Season of Solace. 133

133:     The Study, Crawford Street Mansion, Central Sunnydale

Charred brown flecks cracked and crumbled as Cordelia turned the pages of the old book. Scarred by the fire, its leather cover was now blackened beyond repair, but the ancient myths of the Old Ones remained preserved inside. Only the outer edges were fried, much like her nerves at the moment.

Choosing to help Wesley with research rather than going back to the basement for Round Two with Angel was supposed to help her put things into perspective. Keeping her locked up in the mansion for her protection had seemed like a good idea at one time, but that was before she realized what that meant.

No entertainment, no shopping, no hanging out at the Bronze.

Angel just needed to come to his senses. Protection was one thing, but keeping his own girlfriend under lock and key was taking it one step too far. Sure he had her best interests at heart. Why did those interests have to come at the expense of her having a life?

The details of their fight were a little fuzzy. Oh, there was the usual finger pointing and foot stomping. A shriek or two of frustration. Outright anger. And that was just Angel.

Okay. So maybe it was mostly her.

Doing a good impression of a granite slab, Angel wasn’t budging on his decision that the best way to protect her from becoming the next no-longer-a-Virgin Sacrifice was to never let her see the light of day again. Or the dark of night, for that matter. She was virtually under house arrest until this whole prophecy thing blew over.

The words ‘totally unfair’ came to mind. Where was the fairness to be found when the bad guys had the freedom and she was practically a prisoner? Yeah. Fairness of the UN variety, that’s what it was.

Boyfriends were supposed to do what girlfriends wanted. Someone obviously forgot to tell Angel the rules. Guys generally fought over the right to grant her every wish—or avoided her like terrified two year olds. If she wanted something, one snap of her fingers was all it took. Sometimes she didn’t even have to snap.

Maybe she’d lost her touch.

Nah.

This was Angel, not a geek from the AV club. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t totally into her. Believing it made her insides melt every time she thought about it. There were times when Angel would do anything for her, but this obviously wasn’t one of them. Talking him into giving her a taste of freedom was far different than convincing a few nerds to set up the music system at a party they weren’t invited to attend.

Nothing worked. Honesty and a straight explanation got her nowhere.

“Angel, I’m tired of staring at these walls. I need to get out of here.”

They were halfway through another session of Tai Chi moves when Cordelia broke form to make her point. Angel smoothly continued through the motions. “You’re the one who wanted training. Finish this set and then you can try some hand-to-hand defensive moves.”

“We can do this later. Right now, I want to do something else. Anything that doesn’t involve demons and prophesies.”

Silent during the next movement, Angel completed it before looking her way. “You could read. I have some really good books. Classics.”

Not what she had in mind. “As tempting as joining your book club sounds, I think I’ll pass. I meant going somewhere. As in not here.”

Clearly, Angel saw nothing wrong with seeing the same people day after day. Or the fact that the view never changed. Monotony somehow came across as a positive for him. How wrong was she to think some of that had changed when they formed Team Chase and started expanding his horizons.

Out of pure frustration she elbowed the heavy punching bag hanging down from the ceiling and glared at the peeling paint along the basement walls. “You don’t get it. I want to go outside, to see the sky, to go have a little fun. C’mon, Angel, just you and me. No watchers or slayers or sidekicks around.”

Putting a halt to his routine, Angel shook his head. “We can’t, Cordy. Please try to be patient. It’s just a few more weeks.”

He might as well have said months. “Gah!”

Reeling back, she ran her hands through her hair mussing it up, muttering to herself that it was impossible to live through such torture for one week much less more. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to live in the same place as your boyfriend’s ex?”

Angel cleared his throat as she kept on ranting.

“Oh,” Cordelia paused as she paced past. “I guess you do, but Xander doesn’t count the same as Buffy.”

Angel wisely said nothing.

Leaning in close, Cordelia walked her fingers up one of his arms and laid her head on his shoulder. “I miss doing stuff together.”

“We do stuff.”

It didn’t take Angel’s sexy voice to hint at what he meant. Cordelia snorted, “I meant stuff we can do in public.” She caught the tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth and poked him in the stomach as she moved away. “Not that stuff.”

Eighteen year old girls had basic needs other than hot boyfriends. Angel just didn’t understand that denying her access to the mall was like cutting off his blood supply. She needed it to survive.

“There’s a buzz of energy that made the place hum. The smell of new clothes. Shiny new jewelry. Cash registers making that cha-ching sound.” Cordelia tried to describe some of the things she loved. “Hey, you like those strawberry-kiwi smoothies. Let’s go get one of those tonight.”

“You know we can’t.”

Cordelia wasn’t about to take that for an answer. “It’s easy. I’ll even let you drive.”

Since Angel still had the keys to the Plymouth it wasn’t going to be difficult. “Forget it, Cordy. You know it’s impossible. Nicolau isn’t going to miss any chance you give him. Going out will only put you in danger and I won’t let that happen. It’s for your own good.”

Petulant, she crossed her arms. “I’ll be the judge of what’s good for me. Right now, I want to go out.”

Angel didn’t bother to answer. Growing impatience tightened his jaw.

So the mall was obviously out. Maybe he didn’t like the smoothies as much as she thought. Cordelia figured there had to be something they could do together that would keep them under Nicolau’s radar. Though for the life of her she didn’t get why he thought anyone organizing a demon ritual would have time to go shopping.

A smile lit her face as an alternative came to mind. “What about the movies? We had a great time at the movies. You could take me. That would be safe.”

Not according to Mr. I’ve Been to One Movie in the Last Thirty Years. Annoyed by the suggestion, Angel pointed out, “Theaters are dark. There are distractions. People.”

She tried negotiating. “It doesn’t even have to be Keanu’s new movie.” A forlorn sigh emerged, her shoulders slumping dramatically. “Even if it did sound really great.”

Peeking upward, Cordelia saw that Angel’s expression remained stony. She bristled and muttered, “You don’t want to go because you’re jealous that I like him.”

“I am not.”

“Prove it. Take me to the movie.”

“That’s not going to work.”

Borrowing Buffy’s doe-eyed pouting technique even failed to win him over. “Cordy, it’s not safe. Forget it.” A thread of irritation crept into his response. “I’m tired of talking about it.”

“Well, I’m not.”

“You’re not going out. End of discussion.”

Cordelia’s mouth tightened up realizing that she was dealing with a guy who had no understanding whatsoever of what it was like to be deprived of everything. She had to make it clear that her problems were also his problems. If she was going to be cruelly deprived of the necessities in life, she was going to fall apart physically as well as mentally.

Grabbing a handful of her hair, she lifted it toward him. “Do you see this? I found a split end this morning. My hair is not used to this kind of abuse.”

The basement light made her normally shiny tresses look dull in her opinion helping her make her point. Contrary to what she knew about enhanced vampire vision, the stubborn vampire standing in front of her did not see it.

“Abuse?”

From the look on his face she could tell that he was remembering stocking up on her favorite shampoo and conditioner. “Just one trip to the salon,” she pleaded. “It won’t take long. Just a few hours,” she tagged on as fast as she could hoping he wouldn’t notice. “I need a manicure, too.”

It would probably take what was left of her last paycheck, but it would be worth it. Oh, the glorious pampering of a real salon. Not the cheapo hair chopping shop down the block from April Fools. The one that charged $12.95 for a shampoo, cut and blow dry. Tip not included. The memory of the recent humiliation of digging through her purse for change instead of whipping out a credit card gave her the wiggins.

Angel rocked back on his heels and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “No.”

Snapping back to his response, Cordelia could not understand it. “No?”

“I am beginning to wonder if you know the meaning to that word.”

Not when it worked against her. “I’m more of a yes person.”

“Then I’ve got something new for your vocabulary.”

“It’s just a haircut,” Cordelia underplayed the extent of her plans. Maybe he was just terrified of the idea of going with her. “C’mon, I won’t be alone. I’ll take both slayers. We’ll have a Ladies Day Out. God knows Buffy could use a good stylist.”

Either she was slowly wearing him down or he was pissed that she mentioned Buffy. Angel’s nostrils flared, his brows furrowing. “You plan to risk your life over a haircut.” Nope, he was just plain mad.

“Not just any haircut.”

“Ask one of the girls to do it—Faith, maybe.”

Cordelia snorted, “Just because she’s good with sharp objects does not mean I’ll let her anywhere near my hair. You’re being ridiculous, Angel.”

“Me? Last time I checked I wasn’t slated to be a sacrifice at a demon ritual.” Lashing out suddenly, he made her jerk back in surprise. “This is stupid.”

“I’m not being stupid,” Cordelia stormed back and poked him in the chest before she walked off again. Whirling back around, her hair settled wildly around her shoulders. “It’s not like I’m asking you to go to the Bronze.”

Angel denied calling her stupid. She ignored his excuses in favor of saying, “There’s no point. You still can’t dance.”

“This isn’t about me.”

“No, it’s about me,” she countered. In hindsight, there was definitely shrieking. “It’s about me having some shred of a life. Unlike some people around here, I’m not a corpse.”

Angel’s poker face vanished, barely restrained fury suddenly twisting at the edges of his control. He prowled forward, crowding into her space, muscles twitching to let his human mask fall away. Gold-rimmed eyes gleamed for an instant before darkening again as he got it together, balancing his anger on a fine edge.

Right there with him, she stayed in his face too, not giving him an inch that he did not have to earn. He had no idea how stubborn she could be. It was mean of him not to let her go out. She would find a way to convince him—or take matters into her own hand even if she had to face down his demon to do it.

Energy coursed through her spreading out until a million tingles starburst across her skin. Anyone else would find him terrifying. Not her. Not even when he dropped the silent, brooding routine and all that testosterone took over. A moth in front of a flickering flame could not be more willing to be singed. Her heart pounded in her chest, anger and excitement building as he moved one inch closer. So close that she could feel the rasp of his cotton shirt against hers with each ragged breath she took.

She had made a point. He had to get it.

Freedom, even a little, would keep her sane in this den of chaos. “I’m tired of being shut up inside this mausoleum.”

“Tough.”

“What, no plan to tie me to our bed this time?”

Cordelia shivered because the idea sounded almost like a challenge. His hand closed around her jaw tilting her face up to his. Mouth inches from her lips, he growled out a dark promise. “If that’s what it takes. Until the threat is over, you’re staying put.”

He had no right to give her orders. Blood pounded in her ears to the tune of her fury equaling anything he dished out with those vampiric vibes. One hard slap to his wrist loosened his hold. With a jerk of her head and a hard shove to his chest, she gained an inch of space. “Last time I checked there was no ‘Property of Angel’ stamp on my ass.”

“Easily fixed,” quipped Angel cryptically, a ruthless twist to his mouth. “Though that wasn’t exactly the spot I had in mind.”

Momentarily confused, she could not tell if that was some kind of threat or a come on. “Whatever. No, on second thought, you can kiss my ass goodbye because I’m outta here.”

Calgon, take me away. She opted for a strategic retreat. Not because she was giving up. No way. It was not like she needed his permission to go out.

“Don’t walk out on this conversation, Cordy. It’s not over.”

Halfway to the stairs, she made the mistake of turning back to him again. “Oh, it’s over. Way past over.”

Sunnydale and all the crap it handed her lately suddenly spewed out like an upchuck after a frat part. Inevitable. With his newfound and annoying habit of being there for her whether she wanted it or not, Angel was standing in its direct path. Ground zero.

“Why stop at walking out the door? I should keep going. Just leave town. Go so far nobody in this hellhole will ever find me.”

It did not matter that she meant Sunnydale in general or Nicolau and his cronies. For some reason Angel took it personally. That patented control vanished as the knife-edge he had been teetering on cut it to shreds. Too late, the warning signals started flashing. A distinct, ‘Oh, crap!’ ran through her mind the instant before his mouth crushed hers.

Desperation filled his kiss. Angry and possessive, it felt emotional in ways that Angel never showed on the surface. His fingers tangled tightly in her hair denying escape. Red starbursts filled the darkness as her eyes slammed shut, kissing him back with equal fury. Fighting tooth and nail to make her point she wasn’t going to let him get away with kissing her into submission.

He was a rock wall, holding her to him with only the pressure of that one hand, and impossible to budge. Cordelia grabbed his shoulders, intending to force him to stop, but then just holding on as his lips firmly swiped across hers. Capturing them, again and again, one kiss melded into another.

Barely given the time to breathe, she moaned furiously, the sound smothered by the instant assault of his tongue seeking entry. Caught between anger and wanting him, she clasped his head, nails curling into his scalp, holding on now rather than pushing away, body slamming into his.

Her breasts pushed into his hard chest, hips shifting for their comfort zone, tummy rubbing against him. Melting, she nearly gave into it, opening up to his kiss. His free hand slid the length of her spine stroking a line of heat along with it. Making her wet as her body instantly reacted to his touch. Not now! That pissed her off more than anything. Knowing he would sense her response and give him the completely wrong idea that he was winning.

Without even thinking about it, Cordelia gnashed her teeth together against his lower lip. A grunt sounded from Angel. The coppery taste of blood lashed over her tongue. A spark of triumph filled her followed by the sudden shock of what she had done. They drew apart sharply, staring at each other.

Trembling inwardly from anger and pent up need, she stumbled back out of his arms as he released her. Defiant, there was no apology coming from her. That bite was so totally his fault, even though she did not understand it.

Angel did not touch his lip to wipe away the blood. He did not lick it away. She watched a drop well to the surface quickly congealing to close the wound. He stood dark eyed and staring, shoulders tense, looking at her like he wanted to return the favor. Lust and curiosity made her wonder what it would be like to let him.

It was all she could do to stop herself from jumping his very un-corpse-like bones. He had left her breathless, gasping for air, and unable to remember exactly what she’d said that set him off

Unlike her, he had no problem speaking. The threatening tone peeled away into raw hurt. “Don’t even think about it. You’re not leaving.”

She sensed rather than heard the ‘me’ at the end. You are not leaving me. Shocked at the thought of it, Cordelia cringed. Where had he even gotten such a crazy idea? She was still ticked off. Mad enough to make him think it was possible.

“You’re my boyfriend, Angel, not my jailor, and I am leaving— but only to take a bath.”

Cordelia distinctly recalled the rubberiness of her legs as she made her exit. Kind of tough to stomp dramatically up the stairs when you could barely stand upright. Angel let her go much to her surprise. She half expected him to come after her and spent most of her bath planning what she would say when he showed up looking all broody and apologetic.

Only Angel never came upstairs. He stayed down in the basement, which was a good thing, she supposed. If he had shown up when she was in the tub, they probably would have ended up having sex. Cordelia spent the rest of her bath time trying to figure out what positions people used when they did it in the tub. When Angel did not show up, it only fueled her frustration with him and the situation.

So, she had bypassed the entrance to the basement upon coming back downstairs in favor of heading for the study where Wesley was holed up to search for clues about the Rites of Tavrok.

“You volunteered for research duty,” Cordelia muttered while wiping traces of ash from her fingertips onto the cloth draped over her lap. Though a little dirt beat demon dismemberment and dumpster duty any day, she conceded, even that might seem preferable to another week of confinement in the mansion.

After staring at an inked sketch of a random demon for five minutes and comparing it to Principal Snyder’s gnomish appearance, only with claws and a seriously wicked set of teeth, Cordelia concluded that, “This totally sucks.” Now she was getting nostalgic for school, a sure sign that she had been cooped up way too long.

“Hmm?” Wesley lifted his head from where it was buried in research. “Do try to focus on the details, Cordelia. It is imperative that we identify the precise set of symbols.”

Now Wes was even starting to sound like Principal Snyder. All work and no play. With the gang at school for the day and Faith off on some assignment, the only other people in the mansion beside Wesley and Angel were Dru and Spike. Things were not quite boring enough to pop upstairs for a spontaneous visit. Tea and crumpets with Dru would not be quite the same with Spike leering and making lewd comments.

“Perhaps you should tell me what ‘sucks’ so we can get on with our studies.” Wesley apparently overheard more than she thought.

Research might not be much fun, but it was better than wallowing in self-pity, and she was not about to share the details of her argument with Angel. Covering quickly, she pointed to the drawing in the book. “This demon,” she held it out for him to see, “it sucks the blood of its victims.”

Wesley’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “Yes, I believe that would be a vampire. You might have heard of them,” he added drolly.

“A vampire?” Cordelia glanced back at the carefully inked sketch. All skin and bone, with huge eyes, big fangs and razor sharp claws it wasn’t the least bit familiar, except for reminding her of Principal Snyder. “I’ve seen plenty of vampires and they don’t look like this.” More importantly, “Angel doesn’t look like this.”

She held up the book again. After a moment of study, Wes concluded, “I believe that is either a form of proto-vampire or an ancient one. Old vampires tend to revert to a demonic state over time, their human characteristics fading.”

Cordelia stared at the book again. Angel was pretty old for a vampire, but certainly did not look like the creature in that drawing. She had always assumed that Angel would look young and hot forever. Her stomach turned flip-flops.

“So how old is old for a vampire, anyway?”

Trying to sound disinterested about it got her nowhere. Wesley dropped his attention back to his research before answering, “Oh, somewhere around two-fifty. The hair is the first to go.”

“What? That’s almost Angel’s age—,” Cordelia gripped the edge of the couch as she imagined her boyfriend withering into a balding old vampire overnight. Then she saw the flush spreading up Wesley’s neck. “That is so not funny!”

She was already laughing at the image stuck in her head: arriving at the prom with a decrepit old Angel on her arm. Wesley chuckled when she shared the idea.

Sobering up, he admitted, “I may have exaggerated the matter a bit. Truly ancient vampires claim nearly a millennium of existence before the years begin to show.”

“That was evil.”

Wesley grinned as if exceedingly pleased with his joke. Getting her back on task, he suggested, “You might want to focus on your assignment if you plan to solve this dilemma before it is too late to attend the dance.”

Her grin faded. Wow. Miss the prom? The man was just full of great news. The idea had never even occurred to her. That was the whole reason for slaving away at the April Fools Dress Shop all those evenings: to afford a decent dress for the prom.

Still…

Why worry about being crowned Prom Queen when she’d already been chosen as the next Miss Sacrificial Lamb at Nicolau’s shindig? Not that she had anything to wear to that, either.

Cordelia let out a big sigh. “Sometimes it sucks to be me.”

Something sounding like a protest coughed from Wesley’s throat. “I very much doubt that. Y-you’re beautiful, funny—and that brilliant smile.”

Momentarily forgetting her gloom, Cordelia smiled radiantly. “You’re not so stuffy or uptight as I thought, Wes. I like you.”

“As do I— like you, too,” he cleared his throat before hunkering back down over his research.

Settling into her comfy spot in the corner of the couch, Cordelia folded her legs up beneath her and readjusted the cover. “Back to the grindstone. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Research is fun. I love my job. Grunge is in.”

She turned to the next page of the book, pausing only briefly to make a face at the ash left behind on her fingertips. “Eww!” Ornate drawings and colorful symbols made it a little less of a bore to study.

Very little.

Despite Wesley’s pep talk, research did not stand a chance of holding her interest for long. Maybe if the book had been written in English instead of an obscure language requiring her to search for a list of key words. Noooo, it was in ancient Frankenstein or something.

Whatever.

Cordelia honestly tried to stay focused, but the words blurred. Angel’s overprotective rant kept running on instant replay in her head. No going out. No danger. No fun. No life. Maybe he had a few good points, but did that have to involve practically holding her hostage?

Being stuck at the mansion for the duration was one thing when it was just nighttime hours they were worried about. Now it was daytime, too, thanks to the rule-breaking vampire mojo that let Nicolau schmooze his way around Sunnydale. So now she was a virtual prisoner in her own home. Well, boyfriend’s home.

No job, no school, no adventure.

So maybe the job was not that big of a deal—except for the total lack of cash. Who needed money when there was nowhere to spend it? She missed the sun, shopping, and dancing at the Bronze.

It was impossible to keep up with the latest school gossip. Buffy was not exactly in on the latest 411. It was all slayer stuff with her. Asking Willow meant sifting through the babble. That left Xander, who was surprisingly, a pretty good source of information.

Angel did not understand that she was not the type of girl he could keep locked away in an ivory tower. She was not some whiny little fraidy cat. It was not as if there were no bodyguards around. Slayers in the daytime. Vampires at night.

When she had stomped upstairs, Angel had stayed in the basement. The expression on his face served to say that he had no intention of letting her endanger herself by going out anytime soon. Training or no training, he did not want her in harm’s way.

Knowing that and wanting to live with it were two separate issues. Cordelia was not so keen on the harm’s way bit either, but she was really starting to hate these walls. There was a big difference between feeling safe and smothered.

Angel had a lot to learn about her if he thought he was going to get away with what he tried to pull today. Okay, so she admitted that there was part of her that adored being protected. Her inner princess loved it. Unfortunately for Angel, her inner bitch possessed that stubborn independent streak.

No kisses, even those of the Angel kind, were going to convince her to give that up. Whatever it was that happened down in that basement freaked her out a little. This was not the first time an argument ended with them in each other’s arms, but this time it felt like neither one of them was in control. She did not want that happening tonight.

Deciding to give Angel a chance to apologize for the behavior that led to her biting him, Cordelia made up her mind that if he chose not to say he was sorry that there would be consequences. He could stay down in that basement, no doubt brooding about it, until she finished helping Wes with the research. After that, if he kept up his stubborn ass vamp routine he would end up sleeping on the couch.

A smirk spread across her face while envisioning Angel all cold and lonely—

Wait a sec!

That meant she would be alone, too.

In that huge bed.

By herself.

Her revenge scheme came to a screeching halt realizing that forcing him to stay on the couch was going to deprive her of her new favorite things. This was supposed to be Angel’s punishment. It should not have to be torture for her, too.

Maybe she would let him off easy—just this one time, only because she was the forgiving type. Throw him for a loop by being nice, not mentioning that power play, and still get to sleep in his arms tonight. Hah! That would show him. Then tomorrow, when he was asleep, she would convince Faith that it was her duty to tag along while she snuck out of the mansion for a little shopping expedition.

It might be mostly window shopping, but the last place the bad guys would be was the Sunnydale mall. Desperate times called for desperate measures and right now they called for a pair of new Choos.

Situation resolved, Cordelia dragged her thoughts away from shopping and got back to the research. Wesley assigned her to search for specific key words and symbols. Now that they knew the demon’s name it was easier to find passages linked to the prophecy. Making sense of her findings was his job.

“Here’s another one, Wes,” she tapped the page upon recognizing the symbol from the ring. Instead of having her bookmark the page for later study like Giles usually did, he walked over to check it out.

The couch cushion shifted under his weight as he sat next to her and pulled the book closer across one thigh. She took a moment to study him. Being stuck here in the mansion with everyone must have made it easier to settle in with the group. Minus the suit jacket with his shirtsleeves rolled up, he looked less formal. Though, she could not say, more relaxed.

She wondered if Faith was really serious about being attracted to him. Cute, brainy guys were not really the slayer’s type according to what she’d told Cordelia. Faith was the hands-on type. But Wes was not just anyone. Being Faith’s new watcher somehow put a kinky little twist into the works.

Cordelia did not know that much about him except that the Watcher’s Council had sent him here. “I didn’t think anyone knew more than Giles when it comes to this stuff.”

It was a compliment, but his shoulders stiffened defensively. Darting a glance toward her, he reminded, “My studies at the academy were extensive.”

“What did you do for fun?” Anyone Faith was remotely interested in would at least have to have a vague sense of the concept, but Wesley’s blank stare suggested that he did not.

His cheeks and throat reddened. “Frankly, fun wasn’t on the agenda. Not the sort I believe you to mean. We had tournaments to test our physical and mental prowess.”

“Oh.” Well that sounded god awful boring. The kind of prowess Faith was interested in would not be tested at a tournament. “What about going clubbing? Y’know, music, dancing—any of this sound familiar?”

Without waiting for him to respond, Cordelia told him, “Sunnydale may not be L.A. or London, but we do have one decent club, The Bronze. We should go sometime.”

“W-we?” Wesley stuttered over the word. He sat back sharply, the book jack-knifing into the narrow space between them.

“After we’ve figured out this prophecy stuff. There’s more to life than demons and vampires, even if you’re a watcher.” Cordelia put a friendly hand on his arm and squeezed it as she added a mesmerizing smile. “I think taking you out would be a great excuse to make Angel—”

“Jealous?”

“—hit the dance floor. He certainly needs the practice.” Cordelia blinked as Wesley’s interjection caught up with her. She leaned back to stare. “What?”

Sputtering over getting it wrong, Wesley looked mortified. He gasped, “What? Oh, dear.”

“You thought I meant—”

“I thought you meant—”

Behind them, Angel stepped out of the shadows. “You thought Cordelia meant what, exactly?”

Wesley launched himself off the couch before she could even turn her head in Angel’s direction. Trying to minimize the situation before it escalated, he shrugged, “Nothing, really, a slight misunderstanding over something hardly worth mentioning.”

The furrowed brow and tight jaw were a dead giveaway that Angel was not buying it. “Cordy?”

Since she was not going to make Angel sleep on the couch tonight, Cordy decided that it might be a good substitute to let him stew over the situation. “Pfft! Relax, Angel. It’s not like I can’t fend off a come-on or two without backup.”

Wesley’s eyes rounded into large saucers as Angel’s cool glance flicked his way and lingered unblinkingly. Was she deliberately trying to get him killed? Getting oneself caught tête-à-tête with a vampire’s girlfriend was not the kind of situation covered at the academy, especially when that vampire was Angelus.

Considering the territorial behavior he had witnessed over the past week, a strategic withdrawal seemed in order. Wesley wiped the sweat away from his upper lip without realizing it left a trail of black ash behind from his smudged fingertips.

When Cordelia caught his gaze, she waved a finger at her closed lips. He gave her a subtle conspiratorial nod. Smart girl. She was aware they should say nothing further that might incite the vampire to action. Good plan.

Trying to remain calm and remember his training for situations that involved facing a hostile enemy, Wesley subtly inched toward the desk where his jacket was draped over the back of a chair. A stake was hidden inside an inner pocket in the event this got out of hand.

Angel stepped away from the threshold coming to stand directly in front of the desk, easily stripping away the thin veneer of false confidence Wes attempted to project with nothing more than a hard, silent stare. Any hasty movement might result in an attack, and from his field training, he knew that vampires possessed enhanced speed.

This needed to be resolved peacefully. Stumbling over the words, he tried to explain, “W-We were working together on the translations. Simply talking. Nothing untoward. I made no advances. None. I would never. That would be…”

“Suicidal,” Angel put in when Wesley paused to search for the right word.

As the vampire reached toward him, his hand slipped closer to the hidden stake. Wes felt a firm clap on his shoulder as Angel gave him a rare grin. A mix of confusion and relief flooded him. “You’re not stupid—and I trust you to treat Cordelia with respect.”

“Absolutely.” Lifting his chin a bit higher while staring back, the truth resoundingly clear in his voice, Wesley privately wondered what depths a souled vampire would go in the defense of his mate.

For it was clear to him that Angel’s attachment to Cordelia Chase was becoming very serious, well beyond simple sexual interest. The consequences of such a relationship nearly always resulted in a bloody, painful end. Obsession and dependency kept the human tied to their vampire lover. Such pairings typically led to the eventual death of the human.

Having observed Angel since his arrival, and read extensively through the Council file on Angelus, he had to wonder if things were not turned around. Cordelia might think herself to be in love, but in this particular case, the obsessive behavior belonged to the vampire.

Soul or not, that made Angel unpredictable and dangerous. Considering the dubious nature of prophecy, he wondered how the vampire would respond if saving the world meant sacrificing Cordelia.

Scene 134

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