Angel’s Songs. 3

Chapter 3

December 22, 2002

“Angel? Wesley?” Cordelia knocked and then slowly slid the doors to Wesley’s office open and peeked inside only to find it empty. “Huh. Where the heck is everybody?”

Walking to the center of the lobby, she cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled. “Hello! Ollie ollie oxen free!” The only answer was a slight echo of her voice reverberating off the marble ceiling.

She planted her hands on her hips and humphed. Twisting around on her heels, she stormed to her desk to gather her purse and sweater coat. “Okay, if that’s the way you want to play it! I’m going home now. I hope I don’t get attacked and eaten by giant praying mantis-si or alien pod monsters! If I am, well…you’ll be sorry then, I betcha!”

She got to the door and turned back around to add. “And another thing. How are you going to find your Christmas presents when I’m dead? They’re really good presents, too.” She waited one more time for something from someone, but a shiver was all she got for her trouble when a cold draft winged up her spine.

Part of her was so curious that she could barely keep her feet from racing up the stairs to see what could possibly interest all four of them enough to have abandoned her in favor of it. But the other part of her was too tired to care.

“Fine. Goodnight! I hope I’m alive to see some of you tomorrow!” Pulling the edges of her coat snuggly over her chest to brace against the chilly night breeze, she opened the door and left mumbling, “It’s almost Christmas, and I’m working with a bunch of heathens.”

The suction of the wind slammed the door behind her.

“Is she gone?” Fred asked a bleary-eyed Angel.

He nodded. “She wasn’t very happy, either. One of us should have stayed down there with her.”

“Yes, it might have been a less suspicious course of action, but considering just how much is left to do, every minute counts.” Wesley looked around the wreck of the abandoned room they’d established as their base for “Operation ASQ.” There wasn’t an inch of the space that wasn’t covered in fabric, thread, batting or left-over pizza boxes.

Fred’s hair never ceased to have some scrap or tangle of thread caught up in it. Gunn was in charge of inspecting her every time she left the room so that Cordy wouldn’t be tipped off.

For someone as organized and anal as Wesley, this entire project made him queasy. He hated to fail and there didn’t seem to be a way to avoid it in this instance.

“Angel, I hate to be the harbinger of bad tidings, but I think it’s time to throw in the proverbial towel, or in this case…needle.”

Angel could barely lift his head from the cream cotton that felt like lead in his hand. It seemed like he’d been embroidering that one blurry word for hours. He wasn’t even sure it was a word anymore.

It had taken a day for him to get the hang of the delicacy required to sew the sentiments that everyone had written especially for Cordelia. They were beautiful, funny, smart, and loving just like her. But he’d had no idea how tricky it was to keep the stitches even and refrain from tugging at the thread so hard that the fabric puckered all around. There had been far too much fabric ruined and time wasted in those first few days of learning, but everyone was so enthusiastic that no one wanted to admit that these warriors of good, champions over evil might be defeated by simple needle and thread.

Until now.

Angel put the small block down and raised a weary gaze to the faces of his friends. Each one looked to him for hope, but at the same time recognized the futility of their task. Sighing, closing his eyes and allowing the weight in his soul to carry his head back to rest against the plaster wall, he let everyone off the hook.

“That’s it, guys. Wesley’s right. There’s no point in killing ourselves; we all know we can’t finish this in time.”

Fred was about to protest, just a little, but Gunn touched her shoulder and shook his head.

“We gave it a good try, man. But, hey, it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got two days to find something else, and we’ll all help you figure out what to get her.”

“Yeah,” Fred added, anxious not to let the gloomy atmosphere linger for long. “We all know Cordy well enough to come up with something that she’ll adore and love you for giving to her.”

“Thanks, guys, but I’ve got to do this myself. It has to come from me…you know? Or else…”

“Or else it’s just another gift from one of her friends and not from the man in love with her?”

Angel still had enough energy to smile at the wise woman before him. “Yeah.”

“…”

“Right, then.” Wesley snapped the maudlin atmosphere in two with his leadership voice. Rising to his full height, he daintily began picking off the fuzz and fabric embedded in his wool pants. “I think it’s best we all get some rest. Tomorrow we need to get back on the horse and tend to agency matters that, quite frankly, we’ve all let slide the past few days. I admit I’m just as responsible, well more so since I’m in charge, but we can’t allow ourselves to be pulled into more holiday-induced, devil-may-care behavior or innocents may suffer.”

“Damn, I’m glad you’re not my Secret Santa.” Gunn helped Fred off the floor and caught her in his arms when she started to topple over from fatigue. “It’s almost Christmas, I think we’re entitled to a little slacking off.”

“Ah, but that’s when we should be at our most alert. Every beast of the nether world is fully aware of our vulnerability at this time of…”

“Wesley,” Angel interrupted. “We’ve just spent 124 hours straight putting threads through holes so small even I needed glasses to see them, my fingertips are bleeding from jabbing them every three seconds, and I’m not sure but I may have sewn my trousers to my underwear” he shifted a bit and grimaced, “or worse. I think we deserve a day to relax and recuperate.”

“But, Angel…”

“I’m not saying we don’t show up for work just that we chill for a day. If something happens, we’ll take care of it. We always do.”

It pained Wesley’s pride to acquiesce to Angel yet again, but in this instance he knew he was being unreasonable. “I guess you’re right. We always do muddle through despite our sometimes painfully inadequate preparations. I just thought…”

Gunn punched him playfully in the bicep. “We know, English. It’s your way of cheering us up by making us even more depressed about something else. You know that never works, don’t you?”

The former Watcher’s brow creased and the corners of his mouth hitched up slightly. “My clever ruse has been discovered, has it?”

Gunn put his free arm around Wesley’s shoulder, the other still holding a yawning Fred to his side, and the three dragged themselves from the trashed room to their own beds and well needed sleep.

“Please, I figured that out the first time I met you. Well, okay, not the first time because you were unconscious in a hospital bed, but definitely by the second time.”

“The second time you merely handed over that talisman; what was there to figure out about that?”

“Oh, you were so ruse-in’ back then, even more than you do now…”

Angel listened to his friends’ tease each other as they drifted back into their own lives and out of the drama of his. He was on his own, which is how it should have been all along.

Whatever was to become of his relationship, or lack of one, with Cordelia was resting on his shoulders – the ones that slid slightly to the left as his head pulled his body toward the comfort of the floor.

He closed his eyes hoping his mind would shut down long enough to catch a few hours of sleep before he had to worry about what to do about Cordy’s present. He didn’t care if he was lying in a whirlwind of cotton. He didn’t have the strength to crawl to his room.

On the cusp of deep slumber, he heard a kind voice, cracked with age and experience, whisper to his dream self.

“Say the words, say the words.”

Angel mumbled, “In the morning, okay?” and nuzzled deeper into the sea of quilt bones and calico.

December 24, 2002

For two nights the old woman’s voice had haunted his dreams, pestering him with her incessant chanting. He had the oddest feeling there was a tinge of Cordy about her, but he chalked it up to his dreams morphing qualities of the two together.

Whether it was his subconscious egging him forward or the spirit of some witch, he was convinced the voice was right. He had to just tell her, with or without the perfect gift or the right moment.

He finally figured out what the old bat had tried to tell him a week ago. When he told Cordelia how he felt about her, that would become *the* ideal moment he’d been waiting for. It wouldn’t matter if he handed her a quilt or his empty palm; as long as he loved her and she returned that love, they didn’t need anything else.

He really hated that he got that. He felt like such a pansy, but at the same time it gave him strength knowing he’d resolved to just do it and accept the consequences if everyone was wrong about her feelings for him.

With that burden lifted, the gift didn’t really take long to find.

Angel wasn’t a fool. Love was great and all, but before all the hugging and kissing and possibly sex, he’d better have a real present for her or Cordy would make good on all her eunuch talk just before she dusted him.

The small box in the middle of the bed seemed so insignificant compared to what he had hoped to give her. But even though it wasn’t all that unique and definitely not worthy of the neck it would grace, he found a way – he hoped – to still show her he understood what that quilt from years past had meant to her.

Putting the last swirl on the last letter of his name, he folded the note that would explain the gift’s significance and tucked it inside the winter white envelope. The last obstacle – address it to Cordy or Cordelia?

Cordelia was the woman: sophisticated, intelligent, strong, and independent. Cordy was the friend: warm, funny, understanding, and loving. He loved and treasured them both.

His pen hovered over the linen textured surface, the strains of Bing dreaming of a white Christmas floating up the stairs and disturbing his concentration. He got as far as “Cor” and then stopped.

“Cor.” He said it in his mind a few times and a feeling of “just right” settled in his chest.

“Of course. She’s my core – my rock – my center.”

He put the pen down, finally finished and ready for Christmas. The tiny box was a dead giveaway as to its contents, so he had no plans of putting it under the tree. Besides it was something he intended to give her privately. He just hoped the gang wouldn’t start teasing him about it and force the whole thing into a public fiasco.

Stuffing the box and the note into his coat pocket, he made a mental note to warn the others. “Especially Fred. That girl does have a problem containing her excitement.”

Cordy’s scream wiped that plan from his thoughts.

Flying from his room, he ran to the railing and was about to jump over into the lobby when she stopped him.

“Vision. Get what you need, I’ll grab a few weapons and then we have to move.”

“Where is everybody?” He didn’t want her going. Even with her demon half and her glowy power, he still wanted her nowhere near danger.

“It’s just us, big guy, and we can’t wait around for them. Now hustle!”

He hesitated a second and then raced for his room where his coat and shoes waited. It would have been pointless to argue with her. He’d learned that much. Besides she held all the cards. Only she knew where the danger was and she wouldn’t allow him to go into battle without backup if she could help it.

They were both stubborn in their protectiveness of the other and when there was a stalemate, they both had learned to bend a little. It didn’t make it any easier to take, however.

Shoes tied tightly, Angel shrugged on the leather coat and patted his pockets feeling for the weapons he knew were standard issue. Mid staircase, Cordy threw the car keys and his broadsword to him and lead the way through the garden doors to the Plymouth, mace in one hand and hurling axe in the other.

Axe means demon. This should be an interesting Christmas Eve.

***

The ride out of the city had been tense. Cordelia wasn’t the best navigator in the world, only telling him where to turn at the last possible moment, so they left the borders of LA county with a trail of pissed off motorists behind.

Once they’d started up the pitch black two-lane into the San Gabriel Mountains and the vast terrain of the Angeles National Forest, the pace was still hurried but decidedly more relaxed.

“You’d think the Powers would have someone closer they could have called on for this one.” Angel broke the silence that had settled in the car. He’d started to realize their whole evening was going to be taken up with this case once Cordy finally told him their approximate destination, and he wasn’t happy about it.

Cordy reached over and turned on the radio, quickly locating a station with 24-hour Christmas music.

“I don’t know, maybe this is their way of giving us a spontaneous trip to the mountains. Sure, it’ll be filled with slime and possibly the loss of a limb or two, but it could be fun. Oh, and look! Snow!”

He took his eyes off the road long enough to watch her staring out the window in wonder. She looked like a child seeing flakes for the first time and wondering how such a beautiful thing was possible. His expression was probably no different from hers.

They drove higher, the density of the forest increasing with the elevation as did the storm. The wipers cleared a path for his vision and kept time with Alabama’s “Christmas in Dixie” but couldn’t drown out the caterwauling coming from the passenger seat.

“Christmas in Dixie, it’s snowin’ in the pines…”

“Cordelia, please.”

“Angel, you know that never works. Besides, I’m just trying to keep the Christmas spirit alive and get you ready for battle. Admit it. You really want to strangle something right now.”

There it was. That cute peek from under half shuttered lids, her teeth gnawing at her bottom lip, her brows lifted as if she had no idea what power she wielded with those arcing bows of wispy hair. It was the look that reminded him how much of a little girl she still was in many ways. The look that took every bit of evil buried in his demon genes and replaced it with a fierce burning to protect and ward off anything that would ever mar her innocence.

It even had the power to make him feel like a guileless youth and no one had made him feel like that – ever.

He could never stay annoyed with her when that one look shot an arrow straight to the love center of his soul. He chuckled softly, saying, “You can stop trying. I always want to strangle something when I’m around you.”

“Angel!” Her backhanded slap was perfectly aimed as always – his right bicep began to sting instantly.

“Ow! You do realize you’re part demon now and that really hurts. Don’t damage the merchandise. I might need to kill something later – other than you.”

“Oops, sorry. Hey! You’re the one who insulted me. Take it back, and maybe I’ll rub your arm and make it feel better.”

He didn’t see that coming, but he wasn’t about to turn down a little Cordy hand action. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to strangle you all the time.”

He held out his arm so she could start the massage. When nothing happened, he looked at her. She was staring out the window, looking intently at the mass of pine and veil of snow as it rushed by. He waved his arm directly in her face.

“What?” she asked as she pushed his hand out of her face.

“My arm? Start rubbing.”

“I didn’t mean now.”

“But it hurts now.”

“Oh, suck it up, you big baby, besides we’re here. Turn at that little dirt road on the right.”

He hated himself when he pouted, but there were times he couldn’t help it. And she was the only one that could make his lip pooch out involuntarily.

The back tires of the Plymouth slid wide to the left and Angel turned into it instantly pulling the tank into control and straight down the narrow path. Several hundred yards out, he could barely make out dim yellow lights that probably glowed from the small windows of a secluded cabin.

“Where to, Cordy?”

“A little further. There’s a house and an old woman about to have her head removed for Christmas. Great surprise, huh?”

He nodded his agreement as he wrestled with the wheel to maneuver around pot holes big enough to swallow a small village. Seeing the chasms wasn’t made any easier by the white out falling from the sky. His head hit the roof a few times, and he swore under his breath about the cost of replacing shock absorbers these days before the lights suddenly appeared through a tear in the snow blanket. They were almost there.

“So what’s the deal with this demon?

“You mean Joe?” Cordy asked before she hit her knee on the glove compartment. “Ouch.”

“Sorry. The demon’s name is Joe?”

“Mean Joe Green. He’s green, mean and, well, you get the idea.”

“Okay, so what’s the magic word? I’d kinda like to get this over fast so we can get home.”

“Ass.”

“What? What did I say?” His foot slammed on the brake about thirty feet from the front of the log structure now clearly defined in front of and protected from the storm by a stand of evergreens.

“The magic word, dumbass, is ass. Stick that sword where the sun don’t shine, and we’ll be hippity hopping our way back to the warm – okay, deathly cold and dreary – marble halls of home.”

He turned off the ignition, grasped the door handle, and was about to jump from the car when he turned to her and said, “Didn’t you just switch holidays?”

She halted her exit long enough to flash him her ear-to-ear smile. “A girl can’t start too early dropping hints. A nice Easter outfit wouldn’t be sneered at.”

Angel’s belly laugh immediately was sucked into the night void and drowned out by the howl of nature’s attempt to paint the earth with purity.

“Cordy! Stay behind me. I don’t want you getting lost in this storm.”

For once, she wasn’t arguing. She fisted a measure of leather, and Angel was grateful to have the assurance she was there but cringed at the damage she was probably causing with her nails.

Even through the strong scent of pine and crisp tang of ice, he could smell the fowl stench of evil close by. He followed the trail carried by strong winds that sliced at his nostrils, and soon they were edging around the back corner of the house.

A humped figure in a tan suede coat, indigo jeans and fur-lined boots was collecting firewood from the cord piled against the back wall, the light from the kitchen door granting her enough light to do so without fumbling. It also gave him a clear view of the creature sneaking on all fours toward her from the edge of the woods.

Angel pulled Cordy out from behind him, pointed at the demon and then silently signaled for her to stay and watch out for the woman. She nodded, immediately understanding.

Stretching to his full height, Angel walked determinedly toward the danger. The wind whipped his coat around his legs, the flapping noise it made so loud any chance at stealthy was merely a dashed hope. He rubbed the hilt of the sword in his palm firming his grip and raised it waist high as the demon spotted his approach.

The howl of the storm couldn’t snuff out the cries of the weak-assed demon and the grunts Angel expelled with each blow. Cordy stayed motionless until the two engaged but winced at the scream from the woman when she finally recognized her life was in peril.

Hesitating for only a second, Cordy side-stepped her way to their helpless client, her axe poised and ready if needed. Her eyes darted from the woman to Angel and back again until she reached her and began to tug at her, but her frail bones were locked and her muscles paralyzed.

“Lady! Come on! Into the house now!”

She wouldn’t budge, her gaze transfixed by the monster before her. Even Cordy’s demon strength wasn’t enough to get the flimsy-looking body to safety when she fell to her knees in shock.

Angel’s sword stabbed at tough hide and despite its sharp blade was merely nicking the beast and making it really mad. Fully aware of its Achilles’…um…butt, Joe kept its ass constantly moving and tucked beneath its massive, alligator-like tail.

“You’re really beginning to tick me off, Joe.” Angel spun and kicked at its exposed chest propelling it backward, its stubby arms windmilling to right itself.

Regaining its balance, it rushed forward, three sloth-like claws bared and aimed at Angel’s midsection. Angel was about to jump backward and bend at the waist to avoid the razors’ tips, but he stepped on a felled tree trunk and ended up pushing his stomach forward instead, his body automatically attempting to avoid tripping.

“Angel!” Cordy screamed as the claws met flesh and came out the other side dripping red.

She stared horrified as Angel dropped his sword to clutch at the ripped skin. Head bowed to assess the injury he didn’t see the other set of talons sweeping up to strike another blow – possibly fatal.

“Ahh!” Her battle cry pierced the darkness and made Angel’s veins freeze.

Time slowed as he saw her running toward the green menace, axe risen above her head with both hands, the edges of her form becoming more brilliant with each step making the snow sparkle as it whirled in her wake.

“Cordy, noooooo!” Angel’s terrified plea came too late.

Joe turned to face the threat from behind and was greeted with the blade of her axe as it severed the clawed hand that had dared cause harm to her family. Wailing in pain and rage, it hurled its body at the well-lit target taking both itself and Cordelia to the ground.

Angel was shocked from his stupor by Cordy’s voice.

“Now, Angel! Kick its ass now! Literally!”

Cordy’s back was on the snow covered earth, the demon’s one good clawed hand and snapping jaws being held at bay, but only barely, by the bright-white strength issuing forth through her hand clasped around its wrist and the other around its neck.

In its anger to destroy the thing that had maimed it, Mean Joe had left itself exposed. Angel picked up his weapon and trying not to think about where he was sticking it, plunged it over and over again into the soft area immediately under the strong tail muscle.

Before its final yowl and its body collapsed, streams of fluorescent yellow blood spurted from the gouges splattering Angel from chest to knee. When he flung the corpse away from Cordy, he could see her pants and flimsy coat had faired no better.

But it didn’t matter because she was alive.

“Damn it, Cor!” He pulled her up from the ground and into his shaky embrace.

“Are you ever going to listen to anything I say?” he almost whispered, the words cracking in his throat.

“I’m going with ‘no’,” she said as she tried to squirm free of his life-crushing arms and grab a lung full of air. “Angel, having trouble breathing now.”

He lessened his grip enough for her feet to touch the ground, but he refused to let her go.

“Besides,” she said, “who’s the one with their intestines hanging out and who’s scratch free? And can I say, not a good look for you.”

Angel’s eyes followed her gaze to his stomach. “Damn. This was my Christmas shirt.”

She laughed, a sound that echoed through the boughs like the ringing of bells. “I could tell – it being a greener shade of black than your everyday black ones.

“Haha. This one is pure silk with covered buttons. It has a festive quality to it. Well, it did.”

She cupped his cheek, spread her mouth into a wide grin, and it hit him how completely and utterly empty his life would be if he could never see that smile again. His knees began to wobble slightly when the reality of what he’d almost lost gripped his heart, mind and soul. And in the midst of that terrible thought, she did the most amazing thing.

She kissed him. Smack dab on the lips.

His already shaky legs might have failed him if it had lasted longer than a millisecond. Cordy pulled back suddenly when a scraggly voice cut through the stillness surrounding them.

“Looks like you two just saved my worthless hide. You best come in the house and get patched up.” The pepper-haired woman, having made a miraculous recovery from her initial stupor, turned and trudged toward the kitchen door never doubting they would follow.

He didn’t know whether to kill the interfering victim or hug her for stopping him from being an embarrassing puddle at Cordy’s feet.

“Come on, Angel. I need to check you out.” She stuttered as the veins in her cheeks filled. “I mean, I need to look at your abs. Damn it! I mean I need to…”

Angel captured her flailing hands with his and smiled. “I know what you mean.”

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and let her think he needed help walking to the cabin. He didn’t feel the least bit guilty as her arm circled his waist and the fingers of her free hand manacled his wrist holding him in place against her.

Nope. Not one bit guilty.

“Don’t forget my arm,” he reminded her as the two limped their way slowly toward the warmth and safety of the shelter.

“What about your arm?”

The soft blanket of flakes that floated around them muffled their gentle teasing from any nearby ears.

“You’re supposed to rub it better. You promised.”

“If you don’t shut up about that, I may have to rub something else.”

“Really? What did you have in mind?”

“You’re just a dirty old man, aren’t you?”

“You just now figure that out?”

“Close the door and take off your shirt.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

***

The cabin’s living room was cozy and fragrant with hand-braided rag rugs, rough-hewn pine furniture and wine and cream fabrics covering plump cushions. The large river stone fireplace drew focus to the center where a crackling blaze pushed the chill from the heart of the room to its fringes. Angel sat on the raised flagstone hearth, his back warmed by the fire, while Cordelia knelt between his knees to tend to his wounds.

The old woman introduced herself as Beatrice Wannamaker of the Atlanta Wannamakers. She’d said it proudly as if Angel and Cordy would, of course, know the reference. They merely nodded and smiled and Cordy continued to wrap the gauze Beatrice had provided around his waist.

He squeezed her shoulder in gratitude knowing she had stifled words Angel could easily imagine she wanted to say. Words that probably would have gone something like, “So? I’m Cordelia Chase of the Hellmouth Chases. Big whoop.”

“Beatrice, have you lived here long?” Angel quickly asked trying to cover up her muffled “pfft” in response to his silent thanks.

“Long enough to know what I saw out there wasn’t human nor any animal I’ve ever seen in these woods. And I know it’s not the fourth of July, so that light show wasn’t exactly kosher. Care to let a tough old broad in on what’s going on here.”

“Well, I’m a vampire with a soul, Cordelia’s a half-demon seer and that thing that almost killed you was Mean Joe Green.”

Cordy’s body was shaking with stifled laughter. Leaning in, she whispered, “Smooth, Omega Man.”

“No need to be a smarty pants, son. A straight out ‘it’s none of your business’ would’ve worked just fine. Now I’ll get you two some clothes to sleep in. I’ve got some from my husband and daughter that should fit you fine.”

Cordy turned and stretched her arm out to halt her exit. “No, thanks, that won’t be necessary. We’ll be leaving in a few minutes.”

“Well, you’re welcome to try, but if you value your life you’d be smarter to stay put. That storm out there came up behind you. Right now there’s at least a foot of snow covering the road you came in on and it’s not letting up until morning.”

Cordy turned back and peered up into Angel’s eyes, unable to hide the moisture forming in her own. “But, Angel, it’s almost Christmas. I want to go home.”

He hated not giving her everything she wanted, but he wasn’t willing to risk her life. He moaned when she sniffed trying to stem her tears. “Ah, Cordy, don’t. You saw what it’s like out there and the way we slid around getting here. It’s bad now and only getting worse. We can head back in the morning and still have Christmas with everybody later.”

Realizing she wasn’t going to persuade him, she slumped back on her haunches and staunched the tears with the heels of her palms. “Fine, but don’t think you’re getting out of cooking Christmas dinner. I don’t care if we have to eat turkey at three o’clock in the morning; I’m having a real Christmas dinner.”

Impressed as always at the way she adapted, he grinned and stroked her cheek. “I never thought otherwise. Why don’t you call Wesley and tell him what’s happening.”

“My cell won’t pick up a signal here. Do you have a phone?” she asked Beatrice.

“Of course I do. I may be old and eccentric, but I’m not crazy. It’s that old-fashioned monstrosity on the kitchen wall. It’s big and puke green, you can’t miss it.” She pointed the way down the hall.

When the coast was clear, Bea whispered to Angel, “Do you think she’ll know what to do with a rotary phone?”

Angel liked the old broad. “Actually, we have a pretty ancient rotary in our office. I think she can handle it.”

“Well, maybe there’s hope for you youngsters yet. I’ll be right back with your clean clothes.”

Alone for the first time in several hours, Angel took a moment to gather his thoughts and absorb his surroundings. He inspected Cordy’s handiwork on his injury and, as always, felt better just from the care and attention.

Letting his eyes scan the room, he did a mental calculation about the size of the house. It was small, but the rooms were spacious. He looked up and admired the exposed beams and noted that the logs were notched and not planed flat to fit together. It showed the builder put in a lot of hard work and love into making this house a home.

“My husband and I built this place from scratch,” Bea said, startling Angel even though he hid it well. “We never had more fun or loved each other more passionately than when we were putting this all together, log by log. Have you ever done that? Created something that didn’t exist before with somebody you love? Watched it weather storms and all of the world’s changes and yet amazingly it still stands despite your own neglect?”

Angel saw a world of memories in her eyes and each one caused a flicker of joy and sadness and hope and more emotions than he knew existed, and he longed to know each and every one of them.

“No, I haven’t,” he confessed.

“I think you have. I can see it every time you look at her. All you have to do is tell her, you know.”

Angel’s mouth fell open. What was it with these old women seeing right through him?

She winked and shoved his chin up. “Better close that trap, son; you’re catching flies. Now here.” She handed him a pair of navy sweatpants, a brown and red flannel shirt and white tube socks.

Angel finally shook his stare away from Bea’s all-knowing eyes, and looked at the clothing in his lap. He frowned at the mismatched and style-challenged ensemble.

“Sorry, it’s the best I’ve got and tonight when it’s about ten below out there, you’ll be damn grateful for them.”

He snorted and nodded in understanding. “You’re right. Thank you. I’m just…I’m not a flannel kind of guy.”

“You live in the mountains long enough and you won’t want to wear anything else – except maybe thermals, and I’m guessing you’re pretty glad right now I didn’t pull out the long johns.”

“Ha! You’d be very right about that.” He couldn’t contain the self-deprecating snorts that erupted as he visualized himself in just such a red union suit.

“Right about what?” Cordy entered the room behind Beatrice and seemed vexed and extremely curious about what had made Angel laugh.

“We were just talking about Angel’s preference in underwear,” Bea said, and without pause handed over Cordy’s new wardrobe. “Here. Don’t bother complaining. I know it’s not Chanel or whoever’s the big chichi designer today, but they’ll keep you from freezing to death.”

Cordy held up a white pair of leggings, a cornflower blue button-up pajama top and the back-by-popular-demand tube socks. “Um…thanks.”

“Uh-huh. I’ll show you to your room and then I’m hitting the sack. I’ve got to be up at dawn because…” She stopped in her tour at a sudden realization. “Well, hell, I don’t know why. It’s just what I do I guess. Whaddya know.” She shrugged and started walking again.

Cordy turned back to glance and Angel and made a large circle in the air near her temple and mouthed the word, “Cuckoo.”

Angel pulled her hand down and pinched his face in disappointment at her. She humphed at his rebuke and continued the parade behind Bea down the hallway to an open door that she had disappeared into.

Once in the doorframe, Cordy stopped cold and Angel ran into her. He looked up to assess what caused the bottleneck and saw immediately what concerned her.

The bed – only one – and a small one at that. Sure it was a standard full, but Angel knew he could fill that out just by himself.

Cordy stuttered a bit and her voice was unusually timid, “So, just the one bed then?”

“That’s okay, I’ll take the floor or the couch is fine,” Angel said quickly, eager to alleviate the tension that replaced all breathable air the minute they’d reached the room.

Bea said helpfully, “Well, there’s my bed. If you don’t want to sleep with him, I sure don’t mind.”

Both Cordy and Angel gaped at her, their open mouths detracting from their normal good looks.

“Oh, don’t look so shocked. Old – not dead. Listen, I don’t care what sleeping arrangements you two make. Bed, floor, couch, bathtub – makes no never mind to me. I’ve got to warn you that when the fire dies, you’d be a lot more comfortable sleeping with someone than alone. You can take that to the bank. Goodnight.”

Without the buffer of Beatrice, the room was crazy loud with awkwardness. Cordy was the first to break.

“Okay, this is silly. You’re hurt and need to get some rest in a real bed. I’m not a floor, couch or bathtub kind of gal, so it looks like we’re sharing. Not a big deal, right? It’s just sleeping.”

The words were convincing, but her heart hadn’t slowed down since she entered the room. Plus, her excited babble was a dead giveaway that everything she was saying was a complete lie. She was trying to convince herself it didn’t matter when it obviously did.

Angel turned her around to look at him, keeping his hands on her shoulders as he spoke. “Cordy, I don’t mind the couch. I’ll be fine.”

“No, you heard her. It’s going to get really cold tonight and my bones are not rattling alone!”

“Dead guy, here. I don’t have any body heat. I’ll just make you even colder.”

“I don’t know. You’re pretty white. My body heat can reflect off you and bounce back on me,” she smiled at her clever solution.

“Assuming that insane idea could work, we’d both have to be naked.”

Angel couldn’t believe he’d just said that and from the rapidly reddening cheeks of Cordelia, she couldn’t believe it either.

She found a spot on the floor to stare at while the uncomfortable moment dragged on and on.

“Oh!” she suddenly said, the ideal solution coming to her. “Take a really long, hot bath to get warmed up and then maybe you won’t leech all my body heat. We can both stay warm.”

If she was suggesting what he thought she was suggesting, there was no doubt he’d stay heated up.

“Maybe I should just stay in the living room and keep the fire going so everyone will be warm,” he said as he turned to leave.

“No way, buster.” Her hand caught his wrist and twisted him back around. “You are not staying up all night just so you can be too tired to drive us home or worse, sleep Christmas day away and not cook! Is it really such a chore to sleep with me? Just kick me if I snore or drool on you. Now I’m going to use the bathroom and then you get in there and start steeping!”

She pushed past him and was behind the bathroom door before he could stumble over the words of protest that burned in his throat. How could she possibly think it would be a trial to sleep with her? He shook his head unable to comprehend the woman’s thought processes.

He ambled to the bathroom and heard the water in the sink running. He knocked and said in an almost whisper, “Cordy, it is not a chore to sleep with you. Okay?”

All he got in reply was a muffled humph.

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