There is silence in the wake of the screams. A fitting beginning, after the end.
As these things happen, there is a maelstrom of noise, and gore, and many people die. Good people, bad people, some people who are not people after all. Then a spell, a flash, and quiet. The soft sound of nothing and the two of them, elbow to elbow against the dawn, watching the sun rise.
"So. Apocalypse," Buffy observes. "Not the easiest I've ever fought."
Beside her, Angel makes a noise of agreement. "No," he says. "Probably not."
The sky is a bruise-blue, the moon fading from sight. In the wavering grey cast of the weak sun, Buffy leans into the solid length of Angel's arm, two shadows splitting off from one another. A half of a whole. A broken heart.
"We're always the last ones standing," she says softly, her words fading into the cold ocean air. "How come it gets less and less satisfying?"
The beach around them is empty, and the sand is gritty with blood. The battle is over, and up on the cliffs, there's a party raging on for those who have lived to see another day. But down below, here amidst the bones and dust and water running crimson, Angel answers her question.
"Because people keep on dying," he says. His fingers lace loosely with her own. "And we keep on living."
Buffy's mouth tilts grimly at that truth. Her thumb traces the bruised knuckles of his hand, and she says ruefully, "No matter how hard we try otherwise..."
Angel circles the bird-thin line of her wrist, thumb and index finger overlapping. "No matter what," he confirms.
Buffy sighs, and the sound is swallowed by the rushing waves.
She stands at the shore of a beach studded with rocks, the waves crashing against the glossy stone. Water wearing mountains down with the force of time. Familiar, that determination. And wearisome.
Buffy wonders if the ocean is tired.
"I'm tired," she breathes into the wind, her hair lifting in a golden haze around her head. "I really, really am."
Angel stands with his shoulders blocking the sun, a figure carved of light and dark. "I know the feeling," he says, and there's a wonder in his voice that sends something giddy skittering through her blood. He leans in, and his breath is warm on her neck. "I'm tired, too."
(She tilts her head into his voice, and his nose skims the shell of her ear. Hunger squirms through her.)
"Humans get tired," Buffy repeats, trembles against the line of moist heat that his mouth presses into the slender slope of her neck. His arms tangle around her waist, bringing her over and close to him, his duster flapping open around their huddled, joined figures. He bends to brush the warm seam of his lips alongside the uppermost ridge of her spine.
She shivers against the slow-cello yearning that sings through her veins. "We get so tired, Angel."
A tug, and she is falling into him. "We do," he answers. His thighs are firm, and the curve of her hips settle against him. "We never get to rest, do we?"
Buffy laughs, a sharp, sudden sound. "We," she says helplessly. "We." She sighs, her chest heaving, her hands folding over the ropy muscles of his forearms. His arms keep her up, keep her bound, his body the cross she carries on her back, her love from him the burden she bears.
"Humans," she whispers. "Both of us."
The sun rises in the sky, gleaming a mottled, dim glow against the frothing water. There are no birds spotting the purple-pink colors spreading above, and the only sound is the distant shout of friends and family celebrating another hard-won victory.
And Angel. Angel's breathing. The slow, steady rush of his breath stirring her hair. The hill of his chest expanding and contracting. The beat of his heart thudding softly in her ear.
Alive, the two of them. An annual apocalypse, and old friends coming in as reinforcements. A war of demons and humans on an abandoned beach. An explosion. And then Angel curled against the dunes, bloody and pale and perfect, coughing against the force of air in his lungs, blood moving through his veins, a heart that pumps with life rather than sitting still in the cage of his ribs.
A surprise, Buffy whispered, crouched over Angel's body, her face frozen and mind blank.
A gift, Giles suggested, before he looked meaningfully away. Or a curse.
And in the space of a night, after almost a decade of loving and leaving and living and dying, everything has changed. Angel is no longer half-turned towards some distant tomorrow, his gaze clouded with all the pained honor of a man that has a demon living inside his body. There is no more flame of duty burning its fire in the depths of his eyes.
Now, his face is raised to the shimmering glare of a morning that has always been denied to him. He's bathed in the light of his own redemption, and watching it is almost holy.
Shanshu. Life. A heart reanimated. A soul intact. Humanity, with all its foibles and quirks and amazing tenacity. Humanity, with all the things he has left to relearn, to discover anew, to become, to be. To desire, and covet, and kill for, and die for again.
A gift, from the Powers to Be. Angel's hands fall to her hips, and his teeth (blunt, now) graze her fluttering pulse.
Or, Buffy reminds herself, a curse.
With a ferocity that stuns, a fear that shames, Buffy wants to walk away from this. Because it's always the same, when the world almost ends. People start over. They wipe the slate clean. But she doesn't know if she can do that. If she's even allowed.
Standing next to a man who was a monster and is now only a man, she is more confused than ever regarding her role in his story.
"Stay with me," Angel mutters, and his request borders on a demand. There is a dark quality to his voice, something desperate that Buffy does not want to admit makes her feel good. Wanted. Desired. Needed, truly, when every other goodbye and hello they've ever had has been colored with the paint of a wretched nobility, a sense of intense sacrifice.
Her fingers twitch and she turns her face away, a slice of ocean air stinging her open wounds.
"Don't walk away," Angel insists. "I've never asked, Buffy. Never felt that I had any right. But I need you to be a part of this. Please don't walk away."
Away from the Buffy that will lead this new Angel to whatever it is that will inevitably destroy his new soul? How can she walk away from it, even though she is almost certain that she isn't that brave, bold, absolution-giving woman anymore, and if even perhaps she is, then she doesn't know how to act like it. To think like it. To love like it. How can she walk away, when Angel is all she's ever wanted? When she lives like she's sixteen again, strong and soft in equal measures, imagining Angel as the dark side to her moon, tilting in her orbit, straining for absolution in the light of her smile, the glow of her soul. How can she walk away?
Her answer was decided long before the request was ever made.
"I won't," Buffy says. "I'm with you even when you're not with me, remember?"
And it's true, this inability she has to truly let go. He has lived a remarkably full life since his departure from Sunnydale.
(Sunnydale, where they first met and kissed and loved and lied to and killed each other in a million literal and figurative ways. Sunnydale, a town of firsts, buried under the earth, consumed in hellfire. Like everyone always predicted their relationship would.)
But what has she done? Mourned the loss of her mother, watched a vampire light up like a matchstick under the crumbling pressure of the falling Hellmouth, changed the lives of thousands of girls all across the world. Death, desire, power. Three constants, and all roads lead to Angel.
"You can walk away, Angel--" Buffy closes her eyes, "--but I never can."
And it's devastating, her truth, of cookie dough and orbs of Thesula and restless dreams for the entirety of her early twenties. But it's not something that comes unexpectedly. It's not something that Buffy cannot recognize, and even celebrate.
So it is without reservation or resignation that she turns in Angel's arms now, makes a decision as rash as it always seems to be when it comes to him.
The softening curve of Angel's lips curls further into an 'O' as Buffy slips her hands around his jaw and brings his face towards her to kiss him fully. The stubble already growing on his chin and cheeks is a rough scrape under her trembling fingers and pliant lips, but she opens to him like a flower to the rain. His hands cradle the fullness of her cheeks, thumbs passing over the delicate skin at the edges of her eyes. He seems drawn to these translucent, vulnerable areas of Buffy's body, where creases will fold, where spiderwebbing lines will mark age and experience and every heartbeat closer to an eventual end. A cycle of mortality that he, too, now shares.
His mouth shifts over hers with renewed determination, slanting with singular purpose, a hungry need that seems to grow wild and more volatile with every passing breath.
"Buffy," he murmers, and he is bent over her, kissing her and muttering her name like it's a prayer. A riddle. A benediction. Maybe to him it's all three.
"Angel," she murmers back, and yields to him further, lets him bend over her like a looming promise, welcomes his bruising force, the blood rushing to her lips. A pink blush stains her cheeks, spatters prickly heat across her collarbone and arms, the bridge of her nose. "Angel," she says again.
Because he is Angel, still, in all the ways that matter. She still wants him more than seemingly anything.
And in the ways that don't matter (but that still matter to her, if that makes sense, if anything makes sense) he is a new man with all the trappings that any human girl would love, would covet, would want. Availability. And a very skilled mouth.
"I don't know where this is going to lead," Angel whispers, his lips slightly swollen with the force of their kiss. "Buffy, I don't know why. Or how. Or what the reason is, that I'm here with you. That I can kiss you in the light. That touching you isn't changing who I am, that staying here doesn't seem wrong."
Buffy bites around a sob, her smile threatening to crack her lips. "I don't know why, either," she answers. "I've been praying for ponies."
He laughs, and the sound is foreign, strange. Happy. Just one thing on a list of things she has yet to learn and relearn about who Angel could be (and who he could become.)
"Unlucky you," he notes, and when she shakes her head, he kisses her again, the taste of him salty and spicy and slightly metallic with blood.
There are parts of her that acknowledge that this embrace isn't a promise. There are parts of Buffy that recognize how deeply ingrained patterns of loving and leaving can be. She knows firsthand how easy it is to frighten oneself away from the best and most fragile things in life.
She isn't stupid, or naive. She is just as she has always been; a girl in love with a man. Waiting for someone halfway across the uncrossable line to meet her in the middle. Trying to find a place in the abyss where they can be together in a world that works its hardest to keep them apart.
(A fighter, one might say.)
"I feel like I'm watching you leave already," she says, and it's a question more than anything. Her fingers tangle in his collar, and there is a crescendo building in her chest, a hopeful flood of emotion, rising to the brim, spilling over into tears, thin and hot.
His lips brush away one long line. "There's time yet," Angel murmers into her temple. "A lot of time left, now. We can worry later. Just...let's enjoy this. I've dreamt about this day for so long, Buffy."
It feels like deja vu, almost. She's dreamt about this day forever, too. And so she leans up, winds her arms more tightly around Angel's neck, and lets herself forget about all the ways in which they've been parted before.
Whatever comes now, things are different. They are both mortal. They will grow old at the same rate. No souls will be lost if they finally do what humans have been doing for centuries.
There are no rules, and so there are no excuses.
It is frightening, and exhilirating, and Buffy is so ready for this adventure, whatever comes. In a moment, they exist like a still-frame, a picture on a beach, two normal lovers instead of battered warriors defying and fulfilling destiny in turns.
And then time resumes, restarts, moves around them like the seawater gushing over stone. Questions left for the long walk home, answers left for the weeks to come.
(In the lantern glow of the sun slipping through the sky, the two lovers continue to kiss.)
They will walk east, towards the start of a new day.
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Summary: They come full circle, one way or another.
A/N: A short introspective on a Shanshu. Because there are never enough imaginings of this particular situation. As always: THIS IS FOR CHRIS. Thank you for being so patient with me, I do not deserve it!