Title: Prism 4: Red
Spoilers: Through the ATS third-season episode “Dad”
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 red: love, energy, strength, desire, danger. Fourth 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
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is playing, and Fred is tossing tinsel on the tree, and Angel is standing next to me with his baby son in his arms. Life does not get a whole lot better than this.
“This is one seriously sad tree,” Gunn says, folding his arms and shaking his head in pretend dismay. “You know how Charlie Brown felt bad for that skinny tree in the cartoon? He woulda left this one on the lot.”
“I love that cartoon,” Fred sighs. “I love it when Linus tells the Bible story.”
“I like the way they all dance,” I add, then start doing Lucy’s little funny twist move. Fred starts doing the pony, and Gunn starts doing a Snoopy dance that puts Xander Harris’ to shame.
Wesley is staring at us all as though we have gone insane, which just might be the case. But Angel is smiling at us like we are the greatest dancers and funniest comedians in the world. “I haven’t seen this cartoon,” he says. “Is it — traditional?”
I never knew he could smile so much. I never knew how good it would be to see him smile so much.
“Yet another pop-culture icon that passed you by,” I sigh. “It’s the Christmas special of all Christmas specials, and you are going to watch it with this little guy every year.” I poke Connor gently in his tummy with two fingers; he stirs in his sleep, a faint rustle of blankets, then rests against Angel’s chest once more.
“Starting this year,” Angel says with a firm nod, like there’s nothing more important in the world than checking out Charlie Brown.
“Come on, Wesley,” Fred says, ponying around him to get some crimson bows for the branches. “YOU’VE seen the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, haven’t you?” When he shakes his head, she stops dancing and stares at him in shock. ‘Okay, you had a deprived childhood.”
Fred and Gunn both laugh, because they don’t know better; Fred’s joke is just a joke, to them, and they’re too bouncy to notice the way Wesley stands a little straighter, the tension in his back. Angel puts one hand on Wesley’s shoulder. “We were going to talk about presents, right?”
“Right. Of course. Right you are.” Wesley brightens right up, now that he has a little speech to make. I sit next to Angel and squeeze his arm a little, a thank-you for looking out for Wesley. He smiles over at me, then all of a sudden gets really interested in Connor. Maybe there’s some diaper trouble. Don’t want to know. “Now, as we are all well aware, money is in rather short supply of late.”
“Translation: We are flat-broke busted,” Gunn says.
“Succinct as usual, Charles. We have enough to pay the utilities for the Hyperion, and to cover our salaries –” I can’t help but snort at the term “salary,” applied to the very tiny checks we each take home. Wesley shoots me a dark look before continuing. “– but we have very little left over. We’ve already splurged on the tree. Granted, this was the least expensive on the lot — but we can’t afford to dip much further into our savings.”
What nobody’s saying is that we kinda had a decent stash of cash put away, just a month ago; this place has never been looking toward a multimillion IPO, but we’ve had our share of very wealthy, very grateful clients. But take one newborn baby’s medical bills, one set of everything a baby needs (crib to diapers to changing table to mobile), and your savings just evaporate.
But the reason nobody’s saying that is because nobody cares. Connor needs these things. Connor is Angel’s child. And he belongs to all of us, a little bit. He can have every penny, as long as I can keep eating — and come to think of it, if I had to choose between me eating and Connor eating, the kid would win.
I look down at the baby again, nestled in Angel’s arms, and feel a tiny shiver of emotion. I didn’t expect to feel like this about Angel’s child. It’s nice to just relax, not even try to fight the way you feel. Live in the moment.
“Are you telling us we can’t afford presents?” Fred says. Her face falls, just like a child’s.
“Gotta be something we can do,” Gunn says. “Fred hasn’t gotten to celebrate the season in five years now.”
Fred blushes. “Oh, no. I celebrated. I would try to figure when Christmas might be, and I would decorate a tree near my cave. I mean, I had to decorate it with pine cones and leaves and stuff, which are pretty much the same sort of things you already find on trees, so it wasn’t what you’d call elaborate. Plus I picked out my own gifts, which were, like, neat-looking rocks, and rocks are very hard to wrap, even when you can find paper, which in Pylea lots of times you can’t, and –” She stops, takes a breath, and surrenders. “Okay, it’s true. No Christmas for five years. So we HAVE to get some presents.”
“Here’s the ledger,” Wesley says, holding it out. We all glance at it, and the mood in the room isn’t quite so bubbly for a couple minutes.
“I’m sorry,” Angel says. “I know that having Connor has been expensive –“
“Don’t you worry about that,” Gunn says, with about as much warmth as I’ve ever heard him use talking to Angel. “No matter what we got, Junior here gets the cream.” Angel grins up at him gratefully.
I look at the accounts and do some quick mental arithmetic. “We have to at least get Connor some presents,” I say. “It’s his first Christmas. He can’t have a first Christmas without a visit from Santa Claus.”
I figure somebody’s gonna fight me on this — I mean, as much as I adore this baby, I’m pretty well aware that he doesn’t perceive anything farther away than his fist right now. But nobody questions it. “Of course,” Fred says. “There’s enough here to get him a few things, anyway. Maybe some stuffed animals to sleep with.”
“And throw out of his crib, over and over,” Gunn adds with a smile.
Angel’s happy about this idea, but he still looks concerned. “What about you guys, though?”
Inspiration strikes. “I’ve got it,” I say. “We’ll make each other presents.”
“That would be great!” Fred says. Then her face falls. “Like what?”
“This sounds suspiciously like arts-and-crafts time,” Gunn says.
“Anything,” I say with a wave of my hand. “Bake cookies or make a card or whatever. It’s the thought that counts, right?”
Of course, right now I have zero thoughts about what to make — but I’ll figure something out.
I get home late; our little Christmas party kept going for a long time, until Angel finally couldn’t stand not being up in the nursery with Connor anymore. So I’m drop-dead exhausted, feet pounding in my shoes, but it’s worth it. It’s been a long time since there was a happy Christmas in Cordeliaville. Not the year after Xander cheated on me — or the one when Doyle had just died — or the one when Angel had just fired me —
Those years don’t matter. THIS is gonna be a happy Christmas, dammit, I think as I lock the door behind me and start leafing through my mail. Nothing’s going to interfere with Connor’s first Christmas, Angel’s first Christmas as a daddy. And for me, it might be —
My fingers brush against the envelope from the hospital. Test results. Even though my head feels okay right now, my temples throb once in the memory of pain.
I flap the envelope against my palm; the only sound in the apartment is the crinkle of the cellophane window that encloses my name. To open or not to open?
Not to open, I decide. I march into my bedroom to find what I call the headache box — a plastic container that I used to use for cashmere sweaters, back before I had to pawn them all. Piled in there now are my new career-gal accessories: lab reports that say one thing, x-rays that say another, a collection of hospital ID bracelets and more painkillers than Elvis could consume in a year.
The headache box is stored under the bed. Right now, it’s sticking out a little. Dennis has been doing that lately — pushing it out so I see it, maybe stub my toe against it. I guess when you’re dead, you have to make what hints you can, subtlety be damned.
But this is one hint I’m not taking. I don’t have to open this envelope to find out that nobody really knows what’s happening to me. All this can do is scare me. And I’ve been scared enough already, thanks.
This is Christmastime. Connor’s first Christmas. And it’s going to be wonderful. I imagine what it’s like, to have all those Christmases stretching out in front of you, one after another, so many you can’t see the end.
I drop the envelope in the box and nudge it beneath the bed.
“I don’t guess you’re making me cookies,” Angel says. “Keep your arm straight.”
“I’m trying. This scimitar is in the hefty range,” I mutter as I try to hold the formal battle pose. Angel is right behind me, his hands on my arms, holding me in place. “And no, no cookies. Strangely, there is no platelet-flavored slice-n-bake.”
“Now move,” he says, and together we slide into the next position. My hands are lower now, and he’s gripping my waist. “Perfect. Isn’t Aunt Cordy doing great?”
Connor blinks at us from his little recliner seat, which is presently across the room, next to the free weights. He still has that funny little newborn expression, the one that says, “What the HELL is going on?” And the situation’s not gonna clear up for him anytime soon — in fact, I think as I frown a little, possibly not ever. God knows I haven’t figured it out yet.
“Aunt Cordy’s smart, isn’t she?” I ask him. Connor responds by putting his fingers in his mouth, which is probably baby for “Your genius astonishes me.”
Angel’s body is curved along my back, his legs behind my legs. He’s speaking almost in my ear; there’s a soft brush of air against my skin — not his breath, because he doesn’t really breathe, but the air he’s drawn in order to talk. “If I’d known you’d be so good at this, I’d have gotten us started sooner.”
Is he talking about the workouts? Don’t know. Don’t care. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we’re together. We’re having fun. And Angel is about to get his BUTT kicked.
I step back like I’m stumbling, even drop the scimitar, and the second Angel loses his concentration, I make my move. I grab the arm he’s got half-wrapped around me, tug it over my shoulder as I toss him forward —
— oh, man — he’s heavy —
Angel hits the mat with a WHUMP that makes Connor jump in his little seat. I start to grin, only to feel Angel’s hands grab my arms and pull —
The world goes tumbling like crazy, and I hit the mat so hard I have to gasp for air, and before I can even see straight, Angel’s on top of me, hands pinning down my hands, legs pinning down my legs. I try to flip him over — I’ve managed it before — but I can’t do a thing. It’s like I’m chained beneath him, unable to move.
I keep trying, though, pressing back against his arms. “Why can’t I throw you?” I pant. “That one time I –“
“I take it easy on you,” Angel says. He’s grave, all of a sudden; all that good energy in the room seems to have changed into something else, something that’s making him serious and intense. “Not very easy — you’re good. But I don’t do everything I could. When we’re down here, we — we have a lot of fun. But you can’t afford to get overconfident, Cordelia. That’s a good way to end up getting hurt, down the road.”
Down the road. Down what road? All at once, I start laughing — it’s all so absurd. Angel doesn’t get the joke, and he scowls down at me. “Cordy, I’m serious.”
“I know you are,” I say. “It’s just that –“
He cocks his eyebrow — just what? And I realize that I can’t explain, not to him and not to myself. I say, “So the message here is, Don’t take my super-wonderfulness in battle for granted. Not every baddie out there is gonna be a soft touch like you.”
“Soft touch,” Angel repeats. His lips twist in a little ironic smile. He’s only a few inches above me, so close I could run my finger against those lips. “Hardly.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I whisper. “I forgot. You’re the Scourge of Europe, the same one I saw last night folding all his baby’s little onesies. The terrifying monster who watched us all dance around the Christmas tree.”
“Don’t worry. I know.” I’m grinning at him now, and I can see him fighting not to grin back. His arms and legs are still heavy across mine, but he’s not holding me down any more. “You’re still Big Bad Angel.”
“Don’t forget it,” he says, and I know he means it seriously, as a warning. But there’s a touch of something else, too — mischief, maybe — that he can’t keep out of his voice. Men. Call ’em big and bad, and they’re eating right out of your hand.
“Okay,” I sigh. “Let me up.”
He starts to do it, then stops. Angel looks down at me, still smiling a little, but strangely intent. Slowly he says, “Why should I?”
“I have to pee.”
“Oh. Right.” Angel rolls off me in an instant. I get to my knees, kiss little Connor — who still looks kinda startled by all the people who were just flying around — and go upstairs.
“Sorry about that!” Angel calls after me.
“I didn’t mean — uh –“
“I’m fine!” I call after him, even as I become pretty sure it’s a lie.
But no, no, it’s the truth. It has to be. The only reason I’m getting lightheaded is because I was just thrown to the floor. The explanation for the wobbliness in my legs is that I tried to get up and go upstairs too quickly. And I don’t spend that long in the bathroom, really — just as long as it takes to run some cold water on a cloth, press it to the back of my neck.
As Christmas gets closer, we’re all getting secretive. Making presents might be cheaper, but it sure takes a lot more time. So now Fred and Gunn are running off at all hours or locking themselves in Wesley’s office; apparently there’s a joint project in the works there. Angel is also demanding a lot of time to himself for gift-related reasons. Weird, to know that Angel’s locked up in his room, but he’s not brooding. Wesley’s just kind of looking more and more panicked.
All this time alone is okay, because it gives me a chance to dive in and make my own. Cheap and simple: I ran off some prints from a roll of film we took right after Connor was born. A cute baby picture and a group shot with everybody smiling. I bought some cheap little frames and some paint and beads and glue; voila, instant great framed photos for everyone.
Plus — I’m doing a little extra project for Angel; I’ll have to give it to him later, or earlier, so the others don’t get hurt feelings.
Sitting on the floor, surrounded by beads and bows, I pick up the latest bit of paper — this a clear Xerox copy of that newspaper photo of Angel from the 1950s. Pasted down there already are a few other things — an address label for our old office, one of the red-and-pink umbrellas that used to come in the drinks at Caritas, a postcard he sent me from Sri Lanka. I use the glue stick on the back of the ’50s photo, then carefully press it down in the lower right corner.
After thinking it over for a while, I included some older stuff, too. Unhappier stuff. There’s my invitation to the Sunnydale prom, its gold tassel now frayed. A photo of Doyle. We share all that, too, and maybe someday the sadness won’t hurt so bad.
As collages go, it’s not much. But it’s something he could keep, and look at, and remember.
On the radio, Ella Fitzgerald is singing “Let It Snow” as we drive past palm trees. I grin over at Angel, but he doesn’t seem to get the joke. He looks really serious for a guy who’s about to go Christmas shopping for his baby boy.
“Don’t worry,” I say, patting his knee. “Fred and Gunn are gonna take great care of him.”
“What? Oh.” Angel still looks distracted and lost. “I know they will.” He keeps driving toward the mall — inching, more like, as the traffic gets snarlier — and he doesn’t glance away from the road.
“So, let’s see,” I start ticking off ideas on my fingers. “Connor needs some stuffed animals, for sure. And one of those little fun mats, with panels that squeak and blink and stuff.”
This is Angel’s cue to be amazed that they have mats like that, or insist that whatever he grew up with, burlap or twigs or something, is good enough for his kid. But he doesn’t react at all. It’s like he’s not even listening to me.
“Hey,” I say. “You’re not listening to me.”
“What?” Angel does look sideways at me, just for a moment. “I’m sorry. I’m just — “
After a few seconds, it’s clear that this sentence is not going to get an ending. Angel’s not talking to me, not listening to the music, not doing anything but staring into the glow of the taillights in front of us. He has got to cheer up, and soon. The holiday spirit must be maintained. No brooding, no worrying, no anything but fun. “Get with the program, buddy,” I say. “You gotta be jolly if you want to play Santa Claus.”
“I can’t. I can’t do it.” Angel’s gripping the steering wheel like he’s about to rip it from the dashboard, and he’s shaking his head, and what the hell set that off?
“Can’t do what?” I look around wildly. “Merge right?”
This I do not believe. “Nobody’s asking you do put on the red suit and beard. Although, I have to say, I just got the most amazing mental picture of that.”
Angel’s not even taking in what I’m saying. “Cordelia — the things I’ve been, the things I’ve done — “
“– don’t go with Santa.” I finish the sentence for him.
“They don’t go with being a father,” Angel says. “I want to be — so different for him. So much smarter and better and stronger. And every time I think I can see it — how it might work — something like this happens. Something I can’t see no matter what.”
“Like Santa.” We sit in silence for a little bit as the cars crawl toward the shopping center. Angel still won’t look at me, which is fine, because it gives me time to think.
Finally, I say, “Well, then, you don’t have to be Santa.” That gets me the dark look, but I keep going. “All you have to do tonight is pick out some presents. That’s all. Just buy a few things in a toy store. No different than a grocery store, except no carrots. Okay?”
“Carrots? I mean, okay.”
“Tomorrow, all you have to do is wrap the presents. Just like you’re wrapping the presents for the rest of us.” I smile at him a little bit, touch his shoulder. “Christmas Eve, all you have to do is put the presents beneath the tree. Just one thing a day. Think you could manage that?”
Angel smiles at me a little too, even though he’s still tense. “I might screw it up.”
“And if I do?” The smile’s already gone.
“I won’t let you.”
This is, officially, the greatest Christmas ever.
Fred designed us all websites, with personal email and photos scanned in and links to places she thinks we might enjoy; I spent about 30 minutes browsing the Elle site, and Angel pointed out all the painters he personally knew in this online fine-art gallery. Gunn made music mixes for all of us, which Fred helped him burn to CDs. I think Gunn believes that we are all just a wee tad more interested in hip-hop than we are — in Wesley’s case possibly a big fat tad — but, hey, always good to try something new. Wesley totally choked; he actually made us all cookies. What is Angel supposed to do with cookies? Oh, wait, that’s right; give them to ME. And everybody digs their pictures and crazy photo frames.
Angel’s gifts are the absolute best, though. He drew a portrait of each one of us. They’re all good, because Angel can seriously draw. But mine —
Mine’s different. Maybe I feel that way because it’s me. But there’s something about the expression he chose — I don’t even know what to call it. I’m not smiling. Not looking thoughtful. I recognize it, even though I’ve never seen it in the mirror. I look a little tired, a little excited, a little worried, a little energized. It’s the expression I have when I’m telling them about a vision. And I can’t even say how much I love the fact that this is when he thinks I’m beautiful. As far as Angel’s concerned, this is my true face. And the more I look at it, I realize that it’s my truth, too.
I keep staring at it and staring at it, until finally Angel comes to my side. “You know, I can draw another if you don’t –“
“Don’t you DARE. I love it. This is wonderful, Angel. Thanks.”
He smiles at me, then looks down at the bottom of the tree, where Connor is lying on his fun mat, chewing happily on the ear of a red terry-cloth dog. “Santa’s first visit went okay,” I say.
“Yeah. Yeah, it did.”
Angel can be Santa Claus. A vampire can have a son. I don’t have to worry about what the doctors say, because how can I not believe in miracles?
On impulse, I throw my arms around Angel and hug him. “You know I love you, right?”
Angel goes stiff as a board. I pull back and look up at him, but he’s smiling at me, even if his face is a little — funny. “And — ah — I, I feel that way too –” He hesitates, then mock-punches me on the shoulder. “– Champ.”
I swear, he is so strange sometimes.
I come through the door late Christmas night, humming that Dan Fogelburg song about another Auld Lang Syne. My gifts are piled up in my hands — well, not the website, but the cookies and the CD are with me. I drop them on the sofa and carefully lift Angel’s drawing from my bag. Looks like it will fit in an 8×10 frame, like the one I’ve got Uncle Carter in. After another couple seconds, I decide it won’t hurt Uncle Carter’s picture to get some air; I take it out, put my portrait in.
As I back away from the frame to get a better look at it, I stumble over something — the headache box.
“It’s Christmas, Dennis,” I sigh. “Give it a rest.”
And I bend down and shove it back under the bed. Hard.