"Cruelty is the only thing you ever had a true talent for." The words echo as he stares at the crackling fire. He fingers the stake absently, the wood leaving splinters in his hand. The hearth is hard beneath him, unforgiving.
As she should have been.
But Buffy was so full of light, of life. She couldn't do anything but forgive him.
He pitches the stake on the fire, watches the blue-hearted flames lap it, turn the light blond wood into black. Is that what will happen to her if he stays?
The fire screen scrapes against the stone as he puts it back in place, echoing through the hollow room. He yearns for the silence, not just here, but of a forgiven death. Instead he hears the screams of his victims, sees their faces pouring through him.
Death is not silent. And it's not his to take. Yesterday proved that. He'd been brought back for a reason. He stares at the stake, slowly disappearing in the fire. To hurt Buffy? Would God give him back his life simply so he could take others'?
He stands, brushes off his hands, and pads across the cold, stone floor to the garden door. Memories dance like warriors and he rubs his chest, feels again the metal edge of her sword, slicing him in half. How the world had flared, rippled. How he'd died. He pushes the door open and steps into the chilly air. After the warm snap, the fated snow, the weather has returned to normal. Storm clouds hang low, making a pressure behind his eyes and he brushes his hand over his face, looking for relief. In winter, the garden is lush. Camellias, eucalyptus, their leaves full and the smells pungent. He wants to bury himself in the earth. To go back to the woods where he lived for so long and find the darkness he craves.
Beneath his fingers the petals of the camellia feel like Buffy's skin. Dewy, softer than snow, warmed by moonlight. Dreams of her mouth and cheek, the hollow behind her ear. The places he can lose himself in, like the dirt. Only her places aren't dark and silent; they boil him alive, strip his skin, make him ache and mourn the man he's become.
"Great. Just what I need."
He starts at the woman's voice, tilts his head, listening, collecting her in the shell of his ear.
There's a dull thud, and his mind works to solve the mystery, to put disembodied sound with the thing that made it. It comes again, and this time, the visual with it. She's kicking a tire.
He steps to the gate and peers out, but he can't see through the trees. He can, however, hear the tinny punch of numbers on a cell phone, the dry, mechanical ring. His ears prickle as he concentrates.
"What do you mean, my account is inactive? My father paid for a full year of service!"
Angel leans toward the garden edge, trying to place the vaguely familiar tone of her voice.
"Well, send someone anyway! Isn't this the giving time of year? You can't possibly expect- As if! Oh, bite me."
Her exasperation is carried to him on the rising wind. A flash of memory: the Scooby Gang at the Bronze, music throbbing through every bone in his body, and Cordelia, on her tiny, accessory-like phone with one of her friends.
"Ah," he says. "Cordelia." He shakes his head. Why, in Sunnydale, do they all insist on saying "Bite me"? He glances toward her voice. Buffy really hates her. He should probably just go back inside and leave her alone with her flat.
But the ring of metal on concrete jars him. The jack, hitting the pavement. He can almost see it: the pretty brunette, the red convertible with its hood up. The picture of a helpless girl.
What is she doing in his neighborhood at this time of night, anyway? Doesn't she live across town? And why didn't she call her father? Or Xander?
Another thud echoes as she drops what sounds like the spare on the pavement. He steps through the garden gate, curious to see if she's really going to do this. With those nails? He chuckles. Gotta give her credit.
She's alone on the road, right in the tight little curve that dips into the hillside before it straightens again into the rest of the neighborhood. It's like a wrinkle in the hill, too stubborn to give itself up to bulldozers and contractors. The native, waving grass provides a carpet for the tall, thin, deadly eucalyptus that go up like matchsticks in the summer fires.
Up the hill are houses bigger and better tended than his. Those houses glow with wreathes and lights, the things that signal Christmas in Southern California, since the weather usually doesn't.
His house sits dark, empty looking, tucked back in the wooded lot, only the occasional stone visible from the street.
Cordelia has her hands on her hips, and she's tapping her toe as she stares at the tire. The streetlight spreads a sick, yellow light from overhead, lighting everything and nothing. From here, he can see she's got the jack wedged under the car-in the right place, but it looks like she doesn't know, or can't see, where to attach the handle.
She's dressed in the silk top to long johns, a down vest and a pair of jeans that, despite his love for Buffy, make him wonder what her ass would feel like in his hands. As he approaches, he's careful to let his shoes scuff and avert his eyes from her curves.
An old pro at life in Sunnydale, Cordy turns, tire iron in a tight fist, a fierce look on her face. Then she sees who he is and the fierceness dials down a notch. "Oh, Angel. Hey." She smiles, winningly, but she's still braced, still ready to run. "Not evil again, are you?"
He stares at her, blankly.
She relaxes. "Good. Thank God you're here." She makes it sound like she always runs into friendly vampires in strange neighborhoods.
"Uh." He has no idea what to say to her. Not that he ever knows what to say to Buffy's friends, but Cordelia's always been in another league.
"I was about to be forced to change this tire by myself." She makes an "ew" face.
He puts his hands in his pockets and stares down at the jack. "Yeah."
He can feel her staring at him. Feel her trust, her expectation.
She shouldn't trust him. He knows exactly what his hands, his mouth, his dark, hard center is capable of.
Some time ago, he'd given her a ride home. He remembered how she clung to him as they walked to her car. She'd been playing games with Buffy's head and he'd been inclined to let her, to see if Buffy would get jealous. But the clench of her fingers, the hitch of her breath, told him she was really frightened, and grateful for his protection.
His mind flashes to the more distant past. To the maid, drained and pale, on the floor at his feet. He can still feel the press of his mouth on her skin, the give of her arms under the claws of his hands, her blood spraying the back of his throat.
Hatred, shame, accusation glowed in her eyes when she appeared to him yesterday. The queasy, black press of shame swims through him. She'd been brought back to remind him what he was. As if he could forget.
He tenses. Glances toward the house, where it's shadowed. Safe.
"I was going to see Aura. She lives on the other ridge?" Her voice rises, in that way of modern girls looking to connect.
His eyes are drawn to her hands, to the tire iron, clutched across her thighs. It would be so easy to strip it away. To knock her down. She knows what he's capable of. Doesn't she care?
"Anyway, this is a good short cut." Her brow furrows. "Or it was, until that stupid house they're building down the road started leaving nails around for anyone to drive over. Don't they have a law against that?" The furrows deepen, then clear. "Anyway, if you could just change my tire, I'd really appreciate it." She swings the tire iron toward him.
Pure instinct is the only thing that keeps him from losing a knuckle. He takes the iron from her and cradles it in one hand.
He imagines his rooms, the dark comfort, the companionable whir of swallows in the garden. But he kneels on damp concrete. Rubs a hand across his forehead when a fat drop of rain breaks on his skin.
Cordy leaves him and when she returns she's got an umbrella. "Least I could do is keep you dry," she says, in her cheerleader's voice.
He prefers quiet women, demure. Women who wait for men to-
He drops a lug nut into the hubcap. The clatter breaks up the image of Buffy, lying virginal beneath him, her thighs open and her breath held. Waiting.
"...and so we had to cut our trip short. My mother and her stupid disease. I mean, you'd think it could at least be something cool, right? I only got to ski for a couple of days. But the plus? I did meet this really cute...."
Angel sighs, concentrating on sliding the wheel off the axle. The spare, a small tire, goes on easily, and soon he's tightening the nuts and applying the iron.
He stands, brushing the umbrella aside and drops the flat tire, the jack and the iron in the trunk. "All done. You should have your dad see about getting that patched for you."
An odd look crosses Cordelia's face. "Sure."
Something has him stepping toward her. "You okay?" He hunches against the wind and spattering rain.
Cordelia's smile is brittle, aloof. "Of course. I'm sure my dad will take care of it tomorrow." She reaches into the car, grabs her purse. "What do I owe you?"
Angel stares at her. "What? Nothing."
She shakes her head and tosses the purse in the car. "Well, thanks, then. I'll buy you a...something...next time I see you at the Bronze." She smiles again, the same "don't touch me" flash as before.
He feels a tug in his heart, an answering call. "Like attracts like" pops into his head and he wants to laugh at the idea of being like this shallow, vain girl. But he finds himself drawn to her again, the way he was drawn to her voice earlier. Before he can think, the words are out. "You look chilly. Can I make you some, uh, tea?"
People aren't really his strong suit. He can see in her face how awkward the offer was, and he's already turning for the house, sure she's mocking him. But then she says, "Yes."
He stops, surprised. "Really?"
"I like tea." Her gaze, like closed shutters before, has opened just enough to show a soft sparkle.
He can't tell if she's flirting with him out of habit, or if she's really cold and lonely. But he takes her keys from her and motions for her to get into the passenger seat.
The car starts, the radio flares. "I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus, underneath the mistletoe-"
Cordelia reaches out and flicks it off. "Like I need the reminder that I'm back in Sunnyhell and it's still Christmas."
"Actually, it's Boxing Day." He throws her a look, curious how she'll respond.
She doesn't disappoint him. "Like boxers?" Her hands fist and pump in a silly caricature of a fighter.
He smiles as they limp on the little tire down to his driveway, and pulls in behind the Plymouth.
"No, like St. Stephen's Day. When churches opened their alms boxes?"
Cordelia climbs out of the car and follows him into the house. "What's an alms box?"
He shakes his head. American teenagers live for everything but education. The old door screeches on its hinges as he pushes it across the stone floor.
"Creepy. Geez, Angel. You'd think you were a vampire, or something." She snorts, charmed by her own joke.
The sound echoes through the empty room. He thinks, again, about how he could have stayed here in the silence. Seriously considers pretending he's out of tea.
But it's too late. She's warming her hands in front of the fire. "This is nice. All you need is a bear rug, and it'd be like something out of GQ. I'll bet you could get lots of girls up here." She shrugs. "If you didn't have such a hard-on for Buffy."
He leaves that alone and heads to the kitchen to start the teapot. The lights in the kitchen don't work and he doesn't bother lighting the candle. Everything is silver and blue when he turns on the gas; he has enough light to see by.
Ten minutes later, he's regretting his decision even more. What would Buffy think if she found out? But he still finds himself carrying a full teapot and two mugs back down the hall.
Cordy is sitting on the couch with his copy of The Stranger open in her lap. He stops to watch, amazed to see she's absorbed in the story, right where he'd left off. "I didn't know you knew French."
She jumps, looks defensive. "One of our housekeepers was from Canada," she says, laying the book aside. "She refused to speak anything else."
"Oh." He wonders why she's embarrassed to be caught knowing something. "Do you read Camus?"
"That guy?" She thumbs toward the book. "We had to read him in English class last year. Existentialists bore me. I mean, really. How do you know you're alive? You look down at your brand new pair of Farragamos. What better proof do you need?"
She looks away, almost shy, and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.
"What?" he asks, pouring tea into a mug and passing it to her.
"Nothing. Thanks." She raises the mug and takes a sip.
He watches her, intrigued by the play of emotions on her quicksilver face. In the firelight she's lush, like the garden. All rich colors and feminine curves. But she's also shy, lonely, surprised, it seems, by the fact that someone finds her genuinely amusing.
He's not sure what to think about that, so he pours tea into his own mug and takes a sip. It's wet and quenches part of his thirst, which is about all he can say for it. But it's a social thing, so he drinks it. After all, someone sent snow. Drinking tea with Cordelia is the least he can do in return.
"So, I heard you guys got some snow," she says, dropping the mug to the coffee table.
He blinks, startled that she picked up on his thoughts. Or maybe she didn't. Maybe it's just a good conversation starter.
She leans back on his couch like she owns it, all youthful arrogance, and waits for him to answer.
Her shirt rides up and he catches a glimpse of a dark mark on her abdomen. His eyes narrow, honing in on what looks like a scar. Comprehension dawns. That's why she didn't call Xander.
He can smell it, now, the faint odor of newly-pink flesh, different from the skin around it. The wound, he remembers Buffy saying, was deep. She'd nearly died. And yet she was here, walking around, reading Camus and talking about shoes.
He blinks, so focused on the scar, that he's startled when she smoothes her shirt over it.
"Sorry," he says, looking away.
"You know what sucks?"
Surprised, he looks up. "What?"
"That I got it 'cause of Xander."
Angel blows air through his nose, wryly amused. "We seem to be united in our mutual dislike of Mr. Harris."
Cordelia waves a hand through the air. "Oh, please. Like you could hate him more than me? I highly doubt it." Her mobile face pulls into a grimace. "You think you know someone and then they go all psycho on you." Her gaze catches his and she flashes a faux-pas smile. "Oops?"
He shrugs. "No, it's okay."
"Hey, at least you didn't know it could happen to you. I knew I was dating a loser from the beginning and I didn't stop. What's that say about me?"
When the silence falls, it's companionable. The rain hits the windows and drums on the roof. Cordelia picks up her tea and takes another sip. "Weird."
"What?" he asks.
"This. Talking to you. Having tea with Buffy's...what are you, anyway?" She looks him up and down. "Boyfriend? Ex? Lov-uh?"
He snorts. "Lov-uh?"
She nods sagely, but her eyes are watchful. "The proper terminology is very important."
"Yeah." He considers his half-full mug of tea. "Somewhere in between, I guess."
At her worried grimace, he continues. "Between boyfriend, and ex?" He thinks about that strange snow, about walking hand in hand with her. He can't stay away from her; if she's near he has to touch her.
It's dangerous, this need.
Cordy is saying something, so he tunes back in.
"...isn't all it's cracked up to be."
"Passion," she repeats, "isn't all it's cracked up to be." She stares at the fire, and for a moment there's nothing but the crackle of the flames and the dance of rain on the roof. "I wanted Xander." She glances at him, as if looking for something.
"I won't tell," he says, hoping that he's answered the question in her eyes correctly. When she nods, he's relieved.
"I gave him more than I've ever given anyone." Her voice is dark, spare; she's followed the path desire laid for her and in the end found nothing but bitterness.
He knows this story, but from the other side. As betrayer, as destroyer of love. His heart wilts. "I'm sorry," he whispers.
She breathes deep then lets it out, like she's cleansing herself. "Why? Not your fault."
Their gazes catch, hold. Something about the directness of her comment, her gaze, acts as a sort of absolution for him. He can never leave his past behind.
But what if he could put it down? Start over?
She sets the mug down on the table with her usual, loud clatter, and stands. "Thanks for changing my tire. And for the tea. I've gotta go or Aura'll be pissed."
He stands with her. "It's raining."
"Yeah. I'll run."
It wasn't what he meant. He'd meant, "Don't go." But, of course, he couldn't say that. Not to Cordelia Chase. Not while he's still trying to figure out what he means to Buffy.
At the door, she turns and says something to him in French. It's fluid, impeccable. The door closes behind her, and after a moment, the car starts and drives away.
Angel turns back to the fire and stares as he puzzles it out. Camus, he finally realizes with a laugh. "We always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love - first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage."
Shaking his head, he takes both mugs to the kitchen and puts them in the sink.
Then he returns to the living room, picks up his book, and starts reading where she left off.
He's still reading when he notices her. It's like a storm headache, a faint pressure behind his eyes.
He rises and goes to meet her at the door.
"It's raining!" she says, caught between frustration and a child-like giggle.
"You're soaked." He draws her into the room, and the feel of her damp, heated skin makes him flare, ache.
She unwraps her jacket and stands before him in a thin excuse for a sweater and clinging jeans. Her boots are high-heeled and muddy. In them, she barely reaches his collar-bone. "It's okay. I'll dry."
By the fire, she glows, pale as blond wood and just as deadly.
He settles on the hearth, feeling the heat at his back, feeling her heat warming him as she stands between his open knees. "Good day?"
She reaches up to ruffle her hair and her sweater rides up, exposing the velvet skin of her waist. It draws him forward helplessly, and he presses his mouth to her warm, soft flesh.
Her breath catches, and he looks up. She's tense, watchful. Her eyes are glazed with need. "Angel."
He pulls back, looks down at his hands on her hips and remembers the way the fire consumed the wood.
But then her hand is on his shoulder and she's drawing him to the couch. She brushes his face. "You okay?"
He stares down at her, searching for answers in her gold-green gaze. "Do you think we deceive each other?"
Buffy's brow wrinkles. "Probably." The look of confusion turns to concern. "Does it matter?"
Her hands slip around his neck and she pulls him down. The rain-fresh wave of her scent sucks him under.
His mind spins, his body yearns. But somewhere, deep down, he thinks, Yes, it matters.
Later, when she's gone and his body is still humming with unfulfilled need, he remembers. And he wonders how long it will be before she stops deceiving herself.
He stares out the open door to the garden beyond. The clouds are lightening, the sunrise silvering the shiny, green-black hedge, and for a moment it looks like the sparkle of snow.
Why was he brought back? There's no silent, forgiven death in his future. No great atonement. He can never make up for what his hands, his mouth, his hard, dark center have done.
He flashes back to Cordelia's gaze, lonely and bitter. She and Buffy are too young to have experienced that kind of disappointment. Stripped of their innocence, left wounded by the men who were supposed to protect them.
A camellia falls to the ground, bruised by the rain. We have deceived ourselves into believing we can love each other halfway, he thinks, as he watches it twitch in the storm's last, spattering drops.
He knows he can't love her any less, and that to pretend otherwise is a lie. And one that will eventually tear them apart.
There's no silent, forgiven death in his future. But maybe there's the peace of knowing he's protecting the woman he loves.
And maybe that's enough.
CATEGORY: Post-ep for Amends (BtVS S3)
CONTENT: B/A, the first stirrings of C/A friendship
SUMMARY: Two outsiders, drawn together by fate.
DISCLAIMER: The characters in the Angelverse were created by Joss Whedon & David Greenwalt. No infringement is intended, no profit is made.
SPOILERS: Through BtVS S3.
DISTRIBUTION: Stranger Things, the ST archive, my site, my LJ; anyone else please ask.
NOTES: A Secret Santa for samluvsharrison (we've got Secret Story karma, babe!), who requested A/C, PG, with the song, "I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus." This ended up being more an Angel character study than an actual A/C fic. I hope that's okay! Thanks to psychofilly and juliefortune for the beta, and to Gabs for the kickass feedback. You guys are getting peppermint-dipped Angels in your stockings for Christmas.
Amor Fati means tortured love.
Amor Fati means tortured love.