No Going Back


AUTHOR: SUPERSCAR (aka SCARLET)
SUMMARY: This is a response to runeknight’s “Angel forced to claim Cordelia” challenge at AO. Starts during the Episode ‘Band Candy’
RATING: R/NC17
POSTED: 18 Jun 2009
CATEGORY: ROMANCE / DRAMA
CONTENT/PAIRING: C/A, with B/A and C/X (nothing physical)
WARNINGS: None Listed
STATUS: Incomplete


Chapter One

Vampires never heard silence. The movements of the bugs in the room, a dripping of a faucet in the next room, it all became a sort of white noise that took years to get used to. Unless, of course, something had changed.

A hundred years in a hell dimension made Angel’s ears work over time, isolating and separating every creak in the mansion he chose to remain in.

Actual sounds weren’t enough, though, mixed in with the hum of locusts in the woods and peck of the birds against the trees, he could hear the cries of what had happened before. Ghosts of the past sung in his ear or howled in the wind.

They were inescapable.

Yet nothing could shake him from the continuous, niggling reminder that Buffy had a new boyfriend.

Scott. Sounded nice and normal.

It was good that she moved on, Angel told himself. She’d had no idea he’d return and really, what had changed in their relationship other than his memory of the last few months? That hadn’t come back to him until after his journey down Acathla’s throat, but as soon as they did, he actually relished the pain of pulling Buffy’s sword from his gut.

He needn’t have savored it. There’d been more to follow. And it continued, as he lay in the privacy of his own home, continuing the tortures of hell on his own peace of mind.

It might have been wisdom or cowardice that finally forced him into the fresh air he couldn’t breathe and darkness he was still too weak to fight. Good decisions are often a strange combination of both.

XXX

The trauma was too much to deal with. She’d stomped on bug-men, been tackled by crazed demons and made out with Xander Harris, but the thing that sent Cordelia Chase running from her house screaming was her mother in stretch pants.

It wasn’t okay. Mothers were there to make passive aggressive comments about clothes – not borrow them! Ish.

The hellmouth had finally spilled over and despite Cordy’s general dislike of the girl, Buffy had to know. It was time to Slay the hell out of the evil and get Cordelia’s closet back.

It was too late for the pants, of course, there was no going back after watching her mother squeeze her cellulite into them. But there was at least a few minis that had yet to be tainted.

Cordelia quickened her pace through the cemetery, clutching a wooden cross to her chest and cursing Buffy’s lack of a beeper.

XXX

Angel didn’t think about where he was going, specifically. Indeed, he would have had to really concentrate on where he was going to even remember the layout of Sunnydale.

It took all of his energy to focus on nothing.

He moved slowly, his feet leading him along familiar paths until all he could see were graves. How many were for people he’d killed himself? How many of those had clawed their way out of the caskets afterwards?

It wasn’t that he’d forgotten, it was that he’d never cared enough to pay attention in the first place. Somehow, that made it feel worse than knowing the names and dates. Instead, he saw anonymous faces.

The one thing he couldn’t ignore. Intelligent thought or inner dialogue could be turned off easily, but the slide show of pictures and memories was ongoing. There was no end, so any distraction was welcome.

Footsteps pounded toward him. It might have been soft steps for a human but they thundered through Angel’s ear. He didn’t move. The last thing he needed was to fight and all he had left in Sunnydale were enemies.

There was a falter in the cadence of the footsteps and Angel recognized the soft cursing of a female voice. “Dammit, Buffy! Where the hell are you when I need you for once?”

It had been so long that he’d heard the name, except in his own mind and voice that he found himself turning. The girl the voice belonged to was attempting to extricate the heel of her shoe from the soft ground. “So not my day,” she muttered.

Finally, her feat accomplished, she stood and recognition accompanied a series of images in Angel’s mind of her draping herself over him. He remembered being uncomfortable with it at the time, with Buffy standing just feet away, but as Angel’s memories went, it was a ultimately a pleasant one. Not many people hugged him.

Of course, that was probably because he repaid them as he had this girl, by attacking when they thought they were safe and introducing them to their most terrifying nightmares.

Had Cordelia Chase ever told anyone what he’d said to her that night? He hadn’t had time to drain her and it seemed such a waste to snap her neck when he could keep her looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.

Judging by the look in her eye and jackhammer in her heartbeat when she saw him, it seemed as though he’d succeeded.

XXX

As though she were suddenly the main character in her most vivid nightmare, Cordelia’s knees gave out the second she saw him and the cross clutched so carefully in her right hand slipped from her fingers, not that it would have done her any good.

Somehow, Angel was back, he’d found her and her life was officially over.

Terror pumped through her arteries as the instinct to run sent her backing painfully against someone’s gravestone.

“No, please, don’t. I’m sorry. Just let me go,” she begged him, though not making a great deal of sense while doing so. Angelus wasn’t one to feel sorry for his victims. She was only making it better for him.

“Cordelia, I won’t hurt you.”

It’s what he always said in her nightmares before his face changed and she shot up in bed, lungs heaving. Unfortunately, she wasn’t waking up.

“You were gone… she promised. Sword. Angel. Acathla…”

He made no move to get closer and Cordelia kept babbling, “She practically drew a map. You went down a swirly hole!” She didn’t even consider what came out of her mouth as she tried to navigate around the gravestone and back to safety.

“Buffy told you about that?”

Cordy had actually gotten the borderline gleeful play by play from Xander, but it was hardly the point. As her foot managed to clear the edge of the gravestone, she remembered there was no point but to escape. Spinning around the grave, she ran, kicking her high heels from her feet as she sprinted away from him.

When she was finally tackled, the grip surprised her. It wasn’t rough, but gentle, cradling her head to a somewhat bony shoulder as she tumbled to the ground, rolling with her capturer until they came to a stop, more or less unharmed.

“Cordelia, are you okay?”

The face looking down at her wasn’t Angel’s, but it was familiar. “Brandon?”

He beamed at her. “Brian!” he corrected, “But that was really close. We were in English freshmen year and then last year we had Math for a couple days until you switched periods.”

“Stalker much?” Cordy asked, creeped out. What was with this guy?

His fingers tightened painfully around her shoulders. “You’ll like it soon enough.”

She started struggling immediately. “Get off me, you freak!”

Brian’s grip only tightened and he glared at her, frustrated. “It wasn’t supposed to work like this, we can be happy! You’re supposed to want this!”

“I don’t want to be attacked, you psycho-”

“It doesn’t matter. It’ll just take you longer to get used to it.”

“I will scream until the whole town gets here if you don’t let go of me.”

Brian only smiled. “Go ahead,” he challenged, and his face changed.

XXX

Angel almost followed Cordelia, but it would be impossible to stop her, much less get her to both understand and believe he was on the good team once again.

Why would Buffy tell everyone how she’d sent him to hell? He would have thought it would be painful to talk about, being that in her world, only a few months had passed, but apparently she was drawing diagrams. Perhaps with her new boyfriend.

A familiar and chilling scream interrupted his self-torment and Angel was running immediately. He hadn’t considered that he wasn’t the scariest thing that Cordelia could run into in a cemetery, too focused on her implications about Buffy.

The scene he found, with a vampire laying over Cordelia’s body, fangs at her neck, was far too reminiscent of what he’d done to her himself, violating the innocence of her mind with terror as Cordelia struggled against him.

Rage blew hot through his veins as he pulled the other vampire from his victim. He didn’t need a stake, twisting the man’s head from his shoulders until he disintegrated over Cordelia’s body.

Her eyes were closed and body lay still except for the occasional twitch of her extremities. Angel could hear a strong heart beat in spite of the wound at her neck, but he needed to stop the bleeding.

There was a single hole in her jugular pumping blood and Angel placed his hand over the wound, saving her from further blood loss as he realized the significance of the bite.

It was a claim.

He’d initiated them himself, though never completed one. A completed claim was a vampiric ritual meant to bind two vampires together for eternity. When it was done on humans, it bound their lifelines, slowing the aging process in the human and accelerating it in the vampire. The bond required near contact, physically and emotionally. Unfortunately, an uncompleted claim only affected the one bitten. Until the vampire sealed the wound, all the feelings centered, unfulfilled within the victim and they not so slowly went crazy. No one knew if it would eventually lead to death because so many ended their own existence before it came to that.

The act of rage that Angel thought was saving the young woman was actually damning her to misery and death, all of which he had found vastly amusing only a few hundred years ago.

There were no alternatives. At least, no good alternatives. It was rare, but not unheard of for a vampire to be interrupted mid-claim and have his or her mate be usurped by their destroyer’s sealing of the wound they had opened.

Cordelia’s original claimant must have had some interest in her to make the claim in the first place and might have treated her well enough, but any other vampire wouldn’t bother sealing the wound at all, they’d just continue to drink the open tap pumping at Angel’s fingers. Even if they didn’t, the last thing Cordelia needed was to be eternally bound to an evil vampire…

An idea occurred to him and he almost immediately tried to dismiss it. There was one glaring exception to the rule about vampires.

He could claim Cordelia.

It wasn’t entirely unlike marrying a woman to save her honor having never laid a hand on her himself. But that wasn’t entirely true, was it? He couldn’t say he’d never touched her. If she hadn’t been so terrified of Angel, she might never have been grabbed by the monster in the first place.

Buffy’s face flickered in his mind but he pushed it aside. She’d moved on with her life and would doubtless want him to save Cordelia. Both women deserved better than to have him in their lives, but Cordelia was the only one without a choice.

All Angel could think about as he lowered his lips to her neck was how long it had been since he’d tasted human blood.

XXX

Cordelia woke up in a soft bed in an unfamiliar room. There was a plate of oreos on the bed next to her.

“They’ll help raise your blood sugar.”

Her head swiveled toward the voice immediately and her heart sank. It wasn’t a dream. “What’s the point if you’re just going to take the rest of it?” she asked.

“I’m not,” Angel promised. “I have my soul back. I’m not going to hurt you. Ever.”

“Riight, that’s why you’re keeping me prisoner?”

Angel rubbed his temples and he looked weary, as though they had had this argument a hundred times and Cordelia just didn’t get it. “You’re not a prisoner. I just wanted to make sure you were all right before you left.”

Truthfully, she was a little woozy and picked up an Oreo. Even if it was poisoned, it was probably a better way to go than whatever he had planned. Most likely, it was just chocolate and she could really use some.

“So I can really just get up and walk home when I’m done with my cookies?”

“I’d prefer to give you a ride myself. It’s safer.”

“Hah! Like I’m getting in a car with you!”

“You’re worried I’ll take you to an abandoned home that no one knows is occupied?”

He made a valid point, not that she planned to acknowledge it. Surely there was something worse that could happen that she just wasn’t evil enough to think up.

“There’s plenty of worse crap that you could do than that!”

“Such as…?”

Obviously, he didn’t think she was evil enough to foil his little plan either, but she’d be damned if she’d admit it to the smug bastard. “Like I’m going to give you ideas on how to kill me!” She’d almost said ‘maim and torture’ instead, but that would have been giving ideas. Not that they wouldn’t already have occurred to him. “Hey, what happened to Brandon?”

“Who?” Angel asked.

“Duh, the other vampire – oh my god, did he bite me?”

“You knew him?”

“Focus! So not the most important question I asked! Oh, god, that’s why I lost blood!” Her hand went immediately to her neck, to find the mark scabbed over.

“I sealed the wound, it won’t trouble you.”

“What, like, with a hot knife or something?”

XXX

The last thing Angel wanted to explain to Cordelia was the process of sealing a wound, but it couldn’t exactly be avoided, not with the rest of the information he had to give her.

“My tongue.”

Obviously, she didn’t find the idea a turn on, since she practically turned green. “You were tonguing my open wound but that shouldn’t trouble me?”

“Next time I should let you bleed to death?”

“As opposed to whatever facial mutilation you have in store, umm YEAH!”

Naturally, there was no possible way she wasn’t going to bring it up. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t have a soul and I was just trying to scare you. I apologize.”

“Whatever, I knew Buffy would put your ass in the ground eventually.” She met his eyes firmly as she said it, a sure sign of a brave liar.

He stood up from his chair and her heart pounded so quickly it seemed almost dangerous and Angel sat back down immediately. “What can I do to make you believe I won’t hurt you?”

“Let me go.”

“It’s still dark, if you go out on your own, you’ll be hurt. I can drive you home now or you can leave on foot when the sun comes up.”

“How is this proving you’re good or whatever?”

It didn’t, but there was no other option. “I’m not jeopardizing your safety to prove I’m trustworthy.”

She didn’t say anything for a long time. “…I didn’t even know you had a car.”

“It’s a classic. You’ll love it.”

XXX

When Angel’s car pulled into the Chase’s driveway with Cordelia’s neck still mostly intact, she was pleasantly relieved.

Slowly, she opened her passenger side door, watching him for sudden movements before she undid the seatbelt he insisted she needed to wear and climbed outside. It was still hard to believe he wasn’t in the process of biting her face off.

“So Willow’s spell worked, then?”

“Willow… of course. I didn’t know she was the one responsible.”

Cordelia grimaced. Great, now she’d have Willow’s death on her conscience. “I wouldn’t say responsible…”

“I’m not going to kill her if that’s your concern.”

“See? Your lips are moving and yet I still don’t believe you.”

“Good night, Cordelia.”

He actually reached toward her, grabbed the handle on the door and shut her out. Then, as she stood there gaping, he backed out of the driveway and politely waited for her to disappear into the house.

It was kind of offensive, really. He’d tasted the goods, but didn’t want another lick? Was she not bite worthy? Or was he up to something? Either way, she knew where she was headed first thing in the morning.

XXX

So she was the last one to her own meeting, it really wasn’t fair competition seeing as she was really the only one of the group to put any thought into her personal appearance.

“So what’s with the Saturday detention?” Xander was asking Giles as Cordelia pushed through the door of the Library.

“I told him we needed to have a meeting,” Cordelia told the group.

“You did?” Buffy asked, looking incredulously from Cordelia to Giles, as though unsure who was acting stranger. “Can it wait until after the SATs?”

“No,” Cordy replied, then took a breath to tell her story. “Angel’s alive. Well, not alive. But you know, fangy. Animated. Still walking this non-hell dimension.”

Everyone reacted more or less as Cordelia expected. Giles blanched and immediately turned to Buffy, who only blinked rapidly at everyone, as though she hadn’t decided quite how to react just yet. Xander went for the stakes. Willow seemed caught in a trauma and Oz took her hand.

“How do you know?” Buffy asked.

“I saw him in a graveyard last night, when I was trying to find you.”

“But he didn’t see you?” Xander asked.

Sometimes it didn’t seem like Xander really understood the ‘vampires have advanced abilities’ concept. “He has night vision and super ears, of course he saw me.”

“So the spell worked, right?” Willow asked. “He has his soul?”

“Perhaps Cordelia could tell us the whole story before she’s bombarded.” Giles suggested.

Chastened, Willow’s mouth shut immediately.

Cordelia hadn’t actually anticipated having to tell them anything more than ‘Angel’s alive’ and let them deal with the whole drama. But apparently they wanted a play-by-play. “Umm, saw him in the graveyard. Ran away. Got jumped by a vamp, woke up at Angel’s house. He made me eat Oreos and gave me a ride home.”

“A totally different vamp jumped you?” Oz asked, the first word he’d spoken all morning, as far as Cordelia could tell.

“Yeah, it was totally weird. He was in my English class in freshman year and like, fell in love with me.”

“Oh, Brian?” Willow asked. “Kinda skinny?”

“Yeah, I think Angel dusted him, but he wasn’t super specific. Just mentioned how Brandon bit me -”

“Brian,” Willow corrected.

“Whatever, Brian bit me and Angel sealed the wound. I was, of course, totally unconscious at this point or I would never have let his tongue anywhere near my neck.”

Xander sputtered, “His what on your huh?”

“It stops the bleeding and stuff. Buffy can back me up, right?”

“I-” Buffy blinked. “He licked you?”

“I know, it’s totally traumatizing.”

Buffy said, “I bet.” Like Cordelia, in her unconscious state, had made a play for Buffy’s psychotic ex-boyfriend.

“Buffy, come on,” Xander defended Cordelia. Finally. “He drank her blood when she was unconscious. When does the staking happen?”

“You really want me to stake everyone that licks your girlfriend, Xan?”

Before whatever throw down Xander could provoke from Buffy, Giles pushed his way past them and invaded Cordelia’s personal bubble. “I must see your injury as soon as possible.”

He barely waited for her to remove the bandage before actually turning her face to see the mark on her neck.

“I would appreciate if you wouldn’t touch her.” Even though the command from the behind the stacks was issued to Giles, it was Cordelia who moved, backing away from the librarian immediately.

The only person happy to see Angel in the room was Xander, who’d already had a stake waiting for just such an encounter. “And we’d appreciate it if you didn’t snack on our girlfriends.”

XXX

It might have been a poor time to raise the issue, but between Giles manhandling Cordelia and Xander laying claim to her, Angel’s patience was waning. “She’s not your girlfriend anymore.”

The youth sputtered a confused, “What are you talking about?” as Angel joined their company, trying to find out how Cordelia was holding up and hoping to enlist Giles’ help in explaining their situation.

“You thought that the best way to go about this?” Giles asked, clearly now only too aware of what was going on.

“There is no best way.”

Holding his gaze only a few moments, Giles relented, stepping away to let Angel step up to Cordelia. “Are you okay? Nothing hurts?”

She licked her lips before she shook her head and Angel marveled at the fact that he noticed. Was it their bond that made him catch these details or the details making him more aware of the bond? Either way, she had his full attention.

He wanted to touch her. Rub her arms or pull her into an embrace for comfort. Physical touch was acknowledgement of the claim, a need that would now begin to manifest more and more strongly in both of them. But she wasn’t there yet. Cordelia still saw him as a feature of her nightmares and though his touch probably would soothe her in ways she didn’t understand, her mind would only rebel and make things much more difficult.

“Angel?” He realized it was Buffy’s voice and turned to her reluctantly. She was now a ghost of another life and he would almost prefer that she just disappear. “What’s going on?” she asked, obviously thrown by the whole situation.

“Buffy,” her watcher intervened. “I think it would be best if you and the others went to take that test now. Cordelia and Angel can help me ascertain the situation and I will speak with you later?”

“Or how about no,” said Xander. “You’re just going to let him have free reign with her?” He pointed to Cordelia’s neck.

Free reign with Cordelia’s neck wasn’t an unwelcome thought, but it was certainly distracting.

“Xander, Cordelia is in no physical danger from Angel, nor, do I believe, at this moment, are any of us. Please do make this situation easier for once and do as I say.”

Buffy, Willow and Xander all gaped at Giles. If they were about to say anything in response, he beat them to it. “All of you. Please.”

The girls hurried to obey Giles, but Xander stubbornly stood his ground. “I can’t believe you, of all people, would just let him go around, drinking whoever he wants to! Isn’t this how it started last time?”

“Xander, there are circumstances you don’t understand.”

“Damn right, I don’t! I don’t understand why Angel’s back from hell, I don’t understand why he won’t leave Cordy alone and I really don’t understand why we can’t just stake him once and for all!”

Impatient to get on with it, Angel answered the question. “Because if I die, Cordelia does too.”


Chapter Two

Xander paused, stake raised. “What was that?”

“If you want Cordelia alive, you can’t stake me,” Angel repeated.

“Huh?” Buffy asked, reeling in confusion as she gathered herself for a slightly more thoughtful question. “Angel… Why can’t he stake you? I mean, I don’t want him to or anything, but what does Cordelia have to do with it?”

“Extremely good question,” Cordelia seconded, finally finding her voice.

“Everyone, why don’t we all just calm down and if you, Xander, would take a seat.” Giles actually went so far as to point out the chair that Xander should park his keister in and took charge of the discussion.

“Giles, do you know what’s going on?” Buffy asked.

“I believe I do. Angel is clearly impatient to run everyone over with the facts, but I believe I can explain the situation much more clearly.” Obviously, Giles still held Angel responsible for the events of the previous summer and Buffy couldn’t help but be a little irritated with Angel for just showing up. What could possibly have happened in the last twenty four hours that he could forget that everyone pretty much wanted to stake him to dustdom? The real mystery was how Giles was resisting the temptation.

Buffy found her butt sliding into a chair at the table in spite of herself.

“Cordelia, you as well, please.”

Everyone took a seat, even Giles. Angel remained standing, which didn’t seem particularly strange, since Buffy didn’t remember him ever participating in their little research parties for long.

“What I believe has happened here, is that Angel has claimed Cordelia.”

Angel said nothing to that preposterous suggestion. Not that Buffy was sure what it meant, exactly, but why would Angel even spend time with Cordelia never mind whatever Giles said?

“What’s that?”

Giles looked around the table quickly, never really catching anyone’s eye for any length of time. “He’s bound their lifelines, making them dependent on each other.”

“Why would he do that?” Buffy asked, more to Angel than Giles. She didn’t like the idea of Cordelia and Angel being dependent on each other in any way at all.

“I imagine,” Giles said, “that it was done to save her life, though Angel may certainly correct me if I’m wrong.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Angel. “Though you have done a remarkable job of watering it down.”

XXX

A claim was more intense than the bond between a sire and childe. There was nothing more powerful in the vampiric world. To Angel, listening to Giles’ explanation was like a newlywed being told marriage was just a piece of paper.

Cordelia, for all intents, was now his. In spite of the fact that he was fully aware of how unfair it was to disrupt her life and place her in an unwanted relationship with someone who terrified her, it was non-negotiable. He’d seen people fight bonds in the past. Trying to get revenge on an unwanted claimant through alternative relationships could be common and got very ugly, very quickly.

Their relationship didn’t need any additional challenges that injury to Xander Harris, for example, might cause, though the thought held a certain appeal that was already dangerous.

“A claim is a lifelong, blood commitment. It’s the strongest bond there is for vampires.”

“…What?” Cordelia finally spoke and he wondered what was going on inside of her, how the bond was working. Any range of reactions wouldn’t be surprising. “That sounds like marriage.” Her face was pale as she said it and instinctively, Angel realized there was no real need to answer her implied question. Cordelia already knew.

“No!” Buffy laughed. “That’s ridiculous. Angel, tell Ms. Delusions you didn’t marry her. Please.”

“Buffy,” Giles tried to diffuse the situation, with little luck.

Angel didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to rub his bond with Cordelia in Buffy’s face. Obviously, it was quite a shock to her, but surely being less than honest would only make it worse in the future. “Marriage can be easily ended in divorce and has no physical effect on the participants. It’s really not a strong enough word.”

“So break the bond!”

There was only one way to do that and despite knowing, intellectually, that Buffy had no idea what she was suggesting, Angel fumed at the idea of harming Cordelia. She was innocent, she deserved to live. “There’s no breaking it. I don’t want to break it.”

Buffy’s eyes flashed as though she would battle him for a moment, but it didn’t last. After a few moments of silence, she slid her chair back from the table. “Then you obviously don’t need me here. Good luck with your… situation.” Her eyes locked on Cordelia as she said it before she turned her back on him.

It felt like forever before the door closed behind her. If she thought he was going to ask her back, though, she was mistaken.

XXX

As Willow and Oz slipped out of the room after Buffy, Cordelia wondered if it was possible for someone’s brain to both spin and stand still at the same time because that’s how she felt. If what Angel said was true, he’d apparently made her his little vamp wife without her consent. “Do I get a choice in all of this?” she asked.

“No.”

Well. Wasn’t that comforting. “How do I even know you’re telling the truth?”

“Yeah!” Xander chimed in. “How about that, liar man?”

Angel ignored him to answer Cordelia. “Would Giles lie to you?”

Cordelia had forgotten that Giles seemed on board with the whole thing. “But you don’t even like me! Why would you want to marry me?”

“I do like you and I didn’t want you to die.”

“But what about Buffy?” Saving her life was all well and good, but after the be-all-end-all pukefest that Buffy and Angel had forced everyone to hear about, Cordelia was a little surprised that his first act upon returning from hell would be to commit himself to another woman.

“Buffy has nothing to do with it.”

It was the first time in her life Cordelia had ever heard Angel talk about anything that didn’t center on Buffy, so she was understandably speechless.

“Or maybe,” Xander suggested, “You thought you’d move on to Cordelia since Buffy had the good sense to send you to hell? Are high school girls just your thing?”

“Xander, perhaps you would allow me to speak with Angel and Cordelia privately?”

Xander was obviously about to tell everyone exactly what he thought of that plan, but Cordelia stopped him from getting up from the table. “Look, you can talk to Angel, but I kind of need a break from all this marriage blah dee blah, so I’m actually going to go take my SATs. Coming, Xander?”

Reluctantly, he followed her.

XXX

“Did you tie yourself to that young girl to prevent retribution for your activities last spring?” Giles asked after Cordelia and Xander were out of the room.

“No. I dusted the vampire that was biting her. I didn’t realize it was a claim.”

“So you felt it was your responsibility to act as proxy?”

There was really very little reason to sit through Giles’ lecture except that Angel couldn’t seem to look at the man’s face without seeing what it was like after he’d gone to work on him for awhile. It was also possible that his support might smooth the way in his relationship with Cordelia, which could be hell on earth if Cordelia chose to listen to Xander instead.

“Watching a young girl bleed to death isn’t as easy to me as you might think.”

“Certainly, you would not wish to waste a potential food source.”

There were many things that Angel felt like he should let Rupert say without retaliation. Considering their history, he owed him that much, but this subject didn’t fall under that category. Angel was bonded to Cordelia, there was no getting out of it and no matter whom it hurt, he couldn’t regret it.

“Saving Cordelia’s life was the right thing to do. Don’t denigrate that.”

Rupert seemed to consider the matter momentarily before shrugging it off. “Perhaps you’re correct. Best see that your decisions in the future are in her best interest as well.”

Perhaps the only advantage in the fact that Angel had very little else to do than focus on regaining his strength was that Cordelia would never be far from his mind. He hadn’t saved her life in order to ruin it.

XXX

Despite Cordelia’s strange fondness for multiple-choice questions, her concentration was completely blown. Three rows in front of her, Buffy seemed to be flying through the test and Cordelia suspected it probably had something to do with the life-trained ability to focus in emotional situations. Since the only other possibility was that Buffy really liked math, Cordy thought she was probably on the right track.

The strange little geometric boxes were making zero sense to Cordelia and she pretty much wrote off the math section. Seeing as they hadn’t even gotten to the verbal section, it seemed like the best plan was to re-take it in a couple months. Maybe by then she’d be so used to being Angel’s little wife that the pages wouldn’t go all wonky in front of her.

What he was describing couldn’t be possible, yet Giles seemed to think it was. Angel could not have really just vamp married her. Yet, apparently, marriage wasn’t description enough! Marriage! What little girls dreamed of since they were old enough to have sheets on their head.

It struck Cordelia suddenly that those dreams would never come to fruition for her. But why not? It wasn’t like it would be bigamy, her bite mark wasn’t on the books, she could marry anyone she wanted to… right?

No. Instinctively, she felt like that wouldn’t work for some reason, though she had no earthly idea why. It seemed reasonable enough for them to just stay sorta… married, but separated? She appreciated being alive, and really, really didn’t want to be vamp bonded to Brian from Freshmen English, but Cordelia couldn’t help the horrible feeling that this would change everything.

She got up from her seat. Staying was pointless. She dumped her test in the trash can and shrugged helplessly at the administrator on her way out.

By the time she got back to the library, Giles was poring over books and Angel was long gone.

“Cordelia. Good. I wanted speak with you about this unfortunate situation.”

“Look, Giles, no offense, but I think I should probably talk to Angel about this.”

He was out of his seat at that, pulling out a chair for her to sit down and giving her little choice except to do so. “I understand the bond would make you wish to seek him out, but perhaps I could arm you with a bit of knowledge on what to expect first, hmm?”

It sounded logical, but Giles could make a unicorn gang sound logical. “I don’t want you to pull punches like before. Buffy’s not here to get her feelings hurt. I’m screwed, right?”

Giles exhaled slowly, clearly putting much more consideration into his words than Cordelia wanted. “It is, as you say, unlikely that the bond can be broken. To my knowledge, it has never happened, except with death, which is, obviously, much worse and rather permanent.”

“What if it wasn’t?” she asked.

“Pardon?”

Cordelia started getting excited as an idea blossomed in her mind. “I could die! Like Buffy, for like a minute or so? And then you can zap me back! Would that work?”

The sadness in Giles eyes was really answer enough and Cordelia felt herself deflating. “Cordelia, unfortunately, the bond is both mystical and physical, when your spirit returned to your body, the bond would simply reclaim you. I do enjoy your out of the box thinking, however, if it was possible to move your awareness to another body… I would have to do a great deal of research -”

“Whoa, Giles!” Cordelia laughed. “There’s just no way I’m living in another body. You don’t just move from Bel Air to like… anywhere else! That’s insane!”

“Very well. I will continue to research ways to break the bond.”

“But you’re pretty sure that’s impossible.”

“Nothing’s impossible.”

Obviously, he didn’t mean that and Cordelia crossed her arms, ready to challenge him. “Give me a percentage, then. What are the chances it won’t work?”

“Ninety… something,” he admitted.

“That’s what I thought. So, are you going to tell me what to expect or do I need to go find Angel?”

Giles spoke slowly, but it didn’t make what he said any less terrifying. “The bond works like a magnet. It will draw you together until there is no separation between you. From what I’ve read, fighting it will only create a stronger pull.”

“And I can’t… see other people?” Cordelia asked. She hadn’t missed how Angel had told Xander that their relationship was over. Clearly, he thought that’s what it meant, but he’d had a choice in this whole thing. She hadn’t.

“Cordelia, I would strongly advise against it. There’s nothing to physically stop you from continuing your relationship with Xander or anyone else for that matter, but you can’t forget who Angel is, not for a moment. His vampiric instincts rule this bond and vampires are possessive by nature. He views you as his wife and despite the fact that he now has a soul, he is at his base a violent creature. Also, you should know that though your life depends on his continued survival, the relationship is not reciprocal.”

“What?! You’re saying that if he dusts, I die. But if I die, he just goes on like normal?! That’s so unfair!”

“Unfair or not, that is the situation. It would be extremely unwise to deny him your fidelity unless he more or less grants you his permission, which is unlikely.”

“But of course, the same doesn’t apply to him.”

“On that subject, you would need to speak to Angel.”

Cordelia pushed her chair back from the table. “Oh, I will.”

XXX

The door to the mansion slammed to a close, echoing throughout the house. Angel couldn’t help but smile. Here it comes.

It, or rather, she, could be heard stomping up the stairs and didn’t stop until she burst into his bedroom.

“If I have to be faithful to this stupid non-relationship, you sure as hell have to be too!” Cordelia yelled at him.

Angel didn’t bother to sit up, letting Cordelia keep the position of power, towering over him as he lay on the bed.

“I’m committed to the claim.”

Cordelia was silent for a moment, then, “God! Angel, I don’t know what that even means!”

“It means that we are bonded, I want us to be bonded and I will be abiding by whatever guidelines we set for our relationship.”

She seemed to perk up. “We can set whatever guidelines we want to?”

“Of course.”

“Then can I still see Xander?” she asked.

“No.”

“You just said we could do whatever we want!”

Obviously, Cordelia didn’t understand the situation, but she would. Hopefully she wouldn’t make it too difficult in the meantime. “We is the two of us.”

“Right, but secretly, we equals you, or my feelings would mean something!”

Angel did sit up then, and made sure to hold her gaze as he spoke. “They do and I know it isn’t fair.”

“So let it be fair!” Cordelia sank down on the bed next to him so they could be at eye level. “Please! I don’t want my life to change, I want to choose my own… husband or whatever!”

“You deserve to. Everyone does. I’m sorry that choice was taken away from you.”

“But… you! You were the one who took it!”

Generally, he would let the comment slide, but he couldn’t let Cordelia think he was any worse than she already did, it could be damaging to their future relationship if she lived with any kind of misconceptions. “At the time, it seemed less important than your life.”

“I…” Cordelia’s face screwed with torture. He could tell that it wasn’t personal, her desire to fight the claim had nothing to do with him as an individual, she just wanted to choose her own destiny. “God! I can’t believe I’m stuck with the guy that threatened to cut my face off!”

Well, maybe it had a little to do with him. “I’m very, very sorry for saying that. I didn’t mean it.”

“Pfft! You were evil, you so meant it!”

“I knew I didn’t have time to -” He had to consider his words, as ‘rape and torture’ would likely not win him any points. “-to do anything but scare you, so I said what I thought would scare you the most.”

“Because I’m so vain, you mean?” Cordelia asked.

Angel was old enough not to fall into that trap. “Because you’re so beautiful.”

Her eyes lit up. “You really thought I was beautiful?”

“I’d bite you.”

“Hey!” She laughed and smacked him. Her open palm came in contact with his forearm and though Cordelia’s amused expression dropped immediately, her hand remained glued to his arm as their eyes met.

…and so it began.

XXX

Wow. Belatedly, Cordelia realized that touching her opposing magnet was probably not the smartest decision she had ever made. Not that it was a decision so much as a reflex, a natural reaction to what could only be construed as Angel making a joke. Who knew that was possible?

The effect was instantaneous, sending a wave of relief and relaxation through her body not unlike the calm in the wake of an orgasm. God, how could she stop touching him knowing it would end?

“Are you… feeling this too?” Though feeling wasn’t really the right word, it was almost a certain blissful lack of feeling.

His eyes wandered away from hers, staring at the connection between their bodies. He nodded, then finally muttered, “Yes.”

Angel was affected by her hand on his arm.

Officially wigged, Cordelia pulled her hand away and immediately regretted the decision as every minor tension and discomfort rushed back into her body. “Did you know that would happen?” she asked.

“No.”

“God, that felt amazing.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

Wasn’t this just the perfect time for him to retreat to his monosyllabic tendencies. “Thanks for the deep insights, Angel.”

“Sorry.”

God, if touching his hand was that amazing, what would happen if they kissed? When they kissed, really. Cordy was half tempted to jump him right then just to find out, which lead her to another, vaguely horrifying thought. “We’re going to have sex!”

“Now?!”

“What? Of course not!” Well… “No! I meant, like, at some point, right? This is leading to the whole, naked groiny thing?”

“I was hoping to make it slightly more special.”

Cordelia jumped off the bed immediately, feeling the overwhelming need to pace. “That wasn’t a no!”

“Of course it’s not a no. Cordelia, we’re bonded and I know you don’t know what that means so just think of it like marriage. We are married and the bond will keep pulling us together until it’s real.”

So inevitably, they would have sex and his noble attempt would all be for nothing. “There has to be a way around it.”

XXX

Ouch. Sure, he understood, in principle, that Cordelia had a boyfriend and hadn’t expressed interest in Angel since she found out he was a vampire. But had she been there just moments ago when she touched his arm? Wasn’t she curious about the possibilities?

Granted, he wasn’t precisely thrilled about claiming a girl he barely knew, but he certainly considered the sexual aspect a highlight, particularly considering the results of their simple, accidental touch.

“We won’t do anything until you’re ready,” he assured her, figuring the claim would bring her around in the not-too-distant future. It really did make the whole courting process easier.

“Great! So I only have my own horniness to blame! Way to deny responsibility!” She was glaring at him and Angel felt like he had missed a page.

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, you can’t really think I would actually take the blame for my own death, did you? I am so not buying it!”

“Why are you dying?”

“Duh! When we boink, you’ll lose your soul and kill me!”

That was her concern. From her point of view, he could see where it would be a problem. “Don’t worry about that, it wasn’t the sex.”

“Wait, what?”

“The perfect happiness wasn’t from the sex, it was afterwards.”

“So we just have to avoid the cuddle part?”

She could be amazingly literal when she wanted to be. “It was when I was relaxed, in love and happy, I forgot all about my past and just was in the moment. I could never do that again.”

“We can do the bunny hump all we want since I can’t make you happy,” she translated.

Women. “This isn’t about you.” He tried to be patient as he explained. “There’s too much at stake for me to forget again and I won’t. You need to trust me to take care of you. I would never put you in danger.”

XXX

“I don’t need you to take care of me!” He talked to her like their relationship was real and always had been. “I don’t even know you!”

“That doesn’t matter at this point,” he argued, not really settling the issue at all. “You’re the most important person in my life now.”

“Right. Oh, what was that? I think I heard Buffy calling.”

“Buffy’s moved on and so have I.”

Where the hell he got that idea, Cordelia had no idea. How could he have survived this long with such little understanding of women? The girl had practically run from the room crying. Granted, she put on a good show at the SATs, but there was probably a make up stop in the bathroom beforehand. “Buffy has so not moved on.”

“I’ve been assured she has.”

“Angel, don’t be naïve. Whatever Giles says, he’s just trying to keep you out of his slayer’s pants, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“I didn’t talk to Giles about this. The relationship with Buffy is over, that’s all that you need to worry about. I’ll be faithful to our bond.”

Who would have said anything other than Giles? Who else, besides Cordelia, had Angel seen alone? They’d all been in the same room, taking their SATs. “Were you following her, is that it? Saw her with Scott before homecoming? I forgot you were the stalky type.”

“Look, Cordelia, I really don’t want to discuss Buffy and Scott. Can we just move on to how this will work between us?”

“No! I can’t believe you didn’t stay tuned to their channel for the break up. It was right before Homecoming when she was totally sabotaging me. That’s really cold after we already made limo plans, though, right?”

“Buffy broke up with Scott?”

“Nope! He broke up with her. Voted for her too, though I did what I could to sway him. Whatever, there’s no accounting for taste.”

Angel seemed a little upset now, which Cordelia found a little liberating. She didn’t like to be the only one complaining about their relationship, it made her feel like some kind of cheater, which was obviously unfair. Maybe now he’d want to get out of it too, they could spread the guilt.

“But she never told me -” He started speaking, but then stopped, darting a glance at her as though he’d admitted something he shouldn’t.

“Well, duh, when did she have the chance when you were like, spouting off about our ‘marriage’ and -” Cordelia stopped talking as it clicked. “She knew you were here! You saw her!”

“Cordelia -”

“You ever think about the fact that if she had maybe mentioned that you were back and you had a soul that I would have never run away from you? That I wouldn’t have gotten munched by my vamp stalker?”

“It’s not Buffy’s fault, it’s mine. I should have followed you, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’re stuck with me and I’m sorry I can’t let you keep your boyfriend.”

“Whatever, Angel. Is this you putting me over Buffy?”

XXX

He’d known when he sealed her wound that she’d be high maintenance, but Angel couldn’t believe how much she infuriated him, managing to twist everything into the worse possible light. It wasn’t Buffy’s fault that Cordelia had been bitten.

Not that the Slayer was completely innocent in the situation. She seemed to have omitted some rather pertinent information, not that lying about a relationship to protect herself from him was any greater a sign of her wanting to get back together.

Buffy’s dating status didn’t make what he’d done any less right. He’d saved Cordelia’s life and if only he could stop himself from killing her, they could all count it a win.

“Just because you’re my priority doesn’t mean that I can let you just blame Buffy when it isn’t her fault -”

“Fine. You win. She didn’t do anything.”

It was too easy, Angel waited to see what the catch was.

“Of course, still, I’m not sure how the Scoobies would like to hear that she was harboring a known murderer…”

She was trying to blackmail him? Was it twisted that he had a strange respect for that?

“What is it you want?”

“I want to kiss Xander goodbye.”

If Cordelia could see the image of Xander’s body as it was in Angel’s head, bones protruding and blood pumping from various holes in his skin, she would understand better why no matter what she threatened, it would never, ever happen.


Chapter Three

To say that Cordelia was shocked that Angel hadn’t given into her blackmail was a huge understatement. He hadn’t jumped at the chance to save Buffy from, well, in this case, probably a few arguments, but still! That was so unlike him! Of course, if he thought Cordelia wasn’t going to follow through on blabbing her Buffy news just because his “top priority” was now their weird claim thingie, he was crazy.

She was already dialing.

Really, there had been far too many secrets already. If Buffy had just spilled her guts in the first place, Cordelia wouldn’t be in this mess. She was only helping to promote the truth and prevent further mishaps.

Besides, Angel didn’t care if Cordelia wanted to smooch Xander. He cared that his new little wifey did. Who knew that he took vampire blood rites so seriously? Plus, she so didn’t appreciate the guilt trip over wanting to stay with her own boyfriend. Did she not deserve some closure? God!

“Hello?” a male voice answered the line.

“Xander! You are going to freak out when you hear this!”

“Cordy, thank god! Where did you go?” Xander asked.

“I had to go talk to Angel about this whole mess.”

“You… decided to go insane, then?”

“Oh please, like I could just sit there doing math when my life is screwed.”

“But you went to the person that sucked your blood and put that whole bond thing on you. How do you know it’s not a trick?”

“Riiight, because Angel and I are that close that he wants to marry me.” Not that he shouldn’t want to, he was really getting a pretty awesome deal. But Angel was a freaky vampire, it wasn’t like he’d ever displayed normal tastes.

“Marriage is just the first step toward draining,” Xander insisted.

He was totally distracting her from the point of the call. “Look, we can talk about this later, I have news.”

“You cannot possibly have more important news than what we’re already talking about.”

“Xander, god, shut up for two seconds. This whole thing is Buffy’s fault!”

“Cause she didn’t kill him dead enough? That’s not really her fault, she had to close the mouth thingie somehow.”

He was always defending Buffy. “That wasn’t what I meant. Buffy knew he was back. Before I did! She was like, seeing him on the sly!”

Silence. Cordelia waited in eager anticipation for the explosion that would surely follow.

“Not possible.”

“What? Angel totally confessed!” Xander was doubting her gossip? She was only like, the best source of intel in Sunnydale! “I was there!”

“Well, of course he did, Cordy! He wants the rest of us to turn on Buffy. Divide and conquer!”

“Naturally, it’s all about Buffy.”

“Is it that big of a shock after last year?”

“I so can’t deal with you right now.” She hung up the phone. He would take Buffy’s side.

XXX

The mansion door slammed, interrupting Angel’s training. He was feeling better since the bond, more energetic. It wouldn’t be long before he could defend Cordelia from something that actually fought back.

“Angel!” he heard Buffy yelling and he hoped the decibel wasn’t masking the sounds of one of her friends. He’d had to deal with them enough for one day.

Angel had barely cleared the steps when she stomped toward him. “You married her?” she asked. The concept was difficult for everyone.

“If that makes it easier for you.”

Buffy’s mouth dropped for a moment before her jaw snapped back into place. “Easier? What part of this is easy?”

It was painful to have her there. He didn’t want to keep hitting her with the facts of the situation, but she kept popping back up, asking for more. “Buffy, I really don’t want to hurt you.”

“Obviously, you didn’t take my feelings into consideration!”

“Buffy, I care about you. When you moved on, it hurt me. Now, I am moving on and it hurts you, but I thought as the slayer you would value Cordelia’s life over your feelings.”

Buffy blinked and he could see the tears beginning to brim. Any time Buffy cried, he felt panicked. Usually, he tried to calm her down with a hug or a kiss, but those weren’t options that were available to him anymore. “I hate this,” she whispered and the tears finally spilled over, down her cheeks.

“I hear that’s a normal reaction.” Angel focused on anything but her eyes.

“Did she make you do it?”

Angel almost laughed. Why did women always try so hard to blame each other in these situations? “Hardly. She’d get out of it if she could.”

“But you wouldn’t?” Buffy asked, confusion and hurt pouring off her.

It was such a delicate question. He didn’t want to hurt Buffy by saying he wouldn’t. But at the same time, he didn’t want to disrespect Cordelia by saying he would. The truth was something in between. While it was true that he hadn’t specifically chosen Cordelia, she was a spectacularly beautiful girl with a good heart that had occasionally made him laugh. Obviously, he could have done a lot worse.

If it was possible to end the bond, he probably would, for Cordelia’s sake, but except for the pain it caused Buffy, it was the best thing that had happened to him in awhile. He was proud to have saved Cordelia’s life and the bond gave him something to focus on other than his hideous past.

But the ‘what if’s were pointless, Angel had been around long enough to know that there was no severing the connection between them with anything short of death.

“I wouldn’t,” he said finally.

“I don’t understand why you would want to be with her when you don’t even know her! Or maybe that’s the problem. When you get to know her better, remember I told you so.”

“Buffy, neither of us has a choice either way. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s up to Cordelia and me how we handle it.”

Buffy rubbed her eyes and gathered herself. “So what can I expect, then? Are you going to move in together? Go meet her parents?”

“Yes to both.”

“Are you serious?”

“Buffy, stop. You obviously don’t want to hear this, I don’t want to tell you. Just leave it alone. Go back to… Scott or whoever you’re seeing now and move on with your life. Be happy.”

“How can I?”

“You seemed to be doing well enough when I was gone.” He couldn’t help thinking maybe Buffy just wasn’t one to choose the lady over the tiger.

“That’s not fair! You have no idea what it was like for me!”

Angel cared deeply for Buffy, loved her, even, though he tried not to use that word anymore, even in his own head, because it smacked of infidelity. In spite of his feelings, the first response out of his mouth was, “It must have been hell.”

He regretted saying it even before the devastation hit her face and he felt horrible. Perhaps his situation had been worse than hers, but he also had significantly more life experience with which to deal with it.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized.

“I… “ She started to speak, but just stopped, shaking her head and backing toward the door. He realized that she needed time alone by herself and couldn’t help the relief that flooded him as a result. Nothing but pain could come of her staying.

The time where it was appropriate to comfort her was over.

XXX

Nothing in Cordelia’s life had ever been more important than the claim bond with Angel. Sure, friends had been eaten, acquaintances made into demon fodder, but the worst thing to actually affect her life was her relationship with Xander.

But now, this huge thing had happened and to her great horror, she had absolutely no one she could tell! Her friends would freak, her parents would have a heart attack and the group-of-loser- acquaintances-she-occasionally-hung-with-for-the-greater-good were too close to the issue. Or most were. Buffy was out. Xander was an already failed attempt. Oz didn’t really talk.

So after looking through every page of her yearbook for any other possibility, Cordelia Chase found herself knocking on the front door of the Rosenberg residence.

A middle-aged woman answered the door and Cordelia could hardly contain her horrified reaction to the woman’s outfit. The strange colors and lack of attention paid to any sort of fashion or body shape really clarified the whys of Willow’s problems to an uncomfortable degree.

“I’m sorry, dear, we’re really not interested in making any purchases.”

“What?” Cordelia realized the woman thought she was some kind of saleswoman. “I go to school with Willow.”

The woman who could only be Mrs. Rosenberg looked Cordelia over. “You’re friends with my daughter?”

Cordelia just said, “Yes.” The subtle nuances were completely lost on parents anyway.

Mrs. Rosenberg didn’t invite Cordelia in, merely called to Willow that she had a friend at the door. It was actually a pretty good guard against vampires, unfriendly parents. The Rosenberg’s would surely be around much longer than Cordelia’s family on that front.

When Willow came barreling down the staircase, she came to a sudden and extreme stop at the front door when she noticed which “friend” it was. “Cordelia!”

“Hi Willow,” Cordelia gave her a big smile, not really knowing what else to do under the circumstances. The horrific awkwardness was almost worth turning around. The girl looked almost terrified to see her and Cordy couldn’t help being a little offended. She’d been going out of her way to be nice to the girl for months!

“Is everyone all right?” Willow asked.

Mrs. Rosenberg reluctantly left the entryway to give her daughter privacy, but still maintained an eye out from the kitchen, which Cordelia found extremely creepy. “Can we go to your room or something?” she asked.

Willow opened the door wider. “I don’t know, can we?”

A vamp test. Cordelia took a large step over the threshold. “How’s that?”

“Good for me, come on up!” Willow turned toward the steps and Cordelia eagerly followed her into what she could only assume was her bedroom.

Cordelia could only take a few moments of Willow’s twitching before she just dove right in. “I need an unbias party.”

“Unbias-ed,” Willow corrected, then winced, as though she was perfectly aware that her grammatical nitpickyness wasn’t doing anything for the weird social awkwardness of the situation but she was helpless to stop herself. “Umm… you were saying?”

“Yeah. You know this deal with like, how I’m apparently married to Angel or whatever?”

“Hard to miss,” Willow agreed.

“I have no idea what to do. Angel says that there’s no getting out of it and we’re together til I die. Xander says to basically screw Angel and do whatever I want, which really just means he doesn’t want to break up. Then Giles says that he can maybe fix it, but it didn’t really seem like he had that much faith in the idea, plus he thought I should be faithful to Angel since he is the most likely party to go violent.”

Willow digested all this a moment, but thankfully, didn’t look particularly confused, just process-y. “So what is it you want from me?”

“Some sort of analysis of my options would be great! Maybe we could make a pro/con list? You’re the kind of nerd that does that, right?”

“Oh, that’s a nerd thing?” Willow asked, dismayed. “Wanting to really think out your decisions?”

“Absolutely.”

Willow scowled as she dug out her notebook. “Well, I think it’s very responsible of you to compromise your principles, then.”

“Well, this is life or death, Willow.”

“Okay, so are we doing two columns, like, Xander and Angel or like, just the whole thing is Angel and the positives and negatives?”

“Uhhh…” Cordy was so new to the whole concept. “Just Angel. Put Xander as a con. Like, not dating him would be negative. Oh! Though positive – my friends would probably talk to me again.”

“Oh, joy!” Willow muttered, heavy on the sarcasm.

“Hey, if Buffy and Xander didn’t talk to you, you’d have a heart attack, so don’t start with me.”

“I’m helping you, here! No need for… that! Let’s just go over what Angel told you first and assign it to columns. We covered Xander. Did you want to make a separate entry for the end of all other potential dating? Oh crap!”

“What?”

“We’re doing this all wrong!”

Cordelia hadn’t realized that a list could be so complicated, but she had to rely on Willow’s expertise. “Why? What?”

“We already know that being bonded to Angel is bad – “

“Except that he’s hot. That should be in the plus column.”

“Oh, totally!” Willow grinned and wrote it in with a smiley face. “But we’re getting off track. Focus, Cordelia!”

“Fine! What’s the track?”

“Just being pro and against Angel isn’t a realistic assessment of your options. Based on what you’ve said, it seems like what we really want to do is the pros and cons of fighting the bond with Angel.”

“Right! Is it worth it or will it get me super dead?”

Willow was actually pretty useful as it turned out. “So, what would be something good about fighting it?”

“Maybe breaking the bond? A slight chance at the dating and marriage crap I already mentioned? Might avoid Angel killing me if he goes evil again?”

“And the bad about fighting it?”

“Umm, have to maybe deal with a hugely possessive vampire. Oh! God, I have got to tell you about this craaazy thing, but you so can’t tell Xander.”

Willow nodded definitively and scootched closer, all ears. “He’ll have to beat it out of me.”

XXX

When Cordelia refused to answer his 34th call, Xander decided it was time to pay her a visit. Of course, despite what he considered good intentions, he found himself walking up to a familiar house on Revello Drive. Partially, because he realized that Buffy might be having a difficult time and of course, partially because walking at night now scared the shit out of him.

He found Buffy pacing in her front yard.

“Won’t your mom wonder what you’re doing after awhile?” he asked.

Buffy spun immediately, stake in hand.

“Jeez, just asking!”

“Hey Xan.” Buffy tried to smile, but her face crumpled pathetically with the effort.

It seemed only natural to open his arms and let her fall into them as she sobbed. Xander concentrated on stroking her back and keeping his mouth shut. The last thing she needed to hear was that her completely inappropriate love for a vampire was biting her in the ass again. Not that he wasn’t willing to point it out, it just seemed mean when she was already crying.

He wondered how long it would be before it was Cordelia crying over Angel. He’d thought she was different than Buffy, that she was far too interested in self-preservation to ever fall for a vampire and he hoped it was still the case.

Buffy slowly pulled out of Xander’s arms and wiped her eyes. “Sorry, I was just… you know.”

“Upset about the SATs? I understand. I did this whole thing with my dad earlier. It wasn’t pretty.”

Buffy smiled. “Well, I appreciate you suffering through it again, then.”

“No problem. I got the manly role this time, that was pretty exciting.”

“So, you’re just strolling through the dark for fun?” she asked.

Mentioning Cordelia probably wasn’t the most sensitive idea, so he said, “Just wanted to know if you wanted company for patrol. You know, you fight, I live vicariously from the sidelines.”

“Sounds good. I could kick a little vampire ass.” Her back straightened even as she said it and Xander admired the way she bounced back, even when she was devastated.

The way she stomped toward the graveyard, it was obvious she would destroy everything in her wake and Xander was looking forward to watching. Maybe they’d even get lucky and Angel would show up to ‘talk’ and she’d accidentally slide a stake into his heart.

It never hurt to hope.

“So how’s Cor, um, everyone else holding up?” Buffy asked, practically strangling on the question.

Xander dropped the pretense that they weren’t talking about what they were actually talking about. “She’s pretty spun. Aren’t we all?”

“I can’t even process what happened or how or why. It makes no sense.”

“Vamps bite people. It’s not new or anything.” Not that Buffy had ever really considered Angel a real vampire. That was her problem.

“This is totally different,” she said, predictably. Wasn’t everything with Angel?

“We don’t even know if this is real!” Xander pointed out. “All we have is what, Angel’s word about something that happened when Cordy was unconscious?”

“Angel wouldn’t lie about this.”

Xander had to actually search Buffy’s face to see if she was serious. “Yeah,” he muttered sarcastically, “That is just so unlike him.”

“He has his soul back.”

“So? I have a soul. If you sent me to hell, I might want some payback. And that’s assuming he isn’t just lying about the soul. Or would he never lie about that either?”

“I know Angel. I can tell.”

Xander wasn’t sure how long he could resist hysteria. Hadn’t the fact that Buffy clearly did not know Angel at all caused most of the problems they’d had the year before? “Whatever, your saintly boyfriend just bound my girlfriend to him forever, but I’m sure he had the best of intentions.”

“He was saving her life, not that she’d appreciate the sacrifice.”

“Angel is making a sacrifice? If all this is true, Cordelia loses any kind of normal human life and gets the joy of living in constant fear. What does Angel get? A hot girlfriend? My hot girlfriend? That’s real fair!” His voice just got louder as he spoke until he and Buffy were squared off, completely oblivious to any potential vampire activity in the area.

“He has to live with Cordelia! For the rest of her life!” Buffy yelled back. “It’s not his fault she got her neck munched by her vamp stalker!”

“It’s funny you say it’s her fault, cause I actually heard it’s yours!”

“What?” Buffy scoffed. “How could it possibly be my fault? I didn’t kill him dead enough, is that what you think, Xander?”

“Well, yes, I do think that, but I also heard you knew Angel was back and didn’t tell anyone.”

Buffy’s mouth dropped at the accusation, but there was a glaring lack of denial that Xander immediately honed in on. “Who told you that?” she asked.

“Cordelia. Angel told her.”

“He wouldn’t…”

“Spill your secrets to his new wife? Apparently he would.” Xander couldn’t believe Cordelia was right; that Buffy had actually known her killer boyfriend was back and hadn’t thought to warn any of them. Though really, what did they expect?

“I knew everyone would freak out and I didn’t want anyone to worry -”

“Or you just didn’t want to hear common sense!”

Buffy shoved him, hard. Xander was flabbergasted that she would make their argument a full out fight until she drove a stake into the vampire behind her and it disintegrated right where Xander had been standing. He supposed he was okay with that.

“Just shut up for a second, Xander,” Buffy put their argument on hold, turning to meet more vampires. Did she really expect him to keep it up when his life was in danger? She overestimated his need to talk.

“Why don’t you both shut up?” an 80s era vampire suggested.

“Seriously,” his girlfriend whined. “We could practically hear you bitching from Willy’s.”

Belatedly, it occurred to Xander that it might not be the best idea to be airing their business in what amounted to their enemy’s feeding grounds.

“I’ll try to put you out of your misery, then,” Buffy quipped before she used her anger to beat them to dust.

He would have liked to just slip away during the commotion, but Xander just wasn’t mad enough to leave the slayer’s safe zone. Oh, but when she was done, he was definitely demanding a walk home.

XXX

As soon as the sun went down, Angel went looking for Cordelia. He didn’t like the way they’d left things. Sure, it was pretty clear that he was against any kind of continuation of her relationship with Xander but they hadn’t talked about how their relationship would work, what they’d be doing on a daily basis to make things easier on themselves and facilitate a smooth transition.

The sooner Cordelia knew what to expect, the easier it would be for her to adjust.

Buffy had brought up two excellent points, though she’d been unaware of it at the time. How wouldCordelia react to him meeting her parents? To moving in with him? She probably hadn’t even thought that far ahead, she was still stuck on having to dump her high school boyfriend.

The claim wouldn’t make her stop caring about Xander. Nothing would except maybe the boy’s personality.

Maybe they could move. It wasn’t like Buffy really needed him anymore, she’d proven that she could fight any monster that came along, himself included. The world was a big place.

But he wouldn’t mention that tonight. They could start off simple. What was her middle name? Did she like old movies? Why the hell wasn’t her car in her driveway where it belonged?

XXX

“So, I accidentally touched Angel, like skin to skin?” Cordelia told her story. “Nothing like, cheaty or whatever, it was our arms, but holy crap! It was like my body completely relaxed. Like, right after you get a massage or something when all you can be like is guhhhhhh.”

“Wow.” Willow forced her mouth closed. “I’ve never had a real massage. I mean Oz has done… some stuff.” She abruptly stopped talking to turn red all over.

“Why, Willow Rosenberg, you little slut.”

“Well, that’s for me to know,” Willow raised her nose snootily, as though she weren’t dying to share.

“Suit yourself,” Cordelia shrugged. Disappointed, Willow’s face fell and Cordelia waited just a second before asking, “So how far have you gone?”

Willow brightened right back up, eagerly spilling, “Past second, not totally to third. Have you… you know?”

“Been to third? Of course! Home? No. The last thing I need is some kind of high school pregnancy scare. Gross. Plus Harmony says once you go there it’s like, you’re there all the time and foreplay is a thing of the past.”

“That’s not good.” Willow agreed. “So Harmony’s done it, then?”

“Like you didn’t know! You’re not that out of the loop.”

“Oh, totally not. Just wondering if the rumors, were, ya know, just rumors.”

“She totally smothers guys and they run from her,” Cordelia explained. “It’s kinda hilarious, but mostly painful.”

“Wow… so, is that what you’re worried about giving up? All the sexy stuff? With Angel?”

Oh, right, she wasn’t hanging out with Willow to gossip. “I told you I didn’t do any of the sexy stuff with Angel yet.”

“But you will? What about the curse?”

“He says it wasn’t the sex that de-souled him. So really, if you think about it, it’s kind of the best part of the whole deal. Hey, vamps are infertile, right?” she asked. That would be the last thing she needed, popping out a bunch of vamp brats for the rest of her life.

“That’s what Buffy said. But… why do you even want to stay with Xander if you’re excited for all the Angel sex?”

“Look, I care about Xander a lot. I know you’re protective of him, but if we can’t be together without him dying or worse, without me dying… shouldn’t I just focus on like, the positives?”

“So sex is in the plus column?”

“Duh! I told you about the hand thing, right?”

“I think I’ve heard enough,” Willow set the list on her bed with the pen. “While I love Xander, you can’t realistically take his ideas into consideration. He just wants to keep you, he’s too close to be rational.”

“That’s why I came to you.”

Willow smiled. “Giles is the best person to listen to. Stall for time while he does the research, but in the meantime, start developing a non-physical relationship with Angel. Doesn’t seem like he’d let you break the bond if things went too far… you know?”

“Just like, go out to dinner or something?”

“If you’re gonna be stuck with him forever, you might as well know how he likes his blood.”

Cordy shuddered. How did she actually get saddled to someone who drank blood? It was sick. “So… the right decision is the worst of all worlds.”

“Tends to be,” Willow said.

“Willow!” Mrs. Rosenberg called from downstairs. “Your friend is here!”

Promptly, Willow panicked. “Oh no! What if it’s Buffy?! Doesn’t anyone call anymore?”

“Then you say ‘Hi Buffy’ and try not to shake so much. Hey, you think Angel has money? That would make up for a lot…”

Willow left the room without answering the question, but Cordy thought it was valid. He never had a job, but always seemed to have cash on hand, so that had to be a good sign, right?

Cordelia wrote “money?” in the plus column.

XXX

“Xander!” Willow couldn’t be more relieved to find anyone non-Buffy in her doorway and gave him a huge hug.

“Hey Will,” he murmured in her ear and his hands took an exploration of her back that reminded her of the recent – very wrong! – developments in their relationship.

“Bad!” she pushed him off her. “Cordy’s here!” she hissed before he could argue with her decree.

“What? Why?” he asked.

“She needed advice about the you vs Angel debacle.”

“And you told her…?”

“None of your business!”

“God, Xander, scream much?” Cordelia came down the steps behind Willow. “I can only hear you from upstairs.”

“Why weren’t you answering your phone?” Xander demanded, completely ignoring Willow now that the other girl was in the room.

“Why won’t you believe my gossip?”

“Oh, what gossip?” Willow broke in, now that she and Cordelia were now on gossiping terms. It could open up a whole new avenue of information.

“Xander wouldn’t believe me when I told him that Buffy knew about Angel being here the whole time and didn’t tell us.”

“No way!” Willow’s eyes widened. How could Buffy keep that kind of secret? Not that secrets were bad per say. They were really better for everyone.

“I know, he’s such a jackass,” Cordy said, punching Xander’s shoulder.

He winced and took Cordy’s hand to prevent further abuse. “I’m sorry about that. I should have listened to you.”

“Damn right.”

“I talked to Buffy and she admitted it -”

“Pfft. Excuse me, Willow, I need to storm off now. Bye, Xander.”

“Cordy, come on!” Xander followed her out the door, leaving Willow in the entryway staring after them.

“Right. Umm, bye guys!”

As she closed the door, Willow couldn’t help thinking Cordelia might soon add ‘losing Xander’ to the ‘pro’ list.

XXX

Cordelia stomped over to her car, only to have Xander push the door closed.

“Please, Cordy. I’m sorry. I was wrong. I was bad. You were all that is right in this world.”

“Did Buffy allow you to tell me that?”

“No. Look, Cordy. After everything last year, how can anyone believe Angel has any good intentions and even if he did, who cares! He’ll just turn around and kill everyone anyway! You’re in danger just talking to him!”

Not that there wasn’t some reason to be paranoid, but Xander sure knew how to take it to the next level. “What’s your deal with Angel?”

“Well, there’s the killing, the torture, the fact that I hate him? Cordy, he’s a vampire, I thought Buffy was the only one who skipped that class.”

Pissed off, Cordelia let loose on her sarcasm. “Oh, no, I somehow missed that when his teeth were like, hovering over my neck and he was whispering his sweet words of maiming.”

“He what?”

“You remember. Buffy pulled him off me and then she got the flu so you never bothered to ask if I was a little freaking traumatized!”

“Oh, so not today?” Xander sounded disappointed, like he would enjoy any excuse to kill Angel even if Cordelia was the collateral damage.

“You realize if you’re right and he’s evil, I’m pretty much going to die horrifically. Maybe you could try the positivity?”

“Or, here’s a thought, you could avoid the vampire that wants to kill you!”

Why did that idea seem so impossible? “Xander, I can’t just ignore him.”

“Why not?”

A really excellent reason eluded her. “He’s never going to let it happen.”

“So you’re just going to what, take it? I’m sorry, I thought I was just talking to Cordelia Chase.”

Cordelia felt the slight like a punch to the gut. Could she do anything about this? Even Willow didn’t know, how could Cordelia? Giles said it was unlikely. Angel said it was impossible. Her own instincts told her Angel was right, but was that just the bond talking? Maybe she herself was bias? “I don’t know what to do in this situation, jack ass! I thought maybe not pissing off the vampire was a pretty good idea!”

Absurdly, she felt like crying, like some sort stupid… Buffy.

“I’m sorry. Cordy, it’s not your fault. Let’s just go see Giles, we’ll figure something out.”

“I’ve talked to him. He’s doing the book thing.”

“Then let me take you out to dinner. Any burger you want. On me.”

It didn’t seem like Xander was clear on the finer points of the situation. “That sounds like a date.”

“Not our first, either,” he said, stepping closer and taking her hand.

“Xander, you know that kind of stuff has to be on hold. Until this is figured out.”

She didn’t take her hand back. Angel hadn’t mentioned anything about hand holding. Therefore, she’d assume it was fine until told otherwise.

“I know you don’t really want that,” Xander said softly, pulling her into his embrace.

Hugs were nice. Even though nothing was okay and her life was on the verge of over, Cordelia actually felt slightly better. Maybe Xander, in spite of not knowing anything about the situation, really could save her from a life as a vampire’s plaything.

For that moment, anyway, it certainly felt possible.

But that was before he was ripped from her grasp and tossed to the side of the street like garbage.

“Angel, what the hell?” Cordy asked her assailant, enraged.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t Angel.


Chapter Four

Cordelia’s scream was cut off with her air supply as a large vampire dressed like a trucker pulled her to him by the neck. When he’d first pulled Xander away from her, she’d assumed he was Angel, since he’d been fairly clear what he thought of her continuing that relationship. Now she could only wish it was Angel, who, despite the incident in the graveyard, she had trouble believing would really hurt her over a simple hug.

All the effort he’d put into trying to save her life and she was going to die 24 hours later. Cordelia cringed as her attacker forcibly pulled her head from her shoulder to reveal her jugular.

“What the hell is that?” he asked, staring at the nape of her neck. His fingers around her throat loosened. It seemed he actually wanted a real answer.

She coughed spasmodically, trying to get more air, but Trucker-Boy wouldn’t have it. “Tell me now,” he insisted.

“It’s a claim bite, asshole. But I’m sure you already knew that.”

He looked a little concerned by the development and Cordelia realized she could actually use this bane on her existence to her advantage! Why else would a bond by initiated by a bite except as a warning to other vampires?

“You were the one they were talking about…” His grip had loosened completely. “Whose claim?”

Cordelia’s mind worked feverishly. She had to be convincing. “Look, that doesn’t matter. We can make a deal, okay? I won’t tell anyone you tried to kill me. And you won’t tell anyone I was getting all huggy with someone else. Deal?”

“Don’t make deals with my food.”

“Then you should just kill me,” Cordelia tilted her head. “You’d be doing me a favor.”

The vampire growled and Cordelia winced, but he didn’t bite her, he pushed her roughly against her car, his fingers digging cruelly into her upper arms. “Give me the name.”

“Angelus.”

She used the evil name for extra emphasis and it seemed pretty successful. If a vampire could get paler, this one undoubtedly would. “Angelus is dead.”

“Obviously not or I would be too! Look, could you just kill me or let me go? Cause he’s totally stalkery. He can’t be too far away.” Her voice shook, but she tried to maintain eye contact.

“Then I better hurry,” he said, eyes glowing.

Though she struggled, it was too late. Her bluff had failed and now she would die.

But it didn’t happen. “Dammit!” the vampire threw her to the ground and pointed in her face. “If I find out you’re lying, you’ll regret it, bitch! Angelus won’t save you then!”

“Why bother when I could do it now?”

Angel. Cordelia couldn’t even see him, but she recognized his voice, especially the way it could sound so soft and soothing but be so threatening at the same time. Why did it feel like she would know it anywhere? Her heart pounded with excitement. She was going to live.

XXX

Angel couldn’t remember feeling such a deep sense of terror as when he heard Cordelia’s scream, especially when it stopped so abruptly. It wasn’t even clear how he knew it was her, but he did. Nothing could be clearer in his head than the way she sounded. Or smelled.

He never consciously followed the sound of her voice, only realized he was running mid-stride.

She was too far away and even as he pushed himself beyond his limits, fear and despair closed in around his head. Why wasn’t she at home where she would be safe? Or better yet, with him? That was the problem with a claim between people who weren’t already living together. Everything was more complicated.

He’d promised to take care of her. Promised himself, at least. He couldn’t remember if that part had been clear to Cordelia. Safety was such a basic part of care, especially in Sunnydale and he couldn’t believe he’d let such an important issue go without discussion.

Her voice was the first thing he heard to indicate he was in the right place. If she was talking, she was alive, but in his experience, the more that came out of Cordelia’s mouth, the more people wanted to kill her.

The first thing Angel noticed was the Harris boy, useless as always and passed out on the street next to the trashcans. If he hadn’t been so panicked, Angel might have found that placement appropriate, but he didn’t have time to think about it.

A large man, presumably a vampire, was holding Cordelia against her car and rage screamed through Angel’s mind. It was not just that Cordelia was in danger, but that another vampire dared touch her, as though she wasn’t clearly marked as his. Punishment for such appalling lack of respect would be thorough. The last thing the vampire would feel was pain.

Just as Angel was about to approach the monster and rip his head from his shoulders, the vampire threw Cordelia to the ground and threw a fit. “If I find out you’re lying, you’ll regret it, bitch! Angelus won’t save you then!”

Pride and possession flowed through in him in equal measure. She’d used his name to protect herself, a public declaration of their bond.

“Why bother when I could do it now?” Angel spoke up, directing the vampire’s attention to himself instead of Cordelia.

“Stay back or she gets it.”

Angel growled. “Who are you?”

“I- Jeff… but that’s not your concern. I’ll kill your bitch if you don’t back off.”

Ignoring him, Angel kept walking forward, enjoying the terror in the demon’s eyes as he backed up against Cordelia’s car. Clearly, Angelus’ reputation preceded him. That was good to know.

“You saw my claim. She’s mine to kill. Mine to bruise. Or did you want to make this personal?”

“No! I was trailing the kid.” Jeff nodded toward Xander. “But this one seemed like a tastier bite.”

“She is, but not for you.”

“Look, I didn’t know she was yours. She was all over the other guy.”

What “all over” meant, exactly, was a question that Angel planned to get back to at a later time, when Cordelia was perfectly safe and able to explain herself. “I’ll deal with him after you.”

If the vampire just moved a step to the side, Angel could tackle him without putting Cordelia in danger. However, his opponent seemed to sense this and hovered near where she lay almost lifeless on the ground. It was only the jackhammer of her heart that indicated otherwise.

“Surely we can come to an arrangement,” Jeff suggested, as though he weren’t walking dust. If he knew anything at all about Angelus, surely he had to know.

Jeff was watching every move he made very carefully, unconsciously countering and repositioning as Angel moved.

Experimentally, Angel stepped to the side and sure enough, Jeff did the same, taking him out of the protective bubble around Cordelia.

Perfect.

XXX

Cordelia could hear the crunch of bone as Angel tackled the vampire that had been ready to kill her. But his sickening death was really not her problem when her boyfriend, ex-boyfriend or whatever was unconscious on the concrete.

“Xander?” she crawled over to him slowly, so as not to attract the attention of either of the fiercely fighting vampires.

She didn’t move Xander from his awkward position on his side, one leg tucked under him, his cheek to the ground. Half of his face was red with blood from scraping against the ground. “It’s Cordelia, can you hear me?” Fearfully, she put her hand to his neck first, and was relieved when his pulse beat firmly back against her fingers.

He stirred slowly, but his legs and arms moved, a good sign that he didn’t have a spine injury. Finally, his eyes blinked open and he grimaced, trying to regain equilibrium and figure out what was going on around him. The first thing to catch his focus was Angel pushing Jeff’s head through Cordelia’s side window… the very small, triangular one. Xander cringed and turned to Cordelia.

“Don’t watch, just stay with me,” she told him. “Do you remember what’s happening?”

“Yeah, but not… is that Angel?” Xander tried to sit up and Cordelia had to help him.

“The one who won’t just end the fight already? Yup. I guess he’s mad or something.”

“Great,” Xander said. “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t be touching me.”

Now he got the picture. “I have to get you in the house in case Jeff gets away.”

“Who?”

“The screaming one.”

Xander took another look at the scene and his expression told Cordelia not to turn toward it herself. “I really don’t see that happening.”

“Then maybe you should get in the house before Angel starts asking why we were hugging before.”

Xander gave her his hand. “On three?” he asked.

Just as Cordelia got him on his feet, she noticed the silence behind her.

The fight was over.

XXX

It was a challenge to dust a vampire without a stake or a sword. But it turned out that if you could force his head through a hole it shouldn’t fit into, it was difficult to pull it back out.

Which for the purposes of decapitation was pretty ideal.

Of course, he’d have to get Cordelia’s car fixed before he’d feel safe about her driving it again, but that was hardly the end of the world.

“Angel?” Cordelia called to him, in spite of Xander’s not so subtle attempts to silence her.

Xander was limping toward Willow’s house and Cordelia, while supporting him physically, wasn’t moving, so he was going to have a lot of trouble arriving at his destination.

Despite a certain fiendish desire to see the boy fall on his face, Angel hurried over to Cordelia. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Sure, what’s a near death experience every day or so?”

“We’ll figure something out to stop this from happening. I’ll always protect you. You believe that, right?”

“Yeah, whatever, look, I think we should get Xander to the hospital in case he has a concussion or something.”

Reluctantly, Angel turned toward Xander, who avoided eye contact. He probably did have a concussion was the annoying thing. The discussion on what could be touched and could not be touched in regards to Cordelia would have to be put on hold. “Look at me,” Angel told Xander.

The angry gaze Angel received was an excellent sign for Xander’s head, but a very poor one when it came to Xander recognizing his claim on Cordelia. With humans, it wasn’t a matter of shared respect or etiquette. Sometimes they just had to learn the hard way.

“How does your head feel?”

“Kind of like someone hit it with a street.”

“Do you remember everything up until you hit your head?” Angel asked.

“Flying through the air, thinking ‘oh crap!’? Yup, all there.”

“Nauseated at all?”

Xander gave him a nasty smile. “Not for that reason.”

“Oh, God,” Cordelia muttered.

“He’ll be fine,” Angel pronounced dryly.

“We should still take him to a doctor to be sure,” Cordelia insisted.

“We’ll deal with that in a moment,” Angel said, focusing completely on her. Her hair was in disarray, but she didn’t seem hurt. He lifted her hair from her neck to reassure himself that she hadn’t been bitten. Well, by anyone else, anyway. The fact that it hadn’t been his fangs to enter her neck didn’t register with him in the least. His claim, his bite.

As he looked at her neck, he could see the alternate scenarios the evening could have taken and he felt his body grow colder with every image. The air closed in around him as it had when he heard her first scream.

“What are you doing?” she hissed.

He stepped deeply into her personal bubble and though both she and Xander gasped at the intrusion, Cordelia did nothing to stop it. In fact, he could hear her heart pounding quickly and he hoped it was no longer because of fear.

“There’s no bruising?”

“Oh! I don’t know,” she realized what he was asking and lifted her head, baring her neck for his inspection of an area she obviously couldn’t see herself. The deep current of satisfaction and relief that went through him at this unconscious sign of trust.

“Cordy, what the hell?” Xander asked from beside them.

Her eyes flickered briefly toward Xander in confusion, but Angel brought her gaze back to him immediately when he cupped her face with his hand, renewing their physical connection.

The sensation was immediate, releasing the tension from his body at the stress of seeing her in danger. It was almost like a restful sleep, something he hadn’t known in ages. Movement seemed almost unnecessary, though the curiosity to bring her closer or explore more of her skin was almost overpowering. Would it be twice as powerful if he used both hands?

Their eyes were locked together, though she seemed a bit dazed, almost groggy as she stared at him.

“Hello!” Xander yelled at them, breaking the mood in an unpleasant way, reminding Angel they had an audience.

Reluctantly, he broke contact and Cordelia sucked air into her lungs as though she’d forgotten to do so for the duration of their contact.

“What the hell was that?” Xander asked.

That, Angel thought to himself, is your competition. “It’s not your concern,” he said instead.

“The hell it’s not!”

XXX

Cordelia wanted to die of embarrassment. Here she made Willow promise not to tell Xander about the miracle-touch-of-relaxation and then she just shows him herself! Well, it wasn’t her fault completely, but she had definitely played a role in standing there like a fool.

At the time, pulling away hadn’t felt like an option and certainly never occurred to her. She’d been hungry for the sensation since they’d last touched and even now, it was kind of tempting to ignore Xander and get all skin-to-skin with Angel again.

“Xander, we have to get you to the hospital.” Cordelia attempted to intervene, but Xander didn’t go for it.

“We’re not leaving until you tell me what’s going on! Did you see yourself? You were practically drooling!”

How could she explain it when she found it so freaky herself? Somehow it didn’t seem like telling Xander that it wasn’t her fault, that she was helpless to resist the claim would improve his mood.

“Leave her alone,” Angel said. “It’s not something she can help and unless you experience it for yourself, you couldn’t understand.”

“You know what, I don’t care about whatever your little claim thrall is doing,” Xander said. “There is no way I am just going to let this happen!”

“There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

“We’ll see.”

They were at an impasse and Xander did his best not to blink first.

“Xander, we need to go.” Cordelia started toward him, but he backed off.

“I’ll be fine.” He turned and walked up the steps to Willow’s porch. In no time, he was inside the safety of the house, leaving Cordelia to deal with… whatever was left between her and Angel.

“I’ll walk you back to my car.”

She almost asked what was wrong with her car, which wasn’t too far away from them, but a clear image of Angel smashing the vampire’s face through her window flashed through her mind.

“You are so fixing that, by the way.” Cordelia pointed out the damage as she stomped away.

“Of course. It’ll be ready tomorrow. You can use my car in the meantime.”

Cordelia watched in shock as Angel handed her to the keys to his classic car.

“Seriously?”

“Unless you’d prefer a cab?” he asked uncertainly.

“Hell no!” Her fingers clamped around the keys immediately. “Hey, what’s this to?” She held up a tiny key on the chain.

“Wouldn’t you like to know.” He smiled and she realized he was flirting with her. Her heart squeezed. Would she look back at this moment as the beginning of something indescribable or the beginning of the end?

XXX

His initial desire to sit Cordelia down with a long list of dos and don’ts was falling by the wayside. Their touch had relaxed the urgency somehow and even Xander’s unpleasantness couldn’t affect the improvement in Angel’s mood. It seemed as though they would walk and talk forever instead of just a few minutes.

He’d handed over the keys to his car to a girl who he’d only seen drive twice. Granted, there hadn’t been an accident, but she’d still only had her license for what, two years? A mere handful of seconds, to Angel’s way of thinking.

It amused him that after he handed her his most prized possession that she would focus on the key to a storage locker.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” he responded without thinking. It wasn’t until her heart beat sped up that he realized he was flirting with her. Unfortunately, a heartbeat was an annoyingly vague measure of a person’s reaction. Was she scared? Angry? Did she like it?

Her facial expression didn’t answer the question. She was studying his face as though he was a puzzle to be solved and he suspected it was like looking into a mirror. Angel almost apologized, but thought better of it. Cordelia was a girl who liked to flirt. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to let her know he could.

“It’s a storage locker,” he answered her question instead. There was no harm in her learning more about his life, after all.

“You don’t happen to keep piles of money in it, do you?” she asked.

He wondered if knowing his bank balance would make the transition period easier for her. “Some cash,” he admitted. “Mostly things I’ve acquired over the years.”

“God, bunches of art crap? Can’t lose these,” Cordelia said, shaking Angel’s keys as though they were trying to escape her hand. Angel couldn’t help but wish they were.

It was surprising that in spite of her attitude, she’d actually hit on the majority of his collection. Obviously, he wouldn’t consider it crap, but other than books and weapons, the only thing he tended to keep was art. “Why would you say that?” he asked, curious.

“What, you want me to believe you had actual valuable art in a storage locker?”

“No, I mean, what would make you think I collect art?”

“Hello, wasn’t your whole little game last year how to kill people as artsy as possible?” she asked, then, as though realizing what came out of her mouth, quickly changed the subject. “So is it worth anything?”

He’d forgotten that she could have been judging based on something other than his soulful existence, where he’d all but hidden his artistic tendencies within the confines of his own apartment. Was it good or bad that Cordelia refused to separate him into two people?

She continued on her chosen subject, “God, is that why you have cash like, popping out of your ass?”

“I have… what?” Angel asked, shocked from his brooding by the unexpected question.

“You know, you always have money, but haven’t had a job in like… have you ever had a job?”

“Have you?” he asked, curious.

“I totally babysat until Harmony told everyone in my neighborhood I set her little sister’s doll house on fire.” Cordelia’s pace sped as she spoke and her hands clenched at her sides. “She’s an only child! Whatever, I’m over it.”

The way she was stomping along didn’t lend credence to her position, but it was somewhat amusing. Especially when she almost walked right past his car without noticing. It wasn’t until he opened the passenger door that she remembered where they were headed.

XXX

Reverently, Cordelia opened the driver’s side door, and couldn’t wait to slide onto the black leather. Angel followed her from the other side and though he was probably really nervous about her driving it, he gave no indication of it. A lack of heartbeat was probably helpful on that front. If only her parents were that cool when they’d taught her to drive.

“Oh my god,” she realized. “You’re older than my grandparents.”

He blinked. “That’s correct.”

“Well, there’s something I don’t want to think about.”

She climbed into the car and he followed her on the other side. Every time she moved, Cordelia expected Angel to stop her, but he didn’t. He actually let her start the car and only bugged her to put on her seatbelt.

“You’re showing your age again,” Cordy muttered as she slipped it on and revved the engine.

“I just want you safe.”

“At any cost, apparently,” she muttered, and then quickly hit the gas to try to distract Angel from noticing. Obviously, it was a pointless effort.

“You’re angry.”

He didn’t ask why she was angry. Bitter was actually more the word she would have used.

“Pretty much.”

“You can still have a good life. I’ll make sure you do.”

Cordelia couldn’t help glancing at him briefly, though her eyes went immediately back to the road. He sounded almost desperate when he spoke, like he needed her to trust him, but it wasn’t abouthim.

“Do you seriously think I could have a normal life after this?”

“Is normal good enough for Cordelia Chase?” he asked.

“Smooth,” Cordy acknowledged. Maybe he understood her better than she’d thought. “But I meant normal for me. Riches? Fame? The love and loyalty of Keanu Reeves?”

“Who?”

“Oh my god, you need to go see a movie.”

“So it isn’t anyone you know.”

Cordelia really didn’t appreciate the way he focused on that insignificant detail. “Not yet.”

“What is it you really want out of life?” he asked. “I promise to give you everything I can.”

She pulled violently into her driveway and turned the engine off, turning to face Angel. “Fine. Here’s my list, now pay attention. I want my neck unmunched. Number one goal.”

“Done.”

“I want to have some normalcy. College. A career of some kind, maybe.”

“Absolutely.”

“I want to be able to go out during the day! I can’t be all white and pasty, that’s so gross! Umm, for me, I mean.” Cordelia decided not to give him time to be offended and plowed onward, “Crap, will we have to live together?”

“Eventually, yes.”

“My parents will so freak out. But anyway, I don’t want to live in some windowless fortress! We can have heavy drapes or whatever, but I want to be able to see outside.”

“Not a problem. Anything else?”

“There must be. What am I missing?” It seemed like a much shorter list than it should be. She was supposed to be high maintenance, dammit. Wasn’t that what Xander was always saying?

“Where do you want to live?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you like it in Sunnydale, or did you want to go somewhere else?” he asked.

“No one likes it in Sunnydale, but where else could we go?”

“Anywhere you want.”

“Paris?” she asked, testing him. Cordelia would never admit aloud, to say, Xander, that the idea had its appeal, but she’d be crazy not to perk up at the idea of traveling the world with a super hot guy. Especially if the choices were that or death. Kind of a no brainer.

“Beautiful city. Or it was.”

The idea was way too perfect for Cordelia not to be suspicious. There was the one obvious drawback of having no one there with her but the vampire who could, potentially, turn evil and carve her face off, but he’d promised not to. And really, it would be just as much of a problem if they stayed. “So we just go off and forget about life?”

“You can still have whatever life you want. I’ll just… be there too.”

“So I can do whatever I want, go wherever I want and all I have to do is dump Xander?”

Angel smiled wryly. “Is that not every woman’s dream?”

Cordelia chuckled before realizing it didn’t really reflect well on her taste. “Look, my whole freak out isn’t personal. Well, I mean aside from you wanting to kill me that one time.”

XXX

It would take a long time to completely assure Cordelia that she would be safe with him and Angel really couldn’t blame her.

“You have to know that when I remember everything that happened, it makes me sick.”

“Right, but it wasn’t you?”

“No, it was me.”

She didn’t say anything, but her heartbeat picked up immediately.

“Without a soul, all I do is rely on my demonic instincts.”

“And take your art to a whole different level?”

Angel wished she were a little less perceptive. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“But now I’m safe with you.”

She would be. She had to be. “Without question,” he promised, keeping the twisting doubt in his stomach to himself. Cordelia was his responsibility now and her safety meant everything to him.

“Shake on it?” Cordelia asked, holding out her hand in a suggestive way that reminded him the result of their skin-to-skin contact.

Who was he to deny her?

XXX

It wasn’t clear how long they held hands in the guise of shaking. Cordelia wanted to hold on forever, but after awhile, the relaxation became something more, sending a tingle of awareness down her arm and through her body, raising the hairs on her skin and leaving a trail of heat through her blood.

“God,” she muttered, letting go immediately. The return to feeling only intensified the experience as every muscle clenched and her nipples tightened. Angel’s eyes seemed so dark when she looked at him, curious to see if the reaction was mutual. “Are you feeling this too?”

“Yes.”

Their eyes locked and Cordelia had no doubt that he spoke the truth. “Holy crap, can you imagine when we actually have sex?” Undoubtedly, this was one of those things that Cordelia probably should have kept in her head.

But that wasn’t really her skill.

XXX

Angel closed his eyes for a moment, proving that he could, indeed, imagine them together with excruciating clarity. Unfortunately, he knew that what sounded exactly like an invitation was really just an honest question from a girl who said whatever was on her mind.

“Was that a rhetorical question?” he asked. “Or do you want a description?”

XXX

God. All the heat in Cordelia’s body pooled to the base of her stomach. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined Angel sitting in a car in her driveway, talking dirty to her, yet he seemed perfectly willing to do just that.

“I think… I’m gonna go to bed. Alone!” she clarified quickly, making Angel smile.

“I’ll have your car ready tomorrow.”

She’d completely forgotten her car. “Take your time!” She struggled briefly with the handle before escaping into the fresh air of her driveway.

On the other side of the car, Angel emerged as well, closing the door behind him. “Have a good night, Cordelia.”

He made no move to walk away. Obviously, waiting for her to get through the front door safely.

Cordelia looked around her. They were on an empty road in the middle of the night. There wasn’t a soul in sight. But of course, he was probably worried about soul-less anyway.

It was strange how different she felt outside after such a short period of time. The idea of something happening to her again, when Angel was right there with her was almost ludicrous.

Of course, she didn’t think about the fact that any given attacker might not be after her.

XXX

After falling asleep in the crease of a large book on vampire behavior, the first thing Giles thought was that his neck might have been thrown permanently out of joint. The next was that the infernal racket coming from the door really ought to stop.

As he began to consider that likelihood, he realized that he was, in fact, hearing his doorbell and traditionally speaking, he’d have to answer the blasted thing to end his suffering.

To his utmost relief, he did not find Buffy on the other side of the door with a world-threatening emergency. Rather, it was an older couple, curled over with age. They were weary with travel and both carried suitcases with them. Relief spread over their faces as he opened the door. No doubt, at 3 am, anyone outside in Sunnydale was eager to see a friendly face.

“Rupert Giles?” the woman asked.

“Marlene, he isn’t just going to come out and identify himself. We could be anybody at this hour.”

Marlene huffed. “You go ahead, then.”

The old man turned to Giles. “We are Rudy and Marlene Caldari of the Kalderash clan. We’re told you knew our daughter.”

“Jenny,” Giles realized.

“Then you are Rupert Giles,” Marlene said, looking him over. “Not bad.”

“Mar, for god’s sake,” Rudy murmured. “It’s hardly the time. Might we have a word with you, Mr. Giles?”

Giles stood back from the door to allow them to pass. The reflex to invite someone into his home in any verbal way had long since died. They understood, of course, crossing the threshold of their own volition.

“I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“As we are sorry for yours,” Marlene whispered, but looked away. This wasn’t what they were there to talk about.

“I don’t suppose you’re here to reminisce.”

“No,” Rudy agreed. “We understand the vampire has returned from hell.”

“That’s quite a recent development. May I ask how you were made aware of it?” Did they have a local feeding them information or had someone at the Council let it out of the bag?

Marlene smiled. “You may ask, for all the good it will do you.”

“Why don’t you have a seat,” Giles suggested.

Rudy helped his wife sit down on the couch before slowly lowering himself to the cushion beside her. Did they have Jenny later in life or had their grief taken a toll beyond the natural passage of time?

“What brings you to Sunnydale?”

“We’ve reached a consensus within the clan,” Rudy announced. “The vampire Angelus has become too much of a liability.”

What they meant to do about this problem wasn’t spelled out, but there were only so many possibilities.

“Then the next question is what this has to do with me.”

“We hoped you would use your influence with your Slayer.”

“Buffy wouldn’t-”

“Faith,” Rudy corrected. “We commend Buffy for her past actions, but we certainly wouldn’t expect it of her again when there’s someone else just as capable.”

“You misunderstand me,” Giles told them. “It’s not that Buffy or Faith wouldn’t be capable, but Angel’s life is now linked to an innocent. I can’t condone anything that would hurt her.”

“We’ve heard about the girl,” Marlene admitted. “It’s why we’ve come.”

Hope lifted in Giles’ chest. “Do you know a way to break the bond?”

“A claim is unbreakable,” Rudy dismissed the question, as though Giles should know better than to ask. “The girl is dead no matter what.”


Chapter Five

Rupert Giles got very little sleep as a result of his gypsy visitors and spent the hours after they left tossing in his bed. Once it became clear that he could in no way help them in their goal to eliminate Angel, they merely thanked him for his time and left.

It could in no way be the end of their quest for the vampire’s end. However, there was little Giles could do to prevent them from finding another assassin. The safest course still seemed to be the dissolution of the bond between Angel and Cordelia. Undoubtedly, the Kalderash were merely the first in a line of those who would want Angel dead. Giles himself could summon little sadness over the loss, but the idea of Cordelia Chase sharing the vampire’s fate was horrifying.

Indeed, if Giles could manage to sever the bond, it was possible the Kalderash would be content with the arrangement as it was. It was only Cordelia’s addition to the equation that convinced them she would eventually manage to free Angelus. Without the bond, they might choose to leave Angel to his own devices. Or, they wouldn’t. Either way, Giles’ concern was Cordelia.

With that in mind, he was ready to leave the house the moment the sun went up. Sleep would have to wait.

XXX

At the Chase residence, Cordelia found no trouble sleeping whatsoever. In fact, her dreams were so vivid and heavenly that her alarm clock took the brunt of her anger when she woke up. Of course, once she was awake, she couldn’t recapture the fantasy in which the pillow she’d been hugging was a vampire nibbling his way down her body.

Nor could she ignore the need for some new underwear.

Mornings sucked.

As she dragged herself into the shower, she tried to remember if she had anything going on that day. Of course, she’d been thinking something along the lines of a chemistry test, but as her agenda focused in her mind, school seemed so much less important.

Angel’s car was sitting in her driveway, just waiting for Cordelia to drive it.

The important thing was finding the perfect outfit.

XXX

Giles arrived at the library early in the morning, where he found Faith sparring with an invisible enemy. Given the history of Sunnydale, he was relieved to find there wasn’t actually anyone there. Or, if so, Faith seemed willing enough to give up the fight when she realized she was no longer alone.

“Got your message, what’s the sitch?” she asked.

“I assumed I wouldn’t see you until later. Aren’t you maintaining the later hours of patrol?”

“Yeah, I’m still up. I sleep during the daylight hours now. Know your enemy, right?”

It sounded like the start of an unhealthy lifestyle, but given a Slayer’s life expectancy and the fact that Giles was not, in fact, Faith’s father, he didn’t have the heart to scold her on her sleeping habits. “Well, then, since you’re here. Did you want to take a seat?”

“Nah, have to stay wired until I crash.”

“There have been some important developments over the weekend that may concern you specifically.”

“Something to kill?” she asked, tossing her stake in the air playfully.

“Not as yet. But there’s a situation. Angel has returned from hell.”

“Buffy’s vamp boyfriend? Didn’t he slaughter a bunch of people?”

“Yes, but his soul has been returned.”

“And you trust him not to fuck it back out again?” she asked.

Giles cleared his throat. “Not precisely, but the issue is complicated. He’s managed to link Cordelia’s lifeline to his own. She is now dependent upon him for survival.”

Faith winced. “So he’s got a hostage. Smart move, I guess. What’s the plan?”

One of the most interesting things about Faith, from what Giles could see, was that she was all about action. The whys of the situation were of little importance to her as compared to what was to be done about it. Outside observers might believe that she took her job as the Slayer less seriously than Buffy, but that was far from the truth. If anything, she embraced it more fully than the other girl, who lived in constant limbo between the fantasy of what her life might have been and the reality she had to deal with on a daily basis.

“In regards to Angel, I’m going to attempt to find a way to break the bond with Cordelia, but until that time, I feel it’s our responsibility to protect her.”

“So stakes off Angel?”

“Precisely.”

She yawned, perhaps partially due to lack of sleep, but largely, Giles suspected, to a general lack of interest once it was clear there wasn’t a fight on the horizon. “Any other news?”

“There are people in town that wish to end Angel’s threat without regard to the threat to Cordelia’s life. It’s possible they might wish to recruit you to their cause.”

“How much you think that’d pay?” she asked.

“Faith, those sort of jokes really aren’t befitting to your calling -”

“Yeah, yeah. See you tonight, Giles.” She started toward the door but stopped by the cage and grabbed an extra stake. Then, she proceeded to scare the shit out of her phantom by twirling one stake in his face and stabbing him repeatedly with the other.

Sunnydale was safe from ghosts, it seemed. That was something.

XXX

Angel rarely slept, though he spent much of the day trying.

The pleasant rest of the dead was lost to him. Instead, the nightly haunting of the past crept up to him, replaying over and over. Jenny was a constant companion. Her lifeless eyes would stare at him from Rupert’s bed where he laid her.

He remembered drawing every detail of her face, committing it perfectly to memory.

Though she’d died more quickly that her uncle, he’d put the most thought and artistry into hers.

Killing was fun and all, but it was really the beauty that did it for him.

Angel worked long and hard to make sure it was perfect. Presentation value had actually saved Rupert Giles’ life.

The easiest way to find out the secrets to Acathla would have been to turn the watcher, but Angel didn’t like to do things the easy way. That would have been a premature and unsatisfying end to Giles’ suffering.

Plus, an eternal reminder that he’d once fallen in love with a Slayer lacked appeal.

He’d managed to almost kill everyone that Buffy knew, even Cordelia, who was now the only pleasant aspect of his existence.

Whenever she passed through his thoughts, he clung to her like a lifeline. It was a welcome relief to drown in her memory and re-live everything in light of their current and future relationship. When they’d first met, Angel had been uncomfortable around Cordelia and looking back, it felt like a premonition. Had he known in some part of himself that this girl had been a threat to the love he’d harbored for Buffy?

Pain squeezed around his heart when he thought of the Slayer, so focused more deeply on Cordelia.

It wouldn’t be long before they were lovers. The power of the bond alone would have brought them together eventually, but Angel knew there was more to it in this case.

There was genuine attraction working in their favor that only helped the process. It had been ages since Angel had seen his own face, but Cordelia had always seemed to appreciate it well enough. For his part, Angel wasn’t blind, though he often pretended to be. It wasn’t in his nature not to notice a beautiful woman. Beauty, in general, had always been something he appreciated.

Even the violence he’d wrought against women in his past was merely a twisted form of appreciation. The torture was merely an indicator of his interest.

While Angel hadn’t purposely tried to claim Cordelia, he wasn’t blind to the fact that in another lifetime, it wouldn’t have been out of the question. He liked a woman who made people stand up and take notice.

Anticipation consumed every image that flew through his brain the more time they spent apart. He couldn’t remember that last time he’d looked forward to something other than the end of the world, but the heat that had been building between them would make the final culmination both desperate, satisfying and consummate the most significant commitment of his existence.

The only thing standing in their way was Xander Harris, or rather, Cordelia’s misplaced loyalty in his regard. Angel tried to be understanding. It showed to be Cordelia was a person who honored her commitments. Once she got used to the fact that their bond was the most important relationship in her life, Angel was confident her fidelity would be directed properly.

Unless she loved Xander, which was difficult idea to stomach. Why she might do so was a mystery. Harris had become an almost constant irritation to Angel, so it was difficult to understand anyone who put up with the boy for extended periods of time.

Intellectually, Angel was aware that Xander wasn’t specifically choosing women to pursue based solely on Angel’s own interest but the way he kept popping up on the radar was annoying.

If anything, Xander had far more cause to be angered by the coincidence, since ultimately Angel would prove to be a successful obstacle in both pursuits, but Angel was hardly in such a generous mood to appreciate his rival’s point of view. A deep emotional entanglement could only endanger the bond.

Plus, he failed to understand the attraction. Well, he understood Xander’s attraction to Cordelia well enough. He dismissed the notion that if he and Xander shared similar taste in women, they might find further commonality. Excellent vision was nothing to bond over.

Angel couldn’t help feeling guilty for robbing Cordelia of many of the choices she would have made in her life. He was already feeling guilty for so many other things that it was easy to add it to the list. He felt responsible for Cordelia already and knowing that despite whatever he could do to make sure that she found happiness in their relationship, the contrast to what she might have had still weighed on both of them.

Whether due to personal dislike or satisfaction over the claim, robbing Xander Harris of his current girlfriend wasn’t a dilemma that Angel lost sleep over.

In fact, it was with Xander and Cordelia’s dissolving relationship in mind that Angel finally drifted out of consciousness.

XXX

Red seemed too obvious at first. Cordelia felt like she should go for a more subtle effect, but when had she ever skimped out on an opportunity to bowl people over?

She pulled a deep red, almost burgundy dress out of her closet that she rarely got the chance to wear. It was too sexy for school, but today felt like the exception.

Today, she was driving Angel’s car.

“My, my, what’s the occasion?” her mother asked as Cordelia walked into the kitchen.

“I’m celebrating me.”

Her mother smiled knowingly, sipping her coffee. “Not buying. What’s his name?”

Angel’s name came to Cordelia’s lips immediately, but it would only lead to a Q & A session she didn’t want to get into. “Don’t want me to jinx it, do you, Mom?”

“And it’s over with what’s-his-name?”

Xander.

Cordelia deflated. “It seems like it has to be.”

“Uh-oh. Sit down.” Her mother slid out a chair for her, which she fell into somewhat gracefully. “What’s the problem?”

She couldn’t tell her mother most aspects of the problem, obviously… but weren’t there a few universal aspects of the problem that might fall under the blanket of motherly wisdom? “I’m still… sorta with Xander, but there’s this… connection with another guy.”

“And you don’t know who to choose?”

“I don’t know if I have a choice,” Cordelia muttered.

“Ah, to be young again,” her mother signed.

“What do I do?”

“Easy. Choose you. Whatever the right thing is for you.”

“What if I choose wrong?”

“Well, you’re not getting married, honey. Plenty more fish after these two.”

Obviously, her mother meant that to be comforting, but it only made Cordelia feel trapped.

Barring some kind of miracle, she was now one-fish limited. And her fish was dead!

It was alarming to be stuck with someone she knew so little about. Especially when what she did know raised some serious eyebrows. Her mother would hardly be thrilled to find out she was now seeing the guy who killed her computer teacher.

Even what Cordelia was certain would turn out to be deeply hot sex wouldn’t really ease the balance in some respects, which is why she preferred to think of the whole situation as up in the air. Sure, escape was unlikely, but until she knew 100%, it was hard to make definitive decisions.

“Cordy? Honey, don’t let them push you before you’re ready.”

“No. Of course. I haven’t even decided on either of them for sure.”

“That’s my girl.”

XXX

Buffy concentrated on her breathing as she walked up the steps to another dreaded day of school. She hadn’t thought of Angel in a whole thirty seconds, but there he went, flying through her mind again. At least he was alive. Undead, rather. Walking around and so forth. That was something. He wasn’t still stuck in hell, though he couldn’t be expected to tell the difference after the 30th time Cordelia dragged him to the mall.

It was hard to shake the woozy feeling that went through her body whenever she thought of them spending time together.

“Hey B!”

“Faith!” Buffy brightened as the other, more leather-clad, slayer came toward her. “Is the world ending?”

“Could be. I’m the last to know everything.”

“So what’s the deal?”

“Giles says your boyfriend is back from hell. You tell me.”

And here Buffy had been almost fifteen seconds not thinking about him that time. “Angel’s back from hell.”

“Oh, come on. Details! Give me the whys and hows. I can’t get the dirty stuff from Giles.”

Since attempting to get away from Faith or beat her into submission would be more or less fruitless, Buffy just gave in. “We don’t know why he’s back. He claimed Cordelia to save her life, but I guess that means they’re married now or something. He’s been pretty clear it’s not just a business deal.”

“Damn. That sucks. I thought he was holding her hostage or something.”

“Angel wouldn’t do that.”

“Right, he’s a prince.”

Buffy was torn. Half of her wanted to jump on the Angel-hating bandwagon, but that assumed that Angel had wanted to betray her and her heart wouldn’t allow her to accept it. “He thought I would want him to save her, no matter what.”

Faith laughed. “Oh, yeah. Every woman’s dream.”

“I know!” Buffy had gone over this a million times in her head, trying to think of a way to bitch about it without seeming inhuman. “You’d think a couple hundred years of dating, he’d figure that out.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Get my slay on? Channel my rage into pummeling?” Just thinking about it made her happier than she’d been in days.

“Oh, you know I’ve got your back for that. You wanna head out? Hit a nest or two?”

“Have you even slept yet?” Buffy asked, taking note of the other girl’s seemingly endless jitters.

“Not the type of chick to just lay there when I could get in on the action.”

“That’s what I read on the bathroom wall.”

Faith laughed. “You in or what?”

The freedom of a good slay or the drudgery of school? “Let’s go.”

XXX

The vibration of the black leather against the thin satin on her ass only made Cordelia feel sexier as she drove Angel’s car into the school parking lot.

Screw Xander and their relationship. Screw Angel and their “connection.” Cordelia’s ears were still ringing with her mother’s words and she’d been on the “choose me” bandwagon since her foot hit the accelerator and it felt good.

She had a life, she had choices and she was done with being ordered around by everyone.

Cordelia hadn’t fully figure out how her plan would work out in practice. It was possible that all her bravado would fail her and she’d just go along with whatever Xander’s crazy plan of breaking her bond with Angel and then turn around when Angel got there and commence with the touching.

But at that very moment, she would have none of it. She was Cordelia Chase and she was wearing red, dammit. No one messed with her in red. It was like, against the natural order. She would decide the life she wanted and no socially unacceptable boyfriend or pulseless neck licker was getting in the way of whatever she decided that was.

Hopefully. If Xander didn’t cause a scene and Angel didn’t start talking dirty.

God, just thinking about it was hot. If he actually gave her that slow erotic explanation of whats, wheres and whoa-my-gods she’d spent the whole night dreaming about, Cordelia wasn’t entirely positive she could remain conscious.

Being inside his car, she could hear almost hear his voice from the passenger seat. Had it already been hours since they last saw each other? It felt like he was still there, as though his car enveloped his aura and she couldn’t possibly get away from him when she remained inside.

Unfortunately, she was going to be late for her first class if she didn’t put a little motor to her stilettos. So very slowly, she opened the door and took a second to gain footing on her not-often-worn-but-much-swooned-after shoes. That would be just what she needed after she’d announced her relationship with Xander. A full on wipe out in the middle of the parking lot.

Which was why she was kinda peeved when she was practically bulldozed by a pair of slayers on a mission. “Geez, walking here!”

Buffy, for her part, avoided eye contact and mumbled a quick, “Sorry.” Unfortunately for her, she was with Faith, who never avoided awkward conversations and seemed to get a weird thrill out of creating them.

Faith stepped right into Cordelia’s personal bubble to stare at her neck. More specifically, her bite mark. A single round wound, scabbed over, though unhealed and now displaying a combination of foundation and powder because from a distance it looked like a massive zit, which was just absolutely unacceptable.

“He only used one fang?” Faith asked.

“Faith, let’s go,” Buffy tugged Faith’s arm, like a child in vegetable aisle of the grocery store, urging her mother to get a move on to the candy.

But Faith was immune to her pouting and waited for an answer.

“Yeah, a claim bite’s different.”

“Right, I keep hearing stuff about that. Congrats, I guess?”

Maybe in bizarro world. “Sure. Lucky me. Sucked by the undead will look great on my college transcripts.” If she’d even have those anymore. Well, everyone had them. The real question was whether hers would be sent anywhere or if there was really any point to it if they were. Could she really have the whole college experience and get a job like a normal human?

Is normal good enough for Cordelia Chase?

Would she not prefer to be queen of her own domain, small or large?

“I hear UC Sunnydale overlooks that kind of thing,” Buffy muttered, still put out to be part of the conversation.

While many people may look at the whole situation and consider Buffy the victim of the piece, it didn’t stop Cordelia’s fury.

There was so much that Buffy could have done to prevent everything and the fact that the girl hadn’t had the foreknowledge to do so was of little concern.

Buffy was a slayer. It didn’t take a watcher to know that boffing a bloodsucker wasn’t the smartest move ever. But it was beyond infuriating that Buffy’s mistake would come back from hell to bite Cordelia in the neck.

“Oh, sharing information? What an interesting change for you, Buffy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That if you know something that might get me dead, maybe a mention might be nice?”

“Right, because everything’s turned out just awful for you,” Buffy said bitterly. “Angel saves your life and you’re forced to be with his ugly ass forever? God, the trauma.”

“I really gotta meet this guy,” Faith muttered.

The other girls ignored her, facing off. If Cordelia thought she could smack the hell out of Buffy without losing an arm or two, she might have done it. “Look, Buffy, I get that you think your relationship was specialer than all us mere mortals with your forbiddenness and killing your boyfriend drama, but you’re not the only one who lost her boyfriend. Maybe you’d like to explain to Xander how really, it’s like I’m better off now.”

“Cordelia -” Buffy started to apologize, her lip all trembly, but Cordelia couldn’t handle hearing it.

“Just leave me alone.”

She shoved past the two slayers and amazingly, it wasn’t even too hard.

Of course, making it to class on time would be a minor miracle.

XXX

Mrs. Wilson, a perfectly decent, but in no way particularly gifted, history teacher spent most of her time writing on the board. Cordelia copied everything without really processing any of it. Processing was for essay tests, anyway. At most, they were looking at a 25 point multiple choice, so though Cordy’s hand moved along with the teacher’s, her brain was focused on whether or not she was too hard on Buffy.

Even considering the possibility annoyed her, but she couldn’t help feeling a little bit guilty about blowing up at one of the only people that could maybe, on some level, actually understand where she was coming from. Angel would have been a good option except that he didn’t seem to object to the situation. Apparently he was actually okay with these funny little twists and turns of life.

Something about his whole attitude creeped her out.

“Cordy!”

Cordelia was surprised to hear her name from someone other than the teacher, scolding her to pay attention.

“Cordy!” Harmony hissed again.

“What?” she asked. Harmony hadn’t mastered whispering and the rest of the class was starting to stare.

“Where’d you get the car?”

Apparently, Harmony or one of her lemmings must have seen her in Angel’s car that morning. Cordelia straightened in her seat. Harmony was a mooch of epic proportions. Obviously, she was trying to step up the quality of the rides she bummed. Of course, that would mean that Cordelia was back in…

“Loaner. Mine’s in the shop.” At least she assumed it was a shop. Really, she had no idea how Angel planned on fixing it, though the idea of him on one of those wheely stretcher things sliding beneath her tires was kind of a turn on. Who knew manual labor could be so appealing?

“But it’s one of those old but still working cars. You can rent those?” Harmony asked, befuddled by both the concept and the vocabulary.

“A classic,” Cordelia supplied the word Harmony was searching for. “And it’s a friend’s.”

“None of our friends have a car like that. And your new loser friends certainly don’t. So who’s the new guy?”

Was she wearing a sign that said she might be moving on to Xanderless territory? First her mother, now Harmony. Neither of which had ever displayed any particular knack for observational skills in the past, except maybe when it came to shopping.

“Keanu Reeves.”

“Come on. I’m being serious,” Harmony whined.

Cordelia knew she should insist she was still with Xander, but since that wasn’t precisely true…

“You ever see Buffy’s ex?”

Harmony’s eyes widened. “Tall, dark and mmmm?”

Cordelia smiled. “It’s his car.”

The way the other girl’s tongue practically fell out of her mouth was satisfying.

Was this what it felt like to be proud of who you were dating? Not that she and Angel were “dating.” Apparently, if anything, they were a lot more serious than that, which was completely terrifying. But she’d forgotten what it felt like to gossip about her man and twirl her hair as she gushed. She didn’t miss the guilty feeling that she had whenever she didn’t brag about Xander.

“Oh my god, Cordy! Details!”

“Leather interior?”

“About the guy! Duh!”

Normally, Cordelia would make a suggestive comment about a guy’s mouth or a simple numeric value their kissing skill, but that seemed so juvenile when it came to someone like Angel.

“Nice stick?” she tried, feeling her face heat as she said it, but still felt adult in that naughty way.

“You slut!” Harmony shrieked with laughter.

Cordelia assumed she meant that in the good way, since Harmony had always had a totally perverted sense of humor.

It felt good to be gossiping again and probably would have been the highlight of her day if not for the fact that Harmony managed to spread and embellish the story to everyone at the school. Everyone.

XXX

Giles was having an awful day. He had spent most of it on hold with the Council, mostly, as it turned out because “the regular secretary was out, but should be back on Monday, until then, most sorry for the inconvenience.”

Apparently, this seemed to mean that no one else could properly hit transfer, so Giles was on his fifth or sixth call.

A cheery male voice answered the line, as though expecting to speak with someone other than the fellow who’d been calling all day. “Office of the Council.”

“This is Rupert Giles, Mr. Wyndam-Price. We’ve spoken several times already.”

“What might we do for you, Mr. Giles?” the young man asked, as though he had no idea to whom he was speaking. Honestly, in the whole of the world, there were two Slayers, both of whom were under his charge. Was it that difficult to remember his name after he’d called six times?

“I’d like to be connected to Quentin Travers.”

“Mr. Travers has left for the day.”

“You were supposed to connect me to him five minutes ago!”

“Then it’s just as well you disconnected, as he was on his way out of the office.”

“It is essential that I speak with him as soon as possible. There is a girl under my charge in danger.”

“Oh dear, not Faith?” Mr. Wyndam-Price asked, and actually seemed quite concerned about the girl, which was a good sign, in it’s way, but it would be nice if the Council was equally concerned about both its Slayers.

“It’s not a Slayer – “

“Well, that’s quite a relief, of course. Not for the young lady, but certainly it’s not a direct concern for the Council? Most of the world is in danger at the moment, despite the unawareness. Surely with two Slayers you are already in a better position to keep a civilian safe than most?”

“Be that as it may, this particular civilian has been claimed by a vampire -”

“Good lord, that’s a death sentence. What on earth could we do about it?”

Giles wanted to throw the phone in exasperation. “That’s precisely what I’m trying to find out.”

“Perhaps you’d like to try Mr. Travers’ after hours voice mail -”

Giles hung up. He would try again in half an hour. Perhaps someone would have tracked down Mr. Travers’ cell phone number. Unlikely, of course, but one must maintain hope.

As he returned to the library, he was surprised to find a tall woman he didn’t recognize waiting for him at the desk as though she had a book to check out, but quite obviously did not.

“Madam, we don’t encourage strangers on the school premises. Could I direct you to the main office?”

“My name is Gwendolyn Post, perhaps you’re familiar with some of my articles for the Watcher’s Council?” Her frigid British accent was like a little taste of home.

Alas, Giles had fallen behind on his reading in the last year, so he hadn’t the faintest idea what to say in regard to her work. “I’m afraid not, though when I talk to Mr. Wyndam-Price in ten minutes or so, I’m sure he’ll be able to regale me as he avoids any explanation as to why my call can’t be connected.”

Ms. Post pursed her lips. “I rather doubt it. Wesley isn’t quite the intellectual his father was hoping for, if you catch my meaning.”

“Yes, meanings are so clear when bluntly stated, aren’t they?” It was rather more biting than Giles had intended, but after a day of trying to get a hold of the council, someone on whom to take out his frustrations was quite liberating. “I apologize, what did you say was your business here?”

It was an answer that he was never meant to hear, as the doors to the library came swinging open and a fight that had no doubt started outside the room raised to a higher decibel.

“I never said we got it on in his car, are you insane?” Cordelia yelled.

“How would Harmony even know it was his car if you hadn’t told her? And why are you driving his car?!”

Given the context, Giles could only presume that the only “he” they could be referring to was Angel and frankly, Giles hadn’t even been aware the vampire owned an automobile, let alone lent it out to high school student. Rather irresponsible, really. Or overly trusting.

“Because he put a vampire’s head through my window yesterday, hello! It’s not like he could just drive me to school in broad daylight!”

Giles cleared his throat to remind the students that there might be and in fact, was another person in the library listening to their conversation, though as he turned back to Ms. Post, he found that she wasn’t where he’d expected to find her and suspected she might have gone into the stacks in order to lend them more privacy.

Xander and Cordelia managed to lower their voices, but the fight was still on.

“Again, why would Angel have to be involved? Real people could drive you to school. Your mom would be a good one. Ideal for these situations.”

“And why deal with that public humiliation when I could arrive in a classic convertible?”

Despite himself, Giles was interested. “Oh really, what sort of car?”

“Giles, that’s really not the issue,” Willow pointed out, announcing her presence for the first time. “Let’s just sit down you guys and talk about this.”

Ignoring her, Xander plunged onward. “And really, that’s exactly what this is about, isn’t it? You couldn’t wait to tell Harmony that you had moved on to your little popularity-approved mystery man!”

“Well, what do you expect?” Cordelia snapped. “There have to be some perks to this nightmare! So I drove Angel’s car and told Harmony whose it was! I’m sorry I didn’t have your permission, but being that it’s more and more likely you’re my ex-boyfriend, I don’t really see why it matters!”

“Oh no,” Willow winced.

“So that’s it? You’re choosing the dead guy?”

“I’m choosing me! And the last thing I need is you bitching about a stupid car! God!” Cordelia stormed out of the library after that, leaving Xander still irritated and twitching, but obviously unsure of what to do with the extra energy.

“Xander, I’m sorry this is so hard for you,” Willow started, only to have Xander shake his head, cutting her off.

“Just… just give me a second, okay?” He walked out the same door as Cordelia, but wasn’t making any move to follow her.

Willow shifted her weight from foot to foot, looking dejected and miserable.

“None of this is your fault,” Giles reminded her. “It’s a difficult situation.”

“Yeah,” she muttered. “I’ve gotta go.”

As the third person disappeared through the door, Giles geared himself up for another frustrating call to the Council. Obviously, they needed all the help they could get.

By the time Giles’ remembered his other guest, the stacks were empty.

XXX

Cordelia had already been perfectly aware that talking to Harmony was a mistake. When wasn’t it? But she was so done with Xander’s bull shit. She was going through a kinda traumatizing situation or whatever, would it kill him not to freak out every three seconds like a jealous ass?

As though she didn’t have enough to deal with.

She clacked her way down the hall, out the door and over to car that had caused so much trouble, but was still so beautiful. Of course now, thanks to her little blow up with Xander, they were alone together in the parking lot except for the few remaining freshmen waiting for their parents. Their presence was a nice reminder that life could always be worse.

Actually believing it was a difficult step. Mostly because sure, the kids were freshmen, they had acne, awful fashion sense and couldn’t drive, but chances were, none of them had woken up married to someone that tried to kill them.

Angel wanted her to forget about that whole incident, obviously. He’d made it perfectly clear that he wished he’d never done it and hey, Cordy was on board in wishing he never had either. There was really nothing more he could do to get her to trust him, but it wasn’t like a light switch, she couldn’t just decide to trust someone not to run their fangs through her arteries.

She would be a hell of a lot happier with the situation if she could. Angel was hot. The vampire thing was icky, but he’d always been really nice to her with that noted exception. The Buffy love was a turn off, sure, but Xander had that problem and she’d more or less cured it.

Angel promised her that she’d be safe, but it wasn’t like he’d tried to turn evil. Sure, he’d be vigilant, blah blah blah, but forever? Or at least until she managed to die of natural causes?

Cordelia was so caught up in her thoughts that she was barely aware she’d driven to the Crawford mansion, much less notice she was being followed.

XXX

Gwendolyn Post had worked for the Council of Watcher’s since she graduated from college at nineteen. This ability to learn at a faster rate than everyone was what made her so wonderful at her job. She also tended to remember quite everything she’d ever read. These were the types of interesting personal facts that she was always sure to slip into dinner party conversations. Unfortunately, she rarely associated with anyone who really grasped the full extent of her superiority.

Even at the Council, after years of research and development, her brilliant efforts came to an abrupt end when her experiments blending black magic and scientific discovery were determined inappropriate.

Without the Council’s access, she’d had to explore a gamut of the magical element.

She’d learned to be the most dangerous element to be introduced to the circle; it was the safest mode of survival and introduced the most intriguing business opportunities.

For instance, who would have thought it could be so lucrative to stake a vampire?

XXX

When Cordelia pushed her way into his bedroom, Angel was already on his feet, though he wasn’t completely awake yet. He had no idea how Cordelia knew, but she immediately picked up on it.

“Sorry, did I wake you up?” she asked.

“Yes. Thank you.” He’d been plagued with nightmares all day.

“Oh. You’re welcome, then” she said, walking into the room freely as though he’d invited her. “You really need more furniture.” With that, she plopped herself on his bed and crossed one leg over the other.

Just moments ago, he’d been lying there. If he’d had a body temperature, the blankets would still be warm against her thighs. “Whatever you’d like.”

“Right,” she agreed, but he could tell she was no longer paying attention to the conversation. Her foot started tapping quickly and her heartbeat was also ramping up to something, but she had to gather herself to say it.

Angel braced himself for the worst, though he wasn’t sure what it would be. Would she decide to ignore the bond? Worse, actively resist? “Please don’t fight me.”

“What?” Cordelia asked, her voice cracking as her heartbeat took off.

“You haven’t seen what it can do to people.” He moved before she could react, kneeling in front of her and taking her hand. The reaction jolted through both of them and he wanted to just bury his head in her lap and sleep like that, unburdened for just a moment. It was manipulative of him to use their physical bond against her, but it was imperative. If she chose to fight, it could be disastrous for both of them. “I’ve seen vampires go crazy under the pull of a claim. The jealousy consumes them until it’s all they can think about. I can feel it already and he barely touched you.”

“Who, Xander?”

As though he might be talking about any one of her many lovers, an image that didn’t lend itself kindly to his imagination.

“It’s over with him,” Cordelia continued, dropping Angel’s hand as she talked about it, as though their claim tainted the memory of her ill-fated relationship.

“For good?” he asked.

“For as long as our bond shall last,” Cordelia said. She used a sarcastic tone, but Angel chose to see it as a vow of fidelity.

“So that’s what you were here to tell me?” He’d expected to see her later, after he picked up her car, thoroughly examined it for defects and delivered it back to her house, good as new. Her presence before the sun went down was a pleasant not-quite-surprise, as the bond led them to seek out as much contact as possible.

“What? No. That’s a whole other deal. Here’s the thing: I don’t trust you.”

The way Cordelia looked into his eyes as she said it only made the sword twist harder in his gut. He sank back on his heels and dropped eye contact. “I understand.”

“No, you don’t.”

“It’s not a difficult concept, Cordelia,” he pointed out sharply. The last thing he needed was a play-by-play of his evils.

“I don’t think you’d ever try to hurt me or anything. I just can’t imagine going through a hundred years without a single moment of happiness. How could you be that vigilant not to let go for just a second like… a year or even ten years from now!”

The gulf in their experience and understanding yawned between them and it almost hurt Angel to realize that in order to gain her trust, he would have to remove a level of innocence from her mind that there was no coming back from. Her life was more or less happy, barring the current circumstances, Cordelia had grown up with loving parents in a sheltered, safe environment with all the comforts she could want. Her natural state was one of happiness and Angel was loath to explain to her the hell that life could be when that wasn’t the case.

He was almost relieved when a knock on the door delayed their conversation. As he turned to go down the stairs, Cordelia got up, stopping him. “They’re probably just selling something.”

“Someone might need help.”

“Six people know you’re back and all of them are pissed at you.”

The idea that it was just someone wanting to sell magazine subscriptions was quickly belied by the scrape of a door and a female voice calling, “Angel?”

Cordelia frowned. “Weird. You don’t have friends.”

As Angel headed down the stairs, trying to ignore her comment, he couldn’t ignore the fact that she was right. He didn’t have friends.

So who were they dealing with?


…TO BE CONTINUED…

THIS STORY APPEARS TO BE UNFINISHED


 

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