He sends her gifts from all over the world.
Buffy doesn't tell anyone, and it's a wonder none of the girls have seen and commented, the way noses get nebby around Command Central nowadays. But she's always been good at the secret-keeping, and he's always been great at the stealth, and however much has changed between them over the years, the one thing she trusts not to alter in any small way is their ability to hide things from the world.
He leaves the presents in places she's sure to look: settled in her weapons chest, resting in dark corners of her room, tucked in the shady undergrowths of the clearing where she trains. Probably not the most sensible of nooks and crannies, nor the safest, but she's never been that sensible or safe, and so maybe it fits that those are the places he would know to choose.
He never leaves a note, but she knows who sends them, just the same.
They're beautiful trinkets, every time. Despite whatever else one can say about his comprehension skills (and there's actually not a lot, he's still dimmer than a waning candle about some things), Buffy has to admit that he's got a deep understanding of true art. Everything he gives her is a masterpiece in its own way, breathtakingly pretty, heartbreakingly delicate, jawdroppingly priceless. From Egypt, stacked bracelets made of gold as fine as filigree. From India, a silky shawl, rich and red and beautiful like something she only ever wore when she was just as shiny as new. From Russia, a matryoshkadoll, smooth and round and with big blue eyes that stare out, hard as diamonds.
And from every corner of the world, Angel sends her weapons. From Japan, a sword so razor sharp and intricately carved at the hilt that Giles almost wets himself when he sees. A Mabo throwing blade from Africa, vicious and elegant all at once. And a crossbow, light but deadly, it's edges written with Chinese script.
Buffy enjoys every gift, works them into everyday life. Xander comments on the craftmanship of her new crossbow, Suki coos over the intricate threadwork of her new shawl. The gifts serve their purpose, really--they're little things she can look at and admire, feel like he's around and still thinking of her. She's not clear on his intentions, but then, she's always been used to that, and so she settles with telling herself that each gift is his way of telling her where he's been, sharing new lands and travelled distances with her in the only way he knows how.
Then one day he leaves her a claddagh ring.
The claddagh ring, actually, the same ring he gave her so long ago and the same ring she gave back, resting it on the ground where she sent him to Hell, hoping to put her memories of him to peace. But peace was never hers to have, not even now, and she stares at the ring in all its sharp, gleaming mockery. The hands hold the crowned heart like he always claimed she held his, but the metal is cold to touch and his heart is dead.
The weight this ring used to have on her finger is next to nothing, now. Symbols don't mean a thing when there's zero to symbolize.
The epiphany hits her like a stack of bricks and even though the wind is knocked out of her chest, even though she struggles for breath against the realization, Buffy finds the strength to gather every gift he has left over the past year and dump it into sea.
If she can't have him, she doesn't want what little he's willing to give, either. Promises wrapped into pretty packages are just lies he doesn't have the courage to tell her to her face. Maybe's and what if's meant to keep her close without really touching her, meant to put her into some sort of stasis of longing, forever pining away. She's disgusted that she even entertained the thought that these gifts were somehow a way for him to tell her he still wants her. When really, they're probably just a way for him to make sure he still has her.
Buffy may still be in love with him, but that doesn't mean she still thinks it means anything much. She's not sixteen anymore, and she's not gonna be anyone's--let alone love's-- bitch.
She's not worried about him getting the message that his phantom charge card has been put to use for naught. Sometimes in the shadows, she feels him watching her and she knows he isn't very far. Physically, anyway. Emotionally, on the other hand...
He likes to put up barriers between them, likes to peer at her from behind an invisible wall, gaze wounded and heavy and agonized. But Buffy's a big girl now, and after years of doing it herself, she has no patience for people who saboutoge their own happiness and blame it on circumstances beyond their control. He's on the outside looking in, kept at a distance. Yes, she admits that. Except she nor his stupid curse are the ones locking him out--he's keeping himself away. Self-torture, maybe, or just plain stupidity, but Buffy doesn't feel like explaining or begging or yearning anymore.
The only gift she wants from him is him. Until he gets that, and maybe he never will, she'd rather live without any trace of his presence at all. When it comes to Angel, after all, Buffy's plenty used to being empty. Unrealized. Waiting. Only--
He's not getting any older... but she is.
"You gave back the gifts."
His voice makes her jump, her crossbow clattering to the floor, unnaturally loud in the silence that sweeps the room suddenly.
Buffy doesn't dare look at the entrance, doesn't want to show him the shock, devastation, relief playing across her features. She wants him to think she expected him, that she's not bothered by his presence, that--
That she's not a big, fat liar who's quietly freaking out right now.
She raises her eyes and wordlessly tells her girls that training is over for the day. The group, Suki and Satsu and Leah and Rowena, all turn to give each other meaningful looks. Buffy internally groans; she's already the subject of many a loose lip around this place--Angel's arrival, or more accurately "tall, dark, and hey, wasn't that a vampire?" at the threshold, making 'our love is a forbidden love' eyes at her...well. Buffy supposes she ought to be grateful that Andrew's version of her love life hasn't made the rounds yet. Still--no need to give them more fodder for her relationship foibles. She arches a brow and motions to the exit.
Leah seems to get the message and herds the girls out the back exit, minimum fuss. Buffy stares after them a second, wondering what Angel sees when he looks at her now, all of twenty-four and a den mother to a thousand-plus girls who are just like she used to be: young, bright-eyed, optimistic. Which means that they're really just a thousand-plus girls who are a couple of years away from the same sort of heartbreak she's lived through.
The thought tires Buffy so much that she lets her shoulders drop for one millisecond, before bending to pick up her crossbow.
"I threw away the gifts," she corrects finally, her fingers tracing the smooth wood of the bow. She remembers the last time she pointed a crossbow at Angel, the last time he demanded something impossible of her. The way he taunted her, goaded her, pleaded with her to put him to death. She'd been so young, then, but she'd known. Something in her had known how terribly wrong it would be to put an arrow through his heart, because his heart was hers.
Try as she might, Buffy has never been able to kill him. Not really, not where it counts. Because her heart is his. Even now, which depresses her and irks her and makes her insides go all sour. So sour that she rounds on him, crossbow in hand, and points the bolt at his chest, eyebrows drawn.
"Just what," she says, punctuating her words with a light thrust from the bolt, "do you think you're doing here, skulking around like some sort of...skulker?"
He raises an eyebrow, along with his hands, and looks down at the wooden bolt prodding his chest. "Uh, Buffy--" he begins, amusement coloring his voice, and that really burns her up. Who does he think he is, giving her sparkly gifts and ignoring her otherwise and only showing up when she throws all the pretty away, and now he's standing there with laughter in his voice, and--- has she ever heard him laugh before?
It's been so long, the ghost of his smile seems like the sun, when he raises his eyes to hers. She'd forgotten what it was like to see Angel bright and new, instead of so dark, so weary, so alone.
It hurts her like nothing else could, that he's moved on so well and he still insists on coming back to her. Rubbing salt into her wounds.
"You didn't even keep the crossbow," he says, the smile still in place, twitching at the corners of his lips, softening the bittersweet of his eyes. Buffy's stomach drops and she gives a dry laugh, the sound tearing from her throat as she clutches her old, trusty bow harder.
"Well," she says. "I already know how to kill things. Didn't need you to help me along."
Angel's expression doesn't even change. If anything, his smile only gentles, deepens. "But I always do," he says, and which part is he talking about? The killing things part? Or the needing someone to help him along part? Puzzles, puzzles always when he's around, but just now--just at this point of time in the whole twisted path that they've walked along for the past eight years--Buffy is too tired to put it all together.
Let him be enigmatic. She's feeling dense.
She turns to him, lets the crossbow finally, finally leave her hand, tugs his head down to meet hers, and kisses him. Hard. Unrelenting. The pressure is cool, firm, and for a moment, the world grinds to halt.
Buffy breathes. Angel doesn't. And the meaning of anticlimatic really becomes crystal clear.
Buffy steps away after a moment, and the silence fills the room like something tangible.
Angel's hand are still up in the surrender position, as if he's hanging from a cross, as if he's given up, and Buffy marvels a moment at the symbolism.
Then she turns, shoulders rigid and mind in turmoil. What does he want from her? She gave him what he came for, didn't she? A giant leap into his arms and a big sloppy kiss and then maybe some eye-sex (because they can't have the real thing) to seal the deal?
What is he still waiting for?
"Buffy," Angel says, his voice soft. So soft. She doesn't turn around. Can't. Angel's hand comes down, hovers over the brackets of her spine, fingers fanned out, brushing the wings of her shoulder blades. "Buffy, please, come on--"
"Don't." Angry. One word and it's like a knife, a dagger, one of the weapons Angel hid in her wardrobe to surprise her with. "Don't. You may have months and years and what--forever--to boogey in Spain and barter in Istanbul, but I have a job, Angel. I have a--this isn't just who I am, anymore, this is what I do. I cannot interrupt training to dance our little dance, and I cannot lose a good night's sleep to lying awake in the dark, wondering if you're ever going to step out of the shadows and just...join me."
"I can't." Sad. Two words, and they're like bullets, like pellets meant to gut. Angel always was good at shooting her down. Ironic laughter bubbles up in Buffy's throat, and she presses it back with a hand to her throat.
"You never can," she whispers. She hates the yearning and defeat in her voice. Hates the way she's so mad and so beaten down and so, so lost. "Angel," she asks, "Angel, are you ever even really here?"
This time she does turn, and Angel's hand slides up from the curve of her breast, thumb flicking at the rise of her nipple beneath the tank top she's wearing. Despite herself, she sucks in a breath, eyes widening and blood rushing to the surface of her skin.
Angel's eyes darken, but his lips curve into a small frown. Lines Buffy never saw before carve their places in the furrow of his brow, the hollows under his eyes. He doesn't answer, though, and he dips his head down, tastes her lips, lets his tongue trace the seam of her mouth till she parts her lips like the petals of a rose. He tastes the same, like nothing, and her fingers tangle in his hair, legs up and around his waist already.
Her knee rests against his hip when he braces her against the wall, and it's awful how Buffy doesn't even consider the fact that they haven't had sex since she was seventeen, and look at how that turned out. Something in Angel's face is so reckless and wild that she only clutches at his shirt as he unzips his pants and guides himself into her. She doesn't ask any questions, and he doesn't provide any explanations, and God, she really had fooled herself into thinking she'd changed, hadn't she?
The sex isn't even satisfying in a body to body way. His thumb takes hard, firm swipes at her and she crests over a peak of dizzying, jarring, frightening heights, but there's no warmth flooding her limbs. No red, red passion. No white, white love. Just black, swirling intensity and the bright dots beneath her eyelids. He comes, too, she can feel it, and her hands tremble as they trace the tight cords of his neck and back. But he doesn't say her name, or rest his forehead against hers, and he lets her go in a limbless slide when it's over.
Perfect happiness. Now that's changed.
Buffy bends and slides her track pants up, slowly and shakily. Her fingers pass over her breast, over her neck, over her lips. Everything around her smells of herself. Nothing of him, and suddenly she wonders what kind of souvenir Angel would leave of this.
"I'm always here, Buffy," he says after a moment. His voice is nearly soundless. "I'm always really here, but these days...I didn't know if you'd want that."
"You have to get back to L.A," Buffy responds. Her breath is slow, dragging out of her like smoke. "You cleaned up the hellzone without help from us, and you spent your summer vacation touring the world, and now you need to get back to where you belong."
He doesn't say anything trite, like I already am, but Buffy can hear Angel begin to say something and she can't bear it.
"I'll wait for you," she bites out. "I will. I haven't gone anywhere, and I don't know if I ever will, and that sucks but I--I will. I'll wait for you. Just...no more gifts. No more--I don't need a reminder, you know? That I'm this widow by the sea, watching lighthouses for any...sign. I don't even know if you'll come back when you leave."
"I'll come back," Angel answers. He sounds so young for a moment, and Buffy is reminded that he has some sort of new lease on life, defeating the apocalypse in L.A and riding a dragon, and she was never around to see the evolution or slog through the aftermath with him. "That's the point. I leave and you leave but...we come back. For some inexplicable reason, we come back, and I just--so much has changed and I wanted to make sure."
That you'd be here to come back to, is the unspoken sentiment, and Buffy almost rolls her eyes at how typical--how reassuring--it is to hear that.
"I'll come back, Buffy." Angel's voice is so, so tender. Like a new wound, barely healed and inflamed to touch. "I can't seem to die, even when I want to, or it seems the thing to do...so I'll come back. And it'll be to you."
Buffy's reply is flippant, but her eyes are wide with unshed tears when she turns around to stare at the wall. "Yeah, well. You've died, what, twice? Join the club, buddy. Apparently, our love is forever. I'll be here next time, and the time after that, and maybe I was joking about the gifts a little. I always wanted a pony, you know."
She thinks Angel might have smiled before the gym door shuts with a clang, and the memory of that is souvenir enough until the next time.
Or until the pony.
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Summary: He sends her gifts from all over the world. She wonders if this is real. Or if it even matters. Buffy doesn't know what Angel wants of her, and maybe that's the only thing that's stayed the same between them after all these years. Or maybe nothing has changed at all, and maybe that's the problem.
A/N:Post Chosen, post NFA. Semi-comics compliant. Thanks to Chrislee for letting me start the ficathon. She does so much hard work...this one is for her.