Buffy managed to hold it together until the moment she fitted her key into the lock on the door of her father's empty beachside condo.
Her vision blurred as she opened the door, and tears were escaping by the time she pushed it closed with her back and slid down to the floor, leaning her face into the skirt that she already knew she would never wear again.
She'd thought she could do this, could waltz into Angel's office and tell him that she didn't want him showing up in her life anymore and mean it. On the bus ride down from Sunnydale, she worked up a righteous lather. How dare he and so forth.
Five minutes with him turned it to so much dust. I'm going to go…start forgetting. Ha. Like that was even possible.
She hoped he believed it. She hoped he knew it was a lie.
She was glad that she would have the condo to herself for a day of wallowing. Her dad had celebrated Thanksgiving with his latest girlfriend's family and wouldn't be back until the next day. She hadn't had any Hank-sponsored retail therapy since the summer after her sophomore year, when she'd wished away the Master's bite with a credit card bill of traumatic proportions, so she'd happily envisioned a post-turkey spending spree.
Until a certain vampire's skulktastic swing through Sunnydale threw her for a loop, that is. After a night of tossing and turning, she found herself boarding a bus at an absurdly early hour, unable to wait any longer to tell him face to face not to see her face to face anymore. And she knew there was a fly in that logic ointment somewhere, but what was done was done. They were done.
She wiped her eyes with the fabric of her stupid skirt, remembering again the way Cordelia's eyes had run over it appraisingly. Her silent judgment made Buffy feel like she'd gone on patrol with a less-than-pointy stake.
Buffy was good at the fashion thing, dammit, but she no longer followed the rhythms of LA. Now Cordy – Spordelia Chase of all people – was in the thick of them. Well, she'd show that orange-bespangled-midriff-baring moron that just because she got to see Angel every damn day—
Buffy broke off mid-thought, unwilling to follow that train of pain any further, and pulled herself to her feet. She welcomed the flush of anger. She snapped up her dad's credit card from the hall table, leaving behind the "Have fun hitting the sales!" note he'd scrawled on a paper napkin, and swept out the door in a huff.
She had a sudden desire for more shoes than she could wear in an entire school year.
When Buffy slunk back through the door hours later, her arms were empty. She had browsed cute dresses and stylish footwear all day without really seeing any of it. She'd jumped in surprise every time a sales assistant asked if she needed help. She had finally given up when she'd emerged from a dressing room after 20 minutes of staring listlessly into space and met with an endless line of dirty looks.
It had been those tacky rings that had thrown her off. The very first store she'd popped into had a big display of oversized costume jewelry, and one of the racks had been full of rings with big green stones overlaid with gold. They looked just like that one Spike had been after, the gem of whatever.
Sending it to Angel had been a snap decision. She hadn’t been thinking of herself at all. She had been remembering him at death's door, his face covered in sweat as poison spread through his body. Anything that could keep him alive had to be his.
It was only later, amid her moping over Parker, that she realized with a thunderclap what it might mean for them. All those things he said he wanted for her – well, not the babies. Or the sex. She quickly concluded with sadness that the ring probably didn't change anything, but for a week her stomach flipped over every time someone knocked on her dorm room door.
She couldn't bring herself to ask Oz what happened. Willow told her that the delivery had been made, and that Angel had used the ring to stop some uber-ick child-molesting vamp, but that was all.
Oz had seen Angel in the sweet light of day. Maybe she would get to, too. During class, she would find herself imagining for the ten-zillionth time how Angel would look coming toward her in the sun, his pale skin and dark coat incongruous against the bright blue sky.
Something had to happen, anyway. You couldn't send someone a gift that made them invincible without getting some sort of reaction, right?
The note, when it came in the mail, said Thank you and I couldn't keep it.
She ran her fingers over the ink of his signature and threw the card in the trash before leaving for class. She regretted it the moment she sat down in the lecture hall across campus, but by the time she made it back to the dorm, the trashcan in their room had been neatly emptied.
When she found the card tucked under the psych textbook on her desk, she'd given Willow the world's longest hug and treated her to the biggest-sized mocha the campus coffee shop served. They never mentioned it again. Buffy went back to moping about Parker.
That was easier.
Buffy pulled the door shut softly behind her as she headed back out into the cool Californian night.
Since returning from her fruitless shopping trip, she'd picked at the contents of the fridge, watched endless lame reruns on cable, called Willow to dissect the five minutes she'd spent at Angel Investigations, and patrolled the streets of her dad's Santa Monica neighborhood for a few hours. She'd dusted two vamps threatening a woman outside of a demon hangout called the Lone Bar, but she hadn't seen any more of those mutant ninja demon things that Angel had handled so easily.
She crawled into the bed in the guest room afterward and tried to sleep, but managed only a couple of hours before she was startled awake by a dream she couldn't remember, no matter how hard she tried. It left her even more unsettled.
Giving in to her restlessness, she dressed quickly and decided to walk on the beach toward the pier. She snuggled into a jacket of her dad's, slipped a stake into a pocket and set off into the moonlit night.
She forced herself not to think about Angel, worried that she might actually short out her brain. She wondered how Riley was doing, back home in Ohio – it was Ohio, right? – where they ate corn and milked cows and walked down by the river in pastoral splendor. It seemed impossibly wholesome and she wondered if she could ever really fit into his world with her crossbows and her demon goo and her manifested destiny.
She looked up at the moon and thought about Oz. Where had he ended up? Would he ever come back? Willow's face these days looked exactly how Buffy had felt on the inside all summer. The force of Willow's grief touched so many of her own tender places that she almost couldn't bear it.
Those thoughts pushed her right up to the cliff, but she refused to go over and give in to the wallow again. When morning came, she would be seeing her father for the first time in ages, and she didn't want to be a total broody space cadet. She wanted to be Buffy Summers, normal dorm-dwelling college freshman daughter, full of tales about inspiring professors and wacky roommates. Maybe she could figure out a way to tell the Kathy story without the whole soul-sucking demon bit – possibly by putting heavy emphasis on the Cher.
The tiniest bit of movement ahead stopped her in her tracks. Goosebumps tingled over her skin and her mouth went dry. It couldn't be.
But when she stumbled forward a few yards, there he stood, bracing himself against one of the pilings under the pier.
Angel's voice was pure astonishment. "Buffy. How did you find me here?"
If I was blind, I would see you. She bit back the dreamy response. They were on the beach, but it was dark and chilly and she was very much awake.
"I wasn't looking for you," she said defensively. "My dad's place is nearby."
"Oh," he said. "Oh."
After a pause, he added ruefully, "Sorry. I know we're not supposed to see each other."
"Maybe we don’t have to count this one," she said, trying to sound light. "I can barely see you anyway."
"Right. Normal human eyesight is so different. I had forgotten."
"You've also forgotten that I'm so not normal. And, anyway, it's not that. You're just good at hiding in the dark."
He didn't respond for a long moment, and she wasn't sure what to do. Get closer? Run away? She was willing herself to go through with some kind of exit strategy when he spoke.
"I felt the sun." His words were airy, like they were leaking out against his will.
"Heard about that," she said. "Willow said—"
"Willow?" he interrupted, sounding puzzled.
"Yeah. Oz told Willow, Willow told me. That you used the ring."
"Oh," he said again. "Buffy…"
He couldn't seem to get out the words he wanted, and again she wasn't sure what to do. But she still couldn't make herself leave.
"Angel, I'm sorry," she said finally, "but this – being around you – it's too confusing."
"It's more than confusing," he said sadly. "Being around you and not being with you, not touching you? It's unbearable."
"But we have to bear, right?" She wanted to get closer, but she knew she shouldn't. "I mean, what else can we do? It doesn't work with us. It can't."
"No. I can't give you a life, or a future or anything a real girl would want."
His voice sounded so strange. Full of pain, but it was more than that. There was a haunted quality to it. She crossed her arms over her chest, tucking the hands that longed to soothe him safely away.
"I miss you," she admitted. "But nothing's changed."
"No, nothing's changed," he repeated, choking on the words. His obvious emotion went straight to her heart, and this time Buffy couldn't resist taking a few steps closer and putting her hand on his.
"I know what I said earlier, Angel. But it was just wishful thinking," she said. "I'll never forget."
"What?" he whispered hoarsely, sounding almost horrified. She hurried to explain.
"This morning. I said I would start forgetting. Remember? But I'll never forget."
With a sharp jerk, she was in his arms, his hands sliding under her oversized jacket and crushing her tightly against him. He made a soft sound, and she felt wetness against her temple.
She was too astonished to do more than clutch him back. She couldn't even cry herself.
"It wasn't enough time," he whispered.
All was still quiet when Buffy slowly pushed her way back into the condo in the predawn light. She felt heavy and old, even older than Angel, a million years old. She hoped a hot shower and a few hours of sleep would be enough to allow her to face the day and, more importantly, her dad.
She sat on the beach for hours after Angel left, trying to make sense of it all. Eventually, she'd given up and just let the memories come in with the tide. She thought of ice skating and indoor picnics, of how he'd been an oasis in her chosen-one life. All that happiness had felt lost forever, gone with him in a swirl of smoke as her high school burned, but she thought now that maybe she'd be able to remember it all with a smile. Someday.
Angel had held her for only a minute before murmuring a stream of apologies and fading into the night. And yet being in his arms again, feeling the proof of his heartbreak dampen her skin, knowing beyond the doubt of her own insecurities that their grief was still shared – it changed things.
It wasn't that she'd never considered how hard it had been for Angel to leave Sunnydale, but those thoughts tended to be drowned out by her own feelings of loss and even abandonment. She hadn't wanted to be left.
Now, more than anything, she wished for a way to ease his pain. But she had nothing left to give that he would accept. And, anyway, it seemed her every gift to him – her love, her life's blood, even that silly gold ring with its promise of sunshine – had somehow cost him dearly.
She stepped into the shower and turned her face into the hot spray, washing the traces of him from her hair and her skin. She had no other choice. There was no going back. And if she was honest with herself, she thought she might actually be heading toward a pretty good life now.
But that was it, wasn't it? To make all this pain worth it – to make their sacrifices worth it – the only thing she could do was live the life in the light that he wanted so badly for her.
For him, she'd do anything. For him, she'd keep trying.