Disclaimer: Nope, Angel's not mine (and you have no idea how sorry I am to say that g). He belongs to Joss Whedon, who delights in torturing him. Spoilers: Reunion (Ats)/Checkpoint(BtVS) Rating: I'm guessing PG Author's Note: ANGST WARNING! It was originally intended to be a stand- alone, but now has become the prologue to another story called "The Ruby Slippers." My special thanks for help with both stories goes to my new, and extremely helpful, beta-reader, Caroline. Sepia tone, btw, refers to a type of film that is colored brown and white. It was occasionally used in old movies, such as for the Kansas parts of "The Wizard of Oz."

The Ruby Slippers


Lost in the Sepia Tones

By Gem

"I wish they would leave."

Angel paused, cocking his head to the side as he reached out for heartbeats and the scent of humans. He sighed; it was no good, they were still here. He picked up his abandoned pen and resumed writing.

"I left them hours ago." Honesty compelled him to check his watch. "Okay, so an hour ago, but you would think that would be enough time. When I walked out of the office, I honestly expected them to get up and leave too. I wouldn't have been all that surprised if one of them followed me and tried to "reason" with me, but they didn't even do that. They're just sitting there, in my office, probably with the same two-by-four to the head looks they were wearing an hour ago. You would think in this age of corporate downsizing the word "fired" wouldn't require a wall chart."

He absently reached for his glass of blood and took a sip. No cinnamon flavoring this time, or ever again. Maybe there was an upside to all this.

"You would understand; I know you would. You also would probably have taken that metaphorical two-by-four and wailed on me with it, but deep down you would have understood."

He laughed slightly, a harsh unhappy disturbance in the quiet room.

"Or maybe I'm kidding myself. Maybe even you wouldn't see the logic this time. You never did like it when I went for the grand heroic gesture. But it's not heroism that moves me, love; you need to know that. It's sheer terror, raised by the absolute certainty that any other plan could lead to the end of lives far more precious to me than my own. And maybe when they find this journal and give it to you, it will help you see why I did what I did. Then you can make them see it too."

"I tried so hard to be the good guy; the knight in leather armor. But the more I try, the worse I make things. It's not exactly new for me; I've pretty much always had the gift. But I will find a way to fix things this time, I promise you that, sweetheart. If it's the last thing I do, I will get it right just this once."

The leather chair creaked as he shifted his weight, trying to settle in more comfortably. Comfort, now there was an unfamiliar word. When was the last time comfort entered into his thinking? It could only have been with her.

"The thing is, there's no way I can see to come out of this in one piece, but I'm okay with that. Really I am. Darla and Dru are my responsibility, my fault, and I will make things right. But I know I won't be coming out the other side."

"The only way to kill them is to fight face to face, on their own level, and even if the body survives, the soul will not. Today proved that to me. When you fight a demon with a demon, in the end all the demons must be destroyed."

A breath of wind sighed through a crack in the window molding, lifting the hairs on the back of Angel's neck as it skimmed across his skin. He shivered at the sensation, and then smiled grimly when a childhood superstition automatically sprang to mind.

Someone must have been walking on his grave.

"I don't know; maybe you'll resent me for this, even if you do realize the whys behind it. I'm certainly getting off easier than you in the sacrifice game. Once upon a time I thought I was brought back to save humanity, save the world even, and I would gladly have given up my life for that. But that was never my destiny; it was yours, is yours. That's why I got it confused.

"Our souls were so close, so interconnected that I found it almost impossible to see where I ended and you began. Now I know how to tell us apart. You're the Slayer; you were born to save the world every time some idiot demon tries to take it out. You were born to make the big sacrifices; to offer up one soul to save all the rest from darkness."

"I don't envy you that responsibility."

"As for me, I'm just a vampire with a soul who's been given more chances to do the right thing than the Powers should allow. I know what that right thing is now, and I'm going to do it. I hope God has some mercy on anyone who gets in my way, because I'm sure not going to waste any time over it."

The smile on Angel's face was colder than the blood that drifted sluggishly through his veins. He could feel the demon stirring within him, demanding more chaos, more pain and grief to feed it. His human soul trembled in fear of the meal soon to be at hand.

"You, Cordelia, Wesley, Gunn - you're the special ones. You are the souls I need to guard, not the faceless masses. And I'm the lucky one; I can protect those I love, and I don't have to worry about choosing between them and the world. I have the luxury of putting you first, and I don't think I realized until today how great a gift that is. I didn't have to save those lawyers; they summoned the darkness that devoured them, and they would only have brought more if I had saved them. It wasn't a matter of deciding who deserved to live and die, it was about who needed to live and die. In order for those I love to be safe, they had to die. And so they did. You wouldn't have been able to abandon them to Dru and Darla, but I was."

A sudden burst of flame split the log on the fire in two, sending half of it to the grate with a thud. Angel started at the noise, but he was grateful for the wake-up call from his uncomfortably pleasant memories of the afternoon.

"Hopefully Cordy and Wes will be too angry about being fired to worry over me, and Gunn won't try to rescue me from myself unless they're in on it too. They should be safe now. I got them out of harm's way, and as long as Dru and Darla think you and I are on the outs, you're off radar too. I only wish I could be there by your side at the End of Days; I thought that was my destiny. But at least now you'll live to fight another day, and maybe that was all I was really supposed to ensure. I know it's all that really matters to me."

Another sip of blood. It was getting cold, but he was beyond such paltry details. He was lost in a one-way conversation he'd been conducting for eighteen lonely months. It was almost at an end, and he still had so much to tell her. So much to say, and never enough time; it was always their downfall.

"I know they will tell you about the prophecy; it will fall under the category of 'if onlies' that must be acknowledged in order to move on. Please don't have any regrets about it on my behalf. My chance for redemption is over now, but I gave it up freely. A part of me is screaming for all the things I thought we might have when, if, I regained my humanity. But the better part of me knows this is the right choice. I told you; I'm lucky. You had to sacrifice me to save the world. I get to sacrifice me to save you and the others. It really is the easier path."

His pen faltered slightly, as though giving lie to the next words.

"I never thought I would say this, but I'm glad you're not here. I don't want you to have to see what comes next, and I wouldn't want you here for the end. The look in Cordelia's eyes today, in Wesley's, that was bad enough. I couldn't bear to see you look at me that way too, the way you did after we trapped Faith so long ago. That mixture of disappointment and fear, and most of all the realization that I'm not quite human; it tears at me to see that in the eyes of the people whose respect I value most. I don't want to put either of us through that again."

He paused, rubbing his hand over his weary eyes.

"I was raised to believe that you must do penance to atone for your sins, and I've spent a lot of time the past year or so trying to do just that. I don't regret that time, any of it. Only you have brought me closer to finding peace in this life of mine. But now I believe my true penance must be to never finish making my atonement. I guess peace and I were never meant to be old friends."

Angel's hand stopped moving, the pen falling to the floor. He was so tired of fighting; he'd been fighting demons within and without for hundreds of years now, and he was sick to the bone of it all. He wanted peace, just a small space of peace within his human soul, but even that much was to be denied him. There was one last battle to wage, to win at all costs, and he must fight it alone. Alone, in the name of all those who made him feel he was never truly alone.

The End