Joyce greeted her dinner companion in the small, dimly lit, out-of-the-way seaside restaurant.
"Just wondering, then. How did you play it off, to get away here?" he asked.
"I told them how I had this date lined up with a gorgeous new guy, made up a meet-cute scenario, and a name, and a suitable career for him, everything. I even made a big show this afternoon of picking out the perfect dress to wear."
She got up, twirled around, sat back down. "Both Buffy and Dawn approved of this one, by the way. They said it wasn’t too mom-like."
"Go on with you! There, I’ve always known there was more to you upstairs than most people say! And it is lovely."
"Thank you on both counts, I think."
"Black and backless really is your style. And, no, no, it’s not too mom-like … as if that were even a bad thing. Actually, no one gets to be a mum without having been sexy at least once beforehand, if you think about it."
"Believe me, I have."
"Like I said … much more to you."
"And in a way it wasn’t really telling them a lie. Because you really have come into the art gallery sometimes when we’ve had night openings, and you’ve told me how you really were a writer … back in the day, way back … and that your middle name really was Brian … before. And, of course, you really are hunky, if you don’t mind a 42-year-old woman telling you so."
"Thank you for the compliment. And 42 is not old from my perspective, of course."
Blushing, she looked down at the menu.
"Brandy Alexander! Do they even still make those? Goodness, that used to be my favorite back in college. In fact, that’s what Hank and I were drinking the night that … well, anyway."
He motioned for the waiter, ordered two, then turned back to her. "I didn’t ask him to microwave it with little marshmallows, but, you know, I could call him back and ask him to, if you like. If it would make it more mom-like."
She slapped his hand playfully, then smiled again, a distant smile.
"It was the final night of spring break our senior year. And we were giggling, and running down the beach, and … and we had been planning to get married anyway after graduation, so we did, right afterward, and so noone really thought much about it when by January … but I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. I’ve never even told Buffy."
"Well, she’s 20 as of last month, and having the … the college experience herself. And, so, she’s probably figured it out by now."
He leaned forward. "And you can tell me anything you want. You know that."
"Yes. I do know it. In fact, that’s … really why I asked you here."
It was her turn to lean forward. "You know what I’ve been through. The hospital, the tumor, the operation. And even though they think they got it all, complications are possible. A new growth, a blood clot, an aneurysm."
"Believe me, love, I more than sympathize. I’ve also got something in my head shouldn’t be there, you know."
"They said when they released me, before they would even let me go home, that I had to know the risks. And I do."
She paused. "And … well … I think something could happen … pretty soon. I feel it."
He waited for her to go on.
"I remember that … Angel … because of the kind of … person … he is … he could tell things sometimes, just by … touching. Can … can you?"
"Do you want me to try? Do you really want to know?"
When she nodded, he gently touched her cheek, then her temple, then the back of her skull. He did it again, with the other hand on the other side this time, and slowly shook his head.
"Damn it to hell, Joyce. I … I think you’re right."
He grasped her hands. "It’s the fate of all you mortals. But, pet, I am so sorry."
"Well, it’s better to know. To prepare. And I have. Filed the taxes this morning, state and federal, personal and business, earlier even than usual. Household bills paid a month early. All the insurance up to date. Being divorced … a mom … middle-aged … I guess I had better."
"You’re a strong, brave woman. You always have been, had to be. But then, just look at whose mum you are. You learnt it from her, or, more like, she learnt it from you."
"You’re so sweet."
"No one else on this spinning rock would ever call me that, which just proves how sweet you are. And, like I said, you’re not middle-aged, not to me, anyway."
She interlaced her fingers with his, looked him in the eye. "Yes. You’ve been around long enough to know what life can be like, and you still will be here a very long time from now."
She squeezed hard. "And that’s why you’re the one I need. I need you to take care of my girls."
He squeezed back just as hard, stared at her equally steadily. "Of course I will. That’s a promise to a lady. Until the end of the world."
They had two more Brandy Alexanders each, minus the marshmallows.
Ate prime rib and crème brulee.
Talked, laughed, walked out onto the beach.
Backless and black really was her style.
And 42 was hardly middle-aged.
A delivery arrived at the house the next morning. Buffy and Dawn were at school already. Joyce was getting ready to go to work at the gallery.
She accepted the flowers at the door, blushed and giggled as she read the card signed "Brian."
"I just hope Buffy will find someone who will treat her as well," she said softly to herself.
She set the bouquet on the ledge. Then, her legs giving way under her, she walked unsteadily to the living room couch and lay on her back. Then she lay completely still.
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