The thing about circles and loss is that he recognizes them by now. He knows about patterns; the world gets brittle on the downward slide. When you know what comes next you can try to avoid; you can try to not end back at the beginning. If you don’t want to end up crouched in that alley, watching her new life from the shadows, you just don’t. Maybe you do exactly what you said you would. Maybe you go somewhere different and silent to grieve.
It’s just that it won’t work because there’s more than one beginning. That's the thing about circles, after all.
Nina makes paintings of moonlight, vivid and alarming. The canvases are washed in clear silvers and subtle shadows; she paints in fever, when the sublimated overflows.
Later, she laughs at his worry and says that all artists are tortured.
He draws her at night while she's sleeping and thinks she must be right. When the sky is clear he pushes back their heavy curtains and the moon lights the room white and soft, bleaching out shadows and glimmering against her skin. When she dreams, he can hear the pounding of her heart, smell the rush of blood through her veins. He ignores it and reaches for her, ever the penitent and protector. (Of course, when the moon is brightest, the bed is empty. Nina bears her burden too).
She looks at him brightly, but that might just be the way she gets caught up in sunlight. This place is glaring and sharp despite its slow heat, but Nina is California Golden and she translates. She believes in endurance and heroes. She's afraid of the full moon. She is twenty-three years old and has not yet become inevitable.
When Cordelia was twenty-three it was too late. For Buffy it was always too late. But he doesn't think about them, because that wouldn't be fair.
The sun is hot and penetrative. Sluggish. It gets into everything, bright and sharp, until he feels confined, hemmed in by beauty he doesn't dare touch. It pulls the shadows long and thin at midday. She thinks he sleeps then, with the curtains of the bedroom pulled tight. She thinks he trusts the sun to stay out. She paints moonlit nightmare-scapes and she ought to know better.
The routine is hypnotic and intoxicating. Simple. Paralyzing. He's been here forever and he doesn't quite know how he got here at all.
She falls asleep on the beach and burns her skin red and angry. With his eyes, he traces thin white lines that map her back. He can feel the heat of it as his hand hovers above her shoulder, (literally) afraid to touch. He closes his eyes, and imagines he can see the shimmer of heat distortion in the air between them. He smooths the aloe into her skin, cool and sticky, and she breathes in sharply at the shock of it. She turns to smile at him, biting her lip lightly at the tightness in her shoulder, and when he lifts his hand to brush her hair from her face, he leaves the print there, a white mark pressed into her skin. She flinches, then forces a giggle, half in amusement at her own foolishness, and half in pain. He leans down to kiss her, gently. His hand print fades away.
They're three months into this and the earthquake that didn't hit LA isn't even on the news anymore, though the tales of dragon sighting are still in the tabloids. It doesn't matter because he doesn't read them anyway, though Nina does when she's trying to piece together everything unsaid. She paints dragon fire slashed like lightning on smoky black. It's red and fierce and a lie; everything that night was the color of ashes. He doesn't tell her that, but he doesn't tell her much at all. He draws ghosts in charcoal and then burns them over candle flame.
She was never meant for this, but she cries the night she almost leaves him, leaves her scent blood-ripe on everything and leaves her canvases facing the wall. She doesn’t look at them after they're finished.
"I love you," she says. The moon is just nights from full, but it's blocked by cloud cover. That doesn't stop her from watching the sky warily. Her eyes are huge and lit wild by lightning strikes in the distance, but the rain hasn't reached them. There's no accusation here, though he thinks there should be. There’s only self-preservation. If she were cruel she'd leave in sunlight and he'd watch her from the shadows, but she isn't and she leaves at night. It's an invitation.
"You too," he says. He loves that she's never really seen what happens when the walls cave in.
"I need . . ." she starts, breaks off. She needs family and school, and everything LA could be for her again. It's funny, the way the world doesn't end.
"Come home," she says; her voice is already tight with resignation.
"I can't," he says, he doesn't say "it isn't."
"I worry," she says, "I want to be sure you're okay." She laughs, but it's desperate, and he doesn't say "I'm fine" either, because she paints portraits from his sketches and stacks them in the corner with her own nightmares.
He says, "I know," and she folds, wrapping herself around him. It's so real and human, her concern. She's the closest thing to normal he's ever managed not to lose. The air smells damp and sweet, overpowering and cloying, and the rain catches up with the lightning. She stays that night, but she stirs when he leaves before dawn. He thinks she’s asleep until he turns to look at her the last time. She hasn’t moved, but she’s watching him and her eyes have gathered up soaked starlight. He opens his mouth; he doesn’t know what he’ll say. She holds up her hand to stop him, nods once, holds his eyes until he turns away.
The thing about circles is that sometimes you end up in that alley after all.
He feels Buffy before he sees her. Smells her more than sees her maybe, like dust and home. But it's tangible; she's that ingrained. The knowledge of her sweeps across his skin like a fantasy, and he steps back into the shadow of the building before he knows what he’s doing. Blocks ahead, she doesn’t see him, but she pauses in the street and reaches out one hand to still the girl beside her. She glances behind her, around the empty street, one hand moving with predatory smoothness to her belt for the stake. The other already has hers in hand; new slayer, then. Of course.
There is a voice in his head that tells him when he’s being stupid. It sounds like Cordelia and recently it’s been rather silent in disgust. There’s also a voice in his head that states the obvious. It sounds like Spike, and right now it says, “This isn’t Rome.”
That’s true. It’s also true that this is no great coincidence. He’s blocks from the Watcher’s Council’s headquarters. He’s looking for her, even. (He called Rome once he could move again, called the number he shouldn’t have had memorized, thinking she deserved to know. He didn’t recognize the woman’s voice that answered in Italian).
But it throws him, to find her so close, to watch the way she moves, even from a distance, with all the old grace. He used to follow in the shadows. This is not that, except that it is.
Buffy carves her own stakes now. At night, she sits by the window in the kitchen of the house she seems to share with Giles, Dawn and some of the other girls. He can see her from the shadows if he stays out of the light. He doesn’t think she used to carve them herself, at least not habitually. It’s clear that it’s normal now, from her effortless precision and the determination in every stroke of the knife. He watches through the window as she weighs them in her hand.
She’s sharp around the edges, weighted down with something he can’t see. She brushes wood chips from the table when one of the others comes in with a scroll or one of Giles’ massive books. It would be like looking back in time if her eyes weren’t so shuttered and if they weren’t halfway across the world.
He draws her by moonlight, but he gets it all wrong. Her face always comes out too young.
This is not normal, but it’s familiar. They’ve done this dance before. She watches the flicker of the streetlight while she’s working, startled sometimes even when there’s no movement. Sometimes he swears she looks directly at him and their eyes connect. And hold. She looks away, gets up and switches off the light.
Buffy walks alone at night. That’s what slayers do, but she does it even when she’s not patrolling. She’s easy to follow; she must know he’s there. It would feel intrusive otherwise. Angel understands solitude.
She’s different when she’s battle-ready, wound and more aware. She goes out early when she’s patrolling, and she watches corners and tricks of light, alert to every movement, edged with the hunter’s easy grace. She goes out later when she’s not, after the rest of the house is dark. She watches the sky and folds herself in, moving slowly, without focus or destination. Memories are heavy.
Buffy bears her burdens too.
It’s not the first time she gets attacked when she’s not patrolling, but she fights as well as she ever has, and she’s never the target that she appears to be. It is the first time he’s afraid for her. There are five of them, and he counts them quickly from his position up the street.
Five isn’t too many for her, and she takes out two before one gets a good hit to her stomach, and she doubles over, leaving herself vulnerable to the others. He’s at her side on instinct. She spins out of the other vampire’s grasp and tosses him a stake in one motion. Their eyes meet, and yes, of course she knew all along. Old habits live like phantom memory in every limb and every move; it’s like they never spent a night not fighting at each other’s side.
The thing about circles is they come back around.
She straightens when the dust clears, brushing one hand back through her hair. She’s beautiful and powerful, lit like silver under the streetlight; there’s a predatory edge to every move. He wonders, not for the first time, what kind of idiot vampires are still hanging around the Watcher’s Council.
She turns toward him and smiles, but it’s a little cold, a little tight around her eyes. The tension is coiled beneath her skin, coming off of her in waves. He has nothing to say to her in this moment; there aren’t words for things that can’t be voiced. But she’s smiling all the same and he’s emptied, blown open by how gorgeous and alive and here she is. That has to count for something.
Finally, she holds out her hand, “Angel,” she says, like a statement or an answer, like his name on her lips can make anything make sense again. It’s a little bit shocking to realize that maybe it can. There’s an accusation in every move she makes, and an awkward sadness lurking underneath, as though she doesn’t know how to ask, “what happened.” Maybe it’s just that she knows better. Instead she says, “where have you been?”
It’s not the question he was expecting. “What do you mean?”
“You weren’t in LA; Connor said he didn’t know . . .”
He cuts her off, “Connor? How did you?”
“He called me. How do you think we knew where to go? We just . . . didn’t get there in time,” she looks away when her voice breaks on the last word, pauses there, eyes clenched shut until she’s in control again. “Resourceful kid. Little pushy. You might want to let him know you’re alive. I told him I’d know if you weren’t, but he might want to hear it from you.”
There’s a bite to her words, but she’s got his hand gripped with full slayer strength; she’d crush the bones of a human. She gets quieter and whispers, “I’d know.” She’s standing close enough that he’s overwhelmed by the scent of her. She smells like wood chips, and something citrus in a soap or a shampoo. She smells like dust and home, and for the first time since the world didn’t end the knot of grief unclenches enough to make him want to cry. He doesn’t, but he could. It might be okay, here with her.
“Why tonight?” she asks.
“You were in trouble.”
“You’ve been following me for weeks, Angel, I’m always in trouble.”
“I’m in trouble too.”
“I know that,” she says, “I know.” and she reaches up to brush her hand across his cheek. She’s crying when she kisses him; he can taste her tears, feel them wet and hot against his skin, like release. And then he is clinging, folding in, and she wraps around him, still pulsing with tension barely controlled.
“What took you so long? I was waiting for you,” she whispers into his neck, “I thought you’d always know that.”
There are multiple endings (that’s the thing about circles), but this is one.
“Buffy, I . . .”
But she holds up her hand to silence him and bites her questions back with her grief. He sees her do it, watches the lines of her throat as she swallows it down. She wants to ask what happened. She wants to say I could have helped. It’s all there, lit by starlight in her eyes, questions and accusations and a love so fierce he almost crumbles again at the realization of it. She doesn’t ask or accuse; it can wait. She keeps her grip on his hand, you’re not alone, I’m with you now.
She says, “Come home.”
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Summary: The thing about circles is they come back around
Pairing: Angel/Buffy (obviously), Angel/Nina, allusions to Angel/Cordy if you squint