Title: Prism 2: Gray
Summary: Angel returns to Los Angeles from Sunnydale and tries to understand what happened between him and Buffy — and the many forces pulling him back home.
Spoilers: Through the ATS third-season episode “Carpe Noctem”
Disclaimer: I own none of the following characters. I don’t intend to infringe on any copyrights.
Distribution: Wherever you want
Notes: The symbolism of gray: reliability, maturity, old age, sadness. Second in the Prism Series, which follows Cordy and Angel’s developing feelings throughout the previous year.
Thanks/Dedication: To Inamorata for the great beta-read and encouragement
Feedback: If you enjoy this story, please let me know
“If you ever need me –“
I say it because it’s true, because I mean it. But even as the words leave my mouth, I realize how it must sound, here and now.
Buffy is staring at me in the twilight, her face ashen and unmoving. For one moment I almost believe that she is the dead one. That she is still dead.
“I told you what I need,” she says, her voice quavering with her effort at control. And more horrible than anything that’s gone before is the realization that even now, as I am walking toward my car, she hopes I might still change my mind.
Or maybe it is my own realization that I won’t.
“I can’t,” I say. “I wish I could, Buffy. But I can’t.”
This is when she should start yelling at me, or make a joke to try and prove that she doesn’t care, or even cry — it hurts to realize how well I know the way her face looks when she cries.
But she doesn’t. Her head droops slightly. I am seeing something I’ve never seen before or wanted to see: Buffy accepting defeat.
Standing here are two star-crossed lovers, saying our final farewells without passionate kisses or promises of devotion. Instead, we are awkward, dejected people standing in a parking lot, illuminated only by the pale silver of streetlights and a hotel sign. My hands are folded in front of me, guarding me (from her, from Buffy), and one of my fists is squeezing the car keys so that the metal edges cut my hand.
“So,” she says with a shrug as she turns on one heel, “Nice seeing you. If the world starts ending, keep me posted.”
Not like this. “Buffy, I’m sorry.”
She doesn’t look back. “You’re always sorry.”
And I watch Buffy get into her car and drive away. I watch the taillights vanish on the road; they blur along with my vision, and I realize that I’m crying. Breaking down in a gravel parking lot, like a particularly pathetic drunk.
You’d think she was the one who’d said no.
I slide into the Plymouth and start the engine. It’s time for me to start driving in the opposite direction.
As I wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand, I can feel that my lips are still swollen. The tiny cuts have healed — the nicks of her teeth and mine as we kissed. We were devouring each other, as though there were no curse, no years between us; how could that have been just yesterday?
But yesterday was different. Yesterday was the day she returned from the dead into my arms. And she was as beautiful as I remembered her, and she needed to talk about being dead, about heaven, about wondering what her place was in the world now. All I had to do was hold her and listen. We spent all night wrapped in each other’s embrace, enclosed in shadows and our own shared nightmares. And I was a such a fool that I told myself nothing had changed. That nothing could ever change for us, not really.
Today, we slept, side by side, in peace. But in the afternoon she awoke, and she said the last thing I thought she would ever say.
“Angel — come back with me.”
That, alone, didn’t set off any alarms. “I can drive back to Sunnydale with you,” I said, mentally calculating the amount of time I could spend there before I would be needed back in L.A. “Maybe hang out for a couple of weeks. I could patrol with you and we could just — be together. Would that help?”
“That’s not what I mean,” Buffy said. She smiled hesitantly. “I mean, come back to Sunnydale. To stay.”
“It won’t work,” I said automatically. I’d had the talk with myself enough times to know my lines by heart. “We’ve been down this road before, Buffy. I won’t put you through it again.”
She laughed, and it was a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard from her. Like glass breaking. “You think that’s such a terrible thing to be put through? I don’t. Not anymore. Not compared to –” Buffy shook her head. After a moment, she said, “Angel, sex — it would be nice, sure, to be able to just — be in your skin. Not to have to think or feel. But that’s just running away. Just bodies. What we used to have — that’s what I need.”
Maybe it was the fact that she used the past tense — “used to have.” Maybe it was the way she said “just bodies” — I’ve thought of our one night together more times than I can count, and I never thought of it as something purely physical. Whatever it was, I wasn’t moved by what she said. I was — uneasy.
Buffy didn’t notice. She wasn’t looking at me; she was looking through me, clutching onto my arm with all her considerable strength. I could feel her nails digging into my flesh. “You can come back with me, and, and — you can live at the house. Mom’s room — well, it’s empty now, but you could stay there.” Her voice rattled on and on, hollow of thought, hollow of any emotion save raw need. “We can patrol, and you can help me look after Dawnie, and it’ll be like old times. But better, because we won’t have to hide, and the — the rest won’t matter. And I won’t have to be scared anymore, because you’ll be with me.”
“Buffy,” I said, cutting her off before she could say any more. “What you’re afraid of — I can’t protect you from that. Nobody can.”
She shook her head. “You can, Angel, I know you can –“
“What you need now — it’s not something I can give you.” If only it were. I owe her that much; don’t think I don’t remember it. At my lowest point, Buffy was the one who inspired me to get back up again. But what she’s going through — it’s different. I wish it weren’t, but it is. “What you need has to come from inside you.”
And that was the first time her eyes filled with tears. “It’s not in me. It’s not there anymore.”
I can’t stand thinking about it anymore — not right this second. I force myself to concentrate on the road as I merge onto 5 South, already thick with the traffic that will slow to a crawl once I reach home.
Home. L.A. is home now. I don’t know when it happened, and I don’t care. All I know is that it feels good to be going back there, even as much as it hurts to have left Buffy behind. When I get home, I can feed, and go up to my own room, my own things. If Cordy’s there, maybe we can talk; if she’s not, I can call her. She’ll understand why I did it. I’ll feel better once I can talk it over with someone who understands.
“Cordy?” Buffy’s voice was blade-sharp. “You won’t help me because you’re so worried about Cordelia?”
“It’s not just Cordelia,” I said. We were fighting by this time, pacing back and forth within the confines of our little hotel room. The mirror was behind her; from the reflection I saw there, it looked as if she were only arguing with herself. “There’s Gunn, and Fred, and Wesley –” Buffy made a rude sound, and I felt a quick surge of anger before reminding myself — she doesn’t know him now, she just remembers the way he used to be, and you weren’t so wild about him then yourself. “We have an agency to run. And Cordy’s visions — those are missions, Buffy. They’re as important for me as your slaying is for you. I can’t walk away from that, and in the long run, you wouldn’t respect me if I did.”
“The long run? Since when do I get to think about the long run?” Buffy held out her hands; her fingernails were broken off down in the quick. “Tell it to somebody who hasn’t had to dig her way out of her own grave. There isn’t any long run, Angel. That’s the mistake we made. We made all these decisions for my future? I don’t have a future. I don’t have anything I can’t hold in these hands.”
I wanted to say, If you’re immortal, actually, there is a long run to think about. But I held my tongue. “You have a future, Buffy. You’ve got this whole new chance –“
“There’s nothing new about it –“
“– and you have a job you have to do.” She’s still the slayer. She’s that down to her bones, and I knew even if she’d forgotten everything else in her terror, she couldn’t have totally lost sight of that. “I have a job to do. Cordelia’s visions show her — murders, rapes, assaults, attacks, all horrible, but we can stop them. I can stop them –“
“Did Cordy have a vision of my death?”
That hit me hard. Because I’d asked myself why not a hundred times, a thousand times, and there was never any answer, ever. I didn’t have to reply to Buffy; she saw the truth in my face. Her lips twisted in a bitter smile as she said, “Do you think that means I’m supposed to have stayed dead?”
I take a deep breath of the night air rushing around me in the convertible. The oxygen can’t do anything for me — not that there’s that much oxygen in the air here on the freeway — but the pressure in my lungs seems vaguely reassuring, nonetheless. I’m calming down. Buffy’s words still hurt; I imagine they always will. But the fact is that I find myself turning them over in my head almost calmly, wondering whether or not they might be true.
Was Buffy meant to stay dead? A part of me rejects that, wants to believe that any moment Buffy’s here on this earth is for the better. But another part of me knows — there’s worse things than staying in your grave. I’m one of them. Is Buffy enduring another?
If so, shouldn’t Cordelia have seen Willow pulling Buffy down from heaven? If she had seen it — if the Powers had told me that this was what I had to prevent — would I have done it?
Maybe that’s another question for Cordelia later. Or maybe that’s not a question I ever need to ask again. I sure as hell don’t need to keep pushing it all off onto Cordelia. I hadn’t realized how much of a habit that was, until Buffy called me on it.
“Cordelia needs this, Cordelia needs that, Cordelia’s visions hurt –” Buffy sing-songed, tilting her head back and forth.
“They do hurt,” I said, fighting to control my temper. “They hurt her a lot. I worry about her. If you saw her, you’d be worried too.”
“Excuse me, but when do you think I’d have time to worry about poor little Cordy? After taking care of my orphaned sister? Between slaying vampires and demons? Maybe I can schedule some concern for Cordy’s headaches between repeatedly getting killed.”
“They’re not headaches!” I yelled. I can count the number of times I’ve yelled at Buffy on one hand, but I yelled at her then. “If she sees a vision of someone’s eyes being torn out, she feels her own eyes being torn out. If it’s someone being boiled in lead, she has to feel what that’s like. Being boiled in lead. She feels all the pain and all the fear and all the agony of every single death, every single time. Cordy’s lived through all those deaths. I know it doesn’t compare to actually dying, but — it’s not nothing, Buffy. Don’t talk about it like it’s nothing.”
Buffy’s expression didn’t soften. “You worry about her a lot.”
“It’s because of me she has the visions,” I replied. I’m not sure that’s true, but it feels true. “And they’re getting to her more and more. They’re worse than they used to be.” For the first time, I said aloud, “I’m frightened for her. For what it might mean.”
“Can you protect her from them? Make them stop?”
If only I could. “No.”
“Then you can’t help her any more by being there,” Buffy said. “But you can help me. Don’t you think I need your help as much as she does?”
“It’s not about Cordelia.”
“It sounds like it’s about Cordelia.”
“Well, it’s not.” Not only about Cordelia, anyway. “It’s about the ones she sees. The ones I have to save.”
“Of course,” Buffy said. “And she never did see me.”
The road sign’s markings gleam white in the reflection of my headlights: Los Angeles, 15 miles. Add in the traffic, I’m probably looking at half an hour to home. I feel the last thing I’d ever imagined I could feel when I left Buffy’s side, not so long ago — relief.
I’m going home. To the hotel, to my rooms, to funny little Fred and her wall paintings, to Gunn and his pseudo-tough attitude, to Wesley with ink marks on his fingers. And to Cordelia, who will listen to all of this and tell me what’s true. Or maybe just listen to me. That might be about as good. For a guy who’s spent most of his unlife finding ways not to talk to people, I’m learning to enjoy telling Cordelia what’s on my mind.
Weird. I never talked to Buffy like that — or when I did, it was because it was forced out of me, by events or her own desperate pleading. And it always felt as though I was burdening her, weighing her down with my own troubles.
Should I feel that way about Cordy? An uneasy haze of guilt settles over my determination to talk to her about this. Telling her would feel good — God knows why, but it would. But it won’t solve anything. And I know how Cordy will react: She’ll be mad at Buffy, and upset for me, and confused by my questions about the visions.
In other words, Cordy will feel worse, so I can feel better. Maybe I should start keeping a few more things to myself. Or at any rate, keep this to myself. No matter how much it hurts.
“I have a mission too, you know,” Buffy said. The anger and bitterness were gone from her voice then; she was pleading by that point, and it was a thousand times more painful than her wrath. “I have to be the slayer. I have to protect Sunnydale. And I don’t see how I can do it anymore, Angel. I need help. I need you.”
She held out her hands, beseeching. Her eyes were brimming with tears, and her tears have always melted me. I looked into her pale, colorless face, and if I had seen even a shadow of the love we once felt — of the love that won’t ever stop having power over me, even if we go through a thousand days like today — I would have broken. I’d have said yes to her, gone back to Sunnydale, given up my home and my mission and everything else, for the sake of what we had been. I owe her so much, and it would be the best part of my atonement if I could pay a little of that back, and I wanted to do it so badly it felt like it was ripping me open. And if Buffy still loved me, I might have had a chance of helping her. I stared at her then because I wanted to see that love, wanted to know that I had the power to bring her back from darkness.
But I didn’t. Buffy’s face showed nothing but fear.
“You don’t need me, Buffy,” I said slowly. “If I could help you — give you what you need — I’d come. But I can’t. And down deep, you know it.”
She didn’t argue the point. Instead she said, “You don’t want to come back to me? You really don’t want me anymore?”
I tried to ask myself the question. I couldn’t. I answered her differently. “You’re desperate,” I said. “If I took advantage of your desperation, you’d hate me for it someday.”
“You think I don’t hate you for this now?” Her voice was leaden and dull. I didn’t hear hate; I wished I could have heard anything as alive as hate.
My car is in the heart of the L.A. traffic labyrinth, an endless skein of winding asphalt. But it feels almost refreshing to steer my way through it, find the path I need to get home. I should feel worse than I do. I should feel — something else. Something for myself.
But the fear I have, the pain, isn’t for me. It’s for her. I know the anguish she feels can’t last forever. What I don’t know is — what will be left, when she’s done being afraid?
It could be something very dark. I know that from my own experience. But in my heart I have to believe there’s something better ahead for Buffy. For her sake, I hope she finds it soon.
For my own sake, there’s nothing like fear. There’s only a sense of gratitude as I drive toward the Hyperion. I imagine coming through the doors and seeing them all, seeing Cordelia’s smile. And I can only think how good it will feel to be back home.