Summary: "When will it be enough?” she asks, but there is no reply, and she stands alone amongst the stars." Half a decade after Chosen, Buffy risks everything to protect the thing she loves most.
A/N: This story is my frilled shark fic, so named because frilled sharks have been known to have gestational periods of three and a half years, which is how long it has taken for me to finish it (the first draft I have is from 2009 and Ren's name was Molly). So, many, many thanks to my midwives: Bean, who almost undoubtedly read the first two or three drafts of this back in high school; Kairos, who was so encouraging when I was trying to get my mojo going while I was away in Israel; and MoragLee, who betaed for me (AKA talked me down to the ledge) now that I'm in college.
Title from Alexander Pope and summary from The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Few characters are mine.
“Kill phone,” was the only thing on Buffy's mental to do list as its shrill ring nearly bisected her head. Unfortunately, her hand would not cooperate with her intentions of phonocide, so she settled for letting the machine pick it up and then ignoring Giles's urgent message. But the phone rang three more times and she was finally forced to answer it. Seven minutes later she was rushing to the hospital.
She was dizzy when she got to the room. She was beginning to think that she shouldn't have had that fifth drink. Giles was standing outside, pacing. Through the door, she could hear the doctors yelling.
Giles started in on the situation without reprimanding her, although she could see his disapproval of her disheveled state.
“Her name is Luciana. We're not yet sure how she slipped under our radar; Willow theorizes perhaps her age. She's twenty-six, much older than any of the other Slayers we've detected. The doctors are trying to save her, but...” He paused, taking off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. “She's crashed three times. The Kantar demon slashed her around the chest; she lost quite a bit of blood and her heart is failing. But they managed to get the baby out.” Buffy stared at him, trying to process what he was saying. He gestured down the hall. “It's a girl. She was only two weeks early, so she isn't considered premature.”
“What do we do about her?” Buffy asked, nodding toward the room, wondering if she sounded callous and dispassionate, and then laughing inside because after all she had seen, she was.
“I suppose we wait. But I have to tell you, Buffy, it doesn't look good. She was trying to get to us. They found a business card on her so they called me. I've been through her diary-”
“I know, Buffy!” he snapped, and then subsided, laboring to calm down. “I would never have pried if I didn't think it was necessary. Luciana wrote in her diary nearly every day. She most definitely got her strength from Willow's spell; the dates match up. When she was about four months pregnant, demons started tracking her. They attacked her family. They killed almost everyone she knew, anyone who might try to protect her. She and her husband went on the run. He was killed about a month ago in Venice, right after someone told them where to find us, that we might help.”
Buffy shoved the dying woman in the hospital room (my fault, my fault) out of her mind. “And what about the baby? What will happen to her?”
“The hospital will enter her into the social services system and she will be put up for adoption. Don't worry, Buffy. Babies have a very high chance of being adopted. She's a beautiful girl and she will grow up with a family that loves her.”
“We can't know that,” slipped out of Buffy's mouth.
The response was obviously inappropriate; Giles looked at her oddly. “No. No, I suppose we can't.”
“Can I see her?”
The monks had planted memories that felt real. Buffy could remember holding Dawn, a chunky, bald, red-faced, squalling baby who smelled of diaper cream. Luciana's baby could not have been more different: she was creamy-skinned with sharp, birdlike bones. She had dark hair and dark eyes and she stared silently upward, as if searching for constellations in Buffy's face. A future, a whole lifespan, a human eternity looked up from the cuddle of blankets.
“I want her.” She unfocused from the baby to look up at Giles so he would know she was serious. “Whatever it takes, Giles. I mean it. I want this baby.”
“Mommy, someone's knocking.” Ren looked up from her coloring.
Buffy raised a waspish eyebrow at her daughter. Ren had been told many times not to open the door, but it would be nice if she disobeyed just this once as her mother tried to type out an email, butter toast and blow dry her hair. But it was better this way. Vampires might not be able to come in without an invitation, but not everything that had ill intentions towards Ren was supernatural.
Maneuvering her way around the crayons scattered around the floor (Ren had been getting very touchy when she broke them), Buffy went to look through the peephole. It was only her neighbor, Evelyn. She opened the door.
“Hello!” Evelyn breezed in despite the noticeable lack of invitation. “Good afternoon, Miss Ren.” She gave the girl a little curtsy, carefully balancing a box in her arms.
“Here, I'll take that,” Buffy offered, good manners breaking through her dislike of Evelyn.
“Well thank you, dear,” Evelyn handed over the box. “But that cake is not for you!” She waggled a finger annoyingly at Buffy who was suddenly reminded of the reasons other than Ren's safety that she did not associate with her neighbors.
“Would you mind terribly if I asked you to go to the new tenant in 4E? He helped me change some light bulbs yesterday, so I thought I would make him one of my famous pineapple upside-down cakes.” Evelyn could evidently read Buffy's desire to stay in her apartment because she rushed on. “I would do it myself but I have an appointment. My arthritis is acting up from all this rain we've been having.” She massaged her wrists exaggeratedly.
“Sure, Evelyn.” Buffy forced a smile.
“Lovely. Now, I would take Ren with you. He might invite you in for tea. He's very polite. And very good-looking,” Evelyn sing-songed, adding a huge wink.
Buffy gritted her teeth. If she could hold out for another minute, Evelyn and her irritating matchmaking ways would disappear. “I'll be sure to do that, Evelyn. We'll go over in just a few minutes.”
“Excellent, dear. Goodbye.” Evelyn wafted out, her cropped gray hair stirring slightly as she shut the door behind her.
Buffy slumped into her chair and finished drying her hair. Talking with Evelyn always tired her out. Ren boosted herself onto the chair facing her mother.
“Can we go to the park?”
“It's still raining out, you can see that.”
“Can we go somewhere?” Ren gusted a sigh, her head flopping on to her arms. Buffy smothered the grin that only her daughter seemed to bring to her face now.
“Why don't we go give this cake to Mr. Next Door?”
Ren jumped up and slipped on her shoes. She started to tie the laces and paused. “That's not his real name, is it?”
“Maybe it is,” her mother said mysteriously. She mimed shaking someone's hand. “Hello, Mr. Next Door, how do you do? Is there a Mrs. Next Door? What about some little Next Doors? Oh, a baby Next Door on the way? Congratulation.” Buffy dropped the charade as Ren's giggles squealed out.
Buffy put on her own shoes and helped her daughter up. Once they were in the narrow, windowless hallway, she locked all three locks on their apartment. She would be able to see her door the whole time (under no circumstances would she be accepting an invitation for tea) but she could never be too careful. She couldn't go zero to sixty in front of Ren, after all.
“Okay, knock,” Buffy instructed. Ren tapped firmly on the door. There was no answer. Buffy shifted the cake to one arm and knocked harder.
“Hello? I have a cake for you from Evelyn in 3C. I live next door. My name is-”
The door swung open. “I know your name. Hello, Buffy.”
Her brain shut down. There wasn't even a warning light. No emergency generator blinked on. She could only stare at him.
She had thought, before this minute, that she had planned for every possibility. She had bags packed, money and passports on hand so they'd be ready to run. She had imagined Willow showing up, with Kennedy or without her; Giles coming, understanding, angry. Rarely would Dawn appear, but Buffy usually saw her crying when she did imagine her there. She had conducted rigorous exercises in planning for any circumstance, but this had never occurred to her, that he would be the one to come. She did not know why. Perhaps she thought he would be too busy or that he would not care. Perhaps she had hoped that there would be enough compassion remaining for her so as not to make her face him.
“Hi, I'm Ren,” piped a little voice from Buffy's elbow, oblivious to her mother's shocked struggle.
“Hi, Ren. I'm Angel.” He crouched so they were level and extended a hand. She shook it solemnly.
“How do you know my mom?” Ren demanded with a child's forthrightness.
Buffy could see Angel looking up at her.
It's strange to look down at Angel instead of him looking down at me, she thought bemusedly.
“We used to live in the same town when your mom was younger,” Angel told Ren quietly. A laugh like choking came from Buffy's throat at this understatement. Ren looked at her suspiciously.
“Mommy, are you going to throw up?”
“No, sweetheart, I'm fine. But I need to talk to Angel for a minute. Why don't we see if he has any toys and you can have a slice of cake.” She did not ask Angel if this was okay. If he was betraying her, she could let her daughter mess up his apartment. She knew that Angel would not hurt Ren, not physically, not now. They might not have spoken for more than ten minutes in nearly a decade, but she still trusted him and his character.
Ren looked at her, surprised. She was rarely allowed to go to other people's houses, especially not strangers'. “Okay.” She reached for Angel's hand and pulled him into the apartment. “Do you have toys, Angel?”
To Angel's credit, he did not look too shocked. “Let's go see what we can do in that department.”
By the time Ren was on the floor of the living room playing with some blocks Angel had scrounged for her, Buffy had made herself comfortable in his kitchen (which was almost an exact replica of hers, except with dark blue curtains framing the window over his sink instead of the plain white ones she had) and cut herself a generous slice of Evelyn's cake. If her world was going to hell in a handbasket, her diet could go with it.
Angel entered the kitchen and leaned against the sink. He opened his mouth to speak but Buffy beat him to it.
“So you just happened to have some children's blocks lying around your bachelor pad?”
His answer was seemed excessively quiet and calm in the face of her vitriol. “They told me that you had a daughter.”
“Oh, is that why you showed up? To glare jealously and growl in her father's face?”
“She's adopted, Angel. I'm not married and I don't have a boyfriend. You can leave now.”
“They told me that she's adopted, Buffy. I'm not here about that.”
She was smiling at him in a way he had never wanted to see her smile. It was the expression of someone who had experienced so much misery that they had forgotten that there was happiness somewhere in the world. “So what are you here for? Selling Girl Scout cookies? Cut to the chase, Angel. Just get on with it. But if you try to get me back there, I'll knock you out and run and we'll never see each other again.”
“Damn it, Buffy! Give me thirty seconds to explain.”
She looked at the second hand of the clock over his sink; she was unsurprised that he owned an analog clock when digital was so much easier to read. “You've got twenty seconds. And I'm timing them. Go.”
“I've been looking for you for two years now. I was having no luck. About six months ago, Dawn contacted me and told me about Ren. I changed my search parameters, called in some favors- it was tough, the way you hid your spectral auras like that- and found you here. They told me everything about why you ran away, but I'm not here to force you to go back to them.”
“So what are you here for?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were happy.”
“You rented and furnished an apartment just to see if I was happy? I'm trying to decide if that's stalking of the illegal variety, or just creepy.”
For a moment, she thought he was going to step toward her and she moved back a little. Maybe he had never intended to move or maybe he had decided against it once he saw her skittishness, but either way he remained leaning against his sink, his arms crossed.
“I'm not stalking you. I love you and I just wanted to make sure you're alright.”
“I think that you’re dictionary needs checking, but regardless, I’m fine. Will you be informing the super that you're leaving, or should I do it?”
“You're not fine, Buffy.”
“Really? I’m not sure you’re qualified to make that statement. It's been years since we've actually talked. You don't know me, Angel. Maybe you did once, but not anymore.”
“I'd like to know you again.”
“Tough luck. Now I'm thinking I go back to my apartment, you stay in yours until you're all packed and we don't see each other ever.”
“I'm staying here. I am going to live my life and if it happens to coincide with yours, I guess we'll know what's meant to be.”
“Guess we will,” she said dangerously. She rose and strode into the front room. “Ren, we're leaving.”
“Alright,” the little girl said peaceably. “Bye, Angel.”
“Yes, bye Angel,” Buffy said, lifting her daughter up and settling her on her hip. Ren was tiny for a six year old, bony and slim.
“I guess we'll see each other soon,” Angel said quietly, seriously.
“Actually, I don't expect we'll be seeing you again.” Buffy's voice was equally quiet, filled with meaning and threat. Angel could see in her eyes that if he tried to touch the girl in her arms, she would kill him without a thought.
Angel might have lived next door, but Buffy did not see him again for two weeks. This was odd to her, and it made her anxious. He had obviously come to see her, and yet he made no efforts to do so. When they finally did see each other, it was three times in as many days.
It was a Monday when Buffy saw Angel by his door, his keys in his mouth, grocery bags in both arms and scattered around his feet. The total normalcy of the moment made her breath snag in her throat. He looked up at her and smiled. She ignored him, unlocked her door and got into her apartment before she could consider smiling back.
Angel didn't see her the next time she saw him. It was quarter to midnight and she was writing at the kitchen table. As a teenager, she never would have thought that she would ever grow up and still write things longhand like in school, but she did often. She finished her writing and got up to get a glass of water from the tap. Out on the street, the street-lamps beamed dim, orange light onto the concrete and she could see a tall, dark-haired man walking quickly with his shoulders hunched. She leaned closer to the window and saw that it was Angel. As she watched, he disappeared quickly down the street.
Buffy had trouble sleeping that night. She convinced herself that she was just worried about all the bills.
The next day, she confronted him as he was picking up his mail in the lobby. She had stopped by quickly before she had to pick Ren up from school. She had planned to storm up to his apartment, but she preferred their meeting to be this way: in a public, open place where it probably wouldn't dissolve into a screaming match (or anything else).
“Are you a drug dealer?” she demanded as he looked at her, mildly surprised.
“No,” he told her patiently. “Why would you think that?”
“Regular people don't sneak around alone at midnight.” She crossed her arms, firm and protective, not giving at all.
“It's for my job, Buffy.” His voice was actually starting to get a little annoyed. “I do have one of those.”
“Drug dealer is a job.” She realized that her argument was starting to get weak, or maybe it had always been that way. Perhaps she had jumped to conclusions just to talk to him, and only part of that was because she was nervous about why he was waiting so long to make his plan known.
“My job,” his teeth were gritted slightly, “is being a tour guide. One of my friends asked me to take over her Sleepy Hollow midnight tour.”
She stared at him. He let her. She blinked, slowly. In her mind, in her memories and dreams, the ones she so rarely allowed herself, Angel was a detective. Just as she had never allowed herself to believe that he was alive, much less human, she had never allowed herself to think that he might have a normal job.
“Does it pay well?” She almost laughed at this. She was just on autopilot, making small talk with her ex, like they were at a party and they just happened to run into each other. But that was not how it was: he was in league with the friends she ran from four years ago and he tracked her down.
“Not really,” he said, his face impassive. He was handling this so much better than she was. Then again, he made this an issue at all. He was the one stalking her. Although he didn't seem to be, actually.
“Why aren't you trying to see or talk to me?” She refused to believe that she wanted to continue the conversation. She told herself that it was strategy. She'd been lying to herself, denying herself for so long that she actually almost believed it.
For the first time, he looked relaxed, even slightly amused. “I told you, Buffy. I just want to see you happy.”
“Yeah, well that's not going to happen. You know what happened in Rome.”
Any happiness was erased from his face- simply gone, like his eyes had never broken their serious gaze. “That was nearly five years ago. You could have made new friends, you could go out more.”
Her mouth tightened. She could practically hear Dr. Shusterman, her long-ago orthodontist reminding her not to grind her teeth. “I could report you for this, Angel. Do they already have a file on you?”
“We live next door to each other.” He crossed his arms- defensively, she thought triumphantly. “I go out late at night. I notice things. Things like you never have visitors, that Ren is the only other person who steps foot in that apartment.”
She stepped towards him. “Don't call her that.” That was probably all Angel knew to call her, but using her daughter's nickname made her feel trapped, like he was getting too close. “And I'm a single mother. We don't get to go hang out with our friends and get drunk.”
“You can hire a babysitter.”
“I like to spend time with my daughter.” She stepped back, towards the pools of light the glass doors let in. “Maybe you don't know anything about this, but I'm a parent, Angel. A good one.”
His sudden, surprising look of pain made her wish she hadn't said anything. He looked shocked and ill and sad. He turned away from her. She leaned against the bar of the door, gripping it so hard she was sure she had left finger marks on the metal. She watched him walk away for the she-couldn't-count-by-now time, his back looking so angry and sad that she actually wanted to call out his name. Instead she turned also, headed into the weak winter light to go get her daughter from school.
When Buffy arrived at the school, everything was in chaos. The teacher, a single, harried woman only a few years older than Buffy herself, was trying to calm twenty or so terrified looking children.
“Ms. Winters!” The teacher, Ms. Langley, looked up as Buffy entered the room. “I was just about to call you.”
Buffy felt nervous and wary. As Ms. Langley waded her way through the gradually calming children, Buffy looked around the room for exits, for suspicious glowing, for any sign of Willow-red hair. There seemed to be no signs that Angel had told anyone where she was, so she moved toward Ren's teacher.
“Is Ren okay?” It was the immediate, obvious question to ask and she wanted a simple answer: yes, your daughter is fine, we just had a fire drill and the children are a little frightened. What she was told instead was, “Your daughter is out in the hallway with Mrs. MacGrady.”
Ren was sitting with a narrow, middle-aged woman whose thin, silver-rimmed glasses made her eyes look small and stern. The little girl was shaking, her trembling more pronounced due to her size.
“Mommy,” she said, not even looking up at her mother, just recognizing her by her shoes. Her voice lacked its usual spark and Buffy felt ill because of it. She folded down so she was at eye level with her daughter.
“Sweetheart, what happened?”
“I got angry at Cody. He took my book before I was done, so I pushed him. I know it was bad but then he fell really hard and he hit his head and he looked dead, Mommy!”
Buffy glanced up at the nurse to confirm the story.
“Cody Baxter was taken to the hospital. He appears to have only a concussion and possibly a broken arm, but he was bruised very badly.” She drew Buffy away from Ren, but kept a suspicious, glaring eye on the little girl. “Ms. Winters, I would suggest having your daughter examined by a pediatric specialist who I know at Children's Hospital in Boston.”
“There's nothing wrong with my daughter.” Buffy's voice was a frozen snarl.
“I'm not saying that there's something wrong with her,” Mrs. MacGrady replied, moving a hand as if she were going to touch Buffy's forearm before she thought better of it. “But something strange happened. That little boy's head left a dent in the wall, with just a push from your daughter. I would also suggest getting Ren a psychiatric evaluation. She seems very distraught.”
“I can see,” Buffy replied through pressed-together lips. “I would like to take her home now.”
Buffy kept Ren home from school the next day. She tried to interest her daughter in card games or outings that they usually didn't have time for, but Ren just shook her head. While the little girl spent the day wrapped in a blanket watching TV or staring at the walls of the living room, her mother sat at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee growing cold between her hands. The very thing she had destroyed her life to prevent was starting to happen.
Ren returned to school the day after that, but it didn't seem that her regular bubbly personality would be returning soon. Cody Baxter might not be dead, but in Ren's mind he was, and she was his murderer.
Emma Langley called Buffy at home one night, the Tuesday after Ren had gone back to school. From their brief conversation, Buffy learned that Ren's silent sullenness was not an exclusively home-based behavior. Her daughter had apparently thrown several temper tantrums and refused to do work or answer questions. The other children were avoiding her. Buffy put her face in her hands.
Ren was asleep, so after the phone call Buffy sat at the kitchen table, taking slow, medatative breaths. After a few minutes, she set down the phone that she had been squeezing between her hands. She got up and reached all the way to the back of the pantry, pulling out a small, ornate box of imported Earl Grey. She opened it, inhaling the scent of Giles- his house, his clothes- and brewed herself a lip-meltingly hot cup. She sipped at it, staring straight ahead as she tried to clear her mind before she put the mug in the sink and got ready for bed.
She dreamed that she and Ren were swimming. This was strange because she would never bring Ren to the wide, dangerous ocean, but there they were. Buffy was holding Ren around the middle as she paddled. “You're almost there, sweetie. Kick your legs and move your arms at the same time.”
She turned toward the shore and saw Willow standing there.
“Give Ren to me. I'll take her to the pool.”
“No, we're swimming here. It's nice.” The water was very clear and not too deep and tropically warm. But then it got warmer and then hot and Buffy realized that Willow was making the water boil. It was turning her flesh red and Ren was screaming.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy...!”
Buffy awoke and needed to see her daughter. She crushed the covers to the side and went to Ren's room. It was even pinker than her own childhood princess room. Hannah Montana covered the walls, the pillows, the blanket. A creepily wide-eyed Hannah Montana doll had fallen off the bed. Buffy picked it up and moved to wedge it back into Ren's arm. The only problem was that her daughter's sleepy-warm body was not tucked under the blanket as it was supposed to be.
There were logical places Ren could be: the bathroom, getting water in the kitchen. Perhaps she had sleepwalked to rest on the living room couch. But Buffy's mother alarm went off and she strode to the door. It was unlocked and Buffy felt ill. She pulled on the shoes closest to the door; they were Ren's and she kicked them across the room before slipping on her own.
When she got out to the street, it was pouring rain. She hadn't noticed inside and she barely noticed now as she searched the places Ren knew and would go. She called her daughter's name in the park and by the shops Ren liked to visit. She was soaked by the time she couldn't think of anywhere else to go, so she went back to the apartment.
“Ren?” she called when she got there. Her voice carried a sharp, panicked edge as she moved through the rooms of the apartment, hoping that Ren would be there. “I'm not angry, sweetheart. Please come out.”
She was crying by the time she got to the kitchen. Standing in the doorway of the room where she had had tea a few hours ago, she spotted a paper on the table that hadn't been there before. It was written in spring green crayon, Ren's favorite.
MOMMY it read I DONT WANT TO HERT YOU LIK I HERT CODY BAKSTER SO IM MUVING I TUK MY CRANS I LOVE YOU REN.
She couldn't remember thinking or leaving her apartment or pounding on Angel's door, but her hand hurt and she was staring at his chest. He was wearing a white t-shirt and sweatpants and her nails cut into her palms as she wished that this had all been the worst dream ever and she was just turning seventeen, a high school student living with her mom and slaying on the side.
“Buffy, what's wrong?” And she was back, twenty-nine year old single mother with a lost daughter. She handed the note to Angel, being very careful not to crumple it. He held it flat in his hands and then let it float to the surface of the tasteful table beside his door. He tugged her inside very gently.
“Have you called the police?”
“No. I looked but she wasn't anywhere. I'm afraid she would get scared and hurt them.”
“Like she hurt this boy Cody?”
“She just pushed him. She's only six, Angel. She should be having time to just play and be a kid and I hate this!”
She hadn't noticed that Angel had been guiding her towards his bedroom until she was sitting on the bed. “Are you serious?! Move or I will move you.”
His voice was measured, the words coated in reason as if she were a psychiatric patient. “You are freezing and soaked. You don't have a coat. Anyone can see that you're exhausted and not functioning at your fullest.”
“I'm 'not functioning at my fullest'? Go to hell, Angel. This is my daughter.” She pushed him to the side and headed to the door.
“Why did you even come here?” He followed her. “It's because, despite everything that's happened, you still trust me. You need help with this. And I will help you.” They had reached the door and he placed his hand on top of hers on the knob. “Stay here for half an hour. Dry off. You'll be no use to Ren if you get sick.”
She took a minute to breathe. She felt weak, water dripping down her back.
“It's like losing an arm,” she whimpered.
“I know,” he said quietly, peeling her hand from the doorknob. “You can take my bed. Clean clothes are in the dresser.” He swung on his coat. “I'll get her back, Buffy.”
She didn't remember changing into some of his too-big clothes or lying down in the bed. She barely remembered praying for the first time since she was a little girl, ingrained words of death and souls tripping over her lips. She did remember tasting tears and mucus as she watched the seconds tick past, grateful for once that Angel lived in the analog age.
She had trouble lifting her face from the pillow in the morning, which gave her the brief thought that she should wash the pillowcase. Then she realized that it was morning and she wasn't in her own bed and she needed her daughter.
Just as she strode into the living area (a couch and a tv so close to the doorway that the whole affair might have been called a very crowded foyer) she saw Ren perched on the couch watching Spongebob.
“Look, Mommy! Angel made pancakes.” Ren's voice was excited, because this really was one of the best mornings that she could remember, but Buffy knew that they still had to talk. She knew from experience that psychological trauma didn't just go away just because someone made you something yummy for breakfast.
“I bet Angel makes great pancakes,” Buffy replied anyway, keeping her voice cheerful.
“I make better eggs,” he said from behind her. She didn't turn, even though she wanted to use him as a fainting couch. She was weak with her daughter's presence. “But I figured pancakes would be higher up on Ren's breakfast wish list.”
They watched Ren laugh stickily as Sandy sang a song in an exaggerated Texas accent.
“I've always thought there should be something between Sandy and Spongebob. And he should get a move-on before Squidward kills him.” Buffy's voice was wooden, hoping vainly that if she froze him out, he would let her leave and return to her regularly scheduled life. It might have worked years ago, but this new Angel seemed to have acquired a very thick winter coat.
“We need to talk.”
She followed him into a kitchen, served herself a stack of pancakes, noticed that he had set up an array of toppings- fruit and chocolate and whipped cream- but ignored them, instead taking from the fridge door a bottle of pure maple syrup with a peeling label. She turned, took a seat at the table across from where he sat sipping coffee, his own empty plate in front of him.
“What do you want?” Buffy cut her pancakes into neat squares, considering each one before she dipped it into the puddle of syrup by the rim of the plate. It was as if she had a list of a million ways to avoid looking at Angel. She just hoped that a million would be enough.
“I want to hear what happened in Rome.”
“You know what-”
“Your side. I want you to tell me.”
And she did. Because she hadn't had a close friend in five years, because she had never told anyone this story, had only relived in her mind until it played behind her eyelids at night, she told him.
“Ren had just taken her first steps. We were up in my apartment and I was holding a jar of baby food, getting ready for lunch, and she just pulled herself up and lunged for it. She fell down right after, but it was her first step. I was so excited. I picked her up and we went downstairs to Giles's apartment. I didn't even lock my door.” She felt cold as she spoke and almost stopped- talking wasn't helping- but continued on because she still wanted someone else to hear this
“Giles's door was locked when we got down there, but I didn't even notice. I was focused on Ren and I turned the knob and I wasn't paying attention to my twist...Remember how I used to do that?”
He nodded and that simple gesture made the world come rushing back. She could feel the sun warming her hair, could hear Ren giggling in the other room. She had forgotten what it was like to sit with someone and tell them something personal and to have them understand. She had forgotten that Angel knew about her freaky strength- that she had to hold china carefully, that she had learned to fix the knob in the shower herself after she had broken it one too many times to be normal- and it didn't bother him. But the moment vanished as she remembered what came of letting someone into your life like that, letting them know all your secrets. Just as she had remembered understanding, she recalled betrayal.
“They were meeting inside. Even Dawn was there. I thought maybe they just didn't want to bother me because I had been so busy with Ren, I had ignored the slaying.
“'It will kill her,' Willow was saying and I was all set to step in and ask what would kill who, but then I saw that Dawn was crying and Giles had that determined look on his face.
“'We must tell her,' he said. ‘Buffy has to know about this.'
“I stepped out with Ren in my arms. She was always quiet, Angel, even as a baby. She looked at everyone, she looked at her family, and they looked away from her.
“I asked what was going on and they told me about the prophecy. That Ren would save all the slayers, would cut a swathe through the demon world. And that she would die in the process.”
Angel's arm had crept across the table and was clutching on to hers as she looked into his face.
“She's me, Angel. She's me and you and Dawn because somehow everyone I love has to be sacrificed for the world. And I ran because I refuse to put her on the altar because a thousand years ago some monk decided that the Powers had spoken to him. I killed Ren's mother. I made her a slayer when she wasn’t ready for it, when she was trying to protect her baby, when that had cursed me since I was fifteen, and she died because of it. I cannot let that happen to Ren.”
Her voice had stayed low the whole time despite her vehemence. Ren was in the next room and her daughter could not be disturbed, even as Buffy became intense, intent on showing Angel that she would not come back with him, that she would not let them train her daughter to be her own killer. Ren would not become another brave little soldier, trooping off to fight for humanity.
“She's only a girl, Angel, and she's so small. I won't give her up to this. I have a list of all the things I want her to be able to do. And she will do them.” Her tone was at once fierce and fanatically sure before it became pleading. “I never got those stories of mothers throwing cars off their kids, but now I do. I would do anything for Ren. I died for Dawn. If I could die for Ren, if that would do anything to help, I would do it without thinking.” She looked into his face without seeing him. “When it's your child, there's nothing you wouldn't do for them.”
She felt suddenly murderously furious. “How do you know, Angel? You just get everything, you feel everything?” She threw her fork so that it embedded itself in the wall above his stove. “There are some things that you cannot understand.”
“I have a son.”
She knew that she was breathing and that she was not dead because she could hear the clock and that stupid Spongebob laugh. But then hearing was supposed to be the last sense to go, so maybe she was on her way.
“What?” It came out weakly, lacking all the anger and grief of everything she had been saying for the last half hour, but it was still a word and a relevant one and she was grateful just for that.
He looked at her directly, forced her to look into the Angel-brown of his eyes. “When I was still a vampire. Darla was resurrected to torture me and to bring Angelus out. I went...very dark for a while. I fired my crew and eventually slept with Darla before kicking her out and starting to climb back to myself. A few months later she showed up again, pregnant. The baby was prophesized and she couldn't abort it. She killed herself so he could be born...Connor.”
“And where is Connor now?” Her voice sounded high and uncomfortable and she tried to change it, tried to make it the bored, polite tone she used to ask about Evelyn's grandchildren because if he knew how deeply he could hurt her, that gave him a weapon and it was one that not even the heaviest broadsword could combat.
Angel took a picture out of his wallet, which made everything that was happening more surreal. She felt as if she should be taking the picture from his hand, Oh, what a handsome boy you've got there, just a quick glance and hand it back. Instead she examined it.
She did not see much resemblance. His hair was lighter than Angel's, his eyes blue. The boy might have been Angel's height, but it was difficult to tell. In the picture, he was balanced against a tree, his arms around the waist of a girl with short black hair, streaked red along the sides of her face. His face was open, but there was a protectiveness to it, as if the boy were a particularly tenacious guard dog raised from birth to protect this girl. That readiness to fight to the death for another person was the only thing she could find in common with Angel as she compared their features, looking up at his face and then down at the boy...man's.
“How can this be your son?” She handed the picture back. He held it in his hand, contemplating it himself. She noticed how careful he was with it as he tucked it back into his wallet.
“He was taken to a hell dimension by an old enemy of mine. Time there is different than time here. When he came back he was older. There were all these prophecies about him. They called him The Destroyer, Buffy.” For the first time, she reached out to touch his hand. It was an unconscious, automatic gesture, a reflex she wished that she did not have. She recognized the pain in his face as the same expression that was on hers when she thought of the future that had been laid out for her daughter.
“He hated me when he came back. After everything that happened, he tolerates me now. This woman,” he pointed to the picture, “she's Charlotte. They're going to get married. Eventually. Maybe.”
It was a father's look on his face, and that was why she believed that he was not lying. Angel would have felt guilty for letting anything happen to another person, but the way he looked now was inimitable. It was the same lovingly exasperated expression that she knew she wore when Ren asked too many unintentionally rude questions in public or took what seemed like ages to decide between a chocolate cookie and a pink-frosted one.
“So you do know,” she said, trying to pretend there was no catch in her voice. “But if you know, how can you ask me to give up my baby?”
“I'm not going to tell you what to do,” he told her, voice too gentle. “But I would probably do the same thing that you're doing. Although I might have gone to a remote island rather than just Massachusetts.” He smiled slightly, teasing, and she held herself firm against smiling back. “I'm not going to steal her from you, Buffy. I'll leave the choice up to you.”
Buffy avoided Angel for the next few days. It wasn’t hard or even particularly purposeful. She didn’t wander around the building or the town, stayed either at work or at home, still trying to figure out what to do about Ren. She sat her down, determined not to become her mother, and explained to Ren that some people are special and can’t help being different. She told her to be gentle with things and people, but that it wasn’t her fault that she had hurt someone. Ren seemed a little better after that, her behavior improving both at school and at home, but Buffy still worried. She could tell that it was not over yet. Ren was absent-minded and quiet and seemed to be in her own head most of the time. Buffy watched, frowning, and late at night she sat and wished for Giles or her mother. She wanted guidance and instead had only loneliness and fear.
Still, the next week was Valentine’s Day, and on Sunday afternoon, Buffy and Ren went shopping for art supplies. Ren chattered happily about people Buffy couldn’t remember her mentioning before, and she sighed. Her six-year-old seemed to be more popular than Cordelia had ever been.
As Buffy fumbled at the apartment door, Ren ignored her warning and picked open the spool of red ribbon they had bought. It was a thick roll edged by glossy cardboard and as Buffy managed to slip the key into the lock, the ribbon managed to slip from Ren’s hands, unraveling along the hallway.
“Ren!” Buffy exclaimed, exasperated. “Go wrap it back up.”
But after five minutes, this seemed to be more of a punishment for mother than daughter, so Buffy knelt and helped to rewind the spool. As they finished and Ren stretched the piece of tape back over to hold it on, a door behind them opened. Buffy’s spine stiffened. She couldn’t see Angel again with his insistent, infuriating calm, his do-the-right-thing attitude.
“Come on, sweetheart,” she said, keeping her voice calm, “let’s get in and get valentining.”
But of course Ren’s child radar made her lean around her mother’s legs, asking, “Is that Angel?”
Sighing, Buffy turned around. But it wasn’t Angel tying his shoelaces in the doorway of apartment 4E. She saw a man’s shape and darkish hair, but it wasn’t until he looked up that she recognized him.
“You’ve gotta be Buffy,” Connor said. He had a quiet voice and Buffy appreciated that he didn’t move toward her or seem to expect her to approach him. They simply watched each other from the down the hall. After a moment, the woman from Connor’s picture came out too, sunglasses perched on her head. She handed Connor a coat before putting hers on, and she noticed Buffy and a silent, confused Ren in less than a minute.
Her accent was English, but tinted with what Buffy guessed was Indian ancestry. She had changed the streaks in her hair from red to purple. “Hello, Buffy,” she said, calm and familiar.
“How do you know my mommy?” Ren asked, breaking Buffy’s mute stare.
“Someone who loves her very much told me about her,” Charlotte said before Buffy could reply.
“Is it Angel?”
Charlotte laughed softly as she and Connor moved toward the stairs. “On the nose, darling,” and the two of them clipped quietly down.
Ren made suspicious eyebrows at Buffy as they made the large stack of cards for the children in her class but didn’t ask about Angel or the two young strangers who had appeared in his apartment, and by the time dinner was ready, she had moved on to something else, the odd encounter apparently forgotten.
Buffy tried to be inconspicuous the next morning, depressing the button to turn off the alarm seconds after it rang, taking the kettle off the burner just as it began to whistle and pulling the door gently closed instead of letting it swing. All day, as she walked Ren to school, as she opened the shop, as she gave her opinion to women as they came in and tried on pants or blouses, as she rang up purchases, picked Ren up from school, made dinner and put her to bed, she thought about leaving. She had told herself that Angel wouldn’t tell, that he would keep Ren’s location a secret. She had rationalized staying this long, saying that it wasn’t good for Ren to move now that she was in school, now that she was settled, now that odd things were happening to her. But now things were spinning out of control. Two more people knew where they were and they were people she had never known and never trusted.
As she cleaned out Ren’s backpack that night, reclaiming her lunchbox to pack it up for the next day, she thought about packing the bag with clothes instead, taking the emergency stash of cash and travel documents, bundling her sleepy daughter into a car and driving away. But she was nearly in tears as she unwedged some crumpled valentines that Ren had failed to give to the other children in her class. Once upon a time she had told Angel that it was never over and she had believed it. But now she was alone, she had lost her cobbled-together family, had lost her hope, and whatever was coming for her baby was getting frighteningly close.
She breathed deeply in and out as there was a knock on the door, steeling herself at the inevitable bad news that would come with a visitor so late at night. But it was Charlotte on the other side and Buffy felt the tears coming back as she extended a mug of hot cocoa topped with a sweet swirl of whipped cream.
“Thought you might be in need of this. I’ve heard a rumor that things are getting a little out of hand around here.”
It had been a long time since Buffy had had a friend, just a friend who was hers. The couple who owned the shop where she worked were kind and paid her probably more than they could really afford to, and there were a few mothers and fathers who she could stand to the side and chat with while their kids played together at a park or a birthday party, and of course there was Angel who would help her if she asked though she didn’t know if his was the kind of help she needed. But here was Charlotte, extending a mysterious, history-less hand, and Buffy took the mug and wrapped her palms around it.
“Thank you,” she said automatically, and without her consent, her mouth opened, wanting to invite Charlotte in. There was a perfect image in her mind of curling up on the couch with Charlotte on the other end. She couldn’t hear the exact words, but she could see herself speaking. She could see herself laughing a little. “Have a good night,” she said instead and closed the door.
The next evening she locked the door once Ren was asleep and walked the few steps down the hall to Angel’s apartment. She left the cleaned mug by the door and stepped back, almost turned to go. But then she imagined someone coming out in the morning, distracted by thoughts of the day, juggling keys and gloves and a newspaper. She heard the crunch of broken pottery. She sighed, picked the mug back up and knocked, crossing her fingers that it would be Charlotte who answered.
It was Connor, but she was still relieved. He was Angel’s child with another woman, yes, the first born that she could now never give him. Seeing him should have hurt her, but at least it wasn’t Angel himself.
“Don’t say I didn’t earn my homemaker stripes,” she said, handing the cup over. “Thank Charlotte for me. I won’t torture her for the secret ingredient, but someday someone might.”
“She grinds her own cinnamon.” He lifted the mug a little, half saluting her. “No torture necessary, although I’m pretty sure Char could take it.”
“You’re a lucky man, then. Hang on to your torture-resistant woman.”
Connor smirked. “I’ll do my best.”
The conversation seemed to be over. Buffy nodded and turned away. A few steps later, Connor said her name. She stopped, but didn’t face him. “Just so you know, he’s been doing the same. Hanging on, even if you think he’s letting go.”
She didn’t answer him until she was back in her own living room. Back against the door, she whispered to herself, “All he ever seems to do is let go.”
Buffy had always been of the opinion that February rather than April was the cruelest month, and this one was no different. Time seemed to drag over gray days that were cold and rainy, but not chilled enough for snow. Buffy brought Ren to the store with her on Saturday. Lisa and Marguerite, the owners, allowed her to count change and hang up clothes from the pair of small dressing rooms. Not long had passed since Angel had found her on the street in the middle of the night, but she seemed to have overcome it more quickly than Buffy would ever have expected. Her teachers reported no further incidents. In fact, both they and Buffy had noticed that Ren seemed even more animated than she had been before Angel arrived. She chattered constantly, talking about more friends than Buffy could remember her ever mentioning.
After work, Buffy and Ren walked down the street. Each carried an umbrella, Buffy’s a sensible black and Ren’s red with black spots and nylon eyes that could form a small ladybug canopy, although it had stopped raining so it was closed for the moment. Ren wore matching rain boots and splashed through the puddles left behind as they walked to the library and then to the tailor to pick up a pair of pants that Buffy had sent to be hemmed.
“Mommy, do you wonder how olden-day people got their pants?”
No Buffy wanted to say. I stopped wondering about anything a long time ago. But she just pretended that she hadn’t heard, reaching over the counter for the plastic covered pants.
It was raining again when they walked out, but only lightly. The walk home was short, so neither of them minded, although Buffy still grumbled to herself about how much she had been charged for a simple seam. Ren put up her umbrella anyway, twirling it over her shoulder and skipping through the street and Buffy couldn’t keep her frown. After grilled cheese that night, she put on the DVD of Singing in the Rain. Ren didn’t fully follow the plot and fell asleep halfway through, but seemed to enjoy at least the singing, dancing and bright sets. Buffy covered her up and went to the kitchen. She began washing the dishes from dinner. Usually she did this quietly, but suddenly the silence seemed overbearing and she turned the radio on, very low. As she rinsed the frying pan, she heard Ren begin to talk from the other room. It was something she had done at least once a month since she was a baby, starting with energetic gurgling and through the years becoming full-fledged rants and conversations. Buffy grinned, anticipating new mumbles about tigers at dinner or flowering coats. But instead of hushed random murmurings, her daughter said, very clearly, “How’s forever? Does forever work for you?”
Not caring that it was late, Buffy went to Angel’s. She smacked her palm against the door until he opened it. He was in loose pants and a t-shirt, looking vaguely sleepy, as if he had been lying in the dark for a while but hadn’t yet fallen asleep.
“Did you tell her?” Buffy demanded, pushing past him into the living room. “Have you been telling Ren about us?”
“Of course not.”
“So are you controlling her dreams? Are you and Connor and Charlotte doing some witchy memory transference thing?”
“Buffy,” Angel says, his voice more heartbreakingly gentle than she can ever remember it being, “It’s not something that I’m doing. It’s what was meant to happen.”
She paused. Her fingers flexed. It made her remember the million games of This Little Piggy she had played with Ren as a baby and a toddler. Quietly and deliberately she said, “I can’t leave Ren alone. Come with me.”
They went to Buffy’s apartment and sat in the living room. Buffy let Ren’s feet rest in her lap. Angel took the chair. “Alright,” Buffy said. “Tell me.”
Angel started his story around the time she had started ignoring her work with the slayers. He told her about a case that he had had back in LA, something about a Slayer named Dana who heard others in her head.
“Fascinating. Focus on Ren,” Buffy nudged impatiently.
“The daughter of a Slayer who wasn’t supposed to be a Slayer, Buffy. Since you left, Giles kept translating the prophecy. There’s more to it. It’s not vague like other ones are. Ren will cut down the demons who continue to hunt the Slayers you made.”
“I still don’t understand.”
He left his chair, so he was kneeling in front of her. He moved the fringe of Ren’s blanket between his fingers. “Probably for months now, she’s been hearing the voices in her head. She might have taken on other mannerisms, other memories.”
It flashed through Buffy’s head, the tiny clues she had not even thought twice about. Ren’s favorite dinner had changed. She had spoken about friends who Buffy had never heard of. At least ten valentines had returned at the bottom of Ren’s backpack, not because Ren had been too shy to give them but because they were written to people who were not members of her class, who belonged to other times and people and lives.
Buffy said, “Oh,” very softly. It was the quietest thing that they had said that evening, but Ren stirred slightly, swiping a hand across her eyes and taking a deep breath before settling back down.
“They would have started quietly. She would have barely noticed it. It isn’t your fault that you didn’t. But it will get worse. Giles and Willow can’t figure out how long it will take, but eventually Ren won’t be able to tell who she is. It will be like when you could read minds. Her body won’t die, but she, her self, will get lost within all that noise in her mind. It will draw off part of the energy that was put into the new slayers, it will make them less vulnerable and switch off what was making it so easy for demons to track them down.”
“So how do I stop it? What do I kill, who do I find to change it?”
But the look he gave her was one she had never seen on his face before, a mixture of sadness and regret and deep, deep pity. “Buffy, prophecies…we can change them or try to work around them and they might not come true the way we think, but they will happen. All of them will happen.”
“No,” she gritted out, and shoved him towards the door. She locked it, refused to answer his light knocks and gently-gently put Ren, still sleeping deeply, into her bed.
Her Angel avoidance continued over the next week, but this time he wasn’t cooperating. Although she managed to urge Ren down the stairs the next morning so they wouldn’t be seen by Connor and Charlotte as they, judging by the suitcases out in the hall, prepared to return home, it wasn’t nearly enough. Angel hung around in the lobby and seemed to know her schedule because he appeared in the street outside the shop when she came in and went home. She ignored him, though, refusing to even make stalker- related quips when she passed him, and tugging Ren along to avoid chatting.
She watched Ren with an eagle eye and began to notice what she had been overlooking. Her daughter’s mood changed rapidly in a way that was not altogether normal, especially for Ren’s usually even-tempered attitude. She became pushier about having friends over when she had always accepted that as something that they didn’t do. They went to Boston one weekend, visiting the Children’s Museum and walking around the Freedom Trail and Ren seemed to recognize the places they passed. Buffy wondered if those were Faith’s memories surfacing. She had to resist covering Ren’s eyes and ears as if to shield her from curse words or public nudity. But when Ren called “Buffy, look at this” so naturally that she didn’t register that it had happened, Buffy realized that even total sensory deprivation couldn’t protect Ren from what was going on in her mind.
Buffy had chosen Salem because of its heavily magical, aura damping properties that made her and Ren magically untraceable. Until now she had never taken advantage of its dozens of easily accessible occult shops. In the days following Angel’s news, she had spent her lunch breaks moving between them, looking for prophecies or spells, anything that might let her keep her whole and perfect daughter. She had never been the researcher, had always had people better than she at reading and figuring things out, so if there was a clue, she did not manage to find it.
Still, she got babysitters for Ren that week, using a niece of Marguerite’s one night and a student recommended by the high school the next. She let them eat whatever they wanted and watch tv, but no one came back a second time. She couldn’t risk them getting comfortable in her home.
She used the night hours to hunt through the cemeteries, something she had tried to do a few times year wherever they lived, wanting to make a safe place for Ren to live. This was far more thorough, because she was looking for something with any information. But the only time a vampire seemed to know what she was talking about, the Tusmark demon to which he directed her just laughed in her face.
Buffy would have thought that an axe as threatening as the one she held would elicit some kind of fear. “Why are you laughing? Is the pain of my daughter funny to you?”
“No, merely the futility of your quest,” it rumbled, still chuckling. The chuckle made Buffy put an extra umph into her swing when she killed it. She regretted it a minute later, when her only lead was dead and there was a lot of bile on her blouse, but it was still satisfying.
She did remember a witch who offered her services to those who could find her. Buffy managed to track her down to a small basement apartment. She felt a ripple of energy run over her as she came through the door, the half familiar, half thrilling pulse of a warding spell. She missed Willow with a sudden, sharp, stabbing ache that she suppressed quickly.
The witch sat in front of a dish of water. “Scrying is my particular gift, Buffy Summers,” she said, gesturing distractedly to a chair.
“Anne Winters now.”
“Because of the people who are following you,” the witch nodded. She glanced up. Her gaze was shrewd. “If you were truly looking to escape, do you not think you would have chosen a more difficult name to guess?”
“Regardless.” Buffy sat. “Did your blue-plate special water give you any secrets for protecting scared little girls?”
The witch took out a pouch. “Not for girls, but for their mothers, I have this. For wishing on every night.”
Buffy dangled the little bag in front of her face. It smelled odd but not bad, like a foreign market. “Will this work?”
“What do you think?”
“It’s sugar pills instead of heart medicine,” Buffy sighed. She flicked the bag onto the table. “Why won’t anyone help?”
Buffy could see a tear in the witch’s eye, or maybe it was just a trick of the light. “We would help if we could, but this is beyond our power. This is a destiny that your daughter will meet.” Buffy took the bag anyway and kept it in her pocket, turning it over at odd moments, a useless talisman, but the only hope she had.
That Friday, before Ren’s winter recess, Emma Langley mentioned to Buffy that Ren’s math skills seemed to be slipping.
“It’s odd, because she was basically doing addition and subtraction when she got here, but sometimes kids backslide. It could be for attention, or there might be an educational need that we’re not addressing. Whatever it is, I’ll speak to you more about it after the break.” She gave Buffy a set of flashcards to use in case Ren just needed a reminder, but Buffy put them in her purse immediately and didn’t intend to ask her daughter the questions. On the walk home, Ren recited her multiplication tables up to thirty.
“Come on, Mom. Ask me something hard,” Ren said, rolling her eyes. A week ago, Buffy would have called her “little teenager,” but now she looked over in alarm. It was the first time Ren had called her Mom instead of Mommy. She squeezed the witch’s charm so hard she was sure its innards would erupt.
Still, she remained falsely cheerful through dinner, even during the moments that Ren looked at her as if she were a stranger. They read a story and Buffy tucked her in with a kiss. She sat in the living room and searched on the internet for possible solutions, but it was fruitless. She wished for Willow to be there with a smile as her fingers sparked, for Giles to blurt out around the arm of his glasses the answer he had found in a book, for Xander to give her a side-armed hug and a doughnut, jelly or otherwise. She wished that they could help. She wished that she could trust them, or even Angel, to really look, to truly try to save Ren.
She cried as she fell asleep, wondering when she had lost the hold on her emotions, knowing that it had been the moment Giles had placed Ren into her arms. But in the morning, she put her smile back on and went into Ren’s room.
“What do you want to do today? First day of vacation and I took off of work, so let’s party it up.”
But Ren didn’t say anything.
“Wake up, sleepy. It’s raining hard today, but we can still find something fun to do.” Buffy nudged her shoulder but the little girl didn’t stir. She was still breathing. Her eyes darted frighteningly quickly beneath the lids. It seemed to Buffy that she was merely sleeping. But when shaking her and shouting didn’t work, Buffy moved to call an ambulance.
As she held the phone in her hand, she stopped herself. The hospital wouldn’t be able to help. They would keep Ren in a bed for as long as she could pay for it, would keep her body healthy, but her mind would remain locked and confused and if she began acting out, speaking about irrational things, they might take her away. Buffy shook and placed the phone on the table gently, as if someone might hear the plastic being set down and come to find them.
In the silence, she jumped at the knock on the door. She knew it was Angel. He had probably noticed that she hadn’t come out yet.
“Come in,” she said from the middle of the living room. Her tone was distracted and slightly quieter than normal. She had lived in this apartment for close to two years and had never invited someone in without checking first to see who it was.
Angel opened the door and waited, although whether it was a leftover vampire reflex or out of respect for her space, she could not tell. “What’s happened?”
“Ren won’t wake up. She won’t wake up and whatever is supposed to happen is happening. Bad news for demons of the world.” Buffy’s voice broke. She crossed her arms. “Bad news for me.”
He stepped toward her. It looked like he wanted to hug her, if only for lack of something else to do. She appreciated that he didn’t reach for her, and appreciated it more when he silently let her into his arms when she moved toward him.
“Do you want me to call Giles and the others?” he asked.
“Yes.” The word was out before she could convince herself that it wasn’t true. But as many times as she had imagined reunions, happy or otherwise, she didn’t know if they would work against Ren, if she could let them into her home and know that it would be protecting her daughter. “No. Can we wait?”
“Of course we can. But how long can we do that before it’s too late?”
“According to you, it’s already too late. You told me that it would happen. You said that no matter what happened, no matter what I did, I couldn’t change what will happen to my daughter.”
She felt his nod against her head. “I did say that. And I still believe that. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still hope.”
“Hope?” Gratingly, she laughed, but it scratched like a skidding record into a sob. “I don’t even know how to do that anymore.”
He held her away from his body and looked at her directly in the eyes. “You taught me how. Every moment we were together, you reminded me of hope. Now I’ll just pass that knowledge back to you.”
They spent the rest of the day sitting by Ren’s bed. Buffy held her baby girl’s hand between her own and told Angel about what was on her list for Ren to do in the future.
“She’ll be really good at school, so much better than I was because she won’t have the pressure that I did and I’ll make sure she knows that she’s worth something, that she’s working toward a future. She’ll learn a second language. She’ll whine at me about how unfair I’m being when I set a curfew or don’t let her go away with her friends. She’ll do something artistic like photography, or maybe not and she’ll just want to hang out. She’ll travel, but with her Italian passport because of the ugly American traveling stigma. She’ll adopt a pet. She’ll fall in love with whoever (or whatever, but preferably whoever) she wants. I wish…I wish…” The sentence hung, unfinished, although the words themselves still managed to be true. Buffy began to cry, the silent, exhausted tears of someone defeated. Angel looked over, alarmed, though she was not crying hard. “I wish that the first step wasn’t ‘She’ll finish the first grade.’”
Angel reached over and touched her. She did not admonish him. He stroked his hands up and down her arms. “What a brave girl,” he said, and Buffy did not know who he was talking about because she felt as scared as she used to in the moment after her parents had tucked her in and kissed her, turned off the light and shut the door, leaving her in total, unfamiliar darkness with only her small, frightened self.
Angel made French toast in the morning. She could smell it from her place beside Ren in the bed, even over the scent of Johnson’s baby shampoo that was deep in the stitching of the pillowcase. She kept her eyes closed, counting to ten, then twenty, then fifty, promising that when she reached one hundred, she would get up. Only getting up meant having to put on that worn battle armor that she was afraid had become an exoskeleton. It was better to just lie there and imagine that it was years down the line, when Ren was safe and all was well and the battle armor was only used for dress up.
When she reached five hundred, she got up.
She moved to her place in the chair Angel had brought in. He came in a moment later with a plate of French toast and she looked at it like it was foreign, but let go of Ren’s hands before he had to feed it to her.
She ate while staring at her daughter. Her condition was the same as yesterday. Occasionally Ren would open her eyes or mumble, sometimes in foreign languages, and Buffy would feel her gut flutter, but it would be a brief hope. She never addressed either of them directly, or even recognized them, and each time, Ren seemed to be further from her after.
“I have to call in to work,” she said, quiet and monotone. “I didn’t take today off.”
He volunteered to do it and she overheard him making the call. He told them that Ren was very sick, identifying himself as “a friend.” When he came back in, Buffy said, hoarse and still stroking a hand over Ren’s forehead, “Maybe I don’t need a friend.”
“You have one anyway,” he responded, and they didn’t say anything for the rest of the day. Angel would get up every so often, washing dishes or fetching the handful of circulars and bills from the mailbox. He made her a turkey sandwich and gave her a glass of juice. She heard him in the hall making a call and then he was gone for a half hour at around three o’clock. There were no signs, but Buffy suspected that he had gone to take care of a demon. Eventually she crawled in with Ren and fell asleep again. It was a sleep like sickness, hot and inevitable. She didn’t dream and it seemed like she was suddenly awake again.
Buffy has known for years that life isn't fair. If it were, her parents would have been happily married until they died together peacefully. If it were, she wouldn't have killed her first vampire before she was old enough to drive. She wouldn't have died, she wouldn't have had to kill the love of her life, she wouldn't have had to work in a fast food joint that she still wasn't sure she had washed off of her skin. But in all the time that she had known that life wasn't fair, she was still in denial. As a mother, she wasn't quite ready to admit that, despite everything she had tried to do to prevent it, she might have to give up her daughter.
Buffy groaned as she moved into her now-traditional chair. Even if she hadn’t been staring at Ren for two days now, she would have noticed how her condition had changed. She no longer had the racing eyes and raving moments of being filled with other people’s lives. Now she reminded Buffy of a doll her Nana Grace had kept in her attic. It had been a china doll, a perfect replica of a human child. That was what Ren’s face looked like now, not in that it was pale and perfect and fragile but that it was frozen, hidden away, an aggressive imitation of what was precious.
“Is this it?” she asked Angel. He had heard her groan and come in from sleeping on the couch. Her voice was hoarse.
“I don’t know.” He put a hand on her shoulder. Angel’s hands had always been strong to her. Now it felt heavy.
“Would it have helped if I had called them? Would it help now?”
He did not absolve her with tired phrases. “We- parents, people, champions- we make choices. And sometimes we never know if we made the right ones.”
Buffy looked out of Ren’s window. It was bigger than the one in her room. She had wanted her daughter to have light in the morning and stars to wish on at night. Outside it was still raining as it had been the last time she had been outside, now a vague, distracted rain. The weather didn’t seem to know what to choose either.
Buffy remembered another last day. Her mother had taken a smaller version of herself, perhaps five years old, probably younger, to see Grandpa Herb in hospice care. He had been there for months after the Alzheimer’s had made it too difficult for Grandma to deal with, even with private nurses to help.
Joyce had let Buffy carry the flowers. She had breathed them in because she hated the way the hospital smelled. Grandpa Herb had been in bed, his eyes closed. The doctor took Joyce aside as soon as they stepped into the room. Buffy, playing with the blinds, pulling the cord so they hung crooked then straight then crooked again, had missed what he said, but Joyce had backed away with her hand over her mouth, shaking her head. She had curled up in the bed next to her father. “Please, Daddy,” she had whispered to him, pressing their foreheads together. “One more day, please, Daddy. You promised that you would always stay until I wasn’t scared anymore.”
Now, Buffy curled up beside her daughter the same way. She didn’t understand how she could have failed to protect the one thing to which she had devoted the past half-decade. “Oh, Ren. Do you know why I named you that?”
It had always been a familiar story around their house. “It’s cause I made you hop,” Ren would laugh and tease, doing a little jump in demonstration.
“It’s cause you made me hope,” Buffy told her, whispering as they twined together in the bed. “When I thought I had none left, when I had damned everyone in my life and so many others, you were my hope and my happiness. You let me be reborn, Renata Joy, and I will never forget that gift.” She didn’t know what else to say, so she rested her forehead against Ren’s and just remembered every moment, how everything, her whole life, had changed when she first held Luciana’s baby. She rocked their daughter’s body against her own, trying to transmit to the dead mother all the small pieces of their precious girl’s life.
Buffy dreamed that she was walking by the water. She could see the gang, her family, sitting on a patio down the beach. Willow’s thick, white layer of sunscreen was visible even from far away. Ren was filling a plastic castle shape with sand, dumping it out and sighing when the shape didn’t hold. Finally she threw the toy away and ran up to Buffy.
“Can we go in the water?” Buffy was seized suddenly with fear and told her no, that she would help make the sandcastle stay up.
“It’s okay.” Ren took her hand, pulled her gently toward the water. Buffy realized that Angel had been standing behind her the whole time. She just hadn’t realized until his hand was no longer on her hip.
“Angel made sure I knew how. It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay.”
“Let Mommy sleep. She’s been really worried about you.”
Buffy woke up groggily. She rolled over, drawing breath in deeply through her nose and blinking rapidly. It was definitely morning. The sunlight streamed through Ren’s window, the rain forgotten except for a few drops clinging to the edge of the pane; they would evaporate soon. Outside the room, Buffy could hear the clatter of breakfast being made. It woke her up and she jolted, swinging her legs over the side of the empty bed. As she looked toward the door, she saw Ren’s face peering around the frame. She squeaked and disappeared when Buffy noticed her.
“Aaaaaangel, she’s awaaaaaaaaaaaake.” The high little voice trailed off down the hallway to the kitchen. Buffy followed a moment later, dazed, breath caught in her throat. Angel stood at the stove. Ren was balancing on the counter, reaching down plates and cups from the cabinet in a manner that her mother had never allowed.
“And you very promise no vegetables?” Ren was demanding as Buffy stepped into the doorway.
“Ham. Cheese.” Angel responded, holding up a handful of each before dropping them into the half-cooked pallet of eggs already in the pan. He looked over at Buffy, who was gripping the doorframe with wide eyes. “What about you, Buffy? I went out and picked up some mushrooms and peppers. You didn’t have much in the fridge.”
His face said that he would explain later. Buffy breathed out shakily, reaching for calm. Ren was setting the small table with forks and knives on the wrong sides of the plates. “I’ll go with delicious over nutritious, too, thanks.”
The sun continued to beam brightly overhead, cutting through the chill air of not-yet-spring. They ended up taking Ren to the zoo, laughing when she imitated the animals. Angel bought her an ice cream, despite his avowed disapproval.
“Dairy means calcium,” Buffy teased. “Live a little, Angel.” He smiled at her.
None of them mentioned the events of the past few days. Buffy wasn’t even sure Ren remembered what happened.
Ren fell asleep on the ride home, tired from the joy of the day and bored from sitting in traffic with other families out enjoying the nice weather. Angel carried her inside, tucking her in, and Buffy gave her extra kisses and sat by the bed for a while. When she came out, Angel was putting portions of stir-fry onto beds of sticky rice. He set the plates across the table from each other. Buffy said, “I thought you could only cook breakfast food,” but other than that they ate silently. Afterwards, Buffy put the plates in the sink and Angel poured tea. He had brought over his own Earl Grey. Smelling it made Buffy’s chest hurt.
“Two years ago,” Angel started, “I was in Ireland. There was an encampment of Travelers-”
“They’re sometimes called tinkers. They’re the Irish equivalent of Gypsies, in that they’re nomads, but they’re not ethnically related. The poverty in those communities, Buffy, high mortality rates for everyone, suicide, abuse…it’s terrible. And they’re horribly discriminated against, so there’s abuse from inside and outside. I was just passing by, but the night I was there, boys from the village set a caravan on fire. I was lucky to be nearby; there was a family sleeping inside. I helped pull them out. One of them was an old lady, old by settled people’s standards, not just for a Traveler. ‘I’ll give you a gift. A full gift, not just the pieces,’ she said and told me exactly what would happen here. I went to Giles and he worked out the language.”
“But what happened? Ren was falling away, you said that she was going to be lost inside herself, and now she’s back exactly how she was. How?” Her voice slipped.
“Willow thinks that it’s like reloading a hard drive from a backup disk, that you pushed your memories into Ren. Giles brought in some friends to analyze it. One, Father Tom, seems to think that it was a miracle, divine intervention. There’s nurse who keeps talking about the unknown powers of mothers when it comes to their children, and a mythology expert who thinks that you were like Ariadne’s thread, guiding Ren through the maze back to herself.”
“So you don’t know?”
“We have a lot of theories. Giles has been working on it for over a year, but he still doesn’t know for sure. All we knew was that it would work. ‘She will go to the brink of loss,’ the prophecy said. ‘And she will return.’”
“You knew,” Buffy said to the rim of her teacup. “You knew that I would think that it was the end, that I had lost Ren. And you let me think that.”
Angel knelt by her chair. His teacup was full and cold. “We had to. It was part of what had to happen. You were the one who would go to the brink of loss, Ren was the one who would return. We couldn’t let you know. I wish I could have given you light, but it would only work if you were alone and in darkness. You needed to give yourself hope.”
Angel.” She kept her gaze on her cup. Her voice was very soft. “Angel, get out.”
Ren went back to school after vacation a perfectly normal six year old girl, with no sign that she had internalized and processed the minds of thousands of slayers. Ms. Langley sent home a note that said that she assumed that Ren’s school problems had been fatigue related and had been cleared up by a good dose of vacation.
On Wednesday evening, Buffy and Ren came up the stairs with pizza. Ren was talking about the report that they had just been assigned. They had to pick an animal. Ren had picked rabbits and was trying to convince Buffy to get one as a pet. When they reached their floor, Angel’s door was open. He came out of it with a bag slung over his shoulder and a box in the other arm. He locked the door slowly and walked down the hall to them.
“Are you leaving?” Ren asked, her voice small.
Angel crouched before her, putting the box down beside them. “Yes. But that doesn’t mean you should stop eating your vegetables.” She fell forward onto him and he caught her in a hug. He picked up the box again and gave Buffy a tiny tip of a smile. “Be happy,” he finally said, and went down the stairs.
Buffy unlocked the apartment door. Everything felt like slow motion. Ren looked up at her, teary-eyed. “Do you wonder where he is going?”
Yes, Buffy thought. Yes, I wonder. She handed Ren the pizza. “Start with one slice. And drink a glass of milk,” she instructed before turning around and chasing Angel.
He was packing the box into a car already filled with them and he turned as she approached.
“I get it,” she said, slightly out of breath. “It was a hard choice and you still don’t know if you made the right one, but it worked and my hope is back.” She smiled up at him, a sunset reprise. “I’m still angry at you and I don’t know how long that will last, but Angel…wherever you’re going, you should call.”
Angel curved a hand against her cheek. “I would have done it anyway, but this makes me feel like less of a stalker.”
“Oh, Angel.” She kissed him gently on the cheek. “You’ll always be a stalker to me.” She laughed and it made him do the same. “And you don’t have to tell me that I say the nicest things,” she called to him as he drove away.
It took my mom and dad two years to get married. I planned eight different weddings before they even got engaged. The one they ended up with was small, with a church for Dad and a fun party afterward for Mom.
I barely remember the mother from my childhood, the sad, intent woman who seemed determined to silently soldier on. She laughs so much these days, has such deep love with my dad and their lost-and-found friends.
She laughs at me now, watching me try to smash my suitcase closed. “Could really use some supermom powers here,” I tell her, glaring at her from under my hair. I’ve known about my mom being the Slayer since that weird thing that happened with my mind, but it’s never been a big deal in our house.
“Just use your teenager death beams on it. I’m sure it’ll decide to just give in.” And she walks away from my room, still laughing at me. I huff a sigh, but finally manage to zip the case. It’s like she has absolutely no comprehension of the amount of clothing required for two weeks in Italy.
It’s the first time I’ve been there since I was a baby. Mom and Dad surprised me with the tickets on my fifteenth birthday. Pretty exciting, although Dad has gone very overboard planning what Willow calls the “pay the respects to the homeland plus do fun touristy things” tour. I’m hoping that fun touristy things might include some Italian boys, but knowing Dad, the closest I’ll get to that is paintings of some who have been dead for three hundred years.
Still, I smile at him as I drag my suitcase down the stairs. “All set?” he asks, taking it and putting it with the others by the door.
“Well, if I could have another suitcase, I’m sure I could find some other things to pack.”
He flicks a hand toward me. “Go help your mother,” and he goes back to fiddling with the camera. I’m glad I packed my own because that one will be broken for the rest of the trip.
I slide up to where my mother is making sandwiches at the counter. “International travel with small children. I hope that there’s some Benadryl hidden in two of those.” Although I love my sister and brother, small kids and thirteen hours of air travel is no one’s favorite combo.
“No Benadryl, but I did tuck an anti-snotty teenager capsule in yours. It’s not Fallon and Levi that I’m worried about.”
“Tell me that when we hit our cruising altitude with no way down,” I say, but I’m smiling, almost helplessly. It’s just one of those sunny, gorgeous days and I’m about to be in Rome for the first time that I can remember.
Fallon comes in. She’s been wearing her little travel backpack every waking moment for the past three days. “Mommy, Daddy says it’s time to leave,” she reports.
“Lucky for your dad, I’m ready to go.” Mom swings Fallon up and settles her on her hip. Fallon cuddles close.
“Do you ever wonder how big happy can get inside of you before it comes out?” she asks.
Mom laughs again, a laugh that’s half joy and half hurtful past. “Now I do, baby girl,” she says. “Now I can.”