Spoilers: Through the ATS third-season episode “Heartthrob”
Summary: Upon Angel’s return from the East, Cordelia finds herself confronting — and dismissing — a lot of buried emotion.
Thanks: To Inamorata for the great beta-read and encouragement
Note: The symbolism of yellow: Joy, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, jealousy, illness. First in the Prism Series, which follows Cordy and Angel’s developing feelings throughout the previous year.
Disclaimer: I own none of the following characters. I don’t intend to infringe on any copyrights.
I come skipping through the door like I’ve had a good day, which is not really true, unless a “good day” counts as being chased through the subway by a grief-crazed vampire.
Then again, he didn’t catch me, so maybe it does.
As soon as I shut the door than Dennis dims the lamps, lights the candles and starts the taps going in the bathroom. I laugh. “I’m way better today,” I explain. “No visions to rip the top of my skull off. No nonpaying clients to call up and harass. And only one bad guy to kill, but Angel took care of it.”
Angel. I can feel my lips curve into a smile around his name. Oh, God, it’s so good to have him home. Home — that word still doesn’t seem to apply to Los Angeles, sometimes. And as much as I love my place, it really feels more like Dennis’ apartment, to tell the truth. (Let’s face it; he’s stayed put after four decades and a serious case of death. The guy isn’t breaking the lease anytime soon.) But Angel comes walking through the door — okay, the basement door — and suddenly it all feels like home. The Hyperion, my apartment, Los Angeles, and maybe just about every place in the world.
Okay, weird thought.
Dennis zooms the loofah from the bathroom door in what I know is a question. The bathtub water is still running, probably his way of pointing out that, regardless of whether the day was great or sucky, I still need to bathe. “Point taken,” I sigh as I kick off my shoes. “I probably have a bad case of subway cooties.”
As I drop my bag on the chair, I remember Angel’s gift, and I have to take it out and look at it one more time. Why don’t more straight men have this kind of taste? The necklace he brought back from Sri Lanka is gorgeous — earth tones, so it’s natural and low-key, but it has a kind of richness to it. It glints gold in the candlelight, and it feels heavy against my palm.
Huh. I never had a boyfriend give me anything this good. Too bad the only guy who can read my mind is just a friend.
I take the clip out of my hair and run my fingers through it, mussing it up. Angel didn’t say anything about the new cut. Huh. I bet I could dye my hair purple without him saying anything. Might be worth it just to see what he’d do. I peel my clothes off, tossing them into the air to see how many different directions Dennis can catch them from. (All of them, of course.) So by the time I get into the bathroom, I have nothing but a tubful of sunflower-scented bubbles and a few candles to deal with. “Perfect,” I breathe. “Just perfect.”
I take a look in the steam-fogged mirror, prepared to assess the damage of the day. But, to my surprise, a day of vampire-hunting hasn’t had the usual effects. No shadows beneath the eyes. No cheeks sallow with exhaustion.
Instead I see myself the way I haven’t in too long now. I look good. Great, in fact. Young and golden-tan and glowing with life. The way I used to look when I came in from a beach party, or a pep rally, or even a date with Xander, back before he reverted to his classic loser ways. Downright blushy. I get a really stupid smile on my face, and I’m glad Dennis is the only one who can see it.
I’m not sick, I think. Not even a little bit. See? I’m such a hypochondriac. Worse than my mom, even. Dreaming up problems that aren’t there — I mean, if I were really sick, really in trouble from the visions, I wouldn’t be glowing right now. So there.
The water is almost unbearably hot — operative word, “almost.” As my friendly neighborhood poltergeist knows, this is just the way I like it, steaming and searing so that I have to lower each leg in slowly, then gradually sink in, wincing as the heat laps up against my belly and my breasts. My skin’s prickling from the rush, and I make a teeny mental note to moisturize later. Then I breathe out and let my head loll back against the yellow foam pillow.
And then there’s nothing but me, and the candlelight, and the warmth, and memories of Angel.
Okay, extra-weird thought.
Well, maybe not so weird. I mean, you’d be amazed what the right necklace can do for a girl. For a second I wonder whether Angel meant for the necklace to have this kind of effect — warping the brain of a once more-or-less sane friend — and then push that thought away. It feels — uncomfortable. Mostly because it also feels pretty damn interesting.
I shouldn’t beat myself up about the occasional temporary insanity, though. After all, Angel’s pretty crushworthy, if you go for that well-muscled, well-dressed, knight-in-black-leather-armor kinda thing. Too bad that’s not all there is to it. If Angel didn’t have fangs and a curse and an unbeating heart that’s probably broken forever by another girl — well, he does. And I don’t let myself forget it.
Before I knew all that, of course, things were different. Back in high school, I was dying to make him mine — or, barring that, to catch him a little drunk or a little pissed-off at Buffy and do some crazy-guilty making out in the backseat of my car. I had a major-league fantasy about that — the water seems a little warmer as I remember it — new-car smell and my cheerleader skirt showing off my legs and Angel’s hands sliding beneath my Sunnydale-High sweater. And it only seemed sweeter to think that Buffy would someday find out —
Buffy. Oh, God.
My eyes squeeze shut as the guilt hits me; the grief comes later, and I’m ashamed to say it’s not as strong. Buffy — as a person, I liked her, mostly. We weren’t really friends, but she came about as close as anyone did before Angel and I got tight. All the same, Xander and Giles pretty much filled me in on the Slayer deal back in high school, and I’ve always known she’d die young. Does that mean I was prepared? I don’t know.
But, Jesus, I could’ve treated her better while she was here. I didn’t have to say bitchy stuff to her because she was Xander’s friend. I could’ve gone to see her after Mrs. Summers died instead of sending her a freakin’ card I got at the mall. And I didn’t have to spend half of our sophomore year trying to bone her one true love.
“I’m sorry,” I say aloud. My voice echoes slightly against the tiles. Dennis doesn’t do anything. He knows I’m not talking to anyone who’s here.
How can I still be struggling with this when Angel’s okay with it? He ought to be — I don’t know, crazed or something. Doing his Byronic thing to the hilt. Ripping stuff up and punching the walls and offering his soul to the Powers for another hour of her life. That seems like Angel crisis behavior.
But instead he’s calm. He’s together. He’s really accepted her death. I gotta tell ya, I love Angel, but no way did I ever think he had it in him. Yet here we are, four months after Buffy’s death, and he seems like he’s coping better than I am.
I sigh and sink down a little deeper into the water. I wish I could think about Angel again without shriveling up with guilt, and then I’m glad I can’t.
And then there’s a knock at the door. I don’t even have to wonder who it is.
“Just a minute!” I yell, stepping quickly out of the bath. The abandoned foam fizzes slightly in the tub and on my skin. Dennis shuts the bathroom door, which means he’s going to go ahead and let Angel in for me. I towel off as fast as I can and throw in my robe; my hair is damp and all curly from the steam, but I tuck it back up in the clip and head on out. It’s not like Angel’s never seen me worse off than this.
He’s sitting on my couch when I come into the living room. Angel smiles for me as I sit next to him, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. I knew it.
“Buffy,” I say quietly.
Angel nods, and I take his hand in mine. He doesn’t speak for a few moments, but finally he says, “I meant what I said today. I’m okay.”
“You’re so okay you’re over at my house at 11 p.m.”
“I wanted to talk with you about it,” he says. “And that’s why I know I’m okay.”
I don’t really have an answer to that, so I just squeeze his hand and hope that says it all for me.
Angel puts his other arm on the back of the couch, closing the two of us in closer together, as though he were telling me a secret in a public place and he only wanted me to hear. “It just kinda hit me when I tried to go to sleep. The last night I spent in the Hyperion — it was the night after her funeral. And I felt like all that pain was still lying there in the bed, waiting to swallow me whole again.”
“You can stay here tonight,” I offer, surprised to feel my pulse fluttering as I say it. “On the couch,” I add, like I could possibly have meant something different. Because I didn’t. Nuh-uh. Absolutely not.
He smiles at me sadly. “Wish I could,” he says. “But then there would be tomorrow night. And the night after that. I have to face it sooner or later. So I’m gonna face it tonight.”
“Probably the smart thing to do. But if you’re going to tough it out there, why are you over here?”
“I wanted to tell somebody about it.”
“You could’ve told Fred,” I point out. “Fred’s right there at the Hyperion.”
“Fred’s discussing quadratic equations with the drapes,” Angel answers. “I wanted to tell you.”
Which does not explain why he didn’t pick up the phone and call me. But I don’t care why he’s here — I’m just glad that he is.
The night air is a little cool against my still-damp skin, and I tuck my feet up under me to keep them warm. Angel smoothes one wet tendril of hair behind my ear, and I hope it’s the chill making me shiver, not the fact that it’s me and it’s Angel and we’re alone and it’s nighttime and I’m not wearing a whole lot in the way of clothing and there’s a definite candlelight-glow factor and we’re holding hands and we’re looking at each other —
Because he’s here to mourn Buffy, the dead girl whose memory I just can’t stop pissing on.
I turn my head from him sharply and bite my lip. “Hey,” he says. “What’s wrong?”
“Buffy,” I say. “How come you can deal with her being dead and I can’t? How come I can’t go ten minutes without feeling guilty for –” My throat closes up, and it’s just as well, because I’m really not sure how I would have finished that sentence.
Angel is quiet for a long time after that, but he doesn’t let go of my hand. I start to wish he would.
“I felt guilty at first,” he says at last. “The first few weeks, I felt guilt like I’d never known before.”
For Angel, this is seriously saying something. “I can imagine,” I whisper. But really, I bet I can’t.
“But after awhile, I started to realize something about guilt. Something I’d never thought of before.”
It boggles the mind to think that Angel would have anything new to learn about the subject. “What’s that?”
Slowly, he says, “Sometimes you feel guilt because it’s — easier.”
“It doesn’t feel easy.”
“No. But neither does grief, or loss, or pain.” Angel lets go of my hand then to illustrate what he’s saying with a vague gesture. “If you’re feeling guilty, you know what to feel. Who to blame. You can hate yourself, beat yourself up, come up with all the things you should’ve done differently, that you keep on doing wrong. You can do it forever. And while you’re doing it, you don’t have to think about — the way she wore her hair, or how she used to act out her funny dreams the next day.” His voice is husky now, but he keeps going. “The stuffed pig she had on her bed. Mr. — Mr. Something. I don’t remember. And I want to hate myself for starting to forget things about her, but that’s the easy way out. Because it means I’m thinking about me. Not about her.”
And that’s what I’ve been doing too, I realize. Feeling guilty about Buffy, about stupid stuff years past that I know she didn’t even care about anymore. Like the way we sniped at each other during the race for Homecoming Queen. Just thinking that hurts all over again — her rinky-dink little posters, the satisfaction I took in covering them up with my own. I imagine the staples sinking into her face like they were sinking into her flesh. Angel says this is easier? Easier than what?
But I know the answer, know it by heart, because I’ve been turning away from it for months now.
Feeling guilty about Buffy is easier than thinking about the fact that she didn’t choose what she was, anymore than I chose to be what I am. Or that she could have died at any time, and that the headaches have gotten so bad sometimes I throw up afterward. Or that the Powers don’t really care how long a warrior lives, as long as she does her duty. Basically, it’s easier than thinking that I might have anything in common with Buffy, anything at all, because I know where that story ends.
Yeah, I’d rather feel guilty. But Angel wouldn’t. The calm he had early today is settling back over him, steadying him from within.
“Jesus,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say. “You really mean it. That’s how you’re dealing with losing Buffy.”
“Not just Buffy,” Angel says. “I spent this summer thinking about a lot of people I hadn’t let myself think about in a long time. My sister — Cordy, do you know, I’ve spent a century tearing myself apart for killing my sister, but I never stopped to let myself miss her?”
I shake my head, and he sighs. “It’s so weird. It’s not that I don’t feel guilty anymore. I do. I know that I killed my sister. And I’ll never stop wondering if I couldn’t have made things different for Buffy, if I’d been there. But I had to let the grief go. In the end — Cordy, it’s the only way to really remember them.”
I nod, like I understand what he’s saying. And I guess I do, but only on the surface. I can’t touch what he’s feeling, not really. But for the first time, I understand the weight that’s off him. The way he’s been easier in his own skin since the minute he got back. He’s free.
Angel’s really and truly free.
All of a sudden, it feels about nine times as cold in the room, and I can’t even imagine what I’m doing in my robe and wet hair. “Are you sure you don’t want to crash on the couch?” I offer. “Totally no biggie if you do.”
“No,” he says. “No, I should go back to the Hotel. It’s not going to get any easier.”
We get up together, and I wrap my arms around me to ward off the chill. It kinda feels like I’m throwing him out, which I kinda am, but I don’t want it to feel like that. “Angel — I’m glad you’re being so strong about this,” I say. “I’m glad things are better for you.”
He smiles as he goes to the door. “On the ship, sometimes — when I thought I couldn’t go on any more — I’d remember you. Sometimes I thought I could hear your laugh. It helped a lot.”
All of a sudden, it’s like I can see him — Angel down in the depths of the ship, looking at the necklace he brought me. This precious gift from a faraway place, something he was bringing back from his grief to the person who made him smile. And there is no way I can help smiling back. “Glad to be of service.” We hug tightly at the door, and as his arms wrap snugly around my waist, as his face presses into the warmth of my neck, I take a moment to be grateful that I didn’t ever fall for him. Not really. Because, if I had, I couldn’t be his friend like this, could I? And Angel needs his friends.
Angel steps back; he doesn’t say anything, just turns and goes. I watch him walk off into the darkness for a while before Dennis finally shuts the door.
I go to my room to change into a T-shirt and some sweatpants — much more snug for sleeping — but just as I shrug off the robe, I catch a glimpse of my new necklace on the bedstand. The necklace Angel brought back for me — a gift from one friend to another. Before I can stop myself, I have to try it on again.
I stand in front of the mirror, naked, and wind the necklace around my throat. It’s heavy and cold against my damp skin, and I feel a shiver run through me. The pendant hangs almost between my breasts, and it rises and falls with my breath. For a moment, I wonder if Angel thought about the way it would look — the way I would look now — when he bought it.
I look myself up and down, head to toes. At my feet I can see a box full of medication that’s doing me less and less good.
Then I shove the thought of Angel aside. The guy needs his friends. And so do I.