Joyce Summers was working late. This wasn't unusual for her, but she was a bit more concerned than usual about it. Her daughter had had a worse than usual summer, and she worried sometimes about leaving her home alone. Not that she didn't trust Buffy--though that had been a long time in coming--but these days she just felt bad for her.
Tonight, though, she had to finish inventorying a new shipment of Celtic reproductions she'd just gotten in with the last FedEx delivery of the day. They were already three days late, and the display was scheduled to go up the day after tomorrow. She'd already invested in heavy advertising, so there was no question of delay. So here she was, still cataloging things, and it was already dark outside.
Someone knocked and Joyce jumped, startled out of her concentration. Her assistant, Melissa, poked her head around the door. She had an odd, almost frightened expression on her face.
"What's wrong?" Joyce asked.
"There's a man skulking around outside. Do you think we should call the police?"
Joyce sighed. Given her daughter's extracurricular activities, there was no telling who or what might be skulking around her gallery. The doors to the street had been locked ever since they'd closed at five, but it was still entirely possible the police would be in order. Or that she should call Buffy and tell her to come with her bag of wooden stakes and holy water. "What does he look like? He doesn't have slicked-back, platinum hair, does he?" Because if he did, she was definitely calling Buffy.
"No. Dark hair. Big shoulders. I think he's wearing a leather coat."
Joyce sighed again, a different kind of sigh for a totally different, equally impossible situation. "Does he look really depressed."
"Yeah, kinda. You know him?"
"I'm afraid so. I'll take care of it."
She set aside her work and headed downstairs to the main gallery. Melissa followed, hanging back. Joyce didn't blame her. Angel could be scary if you didn't know him, and sometimes, frankly, even if you did.
Sure enough, it was him, and he was indeed skulking, across the street at the moment, just out of the circle of light cast by the street lamp. She unlocked the door and opened it. "Angel?"
He turned and crossed the street, his long leather coat fluttering behind him. It made a nice effect. Buffy might have odd taste in men, as far as whether they actually breathed or not, but she definitely picked pretty ones.
"Ms. Summers," he said, stopping next to her. "I'm sorry to bother you."
"What are you doing here? I thought you left for LA last week."
"I did. I just . . ." He looked hideously depressed, more so than usual. She had a sudden, horrible feeling he was going to start to cry, and she had absolutely no idea what she might do if he did. She would feel funny hugging him. Maybe she could pat him on the back. "I just wanted to see how Buffy was doing."
"I don't think it would be a good idea for you to see her right now."
"I know. That's why I'm here instead of sneaking in her window." He paused. "Could we talk, maybe?"
"Oh, I suppose." She turned and went back inside. Melissa was still lingering.
"Is everything okay?" she asked.
"It's fine. You just keep doing what you were doing. He's safe." She looked back over her shoulder. "Relatively." Then she realized Angel was standing in the doorway, holding the door open.
"Are you coming?" she said.
He looked abashed. "I can't."
"Oh, for heaven's sake. Angel, please come in."
He crossed the gallery threshold, slanting a look at Melissa, who looked confused.
"What was that about?" Joyce asked, waving for him to follow her up the stairs to her office. "This is a public gallery."
"It happens sometimes with smaller businesses, especially ones like this where most of the clients are here by invitation. If you had people swarming in here day in and day out, it wouldn't have been a problem."
Joyce rolled her eyes. "Don't remind me. We're barely keeping our heads above water."
She led him into her office. He took a moment to look at the pieces she'd already opened. "These are beautiful." He picked up a broach. "Reproductions, though."
"We couldn't afford the real thing. But these are very well-done."
"Reminds me of home." He laid the broach back down and the light glinted off the big Claddagh ring on his second finger. Still heart-down, she noticed. God, but he was a mess.
"That's right, you're Irish, aren't you?"
"In as much as I'm anything, yeah." He settling into the chair on the other side of the desk, dropping one ankle on the other knee.
Joyce found herself warming to the subject. She didn't have very many acquaintances she could talk to about gallery-related things. Mr. Giles was a bit of a connoisseur, but she saw him only rarely. "This is one of my favorites." She reached into the box next to her ledger book and withdrew an intricately detailed cross. "The detail is incredible."
But Angel had shrunk back a little in his chair. "It's gorgeous. Just . . . don't get too close to me with it."
She looked at him, then at the cross and back. Suddenly realizing what she'd done, she hastily put the cross away. "I'm so sorry. I didn't . . ." She stopped, taking a breath. "You know, it's really hard to get used to being around you."
"I've had people tell me that." Relaxed again now the cross was back in its box, he folded his hands in his lap. "So how's Buffy?"
Joyce wasn't sure how much she should say. "I can't lie to you. It hasn't been pretty."
"Is she okay, though?"
"I think so. She's been patrolling more lately. I think killing things helps get it out of her system." The concept was so strange to her she could barely believe she was saying it. "That and playing that damned Sarah McLachlan song over and over again, day in and day out, for hours at a time."
Angel's forehead had crumpled up again. "What Sarah McLachlan song?"
"The one with your name in it."
"I never really cared for that song."
"I used to. Not so much anymore after hearing it a thousand times in a row. I was thinking about stopping somewhere on the way home to pick up some headphones, but it's a little late now. Of course, then she'd just sing it, and I don't know if you know this or not, but Buffy's a little tone deaf."
To her surprise, a corner of his mouth curled up. "Yeah, I knew that." Then the smile faded. "I miss her. I don't think I can express how much I miss her." He pulled at the sleeve of his coat and she noticed a dark red mark across the top of his left hand. The wrist of the coat sleeve was marred just above it. "Last week, about six in the morning, I almost didn't go back inside."
The implication took a moment to take hold. "Angel . . ."
"I sat there and watched my hand turn red, then start to burn." She could barely stand the sound of his even, matter-of-fact voice. "It hurt like hell but I didn't care. Then my coat caught on fire and that was when I went inside." He looked up at her and the pain in his eyes made her swallow tears. "I cared more about the coat than I did about my own life." He shrugged. "It was an expensive coat."
"Angel, I don't know what to say."
"I don't know that there's anything you can say. I just wanted to be sure Buffy was okay, and I didn't want to stir things up by seeing her."
"She'll be fine. Eventually, she'll be fine."
He nodded. "I hope so."
"And so will you."
But he shook his head slowly. "No. I won't." He took a long breath. Something in his face had eased. Maybe he'd come here less to find out about Buffy and more because he knew he would find someone he could talk to. She'd always had the feeling he wasn't much of a talker. "That's the worst part of it. She'll move on, eventually. She'll love someone else. I won't. There's no point. It just hurts too Goddamn much."
"But . . . I mean, you're nearly two hundred and fifty years old. Surely you've been through this before. Dozens of times."
It was unfathomable to Joyce. As the single word soaked in, she suddenly wished she'd never interfered, never told him he should leave. Maybe it would have been better to just let them go on as they were. At least they'd been happy, more or less.
He must have seen it in her eyes, because he said gently, "You did the right thing. I'll deal."
"Angel, I'm so sorry."
"Yeah, me, too." He shifted again, seeming to shrink in the chair. "That song. The reason I never liked it is that the words basically represent everything I ever wanted to be to her and couldn't. There was a time--before--when I thought maybe I could, but after--" He shook his head and stopped. "I can't ever be that for anyone."
There was a long silence. Joyce didn't know what to say. His pain seemed so deep as to be beyond her. At least Buffy's pain she could understand, and soothe, with ice cream and chocolate if nothing else. But suddenly Angel made a small sound. Peering closer at his face, she realized it had been some vague form of laughter.
"Over a century of brooding, I'm thinking maybe all I really needed was a mom." He pushed to his feet. "I'm sorry to have taken so much of your time."
She stood, as well. "No, it's all right. In fact, if you need to, please feel free to call me, or drop by. Not at home, though. I don't think that would be a good idea."
"Thank you, Ms. Summers. I really appreciate that." He nodded toward the small box with the broach. "Would it be okay if I bought that? I should have a permanent address pretty soon. I could let you know and you could mail it to me? Tell me the amount right now and I'll give you the cash. I should have enough on me."
"Um . . . that one was going to have to go for three-fifty."
He pulled out his wallet and withdrew five hundred-dollar bills. "That should cover it." He held out the money and she took it, her fingers brushing his. His hands were cold. Suddenly he bent forward, toward her, and she froze, not entirely sure what he was going to do. Momentary panic turned to surprise when he kissed her gently on the forehead. Unlike his fingers, his lips were warm. "Thanks," he said.
"You're . . . you're welcome."
He smiled a little--only a little--and walked out. She watched him go, listened to his footsteps on the stairs, heard him say something to Melissa on his way out. Then Melissa came up the stairs, a puzzled expression on her face. "Who was that?"
Joyce waved a hand helplessly. "He's, um . . . my daughter's ex-boyfriend."
Melissa's eyebrows shot up. "Good Lord, there must be a story there."
Joyce rolled her eyes. "You have no idea." She slumped back into her chair. "Absolutely *no* idea."