Chapter 48: A Gift for the Future
“It’s here,” Cordelia stared down at the crisp linen envelope in her hand. Without bothering to open it, she thrust it toward Angel who hoped this wouldn’t lead to a repeat of the scene in the kitchen. “Mother’s formal invitation.”
Opening it, Angel scrutinized the contents and was relieved to see that Emelia had taken his advice and left off the part about celebrating an engagement. The added pressure that put on Cordelia was something neither of them could take right now.
Even though he appreciated the sentiment and found himself embarrassingly fond of the idea of someday seeing Cordelia dressed in a white gown and veil walking down a long aisle toward him, there were complications. Foremost was the fact that he was a vampire. He doubted a holy ceremony or its rituals would do much for the fit of his tuxedo or his complexion seeing as they often turned his kind to dust after bursting them into flames.
Not that the rituals he’d heard about were wedding ceremonies, Angel left himself an opening or two. Besides, those other vampires didn’t have souls.
“Looks like we have some shopping to do,” Angel told her.
Cordelia swallowed down the lump in her throat. Normally, she would be all for the idea. Shopping? Woo-hoo! Considering what her mother planned to announce at the party, she figured the jewelry shop would be their destination. While Cordelia wished that she could take back what she said to Angel on Thanksgiving Day, knowing that her words had hurt him, only she knew the real reason she reacted that way.
She didn’t want the humiliation of a broken engagement when Angel left her.
Only Giles, Buffy and the Scoobies knew about the extent of her relationship with Angel. Harmony and Aura figured it was serious, but had no idea of Angel’s true nature. How could they possibly know what it was like to be claimed by a vampire, to be his mate, to be loved despite your every attempt at avoiding it? Pfft! Clueless, all of them.
“I’ll need a tux,” Angel added when Cordelia simply gnawed on her lower lip.
Snatching the invitation from his hand, Cordelia searched for any sign that there was an underhanded plot involved. Not that she suspected, Angel on this one. Even he wouldn’t be so sneaky. However, she wouldn’t put it past her mother to completely skip the engagement and arrange for a surprise wedding ceremony.
All Cordelia saw was an indication for formal holiday party attire. “There’s nothing here. No engagement announcement. No hint of anything.”
“Should there be?”
Cordelia eyed him suspiciously for a moment. “You’ve been doing a lot of talking to my mother over the telephone.”
With an embarrassed shrug, Angel admitted, “Your mother has been talking to Joyce about a stake in the gallery. Knowing my interest in art, she’s been trying to talk me into becoming a sponsor.”
“I’m gonna kill her,” Cordelia muttered. Completely forgetting the fact that she should be thrilled the phone calls weren’t all about color-coordinating the reception’s linen napkins with the cummerbunds, it was startling to hear that her mother was hitting Angel up for money.
No sooner had her parents gotten out of a financial fiasco than her mother was trying to make investments with Angel’s apparently lucrative family holdings. He’d never touched the money before pulling her parents out of debt. It was blood money accrued at the cost of human lives; something Cordelia knew had to have an impact on Angel every time he spent a dime of it, even on her.
The thought made her wonder if Angel might want to put an end to touching that money. Outright asking him about it, Cordelia was startled to hear him chuckle in response. “It’s just money. Nothing we do will change where it came from, but I do have a say in how it gets spent.”
With that said, Cordelia perked up. “I need a dress for this formal holiday affair that is in no way a surprise engagement party.”
Angel promised her, “It won’t be. Emelia gave me her word.”
Patting his cheek, Cordelia shook her head. “Who knew a 250 year-old vampire could be so naïve.”
“I’m not that old.” He looked more offended that she’d added on five years than he did at being called naïve.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. Nudging his ribs, she grinned, “I wasn’t even counting the hundred years you spent in Acathla’s hell dimension, old man.”
The memory of that had faded from Angel’s mind like it never happened. No doubt a defense mechanism to save his sanity upon his return. “Technically, I’m younger than you. Cosmic destiny. Fated birth. Two months ago. Sound familiar?”
“If Irish blarney sounds familiar, then I suppose it does.” Dropping the invitation onto the foyer table, Cordelia picked up Angel’s car keys, jingling them. “I think someone around here mentioned the word shopping.”
“What’s this?” Cordelia glanced down at the gilded box with its bright red bow sitting on the foyer table where she couldn’t possibly miss it.
Having come home from school directly after cheerleading practice, she expected to find Angel waiting at the door. Not that she expected him to be there like a lapdog eager for her return home. It was just that he’d promised her something special this evening. She’d been completely unsuccessful in wheedling the information out of him before she left for school.
Even Willow managed to stay closed-mouthed when Cordelia commented on her pending surprise during lunchtime. The fact that the redhead knew something about it and wasn’t telling kept her distracted the rest of the day. So much so that the thought of Angel confiding in Willow caused a flash of jealousy as she realized the two of them talked a lot more than they ever did when Buffy was in the picture.
If Cordelia didn’t know that Willow and Oz were so close, she’d actually consider warning her off. The girl actually had a pet name for Angel. So what if it was just the formal version of the name everyone else used. So what if her parents also called him Angelus out of habit. That didn’t mean Willow should go around calling him by a special name, especially knowing that it still stung Cordelia when she heard it.
Leading the squad through their routines, Cordelia had been an automaton. Instinct and repetition guided her through the moves. Her mind was already at the mansion with Angel. Feeling ridiculous about her momentary jealousy of Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia remembered that it wasn’t the first time she felt that particular emotion in the past couple of weeks.
If that meant something, Cordelia had no clue what it might be. Jealousy was not an emotion she had much experience with.
“Angel?” Cordelia called out and heard the echo of her own voice rebounding back at her.
She stood at the circular table in the center of the foyer, her fingertips planted on its surface on either side of the square box with the bright red bow. A minute passed as Cordelia waited for the vampire to appear. Then two as her mind skirted over the various possibilities. Finally, she took in a deep breath and headed toward the door leading to the basement.
Just as she opened it, Angel appeared on the other side having taken a moment to grab a towel before jogging up the stairs to meet her. Letting out a surprised gasp, Cordelia threw her arms around his neck and hugged him like she hadn’t seen him in months. “Angel. You’re here.”
“I’m also sweaty,” he warned considering that he hadn’t had a chance to towel off after his workout.
Cordelia muttered, “Me too, I’m afraid. I came straight home after practice.”
She was still in her cheerleading outfit, he noted with a lopsided grin. “So I see.”
Grabbing onto both ends of the towel around his neck, Cordelia yanked him down to press her mouth to his. Then releasing her hold, she stepped back before Angel knew what to think of the spontaneous kiss. He didn’t know where this burst of enthusiasm came from, but he wasn’t about to knock it.
“Is that present for me?” Her eyes sparkled expectantly.
Playing clueless, he inquired, “What present?”
“The one on the table,” her head nodded briefly in that direction. Smiling, Cordelia emphasized, “The one with the bow.”
Angel considered his answer slowly, grinning back at her. “Maybe. That depends on whether you peeked in the box.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! I was too busy looking for you,” Cordelia pointed out. “Big mistake there. I should’ve peeked.”
“It would have ruined my big surprise.”
Cordelia’s head was swimming. What was the vampire cooking up? “That’s not the real surprise? There’s another one?”
“Maybe. I wouldn’t want to bore you with too many surprises,” Angel appeared as though the concern was legitimate.
“I’m not bored,” she answered hurriedly. Cordelia’s curiosity was certainly piqued. Being bored with Angel or his sudden penchant for buying her presents was not on her list of concerns. At least, she didn’t think it should be.
Angel knew she wanted to open that gift. He was glad that Cordelia had stopped to look for him before doing so. He needed to be there to explain it. “Then you won’t mind the delay. You can’t have your surprise until after sunset, anyway, so opening your present can wait until after we shower and get dressed for dinner.”
“T-Together?” Cordelia’s voice shook a little at the thought.
Ignoring her meaning, Angel closed the basement door and headed down the hall toward the main staircase. “I wasn’t planning on dining alone, even if I am on a liquid diet.”
As she followed behind, Cordelia was glad he couldn’t see the blush that brightened her cheeks. “Oh, the dining. Got it.”
Heading up the stairs, Angel offered, “I’ll take the second floor bathroom if you want to head on upstairs.”
“Just what I had in mind.” Not. Cordelia tried to ignore the instant rush of memories of their shared showers and bubble baths.
“See you later,” Angel sounded almost cheery as he paused on the landing.
“Preferably when you’re not naked,” Cordelia muttered aloud catching up to him.
Laughing, he reminded her that there were few things his vampire hearing didn’t pick up. “I heard that.”
“So don’t come up unless I’m still in the bathroom,” Cordelia turned completely serious. It wasn’t fair having this no-touching policy even if it was her own stupid idea. How was she supposed to think about the details ahead of time? “Just don’t come up if you’re naked…or dripping wet…or wrapped only in a towel.”
“Is that a problem?” Angel held onto the ends of the white towel around his neck which did nothing to help Cordelia’s imagination from working overtime. Especially since his damp muscle shirt clung to the sculpted angles of his chest.
Turning on her heel, she headed up the stairs to the top floor, pausing to glance over her shoulder at the vampire who stood watching her. With a quip, Cordelia said, “You might catch cold.”
When Cordelia finally emerged from their bathroom wrapped up in Angel’s large navy robe, she found him already dressed in black pants and a matching sweater. He was sitting in the bedside chair flipping through a sketchbook, which he promptly shoved into the top drawer of the nightstand as soon as she emerged.
“Sheesh! Did you use your vampire speed in the shower?”
“No. Some people just take longer in the bathroom with all of that hair drying and makeup application,” he pointed out.
Cordelia snarked, “This from Mister Hair Product himself.”
Standing up, Angel walked up to her blocking her path to the closet. He looked down at her with a hint of surprise as he ran a lone finger down the front closure of the robe to entwine around the knotted belt. “You’re wearing my robe.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that the robe wasn’t his, but they’d had that argument too many times before considering that everything in the house had belonged to either Angelus or Angel at one time. Besides, it hadn’t been either one of them she’d been thinking about when her hand reached for her own terry cloth robe and landed on his cotton one instead.
“I had soap in my eyes and grabbed it first,” Cordelia shrugged defensively.
Angel was gentleman enough to let her get away with the bald-faced lie. Releasing his hold on the belt, he stepped aside to let her pass. “Jeans are fine for tonight.”
Cordelia watched him leave the room, knowing that he was giving her space to get dressed without him hovering around. Had he stayed just long enough to tell her what to wear to dinner and whatever her surprise involved? Or was there something else he was doing?
Her eyes darted to the nightstand drawer. Finding herself in front of it, Cordelia’s hand hovered over the handle. Opening it would be a total invasion of Angel’s privacy, she lectured herself even as her fingers wrapped around the metal and gave a little tug.
The nightmares had brought a hint of paranoia into her life, especially with anything involving Angel. The creeping suspicion that clamped its fist in her chest forced her to act. She needed to see the contents of that book. It wasn’t just a common sketch book. Nor was it one that belonged to Angelus or his brother. This was a leather-bound journal Cordelia had purchased along with myriad other items to replace those belonging to his predecessors. The thought of him, a stranger at the time, touching Angel’s art supplies had been as unacceptable as him using his favorite mug.
Whatever was inside, Cordelia knew he put it there. She smoothed her hand over the leather surface, uncertain as to whether she should proceed any further. It might not be drawings. He could have used the book to journal his experiences, his thoughts or his plans for the future.
The idea scared her. So much so that her legs gave out and it was fortunate that the chair was right behind her to catch her fall. What if those plans included leaving her? Leaving Sunnydale? Putting behind him all of the misery she’d given him over the past couple of months to search for the destiny the Moirae had promised him.
She had to know and so with a trembling hand, Cordelia opened the book’s cover. It was overwhelming, she thought upon seeing herself depicted page after page. The images were all of her. Sleeping. Awake. Smiling. Clothed. Naked. In situations that she recognized and others totally stemming from his imagination.
It was the familiar ones that kept her attention. Moments trapped in time. Things that came straight from the memories of Angelus and Angel. Things he saw only through their eyes. Excepting the identical looks, she’d never had such evidence that he was exactly what he presented himself to be. Everything they were and more.
Slamming the book closed, Cordelia shoved it back in the drawer.
Fifteen minutes later, she joined Angel downstairs. He was in the kitchen having just finished putting the top slice of toast on the tomato and cheese sandwich he’d made for her. “I thought we’d eat simple tonight. There might be more food in the picture later if you’re lucky.”
Cordelia simply stared at him silently.
Confused, Angel suggested, “I could fix something else if you’re hungry.”
“No, this is fine,” she managed a weak smile. Walking up to the counter, Cordelia pulled the plate toward her. Not that she had an appetite at the moment.
She hopped onto the kitchen stool, watching Angel as he went about fixing his blood. When he caught her staring, Cordelia’s attention dropped to the bread crust on her sandwich as she proceeded to peel it away. By the time the microwave beeped, she had piled up a small tower of crust and crumbs next to her plate.
“Angel, I looked at your sketchbook,” she confessed as soon as he turned around to face her.
A moment of silence passed between them with Angel looking rather contemplative. “I did warn you that I was starting to feel a little obsessive where you’re concerned,” he pointed out hoping that she had not found offense in anything he had put to paper. “It helps occupy some of my time. Distracts me from constantly wanting you.”
“Like there’s a cure for that?” Cordelia rolled her eyes and only realized afterward that she had said the words aloud.
A grin lit his face, making Angel even more handsome than usual. “I hope not. I happen to enjoy wanting you.”
That brought the smile back to her face. “I knew that.”
Cordelia wasn’t about to tell him that she was thinking that impossible cures would include finding a way to stop wanting him. Picking up her sandwich, Cordelia took a large bite knowing it was the one sure way to shut her up. Mother taught her never to talk with her mouthful and she was almost certain that she followed that rule. It was certainly worth a try because saying too much might make her nightmares come true.
The gilded box felt almost weightless. Five-by-five inches on each side, it was too big to be a jewelry box. There was no telltale product emblem hinting at its contents.
Cordelia glanced up at Angel who stood watching with an unreadable expression on his face. Trying not to give anything away by looking excited, perhaps, or nervous that she wouldn’t like what was inside.
Plucking at the end of the red ribbon, she had to admit a sense of nervousness of her own. The damn nightmares were far worse than they had when she first experienced them and even the simplest actions sometimes seemed suspiciously linked to what she remembered from them.
Not that she expected Angel to give her a box of exploding confetti like Xander might have done. There was something important about this little gift and Cordelia’s insides were aflutter as she considered what that might be inside.
Just as Cordelia started to pull on the ribbon, Angel touched her hand stopping the action. “Before you open it, Cordy, I want to say something.”
The butterflies were swarming now. “Okay.”
“It’s been stressful for both of us the last few weeks,” he began slowly as if hedging dangerous territory. “We’ve said and done some hurtful things to each other.”
“Can’t we put it behind us?” Cordelia asked despairingly.
Nodding, Angel answered, “I hope so. We have a history together, Cordy. One that we can’t ignore and whether or not you can accept how we got to this point, we’ve got to move past it.”
“Yes, you’re trying,” Angel bit down a little too hard on the word. “I get that, baby. I really do. We’ve made some progress the past few days.”
Cordelia had to agree. Though finding the scrapbook and seeing its contents was like a window into his heart and his past giving her a glimpse of how seamlessly she fit into his combined memories and the feelings they engendered. The shock of it still had her reeling. Angel had made no effort to hide his love for her and while Cordelia accepted the fact that he was somehow a new and unique individual, she hadn’t really understood the depths to which he was very much the man she loved.
“Progress,” she echoed almost numbly. “Yes. It’s just that I’m tired of whining about it. Any moving on i— maybe I don’t want to move past it, Angel. Maybe things are good right here and now.”
Looking like she’d hit him with a sledgehammer, Angel told her, “I’ve spent a lot of wasted time trying to convin—”
“Wasted! Says who?” It sounded as if Angel was trying to give up on her. Was this some sort of going away present? If so, the real surprise involved him leaving town. “Nothing’s been wasted. We’re doing things. Fun things. Except for the not having sex…that’s not so much fun. It’s been almost two weeks.”
Angel cut in with a moan, “Trust me, I know.”
Cupping her shoulders, Angel held her steady when she seemed to be pacing a small hole in the flooring. Cordelia held the gift up between them, “What’s this about?”
“You and me and our future together,” he told her.
Staring at the box, Cordelia wondered how it could possibly hold something so fragile and intangible as that. Their future. The Moirae promised one, but their dealings in the realm of infinite outcomes offered nothing Cordelia could cling to with certainty.
She looked so pensive that Angel wondered if he’d made a mistake about this, but it was too late to change his mind even considering what she’d just said. He could only hope that his idea would have merit. “We can’t change the past. I’ve spent far too much time brooding about it not to understand the hold it has in our lives.”
“I thought you didn’t brood,” Cordelia poked him in the ribs, now feeling less gloomy about Angel’s revelations and the secrets within the gilded gift box. He grabbed her hand with inhuman speed and then brought it slowly upward to press a kiss into the center of her palm.
“Not anymore,” he told her while retaining his hold on her hand. “I’m past brooding about the fact that our feelings for each other are not quite on the same level.”
“But, I—” Cordelia shut up as soon as she saw his expression. Angel wasn’t finished talking and she doubted he needed to hear a repeat of the fact that she was making an effort.
“Cordy, I don’t want this to be about where we’re at,” Angel explained. “I want it to be about where we’re going.”
Maybe it was just the sentiment behind his words or the impact of the sketchbook or the results of those nightmares, but it wasn’t just that her feelings were on a totally different level these days. Cordelia felt like she was being pulled in two directions. A sunburst of hope filled her at Angel’s talk of a future together, but quickly dimmed under the gloom constantly lingering from her dreams.
They’d come too frequently with the same dark whisperings to think it was nothing. Going, he’d said. Fishing for possibilities, “As in…leaving town?”
“Wh— no, we’re not leaving, Sunnydale,” Angel shook his head now feeling a little muddled. Was that something she wanted? The mansion did hold a lot of memories.
“Just you, Angel,” Cordelia clarified. Though that wasn’t exactly how he phrased it, the way the idea meshed with her nightmares seemed too coincidental. Inevitable should she do nothing. “I meant you. Where you’re going.”
Angel was stunned by her words, uncertain why she would come up with such a thought. It should be obvious that he didn’t want to spend a night apart from her much less leave town without her. Shocked and outraged by the idea, he blurted, “You think I’d leave you?”
Now he was pacing, moving back and forth like a caged tiger. Cordelia grabbed onto his arm as he stalked past her for the third time. She didn’t want to believe it might be true, but the fact that she’d given him nothing but heartache since the moment of his first appearance added doubts.
Cordelia wasn’t a pessimist by nature. Just a realist caught up in a situation that had too many possibilities. There was only one answer she wanted to hear. “Tell me you won’t and I’ll believe it.”
Palming her face, his thumb moved along the soft slope of her lips. “Nothing is going to separate us,” Angel swore with such vehemence that he was certain she could not doubt it.
Cordelia hooked her arm around his neck, leaning up to cover his mouth in a kiss of reassurance. Their lips met and clung together before parting on a sigh. She smiled at Angel as they parted, purposefully pushing aside her visible doubts. It wasn’t his loyalty she questioned, not in the face of everything he’d said and done. Loving her had nothing to do with leaving.
Apparently, that was something the Fates could decide on a whim. One day to the next. That’s all it took to lose Angelus and Angel. All it took to replace them with this new and improved upgrade. Though he was far more than that, especially to her.
While Angel sounded certain that nothing would keep them apart, he wasn’t counting on the fact that the Moirae weren’t finished with him. That his promised destiny still lay ahead of him. She didn’t trust their comments about her inclusion in that future, but Cordelia decided that she was ready to do whatever it would take to be there.
Realizing that was sudden, surprising and came with an amazing sense of liberation.
“That’s a good thing, champ,” Cordelia smiled brilliantly, suddenly feeling free of the invisible weight pressing down on her entire being. “Cos I’m not about to let you get away.”
Tempted just to take her in his arms and keep kissing her until he was certain that she really meant that, Angel sensed it would be one of those times they wouldn’t stop. Distraction was needed pronto.
Pointing at the gift box in her hand, Angel encouraged her, “Open it.”
She’d almost forgotten it was there. That eager sparkle returned to her eyes as Cordelia tugged on the ribbon and tossed it onto the table. “Am I going to like this?”
The vampire looked decidedly nervous. He rubbed the back of his neck, shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. Only the fact that Angel seemed incapable of speech stopped her from drawing it out any longer.
Glancing into the box, Cordelia blinked a few times as she saw its contents. “Angel, this is a Christmas ornament.”
“I know,” he grinned slowly having predicted her confusion.
Taking the gold filigree ball with its delicate handcrafted framework from the box to admire the workmanship, Cordelia admitted, “It’s beautiful, but I’m not seeing the connection here. What does this have to do with our future?”
Angel knew he’d have to explain the gift as it was really just a minor part of things, but it symbolized his point, his hope and their new beginning. Now if he could just manage to speak without stumbling all over the words, maybe Cordelia would see it too.
“Traditions have to start somewhere,” he explained. “We’re starting fresh. You and me. Us. Together.”
There was an unasked question in his voice. The need for confirmation, which she gave in the form of a slight nod and her full attention.
“I can’t ask you to forget the past. Those memories are too sharp and too precious to fade.” Angel added, “Even mine, as secondhand as they are, mean too much to ignore. They’re of you, after all. What I want…no, what I’m asking is that we start making some memories of our own.”
Her breath caught in her throat at those poignant words spoken with such emotion. So full of hope and pain and love. Cordelia blinked away the slow burn in her eyes. Caught so close to tears, she responded instinctively, “Memorable moments are our specialty, Angel. Just ask Giles.”
“Moments like that come in spades,” Angel’s mouth curled up at one corner at the thought of just how many times and ways they had physically claimed each other in the past few weeks. He stepped closer putting himself within her space and radiating with sex appeal.
“Not lately,” Cordelia returned as a hot flame licked at her loins, an automatic reaction to his presence within her personal bubble.
Angel’s fingers tingled with the urge to touch her. He didn’t, simply staring intently into the dilated depths of her eyes. “Soon, baby, I promise. Give it some time.”
Noting her almost imperceptible grumble, Angel reminded her, “Part of our little pact is to do things together as friends would, as a family would, not just as lovers. Today we’re starting a new family tradition.”
“One involving Christmas ornaments?”
Shaking his head, Angel told her, “More than that. Keep in mind that human holidays aren’t exactly on the vampire activity calendar.”
Cordelia snorted amusedly. “Except Halloween, which for some bizarro reason is the annual demon day of rest.”
More serious, she added, “I figured that Christmas would be a no-go. A non-holiday. Kinda like at the Rosenbergs.”
“Um, I’d hardly make that comparison,” Angel responded. “Though talking to Willow about this actually helped.”
“Great,” Cordelia smiled tightly while imagining taping the redhead’s mouth shut with thick electrical tape. “Willow’s so— helpful.”
Missing the sarcasm, Angel continued on. “She was talking about the fact that being Jewish, Christmas wasn’t exactly a holiday at her house. When she started talking about your ideas for Oz’ present and the fact that she wanted to share his holiday, I realized there are other aspects to celebrate beyond the religious ones.”
“Commercialism and reruns of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’?”
Angel knew Cordelia wasn’t that clueless. Generally, the snarky comments came out whenever they were hedging too close to an emotional topic. Discussing the fact that he wanted them to build a future together had to fit the bill. He wasn’t about to let it sidetrack him now.
“Family. Joy. Togetherness. That’s part of it; what it’s supposed to be about,” Angel suggested. “Cordy, can we have that? Can we aim for the impossible?”
Those things weren’t impossible. Not if the two of them counted as a family. Not if the pleasure she found in his arms could translate to other aspects of happiness. Not if she had any say in the possibility of being apart.
“Yes,” she whispered her promise.
“This is our first Christmas together,” he pointed out needlessly. It was something she’d never had with them, something they could make their own. “I want it to be special.”
Feeling her heart swell in response, Cordelia’s smile reached supernova status as she curled her fingers into the material of his open collar and pulled herself even closer. “Angel, it already is.”
A minute later, the dull thunk of Cordelia’s back colliding with the wooden surface of the door brought them both to their senses. Somehow, she was in his arms with her legs wrapped around him as he held her aloft. Their lips parting slowly, reluctantly, both looked a little sheepish upon realizing how close they’d come to breaking their own rules.
“Whoops!” Cordelia uncurled her legs and slipped down his solid frame.
Angel held her close for another second, his dark head bent over her shoulder as he collected himself enough to speak. “Maybe we’d better focus on the rest of your surprise… finding a tree to go with that ornament.”