FEEDBACK: Yes, please.
SPOILERS: Set between Heartthrob and That Vision Thing.
DISCLAIMER: They aren’t mine, but if they were? I’d put ‘em on HBO.
RATING: R This is blood-fic, plain and simple. It also attempts to set up Cordelia’s ever-worsening visions and the series of events that culminated later in the season with Birthday. In other words, you want something light and fluffy? Go read Lookin’ for Love. ;)
AUTHOR’S NOTES: Inspired by Kita’s Thirty Days. Julie Fortune and Laura Andrews coaxed the story into the light. Queen Mab gave it a name. Whoever says writing is a solitary process is lying through their fangs.
Sanguis (Latin) - Blood. And family.
He strolled into the empty office, hands in his pockets, nearly whistling. He was home; reunited with his friends, doing the job he'd been called to do. Any happier, he thought with a grin, and he'd have to ask Cordy to stake him.
"Hello," he called. "Anyone home?" He wandered to Cordy's desk and flipped idly through the calendar, finding the Cosmo she hadn't bothered to hide very well in its spiral-bound pages. The magazine was open to the Fall Shoe Review and he rolled his eyes.
Then he glanced around the room and furtively flipped to the horoscope. He was never sure--was he supposed to look at the month he'd been born, or the one he got vamped?
The ruffling pages knocked something onto the floor. Eyes still on the magazine, he reached down and absently picked it up.
His mind registered the shape and texture and clued him into the fact that it wasn't one of her million Post-it pads. He stopped reading, glanced down at it, and froze.
He jolted to his feet, sending the chair rolling out behind him. Cordy walked out of the bathroom, one tanned hand adjusting the hem of her skirt. "Jeez, Grace," she said, as she danced out of the way. She beelined for the coffee pot. "Whatcha got behind your back, Angel?"
He clenched his fists. "Um...." Paper rustled.
She glanced over her shoulder, eyes homing in on his waist, like she could see straight through him. "Oh." She grinned, turned back to the pot and poured a mug of coffee. "I get it."
She dumped in three packets of artificial sweetener and stirred like crazy. "What, you think I didn't know?" She turned, sipping the fragrant brew.
She arched a brow. "That you read Cosmo, silly." Suddenly she put her hand on her belly. "Man. Coffee on an empty stomach. Not a good idea." She set the mug down and came toward him.
Now it was his turn to dance out of the way as she bent over the open file drawer and pawed through her voluminous bag. "I think I'm gonna go get some juice. You need anything?"
"No, I'm fine," he said. She looked up from her bag, eyebrow climbing higher. "Thanks," he added quickly.
She smiled. "Cool. Hey, if Wes comes back, tell him that guy called about the Fishmonger."
He blinked. "The what?"
"Fishmonger." She ran one hand through her bob, and then made sure to smooth the bangs back into place. "You know, that demon he was researching?"
Click. "Oh, right, the Pfitzenmaunger."
She shrugged. "Whatever."
She was halfway out the door before he blurted her name. She stuck her head around the jamb, mouth pulled into an impatient line. "What?"
He tightened his hands again and his thoughts scattered. "Uh--" He shook his head and thought, focus, you idiot. "Where is everyone?"
She glanced at her watch. "Wes is at the bookstore. Should be back any time. Fred's in her room." She shrugged. "Haven't seen the Gunn-man, but I suspect he'll be in later. He went out patrolling with his crew last night. So it's just you and me." She shot him a saucy grin. "And your dirty little secret." She waggled her fingers at him and disappeared out the door.
He drew his hands from behind his back. In one was the magazine, crumpled and smudged.
In the other was a paper-wrapped tampon.
He dropped the magazine to the desk and slipped the tampon back into the pages of the calendar. His shoulders tensed; he breathed through his nose. In and out. In and out.
He’d seen feminine hygiene products before. Who hadn’t? But this was Cordy. The biggest pain he knew. His best friend.
The one who’d always been so careful to hide the monthly evidence.
Maybe it was because he’d been gone all summer. Maybe the soft-bellied part of her had rolled over and relaxed when the predator disappeared.
He closed his eyes and inhaled again. That’s when it hit him: the sharp tang of blood.
The demon took over and tracked her to the bathroom garbage can. He felt his knees bend, saw his hand reach out-- He actually brushed a toilet-paper-wrapped wad with his fingertips before the full force of what he was doing hit him.
He jerked to his feet, gasping, pushing away the memories of other women, legs spread, screaming in terror or pleasure--
The front door opened. He went still.
"Cordy?" Wes called, voice high with excitement. "You here?"
Angel slipped out of the bathroom. "Nope, just me," he said, shoving his hands in his pockets and willing away the tightness in his gums, the pebbled feel of his forehead.
"Oh, even better," Wes said, eyes glowing behind his glasses. "Look what I found!" He pulled a paper-wrapped parcel from under his arm and waved it at Angel. "The Daemon Dictionarium, first edition." He ripped the paper crossways, exposing the cover, sueded with dust. "Published in 1883! It was in the back room, buried under--"
Angel’s mind wandered back to the bathroom where Cordy’s scent lingered around him. Metal and death, something rotting sweetly and falling away.
Angel hunched over the reception desk, chin propped on one hand, the other idly flipping the pages of the Demon Anthology. He was supposed to be looking up the mating and feeding grounds of the Pfitzenmaunger so they could kill it before it sired another brood of incredibly nasty young.
Instead he was thinking about the first time he tried living around humans.
Prague, 1900. In the shadow of the Tyn Cathedral he grabbed a murderer’s gristly throat and tasted the first, hot sip of human blood he’d had in nearly two years. It wasn’t what he remembered--this was bitter, thin blood, tainted with alcohol and hatred.
He dropped the exsanguinated corpse to the cobblestones, eyes drawn to the light of the square. Only feet away he could hear innocent heartbeats. He watched as people passed, laughing and pulsing and alive. Unaware of what lurked in the shadows.
He started. "Huh?"
"I’ve been yelling at you for, like, five minutes. Geez." Cordy reached around him for one of the books piled at his elbow. Her breasts brushed his forearm and he jerked away, scattering books. "Weirdo," she said, going back to her desk.
Endless craving. That’s what he got for ridding the world of sinners.
He slipped away to his room, closed the door, and let silence, his old friend, welcome him. He poured a glass of blood and settled into his reading chair. Feet on the ottoman, head resting against the pillow, he drifted.
And was back in Missoula, huddled in the train station, waiting for the sun to set. The plump-cheeked virgin next to him put off heat like a wool blanket. The bench was one of the few places in shadow and the girl and her mother giggled over a magazine as they waited for their train to be called.
She was bleeding; he could smell it through the layers of fabric and dust. Late afternoon sun locked him against her, its knife-edge striping the floor inches from his feet. The trains came and went; the girl chattered incessantly. And the dark-metal scent of her blood tempted him. He struggled for control like the black steward struggled under the weight of her trunk.
He rode the sun’s tails into the endless, open prairie, where he could still hear the tinny whistle-and-grind of the distant train. He had no need for clocks, though as the months passed, the train’s comings-and-goings anchored him to reality.
It was the sanest he’d ever been. Until Buffy.
Something wet fell on his hand and jarred him awake. "Wha-" He righted the tilting glass but not before it spilled blood on his gray shirt, turning the cuff black. He set it on the table and put his feet on the floor, thinking to get up and find a clean shirt. But the light from the lamp caught his red-stained skin.
The call of blood never went away, but its regular appearance in Buffy, Willow and Cordy became like the train whistle, anchoring him to a reality that would otherwise be eternally fathomless. So why was he suddenly wanting to grab Cordelia by the arms, haul her to the nearest dark room, and—
"Angel, we training?"
His thoughts jerked back to the now.
Cordy crossed the room and stopped in front of him, and the open toes of her sandals bumped his boots.
"Angel, hello?" She waved one hand in front of him. "God, what is your deal?" She crossed her arms over her breasts.
"Maybe you can take your eyes off my chest long enough to train." She slapped his forearm, and at the wet pop, drew her hand away in confusion. "Oh, my God, what is-- Ew! Angel, you spilled blood all over your shirt!"
He blinked up at her. "I know. I was about to change."
"I hope so. I’m not training with you when you’re all bloody," she said, voice filled with disgust. She marched to the kitchen and turned on the tap.
His eyes slid over, taking her in. Slightly puffy eyelids, engorged breasts, swollen belly. Throwing off death so next month she could create life.
The urge to fall before her and drink nearly undid him. "Training?" he said, and the force in his voice betrayed him. "Not today."
"Okay, you’ve been acting strange ever since you got up." She stepped in front of him, drying her hands on one of his kitchen towels. "Spill."
"It’s nothing, Cordelia, really." He dropped his gaze, but then her hand was on his arm, warm and relaxed, like that soft-bellied thing she’d become while he was gone. He jerked away.
She squatted in front of him and the tiny skirt rode almost to the V of her crotch. "Angel?"
Hurt in her voice, hurt and something edgier. He shut his eyes, blocking her out.
She stayed there for a moment, silver sickle of breath cutting his arms, his face. "All right," she said finally. "But I’m training without you." And then she was gone in a clatter of heels.
Angel let out a breath.
"What?" he snapped.
Wes stuck his head around the door. "I found some more info on that demon we've been researching. You want to see?"
He ran his hand over his face, caught the scent of blood, on his sleeve and in the air.
Wes stepped into the room, brow wrinkled in confusion. "What's wrong?"
Wes looked unconvinced. He glanced toward the door. "Did she say something to you?"
"No." Angel stood, went to the closet and unbuttoned his shirt, consciously slowing his trembling hands. "I’m going out."
"Maybe if you just told me--"
Angel stopped, looked at him. "It's really nothing."
Wes crossed his arms over his chest.
"I might not be back until morning," Angel continued, pulling a long-sleeved black Henley over his head.
Wes tilted his head to the side, and his gaze shifted behind his glasses as if Angel were a book he was studying.
Angel ignored him and reached in the closet for one of his swords. He grabbed it clumsily and when he did, his thumb hit the blade, slicing it open. "Dammit." He stuck his thumb in his mouth before he realized what he was doing.
The door slammed open. "Angel, have you seen my-- Hey, where are you going? Did we get a call?" Cordy’s hair waved forward, cupped her pale face like shadows.
Angel’s tongue ran over his elongating teeth. He dropped his hand to his side and the taste of blood dissipated, though it took seconds longer for his fangs to follow.
"No call," Wes said, glancing at Cordy. "You training?" He gestured toward her sweats.
She nodded. "Alone, evidently. The Train-meister refused. He’s in a funk." She leaned around Angel and reached into the closet. "I knew I left it up here."
"I don’t know why he refuses to put these things back in the cabinet." She rolled her eyes at Wes even as she pointed her blade at Angel. "I mean, we’ve got a system. Why not use it?" She slammed out of the room, leaving Angel and Wes alone.
Wes gave him a lingering glance then followed Cordy out the door. Angel stood in the silence, ignoring his throbbing thumb and focusing instead on the heft of the sword and the call of the Good Fight. Letting it draw him back to what he was now.
This kind of killer. Not *that* kind.
But, even so, he left through the lobby door, risking sunburn so he wouldn’t have to go out through the basement, where Cordelia trained.
When he got back he went straight to the refrigerator.
Cold, dead blood, encased in plastic. He grabbed a glass out of the cabinet and ripped open the bag with his fangs. The feeling of his teeth going through the false flesh was too much. He drained the bag in three gulps and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The glass fell, bobbling precariously on the countertop. He righted it, left it sitting, unused, next to the sink.
He was alone. No one there to see these little betrayals.
He hung his black shirt tidily on the hanger, a habit Darla taught him through cruelty and pleasure. The first time he’d tossed a costly linen shirt to the floor, she stabbed his bare arm with a knife. "I’m not your house girl," she hissed. And then she pulled the knife free and licked him clean.
He jerked a tank top over his head and felt the twinge of fire and ice in his upper arm.
Cordelia. Pale and swollen, body begging for release. It would be so easy to dig his fingers deep, to teach her about the pleasure of that knife-edge.
He fell on the bed and buried his face in the pillows. The high-count cotton felt warm and smooth against his wind-cooled skin. The memory of Cordy’s blood-scent exploded in his brain. His hips twitched involuntarily against the mattress.
Angel rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. His closed his eyes, let the vision of her swim up. Felt the pressure in his cock grow.
A slice of light filtered through a crack in the curtains and to distract himself he got up and twitched the fabric closed. On the way to the window he kicked his boots across the room where they landed in a messy pile. He found himself wishing Darla was around to make him put them up.
He smelled her first. Then he opened his eyes and she was standing next to the bed. She was dressed for work, perfectly coiffed and made up. Wearing one of her little skirts and a strangely patterned shirt that she claimed was the unfortunate result of free trade.
The flashing numbers on the bedside clock read 5:23. Behind her the light filtered through the curtains he knew he’d closed before he went to bed.
It burned his eyes. The dawn of a new day.
She pulled her purse over her head and dropped it on the floor. "You only get one chance," she said roughly. "Make it good."
In one fluid motion he grabbed her wrist, pulled her across his body and rolled her beneath him. Like Darla in his dreams the year before, she felt solid, real.
"Why?" he asked, not sure why he was bothering. The answer was obvious--it was his dream and he wanted her there.
"Does it matter?" She set her chin stubbornly. "Just do it."
He was instantly hard. And he suddenly had the perverse notion to take this very, very slow. "Take off my shirt."
She frowned at him. "You've got hands."
"Fine." She ripped it down the placket then raked the fabric down his arms, catching his skin with her ruthless manicure.
He eased his fingers down her body. Watched her eyes light up, her mouth grimace in pleasure. She gasped when he found the potholder-sized skirt and lifted it to her waist. He slid off just far enough to see her panties. Black. The bulk of a pad rested between her legs and the smell of her body, her blood, rose.
She yanked his hair. He looked up, found her eyes glittering. "You think I don't know how you feel. What you crave." Her hand, now on his face, was soft as dust. "You're such a child, Angel. Denying yourself this pleasure."
He slipped the panties defiantly down her thighs. Then he followed. "I’m not denying myself—"
"You think you get points in heaven?" She laughed. "Please. Heaven doesn't even know you exist."
She shoved his head down, burying him between her legs.
Helpless, he drank.
It had spent the night accumulating, tangling in her hair, painting her thighs tribal red. He started licking her clean. She writhed beneath him, and now instead of tugging his hair her hands fisted in it.
"Higher," she demanded. Just to keep things interesting he went lower, licking around the puckered opening beneath. The earthy scent there brought his teeth out. He didn’t try to stop them. Just pulled back and looked at her.
She crushed his head between her thighs, then crab-walked up the bed. "I told you--" He grabbed her calf and dragged her back down leaving a long streak of red on the pristine sheets.
She flailed, and in her hand a stake appeared. "You’ll be Hoover-bait before you bury those things in my leg."
He retracted the teeth, but he didn’t mask his eyes. He watched her as he licked her, held her bold gaze until her eyes fluttered shut with pleasure and the stake hit the floor.
The flat of his tongue swept up and tangled with her clit. She moaned and twisted her fingers in his hair, pushing his face farther into the dark cave between her legs.
Lost, seeking, he slid his hand up under his chin and dipped his fingers in.
He dug deeper, looking for the warmth and acceptance he couldn’t admit he craved any other time. Started licking and pumping. Found her rhythm and let it ride and ride and ride until--
He stopped. She shrieked. He flipped her onto her stomach.
"What are you--"
"Shut up." He parted her cheeks with rough hands, slithered down behind her, and rested his chin at the cusp of her thighs. "For once, just shut UP." He closed his eyes and inhaled, long and deep.
She jerked away. "Right. Soul Boy runs the show." She laughed mockingly. "As if."
"Shh." He spread her legs, pressing them wide. Ran his fingers up and down the crease on either side of her lips. Beautiful, plump, painted lips decorated with a thin trickle of blood. He spread her wider and dove for it.
She screamed his name into the pillows when she came. Over and over and over, like a chant. When he raised his head her face was buried in the fabric, her hands white-knuckled.
He pulled away, looked at the tableau beneath him. The beautiful, limp, half-dressed girl, spread-eagle on the mattress, blood pooling beneath her on the white sheets.
"I don't know why you try so hard," she said. "The blood always wins in the end."
He woke up shivering, starving. Burning.
He didn't go downstairs until early evening. Wes glanced at him from behind the counter. "Angel. Sleep well?"
He looked past Wes into the office. "Where's Cordelia?" He could smell her.
Wes shook his head. "Out with Fred. Getting dinner." He gestured with the book. "How are you feeling today?"
Angel laughed, even as door the opened, spilling Cordy and Fred into the lobby. Wes stepped in front of Angel, blocking the women from his line of vision. "You seem a bit off," he said in voice that was at once polite and hard.
"I'm fine, Wesley," Angel said in a conciliatory tone. But the moment stretched taut when he didn't drop his eyes.
Cordy and Fred hit the dam Wes created and flowed to either side of him. Fred ended up behind the counter, ducking down to look in the shelves beneath. Cordy, hands full of something that smelled like Indian food, bumped Angel's hip playfully with hers. "You decided to join the living!"
He stepped away without looking at her and went into Wes's office.
"Still in a funk," she said, like he couldn't hear her.
"Hey, where'd all the plates--"
He came out with plates and silverware.
"Cool!" Fred said, reaching for the china. "Did y'all see that? I was looking for plates and couldn't find them and then Angel--"
It was time to prove to himself that he could control this craving. It didn't help that he imagined breaking a plate, releasing the edges, and using them on her skin. Watching the blood--
Fred tugged. "You did mean for me to take these, right?"
"I'm sure he did," Wes said, whisking the plates away and setting them on the counter. "Angel, I really think you should consider—"
The words faded. Heartbeats flickered around him; synapses fired. He felt cold and dead.
The basement welcomed him, shadows and spiders. Once he pitied the Master for living underground. Now he didn’t bother with the lights.
The punching bag was a sullen ghost. He slapped it bare-handed and the reverberation sang up his arm and into his shoulder. That felt good so he did it again, and again, until the well-padded adversary swung between his speed-blurred hands.
It lunged at him and he punched it, wishing it was flesh and bone, cracking and--
"Angel?" The lights came on. He grabbed the creaking bag and stood, let himself blend into the shadows. Don’t come down here. Don’t--
"Go back upstairs, Cordelia." His unwrapped knuckles were bruised and when he hit the bag again, pain shot up his arm. At the same time, he smelled her, perfume and blood. The one-two punch, pain and pleasure, lit up the long-dead shadows of his hormones and fired his brain into a raging mess.
She came closer. "Not until you tell me what’s wrong." Her hand gestured, deed before word. "This is weird, even for you."
He retreated behind the bag. "Leave me alone, Cordy."
"I can’t." She grabbed the bag, steadied it, like she obviously wanted to do for him. "You don’t want to talk to me, fine. But I learned my lesson about leaving you alone last year."
He grunted. "It’s nothing personal." He punched the bag.
She snorted. "Yeah, right."
He doubled his punches and the bag went flying. The rounded surface offered no purchase and Cordy stumbled back, catching herself on the edge of the table. A vase of flowers bounced and fell.
He heard her pulse rocket.
He kept punching. Harder and faster, just like he wanted to pummel her, to drive himself into her, fists and fangs and cock and find the hot, glowing coal at her center.
She screamed his name.
Yes, like that. Scream. Scream for me.
Something hit him on the back of the head. Stunned, he turned to find her, mouth open, slightly sour breath billowing out over him. "What?" he asked, wiping the sweat from his eyes.
"Stop it," she begged. "You’re scaring me."
He smelled it then, the sweet musk of her fear. Evidently it wasn’t enough of a deterrent, though, because she kept going.
"What happened, Angel? You were doing so well."
It took him a minute to get it. He laughed, a dry rasp. "You think this is about Buffy?"
She thought they were in a stand-off; he could tell by the mulish set to her mouth, the way she squared her shoulders. He knew better. One slap, one push, she’d be out of his way or over his shoulder or on the floor under him-- He closed his eyes.
"Then what is it?" She must have leaned in then; her heat scalded him.
His control snapped. He grabbed her arm and forced her back.
Her eyes widened. "Angel?"
"I'm fine, Cordelia." Her hair in his fingers, chestnut silk.
"Look, you’ve obviously been away from people for too long." She took his hand, but her gaze skittered away. "Come upstairs, eat with us." Her voice hardened. "Stop with the whole creature of the night act."
He stalked her halfway up the stairs. Lights above in the lobby. Lights below in the basement. Here were the spiders and the shadows. And him.
"Angel, oh, my God." She whirled, took his arm and drew him up so they stood face-to-face. "You're so not okay." Fear forgotten, she put her hand on his forehead like she was checking for fever. "How long has it been since you ate?"
At the feel of her hand on his skin, the demon jerked against its short leash. "This afternoon," he said, eyes slipping shut. She leaned into him. Sweat, blood, hot skin. Human.
It was too much.
He pressed her into the rail. She gave beneath him like a down mattress, making him wonder if she were always this pliant, or if it was just the blood. He bore down on her, letting the demon find the cage of her skeleton.
He brushed his lips against hers, once, twice. Felt her jolt in shock. Slid his hands down the wall; felt the skin scrape off, left behind on the rough bricks. One stinging palm landed on the railing, the other on her hip.
When he pulled back her face was a study of circles, eyes wide open, mouth in an O. She, normally so well-defended against him, was stripped of her armor.
"Shh." His other hand found her hip, and together they climbed, up her rib cage, under the shelf of her breasts. Her body, hot and full, encased him.
Then some better part of him appealed for her. He dropped his hands.
But she didn’t move.
He’d seen that same expression on the faces of thousands of women: body warring with mind; desire warring with shame. She knew she shouldn’t but curiosity tapped her on the shoulder. Smart, smart Cordelia, usually so good at survival, suddenly wondered--what if?
Driven forward by the sweet disorder of her conflict, he slid his hand right down to the edge of her skirt. She tensed. He slipped his fingers under the fabric.
His fingers slid through the leg of her panties and over the springy thatch of curls. She was soft as melting butter and he slid deeper. Past her pulsing, already-distended clit, down into her folds. Against the back of his fingers the silky nylon panty; against the tips the wrinkled string and wet, wet flesh.
"Angel!" She was breathless. Mortified and aroused.
His fingers found the opening to her body and she arched against him. Pressed her hips against his hand and moaned, a ragged sound. She reached down and grabbed his wrist through the fabric.
His eyes followed.
"No." Her grip grated together the small bones in his hand. "This is crazy."
He tugged her hand away, held it above her head.
Her reply was dim; the only thing in his world was the mystery unfolding under his fingers. She was wet, the thin silk of blood and the slick tang of juice, and as his fingers slid higher he bumped into the twist of cotton.
She jerked, once, and then went rigid. "Angel-" She wiggled away and the motion broke him off from her body, stretching her panties around his wrist.
Angel watched her as he slid his hand free, taking care to move slowly, brush his fingers over her clit, drawing out the moment so she'd remember.
He let her lurch out of his arms and run for the door. He raised his hand. Blood, black and clotted, smeared his fingertips. His nostrils flared.
She turned back as he slipped his fingers between his lips. He heard her harsh gasp, and then she was gone, door slamming behind her.
The blood exploded against his senses, so rich, so exquisite that it sent the demon flying even as the man fell to his knees.
When he came up, they were crouched around her on the floor.
He stopped, frozen, at the edge of the lobby.
She groaned and rolled over, pressing the palms of her hands into her eye sockets. "Griffith Park, near the Observatory. That stupid Fishmonger thingie."
The thrust of her gaze was a blow. She grabbed the arm of the couch and pulled herself to her knees. "Get out of here."
She was pale, trembling. He swallowed the acid ichor of guilt. "You gonna be okay?"
She eased onto the cushions.
"Angel, man, you comin'?" Gunn asked.
He stood, helpless, watching as Fred rushed into the room, glass of water in one hand, bottle of painkillers in the other.
"Angel?" Wes handed him his sword.
"Yeah." The weapon's handle fit his grip perfectly and pulled him away from softness, warmth and betrayal. Back into the fight. "Yeah. I'm coming."
The blade sliced through the demon’s knobby, gray hide. It howled and returned the favor by shooting one of its long, knife-like fingernails through Angel’s belly.
Gunn grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him back. The nail slid out, wet from his flesh, and pain erupted through his body in a red haze. "Thanks," he grunted.
"Don’t mention it," Gunn said. He raised his axe and swung at the Pfitz’s head. It ducked, and the momentum carried Gunn down into a rolling tumble.
Wes snuck up behind the demon while Angel and Gunn kept him occupied. He dipped into a velvet bag and came up with a handful of dust. His breath carried it over the Pfitzenmaunger’s shoulders and doused its head in a green glow. It screamed, long and shrill, and even Angel couldn’t hear Wesley’s whispered incantation over the racket.
Whatever Wes did, it worked. The demon trembled like it had swallowed earthquake pills, and then the screams cut off abruptly. It collapsed to the ground and deflated into a pile that would barely have filled a gallon jug.
Gunn wiped his nose with his sleeve. "Dang. Demon jelly. Anyone bring toast?"
"Yes, it’s really too bad they aren’t all so accommodating," Wes agreed. "Think of the time we’d save, hauling them all back to the hotel to incinerate them."
"And the money," Angel said.
"Hey, how’s your side?" Gunn asked.
Angel lifted his shirt. A puncture, livid around the edges, oozed blood toward his waistband.
"That’s nasty," Gunn commented.
"Better have Cordy take a look at that," Wes said.
Angel limped toward the car.
"Hey, maybe I should drive so you can lie in the back. You’re lookin' kinda pale."
"Gunn," Wes chided.
"What? I mean paler than usual."
Angel threw his sword in the floor of the car and climbed into the back seat. "We’ll go write up the report, then you guys head home. Get some sleep." He lay down. "I’m sure this’ll be fine." He pressed his hand to the wound, wincing when he felt things shift that probably shouldn't be shifting.
He fell asleep on the drive back to the hotel and woke up in time to hear Gunn and Wes exiting the car. "Yo, Angel, get it in gear," Gunn called.
He crawled out and followed them into the hotel. Fred sat on one of the stools behind the counter.
"All hail the conquering heroes," Wes said as they crossed the lobby. He glanced around. "Where’s Cordy?"
Fred came around the desk. "In the bathroom." She sidled up to Wes and whispered, "I don’t think she’s feeling well."
"Barbie havin’ a hard time?" Gunn asked.
Fred nodded. "I’m not sure what to do. I thought I heard her, you know," she motioned with her hand.
"She throwing up again?"
"Wait, wait," Angel said, crowding in. "What do you mean, she’s throwing up?"
"Started happenin’ this summer." Gunn shook his head. "She-"
The bathroom door opened and Cordy came out, sheet-white except for two blotches of red up high on her cheekbones. "Cordy," Fred said, going to her side. She put her hand on Cordy’s arm. "Let us take you home."
Cordy shook her head. "I’m fine, really." She looked everywhere but at Angel. "Wes? Gunn? How’d you guys fare?" She went to the counter and retrieved the first aid kit.
"We’re fine," Gunn said, taking the kit from her and dropping it onto the couch. "Angel’s the one who--"
"That's good, then," Cordy said, turning away and going to the desk. "Let's file the report so we can all get out of here."
Gunn stood, mouth open, watching her. "But Angel--"
She lowered herself into her chair and typed something into the computer. "Is dead. One more wound isn’t gonna kill him."
The room went silent.
"Angel?" Fred said in a small voice. "Why don’t you let me--"
"Fred, I’m fine. Look, let’s just finish. The faster we do that, the faster everyone can go home."
Cordy’s shoulders relaxed and he knew he’d finally done something right.
"Hey, Wes, can you give me a ride home?" Cordy asked.
Wes shook his head. "I’m sorry. I promised Gunn I’d take him back to his place. His truck’s in the shop, remember?"
"You totally need to buy something bigger than that stupid bike," Cordy snapped.
"I can take you," Angel said quietly.
She looked at him, and he could tell she wanted to refuse. But finally she nodded. "Fine. Let’s go."
"Night, Cordy," Fred said, looking up from the file cabinet. "Let me know if you need anything, ‘kay?"
"Thanks." She looped her purse across her body and strode for the door. Angel caught up with her just in time to catch the door and hold it open.
"Cordy, slow down," he said, worried that she was pushing herself too hard. Guilt pinched him for being part of the reason she was going like a maniac when she was obviously exhausted.
"Look, you blood-sucking freak, the only reason I’m letting you anywhere near me is because I have to." Her voice, raw and hot as his wound, stopped him in his tracks. "If I didn’t have these stupid visions--" She whirled away and nearly ran for the car.
The drive home was unmercifully long. She had the radio set on a rap station, turned up too loud to talk over. He hated rap and she knew it, but he didn't change it because it was the least he deserved.
When he pulled up in front of the apartment, she opened the door before he’d even stopped the car.
He watched as she made her way into the courtyard. He was about to pull away when he saw her steps falter, her hand fly to her forehead.
He vaulted the car door and caught her before she hit the ground. She thrashed so hard her sandals came off, scraping her ankles and feet on the concrete. When she came to he had her tight against his chest, murmuring into her hair. "It’s gonna be okay. C'mon, baby. You’re gonna be okay."
She cried. "Hurts," she said.
He felt helpless, useless. "I know, I’m sorry." He sat down on the ground and pulled her into his lap, barely registering the pain when the knob of her hip bumped the demon’s puncture. "I wish I knew what to do."
She curled into him, pressing her hot face into his neck. "You should go," she said weakly. "It’s just a couple of vamps. Out in West Covina. Married couple, coming back late from a show."
"I don’t want to leave you," he said, stroking her back. He realized suddenly how true that was. He didn't want to leave her.
She slowly pulled away. "You have to let me go," she said quietly. Her eyes, so full of heat before, were empty mirrors. She got to her feet, and when her hand fell away from his shoulder, he panicked.
"Cordy. Please. Let me take you upstairs."
She shook her head. "You’ve only got about an hour. It’s gonna be cutting it close as it is." She trembled with fatigue. "Go," she rasped.
He pulled up half a block from the target and parked on the street. A glance at his watch told him he had a few minutes, so he slipped out of the car and walked down the sidewalk. The houses were big, with well-tended lawns and large trees.
He blended into the shadows and crept across the lawn of the house next door. The back yard was fenced, and as he skirted the cedar barrier he saw the vamps lingering around the back door next to the garage.
"This is one, great scam," the taller one said.
Angel eased closer and let his game face surface.
"Oh, yeah, we got it goin’ on. Anyone dumb enough to hire a vamp to clean their house deserves what they get."
The other snickered. "Yeah. Hey, man, I hear Delfino’s has gambling in the back room on Friday nights. You wanna head down after we eat?"
"Sure. I mean, why deny ourselves, right? It ain’t like we’re goin' to hell." They laughed.
Angel stepped out of the shadows. "I wouldn’t be too sure about that."
The vamps turned. "Buzz off," said the bigger one. "This is our kill."
"Yeah," the other added. "What he said."
Angel smiled around the fangs. "Actually, this is *my* kill." He activated his wrist rachets, shooting stakes into his hands, and the vamps were dust before they could formulate what he was sure would have been a lame one-liner in response.
He toed the dust reflexively--waited a beat for his system to calm. He thought about what they said. He'd never had to run scams to get things. He simply took what he wanted.
It was that take-all attitude that got him where he was now. One gypsy girl too many put him on the rocky path to redemption and for over a hundred years he denied himself. Not just what he wanted, but who he was.
Even Buffy, who guided him back into the land of the living, didn't really accept his true nature. Maybe that was youth. Maybe it was calling.
He looked up at the sky, saw the moon flirting with him from behind a lacy cloud. Maybe it was destiny.
Lights cut the dark and he disappeared around the corner of the house. A late-model Mercedes pulled in the driveway and the garage door opened.
He watched as the couple pulled in, and waited for their garage door to close. When it didn’t, he stepped forward in concern, nearly exposing himself to the man who was wheeling a garbage can to the curb. His wife, in a little black dress that reminded him of something Cordy would wear, followed him to the edge of the garage.
"Hey, I thought you said you swept out here," she said, voice warm and teasing. She slid the pointed toe of her glossy black mule through the vamp dust.
"I did," he called quietly.
"Yeah, right." She laughed and crossed her arms. "Come on," she said, rubbing her hands up and down her arms. "It’s getting chilly."
"I told you," he said, coming back up the driveway, "you should have brought your wrap."
"Except then," she pulled his arm around her, "you wouldn't need to keep me warm."
They laughed, a quiet, intimate sound, and the garage door closed behind them, leaving Angel alone in the shadows.
She'd left a light burning in the living room, a torchiere that cast a funnel of gold on the ceiling. The rest of the apartment was dark and the glow of light made the shadows deeper.
Dennis closed the door behind him with a soft click and Angel felt his cool hand pressing between his shoulder blades. He let the ghost guide him into the living room but then he stopped, wondering what he was doing.
She was exhausted and she probably didn't want to see him, despite the apologies that he wanted to make.
Then he heard her talking; fierce, odd little sounds that he couldn't quite make out. Her voice never rose above a whisper, but the terror he heard there grabbed him by the throat and yanked him to her side.
The comforter hung half off the bed. She thrashed against the sheet, mouth moving constantly. He could hear her now, "903 Pebble Creek. 903-- No, don't! You're hurting her! Angel! Angel--"
He reached for her shoulders, desperate to wake her and end the torture. But something in her voice stopped him.
It was the same fear he’d heard earlier, in the basement.
He jerked back into the shadows, mortified, as the fullness of what he’d done hit him. How he’d let his need hurt her, scare her, as fully as any vision.
He wrapped his arms around his waist and moaned. After all they’d been through, after he’d nearly lost her to Darla, to Groo and Pylea, and then to his grief over Buffy's death.
He looked up, saw her blinking at him sleepily.
"What are you doing here?"
To step back would be to hide, to pretend the connection didn't exist. To step forward would take for granted that she wanted his presence. He didn't move.
She propped up on her elbow. "Angel?"
Even in the shadows he could see the tell-tale line between her eyes. She was still in pain, emotional or physical, he couldn't tell. "I was worried about you," he said.
The smell of her blood, metallic and thick, surrounded him. The connection they had was more than friendship, but unlike any love he'd ever felt. It was deeper, darker, more vicious; sweeter, softer, and infinitely more compassionate.
And he wondered now if he hadn’t lost her for good.
Suddenly his bones felt light. Empty as his grave and just as cold. "I'm sorry I woke you." He turned to go.
"Wait." She looked at the clock on the bedside table. "Are they-- Did you--"
He toed the rug, remembering the pile of dust. "Yeah. They’re taken care of."
"Oh, good." Her voice relaxed and he heard her shift.
He turned back and she was sitting up in bed. Sleep blurred her edges, disarraying her hair and rumpling her clothes. Her shadowed eyes and tense mouth made him want to smooth her face with his hand, take away her pain--even if it was just for a few moments. Whatever pain he caused, he wanted to erase it.
He stepped toward her.
"What do you think you're doing?"
He stopped. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
She glared at him. "You should be. What happened this afternoon was gross and obscene and you scared me."
He hadn't been apologizing for that, but he should have been. He could see in her eyes the edges of her fear, but the worst of it had dimmed. She was mostly just mad now. Mad and hurting.
"The visions are worse," he said softly.
She looked away.
There was a beat of silence.
"Why'd you do it?" she asked.
"I was cold." He said it without thinking, and immediately added it to the list of things to regret.
"That's not good enough."
He thought of her in the shadowed basement. Wide-eyed, terrified. And how much more he'd wanted her because of it. "I-- I don't know."
As he said it, he tensed. Wasn’t this where she was supposed to punish him for saying the wrong thing? To stick a knife in his arm or pull out a stake and threaten him?
Instead, she said pressed her fingertips to her forehead. "Angel, go home.”
But he didn’t want to go home. He wanted her to take control. Like Darla and Buffy before her, he *needed* her to stop him.
The silence stretched and she said nothing, only sat, massaging her temples. The quiet intimacy of the moment crept up on him and he thought of the couple from earlier in the night.
What if relationships weren’t about control at all? What if they were about giving and taking equally? That would mean he didn’t have to wait for anyone to make him do better. He could do it himself.
He found his hand on her shoulder. "Where does it hurt?"
She stiffened. He raised his other hand and began kneading the knots in her shoulders and tracing her collarbones. He felt her give, just a little, under the soft fabric of the T-shirt she wore.
"I'm sorry," he said again. He moved his hands slowly like he was gentling a horse. As a man he wasn't patient, not with people. But with his horses, he had been someone different. A decent human being.
Which is what Cordy made him--as much as walking death could be made into anything. He squeezed her upper arms, digging his fingers into the grooves between her muscles, working out the soreness he knew she felt by the wince she gave.
She raised her head and looked at him, but kept silent.
He smiled and brushed her hair off her face, tucked it behind her ear. "Turn around," he whispered. She stared at him, friendship openly warring with betrayal, but she finally turned. The sheet fell aside, baring her tattoo above the low-riding waistband of her boxer shorts. He wondered idly where she got them--such a masculine garment--as he started working the big muscles at the top of her back.
She groaned when his thumbs dug into her shoulders again, sighed when he found the hot spot under her shoulder blade. She was so thin that it was like rubbing the wings of a bird. He wondered whether she’d eaten dinner, whether she could keep anything down now.
Cordy slowly sank in on herself, as if her body was so accustomed to tension that, without it, she couldn't stay upright. He smoothed her flat onto her stomach and started working his way down her back. She tensed when he walked his thumbs down her spine and relaxed again when he hit her lower back.
The girl was a walking stress factory and she'd never said a word about it. His hands tightened in frustration.
"Ow," she whispered.
"Sorry," he said, gentling his strokes. Her T-shirt worked its way up around her waist and he smoothed it out of the way. She stiffened. "It's okay," he lulled. "I won't hurt you."
"Better not," she said, almost under her breath.
The shame surged like a wave but the warm reality of her flesh contained it. Her breathing steadied. He found himself rubbing her body to its rhythm.
His hands spanned her waist and he raised up on one knee so he could balance over her. He rested the heels of his hands in the dip of her lower back and pressed gently.
She cried out and tensed.
"Mm," she said, surrendering to him completely. When she shifted, her legs fell open, not wide, but enough that he was suddenly back in his dream.
His synapses fired. Blood and flesh. In his mouth, on his fingers-- He yanked his hands away and stumbled to his feet.
She lay silent for a moment. "Angel?" she slurred.
He slammed his eyes shut, unable to look at her. Instead he concentrated on the erection pushing against his zipper. On making it go away, on making the want for her into something decent and appropriate.
But all he really wanted was to lie down next to her and lose himself in her warmth.
She turned her head toward him and in the dark shadow of her eyes he could see that she knew, very clearly, what had just happened. "Let me ask you something."
He quivered with the need to run from those all-seeing eyes.
"If you didn’t have the curse, would you have kept going?"
He swallowed, struggling to stay still. "It wasn’t the curse that stopped me."
She leaned up on one elbow and the collar of her T-shirt fell away. "That’s not what I asked."
"We can’t—" He swallowed again. "We shouldn’t go down this road, Cordelia."
She laughed, a bitter sound. "Of all people, I think I’m pretty aware of where this road could lead." She sat up, boxers riding up over the olive-cream curve of her thigh. "Which is why I asked."
He closed his eyes, unable to look at her. "I don’t know."
"Well I guess that’s better than a flat-out no." Her voice was weary, ancient.
The punch was visceral. "What are you saying?"
"Nothing. Look, why don’t we call it a night—"
He’d never been good with women, and it occurred to him that he was misreading this entirely. But something in her words forced him past his shame.
He settled onto the bed next to her, framed her face in his hands and brushed his thumbs over her lips.
"Shh." Under his thumbs her mouth was unbelievably soft and warm. When he raised his eyes, he found her gaze to be direct. She saw him as he really was and she still wanted to be with him. Maybe she was the only person who ever had.
He pulled his thumbs away and leaned in.
She pulled back. "Angel, we can’t."
He stopped, inches from her mouth. Listening. To her words. To the susurration of her breath, to the increasingly fast beat of her heart.
"Let me take the pain away," he whispered.
He counted fifty-three heartbeats before she gave an almost imperceptible nod.
His hands on her shoulders guided her into the pillows. She watched him, wide-eyed, as he leaned over her. Her hair, soft as silk and dark as shadows. Her skin, pale gold velvet.
He pressed his mouth to hers, gently, gently. Let his lips brush hers once and then again. Felt her gasp as he ran his fingertips over the shell of her ear.
She shivered but her body was so warm that he was starting to sweat. On the street below a car passed with a quiet hiss. The refrigerator cycled on, sending water to the ice-maker and in the bedroom there was no sound but her breath.
Everything was reduced to the pads of his fingers, the tip of his nose, his lips, drawing patterns on her flesh. Her cheeks led him to her throat, to the hollow behind her ear.
She clung to his shoulders, clenching the leather until it creaked.
She was so sensitized to touch, from the visions, from her period, that the barest brush of his fingers on the inside of her elbow had her hips levitating off the bed. Her intake of breath intoxicated him.
She was such a force of nature outside the bedroom, sassy and savvy and assured. But here she was quiet, pliant. Waiting for him to take control.
"Scoot over," he whispered, and when she did, he lay down next to her on his side. His legs stretched past hers and reminded him again what an illusion her persona was. How vulnerable and small she was when stripped of her smart mouth and cocky stance.
He slipped his left arm under her and cradled her in its curve.
"Angel?" she whispered.
"Shh." He smoothed her hair off her forehead, drew his fingertips across her temple and down her cheekbone. She closed her eyes and pressed her face into his hand. It was an innocent, trusting gesture and his heart filled. Of all the nights to trust him….
He kissed her forehead, her eyelids. Felt her lashes flutter against his lips. Touched the bridge of her nose, the dips above and below her mouth. She moaned softly when he darted out his tongue and licked her lips, so he did it again, marveling at the way her mouth opened for him.
He pulled back, looking for equilibrium. It was going to be a lot harder than he’d expected not to give in to his impulse to bury himself in her completely. But this had to be about comfort and warmth, not passion.
He linked their fingers and kissed the back of her hand, a courtly gesture that made her smile. He drew their hands down and rested them on her belly, letting his thumb brush the rumpled T-shirt. Just that one movement over and over until her eyes closed and he could see all her senses focusing on that spot.
He drew her closer. She snuggled her hip against his thigh, and her eyes flew to his when she felt his erection.
He smiled and shook his head. Her face cleared and he felt her energy shift, the tension drain. He raised his hand and for the first time touched her breast. She inhaled sharply through her open mouth. It was the same movement as before, just his thumb, brushing back and forth across her nipple.
She twisted her hips, burrowing into the mattress. He pinched her lightly and she whimpered. The sound went straight to his cock.
He pulled away, gasping. "Just gotta--"
Her eyes opened, heavy-lidded. Her smile was a simple tilt of her lips. "Catch your breath?" The easy acceptance, the acknowledgement in that glance-- It was too much to resist.
He kissed her hungrily, forgetting to be gentle, forgetting everything but her.
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pulling him down deeper, wedging him against her. He threw his leg over her thighs, wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. He wanted to draw her into him, body and soul.
After a moment Cordy laughed quietly and he pulled away, sliding his leg back down beside her.
"Sorry," he said.
She shook her head. "It’s all right."
He went back to her body. Found her waist under the shirt, spanned it with his hand. Tickled her ribs with the tips of his fingers and felt her twitch, heard her gasp.
She arched up, and all he could see was her throat, long and lean. He pressed his lips there and felt her groan. Teeth on flesh—was there anything better? His hand moved and found her breast again, and he knew there were things in this universe far better.
There was life, throbbing through a tracery of veins. There was Cordy, warm in his arms.
He kissed her, letting his tongue slide deep, and he swallowed their moans. She tasted like life and when he slipped his hand around her back, he could feel her heart thumping. It crackled through him, static electricity.
He moved his hand slowly down her body, from her breast to her belly. Lifted her shirt and twirled his fingers around the edge of her belly button. Her muscles contracted and he felt chill bumps rise.
Playing her body was like playing an instrument so refined that the smallest change in fingering brought a richer sound. Every place he touched, each brush of his fingers had her body shifting, burning in his arms.
Soon touching the satin skin of her belly wasn’t enough. The fire was calling and there was no way he could avoid it.
She cried out when he brushed his fingers over her pubic bone. Through the cotton of the boxers he could feel the heavy lace of curls and the sense memory—so many women, so many years—wove into one, long skein and became here and now.
All the pain he’d caused and he had this one moment to make her feel good. In the cosmic scheme it seemed paltry. But to him it was everything.
He slid his fingers through the slit in her shorts and combed them through the thatch of hair. She inhaled urgently and wrapped her hands around his upper arm. He brushed kisses across the crown of her head and withdrew his fingers so he could trace patterns on the seam between her legs.
The cotton was soaked through and as she undulated beneath him he caught her scent. Tangy, primitive, he had to grit his teeth to keep his mouth off of her. Underneath was the smell of blood. It drove him to the edge of sanity and held him there, poised to fall.
He opened his eyes, looking to her for purchase.
Her breath came in short, sharp puffs and her eyes were screwed shut. There wasn’t a word to describe the glow she gave off, the primal beauty.
He wanted desperately to touch her bare skin, to rip out the tampon and drive his fingers deep. Coat himself with her juice and her blood and lick both of them clean.
But he knew it would be more than he could stand, so instead he trailed his fingers up the seam and pressed his fingers against her. There and there and there, and her body stiffened. She clenched his arm, pressed her face into his shoulder and bit down. Hard.
He quivered, caught on the barbed edge of pleasure.
Then she moved against him and drew his focus back to her. He let her movements, the increasing pace of her hips and breath lead him away from his own desire.
With a few focused moves of his fingers, her entire body tightened, hands and legs and mouth increasing their grip until--
Soundless, she shuddered, hips bucking.
He rode it out with her, ignoring the painful press of his erection and focusing, instead, on the feel of her body, clamping around him.
She relaxed, slumping into the sheets. He held his hand against her, held it there to find those final moments of connection and warmth. She trembled occasionally, after-shocking.
After several minutes he stroked her belly, ran his hand up between her breasts and laid it over her heart. She shivered.
"Cold?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Uh uh," she said sleepily.
He shifted and reached for the sheet, anyway, pulling it up over her. "Sleep."
"Mmm," she said, and her breathing gradually slowed.
He nuzzled her hair, kissed her temple. She twitched as sleep claimed her.
He heard her gasp and then whisper, and he leaned his head down toward her face. "What?" he asked quietly. He didn’t want to wake her if she was already asleep.
She moved under the sheets, rolling lazily to her side and burrowing into him. "Better now."
His heart lightened. "Good."
She slid her arm around his waist, between his shirt and coat. "’M callin’ you next month," she murmured.
He tried to imagine what that would be like. Coming to her room every month. Touching her in the dark. His body tightened, his cock, still stone-hard, throbbed.
And his mind, after so many years on the edge of sanity, took a step toward firmer ground.
He rested his head on the pillow of his shoulder and waited as her breathing evened out, easy and soft.
She grounded him, made him a better person.
Like the ghost of that long ago train whistle, her breathing, her heartbeat, and the scent of her blood brought him home.
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