Giles’ steps slowed as he neared the room he’d readied for Cordelia. He wanted to go to her, to assure her that they had things in hand, that they would protect her; and yet how could he possibly expect her to be comforted by any promises he might make no matter how sincere. After all, he had promised to protect her from Angelus, and then, when they’d finally managed to secure her release, it was less of a rescue and more of a minor stay of execution.
He shuddered to think what would have happened had Matthew not grown so attached to Cordelia that he was willing to betray the council to save her.
Kind thoughts of his friend dwindled as Giles paused in the doorway, startled by the sight of the handsome young man reclining against the headboard with the beautiful young woman curled up against his chest.
He could tell that Matthew was less than impressed with his stern and disapproving look as he returned it with a steady and remorseless gaze of his own. Nevertheless, he gently eased Cordelia away from him and slipped out from underneath her, tenderly lowering her down to the mattress.
A small startled cry caught the attention of both men and a frown drew Giles’ brows together as he watched Matthew calm the young woman’s sudden fright with soft shushing sounds. He was in no way happy about this apparent turn of events. Things were complicated enough for all of them without yet another man falling under the sway of Cordelia Chase’s considerable charm.
“We’ll speak about this later.”
Giles’ warning to the departing Matthew was purposely hushed to avoid creating any more upset for Cordelia then the day had already brought.
Once they were alone Giles turned back towards the bed surprised to see a slight smile alighting Cordelia’s face. It was a welcome sight that fanned the minute spark of hope within him that had nearly been extinguished when he had seen her frail form collapse in the van.
He returned her smile as she arranged herself in a seated position and motioned him over to her. Glad to have the chance to finally speak with her and assess her unexpected recovery for himself, he pulled a chair up next to the bed waiting for Cordelia to speak so he could take his lead from her.
Once again she surprised him as she reached out a slightly trembling hand and placed it on his own.
“I’m so sorry, Giles. I didn’t mean to make it so hard to get me away from – ”
Without conscious thought his hand turned in hers, their fingers entwining.
“Cordelia, no. I won’t hear another word of this. We all know why you wanted to stay. No one could ever possibly hold any of this against you, we know that you were just trying to protect us.”
“Pfft. Great job I did; now we’re all going to die.”
At first Giles had been inclined to chuckle at the familiar sound of dismissal that was so unique to this girl; but on hearing the rest of the statement he found anger crowding out any amusement.
“Matthew told you about Acathla.”
Cordelia was still tired and feeling slightly disconnected from the earlier resurgence of the bond, but even she could pick out the subtle signs of Giles’ rising irritation.
“The guy who’s planning to have the world as a bedtime snack. Yeah, he told me. But come on Giles; did you think I wouldn’t want to know why the people who were supposed to be keeping me far away from Sunnyhell were suddenly bringing right back into the lion’s den? Don’t be mad at Matthew. You wouldn’t have fared any better if it had been you I’d been interrogating.”
His smile reappeared as he both acknowledged the truth of her words and rejoiced to see the return of the fierce spirit that was such an integral part of her. He’d been so afraid that they’d been too late, that even if she lived she would simply be a shell of her former self; traumatized beyond all repair. After months of misfortune at every turn, Giles chose to interpret this near miraculous recovery as a positive omen; that the winds of fate were finally shifting in their favor.
Cordelia was relieved to see the anger fade from Giles expression, replaced by a look that, under any other circumstances, she would describe as hope. As she pondered the oddness that was Rupert Giles, her eye was caught by a movement at the door. Wondering when the room had become Grand Central Station, she turned her head and nodded to Buffy who was waiting hesitantly, as if unsure of her welcome.
“Giles, Matthew said he needed to talk to you. It sounded important.”
Nodding to Buffy, he gave Cordelia’s hand a final squeeze and left the two girls alone in an uncomfortable silence.
Cordelia’s mouth tilted slightly at the ridiculous reluctance to speak that they were both exhibiting. Of all the problems they’d had during their time in each other’s company having nothing to say was never one of them. If anything, most of their problems came because neither one of them could seem to stop talking.
Although the chair Giles had abandoned was still next to the bed, Cordelia tucked her legs underneath her in a silent invitation for Buffy to join her.
Watching the blonde’s uncharacteristically uncertain movements, Cordelia barely restrained herself from rolling her eyes at their shared timidity. Tentative actions didn’t become either of them and it was all she could do not to use her minuscule amount of strength to grab Buffy and hurry up the relatively short journey to the bed. Superspeed was clearly wasted on this slayer as her gallows pace finally brought her close enough to sit.
She waited patiently for Buffy to tire of the fascination she apparently had with her hands and meet her gaze. When the slayer’s eyes finally locked with her own Cordelia almost wished they hadn’t as the raw pain swirling in their depths seared her.
“Cordelia, I’m so sorry – ”
No, no, no. Cordelia couldn’t handle any guilt but her own.
To her absolute horror, the anguish contained in Buffy’s expression grew and Cordelia realized that the girl thought she was rejecting her apology. Her face took was a contrast of compassion and wry amusement as she considered the high maintenance of slayers.
“Buffy, believe it or not I know what it’s like to love someone inappropriate. Of course I used to think that meant Xander. My parents said I couldn’t possibly do any worse.” She couldn’t stop the bitter laugh from bubbling up. “Shows what they know, huh?”
She could almost see Buffy turning the words over in her head. She was clearly considering their meaning, the ramifications, and her response.
“Do you hate me for loving him? If I’d listened to everyone and stayed away from Angel…”
As the words trailed off, Cordelia gave her answer the same careful reflection that Buffy had.
“Sometimes. But not because Angel lost his soul. You couldn’t have known. Maybe I hate that you had more of him than I did, that you had the soul and not just the vampire. Maybe I hate that you have the excuse that there was some good in him – some part of him that could see people beyond their usefulness to him.”
Her voice grew softer as if shying away from the confession of so great a sin.
“Maybe I just hate you sometimes so I don’t have to hate myself all the time.”
Before her eyes slid away in shame, she saw her own previous kindness on Buffy’s face.
“But you didn’t really love him; it was just the bond.”
While Cordelia longed to avail herself of the absolution being offered, she wasn’t dishonest enough, with herself or others, to allow Buffy to continue to place herself in the middle of this situation with so clear a misunderstanding of its workings.
“Do you know how much I wish that was true? I don’t know what Giles told you about the bond, but it creates love in both parties. For him, it’s a vampire’s love – it’s selfish and it’s about possessing what he needs to be happy. But for me it’s a human’s love; giving and generous. The more time I spent with him, the more I wanted him to be happy, too. It’s simple to say that it’s not real, that I just feel it because of the bond, but Angelus told me once that love’s just a feeling, and since we were both feeling it that made it real, no matter what caused it. I know it’s not love like you think of it; still…I miss him. I’d never want to live through that again, but it wasn’t what you think it was.”
She gave a weary sigh but continued.
“There were times – many times – when, if I just could have forgotten how I got there, things would have been perfect; times when his behavior and the bond were in complete harmony and I felt like the most beautiful, precious thing in the world.
It’s so hard to explain, but the stalking, the kidnapping, the terror – those weren’t the worst things that happened. No; the awful times were the times that weren’t awful at all. How messed up is that?
Angelus knew things about me. So many things. And he used them; not to hurt me, but to please me. He gave me tulips to make me smile, he got hold of Winky, the orange kitty my dad won me at the carnival when I was seven, to cheer me up; he took me to the movies, for God’s sake.”
Cordelia hadn’t been able to talk about these things with anyone, not even Matthew, and she couldn’t help wondering what was compelling her now. Maybe it’s because Buffy was the only person who had even the slightest chance of understanding, or maybe it was because she seemed willing to listen. Well, not willing so much as compelled; like when you can’t tear your eyes away from the scene of a car accident.
“I didn’t want to like the things he did for me. I’m not stupid, I knew he was doing them for his own selfish reasons, to manipulate me. But with the bond getting stronger and stronger, every time he did something wonderful his selfishness was easier to ignore. It’s like the bond made me love him, but his affection made it seem almost rational to do so.
Don’t get me wrong; I never would have had any thoughts other than the staking variety about him if it hadn’t been for the bond. I know that I didn’t have a choice, that even if all he’d ever done was hurt me, I still would have loved him eventually. But it wouldn’t have been like this. I wouldn’t have felt like this.
It’s not love like you know, like you’d understand; but he told me once that when he loved it was real, it was passionate, and it hurt when it was taken away. I don’t have the kinds of feelings that you’d normally associate with love. It’s not hearts and flowers and it’s definitely not what you had with Angel; but it is real, and not only do I not know how to make it go away, sometimes…I just don’t want to. Sometimes it’s all I can do not to run back and feel like, for once, I’m everything to someone. And maybe it makes me horribly weak, but sometimes, just for a few seconds, I thought about staying because he was bound to me, too, and it felt almost good to be with someone who couldn’t leave me.
Pretty pathetic, huh?”
Buffy moved forward and for one wild instant Cordelia thought she was going to attack her for loving Angelus. That thought and most others fled as Buffy’s strong arms wound around her and pulled her into a tight embrace. And before she knew it, Cordelia found herself returning the warm hug; clinging to the girl who had once been her nemesis in silent acceptance of the fact that they were the only two people in the world qualified to understand each other. And in a break from all they had been before this moment, they each relinquished their right to judge the other and held instead to the cold compensation that at least they weren’t alone in their tragedies.
In a voice choked with tears Buffy whispered a desperate plea to the now shaking brunette.
“Please; please don’t hate yourself. You were so strong. You stayed alive and protected us all when I couldn’t. Now it’s my turn to protect you. If you don’t hate yourself then it will give me hope that soon I won’t have to hate myself either.”
Cordelia pulled back, detangling their limbs. While she cherished the shared comfort, the emotion-laden atmosphere was making it hard for her to breathe.
“So, I’ll like me and you’ll like you? With our history that would probably work better than us trying to like each other.”
Buffy’s small smile told Cordelia that she hadn’t been the only one being crushed by the oppressive sadness in the room. Still, it was nice to hear the humor that laced the slayer’s retort.
“Yeah, no need to press our luck.”
A dark brow arched.
“We have luck?”
A blonde brow followed.
“I guess we’re due.”