her with a “please, don’t even try it” when he saw a twinkle of guilt deep in those hazel depths. The chill of his embarrassment melting at the sight, he sighed and capitulated.
“Fine, what did you get me?” It took all the control he had not to quirk up his lips when she realized she was succeeding in bringing him out of his brood and her perfect smile widened. He closed the book and folded his hands on top of it in his lap and waited.
“Well? What is it?” His eyebrows lifted as it dawned on him this was the perfect way to find out just how she felt about him. Personal gift – feelings of the hot kind; impersonal gift – just friends.
“You don’t really want me to tell you, do you?”
“Yes! I mean…you offered and I said ok. I think that constitutes wanting to know.”
“But if I tell you, then you won’t be surprised on Christmas day. That’s the best part of giving a gift – watching the expression on the person’s face when they open it.”
Oh, God, not the big guns. But it was. The patented lip thrust was joined in battle by whiny voice, hair twirl, gnawed lip and moist eyes. She really didn’t want to tell him.
And it almost worked. Mathis had changed to the mellow, rich voice of Clooney counting her blessings and Angel felt blessed for finally being able to be one step ahead of Miss Chase.
He shook his head, dropped his feet to the floor and tossed the text on his desk. Chuckling softly, he said, “Cordy, Cordy, Cordy. You haven’t even bought my gift yet, have you?”
Her lips plunged downward and her whole body sagged at the disappointment that her ruse had failed.
“Damn it, Angel. You were supposed to try and guess. How am I supposed to know what to get a 250 year-old vampire if you don’t ever want anything? I just thought if you started guessing, you’d let slip something you might actually like to get.”
“Sorry to spoil your manipulation, but you know if you want to know something all you have to do is ask.”
“First, not a manipulation – just a bit of Christmas cleverness which everyone uses this time of year when necessary. Second, I’ll bite. What do you want for Christmas, Angel?”
He was stuck. He really didn’t want anything except her. Now was the moment. All these months of waiting for another chance and here it was. The only thing he had to do was say it.
All I want is you, Cor.
Opening his mouth, nothing came out but a dry wheeze. He’d forgotten to breathe in air in order to speak. Clearing his throat he filled his lungs and tried again.
“All I want is…”
“Man, this is the coolest game since Mortal Kombat. Angel, have you tried this yet? We have got to have a match so I can wipe the floor with your puny vamp ass.”
Gunn’s invasion of their private moment distracted Angel and he panicked.
“…Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
“Huh?” Cordy was confused.
“Oh, so you have played it. Cool. Come over here and show me your moves.” Gunn sat on the couch, his attention immediately absorbed by the video game screen in his hands.
“I said, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You know, the game. For the Gameboy.” He didn’t know how he managed to keep talking when every muscle in his neck and face was contracting in anger at himself for letting yet another perfect moment slip by.
Although, in the back of his mind he decided he wouldn’t mind actually getting that game. It was pretty cool.
Once Cordy’s mouth closed, she took a pen and post-it and started to write. “Okay. Got it. Anything else you might want just in case this…game…is sold out. I hear these kinds of things get scarce at Christmas.”
As the familiar pangs of defeat continued to course through him, he mumbled, “Well, I guess any game would be nice. I’ve kind of played all the ones we have until I can do them in my sleep.”
“Isn’t that just sad? Okay, a game it is. I mean it’s not like you could use some clothes that aren’t stained with demon intestines, but…hey! You want a game, you got it.”
So she wants to get me clothes. That seems personal. I mean you have to know my size and what I like, and that’s pretty personal. Of course, she mentioned all the stains so does that mean she’s being practical or is she just disgusted?
Angel perked up at another thought. The moment to express his desires may have past, but this was the perfect time to find out what to get her. Maybe part of his problems could be solved tonight.
“What about you? What do you want?”
The shadows fell across Cordy’s once warm expression. Her eyes closed until they were mere slits, her mouth mimicked the motion and Angel felt a lead weight in the pit of his stomach.
“Me? You mean to tell me you haven’t bought me anything yet!”
Oh, crap. I think my problems just doubled.
Angel rose from his chair quickly and began edging away with arms stretched, elbows locked and hands in front of him in defense. Cordy stalked him as he backed around the counter toward the protection of his good pal, Gunn.
“Now, Cordy, you haven’t bought mine either so you have to understand…”
“Understand?” she screeched. Then the chiseled nail of her index finger was being poked repeatedly into his chest. “Understand this, buddy. I have a very good reason for not having your gift yet. You never want anything! I, on the other hand, want and need everything so you have no excuse for not buying me something!”
“Man, bro, are you stupid or just plain ignorant? Even I know it’s not bright to admit you haven’t bought a woman her gift after Thanksgiving. I was all over that action back in August.”
“See? Gunn knows and he’s over 200 years younger than you! What is your damage, Angel?”
“All right, all right, I get it. I messed up. I’m sorry. You know I’m a dork when it comes to these things. Do you think you could give me a little help, though, and…ya know…tell me some things you would like?”
Cordy sighed exasperated and Gunn tucked his head between his shoulders looking very much like one of the turtles currently doing pirouettes on the screen.
“How about this? How about I tell you what I don’t need. I don’t need hair dye…yet…or a toaster. Everything else in the world you can pretty much put on the what-to-get-Cordy-for Christmas list. Got it? Does that help?”
“Well, that doesn’t really narrow it down…”
“Sheesh.” Gunn slipped off the couch and backed away. “I think I’ll see what Fred’s up to. Angel…it was nice knowing you.”
As Gunn galloped up the steps, Angel sensed his last hope went with him.
Looking at the still flushed cheeks and folded arms of warpath Cordelia, he shivered as he caught the current Christmas selection winding its way around the otherwise deathly quiet lobby. He thought it very appropriate that the music that would forever be his dirge was “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Chipmunks’ version.
Twenty-four hours later, only three hours of which had been spent listening to Cordy berate him for his Christmas present blunder, Angel was still alive. He was very grateful as it could have been so much worse. Fortunately, there had been a vision and coming back from the battle bloodied and shredded had pretty much gotten him out of the dog house.
Plus – Cordy hands on his chest. Nice.
No one needed to know he’d purposely let the fight go on longer than necessary or that he may have stepped into a slicing blow once – okay, maybe a few times. A man has to do what a man has to do to get a little mercy. Redemption was a bitch and Cordy and she were on a first-name basis.
“Hey! Who ate all the candy canes?” Cordy glared at Angel since he was closest.
Oh, yeah. He hid all the candy after she left for the night.
“Why look at me? I don’t eat, remember.”
“Oh, right.” Her forehead wrinkled as she tried to fathom what possibly could have happened to 48 candy canes over night.
“Maybe Fred and Gunn decided to play a little ‘hide-the-Christmas-treat’ last night.” He winked and gave her his dirtiest Angelus smile.
“You’re sick, you know that?” Shooting him one last glare, Cordy returned to her magazine, flipping the pages while her lips smacked aching for a red and white minty stick.
Angel let a satisfied smile spread as he kicked back to enjoy the newspaper and a boner-free day.
The tinkle of Wesley’s tea cup meeting its saucer mate chimed in time with the angelic voices of the Vienna Boys’ Choir ding-dong-ding-dong of the “Carol of the Bells.” Not usually one for Christmas ambiance, Angel was surprised that this year the incessant music, decorations and general commercialism hadn’t annoyed him. In fact, he was finding it all very – pleasant.
Well, barring yesterday’s fiasco and the nagging problem of Cordy’s gift, it was all somehow peaceful in its chaos. Angel had pondered his sudden affection for the season and realized the difference between this year and all the others was his family. They were together for once and no one was in pain or dying.
And then there was Cordy. That was a big difference. He’d never spent Christmas so totally and unquestioningly in love. There had been too many issues between Buffy and him as well as trying to figure out why he had been returned from hell during the “miracle” Christmas in Sunnydale for that to have been a happy time. But now there was love, purpose and family, and Christmas celebrated all of those things. Angel wanted to delight in every moment.
“Oh, my, God.” Cordy gasped covering her mouth with her palm.
He tensed. Why did I have to think about being happy?
“What’s wrong? Is it a vision?” He moved swiftly from his chair to her side and looked down to where her eyes were glued.
He became very nervous when his hand touched her shoulder, and he felt the way her body was shaking. Time seemed to stop while he waited for her to do more than stare and point at the magazine opened in front of her.
Scanning the pages, he could determine no threat imbedded there. But her expression remained startled, and her eyes screamed something he’d never seen there before and he couldn’t interpret.
His anger fueled by his inability to decipher the problem and help her, Angel gripped her shoulders and turned her around to look at him.
“Tell me what’s wrong! Please.”
Her attention momentarily diverted, Cordy inhaled deeply and lowered her hand from her mouth to her chest willing her racing heart to calm. After a few more agonizing seconds, she finally spoke a few halting words.
That was all she could manage before she gasped and covered her mouth again.
When Angel finished going through his mental demon database and could find no creature called “Quilt,” he finally allowed that the word meant just what it always did. He looked over her shoulder at the magazine once again and saw the object of her distress.
She was right. It was a quilt. Nothing really unusual to Angel’s eye, he’d seen hundreds of them over his many years. There were pieces of colored cloth stitched together – although this quilt seemed more haphazardly put together than most – and he noted lighter sections that appeared to have handwriting on them. All in all, he wasn’t very impressed – or scared for that matter.
Cordy turned back to the picture and gingerly put her fingertips to the image.
“It’s the quilt. My grandmother’s quilt.” Her eyes didn’t blink as she lovingly rubbed her fingers across the slick image as if trying to reach in to feel the texture.
Angel’s senses noted she had calmed and an aura of warmth and utter stillness surrounded her. The radio was still turned on but the once continuous stream of holiday sounds was now a silent void as if transmitting from the wrong side of the moon.
“What?” Angel stared at the picture and then at her and at last he understood. He relaxed knowing it wasn’t anything malicious that had upset her. “Cordy, I’m sure that’s not your grandmother’s quilt. I mean what are the odds?”
Cordy slapped his stomach with the back of her hand. “I know it’s not *her* quilt, dufus, but it’s just like it. The colors are different but it’s the same kind of quilt. It’s called an Angels’ Songs quilt.”
Angel sat on the desk beside her and studied her eyes. He almost echoed Cordy’s earlier gasp when he recognized the ‘something’ that he hadn’t been able to read in her stare and had never seen there before – nostalgia.
His seer and best friend didn’t have a lot of pleasant memories in her life. Crappy parents, vacuous friends, being vamp bait during her formative years, a cheating boyfriend, a rebar through her stomach. The girl never really looked back on her past and sighed, saying, “Those were the good ol’ days.”
In fact, this was the first time Angel could remember that she had ever mentioned something from her past without bitterness or sarcasm tingeing every word. It was as if all the warmth her heart possessed was glowing from every pore, lighting the room in a soft golden hue, and a little sadness tore at his gut.
Then she spoke and explained why this simple blanket seemed to mean the world to her.
“As a kid, I used to spend every Christmas with my mother’s mom while my parents took off to whatever spa or resort that got them as far away from me as possible.”
Her voice cracked a little but she recovered with a quick intake of breath.
Angel was a bit shocked to see a few tears escape her resolve and silently start to wind their trails across her blushing cheeks. Angelus itched to taste the salty pearls because they were rare treasures indeed coming from this woman. The soul ached to keep them from every happening again.
“Even though I missed them, I loved Christmas with my Grandmother. Everything that my mom had hated about growing up ‘middle class’,” she air quoted, “I loved. We’d spend a few days shopping – not for clothes but for things to make decorations and holiday baskets for her friends – then we’d sit for hours and hours talking and laughing while we decorated or made cookies. There was always the smell of fresh bread and cinnamon in the morning and pine and hot chocolate at night. And there was always Christmas music playing somewhere like she had it piped into every room.”
She laughed and then sniffled a little, her embarrassment for letting her sentimental side show quickly surfacing. “I know, I know. Sounds too perfect and not anything Queen C would ever admit having done much less liked.”
A tiny fist squeezed Angel’s heart when her cheeks pinked and her eyes glistened from the memories.
“No, I don’t think it sounds too perfect, and why shouldn’t you enjoy those things? Believe it or not, Cordy, we all know you’ve got a heart even though you try your best to hide it.”
The turnaround was amazing. One minute she was all fluff and petticoats and the next, nine-inch nails and whips.
“Of course I’ve got a heart! Who says I don’t? Is it Buffy, because if she’s so immature that she’s still going around telling people what a bitch I am….”
“Cordy, hush! Nobody’s bad-mouthing you as far as I know. And I haven’t spoken to Buffy since she returned from the dead. I just meant you put on a good tough, independent woman show for the crowds, but I…we know that’s just the outer shell. No one’s got a bigger heart than you.”
If he’d expected her to blush, he was immediately disappointed.
“Okay, what do you want? If it’s another Heston marathon night with a back rub and hot blood toddies, I so paid off that bet. That was a once-in-a-lifetime deal never to be repeated, buster.”
“Geeze, Cordy, I don’t want anything. I’m just trying to pay you a compliment which you deserve! Now finish your story about the quilt.”
As Cordy resumed her story cautiously eyeing him as if looking for signs of a trick he must be about to pull, Angel inwardly sighed recalling that movie marathon night. It was too bad it was before he realized his feelings for her. That would have been a perfect moment to spring them on her. Now all he could do was try to recapture the feel of her hot hands on his shoulder blades, the weight of her tush on his, the squeeze of her thighs against his as she leaned forward to put all of her weight into her strokes, the smell of her musk as she worked her body into a sweat making sure his was relaxed and supple under her touch…
“You ever have that feeling?” Cordy asked.
“Huh? I’m sorry, what feeling?”
Exasperated by his inattention, she humphed but continued. “That feeling of being completely safe and loved, dumbass!”
Angel winced. “Not at this particular moment, no.”
“Well neither have I since I was eight. That was the last Christmas I spent with her and slept under that quilt.”
“So, the quilt made you feel safe and loved?” Angel figured he’d missed an important point and was a little wary of trying to clarify it considering he hadn’t been listening and she knew it.
“No! Yes! It wasn’t so much the quilt as what it represented. It was an Angels’ Songs quilt.”
Her emphasizing each word was not helping his comprehension. “You said that before, but it’s not any clearer now that you’ve said it twice.”
“Ugh! My grandmother told me that years ago – probably in those days you’re so fond of recounting as if anybody cared – members of a family would write down how they felt about each other. Then someone – a woman of course – would embroider the sentiments on blocks and make a quilt. After those people passed on, the words were like angels’ songs wrapping around them as they slept surrounding them with love and peace.”
Her gaze was focused inward, her frustration with Angel momentarily forgotten as she remembered a private moment from her childhood.
“So…your grandmother’s quilt…it had words from your ancestors on it?”
“Yeah. I didn’t know any of them; it was a pretty old quilt. But she told me stories about each one of them that her mother had told her, and I felt like every one of them watched over me and hugged me when I went to sleep underneath it.”
“I can see how special that would be. What happened to it?”
She wiped the last of the moisture from her eyes and got up to get another cup of coffee. When she made it to the pot and began pouring, Angel was aware that the radio was on again and Streisand was singing about the best gift she’d ever got. As if it and the cosmos knew the need for quiet was over once Cordy walked away.
“Cor? What happened to the quilt? Does your grandmother still have it?”
She never turned and just shrugged her shoulders. “My grandmother died that year – when I was eight. My mom wasn’t the sentimental kind and definitely not one who appreciated the worth of a fraying, well-loved quilt.”
She turned, a fake smile on the protective coating she’d just enameled herself with and casually walked back to her desk saying, “She probably had it thrown in the trash or gave it to Goodwill. I never saw it again.”
Before she sat, she let her guard down for a second to give the picture one more loving glance and stroke before she closed the magazine on the past and her heart.
But she didn’t close it fast enough. Angel saw and heard enough to know exactly the perfect gift to show her just how much he cared without exactly screaming, “I love you and want to jump your bones right now.”
But what the hell did he know about quilts?
Angel awoke to the dopplered sound of Fred’s tinny screams and Gunn’s lecherous groans in the hall outside his door. As he drifted into the reality of shaded late-morning light and the damp smell of the coming rain, he pondered the dichotomy of the noises disturbing his first restful sleep in weeks.
For a girl that weighed next to nothing, Fred sure could clomp like a Clydesdale when being pursued. Gunn, on the other hand, had perfected a feather-like jog after years of chasing down vampires who could seemingly move on the wind.
The chase was consummated with Fred’s high-pitched yelp which was immediately snuffed out by what Angel could only assume was Gunn’s mouth over hers.
On that depressing note, Angel stretched the cramped arm he’d been lying on most of the night and wiggled his fingers willing the cold blood to once again fill the crushed veins. Another burst of giggles from the hall and he was on his feet and shower bound.
Slipping the soap between his palms to work up a lather, he admitted to himself that he resented the fact that a girl who’d been out of circulation and out of her mind for the last five years had a boyfriend in less than six months of her return. It really flashed a big, honkin’ spotlight on his century-long-in-the-making pathetic relationship skills, and they didn’t stand up to close scrutiny. What did she know that he didn’t?
Fred! His bubble covered hands stilled on his chest when the crazy idea hit that maybe Fred had the answer. Not the answer to his social retard-idity, although he wasn’t dismissing that as a possibility, but the more important question about the quilt! Cordy was a girl; Fred was a girl. Cordy knew about that quilt, therefore, Fred might know about it, too.
Quickly running more soap over parts of his body he couldn’t play with today, he rinsed hurriedly and practically air dried rushing to his closet. Today he had a mission that he was eager to start. It was probably the toughest test he’d ever been handed, but he was excited by the challenge. Because at the end of the road was a happy Cordy, and that was a goal worth pursuing for a lifetime.
He could hear the strangled strains of Cordy’s version of “We Three Kings” coming from the lobby as he opened his door and stepped into the hallway. He couldn’t help wincing; it was reflex by now. I could always buy her singing lessons if the quilt doesn’t work out, he thought, but immediately dismissed that idea since she’d stake him if he even suggested it, and it would absolutely not lead to any warm mouth-on-mouth exploits.
Walking away from the lobby stairs, he turned the corner and saw Fred pinned to the wall by Gunn’s frame, her cheeks blossoming pink from whatever Gunn was whispering in her ear.
Angel cleared his throat and tried not to listen to the nasty things he was saying to her.
“Angel! Hi, how ya doin’? We didn’t wake ya did we?” Fred tried to squirm out of Gunn’s cradle but succeeded only in turning around with her back to his chest, his arms still a possessive lasso around her waist.
“Actually, you did, but that’s not important. Well, it might be if you guys do it every day. You won’t be, will you?”
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Gunn said, but his grin didn’t support that sentiment. “Guess we got carried away with the holiday spirit.”
Fred gave another bird-like titter and then shoved an elbow in Gunn’s stomach when he tried to take a bite of her lobe.
“Yeah, well, I guess that’s bound to happen.” Angel was feeling decidedly uncomfortable witnessing their affectionate play. Hands in his pockets and eyes bobbing back and forth from the couple to the rug, he hoped he could rend Fred from Gunn soon and start his quest. “So, Fred, I wanted to ask for your help with something. Do you think you can spare a minute?”
“My help? Sure! I’d love to help ya with something. Is it about a demon, because I’ve been studying a lot and if I don’t know it I think I can probably figure out where to find it. Not that you or Wesley couldn’t because you’re both like the gods of demon knowledge so that’s probably not what you want. Oh! Do you need help with a new weapon? I’ve been designing a little gadget using a car’s distributor and a washing machine blade that…”
“Fred! It’s about a quilt!” Angel bit his lip trying too late to stop the words her babbling had forced him to yell to shut her up. He hadn’t wanted to say anything in front of Gunn, but it was out there now and Angel was bracing himself for the onslaught of barbs from the street fighter.
Fred’s head tilted to the side, her eyes wide and confused.
“What do you want to know about quilts?”
Angel had been looking at her mouth, but her lips never moved. He wondered when she’d learned ventriloquism until he realized the voice’s timbre was decidedly Gunn-like.
“I said what do you want to know about quilts? Do you need to know how to make one or just where to get one, because I’m the man for both. I’ve got connections in the black market if you’re looking for something that should still be in a museum, if you catch my drift, or if you’re looking for something just a little on the rare side, like an 1863 Ohio Star in mint condition.” Gunn said it all with a straight face and not a hint of sarcasm.
Angel forced his mouth shut and shot his gaze from Fred to Gunn and back again certain they were under some weird spell which had put Fred’s brain in Gunn’s body.
“I understand you’re a little confused right now. I recognize the look,” Fred said sympathetically. “I know a little something about quilts having slept under one my entire life, but Gunn’s right, he’s the real expert.”
“Gunn? You know about quilts? Isn’t that…”
“If the words girly or sissified are about to come out of your mouth, I suggest you rethink it. Ain’t nothing wrong with knowing how to survive. And when the day comes that the world has shot its power wad and that big glacier is inching closer and closer to Encino, I’ll be the macho Mad Max with the warm blanket and padded underwear, and you’ll be freezing your manly testicles off.”
Angel couldn’t help but grin at that image. “Point taken. But how…who…”
“My grandma taught all us kids. Seems if you’re a girl in a house with nine sisters, knowing how to sew and embroider your name in your clothes is as important as being quick on the draw when the biscuits are passed. Didn’t matter to her that I’m a boy, and all it took was my trying to get out of a lesson once to know how I felt on the subject was the least of my problems.” Gunn subconsciously rubbed his behind as the ghost welts started itching.
Fred reached back and ran her palm sweetly on Gunn’s cheek to ease the sting. Unable to resist any longer, she finally asked, “So, Angel, why the sudden interest in quilts? Oooo! Did Cordy have a vision of an evil, life-sucking one or maybe one with threads that reach out and trap its victim in a web?”
The pride that he took in his girlfriend’s brain beamed in Gunn’s smile. “Girl, you are somethin’ else.”
“Uh, no. No vision. But it does involve Cordy. I want to get her a certain quilt for Christmas. It’s one her grandmother used to have called an Angels’ Songs quilt. Ever hear of it?”
“Wow! That’s so sweet of you and romantic, too. You do know it’s romantic, don’t you? I mean you can’t give a girl something so obviously important to her and not expect her to just fall head over heels in love with you, right?”
“The woman’s got a point. That will definitely say more than ‘Merry Christmas and pass the eggnog’. You’ll be making a big statement with that kind of present. Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”
Both friends eyed Angel, breaths held and hands clasped. Their lips turned slowly upward as Angel’s smile widened.
“Oh, yeah. I’m sure.”
Fred’s squeal of delight almost pierced his eardrum as she leapt into his arms and hugged him fiercely.
“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! I’m so happy for you. This is going to be the best Christmas ever!”
“I hope so, Fred,” Angel peeled her arms from his neck and looked expectantly to Gunn.
“Congratulations, man. It’s about time you got off your lazy, vampire ass and made a move. Cordy’s not getting any younger.”
“Charles,” Fred slapped his chest. “You’d better not ever say anything like that in front of Cordy. I don’t want to date a eunuch.”
At the “eunuch” word, Angel sucked in a breath and then remembered he wasn’t one anymore. But he still needed some assurance despite his friends’ initial reactions to his news.
“So you both think Cordy will like the gift? I mean…she won’t…you know…run off?”
“You really are the clueless dork she’s always saying you are,” Gunn said.
“Angel, Cordy couldn’t love anyone else. I mean if she could, do you think she’d still be hanging around with you 24 hours a day? She’s not exactly ugly or stupid. Look at me. I’ve only been here a few months, and I’ve got Charles despite the fact that I’m skinny, flat chested, wear glasses and crazy.”
Tingles of relief gushed through him as he absorbed her insane logic, and then a determination to get started and begin the rest of his life expanded his chest. Now that he’d confessed his feelings and was reassured he wasn’t lame to hope, he didn’t feel so alone and desolate anymore. The world was immediately filled with possibilities.
“Thanks, guys. So,” he clapped his hands together, “what do you know about this quilt?”
“Well, I’ve heard of them,” Gunn said. “And from what I know, they’re not exactly easy to come by.”
Angel’s smile flattened.
“Those are family heirloom quilts, not the type of quilt that gets given as a gift to friends or made for some church fair. It’s not very often that one wouldn’t get passed down and ends up for sale. Besides, they’re very personal, and I’m not sure Cordy would want some other family’s ghosts.”
Angel hadn’t really considered that. He’d been so excited to finally know the best gift for her, that he hadn’t considered that words written by strangers might not evoke the feelings of safety and love that her grandmother’s quilt had.
“Then we’ll just have to find the one quilt that will,” he mumbled to himself. “Gunn, these contacts you have, how long would it take to find one particular quilt?”
“I’d say at least a few weeks to know one way or the other. Tell me everything you know about this quilt, and I’ll give my aunty a call.”
“Your aunt is in the quilt black market?” Angel still couldn’t believe there was such a thing much less run by bun-wearing, gray-haired old ladies.
“Don’t be judgin’. Woman’s gotta make a livin’ and quilts is what she knows best.”
Angel shrugged and chocked it up to learning something new every day.
Herding Gunn and Fred into his room for privacy, Angel recalled everything Cordy had told him. As he spoke, he couldn’t help get a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach that this was a hopeless cause. The only thing working in their favor and which kept his hope from completely slipping away was the knowledge that this is what they did for a living – helping hopeless causes. And if anyone deserved to be the recipient of the Powers’ goodwill, it was their seer – a thought that should have given Angel peace of mind but somehow didn’t.
The next few weeks tiptoed by on snail’s toes. For the most part, it was uneventful. It seemed as if the demon world had all converted to Christianity when they weren’t looking, and horned creatures everywhere were, at this very moment, shopping for the perfect virgin skin coat for that special slime someone.
After a few days without visions, Angel patrolled and unbeknownst to the gang had actually picked a few fights among some mostly innocuous demon worshippers just to pass the time. Feeling a little guilty afterwards, he had advised them about a much nicer hellbeast to raise and the perfect sacrifices to garner its favor.
It hadn’t helped much. He was still going nuts waiting to hear from Gunn’s aunt.
Oh! And sweet little Fred? He wanted to strangle her daily. If she wasn’t sighing and making goo-goo eyes at him and Cordy, she was saying something rife with double entendre or innuendo.
Take this morning for example…
Angel was sitting on the couch polishing his broadsword while Cordy read a book. Fred bounded down the steps and practically skipped to Cordy’s side hitching herself up on her desk.
“So, Cordy, whatcha doin’?”
Cordy’s eyes didn’t leave her place in the book. “Fending off the lewd advances of Jude Law and Brad Pitt while polishing my toenails.”
“Looks like you’re just readin’ a book to me.”
“Then my clever plan’s working.”
Angel smiled and almost cut his finger off imagining the lewd advances he’d like to be making.
Fred’s heels pinged against the desk drawers as she swung her feet back and forth in rhythm with the music on the radio.
“I love this song, don’t you?” She began singing along with the annoying voice of whoever recorded the song, piercing his eardrums with “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth, my two front teeth…”
“Not so much, Fred. That’s one Christmas song they can put in a time capsule and bury under molten rock for all I care.”
“I think it’s cute. Not that I’d ever want teeth for Christmas. Okay, maybe if I was like a hundred years old – no offense Angel,” Fred yelled over her shoulder to him, “and all my teeth had fallen out, then teeth for Christmas would probably be pretty spiffy. I mean it’s got to get pretty boring drinking all your meals through a straw. Can you imagine mashed up turkey and dressing or pumpkin pie and whipped cream from a blender…”
That did it. Cordy put her palm on the page and slammed the book shut. Plastering her fakest smile across her face, she decreed yammer time was over.
“Are you trying to find out what I got you for Christmas, Fred? Because if you are, go pester someone who’s actually likely to cave like Angel.”
“Oh, no, I don’t want to know. I like to be surprised. Besides, Angel wouldn’t tell me. He’s really good at keeping secrets. Aren’t you, Angel?”
She turned her toothy grin to him as if she were as innocent as a new born lamb; a lamb his claws ached to slaughter. Angel’s whole body stiffened waiting for Cordy’s interrogation to begin.
“Yeah, Fred, we got how good Angel is at secrets from the whole Darla episode. Oh, that’s right, you weren’t here. Well, take my word for it; we are all aware of his abilities in that arena.”
He would have preferred a cross examination complete with hot pokers to the disappointment and bitterness he heard in her statement.
“But that was a bad secret. We’ve all got bad secrets we don’t want anyone to know about. I’m talking about good ones – exciting secrets that you’re just bustin’ to tell everybody. Those are really hard to keep inside, but Angel’s really good at those. Take your Christmas present for example…”
“Fred!” Angel was the magic bullet out of nowhere as he clamped his hand over her mouth and pulled her away from Cordy’s desk.
“Oh, really? Angel has a present for me?” She rose and backed up the still muzzled Fred and her captor, Angel, until his shoulders folded around one of the counter columns.
“You know Fred’s a little wacky. She probably has me confused with Gunn, what with the whole crush thing she used to have on me. Ow!” Angel pulled back his hand and shook out the pain Fred’s incisors just inflicted.
“I don’t have you confused with Charles, and you do so have a gift for Cordy. It’s a great present! You’re going to love it, I just know you will.” Fred’s eyes sparkled with joy and anticipation.
Cordy humphed. “Well, if he does have something for me, that’s surprise enough in itself. I think I’ll just count my blessings and not worry about what the gift is because more than likely I’ll be exchanging it.” She turned back to her desk and resumed reading, seemingly totally disinterested in Angel’s secret.
Angel relaxed but took Fred’s arm and marched her up the stairs for her daily talking to, once again narrowly avoiding disaster in the shape of a tiny physicist.
And now the two weeks were over at last. He couldn’t wait any longer. If they came up empty handed, he’d have to spend the last week before Christmas wracking his brain for something else to get her.
He was pacing in his room when he sensed Gunn just outside his door. He opened it to see Gunn’s knuckle an inch from his nose before it was jerked back just before impact.
“Damn, dog, don’t do that. I almost knocked your lights out.”
“Sure, fine, whatever. What did your aunt say? Did they find it?”
Gunn sighed and shook his head. “Naw, man, I’m sorry. There’s not an Angels’ Songs quilt to be had between here and the Jersey shore much less Cordy’s family one. Hell, she even checked with the Chinese and Russian quilt mafias – and those bitches are mean – in case there was anything overseas. Whatever happened to that quilt we’ll probably never know.”
Angel’s hopes for a smooth transition between the dork he was into the suave lover he wanted to be were crushed. “What do I do now?”
Fred’s tiny head peeked around the doorframe under Gunn’s arm.
“Angel, Charles told me. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything to Cordy.”
“That’s okay, Fred. She said she’d probably exchange anything I got her so I guess she’s not expecting much. She can’t be disappointed if she doesn’t know what I planned to get her.”
“I just called my mom hoping maybe she and her quilting bee could maybe make one for you, but she said they’d need at least a month to do something with all that embroidery and with people already busy making Christmas presents for their own families…”
“Thanks, Fred. I didn’t even think about making one.”
“It was Gunn’s idea.”
“I asked my aunt first, but I got basically the same story. Not enough time. I thought maybe Fred’s mom could somehow manage it, but I guess not.”
The three looked equally dejected and the heavy silence made their chests cave at the same time.
Angel and Gunn jumped back, hackles raised for an attack.
“Why don’t we make it?” Fred bounced up and down on her toes, the woman suddenly comprised of one big ball of enthusiasm.
“Fred, I don’t think…”
“Girl, I love you, but you’re…”
“No, listen! Charles knows how to make quilts, I’m a genius at design, and Angel’s got all that vampire speed that’s just itchin’ to be put to good use. With the help of some – okay maybe a dozen or so – people who actually know how to sew, we could do this.”
Angel looked at Gunn, both men trying to catch up with Fred’s train of thought and decipher the possibilities.
“C’mon guys, it’s for Cordy and true love!”
“Gunn’s expression changed from a definite ‘no way’ to ‘slim chance it could work’ and that was enough for a desperate Angel.
Angel grinned and grabbed Fred’s shoulders, planting a wet kiss on her forehead. “Okay, let’s do it. What do we need to do?”
Gunn started ticking off the essentials.
“We need material, thread, all the quilting tools – straight edges, curves, scissors, needles, hoops, batting, thimbles – damn!”
“What? What’s the matter?” Angel tensed. He knew it was too good to be true.
“Well this is an Angels’ Songs quilt. It’s got to have actual words on it. What are we going to put on it?”
“That’s the easy part, Charles. It’s supposed to be what family members want to tell their loved ones about how they feel.” Fred looked at Angel and Charles expectantly.
“That’s what I’m saying. How do we know what Cordy’s family would…”
The idea clicked for both men at the same time.
“We’re Cordy’s family,” Angel said.
A wonderful heat tickled his fingers and toes as the Christmas gift that would have been merely wonderful just became perfect. This would be even more special for Cordy, having them all tell her just how much she meant to them. And if, God forbid, any of them died, she’d always have a piece of them with her, surrounding her with their love.
He couldn’t wait to pick up pen and paper, fabric and scissors, needle and thread; and never in his 250 years did he think those words would ever cross his mind.
Well, this was a new hell, and it was called JoAnn’s Fabrics. And yes, Virginia, there is piped-in Christmas music in hell, too.
Angel’s arms were stretched out while the nice sales clerk, Caryn, hummed along with Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and continued to pile high what looked like torture devices but he was assured were necessary tools to make a quilt.
“Do you having a cutting mat?”
Angel just stared at her which was difficult to do with the ugly fluorescent lights burning his retinas.
“No, of course you don’t. Well, I suggest you get two. A large and small, especially since you’re in a hurry. You’ll want several people cutting at the same time.”
“Excuse, me…Caryn, is it? Why do I need all these safety pins? And I think they’re defective. They’re all bent.”
“They’re supposed to be bent. It’s easier to pin the layers of the quilt together once you’re ready to actually quilt. You can use the pins, or some people use spray adhesive – but that makes putting the needle through more difficult if you use too much – and some use these plastic clips with this drill-like contraption. See?”
She held up something that looked exactly like a drill-like contraption and mimed a demonstration.
“You push this button and it shoots a clippy thing through all the layers of the fabric. It probably would be faster for you, but since this is your first quilt, I think you should go the old-fashioned safety pin method. Less chance of screwing it up.” She winked and Angel was partly insulted and partly grateful for her consideration of his skills.
As she continued to load him down with razor sharp cutting tools, rulers of all shapes and sizes, marking pencils, chalk, straight pins (both flat and round) and seemingly hundreds of tiny objects he neither knew existed nor their names and uses, Angel looked pleadingly around for Gunn and Fred eventually spying them several aisles away fingering fabrics. He desperately wanted to cry out for help but decided he would forego drawing attention to the vampire shopping in a fabrics store. He just hoped his frustrated glare would cause the hairs on their necks to prickle enough for them look up and notice his distress.
“What size thimble do you need?”
Angel’s attention went back to the young clerk.
“What size thimble? How big are your fingers?”
Angel tried to shift the bulky and unwieldy items in his arms without dropping them, but the dull hollow of plastic of various densities and shapes bouncing onto the tile floor rang through the store before he could free his hand to show her. With one knee bent to help support the supplies in his right hand, he held up his fingers and spread them for inspection.
“Oh, I see. Big ones then. I’m not sure we have anything that will fit someone of your…er…stature. Oh! You’ll have to use one of these flexible rubber ones. It should adjust.”
She put something on the stack that looked like a miniature condom and Angel hastily tilted the pile until the embarrassing item was hidden under some of the other less offensive packages. Although he was hard pressed at this point to imagine any of this not being embarrassing.
“Excuse me, young man, is this yours?”
Angel craned his neck to look back over his shoulder at a woman whom he could only think to describe as the perfect Mrs. Santa. Silver-white hair cropped short but softly layered and waved around a sweet, oval shaped face. Her apple cheeks were bright with precise circles of red and her eyes sparkled with wonder and delight. She held up a package of various colored marking pencils that she’d just rescued from the floor.
“I guess. I’m not really sure. You can just put it on top of the pile.”
She moved around to his side and placed them gingerly on the shaky mountain in his arms doing her best not to cause a landslide.
“Looks like this is your first quilt. Must be someone really special for you to go to all this trouble.”
Despite the situation and his extreme discomfort, the thought of the woman he was going through this torture for calmed him and brought the blood rushing to his face as he smiled broadly.
“She is. Very special.”
“Doesn’t she know that?”
“What do you mean?”
Caryn tossed a pair of embroidery scissors at him that ricocheted off the backboard of his chest and landed precariously on top of the miraculously re-exposed mini condom.
The old woman’s girlish giggle relaxed him and forced his lips to curl up despite his determination to be ill at ease in his surroundings.
“It just seems to me that if she doesn’t know how special you think she is, it’d be a lot easier to just tell her. Is it really so difficult for you to say the words?”
The nice warm feeling she’d brought with her arrival immediately scattered with her logic. Angel didn’t want to hear sensible. He wanted and needed THE ideal moment this gift was going to create, because without it he was sure Cordy wouldn’t be all that receptive to his theory that they were right for each other. He needed to soften her up – make her vulnerable to his limited charms. Without it, he would screw it up – of that he was positive.
While he was tempted to rudely dismiss the interfering woman, he truly didn’t want to draw more attention to himself. So, he smiled sweetly and calmly said, “You don’t understand, it’s her Christmas gift. I have to give her something unique and…perfect.”
She nodded sagely and mumbled a quiet, “Ah,” before beginning on her way again. She’d only taken one step before she turned wagging a knowing finger at him as she spoke.
“Just remember, there’s nothing more perfect than a man telling the woman he loves that she’s the one. The one and only – forever.”
Before he could form a coherent thought much less a response, she was around the corner of the aisle and out of sight.
“How’s it going?” Gunn, a roll of batting held in the cradle of one arm like a fluffy football, slapped him on the back bringing his mind back but jostling him enough to almost making him spill everything.
Regaining his iffy balance, he let out a small “whew” before continuing. “I’m not sure. What does it look like?”
Gunn quickly thumbed through the items in his arms and gave his approval. “Looks like it’s enough to get started with.” He winked at Caryn and she let out a sigh of relief similar to Angel’s before she headed back to her usual perch at the register. “If we’ve forgotten anything, I can always come back for it. Fred’s over at the table getting the fabric cut, so we’re almost ready to head out.”
“Good. Listen, Gunn, are you sure we can do this? I mean I don’t want to put you guys through this if it’s too much trouble.”
“I’m not gonna shine ya. It won’t be fun and none of us will be sleeping much until Christmas, but I think it’s worth it for the look on Cordy’s face. And if it gets the two of you to finally admit you’ve both got the wild monkey love for each other, then I’m willing to do anything to make that happen. The tension is killin’ me.”
“Me, too,” Angel said, letting out a frustrated sigh.
“See? I knew you were about to pop, and I know I don’t want to be around when that happens.”
“When what happens?” Fred snaked one arm around Charles’s waist and pressed the quilt fabric they’d chosen tight against her chest with the other.
Angel lead the way to the check-out line and said over his shoulder, “When I lose it and just take Cordy up against the weapons cabinet in front of God and everybody.”
“Oh. OH! Is that gonna happen soon?” Fred’s eagerness to witness that scenario was loud and clear.
“We’re trying to avoid that from happening by making the quilt. Remember?” Gunn chided.
She pouted and her once bright walk became a shuffle. “Shucks. I think it’d be pretty hot.”
Angel couldn’t disagree. “Yes, but it would also be pretty dusty once Cordy staked me.”
Fred frowned. “Well, there’s that.” She steeled her spine and jutted out her chin, her frown immediately lifting into a brilliant smile. “So, quilt it is then!”
She marched into line in front of Angel and began unloading his burden onto the counter. Looking at the pile of fabric, batting and tools that was almost as tall as she was, she frowned as a terrible thought occurred to her.
“You did get the credit card back from Cordy, didn’t ya?”
Angel’s head dropped to his chest, but it couldn’t muffle out his soft, “Damn.”
December 22, 2002
“Angel? Wesley?” Cordelia knocked and then slowly slid the doors to Wesley’s office open and peeked inside only to find it empty. “Huh. Where the heck is everybody?”
Walking to the center of the lobby, she cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled. “Hello! Ollie ollie oxen free!” The only answer was a slight echo of her voice reverberating off the marble ceiling.
She planted her hands on her hips and humphed. Twisting around on her heels, she stormed to her desk to gather her purse and sweater coat. “Okay, if that’s the way you want to play it! I’m going home now. I hope I don’t get attacked and eaten by giant praying mantis-si or alien pod monsters! If I am, well…you’ll be sorry then, I betcha!”
She got to the door and turned back around to add. “And another thing. How are you going to find your Christmas presents when I’m dead? They’re really good presents, too.” She waited one more time for something from someone, but a shiver was all she got for her trouble when a cold draft winged up her spine.
Part of her was so curious that she could barely keep her feet from racing up the stairs to see what could possibly interest all four of them enough to have abandoned her in favor of it. But the other part of her was too tired to care.
“Fine. Goodnight! I hope I’m alive to see some of you tomorrow!” Pulling the edges of her coat snuggly over her chest to brace against the chilly night breeze, she opened the door and left mumbling, “It’s almost Christmas, and I’m working with a bunch of heathens.”
The suction of the wind slammed the door behind her.
“Is she gone?” Fred asked a bleary-eyed Angel.
He nodded. “She wasn’t very happy, either. One of us should have stayed down there with her.”
“Yes, it might have been a less suspicious course of action, but considering just how much is left to do, every minute counts.” Wesley looked around the wreck of the abandoned room they’d established as their base for “Operation ASQ.” There wasn’t an inch of the space that wasn’t covered in fabric, thread, batting or left-over pizza boxes.
Fred’s hair never ceased to have some scrap or tangle of thread caught up in it. Gunn was in charge of inspecting her every time she left the room so that Cordy wouldn’t be tipped off.
For someone as organized and anal as Wesley, this entire project made him queasy. He hated to fail and there didn’t seem to be a way to avoid it in this instance.
“Angel, I hate to be the harbinger of bad tidings, but I think it’s time to throw in the proverbial towel, or in this case…needle.”
Angel could barely lift his head from the cream cotton that felt like lead in his hand. It seemed like he’d been embroidering that one blurry word for hours. He wasn’t even sure it was a word anymore.
It had taken a day for him to get the hang of the delicacy required to sew the sentiments that everyone had written especially for Cordelia. They were beautiful, funny, smart, and loving just like her. But he’d had no idea how tricky it was to keep the stitches even and refrain from tugging at the thread so hard that the fabric puckered all around. There had been far too much fabric ruined and time wasted in those first few days of learning, but everyone was so enthusiastic that no one wanted to admit that these warriors of good, champions over evil might be defeated by simple needle and thread.
Angel put the small block down and raised a weary gaze to the faces of his friends. Each one looked to him for hope, but at the same time recognized the futility of their task. Sighing, closing his eyes and allowing the weight in his soul to carry his head back to rest against the plaster wall, he let everyone off the hook.
“That’s it, guys. Wesley’s right. There’s no point in killing ourselves; we all know we can’t finish this in time.”
Fred was about to protest, just a little, but Gunn touched her shoulder and shook his head.
“We gave it a good try, man. But, hey, it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got two days to find something else, and we’ll all help you figure out what to get her.”
“Yeah,” Fred added, anxious not to let the gloomy atmosphere linger for long. “We all know Cordy well enough to come up with something that she’ll adore and love you for giving to her.”
“Thanks, guys, but I’ve got to do this myself. It has to come from me…you know? Or else…”
“Or else it’s just another gift from one of her friends and not from the man in love with her?”
Angel still had enough energy to smile at the wise woman before him. “Yeah.”
“Right, then.” Wesley snapped the maudlin atmosphere in two with his leadership voice. Rising to his full height, he daintily began picking off the fuzz and fabric embedded in his wool pants. “I think it’s best we all get some rest. Tomorrow we need to get back on the horse and tend to agency matters that, quite frankly, we’ve all let slide the past few days. I admit I’m just as responsible, well more so since I’m in charge, but we can’t allow ourselves to be pulled into more holiday-induced, devil-may-care behavior or innocents may suffer.”
“Damn, I’m glad you’re not my Secret Santa.” Gunn helped Fred off the floor and caught her in his arms when she started to topple over from fatigue. “It’s almost Christmas, I think we’re entitled to a little slacking off.”
“Ah, but that’s when we should be at our most alert. Every beast of the nether world is fully aware of our vulnerability at this time of…”
“Wesley,” Angel interrupted. “We’ve just spent 124 hours straight putting threads through holes so small even I needed glasses to see them, my fingertips are bleeding from jabbing them every three seconds, and I’m not sure but I may have sewn my trousers to my underwear” he shifted a bit and grimaced, “or worse. I think we deserve a day to relax and recuperate.”
“I’m not saying we don’t show up for work just that we chill for a day. If something happens, we’ll take care of it. We always do.”
It pained Wesley’s pride to acquiesce to Angel yet again, but in this instance he knew he was being unreasonable. “I guess you’re right. We always do muddle through despite our sometimes painfully inadequate preparations. I just thought…”
Gunn punched him playfully in the bicep. “We know, English. It’s your way of cheering us up by making us even more depressed about something else. You know that never works, don’t you?”
The former Watcher’s brow creased and the corners of his mouth hitched up slightly. “My clever ruse has been discovered, has it?”
Gunn put his free arm around Wesley’s shoulder, the other still holding a yawning Fred to his side, and the three dragged themselves from the trashed room to their own beds and well needed sleep.
“Please, I figured that out the first time I met you. Well, okay, not the first time because you were unconscious in a hospital bed, but definitely by the second time.”
“The second time you merely handed over that talisman; what was there to figure out about that?”
“Oh, you were so ruse-in’ back then, even more than you do now…”
Angel listened to his friends’ tease each other as they drifted back into their own lives and out of the drama of his. He was on his own, which is how it should have been all along.
Whatever was to become of his relationship, or lack of one, with Cordelia was resting on his shoulders – the ones that slid slightly to the left as his head pulled his body toward the comfort of the floor.
He closed his eyes hoping his mind would shut down long enough to catch a few hours of sleep before he had to worry about what to do about Cordy’s present. He didn’t care if he was lying in a whirlwind of cotton. He didn’t have the strength to crawl to his room.
On the cusp of deep slumber, he heard a kind voice, cracked with age and experience, whisper to his dream self.
“Say the words, say the words.”
Angel mumbled, “In the morning, okay?” and nuzzled deeper into the sea of quilt bones and calico.
December 24, 2002
For two nights the old woman’s voice had haunted his dreams, pestering him with her incessant chanting. He had the oddest feeling there was a tinge of Cordy about her, but he chalked it up to his dreams morphing qualities of the two together.
Whether it was his subconscious egging him forward or the spirit of some witch, he was convinced the voice was right. He had to just tell her, with or without the perfect gift or the right moment.
He finally figured out what the old bat had tried to tell him a week ago. When he told Cordelia how he felt about her, that would become *the* ideal moment he’d been waiting for. It wouldn’t matter if he handed her a quilt or his empty palm; as long as he loved her and she returned that love, they didn’t need anything else.
He really hated that he got that. He felt like such a pansy, but at the same time it gave him strength knowing he’d resolved to just do it and accept the consequences if everyone was wrong about her feelings for him.
With that burden lifted, the gift didn’t really take long to find.
Angel wasn’t a fool. Love was great and all, but before all the hugging and kissing and possibly sex, he’d better have a real present for her or Cordy would make good on all her eunuch talk just before she dusted him.
The small box in the middle of the bed seemed so insignificant compared to what he had hoped to give her. But even though it wasn’t all that unique and definitely not worthy of the neck it would grace, he found a way – he hoped – to still show her he understood what that quilt from years past had meant to her.
Putting the last swirl on the last letter of his name, he folded the note that would explain the gift’s significance and tucked it inside the winter white envelope. The last obstacle – address it to Cordy or Cordelia?
Cordelia was the woman: sophisticated, intelligent, strong, and independent. Cordy was the friend: warm, funny, understanding, and loving. He loved and treasured them both.
His pen hovered over the linen textured surface, the strains of Bing dreaming of a white Christmas floating up the stairs and disturbing his concentration. He got as far as “Cor” and then stopped.
“Cor.” He said it in his mind a few times and a feeling of “just right” settled in his chest.
“Of course. She’s my core – my rock – my center.”
He put the pen down, finally finished and ready for Christmas. The tiny box was a dead giveaway as to its contents, so he had no plans of putting it under the tree. Besides it was something he intended to give her privately. He just hoped the gang wouldn’t start teasing him about it and force the whole thing into a public fiasco.
Stuffing the box and the note into his coat pocket, he made a mental note to warn the others. “Especially Fred. That girl does have a problem containing her excitement.”
Cordy’s scream wiped that plan from his thoughts.
Flying from his room, he ran to the railing and was about to jump over into the lobby when she stopped him.
“Vision. Get what you need, I’ll grab a few weapons and then we have to move.”
“Where is everybody?” He didn’t want her going. Even with her demon half and her glowy power, he still wanted her nowhere near danger.
“It’s just us, big guy, and we can’t wait around for them. Now hustle!”
He hesitated a second and then raced for his room where his coat and shoes waited. It would have been pointless to argue with her. He’d learned that much. Besides she held all the cards. Only she knew where the danger was and she wouldn’t allow him to go into battle without backup if she could help it.
They were both stubborn in their protectiveness of the other and when there was a stalemate, they both had learned to bend a little. It didn’t make it any easier to take, however.
Shoes tied tightly, Angel shrugged on the leather coat and patted his pockets feeling for the weapons he knew were standard issue. Mid staircase, Cordy threw the car keys and his broadsword to him and lead the way through the garden doors to the Plymouth, mace in one hand and hurling axe in the other.
Axe means demon. This should be an interesting Christmas Eve.
The ride out of the city had been tense. Cordelia wasn’t the best navigator in the world, only telling him where to turn at the last possible moment, so they left the borders of LA county with a trail of pissed off motorists behind.
Once they’d started up the pitch black two-lane into the San Gabriel Mountains and the vast terrain of the Angeles National Forest, the pace was still hurried but decidedly more relaxed.
“You’d think the Powers would have someone closer they could have called on for this one.” Angel broke the silence that had settled in the car. He’d started to realize their whole evening was going to be taken up with this case once Cordy finally told him their approximate destination, and he wasn’t happy about it.
Cordy reached over and turned on the radio, quickly locating a station with 24-hour Christmas music.
“I don’t know, maybe this is their way of giving us a spontaneous trip to the mountains. Sure, it’ll be filled with slime and possibly the loss of a limb or two, but it could be fun. Oh, and look! Snow!”
He took his eyes off the road long enough to watch her staring out the window in wonder. She looked like a child seeing flakes for the first time and wondering how such a beautiful thing was possible. His expression was probably no different from hers.
They drove higher, the density of the forest increasing with the elevation as did the storm. The wipers cleared a path for his vision and kept time with Alabama’s “Christmas in Dixie” but couldn’t drown out the caterwauling coming from the passenger seat.
“Christmas in Dixie, it’s snowin’ in the pines…”
“Angel, you know that never works. Besides, I’m just trying to keep the Christmas spirit alive and get you ready for battle. Admit it. You really want to strangle something right now.”
There it was. That cute peek from under half shuttered lids, her teeth gnawing at her bottom lip, her brows lifted as if she had no idea what power she wielded with those arcing bows of wispy hair. It was the look that reminded him how much of a little girl she still was in many ways. The look that took every bit of evil buried in his demon genes and replaced it with a fierce burning to protect and ward off anything that would ever mar her innocence.
It even had the power to make him feel like a guileless youth and no one had made him feel like that – ever.
He could never stay annoyed with her when that one look shot an arrow straight to the love center of his soul. He chuckled softly, saying, “You can stop trying. I always want to strangle something when I’m around you.”
“Angel!” Her backhanded slap was perfectly aimed as always – his right bicep began to sting instantly.
“Ow! You do realize you’re part demon now and that really hurts. Don’t damage the merchandise. I might need to kill something later – other than you.”
“Oops, sorry. Hey! You’re the one who insulted me. Take it back, and maybe I’ll rub your arm and make it feel better.”
He didn’t see that coming, but he wasn’t about to turn down a little Cordy hand action. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to strangle you all the time.”
He held out his arm so she could start the massage. When nothing happened, he looked at her. She was staring out the window, looking intently at the mass of pine and veil of snow as it rushed by. He waved his arm directly in her face.
“What?” she asked as she pushed his hand out of her face.
“My arm? Start rubbing.”
“I didn’t mean now.”
“But it hurts now.”
“Oh, suck it up, you big baby, besides we’re here. Turn at that little dirt road on the right.”
He hated himself when he pouted, but there were times he couldn’t help it. And she was the only one that could make his lip pooch out involuntarily.
The back tires of the Plymouth slid wide to the left and Angel turned into it instantly pulling the tank into control and straight down the narrow path. Several hundred yards out, he could barely make out dim yellow lights that probably glowed from the small windows of a secluded cabin.
“Where to, Cordy?”
“A little further. There’s a house and an old woman about to have her head removed for Christmas. Great surprise, huh?”
He nodded his agreement as he wrestled with the wheel to maneuver around pot holes big enough to swallow a small village. Seeing the chasms wasn’t made any easier by the white out falling from the sky. His head hit the roof a few times, and he swore under his breath about the cost of replacing shock absorbers these days before the lights suddenly appeared through a tear in the snow blanket. They were almost there.
“So what’s the deal with this demon?
“You mean Joe?” Cordy asked before she hit her knee on the glove compartment. “Ouch.”
“Sorry. The demon’s name is Joe?”
“Mean Joe Green. He’s green, mean and, well, you get the idea.”
“Okay, so what’s the magic word? I’d kinda like to get this over fast so we can get home.”
“What? What did I say?” His foot slammed on the brake about thirty feet from the front of the log structure now clearly defined in front of and protected from the storm by a stand of evergreens.
“The magic word, dumbass, is ass. Stick that sword where the sun don’t shine, and we’ll be hippity hopping our way back to the warm – okay, deathly cold and dreary – marble halls of home.”
He turned off the ignition, grasped the door handle, and was about to jump from the car when he turned to her and said, “Didn’t you just switch holidays?”
She halted her exit long enough to flash him her ear-to-ear smile. “A girl can’t start too early dropping hints. A nice Easter outfit wouldn’t be sneered at.”
Angel’s belly laugh immediately was sucked into the night void and drowned out by the howl of nature’s attempt to paint the earth with purity.
“Cordy! Stay behind me. I don’t want you getting lost in this storm.”
For once, she wasn’t arguing. She fisted a measure of leather, and Angel was grateful to have the assurance she was there but cringed at the damage she was probably causing with her nails.
Even through the strong scent of pine and crisp tang of ice, he could smell the fowl stench of evil close by. He followed the trail carried by strong winds that sliced at his nostrils, and soon they were edging around the back corner of the house.
A humped figure in a tan suede coat, indigo jeans and fur-lined boots was collecting firewood from the cord piled against the back wall, the light from the kitchen door granting her enough light to do so without fumbling. It also gave him a clear view of the creature sneaking on all fours toward her from the edge of the woods.
Angel pulled Cordy out from behind him, pointed at the demon and then silently signaled for her to stay and watch out for the woman. She nodded, immediately understanding.
Stretching to his full height, Angel walked determinedly toward the danger. The wind whipped his coat around his legs, the flapping noise it made so loud any chance at stealthy was merely a dashed hope. He rubbed the hilt of the sword in his palm firming his grip and raised it waist high as the demon spotted his approach.
The howl of the storm couldn’t snuff out the cries of the weak-assed demon and the grunts Angel expelled with each blow. Cordy stayed motionless until the two engaged but winced at the scream from the woman when she finally recognized her life was in peril.
Hesitating for only a second, Cordy side-stepped her way to their helpless client, her axe poised and ready if needed. Her eyes darted from the woman to Angel and back again until she reached her and began to tug at her, but her frail bones were locked and her muscles paralyzed.
“Lady! Come on! Into the house now!”
She wouldn’t budge, her gaze transfixed by the monster before her. Even Cordy’s demon strength wasn’t enough to get the flimsy-looking body to safety when she fell to her knees in shock.
Angel’s sword stabbed at tough hide and despite its sharp blade was merely nicking the beast and making it really mad. Fully aware of its Achilles’…um…butt, Joe kept its ass constantly moving and tucked beneath its massive, alligator-like tail.
“You’re really beginning to tick me off, Joe.” Angel spun and kicked at its exposed chest propelling it backward, its stubby arms windmilling to right itself.
Regaining its balance, it rushed forward, three sloth-like claws bared and aimed at Angel’s midsection. Angel was about to jump backward and bend at the waist to avoid the razors’ tips, but he stepped on a felled tree trunk and ended up pushing his stomach forward instead, his body automatically attempting to avoid tripping.
“Angel!” Cordy screamed as the claws met flesh and came out the other side dripping red.
She stared horrified as Angel dropped his sword to clutch at the ripped skin. Head bowed to assess the injury he didn’t see the other set of talons sweeping up to strike another blow – possibly fatal.
“Ahh!” Her battle cry pierced the darkness and made Angel’s veins freeze.
Time slowed as he saw her running toward the green menace, axe risen above her head with both hands, the edges of her form becoming more brilliant with each step making the snow sparkle as it whirled in her wake.
“Cordy, noooooo!” Angel’s terrified plea came too late.
Joe turned to face the threat from behind and was greeted with the blade of her axe as it severed the clawed hand that had dared cause harm to her family. Wailing in pain and rage, it hurled its body at the well-lit target taking both itself and Cordelia to the ground.
Angel was shocked from his stupor by Cordy’s voice.
“Now, Angel! Kick its ass now! Literally!”
Cordy’s back was on the snow covered earth, the demon’s one good clawed hand and snapping jaws being held at bay, but only barely, by the bright-white strength issuing forth through her hand clasped around its wrist and the other around its neck.
In its anger to destroy the thing that had maimed it, Mean Joe had left itself exposed. Angel picked up his weapon and trying not to think about where he was sticking it, plunged it over and over again into the soft area immediately under the strong tail muscle.
Before its final yowl and its body collapsed, streams of fluorescent yellow blood spurted from the gouges splattering Angel from chest to knee. When he flung the corpse away from Cordy, he could see her pants and flimsy coat had faired no better.
But it didn’t matter because she was alive.
“Damn it, Cor!” He pulled her up from the ground and into his shaky embrace.
“Are you ever going to listen to anything I say?” he almost whispered, the words cracking in his throat.
“I’m going with ‘no’,” she said as she tried to squirm free of his life-crushing arms and grab a lung full of air. “Angel, having trouble breathing now.”
He lessened his grip enough for her feet to touch the ground, but he refused to let her go.
“Besides,” she said, “who’s the one with their intestines hanging out and who’s scratch free? And can I say, not a good look for you.”
Angel’s eyes followed her gaze to his stomach. “Damn. This was my Christmas shirt.”
She laughed, a sound that echoed through the boughs like the ringing of bells. “I could tell – it being a greener shade of black than your everyday black ones.
“Haha. This one is pure silk with covered buttons. It has a festive quality to it. Well, it did.”
She cupped his cheek, spread her mouth into a wide grin, and it hit him how completely and utterly empty his life would be if he could never see that smile again. His knees began to wobble slightly when the reality of what he’d almost lost gripped his heart, mind and soul. And in the midst of that terrible thought, she did the most amazing thing.
She kissed him. Smack dab on the lips.
His already shaky legs might have failed him if it had lasted longer than a millisecond. Cordy pulled back suddenly when a scraggly voice cut through the stillness surrounding them.
“Looks like you two just saved my worthless hide. You best come in the house and get patched up.” The pepper-haired woman, having made a miraculous recovery from her initial stupor, turned and trudged toward the kitchen door never doubting they would follow.
He didn’t know whether to kill the interfering victim or hug her for stopping him from being an embarrassing puddle at Cordy’s feet.
“Come on, Angel. I need to check you out.” She stuttered as the veins in her cheeks filled. “I mean, I need to look at your abs. Damn it! I mean I need to…”
Angel captured her flailing hands with his and smiled. “I know what you mean.”
He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and let her think he needed help walking to the cabin. He didn’t feel the least bit guilty as her arm circled his waist and the fingers of her free hand manacled his wrist holding him in place against her.
Nope. Not one bit guilty.
“Don’t forget my arm,” he reminded her as the two limped their way slowly toward the warmth and safety of the shelter.
“What about your arm?”
The soft blanket of flakes that floated around them muffled their gentle teasing from any nearby ears.
“You’re supposed to rub it better. You promised.”
“If you don’t shut up about that, I may have to rub something else.”
“Really? What did you have in mind?”
“You’re just a dirty old man, aren’t you?”
“You just now figure that out?”
“Close the door and take off your shirt.”
The cabin’s living room was cozy and fragrant with hand-braided rag rugs, rough-hewn pine furniture and wine and cream fabrics covering plump cushions. The large river stone fireplace drew focus to the center where a crackling blaze pushed the chill from the heart of the room to its fringes. Angel sat on the raised flagstone hearth, his back warmed by the fire, while Cordelia knelt between his knees to tend to his wounds.
The old woman introduced herself as Beatrice Wannamaker of the Atlanta Wannamakers. She’d said it proudly as if Angel and Cordy would, of course, know the reference. They merely nodded and smiled and Cordy continued to wrap the gauze Beatrice had provided around his waist.
He squeezed her shoulder in gratitude knowing she had stifled words Angel could easily imagine she wanted to say. Words that probably would have gone something like, “So? I’m Cordelia Chase of the Hellmouth Chases. Big whoop.”
“Beatrice, have you lived here long?” Angel quickly asked trying to cover up her muffled “pfft” in response to his silent thanks.
“Long enough to know what I saw out there wasn’t human nor any animal I’ve ever seen in these woods. And I know it’s not the fourth of July, so that light show wasn’t exactly kosher. Care to let a tough old broad in on what’s going on here.”
“Well, I’m a vampire with a soul, Cordelia’s a half-demon seer and that thing that almost killed you was Mean Joe Green.”
Cordy’s body was shaking with stifled laughter. Leaning in, she whispered, “Smooth, Omega Man.”
“No need to be a smarty pants, son. A straight out ‘it’s none of your business’ would’ve worked just fine. Now I’ll get you two some clothes to sleep in. I’ve got some from my husband and daughter that should fit you fine.”
Cordy turned and stretched her arm out to halt her exit. “No, thanks, that won’t be necessary. We’ll be leaving in a few minutes.”
“Well, you’re welcome to try, but if you value your life you’d be smarter to stay put. That storm out there came up behind you. Right now there’s at least a foot of snow covering the road you came in on and it’s not letting up until morning.”
Cordy turned back and peered up into Angel’s eyes, unable to hide the moisture forming in her own. “But, Angel, it’s almost Christmas. I want to go home.”
He hated not giving her everything she wanted, but he wasn’t willing to risk her life. He moaned when she sniffed trying to stem her tears. “Ah, Cordy, don’t. You saw what it’s like out there and the way we slid around getting here. It’s bad now and only getting worse. We can head back in the morning and still have Christmas with everybody later.”
Realizing she wasn’t going to persuade him, she slumped back on her haunches and staunched the tears with the heels of her palms. “Fine, but don’t think you’re getting out of cooking Christmas dinner. I don’t care if we have to eat turkey at three o’clock in the morning; I’m having a real Christmas dinner.”
Impressed as always at the way she adapted, he grinned and stroked her cheek. “I never thought otherwise. Why don’t you call Wesley and tell him what’s happening.”
“My cell won’t pick up a signal here. Do you have a phone?” she asked Beatrice.
“Of course I do. I may be old and eccentric, but I’m not crazy. It’s that old-fashioned monstrosity on the kitchen wall. It’s big and puke green, you can’t miss it.” She pointed the way down the hall.
When the coast was clear, Bea whispered to Angel, “Do you think she’ll know what to do with a rotary phone?”
Angel liked the old broad. “Actually, we have a pretty ancient rotary in our office. I think she can handle it.”
“Well, maybe there’s hope for you youngsters yet. I’ll be right back with your clean clothes.”
Alone for the first time in several hours, Angel took a moment to gather his thoughts and absorb his surroundings. He inspected Cordy’s handiwork on his injury and, as always, felt better just from the care and attention.
Letting his eyes scan the room, he did a mental calculation about the size of the house. It was small, but the rooms were spacious. He looked up and admired the exposed beams and noted that the logs were notched and not planed flat to fit together. It showed the builder put in a lot of hard work and love into making this house a home.
“My husband and I built this place from scratch,” Bea said, startling Angel even though he hid it well. “We never had more fun or loved each other more passionately than when we were putting this all together, log by log. Have you ever done that? Created something that didn’t exist before with somebody you love? Watched it weather storms and all of the world’s changes and yet amazingly it still stands despite your own neglect?”
Angel saw a world of memories in her eyes and each one caused a flicker of joy and sadness and hope and more emotions than he knew existed, and he longed to know each and every one of them.
“No, I haven’t,” he confessed.
“I think you have. I can see it every time you look at her. All you have to do is tell her, you know.”
Angel’s mouth fell open. What was it with these old women seeing right through him?
She winked and shoved his chin up. “Better close that trap, son; you’re catching flies. Now here.” She handed him a pair of navy sweatpants, a brown and red flannel shirt and white tube socks.
Angel finally shook his stare away from Bea’s all-knowing eyes, and looked at the clothing in his lap. He frowned at the mismatched and style-challenged ensemble.
“Sorry, it’s the best I’ve got and tonight when it’s about ten below out there, you’ll be damn grateful for them.”
He snorted and nodded in understanding. “You’re right. Thank you. I’m just…I’m not a flannel kind of guy.”
“You live in the mountains long enough and you won’t want to wear anything else – except maybe thermals, and I’m guessing you’re pretty glad right now I didn’t pull out the long johns.”
“Ha! You’d be very right about that.” He couldn’t contain the self-deprecating snorts that erupted as he visualized himself in just such a red union suit.
“Right about what?” Cordy entered the room behind Beatrice and seemed vexed and extremely curious about what had made Angel laugh.
“We were just talking about Angel’s preference in underwear,” Bea said, and without pause handed over Cordy’s new wardrobe. “Here. Don’t bother complaining. I know it’s not Chanel or whoever’s the big chichi designer today, but they’ll keep you from freezing to death.”
Cordy held up a white pair of leggings, a cornflower blue button-up pajama top and the back-by-popular-demand tube socks. “Um…thanks.”
“Uh-huh. I’ll show you to your room and then I’m hitting the sack. I’ve got to be up at dawn because…” She stopped in her tour at a sudden realization. “Well, hell, I don’t know why. It’s just what I do I guess. Whaddya know.” She shrugged and started walking again.
Cordy turned back to glance and Angel and made a large circle in the air near her temple and mouthed the word, “Cuckoo.”
Angel pulled her hand down and pinched his face in disappointment at her. She humphed at his rebuke and continued the parade behind Bea down the hallway to an open door that she had disappeared into.
Once in the doorframe, Cordy stopped cold and Angel ran into her. He looked up to assess what caused the bottleneck and saw immediately what concerned her.
The bed – only one – and a small one at that. Sure it was a standard full, but Angel knew he could fill that out just by himself.
Cordy stuttered a bit and her voice was unusually timid, “So, just the one bed then?”
“That’s okay, I’ll take the floor or the couch is fine,” Angel said quickly, eager to alleviate the tension that replaced all breathable air the minute they’d reached the room.
Bea said helpfully, “Well, there’s my bed. If you don’t want to sleep with him, I sure don’t mind.”
Both Cordy and Angel gaped at her, their open mouths detracting from their normal good looks.
“Oh, don’t look so shocked. Old – not dead. Listen, I don’t care what sleeping arrangements you two make. Bed, floor, couch, bathtub – makes no never mind to me. I’ve got to warn you that when the fire dies, you’d be a lot more comfortable sleeping with someone than alone. You can take that to the bank. Goodnight.”
Without the buffer of Beatrice, the room was crazy loud with awkwardness. Cordy was the first to break.
“Okay, this is silly. You’re hurt and need to get some rest in a real bed. I’m not a floor, couch or bathtub kind of gal, so it looks like we’re sharing. Not a big deal, right? It’s just sleeping.”
The words were convincing, but her heart hadn’t slowed down since she entered the room. Plus, her excited babble was a dead giveaway that everything she was saying was a complete lie. She was trying to convince herself it didn’t matter when it obviously did.
Angel turned her around to look at him, keeping his hands on her shoulders as he spoke. “Cordy, I don’t mind the couch. I’ll be fine.”
“No, you heard her. It’s going to get really cold tonight and my bones are not rattling alone!”
“Dead guy, here. I don’t have any body heat. I’ll just make you even colder.”
“I don’t know. You’re pretty white. My body heat can reflect off you and bounce back on me,” she smiled at her clever solution.
“Assuming that insane idea could work, we’d both have to be naked.”
Angel couldn’t believe he’d just said that and from the rapidly reddening cheeks of Cordelia, she couldn’t believe it either.
She found a spot on the floor to stare at while the uncomfortable moment dragged on and on.
“Oh!” she suddenly said, the ideal solution coming to her. “Take a really long, hot bath to get warmed up and then maybe you won’t leech all my body heat. We can both stay warm.”
If she was suggesting what he thought she was suggesting, there was no doubt he’d stay heated up.
“Maybe I should just stay in the living room and keep the fire going so everyone will be warm,” he said as he turned to leave.
“No way, buster.” Her hand caught his wrist and twisted him back around. “You are not staying up all night just so you can be too tired to drive us home or worse, sleep Christmas day away and not cook! Is it really such a chore to sleep with me? Just kick me if I snore or drool on you. Now I’m going to use the bathroom and then you get in there and start steeping!”
She pushed past him and was behind the bathroom door before he could stumble over the words of protest that burned in his throat. How could she possibly think it would be a trial to sleep with her? He shook his head unable to comprehend the woman’s thought processes.
He ambled to the bathroom and heard the water in the sink running. He knocked and said in an almost whisper, “Cordy, it is not a chore to sleep with you. Okay?”
All he got in reply was a muffled humph.
Well, there they were. In bed. Together. Just where Angel dreamed they’d be one day only in his fantasies there’d been no flannel, no leggings, and definitely no tube socks. Also they were both under the covers wrapped so tightly around each other it was impossible to distinguish whose limbs belonged to whom – in his dreams, that is.
In reality, instead of staring lovingly into each others eyes, they were counting the pine knots in the ceiling beams. Each was huddled against opposite edges so not one centimeter of body would possibly meet in the middle. Their arms and hands were above the comforter, each with their own fingers entwined and resting on their stomachs. The thumb twiddling seemed to indicate neither was relaxed enough for sleep.
“Not a chore.”
“Okay, Angel, I get it. Sleeping with me is the best thing since blood came in pop tops. Now go to sleep.”
“What if I’m not sleepy?”
“Then play dead!”
Angel’s thumbs stopped churning. He knew her. He knew she didn’t mean those words to be anything more than frustration verbalized, but they hurt just the same. From someone other than the woman he loved, he might have ignored them, but from her it was like she slapped him with every evil he’d ever committed.
Deliberate and calm, he unclasped his fingers and pulled back the blanket. He had one foot on the floor when Cordy tugged on his sleeve.
“Don’t. God, I’m sorry. Don’t leave.”
He felt her shifting onto her side, her hand never wavering in her grip on his shirt. Letting himself be pulled back into the center of the bed, he turned to face her and rolled into the valley their body weights created.
Lined curtains kept out both moonlight and drafts, but Angel could see the regret clearly on her face and reflecting through hazel from her soul.
“There’s no excuse…please forgive me.”
He found her right hand and brought it to his chest. “Forgiven.” He felt a million pin pricks in his fingers as he choked the urge to bring her hand up and kiss her palm.
“I just…I wanted this Christmas to be perfect.” Cordy’s voice was hushed – almost reverent. “This is the first time we’ve all been – I don’t know – happy at the same time. No one died, no one went various shades of khaki, no one is dying from skull-splitting visions. It seemed like this was the year – the one we’d actually remember and laugh about. This was supposed to be our first family Christmas. And, now…”
He could see her gaze lower as she let her sentence drift, and the salt in her tears smelled dangerously close to the surface. Letting go of her hand, he pulled her into his embrace and rocked her.
“We’re still going to have that Christmas. Nothing will stop us from getting home tomorrow. I promise.”
She was speaking into his chest, her words echoing through the empty cavern and filling him up. “You can’t know that. We could be snowbound in this cabin for a week.” Pulling out of his tight hug enough to look up into his shadowed face, she said, “I don’t think I can take a week of Beatrice Wannamaker of the Atlanta Wannamakers. I know we deal with the weird side of life every day, but I have my limits.”
Angel pulled her back into his arms and chuckled softly. “Cordy, even if I have to hire the National Guard to dig us out, I promise we will get off this mountain and back home tomorrow. Okay?”
He felt her head shake up and down. Without thinking of what he was doing, he rubbed his foot along the side of her leg and then lazily played footsy.
“You’re not really all that cold. In fact, you’re kinda warm.”
He smiled into the top of her head and quietly scented the coconut shampoo and light musk underneath. “Must be all that reflected heat. Or maybe it’s the miracle of flannel.”
She sniggered and twisted slightly so that she wasn’t being smothered but still cradled by his body. “You don’t have to give me anything else for Christmas if you’ll wear that shirt all day tomorrow. I don’t have a camera and the guys won’t believe it if you don’t.”
“I wish you’d told me that a month ago so I wouldn’t have had to go through all the hell…”
“Are you saying getting me something for Christmas was painful?”
He didn’t get to finish before she kicked his shin. “You’d be wise to think carefully about your next words.”
Angel did just that as the wind picked up and ice mixed with snow pelted the window. While pondering just what he could say to extricate himself from his freshly dug grave, he heard the grandfather clock in the hall strike midnight. He counted the twelve chimes just to be certain then tenderly kissed her temple and said, “Merry Christmas, Cordy.”
She wriggled her arm underneath his and spread her fingers on his back to pull him closer. “Merry Christmas, Angel.”
He was content to just hold her like that for an eternity. Pine needles scraped across the roof as boughs were whipped back and forth in the storm. There was a definite chill in the room outside of the bed, but beneath the covers it felt like he was holding the fireplace flames against his body.
“Angel, now that it’s officially Christmas, it would be legal if you wanted to tell me what you got me.”
“Cordy,” her name suddenly sounding like it belonged to a three year old.
“What? I’ll tell you what I got you if you spill.”
The epiphany light went off in Angel’s brain. He could do better than tell her; he could give her the gift. It was still in his coat pocket.
He had been so comfortable holding her, snuggling and whispering, that it had never occurred to him that this was the moment. It hadn’t felt like what *the* moment was supposed to feel like. It didn’t come with nervous twitches and a nauseous stomach. It hadn’t arrived with flowers, a fancy dinner and sweaty palms. It didn’t find him tongue-tied and shifty eyed. It had slipped past his defenses and uncertainties and was now just there – covering him in warmth and an unfamiliar peace like the way Cordy had described the effects of that quilt on her.
“Be right back,” he said as he reluctantly loosed his grip on her and felt the coldness envelope him.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“Oh. Wait! You don’t…,” but he was already gone and she started to shiver without his comforting presence. “He must be infected with wacky Bea disease.”
Grasping the edges of the covers and wrapping them tightly around her shoulders, she rubbed her feet together to stoke up her body heat and stop her teeth from chattering. “Just like him to leave when I was beginning to feel all ca-ca-cozy and sss-afe. Suh-suh-sss–tupid mmmm-ma-ma-man.”
She was still trembling partly from the cold and partly in irritation at his abandonment when flickering shadows of dancing candlelight painted the once black walls with gold and orange.
Angel moved slowly and deliberately toward his side of the bed, a candle in a brushed tin holder in one hand and the small package and envelope in the other. Setting the candle on the small bedside table, he tried to wrench the comforter from Cordy’s steel clutches so he could slide in beside her, but she wouldn’t release it.
“Cordy,” he sang her name all the while grinning at her childish petulance. “Alright, I’ll just take your Christmas present and go back into the living room.”
Before he could put his finger through the circle handle of the candle’s base, she flung the covers back like Zorro’s cape and exposed her freezing cotton and fleece-covered body to him. “Don’t you dare move another inch, buster. Get in this bed right now and gimme, gimme, gimme!” She scooted back so she was sitting sideways, her legs tucked back and leaning on one thigh with her right arm pressed to the headboard for support.
Angel practically leaped in beside her. He knew his face was sporting the dorky grin she loved to tease him about, but he didn’t care. It felt right.
Sitting, he mimicked her position, their knees touching, and he handed her the tiny box and penned words that was his hope for a future. “Merry Christmas.”
Her fingers felt the weight of the gift and then stroked the texture of the stationary. “What were you doing with my gift in your pocket? You could’ve lost it in the fight, dorkus!” She swatted his arm playfully but smiled sweetly letting him know clearly she was only teasing.
“I didn’t plan it this way. It just happened. Shut up and open it.”
“Which should I open first?”
“The present first, then the note. Wait! Let me get the candle so you can see.” He reached behind him for the light and brought it between them. The light cast her face in the colors of a sienna sunset – the gold, burnt orange and red highlighting the already innate glow of warmth she radiated.
“Okay, rip away.”
And she did. Not one to save paper – it’s just paper, there’s always more where that came from – nor was she one to appreciate the pretty bows and ribbons that were just the outer trappings holding the important part in. No, just like the way she dealt with people, she dove into what made the package important – what was hidden on the inside.
Tossing aside the fluffy cotton coating, she gasped as the first twinkle of gold flickered in the reflected candlelight. Gingerly she lifted the delicate chain from the box until the exquisitely rendered version of a harp dangled and twisted in the waves of heat from the flame.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” she said as she admired the gold and diamond encrusted instrument. “It’s really gorgeous, Angel, thank you so much. But I admit I don’t get the significance. Not that there has to be one,” she quickly added.
“Open the note and you’ll understand.”
This was it. Now or never. What he thought would be agonizing, extremely nerve racking and gulp-inducing, was amazingly lacking in both. He was calm and for once certain. Even if the unthinkable happened and she didn’t understand or didn’t return his feelings, he would make sure she soon would. He was focused and knew exactly what he wanted. From now on, it was Angel and Cordy and he wouldn’t allow it to be any other way.
He saw her thin fingers finally open the last fold and her eyes move back and forth as she read the words he knew by heart.
When you told me about the Angels’ Songs quilt, I knew immediately that if anyone deserved to be surrounded by angels and know the peace of heaven while they slept it was you. I did my best to find you that quilt but apparently my heart isn’t true enough to be worthy of such a gift yet. But if you’ll wear this over your heart, I hope you will be surrounded with the song of one angel-in-training and that it warms you with the peace of my love.
He watched as the hazel became cloudy with moisture and the paper in her hand began to tremble. Angel suddenly realized how cold it was without the blankets around them and immediately attributed her shuddering to being chilled.
He stretched behind him and put the candle back on the table and then rubbed her arms to get her circulation going.
“Let’s get under the covers. You’re freezing.” Reaching for the necklace and note to put them away for now, she pulled away and clutched them to her chest.
“No! Help me put it on.”
Shifting her body so her back faced him, she missed the satisfied smile but could more than likely feel him shaking as he fumbled with the small clasp. Once it was secure, he put his hands on her shoulders, instantly calming himself. Cordy reached up and put her hand on his while she adjusted the pendant to lie over her heart.
Once she was settled and facing him again, neither said a word. The only sound in the room was her heart beat and the whistle of wind through the trees. He hesitated to say anything else. He’d said it all in the note – at least he thought he was clear – and he didn’t want to pressure her into something if she truly wasn’t ready.
He looked down and saw her pressing the note, still in her death grip, against her chest just over where the harp rested. Her eyes dipped from his to his mouth and down to his chest. Not realizing he’d even been breathing, a lump of air caught in his throat as she tentatively reached up and gently placed her hand on his chest.
“This is the truest and most worthy heart I know, and it’s the only one I want.”
Slowly that hand that had just left a brand on his skin moved up, quivering and unsure. She cupped his jaw and bit her lower lip as a tear fell.
Angel covered her hand with his and tilted his head to rub against her, savoring the warmth and softness she bestowed. He felt her tentative pull and didn’t resist the lead she was taking.
Both sets of eyes zeroed in on the mouth of the other. Both tongues slid over parched lips and parted slightly. He sensed her breath, alive and hot, on his mouth an instant before their lips touched.
The goose bumps stood at attention and marched over his body and shivering at their advance, he heard himself emit a sound that was a cross between a whimper and moan of sheer joy as her mouth opened, her tongue sought his, and they touched tip to tip for the first time.
Too soon the kiss was over and their foreheads rested against each other as both gasped for breath.
Cordy let out a soft “mmm” and then giggled. “This kind of makes my Ninja Turtles video game look a little impersonal.”
Angel laughed. “You got me Ninja Turtles?”
She pulled back arching a brow that looked just as menacing in candlelight as it did under fluorescent. “You asked for it! I wanted to get you something nice and…adult. And, well, more personal, but I didn’t know about…” Suddenly shy again, she rubbed the letter she still clutched to her heart. “But now it just seems a little silly.”
He lifted her chin and lowered his head looking for her gaze to meet his.
“Cor, I’ve already got the best gift you could give me. Unless I’m as clueless as you always say I am. I mean…did that kiss…did it mean…do you love me?”
She smiled and took his palm from her cheek and kissed it. “No.” His dead heart thumped once and died again.
“You’re not clueless – at least about that.”
Letting out a soft sigh, his body heated up to a toasty fever with the knowledge that she was finally his. His insides prickled from the sudden change in temperature and shift in state from atoning demon to loved man. Pulling her to him, he sipped at the lips that had changed his world, nibbling softly at the new life she offered him until he pulled away stuffed to bursting.
All you have to do is tell her.
The words of the wise, interfering and annoying women breached the euphoric fog he was floating on, and he realized he hadn’t done that yet – at least not verbally. He shook at the thought he could’ve easily blown the moment by just assuming she understood.
“By all that’s holy and, in my case unholy, I love you, Cordelia Chase.”
He must have said the right thing because her face lit up like a child’s on Christmas morning after receiving the one gift they’d wished and prayed for their whole life. Red cheeked and twinkling eyed, her face burst forth with her patented smile that started like a whisper and ended with a shout that could topple kingdoms.
He gasped again, full of wonder that even though he didn’t need to breathe this woman made him want to. Made him want to be the man she admired, respected and loved. She made him want to be human, and now he knew some day he would be because she had deemed him worthy.
He was loved by an angel.
She took his hand, kissing his palm, before she slipped her fingers between his.
“Blow out the candle and let’s get some sleep. Now I definitely want to get home tomorrow so we can spend Christmas with our family and tell them the good news.”
Angel reached for the note and she finally let it go for him to put on the table.
“Well, I kinda think they already know – at least my part.”’
She laughed and a light clicked. “What kind of hell did you put them through and did it have anything to do with all that sneaking around and leaving me alone all the time?”
“It’s a long story, Cor, and I’ll tell you all about it on the trip home.”
Bringing the candle to his mouth to extinguish it, the gold hues that illuminated her features clearly revealed a radiance of love coming from her eyes just for him. It was so bright he wondered how he could have been so blind as to not see it before. With a quick huff, he blew out the flame and watched that love dance in the smoke that shimmered in the luminance her body was giving off – her demon casting a soft, golden halo around her.
Setting the darkened candle and the letter on the table, he said, “I think I’m going to like it when you get all glowy just for me.”
They shifted together to lie down again, their bodies stretching out side by side under the covers. Angel slid his arm underneath her and pulled her into the safety of his chest.
She wrapped her hand around the back of his neck, her fingernails gently massaging as they worked their way through the short hairs there and up his scalp. Pulling him to her again, his lips melted as hers touched them. His jaw dropped, opening his mouth to her tongue as it slipped into its new home and made it hers.
Moaning a welcoming to his lover, he pulled her closer and squeezed her so tightly he could feel her taut nipples scraping against his own. She sighed in his mouth and retracted her tongue, groaning her approval when his followed to mark his territory.
His body screamed to join with her and the way she rubbed her hip against his hardness told him he wasn’t alone in that desire. He moved his hand from her back and grazed the side of her breast before sliding his palm over her stomach and hitching up the cotton top. When his fingers touched skin, she hissed and ground her body and mouth against him harder seemingly very eager and willing for the next step.
But when his hand maneuvered under the elastic waistband of her leggings and felt the edges of the coarse hair covering her mons, she loosened her grip on his body and pulled her lips from his.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, clearly not understanding the mixed signals.
“Nothing…I mean I want to…you don’t know how much I want to.” Her palm cupped his erection through the sweatpants and her fingers stroked its length. “Mmmm, maybe you do,” she said with a decidedly wicked grin.
“It’s just…I don’t want our first time to be in a strange place, a strange bed and with crazy Bea down the hall. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was video taping us right now or,” she lowered her voice, “if she was eavesdropping outside that door.”
“I could hear her if she was and she’s not. But I understand and we’ll wait,” Angel said not quite successfully hiding his disappointment.
Cordy brought her hand to his jaw and let her thumb trace his soft lips. “I’ll make it worth the wait. I’ve got a feeling you’ve only seen a slight preview of the fireworks that will happen when I finally get to feel you inside me.”
Those words made his deflating arousal scream to attention again. “Damn, Cor. Don’t say something like that if you really want me to leave you alone.”
“Oops, sorry. How about if we talk about what else you got me for Christmas?”
“What else?” He quickly discovered that fear worked just as well as a cold shower.
Picking up on the tension that immediately grabbed his muscles in a choke hold, Cordy laughed and let him off the hook. “Relax, I was just kidding. But it worked, didn’t it? The mood is definitely gone.”
He hugged her and said, “I will always be in the mood as far as you’re concerned, but you’re right, the immediate problem is solved.” He kissed her forehead and carefully nestled them both under the blankets, finally satisfied once she was protected by his body and arms.
Outside their shelter, the wind hummed through the evergreens with a melody that would forever be the song of their first night as a couple.
Cordy nestled her head against his chest as his legs twined with hers like the soft layers of the quilt her grandmother tucked around her so many years ago. Closing her eyes, she softly kissed his chest and he responded with a sigh and the press of his lips to the top of her head.
He could still feel the warmth of her love inside, but he realized she might still be cold and began to rub her back. He heard her soft mew of appreciation, sensed her snuggle even deeper into his body, and listened to the quiet slowing of her heart rate into a steady, comforted rhythm. Just when he was sure she was about to fall into slumber and it was safe for him to follow her, she sleepily mumbled…
“You’re my angel’s songs…forever.”
Christmas Eve, 2019
He couldn’t believe it had been 17 years – almost. Tonight would have been their anniversary.
They’d spent those years with love, laughter and heartache as one by one their family dwindled by death or simply by life moving forward. Until in the end it had been just the two of them. Warrior and Seer. Friends and lovers. Husband and wife.
And now it was widower.
She’d died in his arms as he’d always hoped she would and not in a sewer or in the midst of battle unable to touch her or feel her or kiss her before she slipped from him possibly for an eternity.
He could still feel her last breath on his mouth. There’d been no tears from either of them as she brought his lips to hers for one last time and then smiled and whispered, “I’ll wait for you. Don’t be too long.”
She never liked to be kept waiting. God, how he’d learned that the hard way. A few nights banned from her bed for accidentally forgetting to pick her up or being late for their weekly Friday night date broke him of that habit. Never mind if he had a perfect excuse of actually saving a soul and being impaled in the process, if he kept her waiting, he damn well better be prepared for the consequences.
The stillness was broken by the long forgotten sound of his laughter as the memories of her snits and his pleading to be forgiven raced through his mind on his personal gag reel. Fiery hazel eyes, that brow that seemed permanently stitched into a perfect arch, those long fingers splayed across her woman’s hips, her designer clad toe tapping a beat of impending death…
The images blurred as his eyes burned with the tears he’d been holding in for 33 long days and lonely nights.
He had hated her for leaving him, and he’d hated himself for ever loving her. For 33 days he’d clung to that hatred to stem the pain from swallowing him whole and never letting him go. But he had reached his limit. He couldn’t hold onto the bitterness anymore – not when he could still feel her, remember her so clearly that he was sure at any moment she’d come through that door, smile and ask him why he was sitting there, all shadowy and gloomy, brooding again.
His hand clenched when, for a second, he thought she’d made her way to his side and had once more taken his hand to pull him up and out of the dark. But the piercing sound of the tissue paper as it crinkled in his grip ended the fantasy, and he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand as he once more turned his mind and attention to the box on his bed and the coldness in his heart.
It had arrived unexpectedly. There was no one left that he could think of to send him mail and the last package that had been delivered had been one for Cordy – a state-of-the-art Cuisinart – another failed attempt to finally learn to cook. So his immediate thought was a checklist of everything nefarious that could arrive in a box – bomb, mystical spell, demon insects, evil hand. But when he saw the label addressed to him in Cordy’s handwriting, he’d practically thrown it on the floor as if it were solid holy water.
The delivery guy hadn’t waited for a tip, the sight of a deathly pale man with his mouth stretched into a gaping maw was enough for him to remember the delivery by. And Angel never heard him scuttle out because his gaze was transfixed to the words lying at his feet in Cordelia’s elegant hand. “Angel Chase, MBA.” It was as if she had reached from the grave and jumped started his dead heart. It was her little joke. MBA – Master of the Brooding Arts.
Then he’d seen the return address and had known for certain that it was from her. Patricia Burkle. The mother they both wished they could claim as their own, and the woman who had claimed them as hers after Fred died. It made perfect sense that Cordy would leave something in her care for this day. A mother would know when her child needed to grieve and when that grieving should change to acceptance.
Apparently Trish’s mom meter had told her 33 days was enough and something in Angel niggled that she might be right.
It had taken all the strength he possessed to carry the package – Cordy’s last gift to him – to their…his…room and more willpower than he thought he had to wrench it from his arms and leave it unopened for so long.
He’d been too scared to see what she’d left him. Anxious to see it but petrified that once opened, she would be gone for good. But something in the wind that had parted the drapes and surrounded him in her scent had abated the fear, leaving him anxious but shivering with excitement.
And now all that kept Cordy’s last secret from him was a thin tuft of white paper and the ability to move it. The moving part was taken out of his control when another wind, stanch and insistent, not only parted the drapes but flung open the doors and scattered the mounds of tissue in a cellulose snowstorm centered over the bed.
When the air calmed and the last of the faux flakes settled, Angel’s eyes finally focused on the miracle he’d been given.
There was no note; there was no need. Rich and warm fabrics of deep blue, gold, and cream spilled from the box and onto his lap. Between his fingers flowed the silky gold threads of her words. Yards and yards of his Cordy embroidered, layered and stitched to wrap around him and keep his cold, dead body filled with her love.
The quilt was her portrait. A needle and thread painted her with more detail and revealed her spirit better than any artist could have with strokes of light and color from oils and a brush.
As Angel studied every letter until they formed a word and then a sentence, his face became drenched with weeks of grief and loneliness. When his fingers felt the word “dumbass” sewn with silk thread on cotton for the first time, he threw his head back and allowed the laughter back into his heart to stay because she had returned there, too.
There was so much to read. She’d had a lot to say to him and he wanted to savor all of it, feast a little now and save the rest for breakfast and all the meals for the rest of his life, but something in the middle caught his eye as it sparkled in the rays spilling through the opened doors from the rising moon.
More gold and bright white, glittering and shifting, three-dimensional and…pendant sized.
There in the center block was the harp he’d given her on their first night together. She had never taken it off and now that he actually thought about it, he hadn’t seen it on her for awhile, but it never clicked. It had become like white noise to his eyes in their years together. Something always there but never really noticed.
She had known she was dying far longer than he thought. For a moment rage flared at the woman to whom he’d entrusted his heart and life for lying to him, but he couldn’t sustain the emotion once he read the words stitched by the pendant for him to read every day for the rest of his life.
On the left were the words of the note he’d given to her with the necklace. To the right of the harp was a new note just for him.
Hey Big Guy,
I’ve got a new harp now and even though nothing can ever replace this one in my heart, I thought it best to leave it with you for safe keeping. Since the moment you gave it to me, your love has sung to my heart. While I’m away, I want nothing more than for this harp to fill you with the music of my love for you. For always and forever you will be my love, and I am forever yours.
Your very own angel,
P.S. About that angel-in-training idea, in my book you’ve already passed the test just putting up with me for so long. But just in case, keep training, dork. I don’t want to spend eternity floating up here all alone. Talk about your boring afterlife – pfft.
The tears were gone and all that was left was the smile.
She’d left him with her love and a kick in the ass. If he wanted to be with her again, he would have to continue to fight, to help the helpless – a mission that had become more hers than his over the years. While his might not be the purest of motives, he knew her well enough to know hers were. Anything she had to do to save souls and help him earn his redemption, she would do – even if it meant threatening him from beyond. All he had to do was go along for the ride.
And it had been one hell of a ride.
The soft smile that had seemed foreign moments ago now morphed into another long-forgotten movement as it stretched and became a full-fledged yawn. As Angel succumbed to the exhaustion and bittersweet memories, he fell gently back onto the pillows that still smelled of her perfume and folded his knees to his chest cocooning himself inside the quilt – inside Cordy.
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, he sighed peacefully and moaned hopefully as love remembered and life yet to be surrounded his heart and tucked him in.
Lowering his eyelids, shutting out the cold gray hue of the darkened room, he finally drifted into a warm and luminous blue and gold heavenly sleep, eager to dream of her – his Cordy – and listen to the music of his angel’s songs.