Presents, Lost and Found

don't own, sadly enough.

The very last gift he ever gave her was the one she lost the quickest. The sky was still blue when she showed up at the mansion that day, the sun valiantly trying to stave off the chill that invaded Sunnydale after dark. She didn't come there anymore just to check up on him; after all he was healed and no longer required her ministrations. Instead, she came because she had had an extra hard chemistry test or because Giles had made her train longer than usual or her mom was making her clean the bathroom and didn't that seem extremely unfair when she was also the slayer? She was there for sympathy from a friend, that's what she told herself.

As Buffy walked through the mansion door, she saw that brief look of hope, longing and relief blossom and then immediately extinguish on Angel's face. They sat in front of the flickering fire, being careful not to invade personal space, as she chatted about her day, trying desperately to make small talk. Her rapid chatter eventually ran out of steam, the quiet somehow louder than her previous babble. After a minute of silence, Angel cleared his throat, telling her he would be right back. When he returned, he held a small wrapped package in his hand, trepidation showing in his eyes.

As she slowly walked home, she hoped that Angel had believed her when she said her lack of enthusiasm regarding his present was due solely to the strange, apparent loss of her powers. It was certainly part of it, but not the whole story. His gift had been a disappointment. She didn't like poetry in general and sonnets about Portugal didn't seem like something she would want to read. Besides, poetry reminded her of prophecies, neither one came out and said what they meant. She needed more clarity in her life, not less. His inscription of always was romantic. She decided that one word was enough to make the gift perfect in her eyes. A few minutes later she was attacked and barely escaped with her life. In the melee, she dropped the book and never saw it again.

Angel never asked about the book and Buffy was grateful that she didn't have to tell him that she had lost it almost immediately. When Angel left her just a few months later, the word always was just one more hurt in a seemingly endless supply and she tried hard to forget the entire incident. One day in the summer, it was pushed to the forefront of her conscience once again. She and Willow were lolling on her bed, two UC Sunnydale catalogs in hand, attempting to choose their freshmen courses. When Willow casually suggested Intro to Poetry, Buffy vetoed it with a startling vehemence. She apologized to Willow for her sudden snappishness and explained that poems just seemed to her to be a lot of pretty lies and not a subject that she was interested in investigating further.

His fifth gift was the most personal in many ways. She spent forty-five minutes in the shower, the water as hot as she could stand it but found it impossible to wash away the sense of terror and violation. After his brutal, sadistic murder of Jenny, she knew that she should throw away the portrait, but she found it impossible to part with it. She stared at it after every patrol, seated at her desk, holding it by the edges so as not to smudge the charcoal lines. She had always been honest with herself about her own appearance. She was attractive, cute, pretty but not gorgeous the way Cordelia was. He had drawn her so that she was beautiful, exceptionally stunning. She couldn't pinpoint what subtle changes he had made to her actual features but she would have said that someone who loved her drew this. Except that it wasn't true. It was the work of a psychotic killer who wanted to break her. Angel should have drawn this, not his soulless counterpart. The fact that Angel hadn't drawn it, had never even told her that he could draw, hurt her almost more than anything else. For reasons she couldn't begin to fathom, he hadn't trusted her enough to share this with her.

Months later, Buffy tried to memorize every nuance of her bedroom. knowing she'd never see it again. She had failed everyone and everything. She had failed the very town she was supposed to protect; she knew that Angelus' reign of terror over the past months had resulted in dozens of deaths. She had failed her mother; her mother's disappointment and disgust at her calling was obvious. She had failed her friends; Giles had wound up tortured, Willow in a coma, Kendra murdered all because she couldn't bring herself to kill a demon that deserved it. She had failed Angel most of all. She finished packing, throwing random handfuls of clothing in an old duffle bag. As she opened her bottom dresser drawer, she saw the portrait that Angelus had done, stashed under a stack of folded sweaters. The picture cruelly mocked her, reminding her that if she hadn't been convinced that something of Angel had remained, she could have prevented so much death and destruction. She tore it up into tiny pieces and tossed them. She then hoisted her makeshift suitcase and left.

Valentine's Day. Just a few short weeks ago, she and Willow had giggled together, trying to guess what sort of romantic extravaganza Angel would bestow upon her. Now, she had no idea how to react, so instead she sat there, unable to look away from his Valentine's Day gift. She realized her mother was staring at her, saw the first flickers of fear in her eyes. "Seems I've got a secret admirer." She reached over and grabbed the card before her mom could read it. "I'm going to bring these up to my room and put them in water." She forced a wide smile and when she saw her mother's answering look of happiness, the relief she felt allowed her expression to be a bit more genuine. With the door safely shut, she examined her gift more closely. The roses were exquisite, each stem picked at the height of perfection. The heady smell of the flowers inflamed her senses and made her skin prickle. Almost involuntarily, she slowly stroked one of the rose petals, the feel of heavy silk sending shivers through her body. She grabbed a stem, intent on bringing the flower to her face, but instead she gave a sharp cry of pain and dropped it back into the box. The thorn had stabbed her thumb and she watched as the blood welled and finally dripped onto the rose. The color was the same; it was impossible for her to tell where her blood was on the rich red rose. She left his offering there for days, until they wilted of their own accord. It was only then that the brown smear was evident on the still red blossom. She carefully tossed the bouquet into the trashcan, mindful of the hurt their beauty hid.

The ring was a silver glint of moonlight on her finger; all too appropriate for the life she led. "A sign of devotion," he said. "Loyalty, friendship and love." As she looked at his eyes, she could see that these weren't just words for him. He cherished her above all others, his life was in service to her. As she kissed him, losing herself in a swirl of emotions, she wondered how many people ever experienced love of this magnitude. It was almost frightening; her feelings for him were so intense. She couldn't imagine her life without him; he had become a part of her. Later, sitting shivering on his bed, she was reminded how very fragile her life was. Slayers were all too expendable and she wanted him to know exactly what she felt toward him. He undressed her, dropping small, sweet kisses to each newly revealed patch of skin. Finally, he pulled back to look at her nude form and she noted the tears in his eyes. She bent forward and kissed him deeply. "Don't cry, silly", she whispered. "You should be happy." He nodded, too overcome to say anything.

And then everything changed. After he lost his soul, the ring only spoke to her of hate and obsession. He still wore the matching twin, a cruel jape every time she saw him. After she consigned him to hell, the ring whispered to her of guilt. It had taken all of her willpower to leave it behind in the very room she had condemned him but she knew it was the only way to move on. Neither of them was ever able to figure out how he returned from hell, but during the weeks he had been a feral animal, chained up to keep him from harming others, she had scoured the floor of the mansion desperate to find the ring again. She never did locate it and she was afraid to ask him if he had. She was afraid it would wound him to know that she had deliberately left it behind.

After he draped his jacket around her, she couldn't stop thinking about him. The way his hands had lingered a fraction of an instant too long. His small, enigmatic smile when he told her that she looked better in the jacket than he did. She wore his jacket almost every night while patrolling. It was as if he was still touching her, even as she told herself she was being ridiculous. He never talked to her, other than to warn her of impending doom. He gave her the jacket out of purely chivalrous instincts. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the scent of leather and fall leaves and cloves. Angel scent, she thought. She wanted to know more about him, but she contented herself with the fact that at least he was concerned for her.

After she came back from the dead, she tossed the jacket in the car as she drove up to see him. As they stood there awkwardly, neither of them sure of what to say, she could still see the concern in his eyes. But she could also see that nothing had changed between them, that he wasn't going to save her from herself. She wasn't sure if he even could. On the way home, she pulled into a strip mall to pick up some fast food dinner. She still had responsibilities, after all. She grabbed the jacket, clutching it to her face and that's when she realized it had long ago lost his distinctive smell. She stuffed it into a Good Will clothing box before she stepped into the Kentucky Fried.

Her response to his first gift was anger. She didn't need some flunky of Mr. Stiff Upper Tweed to try to guilt her into slaying by handing her a cross. Didn't either of them understand that slaying had cost her her family and her friends and she just wanted to be left alone? Four hours later, the cross had inadvertently saved her life. Buffy never took it off after that. It was her personal good luck talisman.

Months later, the cold, dirty water forced its way past her mouth and nose, the taste a combination of earth and rust. She tried to breathe out, move, something, but her limbs felt heavy. She could hear the ocean roaring in her ears and sleep beconned to her. She prayed that her mother would be all right. She wondered if Angel would buy the next slayer a cross also. Later, that night, sitting in her bedroom in front of her vanity mirror, she stared at her face, trying to find the taint of death stamped on her features. She was going to die. Not some peaceful slide into oblivion when she was ninety, but a horrible, bloody, brutal ending that would come for her all too soon. Blinking back tears, she unclasped the cross and dropped it into the bottom of her jewelry box. It couldn't save her, that had just been an illusion.