Buffy Summers descended the patio stairs to the Crawford Street mansion. The tangled fronds and vines twisted like the knots in her stomach. Will Angel send me away again? He said he doesn’t need me to take care of him. What if he doesn’t want me?
A few weeks had passed since Angel had told her that. She thought it was his way of lashing out at her new relationship with Scott. And part of her couldn’t help thinking that he hated her. She’d killed Angel and sent him to Hell, where he’d endured a century of torture. That wasn’t something a guy could forgive you for easily.
No matter what, she’d never stopped loving him, or wanting him. They’d been through a lot, and she hoped that stood for something when it came to their special bond. Either way, the only way to know how he felt was to talk to him.
She crept to the door of the mansion and peered inside. A fire burned in the hearth. She could feel its heat from way over here. It tinged the cold-hued room in blooms of orange and yellow.
In front of the hearth, a hunched figure sat surrounded by dozens of candles.
Buffy smiled. No matter how bad things were for him, Angel never physically changed. She liked that he would always remain constant. She would always recognise those strong, broad shoulders and the smooth curve of his back.
Her heart skipped. A few months ago, she’d have bounced up to him, kissed him and told him she loved him.
I could… she thought. I want to…
No, she couldn’t. She refrained by clinging on to the doorjamb, resting her head against the cool, stone wall. Silently, she watched him.
Angel was consumed with looking over some tiny objects that he pulled from a box. He scrutinised each piece, examining all the details.
That’s a good thing, she thought. He needs something to occupy his mind. Stop him thinking about—
She didn’t let her mind go there. She didn’t want to ruin this moment of peace. It didn’t last long. Angel stiffened. His head cocked to the side as he listened for intruders.
“Who’s here?” His head whipped towards the door. Her cover blown, Buffy stepped into the room.
“Hi,” she said, stopping a few paces short of the hearth. It was a warm night. Only a vampire could sit in front of a fire and not break a sweat. She offered him a coy wave, then clasped her hands together. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“You didn’t,” Angel said softly. He licked his bottom lip and ran a hand through his hair. He looked up at her wide-eyed. “I didn’t expect to see you tonight. I thought you’d gone out with your friends.”
She half-smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “The going out already happened. This is the coming back part.” She shrugged. “I felt like dropping by. I mean, I’m not checking up on you, or anything. I know you said you didn’t need me to look after you. I— everybody had somebody at The Bronze, and I was somebody-less. I thought you might be here.”
Angel’s dark brows knitted together and his lips parted. Buffy thought it was cute how, even after all this time, he still didn’t get her sometimes.
“Are you saying you missed me?” he asked, confused.
Buffy hesitated shortly, then nodded. He’d already worked out why she’d come, there was no need to try and hide it.
“I thought we talked about this. We can’t—” Angel’s voice was harsh, almost impatient. He shook his head and his shoulders slumped.
“I know. I didn’t come to fix things.” She fixed her gaze on the toes of her blue pumps, willing her feet not to move. Keep your distance. There’s no point in trying to make amends. But even as she thought the words, her feet betrayed her. She crossed the floor and sat next to Angel on the stone ledge in front of the hearth. A void lay between them. No matter how much she wanted to, she had to resist the urge to reach out and touch him.
Being in his presence after they’d agreed not to see one another was a risky business. She’d tried to keep away. The whole point in going to The Bronze tonight was to take her mind off Angel. Obviously that didn’t work out.
She side-eyed the vampire. He sat rigidly. It still wasn’t clear whether he wanted her there or not. He refused to meet her gaze. The air in the house was so still and quiet that the pop-and-crackle of the fire was loud as thunder in her ears.
“What’s all this?” she asked, to break the awkward silence. She motioned to the large card box. It was full of all sorts of interesting-looking objects. She spied jewellery, trinkets, and little keepsakes from places Buffy had never been, like Florida and New Orleans.
Angel’s eyes flicked up at her question. He looked between her and the array of objects, then slid the box so it sat between them. Am I really that obvious? she asked herself. Deep down she understood that the repositioned box was a peace offering. Letting her share in his task brought the couple together; a touch-less, feeling-less activity.
Buffy craved touch and feeling like the fire behind her craved oxygen.
“It’s stuff I found in a closet upstairs,” he mumbled
“Oh? Well, sorting through things is good. Even if they’re not your own things.” Buffy reached into the box and pulled out a smaller, interesting-looking wooden one. “I mean, it’s yours now, since you live here.”
She opened it up and her eyes grew wide when she saw the collection of dress rings. She dug through them animatedly, picking one up and discarding it on account of it being tacky. Another one caught her attention, and she slipped it onto the middle finger of her right hand.
“Oooh, shiny!” She wiggled her fingers so the clear gem caught the fire light. A faint smile tugged up the corners of Angel’s lips, but he didn’t speak.
“What are you going to do with all this stuff? Some of these could be worth something.” Buffy turned her hand over, analysing the shiny gem in the light of the fire. It was a crystal, not a diamond. Shame.
“I’ve known about it for a while. This is the place Drusilla chose after Giles burned down the factory.” His lips pinched together and his eyes cast downward.
“Go on.” Buffy tried flashing him an encouraging look. But thinking about Angelus together with Drusilla and Spike caused her momentary pain. The sound reached her heart, and the upset to its rhythm was audible.
Angel noticed her quickening heartbeat. His eyes searched her face for any trace of emotion. Buffy wanted to kick herself for betraying her feelings. She motioned for him to continue. Talking would distract him while she took the time to compose herself.
“I wondered back then if any of it was worth anything. I planned to trade some of it with one of Spike’s demon-friends – get some cash and go wild with it.” Angel paused, and Buffy wondered what constituted as wild for Angelus. “I hid the box so Drusilla wouldn’t get her hands on it. Vampires are like magpies.” He paused again, as if lost in the memory. Buffy thought he referred to Angelus as much as he did Dru. “We’re attracted to shiny things, and when we find them, we don’t like to share.”
Buffy’s brows raised. She filed that snippet away for later thought. It would be something to share with Willow over the phone later on. That’s if she wasn’t too busy with Oz.
“You could pawn some of it in,” Buffy said helpfully. “It might buy you some blood from the butcher.” She stopped abruptly and shot a look at the vampire, not meaning to insinuate that she should have a say what he did with his money. Not now they weren’t together. Her cheeks flushed beet red. “I meant—”
“I know what you meant,” he said softly. He turned his attention back to the box and fingered past the coil of a gold necklace, digging out another ring.
Buffy scrunched her nose at the amethyst which protruded from a gold-plated band. Definitely tacky. Like, Cordelia-level tacky.
Angel toyed with it in his fingers. It was intended for someone with smaller hands and daintier digits. The vampire’s large fingers were nimble enough to turn it around in the light without dropping it.
A silence fell that Buffy could feel. What was that word Giles used for this sort of thing? Palpable. She tried the word on in her head using her Watcher’s accent. It sounded wrong, yet somehow oddly right for its meaning.
She looked up and met Angel’s gaze. He looked pained, unsure. She swallowed hard. “What is it?”
“Do you still—” He stopped at the sound of her heart racing again. He searched her face for what had caused the pounding this time. She bit her bottom lip and gave him a reassuring nod.
“Do you still have the ring, the one for your birthday?”
Buffy’s eyes grew wide. She hadn’t expected him to ask her that. She stared at him; a dumb, blonde deer caught in the headlights of his enquiry. When she couldn’t form an answer, her whole body slumped.
She met his gaze with welling eyes. His expression said it all – he knew that she no longer had his ring.
Angel nodded. “What did you do with it?” The hurt was thick in the timbre of his voice.
“Well, I— it was after I killed you. I came back some time later to… I wanted to be near to you. We’d been apart for so long, and your apartment wasn’t yours any more. I couldn’t go there. This was the last place I saw you. The last place we… kissed.” Her voice trailed off as a lump settled in her throat. She tried to clear it, but it didn’t go away.
Angel let down his guard and turned to her. His face was soft, understanding. He’d always been good at sensing when she needed his reassurance. His hand flinched. Buffy thought he might reach out for hers, but his fingers slackened against his leg. Her bottom lip quivered with disappointment. “What happened then?”
“I placed it down in the spot where you left me.” She let that sink in. The revelations of things best left unsaid made her feel exposed and weak. “I couldn’t get you flowers. Those are the things people put on graves. They look pretty for a time, and then they die. Rings last forever. Like I thought we would…”
Buffy felt small and stupid telling him this. After all, he’d suffered in ways she’d never understand. But that didn’t detract from the experience of losing him the second he’d regained his soul, not one tiny bit. Nothing could ever take that hurt away. Or lessen it. She wanted to tell him that it didn’t matter, that she was just being stupid. But then a light went on behind Angel’s eyes, as if everything suddenly made sense to him. Which was odd, because Buffy thought he had a hard time making sense of most things. Usually he rolled with whatever came along.
“I wondered how that got here,” Angel exclaimed. He sat bolt upright, head cocked to one side, eyes thoughtful.
Buffy latched on to the change in his demeanour, straightening her back to match his pose. “What… do you mean?”
“Stay there. I’m gonna go fetch something.”
The vampire was gone in less time than it took to string a sentence together. He re-entered the room at a more human pace, making obvious footfalls on the concrete floor. Buffy appreciated his caution. It meant he thought of her as a regular human and didn’t want to startle her. Of course he wouldn’t have. Buffy’s slayer senses were keen, and always felt him when he was nearby. Still, she appreciated the sentiment.
Angel pushed the box of trinkets out of the way so he could sit closer to Buffy. Their shoulders grazed as he settled with his hands resting on his knee.
Buffy noticed that Angel clutched at something between his palms. For a moment he didn’t move or speak, and Buffy’s urge to link her arm through Angel’s was electric. Resisting that urge was tough. She looked up into his soulful, apprehensive eyes. “What is it?”
“I found this a few days ago.” He opened his hands finally. A small, red-velvet box in the shape of a heart sat in the centre of his palm. He lifted the lid, revealing the silver Claddagh ring, which sat on a satin pillow.
Buffy gasped as her eyes grew wide. She reached out and took the ring, holding it between her thumbs and forefingers. To her, it was the most precious object in all the world and she felt a wash of relief to be holding it again. “Where did you find it?”
“After I came back to my senses, I tried to clean the place up, make it more pleasant to get by here. There was a soot mark where I’d come back through. I got down on my hands and knees to wipe it away and there it was.”
Her eyes narrowed. Why didn’t I see it when I found the mark? Her head hadn’t been straight then. She hadn’t looked for all the tiny clues. She’d been too focussed on the hows and the whys of his return to see what was in front of her.
A long silence drew out between them again. The heat of the fire on her back became uncomfortable. She wanted to move a little, to feel the heat on her side rather than her shoulders. She was afraid Angel would withdraw. She didn’t want to lose that comfortable weight of his shoulder resting against hers.
Instead she focussed on the ring. During their long separation, whilst Angel was dispossessed of his soul, Buffy had spent hours holding the ring. It was her anchor to better memories through that horrible time. And later, after she’d thrust the sword through Angel’s chest, she’d dreamed of the ring. Those dreams had been muddled, nightmarish. The Claddagh had been a symbol in her unconscious visions, but she hadn’t worked out what it meant.
Angel’s large palm came into view, and reluctantly Buffy placed the ring back in his hand. She brushed her fingertips carefully over the metal circlet, careful not to touch his cool skin. Touching him would lead to deeper feelings. Her emotions already ran heart-deep. Any deeper and she’d drown in feelings she couldn’t even give a name to.
Her eyes never left the small, silver ring which Angel now held between his fingers. He turned it over, looking at all the fine details. Buffy watched his fingers tremble. He attempted to hide it by balling the ring up in his palm, but she’d already caught the emotional undercurrent.
Buffy was sorry she’d hurt him. She thought it was her fault for giving up the ring and she wanted to make it better, but she didn’t know how. A tentative hand reached out for his shoulder, but it dropped to her lap when he turned his head to speak.
“There’s something I wanna ask you,” he said softly.
She urged him with a slight nod, and he dropped his head to her level to catch her eye.
“Will you wear it, Buffy, even though we can’t be anything? Will you wear it for—?”
Buffy’s head snapped up. “The memories?” she finished, her voice pinched.
The vampire extended the ring between his fingers and thumb to fortify his question. “Will you wear it to remember?”
Buffy’s lips moved but no words came out. Am I really hearing this? she thought.
A searching look on Angel’s face answered that question for her. In a swift movement, she removed the dress ring from her right hand and tossed it back into the box without looking.
Buffy Summers was a woman of instant decision. Years of slayer training had taught her not to hesitate. She rested the tip of her finger inside the lip of the Claddagh, meeting Angel’s eyes once more. He leaned into her, brows raised and eyes full of hope.
The words Angel had spoken on her birthday came flooding back:
Wear it with the heart pointing towards you. It means you belong to somebody.
And that’s exactly how Angel presented the ring to her now — the heart pointed towards her. Of course, Buffy would always belong to Angel, but she wanted to set a boundary, to be clear on what she was getting into.
“If I accept this… again, you know we can’t actually be—”
“Anything. I know,” he whispered.
That was all she needed to hear. She pressed her finger into the ring, feeling the cool metal slide over her skin as Angel guided it home. His fingers didn’t stop once the ring was in place. They delicately grazed the back of her knuckles, tracing around to her palm. Buffy’s hand closed over his instinctively.
A hot tear rolled down Buffy’s cheek – a traitorous droplet that left her bare. Angel’s other hand came up to catch it. He smiled at her, though the pain was visible in the crease of his brow and tightly drawn lips. Their need for each other was raw. But what could ever come of it, if their relationship threatened the world she sought to protect? She couldn’t risk unleashing the demon again. Whatever the cost, Angel had to keep possession of his soul.
Buffy closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder. At last, his arm slipped around the small of her back, lips ghosting her hair. He then pressed his cheek against her crown and cradled her tightly to him. She melted against him, desperately seeking his comfort.
If this moment of closeness with Angel was the last she’d experience, then Buffy wanted to savour it, to yield to it. Soon enough she would have to leave, and their parting would be painful, as always. She tried not to think of it. Right now is all we have. With that thought, the floodgate opened and tears rolled down her face. Without a word, Angel’s thumb came up and wiped them away.
“I’m here, Buffy. I’m here…”
“Here for now,” she replied, lips moving against his chest.
But now wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.