A simple trip to the grocery store has never taken anyone so long. Some of the other customers are starting to eye us warily, but I've accepted that the only thing that's going to put an end to this quest is reaching the maximum capacity of the cart.
He doesn't seem to have any concern for the time or money we're spending here, and after a while, I don't either. Enthusiasm for food is something I can get behind, and as his only consultant on the flavors available in these modern times, I have a job to do.
"There's so many kinds of chocolate," he says, crouching at the side of the aisle to pore over the labels. "How do you know which one to get?"
"When in doubt, all of them."
He nods intently, eyes locked on a list of ingredients that he's never tasted and I've never tried to pronounce. "Are these good?"
"Let's get two boxes."
I add the treats to our moveable feast and offer him a hand to pull him back up. "You're going to get so fat."
"Nah. You'll keep me in shape."
I'm half asleep already, so it takes a moment to figure out what that weird noise is. When I find its source, I have to share the news, so I grab his shoulder and shake. "Angel! You're snoring!"
"No I'm not," he mumbles back. "Vampires don't snore."
"You're not a vampire anymore, doofus! You're a human and you snore!" It occurs to me that I probably shouldn't be so excited about this discovery, especially if I'm going to be sharing a bed with him from now on, but I can't help it. Stealth Guy himself, doing chainsaw imitations in his sleep. It's hilarious.
"Oh yeah." Even in his state of semi-consciousness, he sounds pleased about the reminder. "Well, I'm sure I wasn't. You must have dreamed it. Go to sleep."
Without pursuing it further I sink back into position, his heart pulsing beneath my hand, and close my eyes. He wins this round, but I have a plan to bring a tape recorder into the bedroom. He was snoring.
He's been cranky all morning. When I can't tempt him out of it with offers of food or carnal delights, finally I ask what's wrong, and he says, "I have a headache."
It seems kind of anticlimactic, and I'm trying to think of how to reply when he adds, "I didn't get hit, and I wasn't drinking last night, it just hurts." He clamps a hand to his forehead and rubs his temples, hunched over the tabletop and staring down at it. "And yesterday I got a cut and it still hasn't healed, and everything I try to lift feels way too heavy, and I can't hear my heartbeat, and I can't smell you unless I'm right up close to you, and I can't concentrate on anything with my head hurting like this…"
…And that's about where I start laughing.
I sound like a heartless bitch, I know—but the man's been to Hell. He's had the business end of some kind of sharp weapon shoved through almost every part of his body. He's complaining about a headache.
For a few seconds I get the full-on deathglare, but by the time I retain my composure, he's softened into resigned compliance. "Okay," he says. "I guess it's not as bad as catching on fire every time I step into the sun."
I search out the Ibuprofen and rattle the bottle at him. "Not only that, but look what we invented while you were busy not getting headaches for two hundred years."
He gives the pills a dubious look, and I realize he's never taken one before. Better get him some water before he tries to pretend he knows how to do it.
Half the battle was getting him to tell me when his birthday was. After much prodding he eventually admitted that he didn't want to celebrate it because it was Liam's birthday, not his, so then we reviewed some other options. Supposedly there are vampires out there who celebrate a "deathday," but we both found that ridiculous. I suggested using his "curseday," and he said there was more of a new beginning for him in the first time he saw me. Well, I'm not going to be caught celebrating his Buffyday, so we've settled on this, the anniversary of the day he became human again, and there's no reason not to just call it his birthday.
The next challenge was gifts. Dawn starts snickering before he's even finished opening hers, though she tries to hide it, and when he gets the box open and stares blankly into it, she bursts into outright laughter.
"Blue jeans," he says. He seems to be attempting gratitude, but Dawn's amusement is spreading to the rest of us, and finally he just asks, "Am I being punished for something?"
She's much more earnest than she is serious. "No, you're being initiated into something. Humans wear blue jeans. Honest-to-God truth."
"Not all of them!" He looks at me for help.
He'll be getting none; I just shrug one shoulder. "She asked me what you needed. I couldn't lie."
"Oh, so you were in on this?"
"At least try them on. You might like them."
"I don't think so."
"Are we going to do this the hard way?"
Dawn pipes in again, far more interested in this exchange than she ought to be. "You better watch it, Angel. She'll totally change your pants by force. I wouldn't risk it." She crosses her arms. So do I. The Summers sisters are a juggernaut when we're set on the same thing.
He looks at us both and raises a fist full of denim. "I am going to wear these," he explains, "because they were a gift. No other reason."
Willow was the first to notice it. We were at her place last night and at some point Angel came up behind me, immobilized my arms against my body with one of his, and stole a dollar bill out of my front pocket, saying something about how he was going to use it to buy me some new puns.
We were just playing, but Willow commented that she thought it was awfully gutsy of him to count on my indulgence.
"I wasn't indulging him!" I protested. "He had me pinned, you saw it."
"Right, with one of his puny little human arms? If a vampire did that you would have flipped him over your shoulder and stepped on his face."
I glanced from her skeptical face to Angel's impassive one. She was right, I realized—I do still act like he's a match for my supernatural strength. Physically, he gets the upper hand as much as I do, and it's never because I'm indulging him.
Now I can't stop thinking about it. Clearly it's psychological, but I know I'm stronger than him. The next day I flip him over my shoulder while we're training and tell myself that's that, but the day after that, he wrestles me to the ground and holds me there for an unbelievable six seconds.
This never happened with my last human lover. I never forgot for a second that I was stronger than Riley; I couldn't, or he might get hurt. Why am I not afraid that Angel will get hurt?
The answer comes with a little scrutiny of the man's behavior. I don't think of him as weaker than me because he doesn't act like it. He's still careful during sparring matches to avoid hurting me, and he's still aggressive in the bedroom, and he still walks around like he owns the place no matter where we are.
His comment on all this? "Old habits die hard." He doesn't even seem surprised by my analysis. I guess the really old habits die really hard.
We still work out together sometimes, but he can't claim that I'm the one who keeps him in shape; he does that himself. Every day he makes sure to go down to the training room, whether or not anyone else is around, and he takes his time, doing it right and working up a sweat.
Occasionally, when I don't feel the need to exercise my own body, I join him down there anyway and find a place to sit and watch. He doesn't mind, and it relaxes me. If our positions were reversed, he would have a sketchbook in his hands, but my only art is physical and I keep what I see in my own memory.
Once I ask him, "Does it ever frustrate you? Needing to do this all the time to stay fit?"
"No," he replies easily without breaking his pace on the pull-up bars. "It feels good. The way it makes my blood rush, and my lungs expand."
And of course I know all about endorphins and adrenaline and the nameless thrill of a body in motion, but I've never thought about how fighting would feel without them. Angel knows what to appreciate about his mortal flesh—he really is doing this because he likes it.
Now I'm feeling appreciative too. "Angel," I say, getting a grunt in response. "You look really good."
He's developed the endearing habit of touching my belly while stating the obvious. Sometimes he gazes at it raptly, as if he has x-ray vision. "We're going to have a baby," he tells me.
Once he switched it up a little and said, all full of pride and wonder, "You're so big." It's possible his ears are still ringing—Slayer strength is still active, thanks, and he should know by now when he's on thin ice—but I swear he was grinning even as he promised to govern his commentary with a little more care. If he weren't so good at keeping me pacified with ice cream and backrubs, he'd be in serious danger.
What? I'm eight months pregnant, I'm not required to be reasonable. He signed up for this when he regained his virility.
When I squeeze into the bathroom beside him, he's staring into the mirror and not apparently doing anything else. "It's been ten years," I remind him. "Has the novelty of having a reflection still not worn off?"
He glances at me and shakes his head. "No. I just...these lines on my face. They weren't there before. " He gestures at his image to show me. "I'm getting older."
Vanity isn't behind his words this time, just quiet amazement, and yes, a little bit of regret. I'm not tempted to rib him about it. I bring my arm around his waist and touch his face where the new lines are writing their stories on him. "You look the same to me."
There's no way he could know that we're replaying a conversation from my youth, but somehow he seems to realize it before I do, giving me a sharp look of inquiry as if he knows there are ghosts in the room though he can't see them. He would understand, if I told him, but all I wanted was to give him some comfort and I shake my head and wonder what could have brought that line out of my mouth.
Then he smiles and I realize it was exactly the right thing to say. We face the mirror together and meet the eyes of our reflections.
It took a while for him to agree to let Joy take the trip, but at this point he's conceded that his objections were more on his own behalf than hers—he hasn't spent more than a day away from her since she was born, and he's going to miss her. But Giles's offer is too generous to pass up, and how many girls her age get to spend a whole summer in England? She'll be in the safest and healthiest conditions possible. Angel, of course, has a hard time denying anything to his daughters, so the conclusion is almost foregone just because Joy wants it so badly.
When we tell her she can go, her eyes light up and Angel's misgivings become immediately less apparent. She's about to pick up the phone and dial Giles before we remind her about time zones and tell her he can wait until tomorrow to hear the news.
It's late that night and we're in bed before Angel tells me the other reason behind his reluctance to leave Joy in another's hands. He does trust Giles, he says, but he trusted Wesley too. Now he can't ever truly believe that any child of his is safe with anyone but himself or me.
I don't try to logic him out of it. To do so would be to deny the pain he still feels from his separation from Connor. "Trust Joy," I tell him instead. "She got the best parts of both of us anyway."
He nods; I can't see it but I can feel his head move against mine. He knows I'm right. It's too soon to know if Joy is going to be a Slayer, but she's independent and responsible, and she deserves a chance to take care of herself for a little while.
He exhales slowly. "Three months," he laments.
"Giles will make sure she calls and writes. And we'll still have Katie." He's well aware of how much attention the five-year-old fury-on-wheels requires.
"I know. But if anything happened to them…" He doesn't need to finish. I know that I couldn't protect Giles if he allowed any harm to come to Joy, and he's seen enough of Angel to know it too.
The demon has died, but the past lives on. A killer is guarding my daughters. My daughters are safe.
Everyone's been watching me closely, afraid I'm going to fall apart, but I was shaped through a lifetime of grief and I know I can survive this. The first and only time I lose my control is when the mortician is informing us of our options, describing them with practiced sensitivity, and she suggests cremation.
I'm not opposed to the ritual itself, but at the thought of putting Angel into an urn I start to panic, knowing I can't explain what he's endured to earn the privilege of leaving a body. Joy's husband, professionally diplomatic for the last two decades, comes to my rescue before I become incoherent. He tells the mortician that we want a simple closed casket, and we finish up quickly and leave the place.
A stone is being cut with an angel wing motif that Angel drew himself, years before his health began to decline. His name is already chiseled in, but there's room beside it for mine.
There's an absence in my world, and it aches, magnified by the memory of the last time I felt it. It's bearable, though, and almost welcome for the sake of the reminder that things are different now. I don't have to contemplate a life without him. My responsibilities here are through; I'm done saving the world, and I'm allowed to take the peace that's coming to me without regrets.
This time I know where he is. It's a place I've been before, the place he was meant for all along, and this time I know he'll be waiting for me there.