Nirvana

Author: shrinkymojo

Summary: Post NFA.  Buffy and Angel find each other no matter where they are.

Rating:   PG-13: sexual situations and language

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Word Count:  14,482

Disclaimer: I wish I owned them, but I don’t.  If I did, they’d be together!

 

**

 

Through the swirling fog he emerged, handsome as ever, swaggering as only he could.  The further he walked the more the fog dissipated, clearing away, leaving him out in the open.  Striding confidently, he was immersed in the hot summer sun, squinting his eyes.  Without fear he stood firmly, raising his face skyward to absorb the rays, basking in the glorious daylight.  He smiled, for a moment, the downturn of his mouth and furrowed brow abruptly following.  Shoulders slumped and head bowed, he walked back to the shadows.

 

Suddenly, he was back in the fog, confused, walking slower, unsure of his steps.  The fog once again lifted, leaving only the black of night and the radiant full moon as he strode toward the edge of forever.  With only a few steps he was attacked by a thousand invisible claws ripping at his body, tearing him into tiny pieces, exploding into dust, listlessly fluttering to the ground.  The moon smiled.  He was no more.

 

Buffy gasped and sat up in bed, sweat beading on her forehead.  A shiver of dread vibrated through her body.  Swiping her hands absently through her hair, she swung her feet to the floor and padded to the bathroom, flipping on the light.  She stared at her mirror image, grimacing at her bed tousled hair and wrinkled damp brow, sucking in long breaths to calm herself.  Her dreams more often than not were harbingers meant to be explored, nudges to guide her.  And this one worried her more than usual.  Her dreams about Angel always did.

 

It had been a long time since she’d dreamed of Angel, ages since she’d seen or heard from him, but only hours since she’d thought of him.  Though they hadn’t kept in touch, he was always in the back of her mind.  It didn’t matter how much distance kept them apart or how little they conversed.  There would always be that part of her she gave to him freely, that he took and never gave back.  She wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

She chose to ignore the rumors that Angel was dead.  That was not a thought she could allow to reside in her mind.  She would know if he was gone.  She would feel it deep down in the pit of her stomach, the tips of her toes, in the depth of her heart.  Their connection wasn’t lost.  Her dream only served to convince her she was right.

 

During the day she kept the dream in the back of her mind, brought it out and mulled it over until it drove her crazy.  Finally at day’s end she sought help from Giles.

 

Shaking his head forlornly, Giles informed Buffy his sources were of little use.  No one knew what happened to Angel after the fight in the alley.  Some said he’d been killed by a fire-breathing dragon, others believed he’d gone underground, licking his battle wounds.  Buffy was in a quandary what to believe.  Giles was right.  His sources sucked.

 

Desperate for answers, Buffy turned to the underworld of Sunnydale.  A recent arrival from Los Angeles was easily persuaded with a little physical altercation and monetary coercion into telling her where Angel had been spotted.  The informant told her Angel was living in the Barrington Arms Apartments and kept to himself, out of the limelight.  No one had seen him out actually helping the helpless since the big battle.  Buffy let the demon go and planned her trip to Los Angeles.  But it bothered her to think Angel wasn’t out fighting.  She couldn’t imagine why, but there had to be a good explanation.  Only when she laid eyes on Angel herself would she be satisfied he was ok.

 

*

 

This seemed like the longest bus ride Buffy had ever been on.  She fidgeted in her seat, apprehension eating away at her.  Would Angel be glad to see her?  What would she say to him?  Often she was angry with him for disappearing without a word, but then she hadn’t tried to contact him either.  Their last meeting wasn’t her most shining moment.  Sending Angel away, proclaiming she didn’t know if she’d ever be ready sounded grim and heartless now.  Ready for what?  A normal life?  Love?  But she was sure of two things: she still loved Angel and she had to know he was ok.

 

Standing across the street from 248 Lancaster Boulevard, Buffy glanced up to the second floor window.  Angel’s apartment.  She stared for several agonizing moments, oblivious to the cars swooshing by, gathering the courage to walk over.  Her foot was poised to step into the street when Angel suddenly appeared outside.

 

He was much thinner, almost frail looking and walked with a limp.  But it was daylight!  He bent down to snatch the rolled newspaper off the sidewalk.  But he was drenched in the blazing noon sun!  Her heart leapt into her throat, and she choked back a sob of joy.  The sight of him sent her into a tailspin.  Old feelings and emotions surfaced, scary and breathtaking.

 

Nothing had changed and everything had changed.

 

Angel was in the open, unscathed.  Before the possibilities of how that could be had time to enter her mind, he limped back inside.  She stood stunned and confused.   

 

Driven by curiosity Buffy dashed blindly through the traffic and sprinted up the stairs.  Standing in front of his door she took in deep breaths to calm herself, and on the silent count of three, she nervously knocked.

 

Angel flung the door open as though he expected an unwanted solicitor.  Instead his eyes met those of his beloved.  He froze.  Buffy smiled, noticing the minute flicker of shock on his face.  She hesitantly made a move towards him but he shied away, calmly and politely inviting her in.

 

Unnerved by the chilly reception, Buffy entered, taking a seat on the well-worn sofa.  She studied Angel as he sat down - at the opposite end.  That was definitely a cast on his left leg peeking out from under his sweatpants, wrapping around his foot.  He seemed on edge, uncomfortable in her presence.   

 

Finally he spoke. “It’s good to see you, Buffy.” His tone insinuated a casual friend greeting, no lover’s passion in his voice.  “How’ve you been?”

 

Buffy was desperately trying to comprehend Angel’s stand-offish attitude.  And her spider senses went into overload.  Something wasn’t right.  She decided to play it cool and calm.  Surely once Angel got over the shock of seeing her, he’d explain.  She hoped.  “I’m good.  You?”

 

“I’m ok.”  Angel’s voice reflected no emotion.

 

Buffy pointed to his leg.  “What’s with the cast?”

 

Angel sighed.  “Uh, I fell down the stairs two weeks ago.  Pretty clumsy, huh?”

 

“Major clumsy for you,” Buffy declared.  “Was it a big stair fight with a demon?”

 

Angel hung his head, embarrassed.  “No.  I just missed a step.”

 

“Why the cast?  You should have healed by now.”

 

“It was a really bad break, Buffy.  Twisted backwards, bones sticking out, bloody ugly.”

 

“Oh, well, that happens - just not to you.”  Buffy hesitated, wary of Angel’s questionable excuse.

 

After an awkward period of silence, cool and calm flew out the window.  “You know, I didn’t expect you to sweep me off my feet in a passionate kiss when I showed up, but a peck on the cheek, a hug, something more than hi, how are you, have a seat, would have been nice.”  The bitterness and hurt in her voice was evident.

 

Angel winced, shaking his head.  “Sorry.  You just caught me on a bad day, that’s all.  I’m really glad to see you.”  An unconvincing attempt to smile crossed his face.

 

“Ok, I’m trying to be patient, but it’s not working.  What the hell’s going on, Angel?  I was just standing across the street and watched you walk out in the sunlight!  Is there something you want to tell me?  Like how you could do that?”

 

Angel was mindlessly fidgeting, a grim look on his face.  He didn’t speak as fast as Buffy expected, so she continued.

 

“Ok, I’m sorry I surprised you, showed up uninvited.  I suppose I should have called first.  But I’m sort of freaking out right now.  I had a crazy dream about you.  And now I’m here and I can see something’s going on.  So, I’m thinking there was a good reason I had that dream.  What is it?  A spell?  A glamour?  Some voo doo thingy?”

 

Angel shifted his sullen gaze to her.  “It’s nothing, Buffy.  Sorry you made the trip for nothing.”

 

Buffy stared back, a pained, worried look in her wide eyes.   “Don’t give me that crap, Angel.  Whatever is going on is a whole lot of something.  What are keeping from me?  What don’t you want me to know?”

 

Angel shifted uncomfortably, then stood up and limped over to his reading chair, bracing his hands against the back.  He stared out the window, unresponsive.

 

Undaunted, Buffy continued, “I’m not buying this I’m fine schtick.  In my dream you walked out in the sunlight, pretty as you please, fine and dandy, then it switched to a moonlit night where you exploded into a million dusty bits.  All backwards and confusing.   And you’re not helping.  Come on, Angel, tell me what’s going on.”

 

Angel released a heavy sigh and turned back to face her.  The silence in the room was palpable, unnerving, as Buffy waited for Angel to explain.  When he did speak, his tone conveyed more disgust than joy.  “I’m, uh, I’m human now, Buffy.  Heartbeat and all.”

 

Buffy felt like the wind had been knocked out of her.  It took several moments to absorb Angel’s implausible revelation.  When her thoughts came together, she let out a joyous whimper.  “Angel, that’s, that’s unbelievable.  She bounded from the sofa and rushed over to him, wrapping her arms around him.  “I’m so happy for you!  This is what my dream was trying to tell me.  Oh, my god!”

 

Angel was struggling with Buffy’s body pressed against his and her scent filling his head.  She felt so good in his arms.  He wanted to hold her and never let go.  But he didn’t dare.

 

Buffy threw questions at Angel left and right.  “What happened?  When?  How?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

 

Angel forcefully broke away from Buffy, away from her intense, bewildered gaze.  “It’s kind of a long story.  I never told you, because I never believed it would happen.”

 

“So, it’s not a spell or some twisted trickery?  It’s real as in forever real?”

 

“Yeah.  It’s not a spell.  But technically, I guess you could call it that.”

 

Buffy prodded further.  “Ok, how about giving me the when and the how?”

 

Angel nervously explained, his voice edged with sarcasm.  “I don’t know, maybe a week or so after the alley fight.  They waved their magic wand.  Poof!  Angel’s human.  Easy as falling down the stairs.  But a lot more painful.”

 

“Ok, so who’s they?”

 

“The Powers That Be.”

 

“They did it?  Wow.  You must have some darn good connections to the higher ups.  But why?  You guys make some kind of deal?” Buffy asked, trying to hold back her wildly spinning thoughts.

 

“This is all their doing.” Angel replied.  He paused before he revealed the rest, fairly certain Buffy was going to realize he really was crazy.  “I didn’t expect this.  And I’m not sure I want it now that I have it.”

 

Buffy nearly exploded in disbelief.  “What?  The Powers made you human and you’re not sure you like being mortal?  Angel?  It’s fantastic.  Why in the world would you not want that?”

 

“It’s complicated, Buffy.”  Angel sighed.  “It sounds good and I thought it was what I wanted.  But it’s not as easy as I thought it would be.”

 

“Why not?  What’s hard about turning human?”

 

“I’m not who I was.”

 

“You look the same to me.”

 

“But I’m not.  I had to give up my mission.  No more super strength.  My senses are just average, and obviously, I’m a klutz now.  It’s bugged me my leg is taking so long to heal, not to mention how much it hurt.  I’m not used to being nothing.”

 

“Hey, don’t talk like that!  So, you’re not super strong and you trip on the stairs like everyone else.  You get to live, Angel, do anything you want.  So, it seems to me the Powers aren’t expecting you to be a champion to justify your existence.”

 

“I don’t know anything else, Buffy.  All I wanted, in my souled life, was to make up for the bad things I did.  I knew I could never do enough good, but I was trying.  And then right in the middle of Angel, the champion, helper of the helpless, I get demoted to human.  How can I sit back and let others do what I should be doing?  This isn’t a reward.  It’s damned me to a meaningless life.”

 

Buffy’s enthusiasm turned to dismay.  “Oh, Angel.”  She walked over and grabbed his hand, leading him back to the sofa, pushing him gently back against the cushions.  She sat by his side, soaking in the warmth of his hand and said, “You don’t know how many times I wished your hand was this warm.  It feels wonderful.”  Then she leaned her head on his chest, pressing her ear against his beating heart and murmured, “That’s a beautiful sound.”

 

Angel squirmed and once again broke away from Buffy, stood up and moved back to the window.  “Yeah, just great.”

 

The more Angel dismissed his human condition, the more Buffy was alarmed.  “Maybe you just need a little more time to get used to the idea.  I can understand that.  It’s new, but it’s got so much potential, Angel.  So you’re not a champion anymore.  It’s not the end of the world.  It’s the beginning of a better one.”

 

Angel paused and let out a long, exasperated breath, not listening to anything she said.  “I foolishly thought once I became human I’d feel different, that I’d welcome the sun and mortality.  It didn’t happen that way.  All I feel now is worthless.”  He stared solemnly into her eyes.  “What good is a heartbeat if it’s lonely?”

 

Buffy was equally exasperated.  “It doesn’t have to be that way.  Your life has meaning whether you can see that now or not.  Don’t make any rash decisions, ok?  Give yourself time to adjust.”

 

Now Angel’s eyes glistened with the hint of an unborn tear.  “It doesn’t mean anything without you.”

 

Buffy’s heart pounded.  “Without me?  What makes you think you’d be alone in this?  I’m here.  I can help you.”

 

“I’ve been alone for months, Buffy, without help from anyone.  I can manage.”  He lowered his head and added, “I don’t expect you to understand.”

 

“I’m sorry we didn’t keep in touch, Angel.  I, well, you know I was up to my ass in demons and saving the world, and you were busy plotting your big alley fight, so I guess we’re both to blame.”

 

“You’re the one who sent me away, if I remember correctly,” Angel replied bitterly.  “You didn’t want my help.”

 

“I couldn’t let you be the sacrificial lamb to close the Hellmouth.  I just couldn’t,” Buffy wailed.

 

“Yeah, send Angel away, keep him safe, but don’t let him in my life again.  That was pretty clear.”

 

Buffy’s mouth was agape in awe.  “That’s not how I meant it!  I wanted to call, see you, but things got out of hand.  Stuff happened.”

 

“Things with Spike?” Angel blurted out, shifting his eyes toward the window.

 

“Angel!  Don’t go green-eyed on me.  I’ve never loved anyone but you.  And while we’re on the subject, you didn’t exactly invite me up for tea in your big ole CEO office at Wolfram & Hart.”

 

“It was an evil place, Buffy.  I didn’t want it to touch you, corrupt you.  So, I guess I was keeping you safe.  Safe from me and my screwed up life.”

 

“Well, we’re even then, huh?  You keep me safe, I keep you safe, and we keep ourselves from each other.  Great plan we had.”

 

“Yeah, great.”  Angel hesitated before he added, “So, you can go home now.  You found me.  You know.  There’s nothing more to say.” 

 

“Nothing?  That is so not true!  I rush to LA because my dream confused the hell out of me.  I waltz in here to make sure you’re ok, find out the shock of my life that you’re human, and you tell me you don’t know what the hell you want?  Sounds like you could use a lot of damn help.  You aren’t exactly making a lot of progress on your own.”  Buffy’s voice had gotten higher with annoyance and anxiety.  She noticed Angel wincing at her words.  She didn’t intend to make him feel worse.  And the longer she was around him the more she realized she’d missed him terribly.  He had a way of holding her heart like no one else just by looking at her with his big, dark soulful eyes.  She also knew she was good at pushing him away.

 

“I’m sorry, Angel.  That was harsh.  Could we please just bury the past?  I’m really worried about you, and in case you didn’t hear me so well the first time, I want to help.”

   

Angel was touched, but he wouldn’t let her waste time on him.  “You don’t have to apologize and you don’t have to waltz in here and fix me.  You’ve got your own life to worry about.  I can’t ask you to stay and I won’t.”

 

Buffy’s lower lip quivered, her eyes filling with sadness.  “You don’t have to ask me, Angel.  I volunteered.  I don’t want to leave you like this.  Dammit, I’ve dreamed about you being human so many times my head hurts, and to think it’s happened and you’re unhappy makes me sad.”

 

“Don’t you think I haven’t dreamed about being with you as a human, what our lives would have been like?  It’s all I thought about for years.”

 

“Then why can’t you let me help?  Why can’t we be together?”

 

Angel shook his head vigorously from side to side.  “This is something I have to deal with on my own, Buffy.  I don’t want to drag you down with me if that’s the way it turns out.”

 

Buffy’s eyes widened even more.  “If?  You’re comfortable saying IF?  I don’t like the negative vibe I’m feeling here.  It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.”

 

Suddenly Angel bolted, limping to the farthest corner, his arms tight across his chest.  “I think it’s time you leave,” he whispered.  If he looked at her he’d collapse in her arms.  She didn’t deserve this; a needy, former vampire who couldn’t decide what he wanted, afraid he still wouldn’t be good enough for her. 

 

Buffy pleaded with him.  “Angel, please.  I want to stay.  You need me.”

 

Angel replied wistfully, “Seeing you again makes me realize I love you now more than ever.  But I don’t want your help or your sympathy.  You deserve better.”

 

Buffy’s eyes were brimming with tears as she desperately tried not to fall apart.  “You love me, but you don’t want to be with me?  Angel, we’ve been down this road before.  Then it made sense but now is different.  You’re just making crazy-talk.  Things that kept us apart in the past don’t apply anymore.”

 

“Just go, please,” Angel begged, refusing to look at her.

 

Buffy choked back her tears.  She hoped if she stood her ground long enough Angel would cave but he didn’t.  His refusal to face her, his closed-off stance, made her realize it was impossible to get through to him now.

 

She stood up slowly on trembling legs and walked to the door, whispering, “I still love you, Angel.”

 

Angel winced.  Buffy’s vow of love tugged at his heart.  Could he allow himself to believe after all this time she meant it?  Or was she merely placating him?  He wasn’t sure he could trust his mind to know the truth.  Either way, he had to let her go.      

 

As Buffy turned the doorknob, she glanced over her shoulder at Angel.  She wanted to say something more, anything to make him change his mind and not send her away.  All she could do was repeat the past, “Remember when you asked me if I was your girl?  I’m still am, Angel.  Always.”

 

Bowing her head she left, slamming the door behind her.

 

Angel slumped against the wall and banged his head into it, furious with himself for being so weak.  Why couldn’t he accept help from the one person who understood him better than anyone?  He wouldn’t blame Buffy if she never wanted to see him again.  Maybe that was best anyway.  He didn’t know what path was in his future, or if there was one at all.

 

*

 

Buffy returned to Sunnydale, sobbing her story to Giles.  His reaction to Angel being human was just as incredulous.  In all his Watcher years there was nothing comparable to the tale Buffy had just told him.  Unheard of.  No vampire had ever been changed back.  Why had the Powers bestowed this gift on Angel?  He promised Buffy he would look into it.

 

“I’ll have to consult my oldest records and books.  Any mention of this sort of thing is likely be hidden in some obscure prophecy that requires extensive research.” 

 

“But he sent me away, Giles,” Buffy moaned, holding back a tear.  “He wouldn’t even look at me when I left.”

 

“I’m sorry, Buffy.  I believe Angel just needs time to adjust.  This is obviously very emotional for him.  He’s not thinking ahead.  All he sees is what he’s lost, all that he’s been or known most of his life.  When he said his life had no meaning, I don’t think he meant that, not really.  And I believe he sees you as the all-powerful slayer, still a strong force of good, and I imagine he harbors a bit of envy that you still have your mission and power.  That was all taken away from him.”

 

“Well, he doesn’t have to be a super hero to me,” Buffy murmured.  “I love him.  It’s that simple.”

 

“It’s not that simple to Angel,” Giles replied, placing his arm around Buffy’s shoulders.  “Try not to worry.  He’ll come round.”

 

“You didn’t see how torn up he was,” Buffy replied.  “He’s majorly brooding.  I don’t like to see him suffering needlessly.”

 

“Not needlessly, Buffy.  I would venture to guess Angel’s afraid to let go of the guilt he’s carried all these years.  And I would think not feeling he’s worthy of his gift weighs heavily on his soul.  It’s not something he can accept easily.  It will take, perhaps, quite a long period of time for him to work through this.”

 

“Well, I can give him some time to figure it out,” Buffy sniffed, “but I won’t give up on him, Giles.  I won’t let him give up on himself.”

 

“I suspected as much.  He told you he loves you, Buffy, as he always has.  Eventually, he’ll accept his new place in the world.”

 

Buffy managed a half-hearted smile.  “You really believe that?”

 

“I do.  He’s got you cheering for him.”

 

  *

 

Weeks passed and Buffy went on with her life, but it wasn’t the same.  Not anymore.  She knew too much now.  And for the first time in her life everything was gaining clarity in the midst of chaos.  She thought long and hard about what she wanted out of life.  Angel’s ambivalence had helped her see what she was doing to herself.  She kept love at bay, told herself she was too special to have a normal life.  While being a slayer held certain truths and commitments that she vowed to uphold, she began to understand how Angel felt.  She put herself in his shoes.  What if her powers were gone?  She’d briefly lost them once and remembered that dreadful, helpless feeling.  What if she was powerless forever?  Her answers weren’t as reassuringly positive as she thought they’d be. 

 

Then Giles had called her to the library one day telling her what he’d discovered.  He painstakingly explained the Shanshu Prophecy as Buffy listened in astonishment.  Angel had kept that secret from her all these years!  While she wanted to be angry with him, she also knew Angel never believed it.  She went home more determined than ever to help.  She just wasn’t sure how.

 

Two days later, Giles called Buffy again.  When she arrived, she was all set to tell Giles she’d been up all night thinking, deciding to see Angel again for another try at reasoning with him, but she could see Giles was upset.

 

“Hey, what gives?  You’ve got bad-news face.”

 

Giles looked at her with grim, sympathetic eyes.  “It’s Angel.”

 

Buffy stiffened, blurting out, “What about him, Giles?  What do you know?”

 

Giles pointed to the LA Times newspaper sitting on the library counter.  “I just read a disturbing article, Buffy.  It doesn’t call Angel by name, but it tells of a stabbing Tuesday night.  An unidentified man was attacked on the street in front of his apartment by a stranger.  According to an eye-witnesses’ account, the attacker yelled he was finally getting revenge on the man for killing his brother as he stabbed the man with a wooden stake.  The attacker disappeared so fast no one saw which direction he went.”

 

“What makes you think it was Angel who was attacked?”

 

Giles furrowed his brow, adjusting his glasses.  “The address where the incident took place is Angel’s apartment building.  The attacker used a wooden stake, thinking Angel was still a vampire, most likely.  Those facts alone point to the victim being Angel.  And if I’m right, I’m sorry to say, he’s at Mercy Hospital in critical condition.”

 

Buffy’s knees buckled and she choked out a pained whimper, “Oh, god.”

 

“I’m truly sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Buffy, but I was thinking you’d want to go to him.”

 

Buffy stifled her desire to pummel something.  “I do, and I’m leaving right now.” 

 

Before she could reach the door, Giles called after her, “Buffy, wait!  I should go with you.  I’ll drive.  Give you a shoulder to lean on.  You’re too upset to go alone.”

 

Buffy’s lips were quivering as she replied, “Thanks.”

 

*

 

Standing on the fourth floor of Mercy Hospital, Buffy fought to control her anxiety.  She stepped up to the nurse’s station and inquired about the man recently attacked.  The nurse described the man’s appearance, leaving Buffy no doubt it was Angel.  She lied and said she was the victim’s sister to gain information, and the nurse said she was glad the man finally had someone that cared about him.

 

Buffy stopped to take a deep breath before she entered Room 408, willing her nerves not to betray her now.  She needed all her strength for what she was about to see.  Giles stood discreetly behind, allowing her to walk in first.

 

Slipping quietly inside, Buffy gasped, despite her resolve not to break down, at the still form of Angel.  He was surrounded by tubes and wires running over and into his chest and arms, a machine helping him breathe.  Monitors blinked red numbers and blue squiggly lines, beeping at regular intervals.  She whimpered, holding her hand over her mouth to subdue the sob stuck in her throat.

 

She pulled a chair up to his bedside and held his hand.  She whispered to him, let all her feelings and emotions spill out in a long stream of breathless words.  When the nurse came in to check his vital signs, Buffy found the courage to ask about his condition.  The nurse explained he was hanging on.  The piece of wood had penetrated just below his heart causing considerable blood loss, but the surgery had successfully repaired the damage.  Still, the doctors were skeptical of his recovery.  They weren’t seeing any signs of his waking, no encouraging changes.

 

Buffy’s heart sank to her toes.  The nurse left and Buffy kept talking to Angel, softly, pleading with him to hold on, that she wouldn’t leave his side.  Once she felt his hand twitch, then nothing more.  She laid her head on his arm and wept.

 

Giles stood silently by the door, distraught at Buffy’s anguish.  Even he wished Angel would wake up and relieve her distress.  It was obvious, watching her at his side, that Buffy still loved Angel as much as ever.  Their differences evaporated just as they always did when she was around him.   

 

Eventually, Buffy stood up and walked out the door with Giles following her.  She leaned against the pale green, tiled wall, sniffing back the ebbing tears.  Giles put his arm around her and she lost it all over again.

 

“It’s not fair!” Buffy cried.  “Why would the Powers make Angel human only to turn their backs and let some crazy, vengeful vampire stake him.  He never had a chance to…”

 

Giles interrupted, “Buffy, the universe never has been fair and just, which you, of all people, should know.  The Powers control only so much of what happens.  Free will can and does change our fate.  So while I grieve for Angel as well, this may be one of those times when the Power chose not to interfere.”

 

Buffy glanced up with wide, doubting eyes, brimming with tears.  “That’s bullshit, Giles.  If this is Angel’s big reward, to die human, then the Powers were just playing a cruel joke!  They should have let him have more than six damn months!”

 

“I don’t have all the answers, Buffy, and certainly don’t understand the Powers.  But I do know you and your love for Angel.  I believe he’s listening as you talk to him, knows you’re here.  You’ve always had a connection.  I’m sure that’s helping.”

 

Buffy swiped the tears off her cheek.  “You really think he can hear me?”  Giles nodded yes.  “Well, then I need to get back in there.”

 

*

 

Taking her place by Angel’s side once more, Buffy continued talking to him, but something unworldly was drowning out her words.  A shimmering form from the ethereal realm captured Angel’s attention as his spirit hovered overhead near the beeping monitors. 

 

The dark hooded figure stood beside Angel, watching as he scanned the room and Buffy.  Angel didn’t understand how he could be seeing all this when his body was lying unconscious, dying.

 

“It’s always a dreadful sight when one sees oneself at death’s door,” the figure commented softly, “isn’t it?”

 

Angel warily scrutinized the dark figure.  “Who are you?”

 

“Ah, I’m the Gatekeeper of Souls.  I help those who waver along their final path.”  The Gatekeeper chuckled.  “I conduct interventions when things seem a bit murky and the nearly deceased is struggling to decide if he wants to live or die.  I’m here to remind you that sometimes death is not the answer.”

 

“I don’t remember asking you to intervene.”

 

“No one does, but they thank me later for bringing insight to their dilemma.  If you still want to die after we talk, then so be it.  Your wish will be fulfilled.  But Angel, you should consider what your death means.”

 

“It means I’m dead.  What’s there to consider?”

 

“Ah, we come to the crux of the situation.  You don’t feel worthy of your new human form, do you?”

 

“No.”

 

“So you’re just going to give up?  That’s not like you, Angel.  Where’s that never-give-up fighting spirit?”

 

“I’m not giving up.  I’m just letting go.”

 

“But you are giving up.  I remember when you came back from hell and you chose to live, even when the odds were against you.” 

 

“Well, maybe that was a mistake.”

 

“The Powers don’t think so, nor does Buffy.  Do you want to die, never knowing if you and Buffy could have been together?”

 

Angel’s eyes glared.  “Don’t bring her into this.  She’s better off without me.”

 

“Hmm, she doesn’t seem to think so.  Look at her, Angel.  She’s heartbroken.  She’s gone through this trauma before and barely survived.  Do you want her to suffer losing you again?”

 

“She’ll get over me.”

 

“Are you so sure?  She’s never loved anyone but you in her troubled life.  That won’t change.  I’ve seen her future and it’s loveless.  Oh, certainly she’ll move on and continue being the Slayer, fulfilling her duties.  But she’ll never love again.”

 

Angel hung his head and sighed.  “I don’t want her to mourn for me.  I want her find someone who can give her everything she wants.”

 

“But that’s not up to you, Angel.  Buffy has choices of her own.  If she chooses to remain alone, then she will, no matter what you’d like.  Only you can change her fate.”

 

Angel hovered closer to Buffy, watching her holding his hand, kissing it, whispering I love you.  He was overwhelmed by her love.  It radiated into every corner of the room and drenched his soul. 

 

The Gatekeeper took notice.  “You feel her love, don’t you?  You’ve been listening as you laid there, hearing her pleas for you to wake up.  How can you deny her love?”

 

If Angel could have formed tears, they’d be slipping from his eyes.  “I just didn’t want to disappoint her.  I didn’t finish my mission, didn’t redeem myself.  I still had so much to make up for.”

 

“Oh, but The Powers beg to differ.  They wouldn’t have bestowed this human gift on you, if they didn’t think you’d paid for your sins.”

 

“But I don’t know what to do now.”

 

“Well, you do, and so do I.  You want what you’ve been denied - to be with Buffy and to love her.”

 

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

 

“And so you can.  Think about it.  It’s your choice - live or die.  But may I suggest giving life another chance?  Undoubtedly it will be painful and sad as any other human’s, but there will be the love you’ve dreamed of - for the rest of your life.  However, I will caution there’s no guarantee how long that life may be.  But Angel, wouldn’t it be better to have love, for whatever time is yours and Buffy’s, than to die, now, without knowing true happiness?”

 

For several minutes Angel thought over everything the Gatekeeper had said.  When he spoke his voice was shaky.

 

“So, what happens if I say yes?”

 

“Well, I work a little divine mojo and you wake up.  Simple as that.”

 

Angel stared lovingly at Buffy.  “Would she really be happy with me?”

 

“You’re all she thinks about.”

 

 Angel sighed and closed his eyes. “Then do it.”

 

Immediately Angel was slammed back into his body, frantically gasping, choking on the breathing tube in his throat.  The monitor alarms started beeping wildly, startling Buffy.  A nurse rushed in, followed by the doctor, and shooed Buffy away while they worked on Angel.

 

Pacing the room, Buffy thought this was the end.  Her sobs were uncontrollable.  She vaguely heard the doctor ordering the nurse to help with this and that, but Buffy’s mind was too consumed by grief to understand.  Then she heard Angel moan softly.

 

Glancing over her shoulder Buffy saw the doctor and nurse straighten up and smile at each other.  She turned around as Angel took in deep breaths on his own, his eyes wide, darting around the room as though he was searching for something.  His eyes stopped when they spotted Buffy standing to the side.  She’d never forget that first frail grin he wore, the way her heart skipped a beat as she rushed over and grabbed his hand.

 

Unable to speak yet, Angel mouthed the words I love you as he feebly squeezed her hand.  Buffy smiled through her tears and leaned over to kiss him.  He struggled to keep his eyes open, but weakness took over and his eyes closed again.  Buffy jerked her head toward the doctor who calmly explained Angel would likely be in and out of consciousness for a while.  Buffy grinned at the doctor, her anxiety eased.

 

Noticing how exhausted Buffy looked, the doctor pulled her aside and suggested she go home and get some rest.  He promised her Angel’s awakening could only mean good news.  He’d let her know if Angel’s condition changed.  Buffy thanked him profusely, agreeing she could use some sleep.

 

Outside the room, she told Giles the good news.  It was heartily welcomed by a relieved Giles.  He could already see the difference in Buffy’s countenance, the glimmer of hope in her eyes.  Buffy also told Giles she wanted to stay in Angel’s apartment, lamenting she had nowhere else to go in LA.  He agreed, desperately in need of at least ten hours sleep himself.

 

*

 

Breaking the lock on Angel’s apartment door was easy enough.  It was entering the emptiness that unnerved Buffy.  Everything was just as he’d left it two days ago.  An open book was turned upside down on the sofa, a half-glass of soured milk on the kitchen table, dirty glasses in the sink.  In the bedroom his long black coat hung by a brass hook on the door, a shirt lay tossed absently over the chair by the window and a rumpled towel rested on the bed.  Buffy picked up the towel, nuzzling it against her cheek.  Angel’s lingering scent was all over it.  Buffy choked back more tears, now tears of relief.  Feeling the tension leaving her body, she flopped on the bed, burying her head in the covers.  Closing her eyes, she let herself drift in and out of a fitful sleep.  All her thoughts were focused on Angel and his recovery.  It didn’t matter what he wanted.  She wasn’t going to leave him.  Not ever again.

 

Buffy awoke before Giles and tiptoed into the kitchen.  Giles was snoring lightly.  She didn’t want to disturb him.  Flinging cabinets and the refrigerator open, Buffy was abhorred by the lack of food.  Angel wasn’t eating much of anything.  A pint of milk.  A box of cereal.  A can of soup.  No wonder he was so thin.  After pouring herself a small glass of milk, she wandered around the apartment, pacing to keep her nerves steady. 

 

When she reached Angel’s reading chair, she plopped down, a peaceful sigh escaping her lips.  A glance at Giles showed no evidence he was waking anytime soon, so she occupied herself by absently tickling her fingers over the books stacked on the chair side table.  They stopped when she spied a small notebook jutting out from underneath.  She carefully slid the notebook out and nervously opened it to the first page.  She was shocked.

 

Angel was keeping a journal, writing down his fears and trepidations of being human.  His words were fraught with emotion, misgivings and pain.  When she turned to the third page she nearly broke down.  There was an entry about her dated the same day she’d come to see him.

 

I made Buffy leave today.  I sent her away.  Like a fool. I couldn’t look in her eyes and tell her I wanted her to stay, that I wanted so badly to hold her. She thinks I’m crazy, and I probably am.  Dammit!  Why is it I always hurt her when all I want to do is love her?  I cause her so much pain.  She’s better off without me.  But I’m nothing without her.  She was always there for me.  No one ever cared, not like she did.  And how do I repay that kindness?  By turning her away, sulking and brooding about how lousy being human is.

 

I want more than anything in the world to be with her, but I can’t.  Not now.  Maybe never.  I don’t know what’s happening to me, who the hell Angel is anymore. 

 

 

Buffy’s tears fell on the page, leaving stains of heartache.  Her hands were shaking as she placed the notebook back in its rightful place, swiping at her tears.  She didn’t know Giles had awakened, standing nearby.  When she looked up, he gave her an encouraging smile.

 

“Angel’s been keeping a journal,” she said.  “It’s pretty grim.”

 

“All of it?” Giles asked.  “Nothing encouraging?”

 

Buffy smiled.  “Well, there’s one thing.”

 

“So it’s not all doom and gloom?”  Giles inquired further.

 

“Oh, he wrote pages of gloomy stuff,” she replied, “but only one thing that matters.”

 

“What?”

 

“Angel loves me.”

 

“But you already knew that.”

 

“Yeah, but seeing it in his own hand, reading how he feels, makes it all more real somehow.  And he thinks he’s protecting me.   He doesn’t understand how much I love him.  I’d give up everything for him.”

 

“Everything is quite a lot to give up, Buffy.”

 

“I mean it, Giles.  Everything,” Buffy snapped, jumping up and heading for the door.  “You coming?”

 

“I think I’ll grab something to eat first, then I’ll meet you at the hospital,” Giles replied.  “Would you like me to bring something for you?”

 

Buffy winced.  “Ugh, not right now.  My stomach is all knotty and nervousy.  But don’t worry, Giles, I’ll be ok.”

 

“I believe you will.”

 

*

 

When Buffy arrived at the hospital, she waved to Angel’s nurse at her station, continuing on her way.  The nurse yelled to wait and approached Buffy.

 

“I’m so happy your brother woke up,” she told Buffy excitedly.  “He’s doing well breathing on his own.  His doctor is quite surprised at his sudden turnaround.  And I told him it wasn’t so much a miracle as the love of his sister.”

 

Buffy grinned.  “Yeah, I love my brother more than you can imagine.”

 

Sneaking quietly into Angel’s room, Buffy took up her vigil, watching Angel breathe.  Breathe!  She still couldn’t believe it.  His eyes were closed, but as soon as she sat down, he fluttered them open and grinned.  Buffy leaned over and kissed him gently.

 

“Hey,” she said, “I’ve been waiting for you to wake up.”

 

Angel gazed at her with adoring eyes and rasped, “I’m glad you came.”

 

“World in peril couldn’t keep me away,” she whispered.

 

Angel winced.  “Funny, I kept dreaming about you.  It felt like you were here.”

 

“I was.  Right by your side.”

 

“Then it wasn’t a dream?”

 

“Nope.  Me, talking nonstop, trying to get through to you.  Looks like it worked.”

 

“It did.”

 

“In your dreams did you hear me telling you over and over how much I love you?”

 

“I heard you every time,” he confessed.  Angel suddenly shifted his eyes down, wearing a strange expression on his face Buffy couldn’t decipher.

 

“Something wrong?” she asked anxiously.

 

“No, not really.”  Angel seemed to be off in another world.  “I was just remembering something that happened before I woke up.  A dream, I think.  I’m not sure.  But it saved my life.”

 

“A dream saved your life?  You mean it wasn’t my endearing words of love and affection?” Buffy pouted playfully.

 

“Both, actually,” Angel reassured her with a grin.  “All of it made me realize how much I wanted to live – to love you.”

 

Buffy beamed and threw her arms around Angel’s neck.  “Well, then I’m glad you had that dream, if it brought you back to me.”  They kissed, lingering, until Angel pulled away and laid his head back on the pillow.  He blinked his eyes, grimacing, and said, “Sorry.  I guess I’m not up to...”

 

Buffy interrupted and rubbed his shoulder, “Hey, it’s ok.  You rest.  I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll pick up where we left off.”

 

“Mmm, sounds great,” Angel murmured, sinking back into slumber.

 

*

 

The next morning Angel was sitting up in bed when Buffy bounced in the room with a bouquet of wildflowers.  She kissed him first thing, the flowers in her hand grazing Angel’s cheek, tickling his skin.  He giggled and brushed them away.

 

“Oh, sorry,” Buffy apologized, “but I saw these growing outside your apartment building.  I couldn’t resist.”

 

“They’re nice, thanks.”

 

“And sorry about the last-minute vase thingy.  But hey, how great is an empty biggie soda cup full of flowers?” Buffy joshed.

 

Angel chuckled.  “It’s perfect, Buffy.”  He paused a moment, curious, and added, “You got these outside my apartment?”  

 

“Uh, yeah.  Giles and I stayed there.  Hope you don’t mind.”

 

“No.  I guess you didn’t have anywhere else to go.  I’m glad you did.”

 

“You feeling better today?”

 

“Much better now that you’re here,” Angel murmured.

 

 Buffy’s face turned serious.  “I’ve got a confession to make, and I hope you won’t get upset, but I couldn’t help myself, and I’m so glad I did but you’ll probably think I’m meddling and invading your privacy.”

 

Angel interrupted, “You’re rambling, Buffy.”

 

“Sorry.  I read your journal, Angel.  I know it wasn’t right, but well, I kinda couldn’t help myself.”

 

Angel’s eyes turned away from her.  “That was private stuff,” he muttered.

 

“I know.  I’m sorry.  Sort of.  But not really.  It was really sad to read how much you struggle with being human.”

 

Angel shifted positions, sending a stab of pain through his chest, but he managed to say between gritted teeth, “I guess it sounded pretty pathetic, didn’t it?”  Buffy nodded and Angel added with a heavy sigh, “I always mess things up.”

 

Buffy nudged Angel’s shoulder.  “That’s not true.  You just get off-track sometimes.  But what you said about me and love?  It made me love you more, if that’s even possible.”

 

Angel chuckled.  “Maybe you’re as pathetic as I am.”

 

“Maybe.  Probably.  Just means we belong together, don’t you think?”  She blinked her eyes and batted her eyelashes, eliciting a wide smile from him.

 

“I wish that with all my heart.”

 

“Well, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands to make that wish come true,” Buffy stated calmly, but bursting to tell her news.   “I’ve made a major, life-changing decision.  And you should be the first to know.”

 

Angel gave her a dubious look.  “What are you talking about?”

 

“I’m retiring from my slayer duties as of today,” she announced proudly.

 

Angel’s eyes grew wide in astonishment.  “You what?  Buffy, what’s going on?  Did something happen to you?  Did you get hurt or…”

 

Buffy pressed her fingers against Angel’s lips to stop him.  “No, it’s not that, not even close to that.  And promise me you won’t yell when I tell you, ok?”

 

Angel’s eyes narrowed.  “Depends.  What possible reason would be worth you giving up slaying?  I can’t think of any.”

 

Buffy’s eyes glistened.  “Well, first of all, I’m not giving up anything I don’t want to.  And second, my love, you’re the reason, like it or not.”

 

Angel moaned.  “Oh, god, Buffy, please don’t do that for me.  You’d hate yourself down the road.  No!  I can’t let you.”

 

“Sorry, buster, it’s a done deal.  I’m hanging up my slayer spurs and riding off into the sunset with you.”

 

Angel scowled.  “Buffy, that’s crazy.  You’ll be bored within a week and hate me for it.”

 

“How could I be bored with you?  This is something I want with all my heart and nothing you say will change my mind.  So just get used to it.  I’m all yours.”

 

“But you can’t just walk away and stop being the slayer.”

 

“Why not?  I didn’t sign a contract.  Truth is I’m a little tired of the slayage and the constant stress and death.  It’s time Buffy got a life.”

 

“You could actually walk out and leave the world to the demons?  I really doubt you could.”

 

“Maybe you don’t know me all that well.  I’d do that for you.  Besides, the other slayers can take over.  That’s what they’re being trained for.”

 

“No!  I can’t let you choose between me and being a slayer.  I don’t want that on my conscience.”

 

“Angel, you aren’t forcing me to do anything I don’t want to do.  Besides, I think we deserve to be happy.  And wouldn’t you just love to lie around in the sun all day, do nothing but count stars at night?  I could get used to that.”

 

Angel took her hand in his and kissed it.  “You’re impossible, you know.”

 

Buffy grinned adoringly.  “Yeah, I know.”

 

“It sounds too good, Buffy.  You realize something always gets between us, tries to tear us apart.”

 

“Well, that was true in the past, but I think we’ve got a good shot at being happy this time.  And if the world explodes next week?  Well, then at least we had some time together.  I’ll take whatever I can get.”

 

“So would I,” Angel replied, pulling her close.  “I’d cherish every moment.”

 

“So?  You think you can stop with the moping now and try being human?  I promise there’ll be rewards,” Buffy teased.

 

“You make it hard to say no,” Angel replied, grinning from ear to ear.

 

“Good.  Then I’m riding off into the sunset as we speak,” Buffy declared.  “I already left my spurs at home.”

 

*

 

One year later

 

They settled in Colorado in a modest cottage nestled among tall, regal pine trees in the foothills of majestic, snow-covered mountains.

 

It wasn’t that hard to convince Angel, once he was released from the hospital, to let her take care of him; somewhere far away from the city, where he could heal from his wound, from his human despair.  Buffy had turned on the charm, fluttered her eyelashes hundreds of times and kissed him passionately, giving him no possibility of resisting.  He gathered her in his arms and told her she was crazy, warned her he’d be a handful.  She laughed.  He always was.

 

Buffy purchased matching rocking chairs for the front porch.  It seemed a good place for Angel to sit and recuperate.  He liked it so much he spent most of the day there with his feet propped up on the railing, sleeping or gazing out over the mountains.  She’d join him, bringing him coffee or a snack, sometimes a blanket if there was a chill in the air.  She tried to get him to come inside when it got too cold, but he insisted on staying put.  He paid for that decision with a nasty cold.  With only a vague, distant memory of having one before, Angel was surprised how miserable he felt and how often he had to blow his nose.  He railed about it.  Buffy just let him be.  Within a week he was better and stopped being a pain-in-the-ass as Buffy so eloquently described him.  He apologized for being difficult, promising to be a better patient in the future.  She said she was going to blackmail him with that promise if he didn’t.  He laughed and agreed she’d have every right to do that.  She insisted on a kiss to seal the deal.  He was happy to oblige.

 

Buffy smiled, remembering how Angel adjusted, and didn’t, to being human.  He’d excitedly showed her his first tan.  She had to admit he looked great, but she warned him to take it easy in the sun.  Dismissing her concern, he spent every possible moment outside.  He found out what she meant.  He’d squirmed and yelped as she’d gently rubbed lotion on his sunburned back and shoulders.  He vowed not to do that again.

 

Angel tried every food Buffy brought home, quickly regaining the weight he’d lost.  She cautioned him to slow down.  When his clothes got too snug, he realized she was right and cut back, stepping up his exercise routine.  Being human met setting limits he wasn’t used to.  He silently mourned for the days when indulgence had little to no consequences.

 

Though Angel blossomed under Buffy’s watchful eye, he frequently tuned her out and sulked in the bedroom for hours, still ambivalent about his mortal gift.  When he hit bottom on several occasions Buffy held him and soothed his fears, quelling his anxiety.  He constantly questioned what his purpose was now.  What on earth could he do to fill the hours and days?  Sometimes Buffy had to get tough and smack his head, telling him to quit with the woe is me, I’m-not-a-champion-anymore speech.  It always ended up with him giggling at her imitation of his despairing tone.  He could never stay depressed.  She intuitively knew just when to deliver a funny quip when he was about to sneak over the edge of unreason.  He’d end up laughing and loving her even more.

 

In time Angel regained his optimism.  He’d found his place in the world with Buffy, but he still regretted with a heavy heart that he wasn’t a part of the good fight that others were fighting in his place.  Buffy always came to him at those moments, sensing his dismay, and cheered him up the only way she knew worked every time.  She started by pushing him down on the bed and smothering him with kisses.  He’d squirm and moan as she rubbed against him.  It wasn’t long before clothes were tossed on the floor and their lovemaking began in earnest, hot and heavy.

 

Without a curse there was no holding back, but sometimes Buffy went too far.  She kept forgetting she was much stronger than Angel was now; sometimes so swept up in the moment she didn’t realize she’d hurt him.  He told her he didn’t mind at all, actually liked a little pain now and then.  Today she’d badly bruised his ribs.  Immediately she rolled off him when he’d grunted in pain.  She wailed over and over she was sorry.  He cursed being human.  Buffy wrapped his chest tightly with a large cloth bandage she’d cut from an old sheet, wincing every time he protested with a groan. 

 

She hated that she hurt him.  Angel, always forgiving, laughed it off and whispered in her ear that her strength turned him on, made him that much hotter for her.  He drove her mad every time he said it in that low sexy voice she loved.

 

So focused on her thoughts, Buffy didn’t hear Angel moaning as he tried to stand.  He got her attention when he growled.  Buffy grabbed his arm and helped Angel settle back on the bed.  She scolded him for trying to move too much, telling him to just lie still.  He’d huffed, laying his head down on the pillow, muttering his disdain at being relegated to the bed, sans sex.  She giggled, running her hand gently down his chest from his neck to his abdomen, teasing him about what she’d planned to do to him before he got hurt.  He grumbled even louder, snarling for the thousandth time about being a weak human.  Eventually, she had to stop taunting him and apologize.  He forgave her as usual.  With a twinkle in her eye she promised she’d do those things next time when he was up to it.  He said he couldn’t wait.

 

But Angel was inconsolable for a week.  He still hadn’t mastered human patience.  His ribs were healing too slowly as far as he was concerned, and he complained incessantly about being useless while Buffy did all the work.  She said she didn’t mind.  She also warned with a wink of her eye that if he hurt himself again before he’d healed, it would be that much longer before they could have sex.  That did it.  He acquiesced to her logic but begged her to give him something easy to do before he went insane.

 

It was the perfect time for Buffy to bring up the subject.  With his innate artistic skills she encouraged Angel to take up drawing again.  He’d shrugged at first, telling her he wasn’t that good, but she admonished him for diminishing his talent.  While he was asleep one morning, she drove to town and picked up art supplies, depositing them on the bed in front of him with a smile.  He picked up the drawing pad and flipped it open, grabbing a charcoal pencil, rubbing it back and forth across the paper absently.  When he looked up, he grinned, thanking Buffy.  With a kiss she ordered him to get to work and draw.   

 

Soon Angel was selling his artwork to the locals and tourists in the valley below.  It was enough to keep them comfortable and gave Angel a purpose.  He flourished.  In short time he’d gained a reputation as a fine artist, commissioned for occasional portraits.  But his favorite was a portrait of Buffy.  Her hair was longer now, captured in a thick, long braid down her back.  Her soft skin was golden from hours in the sun, her youthful exuberance mirrored in her infectious smile.  But it was her warm, loving eyes that melted Angel’s heart every time she looked at him. 

 

* 

 

One warm, sunlit morning found Angel and Buffy drinking coffee after breakfast, rocking back and forth contentedly in their rocking chairs on the front porch.   They often came to sit, relax and reflect on their lives under the panoramic view of the snowy mountains spread out before them.

 

Buffy’s voice broke the silence.  “I’m thinking of trying something new with hamburger tonight.”

 

Buffy had taken to domesticity with the flare she always put into everything she did.  She learned to cook, experimenting with new recipes, testing them on Angel.  She giggled when he wrinkled his nose at a debatable casserole and he begged for a steak.

 

Angel cringed.  “What could you possibly do to hamburger you haven’t already tried?”

 

“Oh, contraire.  I’ve just begun to discover ways of disguising it.  I’m rather creative, you know.”

 

Angel chuckled.  “Who knew you’d actually like cooking?”

 

“Hey, I was a little busy staking vampires and saving the world.  I wasn’t so keen on it then.  Maybe because I didn’t have someone to feed.”  A glimmer of love sparkled in Buffy’s eyes.

 

“I appreciate everything you do,” Angel whispered.

 

 “And I only made you sick that one time,” Buffy admitted with pouty lips.

 

“Once was enough,” Angel muttered.   Angel looked at her with a seductive glint in his eye. “I think you’re very creative, Buffy, but I wouldn’t pick cooking as my favorite creative thing you do.” 

 

“Hmm, you’ve always got a few tricks up your sleeve.  Sometimes I swear you’ve got, like, ten hands.”

 

“All the better to love you,” Angel purred.

 

Buffy reached over and slapped him playfully on the hand.  “Ok, mister, it’s a little early to make with the pillow talk.  We’ve got things to do.”

 

“We do?”

 

“Well, yeah.  You need to finish that portrait of Mrs. Anderson.  We could use the money, honey.”

 

“Fine.  What are you going to do?”

 

“Make you something special.”

 

“Does it involve hamburger?” Angel moaned.

 

“Not this time.  I mean, it could, but birthday cakes are usually hamburger free.”

 

“Birthday cake?”

 

“Well, since we don’t know your actual birth date, I’ve declared today your birthday.  You’ve never had a birthday cake, have you?”

 

“No.  I don’t remember having one.”

 

“Well, then, it’s way past time.  Got any preference?  Chocolate?  Vanilla?  Strawberry?  Angel Food?”

 

Angel looked at her with a leering grin and snickered.  “Surprise me.  But not angel food.  That’s creepy.”

 

“Ok, I will.  But you know the best part about birthday cakes?” Buffy taunted.

 

“Uh, is this a trick question?”

 

“No.  It’s the icing, all gooey and slippery.  Sometimes it just happens to slide off the cake, end up on your fingers, or other places, and well, it’s best enjoyed in bed.”

 

“You’re incorrigible,” Angel chuckled.

 

“I am.  Completely.”  Buffy leaned over and kissed Angel’s hand, watching him gaze out into space.

 

“Do you miss LA?  Miss being a champion now?” Buffy questioned.

 

Angel thought a moment.  “Sometimes.  It’s taken me a long time to accept this mortal gift.  And I still don’t feel like I earned it.  But I’ve never been so happy.  Here, with you, is where I want to be forever.”

 

“Well, then my mission was accomplished,” Buffy replied, adding with a chuckle, “and really, all I had to do was take one old, souled vampire, stir in one beating heart and add a giant dash of love.  My favorite recipe - and the one I’m the most proud of.”  Buffy hesitated, switching subjects.  “But I miss that world sometimes.  Can’t help but wonder if the new slayers are as good as I was.”

 

“No one could be that good,” Angel replied adamantly.  “You’re one of a kind, Buffy.  No other slayer ever saved the world as much as you did.”

 

Buffy puffed out her chest, smiling.  “Yeah, I was awesome, wasn’t I?”

 

“Damn straight.”

 

One kiss led to another, one touch led to more.  Soon they were lying naked on the front porch, making love, breathing on each other’s necks, moving together as one.  They teased each other, laughing about who was most creative, who kissed the best, or who moaned the loudest.  But they always ended by telling each other I love you, forever and always.

 

*

 

They both took a long nap after making love.  Angel woke up later than Buffy, noticing the empty space next to him, and frowned.  Padding in his underwear toward the clatter from the kitchen, Angel was met at the doorway by one anxious, flour-covered Buffy.  She gave him a quick kiss and shooed him from the area, explaining she was very busy making his birthday cake, and he had to stay out until she was done.  He pouted off to the bedroom and dressed, returning to the kitchen door begging for a cup of coffee.  Buffy shoved one at him hurriedly and told him to go do something and stay out of her hair.  He sighed, still feeling amorous, but banished from her presence by a birthday cake.

 

Picking up his sketchbook and pencils, Angel headed outside to draw away his sexual frustration.  Every so often he heard a curse word or a wooden spoon hitting the kitchen counter as Buffy worked on her latest culinary creation.  Cake was good.  He liked cake.  But Angel smiled at the thought of his personal preference of birthday gifts.  A naked Buffy.  He didn’t need anything else.

 

After a light dinner of something with hamburger Angel couldn’t quite describe, Buffy quickly cleared away the dishes.  Angel jumped up to help, but Buffy pushed him back down in the chair, telling birthday boys don’t have to help.  He sighed, drumming his fingers on the table until Buffy returned with the cake.  One big, chunky candle sat in the middle, already lit.  A thick layer of perfectly coiffed vanilla frosting covered the cake with the words Happy Birthday scripted elegantly in a thin line of chocolate frosting.

 

As Buffy placed the cake on the table in front of him, Angel didn’t expect to feel so emotional.  Buffy noticed he looked like he was about to choke and leaned over and kissed him.  “Happy Birthday, Angel,” she whispered endearingly. “Oh, and you’ve gotta make a wish, then blow out the candle for the wish to come true.  Preferably before it melts into the cake.”

 

“Why only one candle?”

 

“I know it’s actually been longer, but the candle represents your first year as a human.  And really?  How could this poor little cake hold 250 candles?  Not to mention the fire hazard,” Buffy chided.

 

Still grappling with the lump in his throat, Angel embraced the moment.  He shut his eyes tight for a few seconds, then opened them as he released a short puff of breath, extinguishing the candle.

 

Buffy clapped and nudged his shoulder.  “I hope you wished for something you really want.”

 

“I did,” Angel replied with a smile.  “I wished for more happiness just like this…to never end.”

 

“But everything ends, Angel,” Buffy replied wistfully.

 

“Not us,” he whispered.

 

“I like that wish,” Buffy agreed, sweeping the cake back up in her hands.  She kicked Angel’s chair and cocked her head toward the bedroom.  “Let’s celebrate,” she murmured seductively.

 

Their lovemaking extended well into the night with Buffy taking control.  She’d insisted it was his birthday and her turn to please him.   He loved it when she took charge and surrendered completely.  She was very creative and tantalizing with the icing, leaving them both sticky sweet and breathlessly satiated.  When their lustful desires peaked, she grabbed his hands, weaving her fingers through his, squeezing them tight as she thrust her hips down on him.  Their sweating bodies pressed together, the fierce passion of their kisses, the exquisite pain Angel felt when Buffy lost control.  All of it spiraled into the final frenzied moment of perfect bliss.  They came as one, quivering and moaning, as Buffy pressed her lips down hard on Angel’s, biting and sucking his lower lip.

 

Exhausted after two hours, Buffy’s head flopped down on Angel’s chest as they both took in rapid breaths to recover.  It wasn’t until Buffy sat up that she noticed Angel’s face scrunched in pain.

 

“Oh, god, I hurt you again,” she wailed.  “Your lip is bleeding.”

 

Angel hissed, “Umm, there’s more.”

 

“What else did I do?” she fretted, anxiously running her hands over his body searching for injuries.

 

“I think my right hand is broken,” he sighed.  “I can’t move my fingers.”

 

Buffy gently examined his right hand.  He winced.  When she tried to touch his fingers, he growled.  “I’m so sorry, Angel.  I totally lost it.”

 

Angel managed a twisted grin.  “Mmm, but it was worth it.”

 

Buffy poked him in the side.  “You should have stopped me.”

 

“I was kinda busy with the sex, Buffy.  I didn’t even realize my hand hurt until it was all over.  Don’t worry.  I know you didn’t mean to.”

 

“But I should know better.  This is, like, the tenth time I’ve hurt you.”  Buffy dropped her head.  “I need to be more careful.  Dammit!  I just loose it when I’m with you.  I must be crazy.”

 

Angel raised his left hand to cup her chin, making her turn to look at him.  “I take full responsibility.  And believe me, I’m not complaining, Buffy.  I’ve told you before I like the hot, rough side of you.  Gets me all worked up.  You haven’t killed me yet, so that’s a plus.”  He chuckled, but Buffy didn’t see anything amusing.

 

“Don’t even say that,” she snapped.  “That’s not even close to funny.  What if I do hurt you really bad one day?  What if I…”

 

“Buffy, just drop it, ok?  That’s not gonna happen.” Angel captured her lips on his, melting her anxiety.  “I’ve still got a few hours of birthday left, and I want them to be me holding you – and eating cake.  How’s that sound?”

 

“Good,” she answered meekly, “soon as I bandage your hand.  And tomorrow you’ll have to go to the doctor and get it checked out.”

 

“Whoa,” Angel yelped.  “I don’t need a doctor.  Just wrap it up, it’ll be fine.”

 

Buffy frowned.  “Humans don’t have vampire healing, may I remind you.  If your hand’s not set properly, you could have permanent damage.”

 

“Ah, dammit.  I hate this!” Angel blurted out in frustration.  “I hate being so weak, that you have to be careful, afraid I might break.  You have to worry about hurting me, and I can’t heal without a lot of pain and bandages.”

 

Buffy reached up and brushed her fingers through his hair.  “Welcome to the human world,” she said flippantly, immediately turning serious when she saw the frown on Angel’s face.  “I know it bothers you that I’m so much stronger.  Easy for me to say no big deal, but I get it is a big deal for you.  I wish you were stronger for your sake and mine.  Maybe then I wouldn’t hurt you when I’m supposed to be loving you.”

 

“It’s alright, Buffy.  So I get a cracked rib and broken hand out of it?  So what?  You’re worth a thousand broken bones.”

 

Buffy sighed, “You’re impossible, you know.  But you’re not invincible anymore.  I promise I’ll be more careful, but I want you to promise to stop me if I cross that line.  Ok?”

 

Angel grinned slyly and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.  “Personally, I like it when you step over that line.”

 

Buffy pretended to slap his head.  “You weren’t listening, were you?  No more crossing the line.”

 

“Just a little?” Angel begged, still grinning.

 

“I’m not answering that,” Buffy huffed, jumping off the bed.  “I’m going to get a bandage for your hand.”

 

She disappeared into the bathroom and Angel lay back, grimacing at his throbbing hand.  He didn’t want Buffy to know how much it hurt.  She’d just keep apologizing, and he didn’t want her to worry.  He let her hurt him on purpose sometimes just to feel the rush.  He remembered the days when a broken hand was laughable, healed quickly, the power of imperviousness flowing through his veins.  He wished he had that strength now, the power to handle Buffy’s power.  Maybe if he worked out more.   

 

Buffy returned with a roll of gauze and began winding it carefully and gently around Angel’s hand while he stifled the urge to groan.  Once she tugged a little too hard and Angel yelped.  Buffy eased up, telling him for the hundredth time she was sorry.  After she finished tying the bandage securely, Buffy lay across Angel’s chest, and he put his arms around her.

 

“I had a great birthday,” he murmured in her ear, kissing her neck.

 

Buffy grinned sheepishly.  “It was pretty awesome, wasn’t it?  At least before I broke your hand.”

 

Angel stopped her.  “Buffy, don’t go there, please?  I loved every minute and look forward to my next birthday.”

 

“Great.  Should I bake another cake?”

 

“Yeah, and put more icing on it next time.”

 

Buffy danced her fingers over Angel’s sticky chest and whispered, “Would you like to join me in the shower?”

 

“Mmm, but only if you promise to keep your hands to yourself,” Angel teased.

 

Buffy giggled, grabbed his left hand and pulled him up.  “That’s a promise I have no intention of keeping.”

 

*

 

The next day Buffy coerced Angel to visit the emergency center in the valley where his hand was x-rayed and put in a cast.  He whined about it all the way home.  She calmed him down by making him laugh, telling him she’d given up on hamburger recipes, shifting her culinary focus on turkey.  He thanked the stars he wouldn’t have to eat hamburger again for a while.

 

Buffy heard Angel grumbling all day.  First because he couldn’t wield an axe to cut down a small, dead tree in the backyard, and then cursing when he couldn’t open his beer can and hold it at the same time.  She’d come to his rescue, reminding him the dead tree could wait, and opening his beer can for him.  The final straw came when he bumped his hand against his punching bag while he was working out.  He’d cursed and stomped out of the house, mumbling incoherently.

 

By nighttime, Buffy found him stretched out on the sofa, sulking, his broken hand lying on top of his chest.  She walked over and bent down to kiss his hand.

 

“Rough day?” she asked sympathetically.

 

“Yeah, not so good,” he confessed.

 

“That was obvious.  But it won’t last forever.  The doctor said your hand will be fine in a few weeks.”

 

“Yeah, weeks,” he huffed.  “I can’t draw, can’t open things, can’t work out.  You know how much I hate being idle.”

 

“Understatement of the year,” Buffy stated emphatically.  “You trying to be idle is like trying to make a tiger sit still.”

 

Angel winced, “That bad?”  Buffy shook her head affirmatively, and Angel continued, “Sorry, I’m just not handling this all that well.”

 

 “Hey, tomorrow we’ll do something fun.  No hands required.  We could take a long walk through the woods.  We haven’t done that in a long time.  I could even make a picnic lunch.”

 

“Fine,” Angel replied absently.

 

Buffy realized his mood was too sullen for picnic talk.  Angel was brooding about something.  Buffy couldn’t put her finger on the cause, but she had a feeling it was new and worrisome.  She wished he would open up, but outright asking him would only bring the wrath of his intense eyes down on her and most likely a closed door between them.  She decided it was better to give him some space to deal with whatever was on his mind.  If it was something he thought she should know, he’d tell her eventually.

 

*

 

Angel was already up and gone the following morning.  Buffy arose from bed, noticing how quiet it was.  She padded through the cottage searching for Angel, but he wasn’t around.  She sighed, heading for the kitchen and coffee, knowing he’d show up when he felt like it.

 

With a steaming cup of coffee in hand, she strode out to the front porch, sat in her rocking chair and waited.  The sky was crystal-clear, blue as the ocean, and the sun streamed over the mountains filling her with warmth.  She chuckled to herself, remembering her doubts she could actually retire from slaying.

 

Leaving Sunnydale for the wilds of the mountains, removing herself from that life of death and killing was the best thing she ever did.  She’d felt at peace with her decision months ago, but there were rare times when she missed the excitement.  Missed taking out evil.  And there would always be evil, but there would only be one Angel.  All she had to do was look in his warm, brown eyes and she knew this was where she should be.

 

Deep in thought, Buffy didn’t hear Angel come up and sit down beside her.  She looked over and smiled, but she could see his mood hadn’t changed from last night.

 

“Where’d you go?” she asked nonchalantly.

 

“Nowhere special,” he replied wistfully, “just needed some space.”

 

“Well, we still going on that picnic?” she inquired hopefully.

 

“If you want.”

 

It wasn’t the hearty enthusiasm Buffy was looking for.  “Ok, Mr. Sunshine.  I’ll go see what I can find food-wise, and you can grab a blanket.”  She extended her hand to touch his.  “It’s going to be a good day, Angel.  Just look at that sky!  Doesn’t it look fantastic? ”

 

He mumbled an inaudible reply, shifting his eyes to his lap.  He wanted to believe his foul mood was nothing more than idleness, but he felt it was more than that.  A feeling of doom pressed on his mind.  He couldn’t shake it.  It’d been following him for two days. 

 

Undeterred, Buffy took off for the kitchen.  She rummaged through cabinets, the refrigerator, all the while hoping this excursion would bring Angel out of his gloom.  If a beautiful day and her charm couldn’t shake his despair, there was always sex.

 

She smiled to herself as she laid out the bread and meat for sandwiches and picked out two ripe apples.  Just as she wedged the sandwiches in little plastic bags, the phone rang. 

 

Her voice filtered out to the porch but Angel only heard her muffled replies, wishing he had his vampire hearing.  They rarely got phone calls.  If they did, it was usually Willow, Dawn or Giles catching up with Buffy on their lives.  Angel never got any calls.

 

A few minutes later Buffy came back and sat down, a worried frown on her face.  Angel looked over, watching her eyes dart back and forth in thought.  He poked her shoulder.  “What’s up?”

 

Buffy met his gaze, biting her lip.  “That was Giles.  He wants me to come back to Sunnydale.”

 

Angel sat up straight, staring at her with wide eyes.  “Why?  What happened?”

 

“They’ve got the worst of big bad demons in town that no one has been able to kill.   It’s taken out dozens of people and the whole town is in panic mode.  Even Giles sounded shaky and worried out of his mind.  But he thinks I can kill it.”

 

The day had come Angel feared.  He wondered if this was what he had sensed coming for the last few days.  One distress call from Sunnydale and Buffy was sucked back into that life, one he’d hoped she could resist.  He knew better.  Once a slayer always a slayer. 

 

“You want to go, don’t you?”

 

“Hmm, yeah, kinda do for old time’s sake.”

 

“Got something to prove?” Angel spit out sarcastically.

 

“Maybe,” Buffy snapped back.

 

“Well, why can’t someone else kill this demon?  Why does it have to be you?”

 

“Because everyone that’s tried is dead,” Buffy stated flatly.

 

Angel stood up, pacing back and forth across the porch, running his good hand through his hair.  “Great.  So you’re next?”

 

Buffy knew this was a bad time to bring up slaying since Angel was already in a melancholy mood.  He wasn’t conveying any confidence he could be reasoned with, but she didn’t back down.

 

“Well, yeah.  I’m the strongest and the best chance they’ve got to get rid of this thing,” Buffy replied adamantly.  “I’ve got to go, Angel.  They need me.”

 

Angel glanced over his shoulder at Buffy with pleading eyes.  “I need you, too.  I’m asking you not to go.  It’s too dangerous.”

 

Buffy bristled.  “It’s not up to you.  I make my own decisions, Angel.  I was just hoping you’d be supportive.” 

 

“You know I’ve always supported you, been behind you one hundred per cent.  But you told me you gave up slaying, that you’d be happy here with me.  Did that just mean until you got itchy to kill something?”  Angel backed up and turned away from her.

 

Buffy gulped.  “You don’t mean that.  You can’t think I’m doing this because I’ve got the urge to kill!  Angel, I wouldn’t consider it, if I didn’t think this was really important.  It’s just this once.  Then I’m yours.”  Her voice softened, trying to ease his fears.  She wished Angel would look at her but he refused.

 

With his back still in her face Angel answered, “Alright, but I’m going with you.”

 

“No, Angel.  You’ll be safer here,” Buffy replied vehemently.

 

Now Angel turned around to face Buffy, his eyes incredulous and hurt.  “I’m supposed to stay here while you risk your life?  Not a chance.”

 

“Angel, I can’t protect you and stalk this demony thing.  I’d feel much better knowing you were here, out of harm’s way.”

 

“Oh, so I’d just get in the way, huh?” 

 

“I know you want to help, but you can’t, Angel.  You would be in the way.  I’d be thinking about you when I should be concentrating on the demon and that would be bad for everyone.  Please, listen to me.  I promise I’ll come back and we’ll have picnics and walks in the woods and more birthday cakes.  Just don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”

 

By now Angel was furious, worried and disheartened, all his emotions tumbling together, aimed at Buffy’s refusal to heed his warnings.  He hated this day. 

 

When he finally spoke, his voice quivered.  “I always wondered when you’d need to get one more demon under your belt.  I didn’t think it’d be this soon.  Damn stupid of me.”

 

“Angel, please don’t do this.  Just know I love you and I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

 

Angel walked down the steps, out to the grass, stopping to turn back and gaze in Buffy’s tearing eyes.  “I love you, Buffy.  Be extra careful, ok?.”

 

Angel walked away with his head lowered, hiding the tear clinging to the corner of his eye.  Buffy watched, disheartened.  She wanted to call out to him, rush over and hold him but she hesitated.  She knew he would understand once he calmed down.  But she had to leave now.  In time Angel would forgive her.

 

* 

 

While Buffy was gone Angel kept himself busy to keep from worrying.  It didn’t help much.  Eventually, he resigned himself to the fact he had no right to control Buffy.  He’d always admired her strength and dogged determination.  He just wished it didn’t have to be her facing this demon, now, when their life together was going so smoothly.  Crazy for him to think life was going to be nothing but sunshine and cake.  Evil had pulled them apart again.

 

On the second day without Buffy, Angel went into town.  He wanted to surprise her with a gift when she returned, to apologize for being a jerk and to welcome her back.  He found a silver locket on a long thin silver chain with entwined hearts engraved in the center.  It was perfect.  He paid the clerk and took it home.

 

Locket in hand Angel was deciding where to put it so Buffy would see it when she first walked in the door.  He almost didn’t answer when the phone rang.  No one should be calling, he thought.  Buffy was in Sunnydale.  Everyone they knew would know she was there.  Dread swept through him like a raging storm.  Please.  God.  No.

 

Angel hesitantly picked up.  It was Giles.  Angel whispered into the phone ‘Is it Buffy?’ and as gently as Giles could, he explained in a quivering, grave voice how Buffy had not survived her fight with the demon.  Angel barely heard Giles expressing his deepest sympathies; the rest of Giles’ words fading into nothing, meaningless.  Angel let the receiver slip from his hand, leaving Giles shouting Angel! into the phone.  He glanced down at the locket, slowly turning it over and over, fingering the delicate chain, before he placed it on the nearby table along with the note he’d written.  He headed for the door.  In his wake the note fluttered to the ground, exposed.

 

This locket holds my heart and soul,

All my love and devotion,

Yours to keep forever.

 

Always,

Angel

 

Numbly, he walked out on the porch, seeing nothing but Buffy’s face.  The last smile she wore for him.  As the grief built up inside, he roared in utter despair, his guttural, mournful cries echoing through the trees and returning with even more pain to assault his ears.  Stumbling blindly down the stairs, he walked out beyond the cottage, aimlessly wandering, out of touch with the world, lost in hopelessness.  Without Buffy life held no meaning, his heartbeat nothing but agonizing thumps inside his chest.

 

He should have been there.  He should have held her in his arms, kissed her, comforted her and told her she was loved more than life itself.   But she’d died alone.  He would never forgive himself for that.  He had meant to follow her, keep to the shadows and watch her back, but he’d changed his mind at the last moment.  Knowing how upset she would be if she caught him lurking, he’d honored her wish and stayed behind.  An egregious error in judgment.  If he’d been there he would have saved her, laid down his life for her, of that he was sure.  He should have listened to his heart that warned him the danger was too great.

 

Then he remembered his meeting with the Gatekeeper in the hospital.  The cautionary caveat about a good life, shorter but full of love.  So it had been.  The most precious gift of his very long and sordid life.  But now Angel was faced with heartbreaking loneliness.  There would be no one bringing Buffy back from the grave this time.

 

*

 

A week passed and still no one had heard from Angel.  The phone was still off the hook according to the operator, and with no way to reach him in time for Buffy’s funeral, it was held without him.  Giles and Willow were extremely concerned, wishing he’d come to lay her to rest.  But they understood.  His grief was likely unbearable.  They decided to try and find him.  He would need help to cope with Buffy’s death.  They had each other to console, but Angel had no one. 

 

Arriving at the cottage Giles and Willow found no clue as to Angel’s whereabouts.  The front door stood open, the phone receiver still dangling from its cradle.  Nothing had been disturbed since the day Giles had called.  Willow picked up the note on the floor and spied the locket on the table.  She burst into tears.  Giles gave her his shoulder to cry on, a slip of a tear falling from his eye.  He’d seen the note, too. 

 

They searched for Angel, spreading out through the woods, calling his name until they were hoarse and exhausted.  They found no sign of him.  Twice Giles called Willow over, pointing to broken branches, thinking Angel may have gone in that direction.  They followed the trails, but they ended abruptly, offering no hope.

 

Eventually they had to leave, go back to Sunnydale without finding Angel.  They left a note on the kitchen table in case he returned, but both felt in their hearts he would not be coming back.

 

*

 

Months passed and a legend grew of ghostly wails, moans and anguished screams heard late at night, high up in the mountains.  Some speculated wild animals were the culprits, but more believed the sounds were not of this world.

 

That area of the mountains became a Mecca for the curious and the believers.  They sat in the dark listening to the echoes of the disembodied roars and cries, convinced spirits roamed there.  They came hoping to catch a glimpse of the enigmatic owner of the morbid cacophony.  They never did.

 

Someone discovered the grievous misfortune of the small cottage at the foot of the mountains.  Tales circulated of the young woman killed in her hometown under mysterious circumstances and her artistic lover, overcome with grief, disappearing without a trace.  It was a profitable story for the local newspaper and garnered much sympathy for the tragic couple.  Some remembered the young man, talented and handsome, his impressive artwork displayed in the gallery.  Others talked about the beautiful, petite blonde who won over their hearts with her effortless charm and friendship.  Many suspected what they heard had to be one of the young lovers, heartsick, lamenting their love lost.  

 

Everyone was mystified when the macabre sounds changed, morphed into mirthful, innocent tones.  Gone were the woeful howls and soulful cries.  Ghostly laughter echoed in the sky as though children were romping, gleefully chasing each other through the clouds.  A giggling girl’s voice could be heard singing and chanting, while a deeper voice hummed and chimed in with laughter.

 

The people smiled and their hearts lightened.   Any moment they expected to see the spirits darting about in heavenly games.  Once someone yelled, “Look over there!” and heads swiveled, straining for a glimpse.  Most swore they saw a flash of light streak through the nebula, immediately followed by another, as though the two kindred souls were cavorting through their private celestial wonderland.

 

Those who still came to the mountain nodded their heads in agreement, certain the young lovers had found each other in the afterlife.  Eternally, together again.

 

~end~

 

November 2011