She woke up with a start, her heart pounding.
There had been . . . monsters. And height. And pain. And then a brilliant light . . .
But as she tried to recapture it, it filtered away even as her heart rate slowed back to normal.
Nothing looked familiar as she looked around. She seemed to be in some kind of temple, the walls made up of tall columns with colorful banners filling the spaces in between. A soft breeze drifted in through the fabric, warm air rich with the scents of lilac and roses and sweet, ripe fruit. The ceiling vaulted high above, painted to match the sky. She watched in wonder as the sun slowly rose over the cornice to begin a slow traverse of the ceiling just as the dawn’s light filtered in through the banners.
The bed she was in was comfortable, soft and inviting, but her curiosity overcame her and she pushed the covers back, swinging her legs around to put her feet on the floor. She was dressed in a simple white shift, but as there seemed to be no other clothes in the room, she abandoned thoughts of changing into anything else and rose to begin exploring.
Only one of the column spaces was unblocked by the fabric banners, so that’s the way she went. It led to another columned and bannered room, this one with a roof that opened to the sky, water trickling into an enamel tiled pool. Benches sat along the edges, the walls bare except for the brightly colored panels. She turned slowly in place, trying to decide what to do next.
As she came full circle, she jumped in surprise to see a young man standing in the main archway, framed by the columns and the trees and river behind him. He was dressed in camel slacks and black shoes, a white shirt trisected by brown suspenders. His light brown hair was shaggy and fell a bit into his eyes, held off only by a pair of spectacles. “Good morning,” he said with a soft smile. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’ve brought breakfast. May I come in?”
“Um, yeah, sure.”
As he crossed the floor towards her, she was surprised to see the room change around her. A pair of comfortable old fashioned chairs appeared, flanking a fireplace that hadn’t been on that wall before. A small bookcase heavy with volumes now stood near the door to the bedroom. And right at her elbow was a small, round table, covered in an antique looking lace cloth and set for tea. He set the bowl of fruit in his arms down, and it became a tall stacked tray of sandwiches, cakes and biscuits, pots of cream and jam alongside.
She looked at him in wonder. “Are you magic?”
“What?” He looked about in confusion, then seemed to realize what he’d done. “No, no, it’s not me, it’s this place. I’m sorry I forget myself sometimes. I can make it go away if you’d rather.”
“No, don’t. It’s nice. Kind of homey.”
“You can do it, too, if you like. Anything you want, anything you feel can be here if you wish it.”
“Is . . . am I in heaven?”
He studied her compassionately. “Should you be?”
“I . . . I don’t know. Maybe?”
He nodded, gesturing for her to have a seat. “Maybe is correct. You’re in between, in Limbo. The Powers aren’t certain for one reason or another what to do with you. So for now you’ll wait here.”
“Who are you?” she asked, slipping into the chair across from him.
“I’m your guide, for a little while. Until you get your feet under you.” He poured a cup of tea and handed it across to her.
She accepted it carefully. “Do you have a name?”
He shook his head, pouring a second cup for himself and adding four sugars to it. “None of us do.”
“Sure we do! My name is . . . I’m . . .” She faltered, wracking her brain. She had a name, she knew she did. If she could just . . .
“It’s alright,” he consoled her. “It takes a little while, but you become accustomed to it. It makes it easier to be here.”
“I’m very confused.”
“Eat your breakfast. You’ll learn not to worry so much.”
They walked along the riverbank, the sun warm, the air comfortable as they picked their way along the path. “Why are you here?” she asked, pushing a branch heavy with flowers out of her way.
“Apparently I’m not dead yet.” He held another bough back for her, allowing her to pass.
She looked at him in surprise. “Then shouldn’t you be back on earth?”
He shrugged. “I don’t quite understand it myself. Somehow I died enough to release my soul, but my body goes on. My place in the afterlife is still being affected by the actions of my body. Until I’m completely deceased, I can’t be dispensed. So I remain here.”
“That’s so not fair!”
“You think?” He smiled shyly.
“Of course not! It’s not your fault you didn’t die all the way. You don’t have any control over what your body does without you.”
“Would that that were so.” He plucked a long piece of grass and began toying with it.
The river glittered as she watched it flow past. “Aren’t you scared?”
“Sometimes.” He picked up a rock and cast it out into the water. “Most of the time I don’t even think about it.”
She watched the ripples on the water expand out until they disappeared. “I feel like there are people I should be worried about. That I need to be taking care of them.”
“They’re safe,” he promised.
“How do you know?”
“Close your eyes. Can’t you feel it?”
She did as he instructed. She felt the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze, but slowly inside her grew a sense of quiet contentment edged with a tinge of sorrow. “They’re alright?”
He nodded. “All is as it should be.”
She slipped her hand into his as they continued walking.
“Why do we need to eat?” she asked as they sat down to their noon meal.
“Haven’t you ever heard of feeding the soul?” he asked, wiping his mouth fastidiously.
“I always thought it was just an expression.”
“It is. But like most sayings, this one has some root in fact. In heaven, they feed on the divine spirit. It pours into them and fills them as simply as breathing. We feed on the spirit as well, but we must actively ingest it.”
“So this isn’t real food?”
“It is whatever you want it to be.”
She studied the soup before her, and suddenly it transformed itself into a cheeseburger. With a laugh, she picked it up and bit down into it. “It’s good!” she said in surprise, her mouth still full. She offered it to him. “Try it.”
Uncertain, he leaned forward to bite into the sandwich, his white teeth crunching through lettuce and tomato before sinking into the meat, sending a small rivulet of scarlet juice running down the side of his mouth. He nodded agreement as he chewed, surprised but pleased. “It is good.”
His own meal changed so that he, too, had a burger.
They ate in noisy companionship until finally all the food was gone. She sighed and leaned back in her chair. “At least you don’t have to worry about gaining weight in heaven. Or here. I hope.” She looked at him, puzzled. “Do you?”
With a warm chuckle, he shook his head. “Although I doubt you had to worry about that when you were alive, either. You’re very slender.”
She should be discomfited by his observation, but she wasn’t. “I feel like I know you.”
“Perhaps you did. In this life or a previous one. God works in mysterious ways.”
“I’m glad. I feel better having you here.”
He caught her hand, lifting her knuckles to his mouth. “My pleasure, my lady.”
His breath and mouth were warm on her skin. That surprised her somehow.
She stood in front of a full length mirror, studying herself in the short shift she had woken up in. “You can wear anything you want to,” he instructed her. “All you have to do is feel it.”
Shifting her focus to the clothes themselves, she concentrated as she had with the food. There was a small flurry of activity as they changed, shifting over her skin with an odd sensation of no sensation, as though she should feel something but couldn’t. When it finished, her garb had transformed. White had changed to black, leather pants and coat over a blood red blouse, heavy boots now enclosing her feet. She opened her hand to reveal a long wooden stake, sharpened to a fine point and well worn. It made no sense, and the more she looked at it, the faster her heart beat, her breath hitching in her throat. She felt a scream of horror building in her chest, tears welling in her eyes.
His hand settled comfortingly on her shoulder. “It’s alright,” he said softly, closing her hand over the stake. “You can change it if you want. You don’t need to wear this anymore.”
“I don’t know how to change,” she gasped out.
“Just think about what you want it to be. Think about what you feel.”
She closed her eyes again, focused on the peacefulness of the day, the heavy comfort of his hand on her shoulder. Her heart rate settled as she slowly became still and calm.
“There,” he said pleasantly, “isn’t that better?”
When she opened her eyes again, she was dressed in a light sundress covered in brilliant sunflowers, thin flat sandals on her feet. She smiled, the last tension easing out of her body.
She turned to face him.
He lifted her hands to admire her. “You see? You’re free to be anything here.”
“And in heaven?”
“There you are everything.”
She studied him critically. “If we can be anything, then why do you wear those?” She pointed to his glasses.
“These?” He reached up to touch the frames. “I suppose I don’t need to.” With a thought he willed them away, but to her amusement they continued to flicker in and out on his nose. He surrendered and let them reincorporate. “They’ve become a bit of a habit, I’m afraid.”
With a smile, she reached up. “Here,” she said, slipping them off his face. “Now they’re here, so you don’t keep trying to create them.” She set them down on the table. “You have beautiful eyes.”
To her amusement, he blushed, looking away almost shyly. “Thank you.”
Unable to resist, she leaned forward to press her lips to his. He pulled back in surprise, and for a moment she was afraid she had done something wrong. But then he moved closer, slipping his hand under the weight of her hair to return the caress, his mouth slow and curious over hers. Her hands came up to rest on his shoulders, her mouth opening to his gentle exploration.
They pulled back slowly, each smiling a bashful secret smile. “Perhaps we did know each other,” he said, glancing up at her.
“That felt . . . familiar.” She smiled back at him.
He twined his fingers through hers. “Like coming home.”
They sat on the outside steps, watching the sun set, streaks of crimson and rose and violet cut by thin wisps of cloud. Their hands were entangled, their legs pressed comfortably close. As the last swell of the sun was swallowed by the horizon, he sighed sadly, squeezing her hand. “I’d best be going.”
She gripped his fingers tightly. “Go where?”
“To my own home. My own bed.”
“Can’t you stay?” She felt an unspeakable loneliness overwhelm her at the thought of him leaving.
“I . . . I’m not certain.”
“Isn’t it allowed?”
“There is nothing not allowed here, so long as it isn’t evil. I’m just not sure if it is. . . proper.”
She leaned her head forward, catching his mouth in a languorous, generous kiss. “You were sent to take care of me, weren’t you?” she whispered against his lips.
His hands cupped the back of her head as he dipped down for another taste of her. “I was.”
“Then take care of me tonight. Keep me safe. Please.” She pressed closer, her kisses becoming more passionate.
“I want to,” he moaned softly between kisses. “I’m just . . . I don’t know if I can give you what you want.”
She pulled back gently, compassion in her eyes. “You’ve never made love to a woman before, have you?”
His face burned but he didn’t look away. “Not in life. Afterwards . . . I don’t know what my body has done, but I . . .”
She silenced him with another kiss, artless and understanding as she stroked his hair, his back, his neck. Finally she rose, holding his hand as she started back into her home. “Let me be your first. Let me take care of you for a change. Stay in my bed tonight. With me.”
A last flicker of uncertainty shaded his face before he allowed her to pull him to his feet, following her willingly.
They stopped beside her bed, the faint light of the moon traversing the vault above adding shadows and highlights to their faces. And then the room changed, the bed shifting to a magnificent walnut four-poster hung with heavy velvet drapes. Surfaces everywhere were covered with candles that cast a warm glow throughout the room while remaining intimately dim. She couldn’t help smiling. “You are a romantic, aren’t you?”
“For you, most definitely.” His lips brushed over hers and she closed her eyes to better enjoy the indulgence of it. She ran her hands over his chest and was pleased to feel the cotton change to warm satin skin. He hummed against her lips, and she realized that she could feel the bare skin of his hands on her back. She took a step closer and their naked bodies touched at every swell and curve. He lifted her and turned, setting her up on top of the high mattress without ever releasing her mouth. His hands continued stroking her hair and her back, so she caught one and gently drew it around to cup her breast. They both moaned softly at the contact as he began exploring all the sensitive curves of it, her legs wrapping around his waist to draw him closer.
“I must have loved you so much in life,” he breathed against her ear before sliding his mouth down the sensitive column of her neck.
“This feels so right. God must have sent you to me for this.”
“Our own piece of heaven right here.”
She backed up slowly, drawing him onto the bed with her, still keeping him between her thighs. “Are you ready?”
“I was born for this moment.”
She drew him closer, guiding him to her center. “Or died for it.”
“I’d do it a thousand times over to be with you.”
They both cried out as he slowly buried himself in her stroke by lingering stroke. She was panting by the time he was fully seated, but he just held her, nosing against her cheek as his fingers knotted in her hair. “What do I do now?” he whispered into her ear.
“Can I show you?”
With gentle force she pushed against him, rolling them over until she was on top. She settled herself on him carefully, whimpering softly as he pushed a little deeper into her. Then oh so slowly she began moving, rising and falling over him, her eyes locked with his. He watched her in wonder and ecstasy, the electric blue of his eyes gone midnight dark. “Touch me,” she begged, and he did, one hand resting on her hip as the other gently fondled her breast with palm and fingers and thumb. She moved faster and he groaned, pulling her head down to devour her mouth.
And then suddenly they were moving again as he rolled her back beneath him. “I believe I understand the mechanics now,” he murmured against her throat. “I believe I can take it from here.”
She cried out as he began thrusting within her, her whole world narrowing to the velvet slide of his cock within her, the moist trail of his mouth over her throat. “Faster,” she begged, and he complied, his hands sliding down to grip her ass as she wrapped her legs around his waist, opening herself to him even more. She used the strength of her legs to encourage him even faster. He growled, a long, low, animal sound that shattered along her nerves, and began pounding into her, striking her deep and true with every burst, sending shockwaves of pleasure through her whole body until she came apart, screaming out for him.
When she came back to herself, he was still laying over her, his body a comforting weight. He was panting rapidly, soft gasps of wonder escaping his throat as he stared down at her, open mouthed. She reached up to stroke his hair, her arms holding him comfortingly, and as though he had been released from some unseen grip, he collapsed against her, making her giggle.
“Did you enjoy that?” she asked innocently.
He found the strength to raise his head again and meet her eyes. “It was a bit of alright,” he acknowledged breathlessly.
She pushed against him in mock indignation, her grin belying her tone. “Only a bit?”
He let her push him far enough away that he could collapse onto his back, drawing her into his arms. “That was brilliant.” He pulled her closer, catching her mouth in a gentle caress. “Will you be my second as well?”
“And your third,” she vowed between kisses, “and your fourth and your fifth . . .” before he silenced her with his passion.
She awoke sometime deep in the night, momentarily uncertain of where she was. The warmth of his body spooned up against her, the weight of his arm around her a comfort, and she nestled back against him. This was peace, and she was content to remain here as long as she had him for company.
His mouth moved warmly along her shoulder and she sighed, tipping her head back to caress his cheek. He subsided, his even breath telling her he had never quite woken up. But that was alright. They had all the next day, and the next.
She watched the waxing moon’s progression across her ceiling and allowed his heartbeat to lull her back to sleep.
She awoke with a gasp. It was hot and dark and through her disorientation she felt walls close all around her. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t where she belonged. She belonged with . . . she couldn’t remember. She had to get out of here.
Unable to see, she scratched and struck out at the walls around her, feeling the one above crack and give. But instead of sunlight, a steady stream of dirt filtered down. She tried to scream in terror, but no sounds came out. So she did the only thing she could. She clawed her way out.
She lay on the cool grass for long moments afterwards, sucking in desperate breaths of fresh air.
When finally she was able to move, she began walking, searching for something familiar, something she had lost. But everything she saw was defiled, corrupted, burning with hungry flames.
She froze rigid when she found a version of herself being tortured by demons.
This was hell. She was in hell.
She did the only thing she could do.
She escaped the demons only to run into mimicries of her friends.
Unsure if they were real or another torture, she ran from them as well.
She saw the tower, remembered jumping from it. Maybe if she did it again, she’d get it right this time.
She stared down at the pavement far below.
“Dawnie, I have to.”
It was her, it was really her. Her sister, her Dawnie. Which meant she wasn’t dead. And that place of comfort and peace that rested in her mind was once again beyond her reach.
Dawn took her home, changed her, bathed her, dressed her like a child. She had to remember she was Buffy. Buffy. Buffy Summers. This was her house and these were her things and this was how people dressed, one leg at a time. It seemed so hard, so laborious. So endless.
“Dawn! Are you there?”
She jumped at the sound of the voice downstairs. Dawn smiled apologetically and raced off to deal with it.
But something about that voice drew her. She drifted down the hall and started slowly down the steps.
“Look,” Dawn said quietly.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the bloody bot before.” Then he stopped.
She looked into his fathomless blue eyes and suddenly, unreasoningly, she felt comforted. She knew him. In a way she didn’t know anyone else. She let the faint wisps of memory fill her like an almost forgotten dream, full of peace and comfort and security, no details, just vivid sensations that felt more real than real. Gone beyond her grasp now.
He’d been sent to take care of her.