Cordelia closed her eyes, breathing in deep as the scent of night-blooming jasmine filled the air. She stood there for countless minutes despite the fine mist that left a soft sheen on her skin. Too many serious thoughts ran through her head to notice the changing weather: life, death, relief, fear. It all came down to choices and she'd made one.
"So demonize me already," she'd told Skip with a shrug. That's all it took. One instant of hellish pain that felt like she was turned inside-out. A freaky way to stave off death, but it kept her where she needed to be. Right here with the mission.
The side-effects hadn't come to mind until after Cordelia came out of her mystic coma to find herself caught up in Angel's arms. Suddenly, she was thinking about the physical effects of becoming part demon and imagined horns and a tail. A quick check ended that worry. It was a little harder to explain the floaty thing or the lack of debilitating pain as her next vision came.
Fortunately, there was no time for explanations. As happy as Angel had been to see her come out of that coma, Cordelia could tell he wasn't at all pleased about leaving without knowing what was going on. She'd had to push them out the door to go save the Glendale guy from that demon.
Feeling great, Cordelia thought about tagging along, but knew from Angel's expression and the stunned faces of her friends that the questions would be endless. She didn't want to deal with that in an open convertible speeding across town at seventy miles per hour.
"Wait here, Cordy," Angel's touch seemed to burn through the grey cotton cover-up as his hand curled around her shoulder. He said nothing else, just stared down intently as if expecting her to bolt the moment he left the building.
Message received, big guy. Don't run home because you want to interrogate me when you get back. Got it.
The others weren't quite as understated about their plan to do the same. As soon as Angel moved toward the weapons cabinet to remove his favorite broadsword, the others were all crowded around her again. All except Lorne who seemed to hang back and stare at her in a way Cordelia assumed was an intense study of her aura.
"We'll have some research to do," Wesley assured her that he'd get right on it as soon as the demon was dealt with. "Levitation is an intriguing phenomenon. I wonder if it's some side effect of residual mystic energies. Considering the state of your br—"
Wes clapped his mouth shut so fast that his teeth clattered. It was quickly followed by a stuttered statement trying to cover up the fact that he knew about her medical exams and the results of her MRIs. Stopping him, Cordelia told them that she'd seen and heard it all. "Later. There's no time to waste. Glendale guy. Horny red demon."
Gunn looked as torn up and irritated as the others. After the initial I'm-happy-to-see-you-awake phase, he was clearly upset. "Fred's gonna get that cake ready again while we're gone. Then we're gonna party. Birthdays gotta be celebrated."
Geez, it wasn't like it was going to be her last one. Though Cordelia realized that was just what he was thinking. Giving him a hug, she kissed his cheek. "Major partying coming up. Right after you guys slay the demon."
"You should probably go," Fred pressed her mouth into a line of resolve as she faced Gunn and Wesley. "Sooner you get started, the sooner you'll be back. Lorne and I will be here with Cordy."
As if she needed someone to keep an eye on her. Angel headed toward the door, pausing in front of Cordelia. He looked like he wanted to say something, but ended up sucking in a deep breath of air he didn't need. Jaw tight, he stared for a moment longer, still holding that breath until Cordelia blurted, "I'm fine. Just go."
Angel lifted his hand toward her face and it paused with a stutter mid-air until the fingers threaded through her hair and his thumb swept over the curve of her cheek. She slid her own hand up the smooth surface of his leather sleeve to curl around his thick wrist. With a tug, Cordelia pulled back and stepped away from the urge to nuzzle her cheek against his hand.
Before she could read his expression, Angel turned and walked out the door brandishing his sword, his dark coat sweeping out behind him. Catching herself staring after him, she shrugged it off to the fact that Angel had always had that hot, broody heroic thing going for him. Normally, she was immune to Angel's hotness factor considering that he was her best friend, not to mention a cursed vampire guy and a broody blonde lover.
There were tons of reasons to keep any interest to the level of admiring that physique for its pure aesthetic value. Like looking at a marble statue at a museum, he was all sculpted muscle from his broad shoulders all the way down to his calves. Just like a museum, it was all about the Look, But Don't Touch rule. Most rules had exceptions, including this one.
"I'll grab the first aid kit," Cordelia told Fred, wondering how much patching up would be required tonight. Sometimes it seemed like the big dork actually enjoyed her Florence Nightingale routine. "We'll be ready when they come back."
Fred sounded a little worried when she asked, "Is it a dangerous one?"
Assuring her, "Nothing they can't handle," Cordelia waved off her own nervousness. So many times, she was still in too much pain to do more than focus on blocking out the rush of images flashing through her head.
In fact, it was probably one of those times Wes and Gunn needn't have bothered to tag along. Not because the demon wasn't a huge badass bent on killing everything in its path with Glendale Guy being the poor sap who got in the way. It was Angel himself. Closing her eyes, Cordelia could focus on what she'd seen of Angel in that vision. Lightning fast, he fought viciously, all his rage taken out on the red demon. It left her shaky because she felt it run through her as sharp-edged as his sword.
All that anger belonged to her, Cordelia realized. He knew what she'd been hiding from him, from all of them. When he got back, she figured she'd be seeing a little of that rage up close and personal. Aggressively invading her space, looming tall, thick muscles tense as he fought for control of some deep down demonic urge to...do whatever it is vampires do when their best friend pisses them off.
Well, she had a few raging rights of her own considering what she'd seen during Skip's little tour. Angel had a few things to answer for, Cordelia figured, remembering the fact that while defending her to the conduit, Angel had said some hurtful things. He'd called her weak, just a rich girl from Sunnydale who likes to play superhero.
Hmph! Angel isn't the only one with the right to be a little pissed. I can't wait to see how he tries to stutter his way out of that one.
Cordelia pulled off her cover-up and tossed it across the countertop leaving her dressed in the white tank and sweatpants she had been wearing. She longed for a long bubble bath, but decided to wait until she got home figuring that after the lectures that were no doubt headed her way she'd need help to relax.
"Cordy, your vision...," Fred began only to have Cordelia hold up a hand to ward off the question that was forming.
Concern filled the warm brown eyes staring up at her and Cordelia figured she'd made the right decision about keeping things to herself. Having such concern and pity staring back at her each time she looked at one of her friends was not something she wanted. "Please wait for the Twenty Questions routine. There's nothing to worry about. I promise that I'll explain it all when the guys get home."
"Okay," agreed Fred with a reluctant nod. "I guess I'll get the birthday goodies ready."
Their surprise birthday party had been a huge bust thanks to the badly-timed vision that threw her into a mystic coma and left her in astral form. There, but not seen by anyone. Untouchable. Unable to communicate. Needless to say, her birthday cake and presents were instantly forgotten by all.
Mmm, presents, Cordelia looked around the lobby, finding several large colorfully wrapped packages on the floor. Her eyes lit up as she wondered what might be inside.
"No peeking," Lorne cautioned as she knelt down to gather them up.
Cordelia stuck out her tongue and grinned widely at the notion, "As if I could get through all of the Scotch tape to peek even if I wanted too."
Placing the gifts on the countertop, Cordelia turned back to face the Pylean demon. "Stare much?"
"There's a lot to see, Cordelicious." Normally jovial, Lorne's mouth was a flat line of concern as he took in changes only he could sense. The dancing lights appearing in her normally pure aura signaled something significant had happened.
Despite her own curiosity, Cordelia figured it would be better to wait to find out what he was sensing when he looked at her. She didn't want to hash and rehash this explanation of events more than once or at least not until she'd talked to Angel about it. Lorne quietly acknowledged Cordelia's request to be alone by heading back upstairs with the excuse of keeping an eye on the baby.
Watching him go, Cordelia wondered exactly what she was going to tell her friends. The straight-forward I've Been Demonized approach seemed the easiest. Maybe she'd just go with that. How about the Guess What I Got For My Birthday game. Or even the time-honored Good News/Bad News scenario.
Taking a final look at her pile of presents, Cordelia wandered off in the direction of the garden.
"You coulda saved some of the action for us," Gunn complained to the scowling vampire at his side, pointing out the still shiny state of his axe, "tried to make the fight interesting. That demon never stood a chance. I don't think I've ever seen you move so fast."
Saying nothing, Angel gave his friend a look that suggested the subject was definitely closed. As far as he was concerned fighting the eight-foot behemoth had already taken up too much time. Driving all the way to Glendale and back, he hadn't been thinking about the demon that awaited them at the lakeside park. His thoughts had been focused entirely on Cordelia.
Wesley nudged Gunn with his elbow as he walked toward the weapons cabinet. "I think Angel was simply trying to expedite the mission."
"Yeah, I get that," Gunn reluctantly admitted. Doing so brought to mind the reason for it. As he looked around the Hyperion's empty lobby, he asked them, "Where is everybody?"
Fred appeared carrying a tray of snack just in time to comment, "I'm here. Lorne's still upstairs with Connor. I think Cordy chased him off when he started asking questions. She did the same thing to me, but I can understand."
"So where is she?" Wesley wondered if Cordelia had gone straight home once they left.
It was Angel who answered. He could see her through the glass doors, standing alone in the midst of the garden. "Outside."
"Let's go," Gunn was already heading in that direction when he was stopped by Angel's firm grip around his arm.
"We're not going to gang up on Cordy. There's too much we don't know and I won't have her bombarded with questions that will only make things worse." Angel's determination left them muttering their protests. He handed Wes his sword. "I'm going out there alone. No interruptions."
Mist turned to a light drizzle as Cordelia stared upward as the gloomy sky clouded all traces of the moon. Rather than chase her indoors, the rain kept her mesmerized. Cold splatters fell like tears from the heavens, weeping in relief when she could not. Droplets burst against her skin, curling the short strands of her hair and soaking her clothes.
Before Cordelia could acknowledge his presence behind her, Angel settled his jacket around her shoulders. Smoothing his hands down her arms, his cheek found a spot against her damp hair. Taking it for what it was, one last moment of silent comfort before the stormy onslaught to follow, she leaned back into him, keeping her eyes closed and giving in to the sensation of the broad frame of his body holding her close.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked hoarsely.
The pain in his voice was edged with a hint of anger. Cordelia instantly felt her defenses come up, her skin stinging as if it was wrapped up in barbed wire. Tensing in his arms, she shot back, "I did. You weren't listening."
Angel spun her around, his hands flexing open and closed against her arms. "The hell you did." His splintering dark gaze dared her to lie to him again. Not about this.
"When I said the visions were killing me you thought I was joking?" Cordelia huffed and pushed the flat of her palms against his damp white shirt. Pelting raindrops hit in random patterns against the clinging material.
Recalling it, Angel dropped his hands, paced away and then stalked back again crowding her. His body shouted aggression, barely restrained anger. His hands lifted up only to curl up into tight fists and push back down to his sides. Despite what sounded like an attempt at softening his tone, the snarl couldn't be hidden.
"Dammit, Cordy, I didn't think you meant it literally. You should have made sure I got the picture."
"What should I have done, waved my MRI films under your nose?" Cordelia snapped back despite knowing that wasn't entirely fair.
The muscles along his jaw tightened. Finally, Angel answered, "Harsh, but that would have done it."
Cordelia hated seeing him all worked up like this. The anger she could take. It was the guilt driving it that she didn't want. There was plenty of blame to go around. "Maybe I should have told you. Maybe you should have noticed first. Either way, it wouldn't have changed the outcome."
There was such sadness filling those deep brown eyes, Cordelia noticed, just what she'd hoped to avoid all along. He reached up to tuck errant strands of hair behind her ear, his fingers lingering against her throat as they descended. Graveled denial accompanied the slow caress, "You don't know that. I could have..."
"Gone to the Powers a lot sooner," the swift response made it sound obvious.
Rolling her eyes, Cordelia didn't see how he expected to get anything from higher beings by demanding what you want. The dumbass had actually gone as far as threatening Lorne into finding a way to contact the conduit. That would've been impressive had it not been for his little speech. "What did you expect, for them to change history and take away my visions just because you asked for it?"
Angel looked like he wanted to say something to that, but changed his mind, settling for a shrug. Then he muttered, "It's possible."
"You don't think I can handle the visions," Cordelia accused, shamelessly using her little astral eavesdropping experience against him. "What was that again? I'm weak, a spoiled rich girl from Sunnydale who plays superhero."
Taken aback, Angel looked trapped. Still as a statue, he stared down at her, ignoring the rain plastering their clothes against their skin. His wounded gaze never left her accusing eyes as his stricken response stuck in his throat. "Cor, I never said you were spoiled. How di—"
Cordelia crossed her arms under her breasts, deep cleavage forming beneath the sodden white tank top as her breasts pressed against the curved cups of her white bra. When she noticed the flicker of Angel's eyelids as the move caught his eye, Cordelia railed, "I'm up here. Sheesh! You pick now to notice I have boobs?"
That got his attention. Angel's eyes snapped back up to hers. He ran his fingers through the wet strands of his hair. Nervously licking his lips, Angel stuttered his way through several incomprehensible attempts at excusing both his stray glance and his rant about Cordelia's ability to withstand the deadly effects of the visions.
"The whole mystic coma was sponsored by the PTB," Cordelia told him when he failed to make any sense. "I got to hear and see everything that went on. Everything. Even your little chat with the conduit."
Angel's shoulders slumped for an instant as confusion replaced the guilty expression. All of a sudden the stuttering dork vanished behind lowered brows and stormy eyes. Muscles twitched beneath the clinging shirt, his shoulders taut. The urge to reach out to him nearly overwhelmed her need for an explanation, but Cordelia held back.
"If you heard everything, then you know why I said that. They called me on it, Cordy," Angel stressed to point out what she should already understand. Nostrils flared as he breathed in enough air to blurt out, "I was angry and... afraid, ready to do anything to get you back."
The desperation pouring from Angel's voice left her puzzled. She certainly hadn't heard any of that, not that she doubted him. Nibbling at her lower lip, Cordelia realized what had happened. Confessing, "I might've skipped out on that part of the conversation. After what you said, I didn't want to hear anymore. So I decided to give you your wish."
"What wish?" Angel asked softly as if he had a million wishes waiting to be granted.
"To take the burden that is me out of your life," Cordelia explained, though not as harshly as she would have before Angel went and told her he'd been afraid. "The PTB gave me a new existence, one without you in it."
If it was possible for a vampire to look paler than death, Angel was suddenly managing a good impression of it. Cordelia watched his adam's apple bob, the only movement he made. He never even blinked, just stared back blankly.
"I was a star," Cordelia went on to tell him it was the life she would have had if they'd never hooked up at that party. "I had my own television show. People worshipped me."
"Sounds like your dream come true," Angel's sullen response came with mixed signals. It was a wry smile that twisted his lips. She had no time to ferret out the reason for it. Angel was looking at their wet surroundings and staring back at her with a stunned look. With a speed that left her a little dizzy, he stepped forward, hands slipping in to curl around her elbows, pulling her close. Demanding the truth, "What are you doing here? You should be there, safe and happy."
Cordelia's smile appeared and disappeared. He wanted her safe and happy, but he didn't seem to realize he was the one who made her feel safe and that her happiness had more to do with him and with their family of friends than a starring television role, adoring fans and a healthy bank balance.
Holding on to his upper arms, her fingers plucked at the folds of the wet shirt as she tried to explain the decision she had come to. "My new world wasn't so perfect. Even though I didn't know what it was, I knew something was missing. I started searching for it without understanding the clues. They led me to you, Angel."
Angel's hands dropped down to her waist, one of them pressing softly as it curved around to her back and rubbing in a slow circle. He obviously meant to comfort her, but Cordelia tensed up under that unintentionally erotic touch as a trail of heat flared under her skin. A tiny gasp caught in her throat, loud enough for vampiric hearing to detect, causing Angel to drop his hands back to his sides as if she was the one who had scorched him.
Ignoring the sudden racing of her heart, Cordelia pressed on, "The visions had driven you insane. You couldn't deal with them. So I took them back."
"You shouldn't have done that," Angel growled. No matter that this hypothetical world no longer existed. "Cordy, the visions should be mine. My burden. My pain, not yours. They're killing you," he choked out the words.
Realizing that Angel still thought she was going to die, Cordelia smiled up at him. "Not anymore. So you can forget about the guilt trip you're planning."
Looking like he didn't know what to believe anymore, Angel commented rawly, "I don't understand. I saw the tests. Fred explained everything."
"I'm not dying, Angel," she promised while reaching up to palm his face in her hand, the rain now misting again on their skin.
"Cordy...," Angel clearly didn't know what to believe.
Cordelia figured he thought she was in denial. He had no idea how long that had been the truth. She'd refused to believe it, made a half-hearted attempt at telling him and then sworn to herself that no one would find out until they had to. Especially Angel. He had enough on his plate without brooding about her.
"The PTB have fixed me so I can still be your seer," she assured him. "The visions won't kill me and I won't have serious pain anymore, just a few side-effects."
"Levitation being one of them," he guessed and remembered the way he'd had to tug her back down to ground level. The news should have elated him, but Angel's experiences with the PTB and their underlings made him suspicious. "Cordelia, what did you agree too? What have they done?"
The use of her full name should have warned her he was on the edge, but she decided to take the straight-forward route. "They demonized me."
Smoldering fury lit his eyes and his features rippled for an instant before settling back into their handsome human form. In the same moment, his hand whipped out, grabbing her wrist just shy of being rough as he lifted it. Scenting her wrist, he ran the flat of his tongue across her inner wrist lingering against the pulse.
A worry line formed at his brow as Angel's amber-tinted eyes darted to meet her startled ones. Well, that was just a little on the eew side. Wait! What ar— "What's with the grabby hands?"
Angel said nothing. He dropped her wrist and curled his hand around the nape of her neck, pulling her against him. His head dropped to her neck and for an instant she thought he actually planned a taste test. She was clutching his shoulders, trusting him not to do something crazy just because he was mad about her decision.
Turning her head, Cordelia exposed more of her throat for Angel's inspection. He seemed to be drinking in her scent. Another of those vampire behaviors that Cordelia thought was a little strange, but just part of who he was.
"Umm, Angel," she started to get fidgety when he didn't immediately release her. Then curiosity kicked in. "Am I— can you tell that I'm different? How do I smell...demony?"
Slowly extracting himself, Angel took one step back, his hand still in place at the nape of her neck. Circling her pulse, he told her tenderly, "Delicious, not demony. You smell like raindrops, that fruity hand lotion from the bathroom, my bed, ripe and womanly like you always do."
Giving him an odd look, Cordelia narrowed her eyes and decided he'd only given her the answer she wanted. "That's way better than rank and slimy. I was afraid I'd end up with a tail."
Angel tried to smile, "That might have been fun," but it didn't quite reach his eyes.
Dropping any semblance of amusement over the subject, Angel pointed out, "You've taken a huge risk, Cordy. You should have stayed in that perfect world of yours."
Cordelia totally disagreed. "It wasn't so perfect, Angel. It didn't have you...or Connor or Wes, Fred, Gunn, or Lorne. You're my family and I love you guys too much to let myself forget that. No matter what version of reality I'm in."
"But Cordy," he struggled to find the words he wanted to convey, "you deserve so much more than this."
"It's what I want," she countered stubbornly. "Angel, I promised you that I would be here for you. Without this, I wouldn't be."
His hand dropped down to the lapel of his jacket, the other joining it on the other side to pull the edges a little closer around Cordelia's shoulders. "Don't you see what you've given up?"
"Nothing," Cordelia quickly denied it. "I've just got something extra."
"You stay with me to help me with my redemption so I can win the right to be human again, yet you let them do this."
She hadn't thought of it that way. "Well, now we have more in common than we used to. Looks like you're not the only one on the block who can leap tall buildings. Just give me a chance to figure out this floaty thing."
"Don't joke about it," he growled.
A pout pulled at her lower lip. "Why not?"
"Because you gave up your humanity to...to...," Angel faltered, staring unblinkingly as Cordelia finished for him.
"To be with you?" Cordelia stared back just as intently, wondering if he could hear her heart hammering in her chest. It was just the truth, that's all. "You're my friend. Where else would I want to be?"
Angel turned and walked halfway to the door, standing with his back to her. "We should get out of this rain."
Watching as he strode forward pulling the door open with such force that the glass shook in the frame. Cordelia stalked after him, "Hey! We're not finished, buddy. Don't think I didn't notice that avoidance tactic."
She slung his leather jacket at his head managing to hit her target. Angel tossed it to the ground as he whirled to face her. "What do you want me to say? That it doesn't matter to me that you never told me you were dying, that you just gave up the life you say you've always wanted, that you let them taint your soul in order to help me redeem mine?"
"Say that you're happy I'm alive, Angel," she pleaded softly.
"I am," Angel's strong arms enveloped her, pulling Cordelia into a tight hug.
Cordelia would have commented, but the hug left little room for essentials like breathing. "Air," she croaked causing Angel to drop his arms and leap back nearly a yard.
"Dork," Cordelia laughed at his exaggerated response, stretching her arms above her head to get some circulation going after his super-strong squeeze. Then she noticed the empty lobby. "Where is everybody?"
Hearing low sounds from the floor above, Angel told her, "I think they gave up and went upstairs. Looks like they left these," he indicated a couple of towels by the door.
"Guess Fred didn't want us trailing water all over the clean floor," Cordelia held her hand out for one of the towels. Considering all of the scrubbing they'd done earlier in the day, she kinda felt the same way. "Don't just stand there staring."
Angel's eyes widened in horror, "I wasn't st-staring."
"Pfft! If you tell me I resemble a drowned rat or some sewer demon, it'll take more than vampire speed to escape," Cordelia snatched a towel from his hand and started to dry her hair.
"I wouldn't," he fervently denied. Good thing too, if he didn't want to be handed his ass. His eyes slid over her again, lingering in places he shouldn't, sending shivers across her flesh.
"Otherwise I'd probably have to do...this!" Glancing down at the towel in her hands, a devilish glint lit her eyes as she snapped the towel at him.
Surprise quickly darkened into a predatory response that left Cordelia darting across the lobby, squealing with laughter as she made her escape. A sharp swat landed on her left buttock. Turning, she saw Angel looming close. "No fair, you moved too fast."
Twisting up her towel, Cordelia aimed and fired. Angel grabbed the end. With a sharp tug, she bounced right into his arms. Her breasts pressed up against the hard wall of his chest, the cool wet surface combining with her excitement to create an automatic physical response. Cordelia was too busy laughing over their little game to notice, but Angel did.
With her damp hair curling around her face, Cordelia's eyes danced with light, laughter and life. Her cheeks glowed as they rounded with her million dollar smile. Those plush lips curved temptingly. Angel's thumb swept across the corner of her mouth as a wave of possessiveness filled him up.
"Don't ever leave me, Cordy. I can't do this without you here. You've seen what I'm like when you're not around," he glowered intently as his hands started moving up and down her arms in a subconscious rhythm.
"Broody and insane?" For a second, she wondered if Angel was talking about his mental state in Star Cordy's reality or simply his behavior during the whole Darla thing after he'd fired them. Deciding that insanity pretty much covered both situations, she decided not to go there.
Angel nodded and slowly released her from his arms, though he didn't step back. Nor did Cordelia move away.
"I can't promise you forever, Angel, but I'm hoping we won't need that long. The Powers recognize you as their champion. As your seer, you're mine. I'm not going to let anything stand in the way of that."
He tucked his hands in his pants pockets, staring at the floor for a moment before looking up again, his gaze intense, pale skin glistening with the sheen of the rain with hints of hard muscle showing through his nearly transparent shirt. Cordelia swallowed down her awed response as she lingered at the sight of him.
Rushing to fill the sudden void as silence grew thick in the air between them, Cordelia flashed a grin as she told him, "If you really think you owe me something, Angel, I can think of one thing you can do for me."
"Anything," he vowed thickly.
They were standing next to the front counter where Cordelia had piled up her unwrapped birthday presents. "I'm missing your present. Find it for me?"
Angel's chest expanded with a sudden on-drawn breath, one he released just as suddenly. He'd been ready to offer whatever she wanted. Stunned at the idea that he would give her anything including his car, his name, his first-born caused a flash of panic. Surely those were crazy thoughts and so far removed from any feeling that Cordelia had conveyed to him.
Having so recently noticed his growing attraction to Cordelia, he'd been too busy trying to suppress those thoughts to notice how deeply they had ingrained themselves in his head. His dead heart ached at the thought that he might have lost her forever. Being so near her seemed to make his body come alive in ways he definitely needed to keep under control.
Galvanizing himself into action, Angel tried to recall exactly where they were standing the last time he saw Cordelia with his gift. It had been immediately before the devastating vision that threw her into that mystic coma. He'd barely had time to cradle Connor in his arms before she was thrown back from the sheer force of its power.
"The weapons cabinet," Angel noted that someone had swept up the loose glass from the floor, but not the broken frame that splintered the wood. Inspecting it closely, he found the small gilded box hidden inside. "Should I call the others?"
"In a minute," Cordelia took the gift and admired Angel's attempt at curling the ends of the ribbon. For some reason, she wasn't quite ready to give up this moment alone with him. "Just let me open this first."
Angel watched nervously as she started to slip the ribbon from the box. Deciding that he needed to warn her, "It's not anything special."
Peeking up at him as she tried to pull the tight ribbon around the first corner, Cordelia let out a laugh, "It's from you. That makes it special enough, you big dork."
"I-I mean it's not expensive."
Having won her battle with the stubborn ribbon, Cordelia dropped it to the floor, eager to get to the good part. She paused long enough to roll her eyes. "Pfft! As if you can afford anything expensive. We have a baby to feed now."
Inside the box, Cordelia found a set of earrings she had been admiring in a sales catalog several weeks ago. Ooing over the gift, she took them out of the soft cotton bedding and discarded the small box with the same care she had the ribbon. "They're gorgeous. How did you know I wanted these?"
Angel decided his borderline stalking activities would go better unmentioned. Instead, he explained, "I pay attention."
"You mean you lurk," Cordelia countered knowingly as she popped the first earring into place. After securing the second, she posed for approval, "How do I look?"
"Beautiful," he answered almost instantly, enjoying her reaction far too much for his own good. Lifting his hand toward her face, Angel traced the curve of her ear to touch the soft lobe where his gift dangled. His hand slipped back, curling around her nape again, thumb finding that sensitive spot right behind her ear. "I wish I could give you more."
Curiosity helped in fighting the urge to close her eyes and lean into that touch. "More of what?"
Angel simply answered, "Everything."
"Cryptic much?" Suspicion gouged a deep hole in her feelings. "It's not always as easy as buying me clothes. Are we talking about bribing the spoiled rich girl from Sunnydale?"
"Cordy, no. I wish you'd never overheard that damned conversation," he swore bitterly. "What I said...I didn't mean it the way it sounded."
Cordelia thought she understood. "You were scared. I get that, Angel. Friends worry about each other, that's only natural, but we risk dying everyday. You'd feel the same way if it had been one of the others."
A gruff denial left his throat, "It's not the same."
Arguing, Cordelia was interrupted before she'd done more than mention Wesley's name.
"Not even close," Angel told her and then looked guilty for even saying so. "Wes is a good friend. He's family, in some ways like the brother I never had, but he's not you."
"I suppose we've known each other longer," she suggested while trying to tame the wild thumping of her heart. Explaining it away seemed easier than giving in what she hoped he was trying to say.
Now sounding introspective, he admitted, "I learn more about you every day and I don't think I've ever met anyone like you."
Cordelia felt there was only one way to answer that, "Duh! I'm totally unique."
"I wouldn't want it any other way."
That's not what he'd suggested earlier, "Even if that uniqueness is tainted with a little demon?"
Cursing himself for having used that word, Angel practically growled with self-directed anger. "I can't pretend that it doesn't upset me, Cordy. You shouldn't have to pay such a price to please the Powers or me, but I'm selfish enough to want you anyway I can have you."
"Have me any way you want," the words tumbled out of her mouth.
Continuing on, Angel seemed to miss what she'd said, lecturing her again, "You have no idea what aspects of the demon may appear. Levitation may only be the first sign. Who knows what other abilities you may have to master. It could be dangerous."
Wondering if she had totally misread the signals he'd been directing her way, Cordelia tried to bury her sudden disappointment in logic. "We're friends. I try to help you with your demon issues, so you can help me with mine."
"Nothing is that simple, Cor—," her earlier response finally registered. Breaking off his train of thought, Angel switched gears. Staring down, he saw a hint of a smile curling at her lips. "Cordy, did you just say...?"
"Yes," she cut in, refusing to play dumb or pretend she hadn't made the offer.
Angel's instincts urged him to pull her into his arms, instantly claiming what he wanted before Cordelia could come to her senses and change her mind. He just wasn't convinced that he wasn't hearing what he wanted. Asking hesitantly, "Did you mean...?"
Interrupting again, Cordelia felt her whole body tingle in excitement as she said, "Yes."
"Mind reading isn't on the list of your new talents, is it?" Angel questioned.
"No, Dorkula." She let out a lighthearted laugh, feeling more confident about what she was telling him with each passing second, "I'm just saying yes, Angel. To whatever it is that makes me feel more for you than any other man I've known."
Angel looked down at the hand she'd placed on his chest, covering it with his own. "I'm still a vampire, Cordelia, a demon."
"Newsflash! You're man enough for me. Vampire or not, I still love you, Angel. I'm not really sure about what I feel or when it happened. Only that it's not just in the best friend kind of way."
Gaping at her in silence, Angel was back to impersonating a statue again. Cordelia started to wonder if she had completely misjudged him. "Unless, I'm way off base," she pointed out. Denial wailed like a banshee. "Being friends is still...friends. I can do that."
"I can't, Cordy," Angel held her shoulders and looked down at her with resoluteness that it brought the first sting of tears to her eyes.
Oh, God, he was going to tell her that she was out of her mind for suggesting her feelings had changed. She had only the swift satisfaction of thinking he felt badly about rejecting her.
Angel surprised her, adding with conviction, "Not anymore. After today, it's impossible to pretend that I feel only friendship. I need you too much, want you too much to ignore it. I can't hide those feelings anymore."
She felt like a tug-of-war was playing out inside her. Yesterday, Cordelia would not have thought of saying anything about the stray thoughts and feeling that had been building up over the past few months. Especially in light of the all too recent Darla situation. Mainly because Angel hadn't done anything that suggested he wanted more than her friendship.
Now all the little things she'd noticed painted a much different picture. Confused that he had gone so long without saying something, Cordelia had to know, "Why hide them in the first place?"
A few seconds passed before he answered. "Maybe because I didn't want to risk losing your friendship again. I've let passion rule my life and I won't let it ruin yours. Face it, Cordy, I'm still under a curse. You deserve more than that. How can I let you love me knowing the dangers it could bring?"
Cordelia pointed out that it didn't quite work that way. "You don't get a choice in me loving you or not. That's just the way it is. We face risks everyday, Angel, so you don't need to remind me that they exist."
Enfolding his arms around her, Angel pressed his lips to her forehead, to the tip of her nose, then softly and all too briefly upon her mouth. Cordelia let out a shaky sigh as the kiss ended, curling her arms around his waist and resting her cheek against his chest. His promise left her hopeful, "If there's a middle ground, I swear I'll find it."
Secure in his arms, Cordelia quickly corrected, "We'll find it together."