Protected. 5

Chapter Five

Muted green radiance from the dashboard lights cast a sickly light across the Cordelia’s features, leaving the rest of the vehicle’s interior in gloom. Her eyes flicked to her rear vision mirror, amusement curling her lips into a genuine smile.

Seated in the back passenger-side seat, Angel naturally cast no reflection in the small rectangular looking glass. The little girl fast asleep on his lap appeared to be floating several inches above the leather, snuggled up against an invisible barrier that prevented her from physically touching the backrest.

The streets of Sunnydale at three in the morning were devoid of both pedestrians and traffic, and so Cordelia risked a quick half-glance over her shoulder at her passengers.

Angel was slouching slightly, allowing the little girl to lie comfortably on her side against his chest, her slim legs stretching out across the leather beside them. She looked more peaceful now, her exhaustion having dragged her into a deep slumber, but even in sleep one of her small hands clutched desperately at the black material of Angel’s shirt, afraid to be separated from him again. Afraid to lose him.

The vampire’s eyes were closed too. It stunned Cordelia that he was so at ease with the young girl, when he had only ever seemed uncomfortable in the presence of others before now. His head was lowered beside hers, a whiskered cheek resting gently atop her caramel head. One arm encircled her back, wrapped protectively around her tiny middle, whilst the large pale hand of the other was lifted up to cup her cheek, cradling her even closer to his chest.

Both were peaceful, if only for a moment.

Cordy’s eyes turned fully to the road again, checking for traffic as she flipped on her blinker to make a right-hand turn. She completed it safely before her gaze flitted again over her shoulder to the back seat.

Grimy bloodstained yellow pajamas and once vibrant yellow socks now encrusted with dirt were still a stark contrast to the solid wall of black that supported her. Angel’s ebony slacks and shirt seemed to obscure the tiny child in nothingness. Even the coal-colored leather jacket that engulfed the little girl’s shoulders only seemed to make her smaller, more helpless – innocence enshrouded by darkness.

A thin line formed between Cordy’s delicate brows, her own impulsive thoughts unsettling her. The car slowed slightly as the brunette diverted a little more of her already wandering attention from the road to peer further into the inky blackness of the backseat. Little more than a silhouette beneath the soft top of the convertible, the vampire was a motionless shadow, deeper than the night murk. The lack of lighting made his ivory skin appear darker, more like smoke. It made Cordelia think of a winter sky that has been overcast for days.

The flawless gray was only broken at his jaw, shifting to the shade and texture of raw charcoal due to a few days worth of whisker growth. Healing purple-brown bruises stained the flesh of his hands, and the blood covering his knuckles was crusty, a rich rust-color, the wounds that had spilt it also mending.

There was a statuesque quality about Angel, so still as to be carved from smooth cool stone. But in this moment as she stared at him, he reminded Cordelia more of the gargoyles of gothic architecture rather than Greek sculptures featuring idyllic male physique. Not monstrous but strong, ominous, protective, determined. A sentinel in the night. A guardian.

The car decelerated a little more. Cordy’s gaze became slightly vacant. No – ‘darkness’ was definitely the wrong word to use here. Angel was a shadow by nature, but there was nothing dark about the unconditional love he felt for the little girl.

So engrossed was she in her musings that Cordelia let out a startled yelp at the unexpected sound of Angel’s gentle voice. His exact words went unheard as she refocused her gaze on his ashen face. He didn’t seem to have moved, not even opened his eyes.

“What?”

Angel quietly repeated his previous comment. “You should watch the road.”

“Oh.” Cordelia nodded, before his words finally registered. “Oh!” Russet curls lashed her cheeks as she whirled her head almost violently to face forward again, eyes widening in alarm. In her distraction, her foot had eased from the accelerator pedal, and the Corvette was drifting dangerously close to the right-hand curb, her tires almost kissing the pavement. A harsh gasp sounded from her lips as she jerked the steering wheel to the left, producing a light jostle for the vehicle’s occupants before she righted their course along the thankfully empty street.

Cordy allowed herself to finally expel the panicked gulp of air she’d taken in a slow deep exhalation of relief. She heard Angel’s still maddeningly calm tone behind her, accompanied by the barest tinge of amusement lacing his rich suede-soft voice. “Want me to drive?”

“No, but you could try wearing a seatbelt!” she shot back, her voice not quite as firm as she would have liked. Angel didn’t reply. The young woman briefly glared icy daggers at the emptiness in the rearview mirror, before resolutely fixing her eyes on the road ahead. She now only turned to her mirrors to check the non-existent traffic, refusing to steal any more peeks into the dim backseat.

Irritation simmered beneath her skin. Her body shifted restlessly, and itching fingers tensed their grip on the wheel, but her annoyance wasn’t directed at Angel. She silently berated herself for her wayward feelings. In one night, all of her carefully guarded emotions had been thrown into turmoil. One look into those wide cobalt eyes, sparkling wetly with salty tears, and the impenetrable emotional wall she had erected around herself, around her heart, was crumbling.

Too close.

She shouldn’t have allowed herself to get so damn close. As Cordy indicated and maneuvered the Corvette around another turn, she forcibly tried to calm herself, to regain the control that Queen C prided herself on, that allowed for more rational judgments.

A Rubik’s Cube. That’s how she had always thought of herself as. An incomprehensible blend of vibrant colors, deliberately jumbled up in a fascinating but misleading design so that you could never really see the real sides. But if you looked hard enough, the patterns hinted at the solid truth hidden deep within the puzzle. A challenge – complex and almost impossible to solve, unless given devotion, patience, and understanding.

And frustrating as all Hell in the process.

Where a Rubik’s Cube could hide it’s answers with a simple twist and an exuberant new color arrangement, Cordelia had always concealed her emotions through acerbic barbs and an untouchable presence. Prevented anyone from getting too close, and having the power to hurt her. But now…

Too weak.

On display tonight had been a Cordelia that was in complete opposition to the image she had carefully constructed to portray to the world. The weaker Cordy. The Cordy that had not only needed to gain the little girl’s trust, but had wanted to. She had let her empathy – her mutual feelings of hurt, abandonment, and even a little bit of fear – manipulate her actions, and so had made the mistake of letting her guard down.

And now the sides of the Cube were spinning wildly, gradually revealing more and more of the solution, and Cordelia needed to do something before it was too late. Before she was hurt again.

She had let herself get close to someone once, and just look where that had gotten her – betrayed, alone, and with a rebar through her stomach, the piece de resistance of her sorrow and humiliation.

Cordelia wouldn’t let that happen this time. Guiding her vehicle up her driveway, the Sunnydale High head cheerleader vowed to herself that she wouldn’t allow her emotions get involved again. She had promised to help protect the vampire’s girl, and she would follow through with that pledge, of course. But letting said vampire and girl into her home didn’t mean that she had to let either of them into her heart.

Resolve re-established, Ice Queen veneer fortified in place once more, Cordy halted the car at the front gates that guarded the Chase mansion. With a flourish she extended her hand out her lowered window and rapidly punched in the key code to gain entry to her home. While her elegant finger depressed the numbers with a little more vigor than was perhaps necessary, a heavy groan of grating metal indicated her success all the same. The iron gates swung apart slowly, granting the convertible and its occupants passage through to the opulent grounds beyond just as tiny droplets of rain began to fall.

Cordelia finally pulled up in front of the grand house at the end of the drive and killed the engine. Seizing her handbag from the passenger seat in one hand and yanking on the car door handle with the other, Cordelia hastily exited the parked vehicle. She swung around impatiently to observe the vampire as he delicately climbed out from the backseat, shoving her door closed as she did so.

Despite Angel’s deliberate care, the echoing slam of Cordelia’s car door startled the small girl in his arms from her sleep. The vampire’s dark eyes snapped to the older brunette in silent angry reprimand.

Cordelia felt horrible for having woken the worn out little girl. An apology immediately leapt to the tip of her tongue, but she obstinately pressed her ruby-painted lips into a thin line to thwart the repentant words. Her face betrayed none of her remorse or shame; an eyebrow rose haughtily, hands found purchase on her hips, and she returned his cold stare, ignorant of the cool drizzly weather that was uncharacteristic in Southern California even for winter. Then with a dismissive toss of her long mahogany tresses Cordelia turned and stamped swiftly in her goo-covered Blahniks towards her front door.

And hated herself more with each step.

Angel growled softly, but bit back any other form of reproach as he soothed the momentarily spooked child, stroking his hand reassuringly over her tangled hair. He gently pushed his own door shut and strode after the young woman.

The only acknowledgement that Cordelia gave as he followed her was to raise her keys and aim them back over her shoulder, depressing the little button on them with her thumb. Her Corvette’s alarm system activated with a tinny double chirrup.

Extravagant rosewood doors barred them from further access to the large residence. Stopped on the front step, Cordelia flipped through the keys on her chain with practiced ease to locate the one that would unlock the huge double doors. She slid the jagged metal into the keyhole as the vampire came up behind her, and one deft twist disengaged the deadbolt on the other side. Another flick of her wrist rotated one of the handles, allowing her to push one heavy door open and step into the foyer beyond. Only then did she look back at her companion.

Angel still stood in the same place he had stopped moments before, not moving to trail her inside. He said nothing, keeping his face curiously blank now as he simply watched her, insignificant specks of rain occasionally falling upon the alabaster skin of his face and midnight black of his clothing.

“Well?” Cordelia asked him expectantly, and a little irritably. “Aren’t you invited in already? I said you could stay here.”

His reply was detached, almost un-interested. To Cordy he seemed to be the Angel she had always semi-known again – the reclusive and detached vampire half-hidden in the shadows. “You said I could stay with you. That’s not necessarily an invitation into your home. Just an implication of one. It’s not enough to let me in,” he informed her with a slight impassive one-shouldered shrug; mindful not to disturb the bundle in his arms any further.

Interesting though the revelation undoubtedly was, to someone like Giles maybe, Cordelia merely nodded, as if to herself. Earlier she had readily invited Angel to stay, but now she paused. Not quite hesitation, but more a chance to gather her wits. It would be all too easy to simply close the door and shut the vampire out. Shut this whole messy ordeal out, and treat herself to that hot bath she’d promised herself only an hour ago, though it seemed like days. But shutting everything out wasn’t an option, because Cordelia Chase never took the easy way out. She’d given her word to help Angel, and she wasn’t about to renege.

A puff of air was forced passed her lips in a sigh, and she held the door a little wider. “Well, come on in, Grr-Guy,” she declared, seemingly indifferent. Her other hand absently gestured him inside.

Angel didn’t move. Pain sparked in his eyes, his jaw muscles tightened. The distress filtered over his previously composed features – dozens of little hints that betrayed his volatile emotional state, and reminded Cordelia that this was a very different Angel to any she had witnessed before. The vampire glanced down at the child, before unflinchingly meeting Cordelia’s direct gaze. “My girl needs an invitation too.” Barely disguised guilt made his voice gruff.

Cordelia’s eyes dropped in astonishment to the tiny brunette in Angel’s arms, lips falling apart uselessly as her brain stopped working altogether, unable to even begin to comprehend what his words could mean. Oblivious to the attention, the youngster dozed on against Angel’s shoulder. For a short time Cordelia forgot all about her façade, and could only manage a mumbled, “I… I invite you both in”. Only when the vamp stepped inside the house did Cordelia snap out of her mystified haze to firmly close and deadbolt the door again. With almost automaton precision she turned to the small plastic panel beside the entryway to reset the security system.

“So… what now?” she asked in an attempt to regain her wits, forcing all of her confusing thoughts aside. Whatever it meant, Cordelia couldn’t allow herself to slip again.

Suddenly Angel looked a little uncomfortable, unsure of how to ask for more help. Nothing else had mattered earlier except making sure that his girl was safe. Now that she was though, the vampire seemed almost shy talking to Cordelia, a boyish sort of uncertainty that made a small affectionate grin spread unbidden across the young woman’s lips.

“Uh… she… She needs sleep, and… And she’s barely eaten or bathed in at least four days. Maybe… I mean… She needs a bath… and some decent food, too,” Angel answered tentatively, running one hand through his short dark hair and unwittingly tousling the already scruffy locks.

The little girl’s face lifted up at the prospect of something to eat, her sleepy eyes fixing beseechingly on Angel’s. “Ice cream?” she asked hopefully.

At that Angel chuckled, nervousness forgotten. “Not tonight, sweetheart,” he told her softly, disappointing her. But he knew she and her parents had eaten little aside from take-out since they’d left their home behind them, and he wanted to get something a little more substantial than ice cream into her belly. “Tell you what, let me make you something healthy tonight,” he smiled as her nose scrunched up automatically at the mere mention of the word ‘healthy’, “and you can have ice cream tomorrow,” he proposed the deal.

Drooping eyelids drifted closed, and Cordelia assumed that the youngster had fallen asleep again. A few seconds later though her eyes crept back open and she nodded her agreement, apparently having considered the compromise and found it acceptable.

The vampire smiled thinly, relieved by the easy capitulation. He knew for a fact that there was a fierce and rather unfortunate stubborn streak in the girl’s family. “Okay. Now, let’s see about getting you properly cleaned up, shall we?” One of his thumbs idly skimmed her slightly dirt-smudged cheek, tracing a line in the fine dusting of cool rain droplets that shimmered upon her skin.

“Bathrooms are upstairs,” Cordelia interjected abruptly into the ensuing stillness. If she was determined to maintain her neutral appearance, then she knew she had to escape the tender scene in her foyer, and now. The menial chore of running a bath was just the distraction she needed.

Without waiting for a response the young woman spun quickly in her soiled shoes, heading for the staircase and hiding her briefly shaken resolve.

Angel didn’t immediately move to follow, watching Cordelia’s brisk flight from the room contemplatively. Almost every trace of the warmth and understanding that the young woman had exhibited earlier that night was gone, and all that seemed to be left was disinterest. The abrupt one-eighty in her demeanor made him confused, disappointed, and just a little bit angry, but those emotions trickled away quickly like water cupped in his hands as a sad weariness consumed him.

He was tired. Tired from having not slept in four days, and knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep any time soon. Tired of fear and rage, and the inability to do a damn thing about either.

Despite Cordelia’s valiant attempts to ease his concerns about staying with her, nothing could make him forget the sight of Emily – pale, almost cold, dead. Her blood thick and cool on his tongue, still haunting him, still nauseating him. Her baby…

Angel shook his head slightly, shaking himself out of the recent memory before it could drag him down. For now, all of his conscious efforts needed to be focused on his girl, and trying to bring her father safely back to her. As much as he wanted to know why Cordelia had suddenly thrown up an emotional wall in his face again, as much as he wanted to know more about the woman behind that wall, he didn’t have the time or even the energy to fight her on it right now. He could only hope that her change in attitude wouldn’t lead her to retract her invitation to stay with her.

Because he really didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Breathing out a weary sigh, Angel finally headed up the stairs.

TBC…

Illusion

Posted in TBC

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