There followed a moment of tense silence, and then Angel reached down and took hold of his girlfriend’s hand in a firm grip. “Come on – let’s get out of here.”
“Why?” Cordelia asked suspiciously, resisting against his insistent hold.
“Cordelia!” the vampire remonstrated, his sharp tone indicating that he wasn’t prepared to argue over the matter.
Cordelia automatically opened her mouth to object to his peremptory command, but then thought better of it. Sensing that she wasn’t going to like what he was about to tell her, she decided it wasn’t worth stirring things up over something so trivial. Instead, she docilely allowed him to lead her down the staircase and out to his car, which was parked in the alleyway outside.
Angel waited patiently until she was settled comfortably in the passenger seat, and then gunned the engine and pulled out into the evening traffic. Although rush hour was over, the roads were still quite busy with commuters making their way home after a long day at the office.
As they drove through the city streets, Cordelia sat quietly besides her reticent boyfriend, and proceeded to work herself up into a state of extreme nervous tension. Her initial panicked theory was that Angel was going to finish with her, until rational thought kicked in and informed her that she was being ridiculous. Despite their troubles, none of the vampire’s recent words and actions had indicated that he was having doubts about their relationship. In fact, if anything, his behaviour over the past few days had pointed towards an overall strengthening of his feelings for her, not the other way round.
With a soft sigh, the seer leaned her head back against the shiny, black leather seat and forced herself to calm down, deliberately emptying her mind of all the negative emotion threatening to overwhelm her. The scenery passed by in a blur, and it was only when Angel indicated to take the next exit off the freeway that she took any notice of where they were going. As her boyfriend carefully manoeuvred his car through the lanes of traffic, Cordelia sat up straighter, realising that they were headed for Point Dume – a favourite coastal viewpoint of theirs.
Armed with a picnic basket and large blanket, they were frequent visitors to the secluded spot and as, by necessity, they went after sundown, they usually had the entire place to themselves. The couple took full advantage of the open-air privacy this afforded them, and often stayed the whole night, taking the opportunity to spend some quality time alone together. They would talk of unimportant things and, more often than not, make love, before returning to the safety of their apartment just as dawn broke over the horizon.
This time though, they were headed there for an altogether different reason, and the seer’s anxiety levels jumped up a notch as they reached their journey’s end. Angel quickly swung the Plymouth into a parking space, and they climbed out of the car and began to walk down the dusty path towards the viewpoint, still with the ominous blanket of silence hovering over them. As they reached their destination, Cordelia finally snapped, unable to bear the agony of waiting any longer.
“Angel! Just tell me okay? You’re starting to frighten me now.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just…” Angel broke off, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger in a classic gesture of stress.
“It’s Buffy,” he eventually said, the strain of the situation strongly evident on his handsome face.
Cordelia’s heart almost stopped at this faltering admission, her face draining of all colour, as overwhelming pain darkened her hazel-coloured eyes to almost black.
“God Cordy! No – not that!”
Angel rushed to reassure his girlfriend, horrified at the stricken look that descended over her features at his words. Reaching out with both hands, he cupped her ashen face in his palms and bent to press a gentle kiss to her lips.
“Not that,” he repeated, when his mouth released hers with a soft, wet pop. “I love you, okay.”
A healthy glow slowly returned to the seer’s suddenly pale cheeks, and Angel sagged in abject relief, inwardly cursing himself for just blurting it out like that.
“I’m sorry,” he apologised, drawing her close. “I’m not handling this very well, am I?”
Cordelia clung to him fiercely, her fingers digging into the muscles of his back, but it wasn’t long before she recovered her shattered composure. Stepping back out of his arms, she brushed away the few stray tears that had escaped to dampen her cheeks and looked up at him.
“What about Buffy?”
“Umm – she’s not done or said anything specific,” Angel said, stumbling over the words. “It’s just, she’s been – well – a little over-friendly towards me, I guess.”
“I see,” Cordelia replied with deceptive calm. “So explain something to me – if I hadn’t forced you into it, just when exactly were you planning on telling me this?”
“I wasn’t deliberately keeping it from you,” Angel quickly said, visibly wincing at her icy tone. “There just hasn’t been a suitable time to talk about it, that’s all,” he explained, reaching out to take her hands in a placating gesture.
Cordelia wrenched her fingers out of his grasp and turned her back to him, folding her arms over her chest as she tried to gain some control of the simmering anger that was threatening to boil over. Striving to keep her fiery temper in check, she eventually twisted back round to face him, her expression stony.
“I take it you told her to back off?”
Feeling like a deer caught in headlights, Angel unconsciously took a step back, a guilty look immediately crossing his face at her question. On seeing this, Cordelia’s temper erupted like a long dormant volcano.
“I don’t believe you!” she said, her voice rising in both pitch and volume. “Just exactly how hard can it be to say you’re not interested?”
“It’s not as simple as that,” Angel protested, trying to defend his actions – or non-action to be precise. “I told you – she’s not done anything really obvious. And there’s something not quite right about the way she’s been acting. I’m w…”
“Too right, there isn’t,” Cordelia interrupted furiously. “You’re *my* boyfriend, and you’re totally off limits to Little Miss Blonde and Oh-So-Perky. I don’t care if she had you first – you’re mine now, got it?”
Angel sighed – the situation was going from bad to worse. “I had no intention of ignoring her behaviour,” he said calmly. “I was simply attempting to be diplomatic about the whole thing. Willow said she’d talk to her, and…”
“Willow knows about this? You talked to Willow and yet you’ve not deigned to mention it to me? Tell me – who else is in on this little conspiracy? Lorne? The Greblock demon on the door at Caritas perhaps?”
“Cordelia! Can we at least *try* to be rational about this please?” Angel said, getting increasingly exasperated with her stubbornness. There was no talking to her when she got like this.
“I’m perfectly rational, thank-you very much,” the seer snapped, her slightly shrill tone belying her words. “I think it’s totally reasonable to question why I’m the last person to be told that another woman is making moves on *my* man.”
“You’re *not* the last person to be told!” the vampire exclaimed, his patience starting to wear thin. “Willow is the only one I’ve talked to about this, and that was only because it came up in conversation.”
Lost in her fury, Cordelia took no notice of his adamant denial. “Why have you brought me out here to tell me?” she continued with her diatribe, gesturing wildly at the coastal scenery. “No, don’t answer that, I think I can guess. Protecting your precious Buffykins from my wrath, right? My God, even now you can’t help being her lap-dog!”
“I was trying to avoid a scene, yes,” Angel admitted with candour, sensibly choosing to ignore her spiteful jibe. “Given everything that has happened, I think that keeping conflict to a minimum is a good idea. You have a right to be angry, I get that, but I hardly think that you and Buffy screeching at each other is the best way to resolve things!”
“No – you’d rather sit back and let her get away with it. Hell, you might even be enjoying all the attention for all I know.”
Angel regarded the enraged seer steadily for a moment, then abruptly turned and strode away from her.
“Don’t you dare walk away from me when I’m yelling at you!” Cordelia said, running after him and grabbing hold of his arm. “Where are you going?”
Angel swung round to face her, his dark eyes glittering with barely restrained anger. “I’m giving you a few minutes to cool off, and then maybe – just maybe – we can discuss this in a rational manner. I don’t want either of us saying something we might regret.”
“Why would we do that?”
“Because we did before,” he answered, reminding her of the cause of all the recent strife between them. “Look what’s happening – you’re already starting to question my fidelity.”
“That’s because you make it so difficult to trust you where Buffy is concerned,” the seer burst out angrily. “You always have to pussy-foot around her feelings. Why can’t you just tell it to her straight? You would if it was anyone else.”
“Maybe – but caring about her does not automatically make me a cheat. I’ve done nothing – I repeat *nothing* – to encourage her attentions.”
“You’ve not actively discouraged her either though, have you?”
“That’s because we’ve been in the midst of a major crisis these past few days!” Angel said acidly. “Plus, any time I’ve had for personal matters has been devoted to making things right with you – as you damn well know!”
Cordelia fell silent, knowing that was true, but unable to shake her uneasiness over the slayer’s flirtation with him. Before their estrangement, she had had enough confidence in the solidity of their love to accept his friendly affection for Buffy, but the recent turbulence had stirred up all sorts of insecurities within her. Right now, she just couldn’t tolerate the slayer’s disruptive presence in their lives. She needed things between them to be black and white, not filled with these horrible shades of grey.
“Cordy?” Angel queried when she didn’t respond. “You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” the seer nodded, her eyes downcast. She paused for a moment, and then pushed her hair out of her eyes to look him directly in the face. “I want to go back to Caritas.”
“For you to tell Buffy, in front of everyone, that you love me and not her.”
“That isn’t necessary, Cordelia. Willow said she’d talk to her, and if she doesn’t manage to get through, then I promise I’ll make sure that Buffy understands that all I have to offer her is friendship.”
“That’s not good enough. I want it done my way.”
Angel hesitated in responding; he didn’t really want to exacerbate the tension between them, but also knew that capitulating to her demand, simply to keep the peace, wouldn’t solve the underlying problem.
“I’m sorry, I’m not prepared to do that,” he carefully replied, keeping the tone of his voice deliberately even. “Not as some grand gesture to appease your lack of trust in me anyway.”
“You see – you *say* you’re with me, and yet you still choose her when it comes down to it.”
“That isn’t true.”
“No? So how do I know that you’re not just waiting for the perfect opportunity to sneak off and have grubby sex with her then?”
“I am not even going to dignify *that* with a response,” Angel growled through clenched teeth, grappling to keep a lid on his growing anger. “Look, this isn’t getting us anywhere. I think we should continue this discussion when we’ve both calmed down a bit.”
“Fine! Avoid the issue if you have to, but nothing is going to change. If you loved me, then you would tell Buffy what’s what in front of everyone, like I asked you to!”
Angel bit back an angry retort, knowing that deep down Cordelia didn’t really mean the things she was saying. He recognised that she had been unsettled by their problems, and therefore understood her reaction, even if he wasn’t prepared to give in to her demands.
Incensed at his refusal to comply, the seer spun on her heel and stalked off up the beach in high dudgeon, leaving Angel to follow at a slower pace. Cordelia’s current anger at him would abate sooner or later, the vampire knew. He just hoped that this stupid argument wouldn’t setback the progress of their reconciliation – they’d come so far in the past few days.
“Don’t worry, it’s safe to take me back to Caritas,” the seer said sarcastically, when he slid into the driver’s seat next to her and inserted the key into the ignition with a heavy sigh.. “I’ll leave your wonderfully perfect Buffy alone – for now at least anyway. Never let it be said that I’m unreasonable – you have twenty-four hours to do the right thing.”
“Ultimatums never solve anything, Cordelia,” Angel responded quietly, his voice was thick with miserable resignation.
“Pandering to an ex-girlfriend’s every whim never solved anything either,” she sharply retorted, as he reversed out of the parking spot.
Angel sighed, and Cordelia deliberately turned her face away from his reproachful profile to watch the passing landscape, her eyes wide and glassy. Neither ventured to speak again, and an increasingly uncomfortable atmosphere descended over them, as the Plymouth made its way back through the city to Caritas.
“Well, I’m beat,” Riley said, placing his hands on the wooden surface of the kitchen table and levering himself to his feet. “I think I’ll go up to bed. Coming Buffy?”
The slayer shook her head. “No, not just yet. I’m gonna stay down here and talk to Willow for a while.”
Riley nodded and bent to kiss her lightly on the forehead. “Okay – don’t be too long.”
Buffy smiled sweetly up at her boyfriend. “I won’t, I promise.” she said, reaching out to squeeze his hand in hers.
Curling his big hand round her much smaller one, the soldier lifted their entwined fingers to his lips and affectionately kissed the backs of her knuckles. Then, letting her hand drop, he turned and left the room, shutting the door behind him on the way out.
Willow observed the small exchange in silence, extremely puzzled by Buffy’s seemingly contradictory behaviour. To all intents and purposes, the slayer was playing the adoring girlfriend, but if what Angel had said was true, that didn’t make any sense.
“You and Riley seem to be getting pretty close,” Willow ventured, hoping to prompt her friend into opening up about the men in her life.
“Hmm,” Buffy replied, shrugging her shoulders noncommittally. “He’s a nice guy and I want it to work, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something missing. That special spark, you know? Our relationship is just so normal.”
“You always wanted normal,” the witch wryly pointed out.
Buffy let out a short laugh. “Yeah, I know – crazy, isn’t it? I’ve finally got what I desperately craved for all the way through High School, and now I realise that what I had with Angel was the absolute definition of perfect love all along.”
“You and Angel were madly in love, I agree, but it was far from perfect, Buffy,” Willow said sagely. “You had your fair share of problems, you can’t deny that.”
“Only because I thought him being a vampire was such a major problem back then. I don’t know why I couldn’t see that it was part of what made us so special together, but I totally get it now. And with his permanent soul, we can be together properly like we always dreamed. It’s going to be so perfect.”
“Buffy!” Willow snapped, sharply interrupting the slayer’s rose-tinted gushing.
“Aren’t you forgetting that Angel is with Cordy now?”
“Not for much longer by all accounts. They’ve apparently been fighting like cats and dogs for months.”
“How do you know that?”
“I overheard Angel telling Faith this morning.”
“He told her he thought they were going to break up?” Willow asked in disbelief.
“Well no, not exactly – but it’s only a matter of time before they do. Besides when he knows that I can accept his vampire side, he’ll forget all about Cordelia anyway.”
Willow sighed and rested her forehead on her fingertips. “No Buffy – he won’t,” she said wearily. “Maybe you’re right, maybe they have been going through a rough patch, but for god’s sake, open your eyes! It’s obvious how much they love each other. You are kidding yourself if you think that Angel will dump Cordy and take you back.”
“Cordelia stole my boyfriend – how can you be on her side? You’re supposed to be my friend!” Buffy cried, rising agitatedly to her feet. “And you’re wrong, Willow. You are *so* wrong! Me and Angel will be back together before you know it – just you wait and see if we’re not.”
“I am your friend,” Willow said calmly. “One who’s trying to stop you from making a big mistake and getting yourself hurt. And tell me something, where exactly does Riley fit into all this? He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way, Buffy.”
“I know,” the slayer agreed, at least having the grace to feel guilty about that. “I’m going to end it, I swear. I was happy with him at first, but after being with Angel again, I know where I truly belong. It’s just taken me a couple of days to figure it out.”
“Buffy – listen to me will you? Angel cares about you, but only as a friend, nothing more. He’s simply not interested in you in a romantic sense anymore.”
“How could you possibly know that? He told you did he?”
“Pretty much yes,” was the blunt reply from the increasingly exasperated redhead.
“Why would I lie about something like that? You’re one of my best friends and I want you to be happy. If I thought there was the slightest chance that you and he could get back together, then I’d tell you to go for it. If you carry on like this though, all you’re gonna do is ruin several people’s lives – including your own.”
“That’s just your opinion. Angel used to love me with everything in him remember? I was the centre of his universe and then some. Now that the reason for our break-up is no longer an issue, I can make him love me like that again, I know I can.”
“And to hell with the innocent people who stand in your way?”
“I told you I’d do the right thing by Riley.”
“And Cordelia? What about her? It doesn’t matter how you look at it, Buffy – deliberately trying to break up their relationship is so wrong. Her and Angel, they love each other, whether you want to admit it to yourself, or not.”
“Don’t be such a hypocrite, Will. You didn’t care about Cordelia one bit when you decided to suck-face with Xander, did you?”
“That was a long time ago and at least I felt guilt and remorse over what I did,” Willow retorted. “I don’t think you’re even bothered about the damage you could do. And besides, we’re not talking about a High School romance here – Angel and Cordy, they’ve been living together for nearly a year.”
“So – what does that have to do with anything? I stupidly let Angel go last year, when I never should have given up on him. Cordelia was a novelty that he stuck with because I didn’t persist in offering him a better alternative. I won’t make the same mistake again – I’m surer now than ever that he and I belong together. I’m sorry that Cordelia has to get hurt in the process, but it really can’t be helped. You can’t argue with fate and anyway, she’ll get over it soon enough.”
Willow seriously doubted that, although she knew Buffy would never see it. She had tried her best to open the slayer’s eyes to the realities of the situation, but they were going round in circles. Buffy wasn’t going to back down in a month of Sundays. Angel was the only one who could convince her that she was chasing after a pipe dream. The young witch just hoped that the fall-out didn’t take his and Cordelia’s relationship down with it – neither deserved to suffer unnecessarily because of the slayer’s blind obstinacy.
When her friend remained silent, Buffy mistakenly took this to mean that she had finally talked the witch round to her point of view. With a brief nod of victory, she pushed back her chair and stood up.
“I’m going to bed,” she announced. “It’s getting late.”
“And what are you going to do about Riley?”
“I’ll tell him in the morning. He was talking earlier about catching tomorrow afternoon’s bus back to Sunnydale. There’s no sense in upsetting him tonight, is there?”
“No, I suppose not,” Willow reluctantly agreed.
Although she felt sorry for the poor guy, putting off the inevitable fireworks until tomorrow sounded like a sensible idea to the witch. It would give her time to warn Angel of the bombshell that was about to be dropped in their midst, at any rate. Having failed in her bid to talk Buffy round, Willow figured she owed the unsuspecting vampire that courtesy at least.
When they had arrived back at Caritas a couple of hours earlier, Cordelia had immediately leapt out the car and stormed off upstairs to stew in their room. Angel had decided to take a walk, wisely giving her some space to calm down. Now though, as he pounded the dark streets alone, he was reminded of how many nights in the last few months that he had spent doing just this.
His stomach twisted into a knot of anxiety as he slowly became aware that he was unconsciously repeating a pattern. During the recent rift between them, his tumultuous feelings had driven him out of bed and away from Cordelia’s side on a regular basis, and he knew his emotional withdrawal had caused untold damage to their relationship. Angel stopped abruptly in his tracks as this realisation sank in, and resolved, there and then, not to make the same mistake twice. He would sleep by his woman’s side tonight, whether she was speaking to him or not.
When he got back to the Karaoke Club, he entered through the public, rather than the private, entrance, descending slowly down the steps into the garishly decorated bar. Lorne was up on the stage, performing to a few remaining – and mostly drunk – customers.
Business had been relatively slow – humans and demons alike, not realising that the Club was open again after the previous night’s unexpected closure. The green-skinned demon raised his microphone in greeting, and Angel nodded briefly in response as he strode across the room and went through into the private quarters beyond.
Downstairs everything was in darkness, but the vampire’s enhanced eyesight enabled him to ascend the staircase without turning on a light. He reached the landing area, off which the guest bedrooms were situated, and went over to knock softly on Wesley’s door, deciding to check on his friend before rejoining Cordelia in their shared accommodations.
Despite the lack of a response, he quietly entered the room and found Wesley fast asleep, lying on his back with his head propped up by a mound of cushions. Faith was still with him, hunched over so that her arms were resting on the mattress next to his hip, her head pillowed atop her hands.
Knowing that she would end up with a stiff neck if she slept like that all night, Angel tiptoed over and gently manoeuvred the slumbering slayer into a different position, settling her comfortably into the big armchair alongside the bed. She made a mewling sound of protest when he moved her, but did not awaken, completely exhausted by the overwrought reunion with her watcher. Covering her with a blanket, the vampire retreated from the room, reaching up to flick off the light switch as he did so.
When he finally found his way back to their room, Cordelia was already ensconced under the covers, her back resolutely turned to his side of the bed. Angel shrugged off his leather jacket and removed his boots and socks, and then approached the bed, unbuttoning his shirt as he went.
“Cordy – you awake?” he softly enquired.
Okay, still not speaking to me then, he deduced, knowing from the rhythm of her breathing that Cordelia was only pretending to be asleep.
The vampire quickly shed the rest of his clothes, lifted up a corner of the quilt, and then slipped into bed beside her. Shifting closer to her rigidly held body, he curled a hand around her hipbone and leaned over to press a gentle kiss into the crook of her neck, noting with satisfaction the way her heartbeat sped up at his soft touch.
“I know you’re awake,” he bent to whisper in her ear. “It’s all right if you’re not ready to talk to me yet, but I need you to know that you have nothing to worry about from Buffy, okay? I love you more than you could possibly imagine.”
The seer’s breath hitched a little at his softly spoken declaration, but she didn’t respond, her anger at him still not having fully died down. Satisfied that he had made some progress though, Angel reached up with one arm to turn off the night light, then settled his head down on the pillow and closed his eyes.
He deliberately kept his hand on her hip however, deciding that maintaining physical contact while they slept, would be a silent way of informing her that there was no way he was going to let this disagreement come between them.
No way in hell.