Payback, Angel Style. 3

Part 3

“Touch is the foundation of a romantic relationship. It is air to our love, the water to our souls. Yoga is a way to explore that foundation in a meaningful way. Thank you for joining us today.”

The instructor’s melodic voice wafted over Cordelia and Angel like a soft breeze as they stood in a small room with fifteen other couples, awaiting further instruction.

Cordy was acutely aware of Angel standing just to her left, his arm merely centimeters from hers. If she swayed slightly, her arm would brush his, and she knew the contact would send sparkles of electricity up her arm and make her shiver. She didn’t need to look over at him to know how sexy he looked, either.

Her eyes had widened as she saw his attire back in the stateroom. He’d been standing just a few feet away, arms crossed over his powerful chest, sculpted with muscle. She’d gulped at the sight of his bare chest, letting her eyes quickly peruse the rest of him. Knit pants hung low on his hips, just below his belly button, the drawstring tied in a little bow. His feet were even sexy, strong toes peeking at the edge of his sandals. Not wanting to be caught staring, her eyes had jerked back up to his face.

A slight blush coloring her features, she’d quickly walked over to the suitcase to get her shoes.

Beside her, Angel was trying not to notice Cordelia, either, but it was hard to keep the image of her off his mind. She’d come out of the bathroom before they left for the session, and he couldn’t help but notice how she’d checked him out. He’d stood still for her perusal, but it was hard not to flex and preen before her. Then she’d gotten all flustered and he’d been given an unobstructed view of her as she fished in her suitcase.

She hadn’t been able to see him in the mirror in front of her, so he’d felt safe in letting his eyes rove hungrily over her figure as she bent over her luggage for her shoes. The cotton shorts hugged her ass in all the right places, so short that he could see the slight seam where her butt cheek met her thigh. Her toned stomach looked flat and smooth, and he ached to graze it with his lips. With any luck, he’d be able to touch her all he wanted to in just a few minutes.

His fingers itched for the contact.

Both of them forced themselves to tune back in to what the Yoga instructor had to say.

Their teacher was a small woman, thin and slight with a birdlike appearance and a smile wide enough for three people. Her hair was dark brown liberally streaked with grey, and she was wearing a long, flowing robe that added to her peaceful, friendly countenance. She was pacing in front of them, her movements graceful as a gazelle, walking slowly to and fro in front of her small group of students.

After a moment, she paused, turning to them, clasping her hands in front of her as if in prayer. Her melodic voice seemed to permeate every surface in the room, its light timbre tingling over Angel’s delicate eardrums. “Yoga is an ancient practice designed to improve both physical and spiritual health. Generally, it is an individual practice, but over centuries, asanas, or poses, have been created to encourage and strengthen the bond between lovers.”

She turned and faced them, her smile stretching across her face, and raised her arms wide, encompassing the entire group.

“With these asanas, I will be able to help you connect to one another on a purely spiritual plane, blending auras and allowing you to center each other’s energies. Such a connection will facilitate a compatible, loving relationship.”

Cordy visibly relaxed, letting the woman’s speech flow over her soothingly like warm bath water. What she said didn’t sound so bad. Angel was going to touch her, but it wouldn’t be too invasive. It would feel good, right?

At her side, Angel’s reaction was completely opposite. He coiled up more tightly at their teacher’s description of the art they were about to learn. He knew what was coming. He’d been a student of this type of exercise before, and it always touched feelings deep within him, stirring up his soul like a spoon stirring tea. His long-held practice of Tae Chi had always had a profound effect on him, and that was an individual art. He could only imagine what it would do to his control when he accessed his deepest emotions with Cordelia so close.

The instructor was oblivious to his inner turmoil. “We will begin with a brief meditation exercise. Sit on the floor, legs crossed, facing one another. Your knees should be touching.”

Every couple in the room carved out a space for themselves on the lush carpet, sitting cross-legged across from each other. Cordy and Angel sat down carefully, their knees touching just barely as they faced each other. Cordy looked down at Angel’s crossed legs, suppressing the urge within her to reach out and stroke the delicate skin on the insides of his ankles. She didn’t want to look at his face. He was too close, and her feelings were too crazy mixed-up right now to be tested like that.

The instructor had other ideas. “Very good,” she praised, beaming at her pupils as she slowly walked the room, checking everyone’s poses. “We will begin with a mind-clearing meditation. Place your hands in a prayerful position, your thumbs resting back against your chest, directly between your pectoral muscles.”

Cordy smirked at the woman’s efficient way of avoiding discussion of breasts and the male equivalent, but she did as she was asked. Her eyes remained downcast, and she stared unfocused at Angel’s midsection. it was only after a moment that she realized she’d been staring unseeingly at his crotch, her eyes darting away as she blushed in mortification.

Angel smiled softly as he saw her discomfort. He, too, was in the prayer posture, awaiting further instruction, taking the short opportunity to study the beauty in front of him. His eyes traveled the soft lines of her face, noting the flushed color and recognizing her embarrassment. It was secondary in his mind as he was still marveling over the fact that he hadn’t realized his love for her before. Now when faced with her, it seemed clear as day. But as obvious as it was to him now, he was still damn scared. He had no idea what to do with these feelings. What if she didn’t want to be with a vampire? What if she didn’t love him back? What if she found out about Darla and didn’t forgive him? What if—

Their instructor’s words interrupted his growing panic.

“Now, close your eyes,” she continued, “maintaining your prayerful posture. Clear your mind of any fears, doubts, and distractions. You must each take this moment of silence to tune into your sacred center, accessing that part of yourself that houses the energy within all of us. The energy that makes up our spiritual essence. Breathe deeply, three times, along with me.”

She led them through the deep breathing, the silence in the room broken only by the steady hiss of air leaving lungs and refilling them.

Cordelia felt herself relax as she breathed deeply. She concentrated on clearing her mind, and she was successful. Every doubt fled, every apprehensive thought, until she was in a place of peace.

Angel relaxed as the air oxygenated his dead lungs and gave him a sense of calm. He cleared his mind as instructed, and his fears over his love for Cordy vanished as if they were nothing more than raindrops being dried by the healing rays of the sun.

The instructor was already giving further directions. “Now, you must open your eyes and find the eyes of your partner. Stare deeply into one another’s eyes, acknowledging your partner’s sacred center. Project every ounce of love and passion within you in your gaze. Open your soul to your partner and deepen your connection by projecting positive thoughts.”

She walked around the room as they followed her instructions. Pausing just near Angel and Cordelia, her eyes reviewed their positions and noted the still-tense line of their shoulders. Despite their relaxed positions, neither of them had completely let go.

“Finally,” she continued, “Project this positive thought to your partner. Say it in your mind as your eyes are connected. ‘Our love transcends all. It binds us together. Our lovemaking will be a passionate, blissful experience for both of us.”

Cordelia gulped as she repeated the words in her head. Images flashed in her mind of the two of them making love, and she had to work to suppress the flush that threatened to creep through her entire body.

Angel was having a difficult time not responding physically to the instructor’s words. The thought of making love to Cordelia nearly unmanned him. He worked furiously at tamping down his response, not wanting an ill-timed reaction to be prominent in the middle of this session. It wouldn’t do any good to get all worked up when they couldn’t do anything about it. Not only that, but he was nearly certain that Cordy wasn’t ready for that yet.

“Very good!” the instructor’s cheerful voice broke them out of their trances. “Now, we will move on to other asanas designed to further unite your auras and balance your energies.”

Their instructor had them stand up, proceeding to lead them through several positions that tested the limits of their control. At one point, Angel was on his back on the floor, his feet in the air with Cordelia balanced on them at the small of her back. She relaxed above him, boneless, limp, her hair gently swinging. Her hands linked back with Angel’s and he squeezed them reassuringly as they met together on a spiritual plane.

“Together,” the instructor said, “you are one. One being in two bodies. One soul, broken in half and contained in two vessels. Your energies blend, bringing you closer and closer to the total harmony for which you search. And here,” she paused, regarding the posed couples around the room, one partner balanced so gracefully on the feet of the other, “you are in a position of complete and total trust. Remember this feeling of closeness the next time negative energy threatens to destroy the balance between you. Remember, you are one.”

Silence descended over the room as they absorbed this, and Cordelia felt filled with an undeniable peace. It was true; she did feel closer to Angel at this moment than she ever had before. She could feel him beneath her, almost sense his soul intermingling with hers.

Under her, Angel was in full-fledged panic mode. He, too, could sense his soul reaching out to her, and it frightened him. Angelus stirred within him, pulling at the now-permanent chains that restrained him. Even though Angel knew that a moment of perfect happiness wouldn’t unleash his darker side upon the world, he knew that Angelus still had the power to destroy him. Angel was still a demon, no matter how much the soul tamed him. Cordelia had never really seen that side of him. She thought she had, but she really had no idea what he was really like when his demon side took control. And if things around her got any spicier. . . well, let’s just say that Angelus liked to play. A lot.


Part 4

Cordelia stood in the shower in their stateroom, water pounding directly into her forehead and streaming down her face. She had her mouth open, breathing in through the cracks in the fall of water, her weight braced by her hands up against the tiled wall. The rough pulsation of the water on her face was soothing, helping to ease away her tension. With it, the fear that had been building inside her over the last few days began to finally wash away as well.

It was a mystery to Cordelia how she’d been able to survive the last three days with her emotions intact. They’d attended at least five classes, anywhere from Romantic Cooking to The Sensual Art of Tango. There had been light moments laced with laughter and fun, but she’d realized that Angel was feeling some of the same, unnamed pressure she was feeling. White-hot lightening had arced between them more than once, and it could all be traced back to that first yoga class.

Inside that room, during the middle of their yoga session, Cordelia had felt at peace with herself, at peace with her as yet unnamed feelings for Angel, at peace with her unknown future.

But the moment their instructor had eased them out of their last pose, she’d felt it all come crashing back. It was as if, as soon as her concentration had broken, the dam had burst, all of her negative feelings crashing back. Along for the ride were some emotions she hadn’t realized were there until they came barreling back into her mind. It was almost too much to take.

Warily, she glanced back toward the starkly open doorway to the bathroom. She cursed the shipbuilders and their concept of romance again for what seemed like the thousandth time since they’d opened their stateroom door. The only place in this entire room that had some concept of privacy was the toilet closet, and there was barely enough room for her to sit down in there. She’d wondered, a smirk on her face, how a man would have been able to take care of his number two business if her own knees were knocking against the wall. She was by no means tall, and it was a tight fit. Angel should be thankful that he didn’t have to deal with it.

As her thoughts turned back to her “husband,” Cordelia glanced again at the open doorway. Angel had said that he’d go out for awhile to give her some privacy while she showered, but she wouldn’t put it past him to sneak quietly into the stateroom and stand just outside the door, ogling her via her reflection. She wouldn’t be able to see his; it was a peeping tom’s dream. Well, a vampire peeping tom’s, anyway. She knew that Angel played it cool all the time, like he wouldnever—with a hand to the heart and horrified expression—invade her privacy like that.

The same thought had plagued her during every shower during the last few days. That and the thought that underneath it all, Angel was still a man. A man who had a very healthy sexual appetite, even if he couldn’t act on it because of his curse. Not to mention two hundred plus years of experience. . .

At that thought, she sighed and rested her forehead against the tiled wall, right between her hands. God, the things he must know. . . but she couldn’t go there in her mind. If she did, she’d be admitting to herself that there was something between them. And admitting that, even admitting to simply lust, opened a Pandora’s box of problems that she didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with.

Thank god for Angel’s curse. If Angel had no restraints on him, Cordelia might be tempted to throw caution to the wind and herself right at him. As things currently stood, there was nothing to be gained by revealing her secret love for him. Having her feelings out in the open would only bring her pain, and on the extremely off-chance those feelings were reciprocated, it would only bring Angel frustration and depression. And nobody liked Mr. Grumpy Vamp.

No, she thought, sighing again. It would be better if she just played out the charade and cleansed herself of the naughty feelings that had surged through her every time she’d seen him lately. Ever since he’d played the devoted lover for a captivated audience of Xander and Anya.

If she could just remember that they were playacting, she could manage her crazy feelings.

Unless he demanded his payback. . . whatever the hell his devious mind would come up with.

She shuddered and switched off the water. That thought scared her more than everything else combined.

***

Angel traced a random pattern in the condensation that collected outside of his glass of beer. It collected on his fingertip as he drew in it, then gathered into a drop and rolled down the curved surface and puddle into a ring on the table. It sat nearly untouched, Angel’s eyes staring unfocused into the amber liquid as if it held the answers to the meaning of life.

So far, the stubborn beverage had refused to give up its secrets.

Frowning, Angel wondered if he’d wasted enough time and he could go back to the stateroom. He’d been trying valiantly to keep his thoughts off of Cordelia. His treacherous mind was aching to conjure up visions of her in the shower, but he’d steadfastly pushed them aside. He’d filled his mind with every other topic he could think of, even some he hadn’t even considered before. Like why bars put pretzels in a basket. Like why bartenders always seemed to stay busy when he was the only customer.

Like why champions couldn’t seem to help falling in love with their seers.

He sighed, bringing his finger down onto the bar and pulling condensation from the puddle at the bottom of the glass, using it as a pen to draw on the gleaming surface. He traced a few indiscernible shapes, then one that took on the shape of a heart. His eyes darting around, he quickly obliterated it in a way strangely similar to that of a junior high girl who’d been caught doodling her crush’s name on her notebook. Sitting up after he’d tampered with the evidence and clearing his throat, he shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

With a determined move, Angel grasped the glass firmly in his fist and brought it to his mouth, downing half the contents in a strong gulp.

He nearly choked when the voice interrupted him.

“Hey, Deadboy. Drowning your sorrows?” Xander said, a smile on his face. He sat down next to Angel, motioning for the bartender. He ordered a beer, same as Angel’s, and turned to the vampire as the bartender moved away.

A gleeful smile lit up his face as his chair moved. “Ooh, swivel chairs!” he said with the enthusiasm of a five year old. “Way cool.” He swiveled a few times in the sedentary version of the twist.

Angel rolled his eyes, waiting for Xander to spin all the way around with his hands raised in the air, but the childishness was short lived.

“What are you doing here?” Angel asked, not looking at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be giving your girlfriend orgasms or something?”

Xander had the grace to blush as the bartender plunked his drink in front of him, smirking. He’d obviously overheard Angel’s comment.

“Yeah, well, she got mad at me during our dance class.”

“What did you do?” Angel asked, surprised that he was actually curious.

Oh, I don’t have great rhythm. I stepped on her toes a few times.”

Angel raised his eyebrows. “And for that she kicked you out?” Anya didn’t seem to be the type to let a few bruised toes stand in the way of her sexual euphoria.

“Well. . .” Xander trailed off, looking sheepishly into his glass. “That, and there was another woman there who really reminded me of Buffy, except she had way bigger boobs. I kept staring at her, trying to decide if I was imagining things, and Anya didn’t like that so much.”

Smirking, Angel took another sip of his drink. “Not too smart there, boy.”

“Well, what do you know?” Xander said defensively. “It’s not as if your track record with women is flawless.”

Angel frowned as he realized that Xander didn’t even know the half of it. He remained silent.

“So what’s the deal with you and Cordy, anyway?” Xander said, obviously wanting to get the skinny on his former girlfriend. “Last I knew, you were still a hands-off kinda guy.”

Angel shrugged. “Things change.”

It was Xander’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Not things like that.”

He was answered by Angel’s silence, and for a few moments, Xander thought that was all he was going to get. He was startled to watch Angel’s mouth open as if to say something, the close again as he frowned.

Xander smirked at him, then clapped a hand on the vampire’s broad back. “Go ahead, buddy. Tell me all about it. I can keep a secret.”

Angel glared at him with enough heat to make Xander quickly remove his hand. “What?” the younger man said defensively. “It’s not like we’re enemies. Not really, right? I mean, you’ve got a soul. You’re good. Sort of.”

Angel just snorted, then shook his head. What the hell? It was only Xander. He was practically harmless. “Last year was kind of rough, okay? I went through this depressing period and I kind of slept with Darla.”

Xander choked on his beer. “Darla? As in your sire Darla? As in the one that Buffy STAKED?”

“Yup,” Angel said. “That’s her. Wolfram & Hart resurrected her as a human, but she got turned again by Drucilla, and it kind of all went downhill from there.”

Geez. You’d think there was only the Pony Express between L.A. and Sunnydale with the amount of news we’ve heard. You guys ever hear of this new-fangled invention called a phone?”

A low growl warned Xander to cut the sarcasm.

Xander ignored it and went on. “And what does sleeping with Darla have to do with your curse?”

Angel explained his epiphany and the anchoring of his curse, and Xander took a moment to digest it.

“So why, exactly, didn’t you come back to Buffy when you found out about this?”

Angel looked uncomfortable. “The reasons Buffy and I broke up weren’t only about the curse, Xander. There were other things involved. She’s the Slayer. I’m a vampire. Not exactly a good combination.”

“Spike doesn’t seem to think so,” Xander muttered.

“Spike?” Angel growled, his vampiric hearing catching Xander’s comment. “Buffy’s dating Spike?!?”

“Dating?” Xander laughed mirthlessly. “I wouldn’t call it dating, exactly. He claims he’s in love with her. She beats him up. That’s about it.”

Angel was silent for a moment. “She does know that beating him up will only make him want her more, right?”

A look of distaste passed over Xander’s face. “That’s just sick,” he commented. “But this isn’t about Buffy and Spike. This is obviously about you and Cordy. Guess you guys are having lots of . . . um. . . fun together.”

“Yeah,” Angel said, but his tone said exactly the opposite.

A light dawned in Xander’s mind as he carefully watched Angel’s face. “You aren’t sleeping together, are you?” he said slowly.

“What?” Angel had a stricken look of panic in his eyes. “Of course we are!”

“You’re not!” Xander grinned, pointing at him triumphantly. “You haven’t told her about the curse, have you? Have you?” Xander was practically jumping up and down in his seat, stoked beyond belief that he’d figured the cryptic dead guy out.

“Shhh!” Angel hissed angrily. “If the people on this cruise find out we aren’t having sex, they’ll kick us off at the next port. Shut up!”

“But you’re in love with her, aren’t you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yeah,” Angel sighed, then frowned as he was suddenly struck with the realization that Xander Harris had just become his confidante. He looked at his beer, then the bartender, suspiciously. There had to be something wrong with the universe.

“Dude, you’d better make a move soon. Cordy doesn’t hang around forever.”

“Maybe not for you.”

“Hey!” Xander glared at him, then frowned. “Well, I guess cheating on her kind of ruined my chances.”

“Well, ‘duh,’ as she would say.”

They sat in a few more moments of companionable silence.

“So what are you going to do about it?” Xander asked finally.

“Nothing.”

Xander stared at him in disbelief. “You’re in love with her, you can sleep with her now, and you aren’t going to do anything? What’s wrong with you?”

Angel shook his head. “I just can’t figure out how to tell her. I mean, if I seduce her, then tell her about the curse, she’ll hate me because I didn’t tell her. If I tell her now, she won’t trust me when I tell her I love her. And if I don’t tell her now and she finds out by accident, then she’ll hate me even more. I’m totally screwed.”

Xander pondered this thoughtfully for a moment. “You’re right; you are screwed. But I think there’s still a way to salvage this. You can make it work.”

Angel looked at Xander cautiously, wondering at his own sanity as he considered taking relationship advice from a twenty-something with the relationship experience of a house plant. After a moment, he sighed, then thought, what the hell? It wasn’t as if he could figure this out on his own.

“How?”

Xander smiled with satisfaction, leaning back in his chair. “So here’s what I think you should do.”

***

Standing in front of the stateroom door, Angel wasn’t so sure that Xander’s advice was the best course of action. Sure, the reasoning he’d given was sound, but this was Xander. The kid who’s relationship experience constituted a strange affair with an ex-demon and a high school fling broken up by infidelity. Not exactly a Dr. Phil-caliber résumé.

On the other hand, Angel’s own romantic history wasn’t exactly a bed of roses. His numerous liaisons as Liam had left him an unhappy young man, searching for fulfillment. His emptiness had led him straight to Darla’s arms. She’d delivered a world infinitely more empty than his human one. It wasn’t until he’d met Buffy that he’d finally glimpsed what it felt like to be whole, if only for a second.

And it wasn’t until he’d let Cordelia worm her way into the recesses of his heart that he’d been able to hang on to that feeling.

Clenching his fists, Angel sighed and closed his eyes, turning his face away from the closed door in front of him. His feet felt bolted to the corridor’s plush carpeting, the heaviness in his heart keeping him from moving. There was so much at stake here. If he put this plan into action, if he told her about Darla—

A shudder rippled through him. Like a thunderhead rolling, gaining speed and intensity, Angel’s fears built one upon the other and consumed his mind for the space of a few seconds that felt like infinitely more. He imagined what it would feel like to lay out his heart, flay it open and wait as Cordelia pronounced judgment on him for his indiscretions. Intense, freezing cold swept through him. She would reject him. He knew she would. It was inevitable.

It was simple, really. Angel never received forgiveness.

And then, just as quickly as they’d overwhelmed him, the morose thoughts dissipated. It didn’t really matter what the outcome was; Angel knew he’d have to tell Cordelia about what happened. She’d find out somehow, he knew it in his gut, and whatever her reaction, Angel wanted to be in control.

As goofy as he was about most things, Xander was right about this. Angel had to come clean. There were no other options. And if what Xander said was right, if Cordelia cared about him enough, she’d forgive him. Eventually.

Taking a deep breath to fortify himself, Angel grabbed the doorknob and twisted. He was completely unprepared for the sight that greeted him.

***

Steam wafting in wispy clouds around her, Cordelia stepped out of the shower and reached for a luxurious, fluffy towel on the rack in the bathroom. Angel would probably be back any moment, so she had to hurry. A quick swipe of the towel across her skin whisked away most of the moisture, and she hurried into the bedroom for her clothes.

Rifling through her suitcase, Cordelia found clothes and tossed them haphazardly on the bed. Butterflies swarmed in her stomach, her nervousness at being caught half-clothed making her fingers clumsy and but beads of water still clung here and there, glittering in the half-light. Quickly, she reached for her panties.

Just as she was sliding them up, a click echoed in the stillness of the room, making her lose her balance and fall back against the bed. Hands scrambling to cover her breasts, her eyes found Angel’s, their gazes locking with magnetic attraction. Time stood still for an instant.

Angel broke eye contact first, his gaze dropping slowly down her figure with the laziness of a gentle caress. Feeling her body warm with the sweep of his eyes, Cordy felt a wash of embarrassment flow over her. Turning her back, she pulled on and secured her bra. A quick snap fastened her jeans, and she reached for her t-shirt, pulling it swiftly over her head. Only when she was finished did Cordelia feel secure enough to meet Angel’s eyes again.

What she saw there made her breath catch.

A thousand somber emotions swirled in his dark eyes, none clear enough for her to identify. The serious intensity in them was frightening, her heart clenching in response. It felt as though the axe was about to drop.

“You got a minute?” Angel’s voice was soft, but its deep tones reverberated in the room.

“Yeah,” she answered, taking a deep breath. Moving back, she sat down on the bed and patted the space beside her.

Angel shook his head slightly. “I think I need to stand.”

Cordelia raised an eyebrow warily. “That serious, huh?”

His silence made her nervous. “Whatever it is, just say it, Angel. You’re freaking me out.”

Turning to her, he half-smiled an apology and sighed, rubbing his face with one hand. “I have something I need to tell you and you aren’t going to like it.”

“I figured that part out, thanks,” she said dryly. “What?”

Staring at her intently, Angel sighed. “Last year, after I fired you and Wes and Gunn, I slept with Darla.”

Cordelia blinked.

When she remained silent, Angel grew worried. “Did you hear me?”

“I don’t think so,” Cordelia said, her eyes wide. “Because I don’t think you would do something so completely and utterly stupid.”

“I did.”

You had sex with Darla,” she clarified.

Angel sighed. “Yes.”

“The hoe-bag who ruined your life more than once.”

“Yes.”

“The most evil woman on the planet, the one you SWORE to me you hadn’t touched.”

Angel winced. “Yes.”

Silence choked him as he waited for her reply.

Finally, Cordelia spoke. “I see,” she said, and stood abruptly, walking briskly over to the porthole and staring out into the inky blackness.

Warily, Angel crossed the room and stood behind her. Reaching out, he moved to put his hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me,” Cordelia whispered, jerking her shoulder away as she sensed his nearness.

They stood there, inches apart, and let the misery waft around them.

“You lied to me,” Cordelia finally said, tears in her voice.

“I’m so sorry, Cordelia,” he said simply, and somehow she knew he meant it much more than he could ever express, but that knowledge did nothing to diminish the knife twisting in her heart at his confession.

Face crumbling at her obvious distress, he reached out again, turning her around and placing his hands firmly on her upper arms. Surprise caught him when she just looked up, tears spilling, but didn’t pull away.

“Why, Angel?” she asked again in a whisper. “Why would you risk your soul and sleep with Darla? Why would you even think of doing that?”

Seeing how it affected her, and knowing how much he loved her, his heart broke.

“Cordelia, I have no excuse for what I did,” he admitted, the remorse obvious on his face. He cracked a little further as he watched her lip tremble. “I was so low then that I thought I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t take the guilt of everything I’d done, and all I wanted was the purity of a life without a conscience. Without guilt. Without remorse. So I tried to throw it all away, but it didn’t work.”

“Why didn’t you come to us, Angel? Why did you fire us in the first place? We would have helped you. We care about you,” she whispered, reaching her hands up to lay them on his chest. Her fingers stroked him absently, even as her tears dampened her cheeks. “I care about you.”

He swallowed convulsively, her words cutting him deeper than any insult would have done. “I didn’t want to expose you to the darkness in me then, Cor. I cared too much about you. So I fired you. And Wesley and Gunn, so I could chase my demons on my own and not expose you to the evil inside me.”

His hand came up to caress her cheek. “As awful as it was to hit rock bottom with Darla, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, because it made me see how wrong I’d been about it all. And it gave me my soul, Cordy. I can’t ignore that.”

It took only a few moments for that last declaration to sink in. “It gave you your soul?” she repeated, stunned.

Angel nodded. “My soul is permanent now.”

In a flash, Cordelia’s sadness flared up into anger. Jerking away from him, she moved to a safe distance and crossed her arms over her chest. Staring him down, she asked, “And just how long have you known this?”

Eyes widening, Angel scrambled for an answer. He hadn’t planned for this question, hadn’t evaluated his answer and studied it from every angle. Every answer that echoed in his head sounded unusable.

Eventually, he settled for the truth. If he was digging his own grave, he might as well do it right. “I realized that night.”

“The night you screwed Darla?”

At the derision and contempt in her voice, Angel’s anger flared. “Damn it, Cordy, do you have to say it like that?”

She arched an eyebrow coolly. “Wasn’t that what it was? And I can think of a whole list of other ways to say it, buddy. Wanna hear ’em?”

“No!” he growled, turning away. This wasn’t going as he’d planned, damn it!

“So you screwed Darla,” she said, emphasizing the word he’d hated, “had an epiphany that told you your soul was there for good, and you didn’t think this was important enough to tell anybody?”

“I told Wesley!” he said defensively, immediately regretting the words as he saw her face grow slack with incredulity and an even stronger sense of betrayal.

“You told Wesley and you didn’t tell me?” she whispered, tears flooding her eyes again. “Why, am I not important enough?”

He strode over to her, grabbing her arms and forcing her to look at him. “No! that’s not what I meant. I had to tell Wesley so he could confirm it. But I didn’t tell you because I didn’t know how. I would’ve had to tell you I’d slept with Darla and I didn’t think you’d forgive me.”

She yanked her arm away from him. “You thought right,” she said bitterly, turning away and hugging herself.

“Cordy, don’t do this,” he pleaded. “You’re my best friend.”

“Not by my definition,” she retorted. “Best friends don’t lie to each other. Best friends don’t keep huge, earth-shattering information from each other.”

“Cordy,” he tried again, only to be cut off by her hand slashing the air.

“Just leave me alone, Angel.” Her voice was strained, fatigued.

“We can’t leave it like this.” She couldn’t reject him like this, could she?

“I said get out,” she whispered.

“Wait—”

“GET OUT!” she shouted, no longer able to hold the anger and hurt back.

Angel jerked visibly at the volume of her words. A few quick strides took him outside the room, and the click of the door behind him made him flinch.

The betrayal in her expression haunted him for the rest of the night.

***

Making almost no sound, Angel snuck back into the stateroom just before dawn. Slipping out of his coat, shirt and shoes, he moved silently over to the bed and stood at its side, gazing down on the woman who had run him through the blender just by being in his life.

Cordy lay sprawled out, her body angled in such a way that she took up the maximum amount of space on the massive bed. The covers tangled around her legs, one slim limb peeking out of the covers and tempting him with its smooth, golden length. Her arms stretched above her head, one underneath her pillow, the other on top, her fingers clutching the sheets. Fluttering, her hair moved with each even exhalation.

Angel felt as though he’d stood there for hours just watching her, hoping against everything that she would come around in time. But who was he kidding? He’d be the luckiest man in history if she even deigned to give him the time of day again, let alone allowed him back into her good graces.

But in the end, he couldn’t help himself. Kneeling softly on the bed, he gently nudged her over and slid in beside her. He intended to scoot her far enough away so that she wouldn’t have to touch him again, but in her sleep, Cordelia had different ideas. As soon as he was stretched out beside her, she curled into him and snuggled into his side, her leg sliding up and over him so that her warm body was flush against his. Sighing, she settled back into an even sleep.

Shocked, Angel could only tighten his arm around her and thank his lucky stars. When she woke up, he knew the hell would begin again.

Part 5

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