It was the barest whisper, a shadow at the edge of her consciousness, a painful pinprick on her wrist. By the time she turned her head, there was nothing there but Manhattan crowds and the usual smells of car exhaust and perfume. She shivered a bit in the cool night air and he chuckled. All this time and she still never remembered that March evenings in New York weren't all that warm. He didn't bother offering her his jacket; he had learned long ago that all it would get would be a warning glare in return for his chivalry. As they hurried down the street, he marveled at the intricate rhythm her ridiculously stylish shoes tapped out and, as usual, wound up a half step behind.
Two weeks later, they were on their way to the trendiest restaurant in the East Village, an Italian-Japanese fusion bistro. The reservation had been made four months ago and she was looking forward to an evening of good food, good conversation and good sex. She turned and gave him a saucy grin, warmth flooding her as she imagined his reaction to the Victoria's Secrets purchases she had on …and then stopped dead in the street as she glimpsed a black duster heading into the restaurant. The bile rose, thick and dark in the back of her throat. She noted that disappointment, confusion and anger danced across his face, but she wouldn't (couldn't) explain that the ghost of Christmas past just might be enjoying a dish of ravioli in wasahbi sauce and therefore, she had to go home.
A summer day and she stood in the Modern's cavernous lobby, oblivious to the masterworks that surrounded her. Even with air conditioning, she felt sticky and irritable and she briefly wondered why she was here chasing down a past she had spent years ignoring. It had been just a tickle, most likely nothing, but in the end she had to know, so here she was.
Fifteen minutes later, she found him alone in a gallery, intent on sketching the painting in front of him. He didn't appear to even notice that someone else had entered. Finally, he half turned and stared at her with a mixture of shock and disbelief. When he whispered her name, she could hear the bitterness and anger. In all the time she had spent running and hiding, it had never occurred to her that he might be doing the same thing. She remembered, sadly, a time when her name was a sacrament, but she wasn't surprised that she was no longer the cornerstone of his religion.
He looked totally different and yet, completely unchanged. His hair was lighter with glints of the sun in it, his forearm was scraped, his cheeks were slightly blushed, he had on a powder blue polo shirt and jeans, At a glance, he looked like every other executive that lived and worked in New York. But his eyes were the same. Too old, too tired, too much seen and done. She had a hundred questions, a thousand wounds to reopen until the blood choked both of them, a million issues to dissect, mount on a board, preserve in amber. She pushed all of it away. "Are you happy?"
He turned away from her and returned to staring at the art work. "What does this painting say to you?"
She didn't enjoy looking at art. Memories of Italy, her mom, Angelus always threatened to erupt and consume her. The background of the painting was even bluer than the sky of the Italian countryside, the green an emerald made out of velvet. The figures were all new baby pink and holding hands. "Well, it's called 'Dance'. It seems to be a bunch of naked men and women playing ring-around-the-rosie."
He smiled a tiny bit at her response and then abruptly spoke. "I'm seeing someone".
"So am I".
The silence stretched between them, and Buffy was about to apologize when Angel finally began to speak. "A long time ago Wes tried to get me to see that the perfect happiness clause wasn't an issue. That most people spent their lives without ever experiencing anything close to that. I was too afraid of myself to really listen or even to really understand what he was saying. I do now, though. I'm like most people, I expect. Fairly content most of the time. I don't think about happiness all that much." He slid his eyes back to the painting.
She didn't quite know what to say, the uncomfortable quiet reminding her that they were strangers, nothing more. She took a small step to leave the gallery, but instead she went back to looking at the painting. The painting was flat and crude and cartoonish, she was fairly certain that she could have drawn the figures more accurately. And yet, something about it drew her in. The figures were dancing with abandon, in ecstasy. Communing in bliss.
Without quite knowing what she was doing, she slipped her hands into Angel's and began to yank him around in a circle. At first he came close to stumbling, but she hadn't lost her strength even if she rarely used it and she easily kept him upright. After a moment, he joined her and the two of them spun faster and faster, careening dangerously close to out of control. The painting whooshed by them as if they were surrounded by the writhing figures and she saw Angel grinning. She let go at that moment. Angel never faltered, never missed a step, just carried Buffy's weight completely.
Buffy threw back her head and laughed, gloriously and without reservation.
Author's note: The painting desribed is very much a real painting. Dance by Matisse is in the permanent collection of NYC's Museum of Modern Art.