By Minim Calibre
Notes: Third and final story of the Port in a Storm series. Making a long story shorter, this happened when I took Port In A Storm, and changed one small thing…
It felt almost like the last time. She’d grabbed a bag, bought her ticket, and left a short note on her bed. Only this time, the bag was weekend-light, the ticket round-trip, and the note said she’d be back soon. Buffy shifted in her cracked vinyl seat and tried to ignore the smell of stale sweat and urine that clung to the interior of the bus.
The steady rhythm of the vehicle lulled her into a state midway between waking and sleeping. She stared out the window, occasionally focusing on something—pebbles in the asphalt or shrubs off the shoulder, it didn’t much matter. Every time she focused, she let herself think before letting the scenery blur again, leaving the thought trapped on the roadside. Buffy knew it was only a short-term solution, a mental coat check. She’d collect her problems on the return trip. She didn’t need them where she was going.
The worn-down sigh of the brakes startled her. She got up slowly, still stiff from the ride and the lingering effects of the demon sting, collected her things, and headed to a pay phone to call a cab. It cost more than she remembered, so she put a dollar in the vending machine for some stale candy she had no intention of eating, then headed back to the phone booth to make the call.
The driver was surly, and she was pretty certain he took the long way to the motel, but she didn’t have the energy to argue. Buffy paid him, frowning at how much of her available cash she’d had to hand him. Lately, it seemed like everything came with too high a cost.
She checked in, ignoring the leering suggestions of the manager, and went to her room. With its faded shag carpet and beaten old furniture, it reminded her of Faith’s room. She wondered why she found the idea comforting.
Buffy set her bags on the bed and locked the door. She undressed quickly and headed to the shower, wondering why it was that sitting on a couch for a few hours didn’t leave her sticky and gritty, but sitting on a bus for the same amount of time did. She showered as quickly as she could, then did her best to dry off with the small threadbare towel provided. The jeans and t-shirt she picked out clung to her still-damp body, but she figured that as long as she was clean, she could cope with clammy.
She slid into her shoes and out the door, heading down road until she found the path to the beach. It looked almost the same as she remembered it. There was the strangely listing tree that Dawn had insisted on climbing when she was four, and the spot where she’d fallen and ended up lucky she only got the wind knocked out of her (except she hadn’t, but Buffy didn’t know if she had any memories about the tree that weren’t monk-made), and the curve in the trail where Buffy had panicked because her mom and dad had rounded the corner when she wasn’t paying attention and she’d thought they’d abandoned her. She hadn’t been back since she’d learned she was the Slayer. It was safe here, the only ghosts from the past happy ones.
The sand crunched under her feet, and she wondered if it was worth the risk of broken glass and needles to take off her shoes and feel it squishing between her toes.
“Guess even the safe places have their dangers,” she muttered.
Buffy wandered along the beach, admiring the sunset and losing herself in memory, a piece of driftwood swinging from her hand just in case. She didn’t notice the man leaning up against a log until she’d tripped over his legs. She went sprawling, her makeshift stake flying from her hand as she caught herself.
“Ouch.” She rubbed her wrists as she got up, and turned to glare at the man, wondering why the hell he hadn’t told her she was about to step on him.
The bandage across his neck brought her up short, as did the empty look of recognition in the dark blue eyes.
She frowned, trying to place him. When she did, her eyes widened and she almost laughed.
He closed his eyes, and she noticed the tension in his face. He looked like he hadn’t slept or shaved in days.
“What are you doing here?”
A quick expression of exasperation crossed his face, and he grabbed the pen and notepad off the ground next to him. He scribbled something quickly, and handed her the pad.
Does it matter? She read.
“You look like hell,” she said, handing the pad back.
He wrote another message.
As do you, Ms. Summers.
“I feel like it, too,” she mumbled.
Wesley raised his eyebrows.
She felt the urge to clarify.
“It hasn’t been the easiest of resurrections. Lots of stuff has… happened, and I just wanted to leave it behind me for a couple of days.”
She slumped down next to him and stared out at the water.
“I’ve tried so hard and it hasn’t been enough, not for any of them, not for me.”
“Besides,” she added quietly, “I think after… well, I think that maybe it’s a good idea for me to give them some space. Do you have any idea what it feels like to know you’ve betrayed almost everyone you care about for an illusion?”
The harsh inhalation of breath startled her, but not as much as the raw pain she saw on Wesley’s face when she turned to look at him.
She suddenly realized what a bad idea it was for someone weakened by an obviously recent wound to be out by himself waiting for the sun to set.
“Do you even care that any vamps who happen to be out tonight will smell the blood on you from a mile away?”
He shrugged and picked up the notepad.
She stared at him, wondering what to say.
“I used to come here when I was younger,” she stated suddenly. “I thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. We’d get a room in town for the weekend, and Dawn and I would build sandcastles and play in the water while Mom and Dad relaxed in the sun. I don’t remember them ever fighting here, but maybe we stopped coming before that really started. It was always so peaceful. ”
“I came out here because I needed that again. The peace. It’s the one place I thought I could go where I wouldn’t have to remember that I’m the Slayer, but I guess I was wrong. ”
“It’s not you,” she added. “Even before I tripped over you I was prepared.”
Buffy pointed to her discarded stick. “Exhibit A, one strong piece of driftwood.”
“I was finished. Done. At peace. And then I wasn’t, and suddenly, nothing made sense anymore. Not my friends, not my family, not my enemies. And I made the least sense of any of it. The idea that it was all just a hallucination, that none of the pain and confusion was real made so much sense to me. So much sense that I almost killed everyone I loved so I didn’t have to face the reality of my life.”
“The reality is my friends decided to bring me back from the dead because they loved me and they thought I was in hell, and now I can’t even talk to them, because they’re still filled with some fucked-up combination of guilt over what they did and frustration with my inability to get over being ripped out of heaven.”
“The only person I could talk to was Spike, which is wrong, and I ended up fucking him so I wouldn’t have to listen to what he had to say, which is even worse.”
The expression on the ex-Watcher’s face wasn’t the disbelief or disgust she’d expected. It looked uncomfortably like compassion.
Any port in a storm?
Buffy gave a wan smile. “I guess so.”
She’d never noticed how young Wesley was. At 18, she’d just lumped him in the adult category and left it at that. She hadn’t really thought about him much, even before he’d left Sunnydale. After that, the only time she thought about him was when she’d gone to LA to confront Faith. Despite the lines of worry and exhaustion on his face, she figured he was only about a decade her senior. Only five or so years older than Riley. Not that she was thinking about Wesley that way.
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
He shrugged once more and wrote I hadn’t given it any thought.
“Why don’t you come back to my motel?” Buffy winced at how that had come out. “I mean, it’s late, you don’t look like you’re in any shape to go anywhere tonight, and besides, I think the manager kind of expects me to show up with a strange man, and I’d hate to disappoint him. Not that this is a come-on… far from it, I mean, you’re a good-looking man, but I’m so not ready to deal with that sort of thing, not after Spike, and besides, you used to be my Watcher, and you don’t look like you’re in any shape to…” She stopped as he pressed a note into her hand.
Yes, I’ll stay. And yes, I’m well aware that it was not a come-on.
She smiled again, a twist of rue to it. “I must have sounded pretty stupid. Want to head back now?”
It wasn’t really a question. She stood up, grabbing the closest stick.
“Follow me. It’s not far.”
She waited until he was standing and gently took him by the hand to lead up to the trail. They walked slowly and silently back to her room, pausing occasionally so he could catch his breath.
“It’s not very impressive,” she warned him as she unlocked the door, “but at least it’s inside and there’s a bed. Which you should take, by the way. I’ll be fine in the chair.”
Wesley was too tired to argue. He set his backpack next to her bags before staggering to the bathroom. Buffy listened to the water run while she arranged a blanket and pillow on the chair. He came out as she was turning back the covers.
“Make yourself comfortable—well, as comfortable as you can. I think the mattress has seen better days. Possibly the Crusades. I’m going to go brush my teeth and let you get ready for bed now.”
She took her time in the bathroom, flossing carefully and brushing until she heard him slide under the sheets. He was already asleep when she walked back into the room, so she quietly turned off the lights, slipped off her jeans, and curled up in the chair. The light from the parking lot kept the room too bright for comfort, so she covered her face with the blanket and drifted off.
The sound of a struggle woke her. She bolted out of the chair ready to fight whatever it was until she realized “it” was just Wesley, face turned towards his pillow as he fought against his nightmare. Buffy shook him awake as gently as she could. His eyes flew open and he raised his hands as if to shield himself from someone.
“Shhh… Wesley, it was just a dream.”
Not knowing what else to do, she sat next to him and wrapped her arms around him. He clung to her as though his life depended on it.
“Shhh… it’s okay. It’ll all be okay.”
She stroked his hair and kissed his forehead and cheeks as she rocked him until his panicked gasps changed to harsh, nearly silent sobs. Buffy felt his shaking ease, so she kept caressing and kissing him until somehow one of them shifted as she was about to press her lips to his cheek and she found herself kissing the corner of his mouth instead.
Her tongue darted out before she could think, teasing his lips until they opened. She’d forgotten lips could be so warm. She covered his mouth with her own, hands tangling in his hair as she tasted him, gently licking the curve of his lower lip. A hint of hesitation, and he was returning the kiss, lips moving against her, hands loosening their grip to stroke her back. The warm breath mingling with her own felt foreign and familiar and right, and suddenly she found herself on top of him, pressing into his body urgently as his hands slid under her shirt.
His heart pounded against her chest. She rocked against him, hips echoing the rhythm. The cool air of the room hit flushed skin as he pulled her shirt over her head, leaving her clad in just her bra and a thin pair of panties.
It was too much clothing.
She sat up, pulled off first her bra and then his shirt. Kissed him again as she pushed his boxers down while he slid her underwear off of her and slipped himself inside her.
The coupling was raw and quick. She was gone by the time he woke up, leaving just the room key and a note of thanks.
“I’m sorry… what?”
The doctor’s face was a study in learned kindness. “Is there a chance that you could be pregnant?”
The hum of the fluorescent lights seemed to grow louder in time with the buzzing in her brain.
“Maybe—just a slight chance. More of an off-chance really, almost a no-chance.” Buffy wasn’t sure who exactly she was trying to convince. “I had a light flow a week later.”
“Flow or spotting?” he asked.
“Spotting, I guess.”
“It’s possible that what you noticed was implantation bleeding. It’s fairly common, and your symptoms are consistent with pregnancy. At this point, I can’t think of what else it could be. Everything else checks out as normal.”
A quick test and a physical exam confirmed the worst-case scenario, and explained weeks of fatigue and dizziness that she’d just attributed to the most recent string of nasty events in her life. That is, until the nasty events had gone out with a bang and the symptoms remained. One encounter, pushed to the back of her mind after Tara’s death and everything that followed it, had set a reminder notice, delivery scheduled for mid-December.
She could kick herself for being so stupid. She hadn’t thought of the possibility until the doctor mentioned it. In her defense, contraception wasn’t really an issue when one’s main partner was, well, dead. So perhaps it slipping her mind during an impromptu fling with someone who was still breathing was understandable. Or maybe she was just rationalizing so she’d feel like less of an idiot.
The urge to revisit the comforting insane asylum hallucination was strong, as was the urge to just curl up in her bed and not deal. Buffy let herself in the front door planning on indulging in a vacation from coping for the rest of the day. Life, however, had other plans in the form of an overly-concerned fifteen year old girl.
“Buffy, did you find out what’s wrong? You’re fine, right? Just tired?”
“Just pregnant,” she replied absently.
“Buffy, that isn’t funny. Stop joking and tell me what you found out.”
She looked at Dawn and frowned. “I just did.”
“I’m going to take a nap, Dawnie. I’m tired, and I can’t really think right now. Can we talk about this later?”
She walked up the stairs, not bothering to pay attention to Dawn’s protests. Her head was spinning, her stomach rolling, and she just wanted to lay down on her bed until it stopped. The rolling got worse, and she sprinted to the bathroom just in time to lose her breakfast. Buffy hoped the nausea was a one-time deal brought on by stress. She rinsed her mouth out and stared at her reflection. She looked the same. She felt the same.
She still couldn’t quite believe she was pregnant, had been for several weeks, in fact. It wasn’t the sort of thing you normally overlook. Of course, she still couldn’t quite believe Tara was dead, Willow had flipped, or any of the rest of it, but unfortunately, not being able to wrap your head around something wasn’t the same as it not being true.
Telling Dawn had probably been a mistake, but Buffy hadn’t been able to filter the words before they came out of her mouth. At least it was out in the open and she wouldn’t have to worry about hiding anything. Oh God, how was she going to break it to everyone else? With any luck, they were all as shell-shocked as she was and it wouldn’t be a big deal. Although she’d thought that before, and it had kind of backfired.
She somehow doubted Giles would find anything to laugh about at this turn of events.
Crawling into bed, she wrapped the comforter around her body and tried to sleep. As tired as she was, it should have been easy, but her mind wouldn’t shut down enough for it to happen. She had no idea what she was going to do, and very little time to make up her mind one way or the other, seeing as she was already nine weeks along.
On the one hand, there was no way in hell she could raise a baby, look after Dawn, and keep down the demon population of Sunnydale. Even being pregnant was a liability. She shouldn’t be patrolling, let alone fighting. On the other hand, well, there’d been too much death in her life over the last year and a half, and something inside her recoiled at the idea of termination. Maybe it was something left over from whatever the monks had done to her when they made Dawn, but she just didn’t think she could do it. She covered her still-flat stomach with her palm and tried to think of any way out of the mess she’d gotten herself into.
“Come in,” she said when she heard the knock on her door.
Her sister stood in the doorway watching her, face filled with shock and a touch of pity. Great, now Dawn was feeling sorry for her. That couldn’t be good.
“Do you want something, Dawn?”
“I just thought I’d see if you needed anything. Water, milk, orange juice. Well, we’re out of the orange juice, but I think there’s some Tang in one of the cupboards.”
Buffy made an effort to smile. “Thanks, Dawnie. A glass of water would be nice. But no Tang. I think it’s solidified by now, anyway.”
“I could chip it out and we could pretend it was candy.” Buffy supposed her face must have shown how unappetizing the idea was, because Dawn quickly back-pedaled. “Or not. In fact, while I’m in the kitchen, I’ll just throw it out, okay?”
She hurried from the room and came back a few minutes later with a glass of water, which she handed to Buffy.
“Okay. The Tang is history. Buffy, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I wish I did.”
“Well, anything I can do? To help, I mean.”
“You could start with your chores while I do some bills before patrol.”
“You’re going to go patrolling? That kind of seems like a bad idea, seeing as you’re—you know.” Dawn made a weird motion with her hands to pantomime a swollen gut.
“Pregnant? I know, thanks for the visual. Patrolling is the mother of all bad ideas. Worse even than Tang chips, but someone has to do it.”
“Can’t you maybe take a night off? You’re probably kind of distracted, and I don’t want you to get hurt. Besides, aren’t the bad nasties still in hiding since Willow went crazy? I mean, you could totally skip a night. Please?”
Dawn had a good point. Well, a couple of them. “Fine. I’ll stay in for tonight, if it makes you feel better.”
She took the water with her to the dining room and sat down with a stack of bills and her checkbook. New glass for the windows had eaten up any cushion she had, and it looked like another month of juggling just to keep everything running. Joy. She wrote out as many as she could manage to pay and still afford to eat, then shoved the rest of the bills under a placemat so she wouldn’t have to look at them. Frustrated and exhausted, she went back to bed.
At midnight, she was still awake and staring at nothing. She frowned and did some quick calculating. It was morning where Giles was. She could call him, tell him, and then sleep knowing he’d be able to give her some advice. She grabbed the phone and dialed his number.
“Hello?” He sounded like she’d woken him.
“Giles? It’s me. Do you have a few minutes? Did I wake you up?”
“Oh, hello Buffy. Yes of course, and no, I’ve been up since about four. Willow was having a bad night, I’m afraid.”
She didn’t bother with preliminaries. “Giles, I’m pregnant.”
“Are you quite sure?” he didn’t sound disappointed, just tired.
“Yes. Confirmed beyond any shadow of a doubt.”
The phone was silent except for the faint sound of a throat being cleared.
“I’m still here. Buffy, when—how—did this happen?”
“The usual way. I went away overnight after the hallucinations and the duct tape and ran into someone I knew from L.A. It just happened, that’s all. Giles, I know you’re busy, you’ve got your hands full with Willow, but is there…” her voice broke.
“Is there any way I could come back? Yes, of course. I’ll make the arrangements. I should be there before the end of the week.”
“It’s quite late where you are, Buffy. Get some sleep, I’ll call you when I get into Sunnydale.”
“Good night, Giles. And thank you again.” She hung up the phone and let herself give in to the tears that had been threatening all day.
Crying brought back the nausea as mucus flowed from her sinuses down her throat. Instead of sleeping, she spent the rest of the night alternating between puking and crying.
“I’m a mess,” she told her reflection with its swollen red eyes and blotched skin. Strange what difference a few hours could make. “I should be patrolling, or planning, or something. Not standing in a bathroom blowing my nose, throwing up, blowing my nose some more, and feeling sorry for myself.”
The cold porcelain of the hexagonal tiles on the floor felt good under her feet. She touched her hot face and decided to see if it felt as good against her cheek. It did. She stretched out next to the bathtub and fell asleep to the chirping of birds.
Tara handed her a tissue. “It’s all going to be just fine, you’ll see.” “Tara, you’re dead.” “So were you, twice, right?” She was wearing the same thing she’d worn the day she was shot, but it was clean, the hole over her heart mended and the blood gone. “I know it’s rough, but you’ll get through it. You always do.” “It’s all I ever do. Just once, I’d like to not be getting through something. Why are you here?” “The same reason I was last time, to speak for her.” “Are you going to tell me death is my gift? Because I’m sick of that. I’m sick of death.” “No, not this time. You already know what you need to do.” “Do I? Because I’ve got to tell you, I’m still not clear on the matter.” Tara smiled, a wide, happy, knowing smile. “Yes you are. Trust your instincts, Buffy. I have to go now… tell Willow I love her, always.” Then she vanished, leaving Buffy alone. No—her hand crept to her belly—not alone. Tara was right, it was all clear.
When she woke up, there was a pillow under her head and a blanket draped over her. Dawn must have found her and decided to let her sleep. Her eyelids felt tight and stretched, her shoulders were stiff from sleeping on the floor, and her nose was raw from a night spent using toilet paper as tissue, but her stomach seemed stable and she felt a little better than she had the night before.
A shower had improved her mobility and her mood. She thought about the dream again. It felt prophetic, but maybe it was just the hormones. It didn’t matter; she’d made up her mind. She went to the kitchen for a glass of milk and found Dawn already there, washing the dishes.
“Giles is coming,” she told her.
“You called him? I guess you must have, huh?”
“I’m going to go through with it, Dawn. After that, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just know that this is something I have to do.”
Dawn was quiet, her attention focused on the sudsy water.
“Dawnie? What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”
“You’re sure? That this is what you want to do?”
“I’m sure that this is what I have to do. Does it bother you?”
“No, it’s just… Buffy, what if they try to take me away from you again? Would they do that? I mean, you’ve quit your job, someone tried to kill you in your own yard, Tara was killed, you’re pregnant. It doesn’t really look good.”
“Dad’s finally paying some of your support, it’s been quiet for a month, and social services hasn’t been beating down our door. I think we’ll be okay.”
Dawn made a game attempt at a smile and went back to the dishes. “I hope so. I won’t have to give up my room, will I?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead, and I’m not sure that I’m going to be the person raising this baby.”
“I thought you said you were going through with it, having the baby.”
“I am, but having and keeping are two different things. We’ll see. I’m going to wait and see what Giles says before I decide what’s going to happen after the baby gets here.”
“When’s Giles get here?”
“Soon. He’s going to call me when he gets in.”
“Who’s is it? It can’t be Spike’s, because, well.. he’s a vampire, but you kind of don’t know any other guys except Xander and you didn’t… not with Xander. Did you?” Dawn’s eyes were round as she considered the possibilities.
“There’s not really enough no in the world for that, Dawn. No, not Xander. It was just someone I ran into when I went away.”
“Ran into as in knew already or ran into as in, well, ran into?”
“As in knew already, and no, I haven’t told him, and no, I’m not telling you who he is. It’s not important.”
Dawn didn’t say anything; she just dropped the subject and left the room. Buffy waited until her sister was upstairs, then walked over to the laptop Willow had left behind when she’d gone to England with Giles. A quick search of the online L.A. white pages pulled up just one Wyndam-Pryce. She copied down the phone number and address, wondering if she’d ever get up the nerve to use either.
The next two days passed like molasses. Buffy amused herself rewatching old movies, folding the towels, and doing laundry just so she could smell the clothes as they dried. There was something comforting about sitting on the basement stairs, the cool air scented with dryer sheets and dust. It was homey in a way the upstairs hadn’t been since her mom’s death. If she closed her eyes, she could see Joyce standing there, hands on hips as she tried to keep from opening the dryer before the buzzer sounded. She felt closer to her mother here than anywhere else.
She was rewashing already-clean whites when the phone rang. Mindful of her condition, and not really wanting to leave the basement and its ghosts behind, she let Dawn answer.
“Buffy! It’s Giles.” The call from upstairs roused her from her communion.
“Hang on, I’ll be right there!”
She got up and bid her mother farewell, taking one last deep breath before going to take the call.
As it wasn’t certain how long Giles would be in Sunnydale, it was decided that he’d stay in the house on Revello Drive rather than staying in a hotel. A taxi dropped him off, suitcase in hand. Buffy hugged him before giving him a chance to set it down.
“Make it better?” She tried for playful, but was pretty certain it had come out a little closer to pathetic.
He returned the hug as best he could with his free hand. “I’ll see what I can do, but I’m afraid I don’t really have much—well, any—experience with this sort of thing.”
“That makes two of us, then.” She detached herself from his warm, familiar form. “I’ve made Willow’s—the spare room up for you.”
“Thank you. Would you rather talk now, or wait until I’m settled in?”
“I’d rather hold off as long as humanly possible so I can cling frantically to my last few strings of denial and shreds of dignity, but I’ll settle for waiting until you’ve at least had a chance to recover from the plane ride before letting you read me the riot act.”
“Buffy, you may rest assured that I’m not going to be reading you the riot act. I’m here to help, not to lecture.”
She hugged him again and let him go upstairs to unpack while she got things ready for dinner. It had been a while since she and Dawn had had anything like a sit-down meal. Not that Dawn was going to be home for this one; she’d gone over to Janice’s, saying that she’d just be in the way when Buffy and Giles were talking. Buffy supposed she had a point, but still wished she’d be here for the food part of it. She’d save Dawn some leftovers, and maybe try to have a real meal again in a couple of days.
Dinner was unexpectedly uncomfortable. She played with her food, her appetite lost to nerves, until Giles finally set down his fork and cleared his throat. She was a little surprised when he didn’t clean his glasses.
“Buffy, if you’d rather talk about all this now and get it over with, please feel free to do so.”
She looked up from her plate with a wistful smile. “That obvious, was it?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“You should finish eating. Airplane food is no substitute for actual food. I think I’m going to stick my plate in the fridge and come back to it when my stomach doesn’t contain a fresh load of butterflies. Meet me on the couch when you’re done?”
She fled the room, plate in hand, and settled on the couch to wait for him to finish. It didn’t take long. He’d either eaten in haste, or (and she figured the second possibility was the more likely of the two) set his meal aside to come and talk with her before she freaked out.
“Giles, I don’t know what to do. I’m scared, half going out of my mind. Dawn’s made me stop patrolling, and I’ve gotten away with it so far, but I can’t just not do it. Sooner or later, something’s going to come up and I’m going to need to be out there. Only problem is, it’s not just me I have to worry about any more.”
He frowned a little before answering. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do in the long term? This is a very serious situation, Buffy.”
“Having it. I haven’t thought much beyond that. As little sense as it makes, it’s the only option I’m willing to look at. Take what I felt about Dawn when I had to think about choosing between her and the world, and make it about a million times stronger.”
The glasses came off. She stifled a laugh as he cleaned them while collecting his thoughts. “I took the liberty of looking through all the materials the Council had on hand, but I’m afraid I couldn’t find anything that dealt with this particular situation. Most Slayers don’t…”
“Live long enough for it to be an issue? I didn’t, but there were extenuating circumstances that nixed that, as you know.”
Except for a slightly pained frown, he chose to ignore her comment. “It’s something that, if it has happened, hasn’t been documented. There’s no precedent for it.”
“So it’s safe to say it’s not in that handbook I didn’t get?” Better living through flip responses, she thought when she heard the words.
“Yes, it’s safe to say that this information is not covered in the handbook.” He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. “Buffy, I felt it was best if I didn’t inform the Council of your condition. I don’t trust them to do what would be best for you under these circumstances. However, it isn’t something that can be kept from them forever, and you need to keep that in mind when making plans.”
“I know. If it helps, the closest I’ve come to planning is deciding to have it.”
“Strange as it may seem, I find that not at all comforting. We’ll try to take this one step at a time. Find some sort of a solution to the patrolling limitations first, and take the rest as we come to it. You’ll need to tell the others, of course. They need to know what they’ll be up against, what the stakes are.”
“Dawn knows, and, well, Xander and Anya are really the only people left since the big blow up. Speaking of, will Willow be all right while you’re over here?”
Giles threw her a look that managed to convey irritation and affection and a hint of disappointment that she’d even felt the need to ask the question. “She’s in very good hands; there’s nothing to worry about there.”
“So tomorrow I tell Xander and Anya. Somehow, I’m not sure it will even register.”
“They are, well, on speaking terms, aren’t they?”
“If by speaking you mean occasionally saying a word or two to try and fool everyone into thinking they’re just fine with each other, then yes. Anya’s convinced him that it doesn’t make any economic sense for one of them to move out when there’s plenty of space and a lease-breaking penalty, but I’m getting the impression that their housing situation makes me and Kathy look like a match made in heaven.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“On the other hand, I’m pretty certain they’re having sex again, so it’s almost like nothing’s changed.”
Giles cleaned his glasses again. “Perhaps we should change the subject.”
“Sorry. I guess that was a little more information than you needed. So, once again, I’m up against something the council hasn’t faced. That’s never been good.”
The discussion shifted to the level of demonic activity, which was low, but steady—nothing out of the ordinary, which for Sunnydale was something out of the ordinary—and to the consideration of possible short-term solutions. Giles was unwilling to look any further ahead than a handful of months.
“Once your situation becomes known, the main factor in keeping things in check, which is fear of the Slayer, will be compromised. At that point, Buffy, I would say it’s a safe bet that all hell will, as usual, break loose,” he informed her.
Xander and Anya took it quietly, although Xander’s “I’m trying not to be judgey, see I’m not judging” efforts were pretty transparent. Anya managed to say “Don’t you wish…” before waving her hand and adding, “Forget that I said that. I’m pleased for you and your unborn human.”
Following a suggestion of Anya’s—she pointed out that they’d managed to survive one summer with no Buffy, so a summer with a slightly subfunctional Buffy would just involve a minor reworking of that arrangement—they worked out a patrolling system. Buffy basically acted as bait, drawing out the vampires so that Xander or Giles or Anya could dust them.
“It’s all about creative accounting,” Anya said a little too enthusiastically after their first night on the job. “The demons still think there’s a Slayer after them, so the level of intimidation remains high, which buys us time.”
“Slaying, the Enron way. That’s Anya for you.” Xander responded. She glared at him and he ducked his head. “I know. Insensitive.”
The summer fashion for loose peasant blouses hid the evidence of Buffy’s rapidly expanding girth for a couple of months, but her increased discomfort and exhaustion forced them to find a different solution to the patrolling issue. It was Xander who finally came up with it.
“I say we bribe ’em. Anya could tell us the best group to go with until Buffy’s back in fighting shape. Who’s with me here? Show of hands?”
Anya stuck up both of hers, beaming at her erstwhile fiance. “Xander is learning the importance of currency.”
Buffy and Giles raised theirs weakly. It wasn’t much, but it was the best they’d managed to come up with. When Xander and Anya left for the night, they sat in silence in the living room.
“It’s not going to work, is it, Giles?” She was too tired to cry, no matter how tempting it was.
“The bribing? It could.” He sounded as if he wanted to convince himself.
“I was thinking more along the lines of working motherhood.”
“No, I’m afraid it won’t. I’m sorry, Buffy.”
“I guess that leaves adoption, huh?”
“I’m not certain that’s the best solution, either,” he frowned, looking about a decade older than usual. “There have been rumors, in the sort of circles where they’d be most damaging, about your pregnancy. It’s hard to hide the fact that you’re showing now, and your medical records, if compromised, would provide all the proof needed. The Council, if they got wind of this—and I have no doubt that they will—would be understandably curious about the offspring of a Slayer. I wouldn’t put kidnapping or manipulation of the adoption process past them. Buffy, I haven’t asked this, because it’s clearly none of my business, but what about the father? Have you informed him? Does he know what you are?”
“No, and yes. And before you ask, yes, I think he would know what to do, and no, I’m not going to say who he is.”
“In that case, you should contact him and inform him of the situation as soon as can be arranged.”
“I’d rather tell him in person; this isn’t the sort of thing I think I could handle telling him over the phone. I’ll see if Xander will drive me to L.A. this weekend. I’ll call when I know what his response is.”
“Buffy, I know you don’t want to do this, but it really is for the best, you know.”
She tried a smile, and almost succeeded. “I know,” she agreed, and made her way to her room, where she spent the rest of the night convincing herself that she didn’t have another choice.
For once he was grateful to hear a knock on his door. He’d been about ready to throw darts at the Playstation to relieve the boredom.
It could have been worse, he supposed. He could have been tempted to call Lilah.
The door had been open for at least a minute before he realized that it was worse.
“Can I come in?”
Buffy Summers stood there, looking very much as she had almost half a year before. Excepting, of course, for the noticeable bulge in her midsection.
It seemed he hadn’t imagined the interlude in her hotel room. It also seemed that the night had not been without consequence.
He appeared to have lost the power of speech, so he merely nodded and gestured towards the living room. She walked to the couch and collapsed in a tired heap.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to just show up. I should have told you when I found out.”
She paused and he found his tongue. “I—can I get you anything?”
He walked blindly to the kitchen and filled a glass from the filter. Life had suddenly become quite a bit more complicated, and he found himself missing the boredom. The sensation he was experiencing now was not unfamiliar. Quite to the contrary, he and panic were old companions.
She took the glass and slowly drank, her eyes focusing on anything but him.
“I was going to call,” she murmured in the direction of the coffee table. “I didn’t realize it myself until long after it should have been obvious. It’s been a rough couple of months… I guess I lost track of time.”
“What is it you… what do you plan on doing?”
“Having her. But I can’t keep her.”
“Her?” Wesley wondered if the news of impending parenthood stripped all men of their vocabularies. It would certainly explain a great deal about Angel. He felt he should sit down, but he couldn’t seem to locate the lower half of his body.
“Her. At least, that’s what the ultrasound guy said at my last check up. She’s due in about three and a half months.” A smile lit her features and faded quickly. “Wesley, I have to give her up. I know that. Don’t think I haven’t tried to figure out some way to balance slaying and motherhood.” She folded her hands protectively over the bump. “I can’t do it. I can’t be both. That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh. I see. No, that’s not quite right. I don’t see. I beg your pardon?”
“She needs someone who can protect her. If I give her up for adoption, I can’t trust that she’d be safe. She’s still the daughter of the Slayer. If word got out…well, between the Council and various nasties, I’m not sure I really want to think about what could happen.”
Things were starting to become much clearer. He still couldn’t feel his feet, but the disconnect between brain and mouth seemed to have vanished.
“You want me to take her, raise her, keep her safe, is that it?”
She nodded and he wondered just how twisted the Powers That Be were, wondered if this was their revenge for his bungling of the Connor situation.
He told her as much, not glossing over his role in the debacle.
There was a long silence after he finished. He stared at his hands, wishing he had something to occupy them.
“You wouldn’t fail a second time.” Her matter-of-fact statement broke the silence. “You were willing to walk away from everything you cared about to protect someone else’s child. I think you’d do at least as much for your own.”
“There is no guarantee that it would be enough. Given my track record, I’d say the odds are somewhat in favor of the enemy.”
Buffy shrugged. “At least they wouldn’t be astronomically so. She deserves a chance at a normal life, and like it or not, you’re the best she’s got.”
He knew he was willing himself to be convinced by her argument, but he didn’t really care. He couldn’t make up for what had happened with Connor, but he had a chance to try again and he needed to take it.
Besides, if he let his child grow up with strangers, let himself out of her life, he’d never forgive himself. He could do this. He just had to figure out how.
“Buffy, do you have a plan? Some sort of strategy?”
“Not really. We kind of planned ourselves out coming up with a way to keep Sunnydale safe during my maternity leave.”
His curiosity must have been evident, because she elucidated without waiting for him to form the question.
“We used good old fashioned bribery. Giles and Xander pooled resources and paid one of the local demon gangs to keep things in check until I’m back in fighting shape. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to kill them in a few months, but so far, so good.”
He frowned, thinking rapidly. “We need to avoid a paper trail, anything that could be pulled up by the Council or other interested parties. Have you a decent set of alternative papers?”
“Fake ID. I’ll take that as a no.” He hurried over to a table and grabbed a paper and pen. “So we’ll need that. Shouldn’t be too hard. We should get you out of Los Angeles, too. Go somewhere, perhaps out of state for the duration.”
“Wow. You can take the Watcher out of the Council, but you really can’t take the Council out of the Watcher, can you?”
“Buffy, you know it’s the only way possible to keep her safe.”
She grinned. “I know. It’s just that last time I saw you, you weren’t exactly Mr. Loquacious. I’d kind of forgotten what you’re like when you can talk.” She sobered up. “You’re right, though. How soon will I need to have everything in order?”
“As soon as possible. I presume that your physician’s appointments were under your name?”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about that at the moment. So long as there aren’t any further visits by Buffy Summers, the trail should cool rapidly.” He considered how long it would take him to break his lease and find a safe location. “A week. I can handle the paperwork and the travel plans. You should gather whatever items you need for the next few months. I’d prefer if you didn’t return to Sunnydale until this is all over. Is there someone who can send your things here?”
“Not really. I mean, they know what city I’m in, but I kind of left out some of the details. All I said was that the father is someone in L.A. who I’ve known for a few years. So they know I’m talking to him, but they don’t know that him is you. Giles was already pretty upset, and I kind of don’t think he’d have been pleased by that bit of information.”
Wesley was inclined to agree with that assessment. He rather suspected Giles’ reaction would have made Angel’s bedside attack seem rational in comparison.
Still, he didn’t want her going back home.
“We can pick up the essential items before we leave, then. You might as well make yourself at home for now.”
He walked over to the closet, lost in thought, and took out his jacket.
“I need to get out and clear my head. I’ll get you a toothbrush and some sundries on my way back. There are various microwave meals in the freezer if you get hungry.”
When he locked the door behind him, he realized he was shaking.
Christ, what had he gotten himself into? He was tempted to go to the pub and drink himself stupid, but didn’t want to chance Lilah tracking him down. Besides, it would take up too much of the very short amount of time he had in which to get everything sorted out.
There were records to have altered, identifications and credentials to set up. He visited the most reliable of his contacts, handed over a fairly large sum of money, and scheduled an appointment for the next day. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce would soon, for all practical purposes, cease to exist, leaving Terence Bardsley in his place.
The notion upset him more than he would have thought.
A quick trip to the department store provided him with a couple changes of women’s maternity clothing, a package of underpants, and some toiletries. He didn’t risk guessing a bra size. Buffy would just have to make do with the one she was wearing.
He picked up a bottle of gin before heading back to the apartment, rationalizing that as he wouldn’t be drinking it when he had other things to do, it was a better option than pubbing. Besides, he doubted he’d be able to get to sleep without it, and he knew better than to strategize when exhausted.
She was asleep on the couch when he let himself in, her feet tucked under her, head pillowed on her hands. Sleeping, she looked far too young to be in her situation. He was shocked to remember that she was only twenty-one. She didn’t merely look too young, she was too young.
Wesley opened the gin, not bothering to get a glass. He drank two-thirds of the bottle before the guilt was numbed enough for him to fall asleep watching her.
It wasn’t yet light out when he woke up. He stumbled to the bathroom and vomited until there was nothing left in his stomach and the dry heaves subsided. Rinsed his mouth and washed down some aspirin with Alka-Seltzer before showering.
“Wonderful planning, Wesley,” he muttered. “You’ll be so bloody effective hung over, won’t you?”
After getting dressed, he poured the rest of the bottle down the sink. He’d comfort himself with something later, when he had time. Even if that proved to be a point eighteen years in the future.
The day went better than he’d expected. They picked up the paperwork and a few more sundries before heading back to the apartment. She napped, and he narrowed the hunt for a temporary location to three mid-sized towns not known for supernatural activity. After making some calls, he decided that Eugene, Oregon would be the best of the lot and made the necessary motel reservations.
She called Sunnydale and informed them that she wouldn’t be back until after the birth. One look at her face after she hung up was enough to keep him from asking for specifics.
The forger knew someone who specialized in buying out the possessions of people who needed to leave town in a hurry. The amount he quoted Wesley for the contents of the apartment was low, but it would be enough to sustain him until he’d settled somewhere permanent. The rest of the week was spent arranging transportation, and packing the items he’d tagged to keep.
He and Buffy settled into an uneasy routine, eating meals in silence and watching old movies so they wouldn’t have to talk. She slept on the bed, and he took the couch.
He had the uncomfortable notion that he’d miss her when she returned to Sunnydale.
The move went as smoothly as could be expected. The rental van was cramped, and the silence more awkward than it had been in the apartment, but they made good time, only spending one night in a motel.
Within the week he found them a short-term lease in a cramped house that was fairly centrally located while Buffy made arrangements with a midwife for a home birth.
She shrugged when he questioned the wisdom of that notion. “I’m healthy, in good condition, and I hate hospitals.”
He couldn’t really argue with her; he wasn’t especially fond of them himself. He recalled the condition of Angel’s car after Darla’s water broke in the backseat and added the damage deposit to the list of unrecoverable expenses.
They furnished the house with two futons and a number of plastic milk crates. He took the one small bedroom and she took the living room on the logic that it was closer to the bathroom.
It came as something of a shock to realize how attached he had been to his possessions now that he’d given them up. His flat had been, while not luxurious, at least comfortable in a way that this tiny house with its cracked plaster walls and dingy berber carpets could never manage.
He tried to convince himself that the Spartan look was underrated rather than merely unpleasant. When that failed, he went over the budget he’d set up and decided that if he eliminated razorblades from the toiletries column, he could afford some houseplants and throw rugs. He had enough blades left to get him through the next few months if he simply reduced the number of times per week he shaved.
The new additions to the decor were met with a raised brow from Buffy.
“Why the greenery, Wesley?”
He flushed. “I wanted the place to feel more homey,” he admitted from behind a ficus.
She stared at him, puzzled, then comprehension spread across her face. “You’re kind of homesick here, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps a little.” He busied himself with positioning the plant. “It’s rather a moot point, as I don’t exactly have a home to which I’d return.”
“Wesley, I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be. There wasn’t anything there for me anymore. I was homesick long before I left.”
He didn’t realize she’d come up beside him until he felt her hand patting his shoulder.
“I’ll make pancakes,” she said with forced brightness.
“Pancakes? Buffy, it’s 8:30 at night.”
“Trust me, pancakes always help. The later the better. Why do you think IHoP has stayed open for so long?”
“Pancakes available 24/7. No demonic influence necessary.”
She dragged him over to the futon, sat him down in front of the makeshift coffee table, and headed to the kitchen. He got up and followed her.
“Buffy, I don’t need pancakes.”
She turned to him, a tiny figure with a huge stomach, brandishing a spatula.
“Yes,” she insisted firmly, “you do. Now sit down, you’re in my way.”
She waved the spatula in the direction of the living room and he started to laugh, winding up doubled over on the linoleum.
“What’s so funny?”
He looked up at her and grinned for the first time in longer than he cared to remember. “You, the spatula, pancakes, this whole situation.”
Her face softened. “Go sit down, Wes. I’m still going to make you eat pancakes. By the way,” she added quietly, “it’s nice to see you smile.”
On his way to the futon, he grinned at the ficus and fought the temptation to go and give it a pat. It was silly, really, but he felt like he owed it a debt of gratitude. He wasn’t quite certain what for. Perhaps the fact that three weeks of tension had finally broken. Perhaps just for pancakes.
They did help, she was right about that. He suspected they were lacking in nutritional value, and the amount of butter and syrup she’d added to them couldn’t help, but they were warm and solid and filling.
“Hmm?” She looked up from her plate.
“What for? I’m the one who dragged you away from everything you knew so you can eventually end up going underground as a single dad. Hardly seems like something I should be thanked for.”
“For the pancakes.”
She looked a little sheepish. “Oh, those. Kind of the least I could do, considering.”
“Buffy, I’m profoundly grateful, for what it’s worth. You’re giving up far more than I am.”
“Wesley, you gave up your family, your friends, and your whole identity. I still kind of think you’re getting the bad end of the bargain.”
“My family was hardly a loss, I haven’t really had friends for some time, and my identity was just a reminder of both those things. You’re giving up your child.”
She was silent for a long moment.
“But somehow, knowing she’ll be with you, it helps. I won’t pretend it’s easy, but it helps. She’ll be with family, even if she’s not with me.”
He found himself swallowing. Hard. And wanting very much to change the subject.
Of course, he couldn’t think of a single thing to change it to.
Perhaps he should have kept the television instead of the dartboard.
Her hand reached out and covered his, squeezing it gently. “It’s okay. Really. Do you want to feel something?”
She dragged his hand to her belly and held it there until he felt a kick against his palm.
“Does it hurt?” He kept his hand pressed against the spot in case the baby moved again.
“Sometimes. It depends on what she’s kicking. I think all that demon fighting I did before I found out was a bad influence. Weird, isn’t it?”
He was grinning again, and close to an exceptionally undignified fit of the giggles.
“Weird, but also quite, quite wonderful. She’s really in there, isn’t she?”
“Want to see the pictures?”
He nodded, lifting his hand reluctantly so she could go and get them.
“These are somewhat like those 3D puzzles aren’t they?” He muttered as he turned the grainy black and white image around. The static image was proving much harder to interpret than the monitor he’d looked at with Darla.
Buffy smiled. “Maybe a little. Here, let me show you,” she pointed to a pale mass with her finger, “that’s her forehead, and that’s her nose… and I know that kind of looks like a second head, but it’s just her fist. She doesn’t like to sit still long enough for a clear picture.”
“Apparently not. You’re quite certain it’s just her hand and not an extra head?”
“I was watching when she made the fist, so yes. She’s 18 weeks old in these. She’s gotten a lot bigger since then.”
So had Buffy. He hadn’t really noticed in the rush to get them out of L.A., but she was certainly quite a bit larger than she had been when she showed up on his doorstep. Her face was a little fuller, her breasts… he shouldn’t be thinking about her breasts.
He forced his mind back to the subject at hand.
“How far along are you in weeks?”
“Jeez, Wesley, you were there. You’re going to make me count? I’m 27 weeks along, which, translated into actual time, means she’s 25 weeks old. Just entering trimester number three.”
Three months. He was going to be a father in three months. There was a person inside the girl seated next to him. A person who would be his responsibility for the rest of his life. Oh hell.
“Wes, are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Just panicking and wondering where the escape hatch is hidden. “Sorry. I should let you get some rest.”
He stood abruptly and made to leave the room.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Her voice was soft and cautious. Against his instincts, he turned around.
“Not especially, no.”
“It just hit you, didn’t it?”
He slumped back onto the futon. “Yes. It hit me, and then I think it came back for another round. I’m terrified, exhilarated, and I think I may need to go and vomit now. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
She laughed, a dry sort of sound he’d never expected to hear from her. “How do you think I felt? Except, of course, there was no ‘I think’ about the vomiting.”
“Terribly sorry.” He was shaking again. He couldn’t seem to help it. Visions of everything that could possibly go wrong were crowding out his ability to think rationally. Even the more banal, human-oriented research he’d done before and after Connor’s birth spoke of a myriad of nightmarish complications and possibilities. “Your pre-natal examinations, the results… they’ve all been normal?”
“Yep. We’re healthy as a horse. Well, two horses. I have another one next week at the birthing clinic. Appointment, that is. You should come. The midwife kind of demanded that I bring you, actually.”
He nodded and started to prepare a list of questions in his head.
“Wesley?” He looked up from the spot on the floor he’d been examining. “Thanks again.”
She leaned over, the breasts he was trying to ignore pressing against him as she brushed sugar-smeared lips against his mouth. His brain understood that she intended it as a chaste gesture of friendship and solidarity, but it seemed that it had failed to communicate that particular fact to the rest of his body. His lips parted under hers and his tongue flitted out to lick the traces of syrup from her mouth before he realized what he was doing and pulled away.
The sweetness lingered long after he stammered his excuses and retreated to bed. He made up his mind to go to the local library in the morning and bury himself in research. It was better to focus on possible horrors than on impossible desires.
When he woke up, he cheered himself with the notion that cold showers would at least save on the cost of electricity. Of course, with the number he suspected he’d be taking, it would be more than made up for by the water bill.
He got dressed and walked into the living room, grabbing his identification and a handful of utility bills to take with him as proof of residence. Buffy was still asleep, curled up under a light blanket. She hadn’t even bothered to unfold the futon. He watched her for several minutes before finally forcing himself to walk out the door.
The library was just opening for the day. He watched as parents with toddlers wandered in on their way to some group activity, then made his way to the medical reference section. He walked out after a couple of hours with a number of texts and terrible headache.
Wonderful. He’d gone in moderately alarmed and come out completely terrified. Had it managed to do anything at all about his response to the rising levels of no doubt one-sided sexual tension in the house, perhaps it would have been worth it.
Buffy was awake when he got home, but he brushed off her attempts at conversation and shut himself away in his room, coming out only to grab a cup of coffee and an apple.
Safely hunched over the books each night, he was almost willing to admit he was being cowardly about the whole thing. He simply couldn’t think of a way to explain without sounding like a complete ass that the scent of her skin made him want nothing so much as to see if it tasted like he remembered and that the sight of her swollen with child made him want to either worship her with his hands or wrap her in cotton wool. It was easier to retreat into research and attempt to avoid having to see or speak to her.
He was aware that it was upsetting her, but considered that the lesser of evils.
If he asked one more carefully phrased question about her health and the possibility of complications, she was going to scream. Or hit something. Possibly both. She had to do something to shut him up. It was funny, considering she’d spent the last week trying to get him to talk without much success. Well, unless you counted terse requests for salt and pepper as talking. Or the short “Excuse me” that always preceded his leaving the room any time she got within a foot of him.
“Patricia, while we’re asking you questions, what about sex? Is that still okay at this stage, any precautions we’ll need to take?”
When all else fails, burst out with something outrageous. Besides, sex was on her mind more frequently than she liked to admit. It was one of the more frustrating side effects of her pregnancy.
It worked. He wasn’t sputtering, but he looked like he wanted to sputter. Kind of flushed and tight-lipped. Definite sputter potential. He was also glaring at her, but at least he wasn’t talking. Good. She shot him an innocent look, which he met with narrowed eyes.
“…should be fine.” The midwife was saying. “Generally, I tell women that as long as they feel up to it, it doesn’t do them any harm. Most women say it helps them to relax. I’ll give you a pamphlet to take with you with things to watch out for and suggested positions.”
Okay, it was her turn to blush. Maybe she should have asked about bodily functions instead. Of course, those had pretty much been covered during the English Inquisition. As had almost every single gruesome event, outcome, or combination. She had to hand it to him, he was thorough.
He was also more than a little peeved from the look of things. He didn’t say a word to her until halfway through the walk back to the house.
“What the devil was that about?”
“What was what about?” She’d been going for guileless, but somehow what emerged from her mouth was closer to defensive.
“You know exactly what I am referring to, and I would appreciate it if you didn’t lie to me.” The cold, quiet voice was worse than the clinical detachment he’d shown in his questioning.
“You spent half an hour reducing me to a pronoun and a set of possible complications and discussing me as if I wasn’t in the room. If you can think of a better way for me to shut you up, let me know. I may have to remember it for the next appointment.”
“I’m so very sorry that I had the nerve to be at all concerned about what lies ahead. If you really feel the need to keep your head firmly in the sand, by all means, do so. However, one of us has to know what to do in the event that something goes wrong.” He was starting to sound far too much like he had when he’d been sent to Sunnydale. She could feel her blood pressure start to rise.
“What makes you think I have my head in the sand? Don’t you think I’ve already taken most of this into consideration? I’m the one going through this, after all. If you’d bothered to ask me before locking yourself in your room in the name of research, you’d know that.”
“So bringing our fictional sex life into it in public is a perfectly acceptable and mature way for you to handle the fact that my line of questioning upset you. Of course.”
“You spend the last week indulging in passive-aggressive brooding, and suddenly I’m the immature one?”
He glared at her and quickened his pace, leaving her to curse under her breath while she tried to catch up. She’d thought they’d come to some sort of understanding the night she’d made pancakes. It had been nice to actually talk instead of just relating tasks and orders. It had been almost normal, or as close as her life ever came to normal. Instead, he’d been surly ever since he’d cut off their conversation to go to bed. Which he’d done right after she’d kissed him.
Maybe she did have her head in the sand, just not about what he thought. Of course, it was possible she just had the world’s largest blind spot when it came to figuring out when a man was attracted to her. Given that she’d already slept with him, she felt like a complete idiot.
She slowed back to a normal walk and wondered if she’d ever figure out the opposite sex without needing a neon sign with fifty-foot letters to spell it out. Or figure herself out, for that matter. She’d had a lot of different motives for kissing him, and she really didn’t want to examine any of them.
He’d locked himself in his room by the time she got back to the house, so she curled up on her futon and flipped through the pamphlet she’d been given.
Fifteen minutes later, she was cursing the blind spot again. Nothing like having them spelled out in plain text with handy illustrations to force a person to examine the things she was trying to avoid thinking about. They needed to have a talk. Now.
It was probably a bad idea. No, there was no probably about it. It was a bad idea, one ranking about on par with drinking with frat boys, and slightly below sleeping with vampires.
The badness of those ideas hadn’t stopped her from going through with them. Twice. She’d only done this particular bad idea once. Not that she was certain she was going to do it again.
“Never let it be said that I’ve learned my lesson,” she muttered as she walked to his door.
There was no pause in the steady thud of darts hitting the board when she knocked.
“Come” -thunk- “in.” -thunk.
He was obviously still sulking. She let herself in.
He let another dart fly before turning to look at her. “Did you want something in particular, or are you just planning on standing and looking at me?”
Now that she was there, she had no idea how to broach the subject. She wasn’t even certain exactly what it was she should be broaching. She settled for a lame, “I just thought we should talk.”
“I thought you didn’t want me to talk. That’s the impression you gave, at any rate.” The caustic tone didn’t bode well for communication.
“Wow. You’re acting like Dawn on a bad day. You going to start screaming at me to get out now?”
“Buffy… ” His voice trailed off and his jaw clenched.
Wonderful, she’d managed to make matters between them worse. She rubbed her forehead absently, cursing her inability to take a decent pain killer, and sat down uninvited on the edge of his bed.
“Are we going to spend the next trimester bickering and avoiding each other? Because I’m tired, I’m lonely, and my head hurts.”
He stood up and headed towards the door. Well, looked like she’d called the avoiding part, at least.
“Where are you going?” She sounded petulant even to her own ears and winced.
“I’m getting you some ice. I read that it helps ease the headaches.”
Maybe it was the hormones, maybe the stress. It didn’t take much to make her feel stupid. She swallowed, hard, and wished the floor would swallow her up before she totally humiliated herself.
He made it back before she had time to burst into a fit of crying. She supposed she should give thanks for small mercies.
One hand brushed her hair out of the way, while the other gently rubbed a piece of ice against the nape of her neck.
“Is it helping?”
Tiny rivulets of cold water trickled down her spine, taking much of her tension—as well as most of her vocabulary—with them.
“The ice. Is it helping your head?” he asked gently.
Buffy nodded. “I’m willing to admit that there may be something to be said for obsessive research at this point.”
He let out a quiet sound that might have been a laugh and kept rubbing in slow, soothing circles.
His fingertips met her skin as the last of the ice melted. Instead of pulling away as she’d expected, they traced the curve of her neck and shoulders. She leaned into his touch until they were close enough that his breath stirred the tiny hairs at the base of her skull.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he murmured, and lowered his mouth to her nape.
The kiss was soft, just a brush of lips over damp flesh, leaving an impression of fire. She whimpered, her hands tangling and twisting in the sheets as his lips moved to her ear.
“It’s a very bad idea, after all,” he whispered. “You should probably stop me.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Then I should probably stop me.”
“Don’t…” She couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing to her ear, but it was short-circuiting her brain.
“Stop. Don’t stop.”
She twisted until she was facing him, the added bulk of her body forcing her almost on top of him before she could reach his mouth.
“Please, just don’t stop.”
Kissing felt good. A stupid, simple thought, she guessed, but about the only one she could form while doing it. Her hands sought the places they’d explored before, the ridge of his spine, the line of his jaw. There didn’t seem to be a method to it. She wondered if it counted as state-dependant memory. Professor Walsh had been talking about intoxicants, but surely this wasn’t far off.
And then he managed to untangle her dress and pull it over her head, and she wasn’t interested in thinking, period. Just touching and tasting and feeling and trying to figure out how to translate illustrations on a page into practical real-world solutions. It was awkward, punctuated with nervous laughter and edged with desperation. It was also just what she needed.
Afterwards, she still didn’t want to let reality intrude. She felt calm, human, for the first time since the whole mess had become apparent. The longer she could put of thinking the better. She’d always been better at action than analysis.
She had forgotten who she was with.
“That was probably a very bad idea.” He said it calmly enough, but the slight frown that accompanied it was one with which she was all too familiar. It was the same frown he got before burying himself in books.
“Yeah. Probably. Do you wish it hadn’t happened?”
“I’m not certain. It introduces another complication which we didn’t particularly need.”
She shrugged. “I don’t see that it complicates things any more than avoiding each other would.”
“Buffy, you know as well as I do that this sort of entanglement always complicates things. It’s the nature of the beast.”
She was quiet for a while before answering.
“It’s a complication that already existed. Avoiding it doesn’t make it go away or make things any easier. It just makes it worse. Believe me, I’m the poster child for avoidance-related badness.” She decided to ignore the fact that she was trying to avoid thinking about the subject. It kind of ruined her argument. “And besides, it’s kind of too late to second guess our actions.”
She watched him think about what she’d said, wishing his face revealed anything of what he was thinking. Other than a certain level of worry, it was blank, unreadable. He’d be rolling in kittens if he came back to Sunnydale to play poker.
Wow. She must be lonely if she was having nostalgic thoughts about that. Next thing, she’d be missing calling the plumber at three in the morning to deal with stopped-up pipes.
He blinked, coming back from wherever it was his mind had wandered off. “Yes?”
“I need this.” It was hard for her to say it, but it was too late to take it back even if she’d wanted to.
He nodded faintly and pulled the blanket up to cover them both. She wasn’t certain what it all meant, but was even less certain that she cared. Curled up on her side with her belly against his waist, nothing much mattered except shared warmth and company.
“Buffy, when you say you need this, do you mean for this to be an isolated incident, or something more?”
“You’re trying to make me think. Why are you trying to make me think?” She burrowed her head into the crook of his arm. He smelled of fresh sweat and faded deodorant, something salty and spicy. “Nutmeg,” she announced.
“You’re avoiding the question. As I recall you were the one who said avoidance was a poor choice… and what in God’s name do you mean by ‘nutmeg’?”
“It’s what you smell like. Kind of. And I don’t know, maybe.”
“Maybe you’re avoiding the question or maybe this was a one time occurrence, or maybe you’d like for this to be something more for now?”
“The last one, if you stop asking me questions and let me sleep.”
It seemed to shut him up without a fight. She’d have to remember that when she woke up.
She always slept soundly after sex. He always remained awake, watching her slumbering form and wondering how much he’d regret the entanglement once she was gone.
He knew full well they were using it as a palliative for loneliness. He had no illusions that it was anything else. There was little passion to the act, just a mutual craving for closeness and comfort in its most elemental form. Still, he was bothered by the thought that they had broken some necessary barrier by sharing a bed.
She no longer bothered to go back to her own bed before morning. She’d made an effort the first week, but for all practical purposes, she had moved into his room. He still had a number of questions regarding the wisdom of their behavior, but knew better than to ask them. It would only lead to trouble, and he was too selfishly glad for the succor to suggest anything that might upset the balance they’d managed to achieve.
Besides, when Buffy slept, he could watch the movements of his daughter distort her mother’s rounded abdomen. It was strange at first, to see the punch of a fist beneath flesh. He wondered how Buffy could sleep through it. She seemed especially active tonight, perhaps the result of the extra helping of pie Buffy had eaten at dinner, but it didn’t wake her mother. Giving in to temptation, he poked the last spot she’d punched. She punched back.
He poked again, and she returned the volley. He spent a good five minutes entertaining himself, and, by extension, the baby, that way before Buffy woke up and swatted his hand away.
“What are you doing?” Her voice was thick with sleep.
“Did you know that if you poke at her, she pokes back?”
“Mmm-hmm. Did you know that if I don’t get enough sleep, I get cranky and want to break things?”
“I had noticed, yes.”
“It’s bad enough having to wake up every half hour to pee. Next time you two feel like playing, can it wait until I’m already up? I feel like someone’s been using my internal organs as a drum set.”
“I can see where that might be annoying. I’m afraid I just got caught up in the excitement of discovery.”
“If you want you could read to her or something. If I can sleep through it, I’m happy. But no poking unless I’m already up, okay?”
It seemed like a reasonable request. He was too comfortable to bother getting a book, and besides, there wasn’t anything in the house suitable for children, so he just quietly recited highly edited tales of his adventures in Los Angeles and Pylea, and when he ran out of those, snippets of myths in whatever languages he’d read them in. He kept one hand on Buffy’s belly as he spoke to the occupant, wondering if the occasional kicks and movements were a response to his words. He rather hoped so, even if it was a fanciful notion. He resolved to check out some books of children’s stories and fairy tales when he made his next trip to the library.
Buffy expressed her approval. It appeared that she found the quiet rhythm of the stories soothing, or so she claimed. It became a habit, one that eventually spread to the waking hours, and, when her pregnancy advanced to the point that sex was no longer feasible, provided them both with a certain amount of comfort.
Stories and fairy tales segued into long, sleepy conversations about nothing in particular that segued into nearly confessional tales of how they’d ended up where they were. Part of his mind screamed that it was a bad idea, but he wasn’t inclined to listen to it. He wished he’d realized, when he’d first met her, what a burden it was for the vessel. Perhaps it would have changed how he’d behaved with her and with Faith.
Funny, the sorts of regrets that hit long after the fact and refuse to leave. He’d been so certain, however, that he was going about things the right way. Following procedure, doing as he’d been taught. As was so often the case, he’d been completely and totally wrong about everything. It did not, he suspected, bode well for his future parenting abilities, a thought he was careful to keep to himself as her due date approached.
Labor didn’t seem like it would be too hard—at first. It wasn’t the worst pain she’d ever had, just fleeting cramps every few hours that slowly lengthened until they were strongish cramps every hour. They started after breakfast, and she timed them absently as she set up an area in the living room with tarp, towels, and pillows in preparation. When her water still hadn’t broken by midnight, and the contractions were still about twenty minutes apart, she got sick of waiting and crawled into bed, dozing between pains.
A sharp twinge in her back pulled her from her half-slumber and she whimpered. Soothing murmurs and a warm hand at the small of her back came from the other side of the bed, along with a sleepy inquiry as to the time. She stared at the clock, trying to focus on the glowing red of the numbers through the pain.
“3:22. It’s been seven minutes since the last one, and this one really hurt.”
“Do I need to call the midwife?” His voice had lost the softness of sleep.
“I’m not sure yet. They’re still pretty short.”
She listened to him get out of bed and fumble for his robe. Concentrating on sounds helped take her mind off the pain; the alarm clock’s buzz, the creak of the floorboards followed by the rush of the tap—she focused on each of them in turn. 3:23 switched to 3:24, the pain receded and she struggled with her cumbersome bulk until she managed to sit up. They’d been short, but this one had lasted over a minute. She might have mistimed the one before it.
The light flicked on, indicating that Wesley was back with the water. He handed her the glass, waiting for her to finish drinking before asking her if she needed anything else.
“Help me up?” She’d made it to sitting, but was pretty certain that standing would take a joint effort, and she kind of needed to go to the bathroom.
Another spasm hit as she was washing her hands, harder than the previous ones. She found herself crouched on all fours, moaning and shaking uncontrollably, as a gush of fluid soaked her legs. Hands, those were hands helping her off the floor and into the tub. Then they were gone, but there were soothing sounds that made no sense as warm water poured over the pain, dulling it until she could focus on anything other than the dark red haze. Was she crying? It felt like she was crying. The pain faded again, and she was finally able to pay attention to things outside of her body. Wesley was on the phone. Why was he on the phone? He was also dressed. When had that happened?
“Patricia will be here soon. She says to remember to breathe. For the record, there were only about five minutes between contractions. You may have slept straight through to transition. I’ll go and get you some more water and some ice cubes while we wait.”
Buffy nodded. This was it. She wasn’t ready; birth would be the first stage of separation, and she wasn’t ready. Not for any of it. Her hand trailed in the bathwater, leaving tiny whirlpools in its wake. The blinding pain of contractions was in some ways easier to deal with than this in-between state. She could focus on the goings-on of her body and not even think about what would follow.
Wesley returned with the water and a bowl of ice cubes; he handed her the former and set the latter on the back of the sink, then retreated to the doorjamb. He leaned against it, eyes flicking from her to his watch and back again every few seconds.
Buffy was about ready to ask him to knock it off when the next pain shot from her back down her legs. She didn’t have time to make it from tub to toilet before she threw up; the nausea had hit her so suddenly that she figured she was lucky she’d at least made it to the edge of the tub.
“Sorry,” she groaned.
He was already mopping up the mess. “It’s mostly water. As I recall, you haven’t eaten since yesterday morning, and the only other thing you’ve had is a half glass of apple juice. Besides, it’s a common enough response, one I believe has to do with sympathetic nerves. Ice?”
She nodded, sucking on a piece until the contraction ended. “You’re nervous, aren’t you?” she asked when she was able to speak again.
“How could you tell?”
“You’re babbling. It’s kind of a dead give away.”
The doorbell rang, signifying the arrival of the midwife, before he could respond. In between the increasingly frequent spasms, she realized it was for the best. She really didn’t have time for another circular argument at the moment. Patricia took some basic information about timing and duration, then hustled Buffy out of the tub and into the pillow and sheet covered tarp they’d set up on the living room floor. A quick examination confirmed that she was indeed in transition.
“You managed to sleep until they were only a few minutes apart?” Patricia laughed. “You’ve got some real tolerance for pain there, Buffy. Keep breathing; once you’re in active labor, strange as it sounds, the worst is over and you’re almost there.”
She was right. It proved to be much easier to deal with the pressure of something making its way out than the ripping pain of her body widening to allow for the exit.
Buffy declined the offer of a mirror when crowning began, concentrating on working with her body. She could do this, lord knew she had enough training in following her instincts to deal with something as normal as giving birth. A few moans and hissed curses, a lot of blood and crying and pushing, and not much time later, the offended squeals of a freshly-evicted baby filled the room.
She stared at the foreign creature that had been placed, squirming, at her breast. “Your head is huge,” she informed it.
Patricia looked up at them and smiled. “It’s the normal size. They feel larger than they really are.”
Buffy stroked the tiny face, so absorbed in the feel of it that she barely felt the last contractions as the afterbirth made its anticlimactic appearance and was dutifully examined by the midwife. By the time everything was settled and taken care of, and the three of them were finally alone in the house, Buffy had come to a conclusion. The pain, the confusion, and finally the peace… giving birth was a hell of a lot like dying.
Birth, he was not surprised to discover, was as messy as anything else in life. It was long, painful, boring, frightening, miraculous, and absurd by turns. Not to mention somewhat gory. The midwife claimed that it had been a fairly short labor for a first child.
Funny how one’s perception of time could be affected by the amount of stress one was under. It had felt like days, rather than hours during the event itself. Of course, now that it was all over, it was something of a blur. He was beyond tired. He wondered if it would be possible to fall asleep where he was, even with the midday sun streaming through the windows. The floor felt so very comfortable.
“I give up.”
He blinked and looked up at Buffy as she tried to arrange the pillows to her liking with one arm while balancing their daughter with the other.
“I could get you more pillows,” he suggested.
“No, don’t bother. I just need to admit to myself that comfortable’s not happening in my reality anytime soon,” she sighed, finally abandoning her attempts at pillow manipulation.
“It’s odd. Do you know, we’ve never discussed names for her. I hadn’t even realized it until now.”
“Tara. I’ve been thinking of her as Tara.”
He understood, he thought. Both why she wanted to use that name for her daughter, and why she hadn’t mentioned it until after she had safely delivered.
“It’s a lovely name. Tara. I think it suits her,” he stared at the pink, wrinkled bundle with her mass of dark hair sticking out at odd angles. “She’s beautiful, in a funny sort of way, isn’t she?”
“Wesley, she looks like an alien. She’s all head and eyes.”
“And hair. She has rather a lot of it, don’t you think?”
“And hair. All head, eyes, and hair. She’s gorgeous.” Buffy was unable to keep a note of pride from creeping into her voice. “Aren’t you, Tara?”
“She’ll need a middle name, you know. What about Anne?”
“That’s my middle name.”
He said it quietly, almost to himself. Tara wouldn’t have his name, not legally. Officially, she belonged to two people who didn’t exist. Giving her her mother’s middle name would be the closest thing to a heritage she would have. It seemed important, though he’d have been hard pressed to explain why exactly that was the case.
“Wesley?” Her voice shook him from his contemplation.
“Anne is perfect. Thank you.”
He smiled at the two of them, then curled up on the floor and let himself sleep.
Five weeks. Thirty-five days. Eight-hundred and forty hours, give or take. Math had never been her strongest skill, but she was doing an awful lot of it just to stay sane. At least she wasn’t counting the seconds, though she’d thought of it. Five more weeks in limbo. Then, if she was pronounced fit and ready, she could go home. Put back the pieces of her life, put all this behind her. Five more weeks until she was the one doing the leaving. Five more weeks to memorize her daughter’s face.
It wasn’t enough time.
She felt the still-unfamiliar ache that meant it was almost feeding time, strong enough that it almost overpowered the constant ache of her body struggling to go back to normal. Tara was asleep on a blanket, her father stretched out on the floor next to her, one finger still trapped in a tiny fist.
Buffy suspected he’d have been happier if she wasn’t breast feeding. Not that he’d said anything. After the initial euphoria of the birth had passed, he’d retreated back into himself, and there wasn’t a damned thing she could do about it. He made a point of reminding her that she’d be leaving before too long, that it wasn’t a good idea to become so invested in Tara’s life.
She wasn’t certain what he expected her to do. Six weeks total, one of them already gone. She wasn’t going to waste any of the small amount of time she’d been given, even if it made leaving a little more painful to contemplate. It wasn’t like it was going to be easy no matter what she did. Nothing ever was.
Tara woke with a plaintive wail; Buffy picked her up and guided her to the breast, murmuring soft little nonsense syllables to soothe her until she latched on and began feeding.
“You’re quite certain you want to be doing this?” He was watching them, his face unreadable. Buffy had learned over the months that the lack of expression usually indicated that he was fretting about something.
“She’s better off being nursed. It’s good for her.”
“I’m not questioning the obvious benefits, but it’s not her I’m worried about.”
Well, that cut to the core of the matter. “Believe it or not, I’m capable of making my own decisions about what’s good for me. My milk would have come in either way. Would you rather I was sitting around watching her drink formula and waiting for it to dry up? Because I’m kind of thinking that would be worse.”
“It’s more than just the nursing, Buffy. You’re bonding with her, which is a risk you shouldn’t be taking.”
She took a few deep breaths, not wanting to get angry during a feeding. She’d done it the night before, and had been up all night trying to settle a very cranky Tara.
“You’d rather I just ignored her, and let you run to her with a bottle every single time she needs something?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“Not going to happen. I thought you knew me better than that.” Buffy watched the movement of the little jaw as Tara suckled. “You can’t expect me to just leave her alone.”
“Buffy…” he stopped and let out a short sigh. “I only want what’s best for the both of you.”
She looked up at him, exhausted and sick of the argument. “You need to let me be the judge of that.”
After that, he kept his opinions to himself for the most part, and she kept tracking the ever-shrinking number of days until her six-week appointment.
She had to admit, part of her had hoped that there was something wrong, something that hadn’t healed right and would force her to stay just a few more weeks. She knew better. After all, quick healing was part of the package, and she’d felt almost like her old self for a couple of weeks. The post-natal appointment just confirmed it. She had the go-ahead to resume almost everything, and while slaying wasn’t technically on the list, she’d run out of excuses. It was time to go home.
Even if it didn’t feel like home anymore.
It didn’t take her very long to pack. The maternity dresses went into a black garbage bag, ready for donation, and the t-shirts and sweats she’d been wearing for six weeks weren’t hers to begin with. In the end, it was just another light bag with a few essentials ready for another bus ride away from the things that mattered.
They’d gone out while she readied her things, leaving a house loud with their absence. She set her bag by the door, then went to the hamper and started folding the pile of baby clothing Wesley had washed while she was at the clinic. Tara was growing so quickly; the littlest newborn items didn’t really fit her anymore. Buffy separated the clothing that Tara’d outgrown from the things that still fit. Instead of putting them in with the rest of the things to given away, she slipped them into her bag, putting them under the change of clothes and the Ziploc with her toothbrush and floss. She realized she was crying again when she felt something wet hit her hands. She hated crying, but it seemed like she’d been spending a hell of a lot of time doing it as of late. Her breasts were aching, which meant Tara must be getting hungry, but there was no sign of them.
She checked the clock. They’d been gone for two hours. She checked the freezer. There was one less bag of milk than had been in there when she’d left for the appointment. He must have packed a bottle. He’d been doing that about as often as she’d been crying. Funny, that. She pumped to relieve the pressure, then sealed the bag and stuck it with the rest of them. Buffy figured Tara had at least a two more weeks of milk left before she became a formula-only baby.
When she ran out of chores, she took out a pen and a stack of cards she’d purchased on impulse a few weeks before giving birth. There were eighteen of them in all. Buffy wrote something on each one and enclosed them in their envelopes, numbering them as she went.
Her breasts were full again by the time Wesley returned with the baby. She grabbed Tara before he had time to take off his coat.
“Nice of you to take so long,” she said flatly as she pulled up her shirt and guided her daughter to a nipple.
“You’re leaving in the morning. She needs to get used to you not being here.”
“So, what? That means I should be allowed to spend time with her before I leave?” She tried to keep her voice level.
“Buffy, you’re leaving. In case you hadn’t realized it, that means you’re going to have to get used to not being with her the same as she has to get used to not being with you.”
“Believe me, I’m well aware of that, but I sure as hell don’t see why that means I can’t spend as much time with her as I can before I go.”
She cut him off. “If you tell me it’s for the best, I swear I’ll break something.”
It was obvious that he was well past angry and bordering on furious, but he said nothing. She stared at him, eyes daring him to speak, until he turned and left the room. Tara kept nursing, blessedly oblivious to the tension, until she drifted off to sleep, little milky bubbles gathered at the corner of her mouth. Buffy set her down gently in the crib and went in search of Wesley.
As expected, he was in the bedroom, nose in a book.
“She’s asleep. Her clothing’s been put away and there’s more milk in the freezer. I’ll be out of your hair before too long, so you can stop fretting.”
He slammed the booked closed and stood up. “Stop it.”
“Stop what? Stop caring? Stop hurting?” She moved until she was close enough to feel the warmth coming from his skin.
“Stop taking it out on me, damn it.” He must have been stewing the whole time Tara had been suckling, because he’d crossed the border to furious several miles back. “What in heaven’s name do you want me to do, Buffy?”
“What I want is to have spent more time with my daughter on the last day I could be with her, but you just have to know best, don’t you?”
“Because it would be so much better for her to be subjected to your self-indulgent moodiness, I suppose?”
The crack of her hand across his face shocked them both. She stared at its reddened outline, appalled.
“You should get out before I’m tempted to respond in kind.” He spoke so quietly she could barely make out the words, but there was no mistaking the sentiment.
She stood and waited for the answering blow. His hand lifted, but instead of connecting with her face, it tangled in her hair, tugging until there wasn’t any space left between their bodies, and very little between their mouths.
“Is this what you want?” Her voice was harsh, foreign to her own ears. Her mouth covered his before he could say a word, teeth digging into his lower lip as she sought to punish them both for everything and nothing at once.
He answered with hands as brutal as her voice, yanking down the sweats she was wearing and pushing her onto the bed, not bothering with the nicety of foreplay before taking what she offered. She felt dry and bruised and nowhere near used enough, nowhere near hurt enough. Frantic and frenzied with need and self-loathing, she drew him closer, meeting violent thrusts with quick jerks of her hips as he slammed into her, little whimpers escaping her lips at the feel of his fingernails digging into her thighs while his hands pushed them up and further apart. Her hands worked their way under his shirt, pulling it off before returning to claw at his back, slicing into the skin like tiny razors. She was trembling, vacillating between pain and pleasure as she came. Her teeth clenched around his shoulder until she tasted the copper and iron of his blood mixed with the salt of his sweat and felt him shudder, felt the warm-wet familiarity of his release inside her and the warm-wet familiarity of tears across her face.
“You should have left when I told you to do so.” The words came out of his mouth without infliction as he rolled off of her, but the hard, haunted look on his face gave lie to the even tones.
Too shocked by what they’d done to say anything, she just stared at him, dumbly taking in the marks she’d left on his skin. There were more than she remembered making, neat imprints of teeth and nails mixed with long scratches welling over with blood.
She looked at her hands and back at the wounds she’d left. “I’m sorry.” She was shaking, oh Christ, what had she done? “I’m sorry,” she repeated, voice breaking.
“Are you all right?” The question was a mix of weariness and concern, and she had no answer for it. Something between a laugh and a groan escaped him when it became obvious she wasn’t going to respond. “God, we’re a mess, aren’t we?”
“That would be one way of putting it. I didn’t mean to…” she trailed off, one hand reaching out to touch the worst of the bites.
“Neither did I, but it’s not something one could tell from looking at you.”
She glanced at her body, startled by the scratches and bruises just starting to blossom. “Oh.” Feeling self-conscious, she tugged her shirt down to cover the evidence. “I hadn’t noticed.” She winced as she shifted her weight; she may have been told it was fine to have sex again, but she somehow doubted that this was exactly what the midwife had intended.
“I didn’t entirely mean physically,” he added. “When I referred to us as a mess.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m starting to think my coping mechanisms leave a little something to be desired. Also? I’m getting the feeling that learning from my mistakes? Not my strong suit.”
“Nor mine. Buffy, I’m sorry I took Tara out today. It was presumptuous of me.”
“You were also right, much as it pains me to admit it. I’m not sure how I’m going to get through leaving her. I’ve had to do so many things that seem like they should have been harder than this; some of them have even killed me. But this? It’s different. It’s not the end of the world, so how come it feels so much worse?”
“I don’t know. She’ll be well taken care of, if it helps at all.” He pulled the blanket up to cover them both.
“It does, a little. And I know she will, but sometimes I get so sick of sacrificing anything that might possibly resemble a normal life for the sake of my calling.”
“If it wasn’t for your calling, Tara wouldn’t exist in the first place. Presuming the best-case scenario, that being a lack of success for any of the apocalyptic events that have taken place during the last half-decade or so, you’d most likely be in your final year at university, still an only child, and Sunnydale would, if it entered into your thoughts at all, merely be a small town with an obscenely high death rate and obscenely low housing prices. However, the best-case scenarios very rarely occur outside of theory, so we’d probably all be dead.”
“Thank you, I think. Wow, you sounded like Giles.”
“Council training. You said it yourself a while back. There have been times when I’ve felt an apocalypse might not be entirely without merit, but my occasional bursts of selfish nihilism aside, your role is an important one.” He paused, looking for a moment as though he’d thought about, then decided against, saying something more before he took a deep breath and soldiered on. “I realize that I’m the last person in the world who should be lecturing you about this—it’s somewhat like both the pot and the kettle joining forces to call the coal bin black—but you need to stop punishing yourself for things you can do nothing about. You’re a good person. You’ve just been dealt a rough hand is all.”
“Like I said, I’ve got some seriously screwy coping mechanisms, but thanks. I’ll try to keep it in mind.” She gave him a weak smile, and he kissed her forehead.
“Get some sleep, Buffy. Tara will no doubt wake up at least a half dozen times before morning, so you may as well take advantage of the lull.”
His estimate was off by one. Tara woke her five times before morning, three of them because she was hungry, one because she wanted changing, and once—the last time—for no readily discernable reason. “You’re a strange little thing, aren’t you?” Buffy murmured. “Do you know I’m leaving, is that it?” Tara just blinked and scrunched up her face in response before settling down.
Daughter and father were both sleeping when she left. She made certain the cards were in plain sight on the table, along with a letter of explanation and an apology for not waking them to say her goodbyes. Grabbing her bag, she let herself out, locking the door behind her and slipping the key through the mail slot so she wouldn’t be tempted to run back inside.
She spent the bus ride back to Sunnydale staring out the window, head facing forward, one tiny sock clutched tightly in her fist. Back home, she resumed her training, stuck close to Dawn, and resorted to monosyllabic responses when faced with questions about what had happened while she was away until no one asked her about it anymore.
He was lying when told himself he didn’t think about her. The first week, he thought about her every time Tara was up all night fussing and crying, wishing she was there to feed her and rock her to sleep. Lord knew he wasn’t having any luck with it. Sleep was limited to the five minutes in between the baby’s screaming fits, if he was fortunate.
After a week, he remembered what Angel had said about the vacuum and was pleasantly surprised when it worked. Sleep measured in hours rather than minutes was something of an improvement, even when he took into account the images that occasionally found him waking drenched in sweat, the memory of blood under his nails and bruises under his fingers forcing its way to the surface. He was lying when told himself he didn’t dream about her, if dreaming was really the right word.
There were other dreams that interrupted his sleep, and just as violently. Dreams of a creeping panic that paralyzed him, trapping him in a world of empty cribs and unnatural silences. After those, he would stand by Tara’s crib and watch her until she woke up.
To keep himself sane, he started several journals, each one devoted to a different aspect of Tara’s development. To keep them afloat financially, he started tutoring language students at the university while sending off applications for teaching positions at small community colleges. The identity he’d paid for had a skill set close to his own, a smattering of experience, and some decent-but-not-glowing references. When Tara was six months old, he accepted a position one state to the north, gave notice to his landlord, and moved them from one small, run-down house to another.
In time, he learned to answer to his new name, although he still couldn’t think of himself by it. Tara, who at eleven months was showing signs of being just as chatty as her mother, called him by whatever collection of syllables she found fitting, depending on which language he’d been using with her that week. When it seemed like she was going to stick with one which, thanks to her baby slurring, could be misconstrued as something not suitable for polite company, he decided to start sticking to human languages exclusively.
He didn’t have much interaction with adults outside of the campus, so he found himself increasingly fascinated by his child. He tracked her likes and dislikes, and peculiar eating habits; carrots, bananas, and squash were deemed acceptable for putting in her mouth—as were the telephone and remote control—while peas and almost anything green were seen as purely decorative, presuming one was decorating the floor. He made the rare attempt to go out on dates, but babysitters were expensive and Tara didn’t seem to like any of the women when he had them over for coffee, so second dates were rarer than souled vampires, and third dates rarer than souled lawyers, although he did manage a few casual flings.
Tara didn’t say anything about her motherless state until she was four. After a playdate, she came home and announced almost proudly that she was bad.
“Why are you bad?” he asked, wondering if he really wanted to know what mischief she’d gotten into.
“Jenny’s daddy said if she was bad, her mommy would leave. Mine left, so that means I’m bad. Bad bad bad!” She ran off to terrorize her stuffed animals, and he made a mental note that any further playdates with Jenny would not take place at Jenny’s house.
Following that, she occasionally asked about mothers and where hers had gone. When a simple “away” no longer sufficed, he found other ways around the queries, and she soon stopped asking. On her birthdays, she opened her two cards without question, thanking him for his and filing the other with the feathers and shells and other scraps of some importance she kept in her room.
They lived a fairly Spartan life, which allowed him to purchase a modest house within a few miles of his job when Tara was six. The neighborhood wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst, either. It was close to several parks, and just far enough off the main arterial that it was safe for her to play in the front yard when supervised. He liked to watch Tara behead dandelions and poke at slugs with sharp sticks, although her unceasing and sometimes bloodthirsty defense of the garden reminded him more than a little bit of her mother. He fancied she had something of the look of Buffy about the face, although Tara’s height and coloring had come from him.
He wasn’t sure which one of them had contributed to her extreme stubbornness. Somehow, he suspected she came by it from both sides.
As soon as she was able to make arguments that went beyond the simple negation of a request, she delighted in them. Worse, she was convinced that she had the right of it, and that her father was simply failing to look at things in the correct light. Eating her supper before asking for dessert was considered a ridiculous notion, as was making her bed, which was just going to be slept in again at night.
Homework turned into a battleground on which neither side would easily yield. Although her test scores were always above average, he soon got used to uncomfortable discussions with her teachers about making certain she was living up to her full potential. Her nose was always in a book, but not, it seemed, her school books. The older she got, the more uncomfortable the discussions, and the more firmly entrenched she and he grew in their respective positions.
“I just don’t see why,” she complained when confronted with her grade seven marks, “if I’m getting A’s on all the tests, it should matter if I do the busy work.”
“It matters because at some point, you won’t be able to simply coast through things. You’re going to require a certain amount of discipline in your studies.” It seemed a perfectly obvious thing to him, but his daughter wasn’t convinced.
“But I don’t need it now, so what’s the hurry?” At his skeptical look, she sighed and rolled her eyes before explaining further. “It’s not that I don’t like to study, it’s just that if I don’t need to, why should I? I mean, it’s not like I’m not already fluent in all the languages they offer, my grammar’s just fine, and I’m getting by in math and Earth science.”
“Your marks are going to matter when it comes time for you to apply for university.”
“I’ll worry about that when the time comes. Right now, I’ve got more important things to think about.” Tara winced at the airy pomposity with which she’d spoken.
“Heaven save me from thirteen year olds who are going on thirty. You’re a truly obnoxious child, do you know that?” He sipped his coffee to hide a smile.
Tara grinned, looking a little embarrassed. “Don’t forget lazy and ungrateful.”
“Yes, you’re also those, especially the first. Will you at least try to turn in your schoolwork?”
“Buy me a pony?”
“No, but I may raise your allowance.”
She looked at him, considering the offer. “Okay. I’ll accept bribes. Want to watch a movie?”
They settled in and watched a classic horror film that she’d insisted they rent the night before. Tara was engrossed; he catalogued the numerous factual errors, thankful that it was just a werewolf movie. He wasn’t certain if he could stand to sit through Dracula. As it turned out, he soon found that if he just pretended it was a parody, he was fine. Tara, it seemed, had developed a taste for the things.
That summer, he had the opportunity to take over teaching a fencing class. Tara came along for the first few sessions, but soon begged off.
“All the women are flirting with you, Dad. It’s gross, and I’d rather not sit and watch it,” she informed him. “I’ll just stay here and try not to think about it.”
He laughed at the notion, but somehow found himself going out for coffee with one of the students, a woman named Amy. She had bright red hair, a wicked sense of humor, several animals, and a job she hated. By their third date, he found himself wondering if he’d accidentally made a sacrifice to some minor deity. By the fifth, he started wondering in all seriousness if it was a missing sign that an apocalypse was coming.
Tara refused to admit that her father was dating someone for as long as she could. When Amy started to spend several nights a week in their house, she grudgingly stopped referring to her as “that woman” and began to refer to her as “Dad’s girlfriend.” She was generally polite, saving her snits for the times when it was least convenient and most embarrassing, like right before he and Amy were supposed to go out with some of his fellow teachers.
“I’m certain she didn’t mean it.” Wesley handed Amy a stiff drink and a box of tissues before going off in search of his daughter.
She was in the backyard, whacking a broken branch against the trunk of the apple tree.
“What?” She didn’t look up or stop wielding the branch.
“You should apologize to Amy for what you said. We’re staying in tonight. She doesn’t really feel like going out anymore.”
Tara shrugged and hit the trunk harder. “Whatever. It’s not like I said anything too bad.”
“You called her the Whore of Babylon. I can’t imagine what you were thinking that was worse, and I certainly don’t want to hear it. Now go in and apologize, please.”
She complied, and the three of them ended up on the couch watching a Film Noir marathon. He listened to them discuss the movies, for once feeling quite happy to not be part of the discussion. Tara and Amy had a fair amount in common, and when the relationship ended, Tara took it almost as badly as he did. It had been an amicable enough parting, but they both missed her.
Life went back to its regular routine. Tara completed her first year of high school with high marks and a fairly hefty allowance. She had a small but close group of friends, and spent any time that wasn’t assigned to homework or chores in their company. He saw her mainly in passing, and tried to quell the sense of unease that fact produced.
The nightmares started a few weeks into summer break.
Tara was no stranger to nightmares. She’d had bad ones for as long as she could remember: vivid dreams of paralysis where she had something important she had to say but her lips wouldn’t move and so she just stood there, mouth frozen, while everyone around her went away and there was nothing she could do to stop them. These new nightmares were different. For one thing, they didn’t feel like dreams. She woke up after the first one, breathing hard and not certain how she’d gotten from the street to her bed before she realized that it wasn’t real, that she’d been asleep the whole time. She looked at her hands, puzzled by the lack of blood and dust. One hand crept to her throat; her pulse was definitely racing like she’d been doing something a hell of a lot more strenuous than just sleeping, and her skin was damp.
Too many monster movies, that was all, even if it wasn’t like any monster movie she’d ever seen, and she’d seen a lot of them. She looked at the clock. 4:47. Even if she could go back to sleep, the sun would be up soon. Tara wasn’t really a morning person, but she decided she could always nap if she got tired. She got out of bed, went to the living room, and curled up on the couch to watch infomercials and home shopping channels with the sound off until she figured she could move around the house without waking up her dad.
He frowned in her direction when he came downstairs. “What on earth are you doing awake?”
Tara hit the off button on the remote and unfolded herself from the couch. “Couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d just kill time until morning.”
“What was it this time? Too much coffee, or did you just sleep in for too long yesterday?”
“Neither. Just a bad dream, that’s all.”
She was exceedingly thankful when he let it pass without comment. Sharing things like nightmares with him had been uncomfortable since the first time she noticed the flash of guilt that appeared on his face whenever she’d bring them up. Sometimes she wondered if it had something to do with her mother, but she knew better than to open that can of worms.
The next night she had the same dream and woke up in the same disturbed state. Tara was starting to miss the normal collection of nightmares; they just left her depressed, not twitchy and filled with some sort of dreadful anticipation. She didn’t bother to go downstairs to kill time with the television, choosing instead to count the books on her shelf and reorder them by genre, author, and publisher until it was time to get breakfast.
The shadows under her eyes gave her away.
“You didn’t sleep again last night, did you?” her father groused from across the table.
Tara shrugged her shoulders. “I slept some.”
“More nightmares?” he asked quietly.
“Have you thought that perhaps you might want to avoid watching horror films before going to bed?” She loved it when her parent stated the obvious as though it were some pronouncement from on high.
“I’ll try that.” She’d also try finding things to do to distract herself from the long, boring summer days. If her mind was going to insist on being over active, she’d just have to give it something new on which to focus. Leigh probably had some ideas. Which reminded her, she wanted to move her bedroom somewhere a little more private—having one right next to her dad’s meant he could hear everything she did. “I was thinking maybe I should change rooms. Maybe it’s the light from the street that’s doing it.”
“You’re alarmingly transparent at times, Tara. If you want to sleep in the basement bedroom, you may.”
“More so. I haven’t heard anything that flimsy in, well, in quite some time, at any rate.”
Switching rooms didn’t stop the nightmares, but it did leave her more room to distract herself. She disabled the alarm on the egress window, knowing full well that if everything went as she hoped it would, she’d need to use it to get in and out of the house undetected.
Any relationship has rules, some spoken aloud and spelled out with their own distinct set of punishments and consequences should they be broken; others never mentioned, formed from reactions to events.
Tara’s relationship with her father had several of both. The first set included such things as “don’t leave your things scattered around where anyone might trip over them,” “no going out without checking in first,” and “no taking the last cup of coffee without brewing another pot.” This sort of rule had exceptions and loopholes, all of which she was quite adept at manipulating. The second set was trickier. By the time she turned fifteen, she knew better than to break any of them.
No asking about her mother; no wondering about grandparents, aunts, or uncles; no speculation about what her father had done at her age. No questions about the past, period.
She didn’t even know her mother’s name.
In the rare instances she was mentioned at all, it was always “your mother.” “Your mother did what she had to do, she hadn’t much choice” or “of course your mother loved you.” Once, on the only occasion she’d ever seen her father drunk—right after the break-up with Amy, when Tara was doing her best to try and cheer him up—it was “you look just like your mother when you do that.”
She looked in the mirror, trying to see it. Everyone had always told her she looked just like her father, but then, they couldn’t really be expected to say anything else, could they? All she saw in the reflection was the same thing she saw every day. A tallish girl with an untidy mop of dark brown hair and a figure that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a twelve-year old boy. All things she could trace back to her father.
She moved closer to the mirror, ready to get on with the second part of the daily ritual. Maybe there was something of her mother in the eyes? They were the same shade of blue as her dad’s, but the shape was different. His crinkled up when he smiled, where hers always looked a little sad. Maybe it was her mouth, its softness and hint of an overbite just slightly at odds with the gawky angles of the rest of her.
It had to be somewhere. He wouldn’t have said anything if it wasn’t.
She ended her reverie the same way she always did: a splash of cold water on her face and a grim smile. At least she knew damned well which side of the family had given her the gluttonous need to torture herself. In that, at least, she was very much her father’s child. She was just more skilled than him when it came to hiding it.
There was still a third of a pot of coffee left when she made her way to the kitchen, as well as half a box of doughnuts. Sweet, starchy food. Dad was either researching or grading papers.
“Is it ridiculous to expect at least one of them to use a spell-checker?” he grumbled by way of greeting.
“In that case, yes, it’s ridiculous. Especially seeing as it’s summer quarter. Why are there no maple bars?”
He didn’t look up from the stack of papers. “I must have eaten them. There should be some jellies left, however.”
“No thanks. I think I’ll just have coffee.”
She stared at him over her mug, comparing his features to her own.
Yes, the eyes were certainly different. The mouth, too.
“Do you have plans tonight?”
She blinked. She did have plans, as usual. Not that she’d wanted to mention them to him. She somehow doubted he’d approve of her latest hobby.
“I’m studying with Leigh and Emily. Catch up on our summer reading and all that. Why?”
“Oh, nothing. I just thought perhaps you’d like to see a movie.”
“Maybe some other time. Besides, I already told you, no more creature-features for me.”
He frowned. “There are other types of movies besides horror, you know.”
“I know. Like I said, some other time. We can have a 90’s film fest and eat popcorn until our stomachs hurt, but tonight is for studying.”
It wasn’t a complete lie. They’d be studying, just not books.
He went back to grading papers. She was willing to bet he didn’t know she knew he was only doing it to hide his disappointment. It had been just the two of them for so much of her life; the year and a half during which he and Amy were together was the only serious relationship of his that she could remember. Maybe if she hadn’t been such a needy pain-in-the-ass of a daughter, it would have worked out. She hadn’t intended to drive a wedge between them, not really. She’d liked Amy.
Introspection was, as always, a bitch. She rinsed her cup and brewed a fresh pot by way of silent atonement, then mopped the floor for good measure. The house was always cleaner when she was feeling guilty about something. If her father had noticed that peculiarity, he hadn’t let on.
Satisfied that she’d done enough to make up for her minor deception, she retreated to the coolness of the basement. Somehow, despite an obviously English origin, her father was more than capable of dealing with the August heat, keeping the windows closed unless it made it above ninety. She, on the other hand, was perfectly happy to spend summer curled up in the basement room she’d claimed as her own until night fell and the heat dissipated. She flopped on her bed and flipped idly through a book of Lorca’s poetry, comparing the translation to the original and suspecting she could have done a better job of it. Although, seeing as it was an old edition, perhaps some of the nuances had been left out intentionally.
She ended up losing herself in the words and didn’t have much time to get dressed before she was supposed to meet Leigh. Nothing seemed quite appropriate for their endeavor, so she settled on a tight pair of black pants and a tank top. Make-up would have to wait until she was out of the house. Dad might have his head in the books more often than not, but she suspected he’d know full well that heavy eyeliner and dark lipstick were not really study appropriate. She tucked what she needed into her purse and rushed out the door.
“If it gets late, I’m crashing at Leigh’s, okay?” she called out as she left.
If it got late, Leigh would be crashing at Emily’s. If it got late, Emily would be crashing at Tara’s.
Round-robin was the oldest trick in the book. Tara felt giddy with getting away with it while at the same time wondering why it was parents were still so trusting. She said as much to Leigh when they walked to the bus stop. Leigh laughed.
“I don’t know about your dad, but my folks are just kind of self-absorbed rather than trusting. I’m sure if they pulled their heads out of their asses and thought about it for five seconds, they’d have it figured out.”
“Dad’s not absorbed with anything but reading, grading papers, gardening, and me. In his case, I’m pretty certain it’s an excess of trust.” Tara had the grace to look a little bit guilty. “It’s starting to drive me insane.”
“What, the fact that he trusts you in spite of reams of evidence to the contrary?”
“No, that I’m fine with. In fact, that part I like. It’s his lack of a life outside of work and me that’s making me want to pull my hair out. And there aren’t reams. Small piles, carefully hidden, but no reams.”
Leigh snickered. “Let me guess: your dad wanted to hang out with you again tonight, didn’t he?”
“He kind of deflated when I told him I needed to go work on my summer reading list with you and Emily, so yes, you could say that.”
“Must be rough.” Leigh’s voice was distinctly lacking in sympathy. “All that love and affection. Ouch! Shit, Tara, why’d you do that?” She rubbed the spot on her arm where Tara’s fist had connected.
“If you really have to ask, I don’t think I feel the need to answer.”
“Jesus, sorry to mock your stable home life. Next time, though? Pull your punches. I don’t have any clothing that goes with the fresh bruise you’ve given me.”
“Bite me. I barely touched you.”
“If that’s barely touching, remind me to never seriously piss you off. Any harder, and I think you’d have broken something. For such a string bean, you’re pretty damned strong.”
“Whatever.” Tara tried not to think about the jam jar she’d shattered while attempting to open, or the big hole in the plaster of the bedroom wall, the one she’d hidden behind her Pulp Fiction poster. All she’d been trying to do was nail up a coat hook. She changed the subject. “So, where’s this one at? Emily meeting us there, or do we have to wait for her?”
“It’s down on West Marg. Same place as three weeks ago, and she’ll meet us there. I think she’s trying to convince Ryan to come with.”
Tara pulled out her compact and smoothed a quick coat of gloss over her lips before going to work on her eyes while they waited for the bus. “If she manages it, is he driving? I’m not so sure I want to walk home, and I’m starting to wonder if the neighbors have noticed the number of late-night taxi stops on our street.”
“Yeah. I kind of think that’s why she’s trying to get him to go.”
“And not, of course, because she thinks he’s hot.”
“Okay, Tara. Eww. Your taste may be that bad, but I don’t think Emily’s is.” Leigh scrunched up her nose at the thought of Ryan, and Tara punched her again, careful to pull it this time.
“I didn’t say I thought he was hot, did I? No.” The arrival of the bus signaled the end of the discussion.
The place was already packed, the smell of sweat and incense clinging to every corner of the shabby warehouse. The first time they’d gone to one of these, Tara had been almost overwhelmed by guilt, the noise, and the sheer amount of sensation. She’d wanted to go home, until she realized she couldn’t even hear herself think, and let the thrill of being somewhere so totally alien wash over her. As long as they stuck to some basic rules—no more than one or two drinks, no setting your drink down, no accepting drinks from strangers, and no leaving the building—it seemed pretty safe. Actually, it was starting to feel almost tame.
Leigh seemed to feel the same way. Tara noticed her flirting with a tall blond in an outfit that was just a little too retro-Tarantino, accepting a drink from him and tossing it back, then asking for another. Great. She’d have to remember to keep an eye on the two of them. Asking a guy for a drink just seemed to be a little too close to asking for trouble.
Midway through a long and not-very-danceable set, Tara noticed them sneaking towards the door to the alley. She brushed off the boy who was talking at her, and followed Leigh and her companion out the door. Leigh was stumbling and laughing too loudly, her motions loose enough for Tara to suspect there was something more than alcohol in whatever the man had handed her.
The sight of them sloppily making out didn’t alleviate her suspicions. She hoped she could figure out some way to get Leigh away from him and get them both the hell home without much of a fuss.
Then Leigh screamed and Tara stopped caring about whether or not there’d be a fuss, just so long as they could get out of there with their skins intact. She rushed him without thinking, pulling him off of Leigh and hitting him as hard as she could manage. Looked up at his face when he growled and stopped breathing. She’d seen that face before, seen it every night for over a month.
He’s not real, he’s not real. This isn’t happening.
He hit her across the face and she flew backwards into the wall. Oh fuck. She could see Leigh trying to stand, one hand pressed against her neck and blood flowing from between her fingers. He was coming towards her… what had she done in the dream? Fuck. Fuck. She couldn’t think.
He grabbed her, and she noticed how cold his hands were against the skin of her upper arms. She kicked him, twisting her body around and struggling against him until he lost his grip and she hit the pavement. Her hands reached out in blind panic and found a broken branch. She lifted it as he came back at her, pushing the jagged end of it hard against his chest, and then he was gone and she was covered in a soft layer of dust.
It couldn’t be real; she had to be sleeping.
She could hear Leigh crying and turned to look at her. Leigh’s face was ashen, the red gashes on her neck still seeping.
“Leigh, get up. We have to get out of here.”
Leigh looked at her. She seemed to be having trouble focusing. “Where’d he go? He’s gone, right?” She made no effort to stand, so Tara pulled her up.
“Come on. Up. You can do it.”
Tara managed to get them several blocks away from the warehouse before her knees gave out. Leigh was shuddering, and her skin felt too cold. Tara dug through Leigh’s pockets until she found the phone, then dialed the emergency number. There was going to be hell to pay, but she didn’t have time to worry about that.
“Hang on, Leigh. It’ll be fine. It’ll all be fine.” Tara pressed her hand against the wound and waited for the ambulance to arrive.
The telephone rang at 1:30 in the morning, jolting him from sleep.
“Yes, yes. I’ll be right there.”
He hung up and just stared at the phone for several minutes, trying to remember where he’d put his clothing before he’d gone to bed. He needed his wallet and his keys, and they were still in his pants. He checked the hamper twice before remembering that he’d left them in the bathroom. All things considered, it was a miracle he didn’t run any lights on his way to the hospital.
The emergency room was crowded, full of drunks and junkies in various states of withdrawal and overdose. Under the harsh fluorescent light, they all looked like walking corpses. He hadn’t been in an emergency room since he’d left California, not even when Tara was going through the usual childhood battles with ear infections. He’d forgotten just how much he hated the places.
As bad as they had been as a patient, they were infinitely worse as a parent. He looked around with bleary eyes, wondering what in God’s name she’d been doing, and hoping she was all right. She hadn’t said much when she’d called.
He spotted her huddled in a corner and talking to the police. With her face streaked with mascara and dried blood, she resembled a child caught playing a particularly macabre version of dress-up. Her shirt was ripped, and there was a bruise on the side of her face, but except for that, she seemed to be intact. He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and walked towards her, fragments of what she was saying reaching his ears.
“He vanished.” She sounded like she’d said it a thousand times and couldn’t quite understand why they were asking her the question again.
“So you said, miss, but if you can remember anything about where he went…”
She cut him off. “He didn’t go anywhere. I told you, he vanished.”
“You’re trying to tell me that you hit him with a stick, and he just disappeared?” It was obvious that the officer didn’t believe that part of her story, writing it off as hysterics brought on by the attack.
The doctors had him sign some papers, everyone, it seemed, saw fit to lecture him on his skills as a parent, then they were free to go. They made the drive back to the house in silence. She stared out the window, his coat wrapped around her to cover the torn clothing. He could think of a million things he wanted to say to her, but none that would be of any use in the long run, and none that he wouldn’t regret saying in the morning.
When they arrived home, he locked the door behind them then gestured for her to sit down. He remained standing, watching her, still unwilling to speak. She looked around at the floor, the wall, her hands, at anything that wasn’t him. Finally, words came out of her mouth, haltingly at first, as she told him where she’d gone.
It turned out it wasn’t the first time. It was summer, she explained. She and her friends were bored, and hitting the underground club scene had seemed, if not like a good idea at the time, at least like a mostly harmless one. He must have made some sort of sound, because her head jerked up and she met his eyes for a second before looking away and admitting that no, actually, it had seemed like a bad idea; that was the appeal.
She started to babble about the nightmares that had been keeping her up earlier that summer, and he thought for a moment that the tangent was meant to explain why she’d been sneaking out of the house. Then she described the dreams, spoke of men with faces like deformed lions, their flesh cold and smooth, teeth sharp and cruel as they tore into the necks of their victims. She talked about running them through with weapons of wood, of watching with glee as they crumbled to dust, and the words hit him like drops of acid. Acid turned to ice when he realized that the tangent wasn’t a tangent, just a prelude to her description of the attack.
He didn’t want to believe what he was hearing, and tried to quell the first suspicion that came to mind. What she’d run into was blindingly obvious, but the meaning, even with the dreams, wasn’t necessarily clear. One didn’t have to be cursed with a calling to come out ahead against a vampire. One simply had to be lucky.
He repeated what the police had said almost verbatim, including their mention of Leigh’s had claim that she’d seen the man escape. What Tara thought she saw and what had happened were not the same thing. They couldn’t be. She tried to tell him that she knew what she’d seen, but he interrupted her.
“Tara, what you’re suggesting is impossible.” It didn’t really feel like a lie. There were things, which, if she just avoided courting danger at every turn, she didn’t need to know about. Seattle was a safe enough place, and frankly, they were things he couldn’t begin to explain.
She looked for a moment as if she was going to argue, then her shoulders slumped. “You’re right,” she mumbled. “It’s impossible. Can I go to bed now?”
He nodded. “Yes, of course… and Tara?”
“I think that this has been punishment enough for you, but you need to remember the rules. If you want to do something, for goodness’ sake just ask, and if you think I’ll say no, there’s probably a good reason why.”
They didn’t discuss the matter again. She tried to say something about it a few days later, but he stopped her before she could get any further than “about the other night”.
“Tara, this matter is closed. I trust there will be no repetition of it.”
She nodded, and changed the subject.
It was stupid. It was crazy. It was any number of things, none of them good. Tara didn’t care. It was something she had to do.
Getting the address of the warehouse had been easy enough, and pinching money from Dad’s wallet had provided enough money for cab and cover. She’d make it up to him somehow. The short, tight dress didn’t leave her any place for the pieces of driftwood she’d sharpened, so she’d stashed them in the pockets of a black leather jacket she’d found in the attic.
Two weeks and the dreams hadn’t stopped. If anything, they were more vivid. When she woke up drenched in cold sweat every night, she could still taste the ashes in her throat. It couldn’t be from memory. When she’d hit whomever—whatever had attacked them that night, she’d been too shocked to breathe.
She recognized some of the revelers from earlier warehouse parties, some of them just from around. She had felt better when she didn’t see any familiar faces at these events. What had felt like slumming was starting to feel like home.
Tara looked around, trying to spot anything different about the crowd. It was no use. They were all pale, slim, and unhealthy. Nothing to set them apart from one another. Nothing that gave her a hint as to what she was looking for. It had happened. No matter what anyone said, it had happened. There had been no knife, no weapon. He hadn’t run away.
He’d savaged Leigh, and Tara had stopped him. The way she always did in dreams. And that had been that. He was gone, no body, no trace save for a smattering of dust.
She wasn’t crazy.
It had happened.
A dark-haired man in the corner caught her eye. He was staring at her as if he knew her, although she was certain she’d never set eyes on him before tonight. She’d have remembered. He was that kind of guy.
“Can I get you anything?”
She jumped, startled by the voice. She’d been so lost in her own world; she hadn’t even noticed him coming over to her. Not that she minded.
“Aren’t you a little young for that?”
He must not have been to very many of these to ask a question like that. “Look around you, buddy. Aren’t we all?”
He was older than she’d thought. Too old for this crowd, in years at least. He looked at her with opaque brown eyes for a minute before going and getting her what she’d asked for.
“If I’m going to be corrupting a minor, least you could do is tell me your name.”
“Tara. That’s a pretty name; it suits you. You know, you might want to be careful, talking to strangers in a place like this.”
“Why, do you bite?”
“No, but some of the other people here do. You should watch your back.”
Then he was gone. She downed her drink, trying to figure out if he’d been warning her or warning her off. Whichever it was, she wished he’d given her some sort of clue as to what to watch for, apart from her back. Not only had he not told her anything useful, he hadn’t even told her his name.
She set down the empty glass and took to the floor. Eyes closed, she let the thrum of the bass surround and fill her. Her mind relaxed and she remembered why she kept coming to these things long after the rush of bad behavior had faded and passed. There was a comfort in the darkness and the noise, company in the loneliness of the crowd.
She felt someone next to her, felt the slight disturbance of the air around her as it slid close to her, smelled the Nag Champa and smoke and somehow knew it was one of them, one of the creatures from the nightmares. Cool fingers brushed the heavy fall of her hair from her neck, and she opened her eyes and smiled.
It was good-looking in this face, smooth pale skin and deep hazel eyes, a shock of auburn hair and full red lips. Pretty, very pretty. She wondered how much of it was due to cosmetics, and how much it owed to being what it was.
“You remind me of a ballerina.”
Pretty, but none-too-bright. So much the better. She widened her eyes and raised her brow, letting her mouth part slightly in question.
It leaned in closer, so close she should have felt it exhale against her skin. She felt nothing, not even when it whispered, “It’s your neck, so long and elegant,” in her ear. She shivered, whether at the absence of breath or the slow caress of its fingers on her collarbone, she couldn’t be certain.
“Come with me.” Its voice was as warm as its touch was cold. “Let’s go somewhere a little more private.”
She let it take her by the hand and lead her through the crowd and out the small door that lead to the alley. The door closed behind them with a dull thud, and the thing shoved her hard against the metal, cold lips forcing her mouth to open as it used one knee to push apart her legs. A taste of something coppery hit her tongue. Blood. She wondered if it was her own. The face above her twisted and changed, teeth scraping against her lip until she could feel her flesh tear and didn’t have to wonder where the blood was coming from.
It pulled its mouth away to speak, voice still all warm seduction when it told her she should feel free to scream.
“No one will hear, but you might feel better.”
She pulled the bit of sharpened wood from her pocket, thrusting the thing between its ribs when it pulled back to strike, the impact hard against her fist before softening as the thing crumbled to dust.
“I thought for a while there you hadn’t listened to me.”
Her cryptic companion from earlier stepped out of the shadows, where he had no doubt witnessed the whole thing. She glared at him, tucking the weapon back in her jacket. Blood from her lip was smeared down her face, bits of dust clinging to it. It wasn’t quite how she wanted anyone to see her.
He pulled a handkerchief from his coat and wiped the worst of the mess away. “You like cutting things that close, or do you just have a thing for vampires?”
Two weeks spent thinking she was crazy while everyone denied the evidence of her own eyes and suddenly here was someone not just giving name to the nightmare, but acting like it was an everyday thing?
“No on both counts. I just had to be sure.”
“Sure of what? What he was—or what you are?”
“What do you mean, what I am?”
His lips curved in a slight smile. “You’ll find out soon enough. Here.” He handed her a small box. “You’ll be needing this. Until you find out why, though, you might want to think about avoiding the late nights.”
He walked away; pausing when she called out, “Wait! You still haven’t told me your name!”
“You can call me Liam. It’s as good a name as any.”
She watched him leave, thoughts flying through her brain too quickly to take hold. Not wanting to wait for a cab, she started walking. It was an hour’s trek uphill, but at least it would give her a chance to think. She opened the box she’d been clutching. The large silver cross with its sturdy chain forced one thought to take firm root.
He’d been looking for her. He probably knew more about what was going on than she did. Of course, that wasn’t saying much. Maybe she was losing her mind, after all.
She pulled the scuffed leather of the coat tight around her. The buzz of thoughts was fading, leaving her all too aware of the nervous clenching of fear in her gut and the taste of cheap scotch, blood, and ashes in her mouth. She was shaking so hard she could barely walk.
If she wasn’t losing her mind, they were real. She’d killed two of them. She’d enjoyed doing it.
Her stomach turned in on itself, and she doubled over, splattering the scotch, blood, and bile on the pavement. He’d told her she’d find out what she was. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
When she got home, she stared at the house for a long time before letting herself in through the basement window. The narrow city lot and carefully-tended garden looked all wrong, too peaceful and serene, the cross-gabled roof standing out too sharply against the pink-stained city night. Instead of looking like home, it looked like a facade from a community theatre production. She fell asleep still trying to force the image from her mind.
The dream was different; wherever she was, it was warmer, the air heavy instead of crisp, and the terrain flat instead of rugged. She spun, arms and legs moving in ways she didn’t remember learning. A quick spin and flip and a backwards jab took care of one of them. The dark-haired girl beside her took care of the other before flashing her a cocky grin. Turned around and they were in an alley, the red-haired creature from the club rushing them, but then he shifted and was someone else, someone human. Heard her voice—no, not her voice, but coming from her mouth—heard a voice scream “Faith! No!” as the blood pumped from the hole in his chest and spilled from his lips which were suddenly Liam’s. “It’s what you are” spilling out with the blood before he burst into flames.
She woke up covered in sweat and still queasy from the night before. Fighting the urge to vomit, she dressed and stumbled upstairs to the bathroom. This time when she looked in the mirror, she didn’t bother trying to find anyone other than herself.
Her father was waiting for her when she entered the kitchen. He watched with searching, reproachful eyes as she poured her coffee.
“Where were you last night, Tara?”
The quiet, clipped voice, accent more pronounced than usual, set a thousand alarm bells off inside her head.
“Don’t attempt to play dumb with me, young lady. Someone rang for you late last night. You were not in your room when I went downstairs to inform you of that fact, and before you attempt to fob me off with ‘I must have been in the bathroom’, I heard you come in well after two. I’m only going to ask you this once more, and I expect an answer: where were you?”
“I was out.”
“Without telling me or checking in? And you still haven’t told me where you were. Tara, you know the rules.”
She did. Even the new one: “do not mention the incident”. There was nothing she could say by way of an explanation that wouldn’t involve breaking it.
“As am I. I’m sorry you don’t trust me enough to tell me whatever it is that you’ve gotten yourself into, but it has to stop. You’ll move your things back into your old room by tonight, and until school starts up again, you’re not to leave the house without me. I trust I’ve made myself clear?”
She’d expected as much. All things considered, house arrest was more of a relief than a punishment. She gave a nod of understanding and watched his face soften.
“Tara, I’m sorry I haven’t been a better father. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I’m at something of a loss as to how else to deal with this.”
Nothing like a fresh punch of guilt in the gut to wake a girl up after a long night. She pressed a kiss on his forehead and ruffled his hair. “It’s nothing you’ve done, Dad.”
As true as the words were, she wondered why they rang hollow in her ears.
He’d had the same pit of terror in his stomach when he’d found her room empty as when she’d called him from the emergency room. When he’d entered her room after she’d come in and found her curled up under his old leather jacket, a fine layer of dust still clinging to its surface and the sharp end of a stick poking from one pocket, terror was no longer a strong enough word.
He’d been numb when she’d babbled her confession two weeks before, some part of him refusing to accept the obvious. He wished he was still numb and able to take refuge in denial.
Sleep proved impossible. Not for the first time, he found himself regretting the loss of his books. He knew of one or two places that might have something he could use, but none of them were open at three in the morning. Besides, most of what he needed to know was locked away inside his head; he just needed to write it down to jog his memory.
Three notepads and four cups of coffee into it, it struck him that Faith must be dead. He hoped, for her sake, that it had been quick. He supposed she could have died anytime during the past fifteen years, but he preferred to think it had been recent. If it hadn’t been… well, he didn’t want to think about it. All the girls who might have died in the name of a war he no longer believed in… he couldn’t think about it.
The Council must be aware that a new Slayer had been called, and that it wasn’t one they’d managed to find ahead of time. Tara had made her first kill a fortnight ago, and at least one since then. It was only a matter of time before they would manage to track her down; he thought it strange that they hadn’t already. If it would do any good, he’d pack everything and run. Only the sure knowledge that they would catch up with them kept him from it.
He wished she would confide in him, but after his reaction to recent events, he couldn’t blame her for not doing so. Bringing it up himself would only lead to questions he wasn’t prepared, wasn’t willing to answer. He looked down at his notepad, startled to notice that he’d let the pen rest against it until it a thick smear of ink had spread across the bottom of the page.
He stared at it, hoping to see answers in the pattern, but there were none. He turned the page and continued to write down everything he could remember from his training. No matter how much he knew, he feared it wouldn’t be enough. He didn’t bother to ask himself enough for what.
One thought kept forcing itself to the front of his mind, blotting out all others no matter how often he pushed it away. She could easily have been killed. She had to have known, and it hadn’t stopped her. By the time she stumbled upstairs, pale and puffy, he was coldly furious.
He let her get a cup of coffee before he spoke.
“Where were you last night, Tara?” He was shocked by how much he sounded like his father.
She made a cursory evasion, and he listened as his father’s voice berated her, demanding answers he knew she wouldn’t give, watched as she took it all stoically. None of this would be happening if he’d been a better father, if he’d had some idea of what needed to be done.
He didn’t realize he was saying as much out loud until she kissed his forehead.
“It’s not anything you’ve done, Dad.”
Except that it was. Things he had done, things he’d undone, things he hadn’t done correctly. They were all a part of whatever tangled skein of fate was in charge of this mess. He smiled at her as best he could.
“I’ll help you move your things back upstairs, then we’ll watch a movie. I haven’t had much of a chance to spend time with you lately.”
He watched as Tara poured cereal and milk into a bowl and sat down across the table from him. She ate a few bites, then prodded the rest of it with the back of her spoon. She’d lost weight, not that she’d had any to lose, but she didn’t seem interested in eating. There were dark circles under her eyes, and one side of her mouth was swollen, making her look more like a battered housewife than a teenaged girl. She pushed the cereal away and poured another cup of coffee.
“You should finish your breakfast, Tara.”
She looked down at the bowl and pushed at the soggy mess. She raised her head and looked at him, eyes bruised and forlorn. “Daddy, make me pancakes?”
All stoicism and bravado had faded from her face, leaving just the frightened girl underneath. Faith must have been like that once. He should have known, but the Council had prepared him for dealing with the Slayer, not the girl. Had they bothered to prepare him for both, perhaps things would have been different.
He took the coffee cup and cereal bowl to the kitchen and dumped them both in the sink. He’d make them tea to go with the pancakes. Neither of them needed to be any more on edge than they already were.
The familiar ritual: warming the pot, measuring the leaves, pouring the water over them and waiting, had been neglected as of late. There hadn’t been many opportunities to just sit down and have a quiet morning together. He doubted there would be many more in the days and weeks to come.
She added milk and obscene amount of sugar to her tea, and smothered the pancakes in an equally obscene amount of syrup. His teeth hurt just looking at it.
“Thanks, Dad.” she said between bites.
“You’re welcome. Would you like another batch?”
She could handle not going out. In fact, she was in favor off it. Groundings and curfews had never seemed more appealing. House arrest? The best invention since sliced bread. Sleep was still an uncomfortable tangle of memory and foreboding, but other than that, everything was fine. Or would be, if she could just keep telling herself that.
Tara lasted all of two weeks before starting to sneak out of the house again. She tried to play it safe at first, but avoiding the usual haunts meant she didn’t have a huge amount of luck finding her quarry. After a week of bussing and hitchhiking to the trendy coffee shops of Capitol Hill, she went back to the familiar rotating series of warehouses. Every couple of nights, she found one. Every couple of nights she’d lure it some place secluded and go for the kill. And every night, he was there, watching her.
It made her feel a little safer, almost like she had a chaperone for these little hunting excursions. Neither of them made any effort to speak, although she made a point of making eye contact at least once a night, usually right before she lured her victim off the floor. For reasons she didn’t want to examine too closely, she wanted him to see it happen.
There were other things she wasn’t examining too closely as well. Things like why it was that she dressed up carefully before going out, her clothing too tight and her make-up just a little too strong, or why she felt her pulse quicken in a way that had nothing to do with fear when she slipped into the nooks and crannies with one of them. During the day, she made a point of studying for the upcoming school year and doing her chores without being asked. With her face scrubbed clean, and her figure clad in scruffy jeans and t-shirts, her daytime self and her nighttime self weren’t connected by much more than a body.
It was easier that way.
She hadn’t talked to Leigh or Emily in weeks, but she didn’t really miss them. They’d just be in her way, anyhow. Besides, it was almost time for school to start up again, and she’d see them in class. The thought of school was another thing she was trying to avoid, as her summer hours weren’t exactly going to fly when she had to be on campus by 7:05 and she really didn’t want to deal with it. Too much crossover between night and day. As a result, she wasn’t really prepared when the first day rolled around.
It wasn’t that her classes were hard. Tara was just so tired that she had trouble understanding simple spoken English, much less reading books and handouts. Fourth-period library T.A. duties couldn’t come fast enough. At most, she figured she’d be assigned some mundane book filing or have to listen to the new librarian prattle about said duties for the better part of an hour. Either way, it would be a welcome break.
She walked through the heavy double doors and into the homey comfort of scuffed Berber, humming fluorescent lights, and the soothing musk of a thousand well-thumbed pages. There didn’t seem to be anyone around, so she rang the service bell at the check-out station and waited. When there wasn’t a response, she rang twice more, her foot tapping with impatience.
A red-haired woman in a new-agey outfit poked her head out the office door. “Sorry! I was unpacking and didn’t hear you come in. You’re Tara, right?”
“I’m Ms. Rosenberg. You’ve figured out the part where I’m the new librarian, right?”
“Kind of, yeah. The whole adult-in-the-library thing gives it away.”
“Come in and have a seat.”
Tara wound her way around the counter and into the small room adjacent to it. Unlike the rest of the library, it looked fresh and cheerful. The walls were a pale spring green, and the overhead lighting had been eschewed in favor of a couple of torchiere lamps. She moved a box off of the spare chair and sat down. Ms. Rosenberg closed the door and sat behind her desk. She looked at Tara with a degree of excitement Tara wasn’t used to seeing in a teacher. Maybe the library was in a state of extreme disorder, or maybe Ms. Rosenberg was a little off. Tara was pretty certain it was the latter.
“You know, I had a whole speech prepared, but I’ve kind of forgotten it, or, rather, decided it was a little dated and decided to just cut to the chase. Ever thought about your destiny? ‘Cause, you’ve got one.”
Tara blinked. Definitely the latter. “Umm… okay? So, what is it? Filing? Entering ISBN information into a database? Beating up kids with late fees?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of slaying vampires, though there will also be some of the first two. The beating up I don’t think I can rightfully condone.” The words tumbled from her mouth in a chipper rush that took a moment to decipher.
“Slaying vampires? Is this a joke?” Tara felt her hands clench and beads of sweat start to form in the small of her back.
“It’s not a joke. You’re the Chosen One, and, well, I’m kind of the one they’ve chosen to watch you.”
“Chosen… who? What do you mean, watch me? Who’s ‘they’?”
“The Watcher’s Council assigned me as your Watcher. I train you and help prepare you for slaying.”
“Huh. Well, seeing as I already know pretty much everything I need to about killing them, I don’t see where that’s necessary.”
Willow blinked. Okay, that wasn’t quite the response she’d expected. Yes, it had been a couple of months since the death of the last Slayer, and maybe they’d been a little thrown by the who/what/where problem, but she hadn’t anticipated that the new one would already be active in the field. This could be trouble. It was troublesome. Troubling, even.
She looked at the girl for some sign of what to do next. Cool blue eyes looked back at her from a face wiped clean of any expression except faint boredom. It was uncomfortably close to the look most often seen on Buffy’s face in the months after the resurrection.
“Who’s that? Your daughter?”
The subject change was abrupt, and it took Willow a minute to realize what Tara was talking about. She glanced at the black and white print in its beaded frame, surprised by how fresh the old familiar pain felt.
“No, I don’t have any kids. That is—was—my girlfriend.”
“Bad break up?”
“You know,” she said slowly, “that’s not the sort of question you really should be asking someone you’ve just met. But no, well, yes, but we got back together, and then she died. Her name was Tara, too.”
Tara, this Tara, winced. “Sorry. Honestly, I normally do think before speaking. I guess it was just a bad choice of subject changes.”
“Don’t worry about it. Do you want to save the ooky-spooky destiny discussion for tomorrow so you can prepare a list of questions or something?”
“Okay then, let’s start with cataloging, filing, and late fee policies.”
They spent the rest of the period going over library policies and procedures and studiously avoiding saying the “V” word. When it ended, Willow watched as her new T.A. gathered her books from behind the counter and exited the library. She waited until the passing bell rang, then got up and locked the heavy double doors. She hadn’t been so happy to see lunchtime since the apex of her Xander crush.
Nothing about Tara was anything like what she’d expected. Willow went back into her office, took a thick file out of her briefcase, and tried to figure out what she’d missed in her research. There were a few new things she hadn’t had a chance to look at; maybe they held the key to the puzzle.
She started with school records. Tara Bardsley, date of birth: December 8, 2002—seven months and one day after Willow’s life had shattered, time stopping and re-forming in a haze of broken glass, blood, and thick black ink. She’d saved two lives, not one, when she’d extracted that bullet—bonus points on the plus side of the cosmic balance sheet. It wasn’t exactly news—everyone who knew Buffy well had learned to walk on eggshells around her in December, just like everyone knew to be extra-careful talking to Willow in early May—but it hadn’t really clicked in her head until today.
Duh, Willow—it’s all connected.
Father, Terence Bardsley. No new information there. She’d been trying for months to learn more about him, but he remained pretty much a cipher. All the background information checked out, but there was nothing in it to connect him to Buffy, and it just felt a little… off. Still, whoever he’d been a decade and a half ago had been pretty good with the track-covering. Mother, well, that fake identity wouldn’t have been too hard to crack—Xander could have figured it out in less than an hour—Joyce Maclay.
School records all said the same thing: good student, tendency to slack off if not challenged, a pleasure to have in class. No record of behavior problems. A little digging showed she’d been involved in some sort of incident over the summer break—from the looks of the ill-gotten police report, a classic vampire attack thwarted.
She dug through the papers, frowning as she tried to find a pattern in the information and kept coming up short. It would be so much simpler if she could just call up Buffy and ask. Willow thought about it often enough that she’d even gone out and purchased some Lethe’s Bramble, just in case it became necessary.
She didn’t even feel all that guilty about it.
Parent-teacher night proved to be something of a revelation midway through. Walking through the doors of the library took him back to the Hyperion, to the last time bad news came in the form of a slight witch with appalling taste in apparel. There were certain differences—this time, she had no idea she was delivering it. He had no idea why he was so certain she was sent by the Council. Perhaps it was just that anything else would have been one coincidence too many, and he’d learned not to trust in coincidence.
“Hi, I’m Willow Rosenberg. You’re Mr. Bardsley?”
There was no hint of recognition in her face, but of course, he no longer resembled the man she’d had a passing acquaintance with back when she was still little more than a child. Time had a way of doing that to people, and he supposed that for once, it was something of an advantage.
“Yes, I am.”
“Tara’s a good assistant. She’s got a real thing for books. Does she get that from you or from her mother?”
As if she didn’t know very well that Tara’s mother… “From me, I’m afraid. Her mother isn’t a part of our life.”
He took a grim sort of pleasure in her obvious discomfort, and, as their allotted ten minutes wore on, an even grimmer sort in withholding the answers she was obviously hoping to draw out of him. On the drive home, he wondered absently if she was still in contact with Buffy.
There hadn’t been any death notices in the Sunnydale newspaper, nor any notices of any kind—engagement, marriage, birth—with Buffy’s name attached, though he’d seen all off the last three for Dawn. It was something he felt he needed to be aware of, for whatever reason. Though in all honesty, he knew very well what the reason was; it was the reason for most of his habits, and it was, unless he had very much missed the mark, sneaking out of the house just as he pulled up.
“What are you doing, Tara?”
She looked up at him, panicked and on the defensive. “Going out.”
“On a school night, and without permission? Get back in the house. Now.”
For a moment, he thought she’d defy him. Something in her eyes and the set of her shoulders told him she was willing to go through him if she felt it necessary. It flashed and was gone in a heartbeat, and terrified him. Then her shoulders slumped, and she went back inside.
“Where, if I might ask, were you headed?”
Tara stared at him, her face masked beneath heavy make-up, and her expression harder to interpret than an ancient prophesy. “I was going to go get coffee.”
“We have coffee in the house, a ready supply of it.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t. I thought I was quite clear after the incident over the summer, but it would seem I was mistaken. If you’d like, I could install bars on your windows and a lock on the outside of your door.”
She gave a tight, unpleasant smile before answering. “Go ahead, I dare you.” When he didn’t answer, she stood and made to leave the room, telling him as she did, “I can tell when you’re bluffing, Dad. Still, next time, I’ll ask.”
For the first time in a very long time, he drank himself to sleep.
Inventing afterschool activities proved to be the ticket to freedom. It helped that she had a teacher’s approval to do so. Tara still wasn’t certain how she felt about having some sort of secret society in charge of her extracurricular activities, but if it helped her get out of the house, who was she to quibble?
Of course, she’d had to change her fighting habits (a lot more walking around and waiting, and a lot less going out in search of the dustable), and there was a fair amount of time spent just studying instead of fighting. Not that she didn’t enjoy studying, but it didn’t fill her whole being with a buzzing, thrumming heat like the fight did.
More like a buzzing, thrumming headache at the moment, actually.
“This is sort of a weird place to be the Slayer,” Ms. Rosenberg was saying. “Most of the vamps you get here are imports.”
“Why is that?”
The Watcher’s enthusiasm was almost contagious. “Well, for starters, did you know that Seattle hasn’t had any new cemeteries since 1908? And it has one of the highest cremation rates in the whole country as a result. So, not a lot of undead problems here, which is funny, because it’s the closest you’ll get to a Hellmouth without actually being on the Hellmouth.”
“Slow down. What’s a Hellmouth?”
Ms. Rosenberg grew even more animated. Tara hadn’t thought it possible. “Well, pretty much just what it sounds like. Lots of ooky badness, end-of-the-world sort of stuff. It’s also where I grew up, so I’m kinda fond of it in a weird Stockholm Syndromey way. When I was studying to become a Watcher, I thought maybe I’d see if there were other Hellmouths, and while Sunnydale remains the one and only, it turns out there are a handful of what you might call Hell Sinuses. I did my whole thesis on it. I have this theory that they run along geological fault lines, but it’s still unproven.”
Tara tried to turn her laugh into a cough, and failed. “Hell sinuses?”
“Smaller concentrations of demonic energy. Less with the apocalypse-ishness, and more with the easily-channeled-for-personal-benefit. Cases in point: Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft. The first shopping mall was birthed here, if you needed any more proof—gotta love the commercial applications of dark powers. So in some ways, you’ve got it easy.”
“Well, the nasty stuff here is mostly integrated and not really a threat, therefore not really our problem.”
“Good to know, I guess.”
“Of course, there’s always a catch. In this case, it’s that the vamps you do have to take on are a little smarter and a little stronger than your average fresh-from-the-dirt type.”
“That hasn’t been a problem. Wouldn’t new ones be like shooting fish in a barrel? If so, they don’t sound like they’d be much fun.”
She got a stern frown (or something that tried to be a stern frown—Ms. Rosenberg’s face wasn’t really the stern frown type) for that comment, but no rebuke other than the standard reminder that fun and killing weren’t exactly things that should go together before she changed the subject. “So, ready for weapons practice?”
“When am I not?”
When they finished up with practice, Ms. Rosenberg surprised her by declaring that there wouldn’t be any patrol that night. “It’s time for mid-terms. You should study, and besides, I’ve already checked out the obits and hacked the coroner’s office. Nothing’s stirring that’s not already up. I’ll drive you home.”
Tara walked around to the back of the house, then hurried to the alley. Just because there wasn’t anything new on the horizon didn’t mean there wasn’t anything out there for her to kill. She wasn’t quite dressed for it, but oh well. She could make do, and at least she had a weapon handy. It was still early, so she started walking. She had plenty of time. She was a few blocks from her destination when he stepped in front of her and spoke.
“You haven’t been around much.”
As usual, she hadn’t heard him walk up to her. “Liam. I take it you’ve been looking for me?”
“I wouldn’t say that necessarily.”
“But you’ve noticed my absence, which implies a certain degree of awareness of my presence.”
“I notice things. Doesn’t mean there’s any deeper meaning to it.”
“Doesn’t mean there isn’t, either. What do you want?”
“Who says I want anything?”
“You’re talking to me instead of just skulking in the shadows and watching me, so it seems as reasonable an assumption as any.”
He shrugged and gave her a hint of a smile. “Doesn’t mean I want anything in particular.”
“Right, well, in that case, shall we just go back to the skulking and watching?”
Afterwards, she wasn’t certain quite what had happened. One moment she was trading barbs with him, the next, they were surrounded. Maybe she’d let her guard down, maybe he wasn’t the only one who’d been following her around. It didn’t matter, because seven to two meant the odds weren’t exactly in her favor, and she didn’t have time to think about it.
Well, she’d been wanting a fight.
She took out two easily enough before she realized that Liam was fighting just as well as she was, if not better. When she took out the third, she got a good look at his face and froze; he was one of them. One left, excluding Liam. She dusted it almost as an afterthought as she rushed towards him.
He was pinned and she had her arms raised to drive the stake home before she realized he wasn’t fighting her. Not normal behavior for a vampire. Not normal behavior, period.
“When? When did this happen?”
Laughter was the last thing she expected. “Two and a half centuries ago, give or take.”
“You expect me to believe that you’ve been a vampire the whole time I’ve known you?”
“It’s the God’s honest truth.” The hint of an accent slipped through with the words, a lilting memory, nothing more, ancient and dusty. It stopped her.
“What are you?”
“Just what you think I am.”
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now.” She meant it as a threat, but somehow, it came out closer to a plea.
“Because I have information you need, and because I’m not like them.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because you know it’s true. And, when it comes right down to it, because I could have killed you at any time over the last few months if I’d wanted to.”
“That’s hardly proof of anything more than a certain degree of patience, and you know it.”
“I know a lot of things, but there’s one thing I don’t know. Maybe you can answer it for me, before you kill me, that is.”
His voice grew cold. “Does your father know you’re out doing this sort of thing?”
The unexpectedness of the question confused her. “Of course not. Why would he, and what business is it of yours? You give me a cryptic warning and some jewelry, watch me for weeks without speaking, and then, when I find out what you are, you ask me if my father knows what I’m doing? What the fuck?”
“How much do you know about him, Tara?”
She a spiral of unease start in her stomach and curl outward. “He’s a teacher, doesn’t really have much of a life, and he doesn’t have any contact with any family he might have, if you don’t count me.”
“What about your mother, does she know what you’re doing?”
“I don’t have a mother.”
“Everyone has a mother, Tara, and you’re more like yours than most people. Your father knows it as well as I do. Ask him about Buffy. That should provide you with all the proof you need.”
His words had a ring of truth to them that she couldn’t begin to understand. She let him go, then ran all the way back home, the spiral rolling back in on itself until it formed a hard lump of dread in her gut.
The slam of the front door alerted him that something was wrong; Tara knew better than to endanger its leaded glass window that had survived earthquakes, neglect, and poor remodeling decisions on the part of previous owners. Wesley set down his book and went to see what had happened.
Since the night of the conference, he’d felt as though he were living in the eye of a hurricane. He’d used the lull to research obsessively and come to the conclusion that, as usual, there wasn’t a bloody thing he could do to avert whatever tragedy was looming. It wasn’t going to stop him from trying, but he recognized the futility inherent in the effort.
Tara was standing in the living room, covered in sweat and dirt, and looking as furious and lost and broken as anyone he had even seen, including himself, Angel, and Faith. They were outside the protection of the eye, and into the full fury of the storm. He braced himself as well as he could for what lay ahead. She didn’t speak for several minutes. Instead, she looked at him, her eyes searching for something. If he’d any idea what it was she was attempting to find, he’d have given it to her readily just to break the silence. The steady ticking of the mantel clock seemed to grow louder and fill the room, or perhaps that was just the thudding of his heart.
The question, when it came, was both unexpected and inevitable.
“Who’s Buffy, Dad?”
He froze, staring at her with and expression she hoped she’d never see again. She couldn’t tell what it was exactly—some horrible concoction of guilt, fury, and despair, and a little of something else entirely. He didn’t look anything like the father she knew, this stranger with familiar features.
“Who have you been talking to, Tara?”
The expression was new; the voice wasn’t. It was the same frigid diction that he’d used when he’d caught her sneaking out. Her stomach felt like she’d been swallowing hot coals, and no matter how much she wanted to believe Liam had been lying to save his skin, it was starting to look like that wasn’t the case.
“Just answer the question: who’s Buffy?”
“I presume you’re simply asking for the sake of confirmation?”
“Don’t. Don’t you dare take that tone with me. I’m not one of your fucking students. I’m only going to ask one more time: who’s Buffy?”
“Your mother. But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“She was like me, wasn’t she? Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. She was cursed like me, and you knew it, and you didn’t bother to warn me.”
“There was no way of knowing—”
She cut him off. “You lied to me.” She could feel her voice start to break and hated herself for it. “You let me think I was losing my mind. You put me in a position where I had to lie to you, had to hide who and what I was. But you’ve known the whole time, haven’t you? How could you do this to me?” She was crying—sloppy, messy, runny-nose, dry-heave crying—and he was just standing there.
When he finally said something, she almost missed it. “I didn’t want it to be true.”
Tara wiped her face on her sleeve and laughed. “Which excuses everything, of course. News flash, Dad, I didn’t want this to be true, either. I’ve been risking life and limb, and trying to hide it from you, trying to protect you from what I am, and now I find out that there was never any need. So I’m through with it. This is me telling you that I have to take off and patrol now. I imagine you know what that means. So glad I could be honest with you.” She walked away, half-expecting him to call her back so he could explain. He didn’t, so she let herself out and closed the door with a frustrated bang for the second time that night.
At first he thought the sound was the echo of the slamming door. When he realized it was soft applause from the porch, he looked out the open window into a pair of familiar dark eyes. Lovely. It had wanted only this. He supposed he should be shocked, but that ability seemed to have vanished.
“How much did you hear?”
“Enough to know you just don’t learn from your mistakes, do you Wes?”
“What do you want, Angel?”
“I want a lot of things. I want my son back, I want to play beach volleyball, maybe get a tan. And—oh yeah, I want you to suffer, just like I did. Come on, Wes. Admit it; you always wanted to be just like me. Well, now’s your chance.”
“She’s not responsible for the sins of her father.”
“Neither was Connor, but that didn’t stop you or Holtz, now did it? You know, even after he took Connor, I didn’t understand where Holtz was coming from. It wasn’t until I had to destroy the monster he created that I finally got it. So I guess you could say what I really want Wes, is justice.”
“Where does it stop? You took Holtz’s family from him; he, with my complicity, took yours. Now in the name of justice, you want to take mine? What happens after that, Angel? She has a mother and an aunt, neither of whom would sit back idly if she were hurt, and they would find out, eventually.”
“I’m not planning on hurting her, Wes, just taking her from you. Any pain she feels, you laid the foundation for a long time ago.”
“You’ll what? Take her under your wing after severing her ties to me? Let the Watcher’s Council raise her? She’s a fifteen year old girl. I’m all she knows; you’d destroy her.”
“But she doesn’t really know you at all, does she? I’d say if anyone’s destroying her, it’s you. An eye for an eye, a child for a child. Be seeing you, Wes.” He tossed something through the window and vanished the moment Wesley bent to pick it up.
A neatly-tied roll of thick paper overlaid with a handful of lines of charcoal could, it seemed, slice into a person as neatly as a sharpened blade.
It hardly seemed a likely weapon. Soft cotton paper, soft lines portraying a face softened by a smile. A pretty picture of a pretty girl. One captioned in a careful hand: Delicta maiorum immeritus lues. It lacked a signature, but of course, it didn’t need one.
He noted absently that it was a good likeness, one that under other circumstances he’d have framed and hung in the hallway with the collection of school portraits and snapshots. The teacher in him wondered if perhaps 2nd Samuel 12:14 would have been a more appropriate citation, but he supposed Angel wasn’t the sort to spend a good deal of time with the Bible.
It wasn’t the best time to be pedantic, but he couldn’t help it. Pedantic was marginally better than panicked.
The confluence of events had hit such a level of absurdity that he found himself almost looking forward to the denouement.
The Council had found her, Angel had found them both, sixteen years of secrets were forcing their way to the surface like so many worms in a downpour, and all he could do was nitpick the choice of wording in an implied threat.
Perhaps he was looking for the devil in the details.
He stared at the face in the image, fingers tracing the grin he’d not seen in far too long.
She hadn’t mentioned meeting a man who pulled smiles from her lips and put them on paper. Then again, she hadn’t mentioned much of anything since the incident over the summer. He should have told her the truth, that what she’d seen was real, what she’d done was right. He should have told her something other than suggesting it was a trick of a scared mind seeing things in the dark.
But that would have meant admitting out loud that there were things from which he could not protect her, no matter how much he wished otherwise.
Angel wanted her to suffer for her father’s transgressions. Wesley wondered if he realized it was already happening.
He checked the clock. It was quarter after ten. If recent events were any indication, she wouldn’t be home for at least four more hours. He picked up the phone and dialed the number he’d gotten at the parent-teacher conference. There was no sense in putting off the inevitable; it was time to come out of hiding.
The voice on the other end was cheerful. “Willow Rosenberg speaking.”
“This is Terence Bardsley, Tara’s father? I spoke to you at the conference and you asked me to call you if I had any concerns?”
“Yes, I remember… how can I help you?” The tone was cautious.
“I’d like to meet with you to go over some issues that have come up with regards to Tara.”
“Sure. I’m normally in my office until around 6:30 on school nights, if you’d like to drop by.”
“I afraid it can’t wait until tomorrow, Ms. Rosenberg. I’d very much appreciate it if you could meet me tonight. I know from Tara that you have our address. It would be in your best interest to hurry. Oh, and one more thing?”
“Kindly tell the Council they can fuck off. While you’re at it, you may want to tell them to come up with something other than librarians for their covers in the future. It’s a dead giveaway.”
He hung up before she could respond.
He could tell the exact moment she figured out who he was. Her mobile features stalled like a car in the wrong gear, then slid from confusion to horror to comprehension. It was, he thought testily, somewhat insulting.
“Wesley? You’re Tara’s dad? I mean I knew that you were Tara’s dad, cause, hey, met you already, but I didn’t know you were Tara’s dad. What? How? Why?”
“You’ve already answered the what of it, in the usual way, and as for the why, it’s probably some sort of divine retribution. If you’re finished with your litany of interrogative pronouns, could we please discuss the matter at hand?”
“Still kind of processing the whole ‘You’re Tara’s dad’ thing.”
“Is it going to take you much longer?” he snapped. “I’m not certain I have a great deal of time.”
Willow straightened and her face grew serious. “What are you saying?”
“I need you to answer some questions, before Tara returns from wherever it is she’s run off to this time. Which, oddly enough, is not what concerns me most. She’s done it in the past, although to the best of my knowledge, not since she’s been under your command, and at least this time she informed me of her plans. What have you told her about who she is?”
“Pretty much the standard destiny speech, jazzed up for the 21st century. You should know it—after all, you did used to be a Watcher.”
“You’ve told her nothing about her parentage? About—”
“About Buffy? What do you take me for? Buffy doesn’t even know about this.”
It confirmed what he had suspected: Angel had been the one to tell her. He took no comfort from the knowledge.
“Tara, as of sometime this evening, has learned about her mother. To say she isn’t taking it well is something of an understatement, but there are any number of things she isn’t taking well at the moment.”
“She’s been losing weight and sleep since the summer, her mood has been erratic, and even before this most recent revelation, she’s been increasingly willful. It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to see that she’s not well-suited to being the Slayer. You always were the most intelligent of the lot.”
Her expression softened slightly, a touch of compassion evident in the downward curve of her lips. “What do you expect me to do?”
“I need to know if there’s a way out.” There was no keeping the desperation from the words; he didn’t even bother to try.
“You already know there isn’t.”
“It’s killing her.”
“As much as I hate to say this, that’s part of the job description. Again, something you already knew.”
“It’s what I fear the most.” One more monumental failure in a long list, and he couldn’t be certain if it was a trick of the fates or punishment for his own arrogant attempts to thwart them. He felt like a bizarre combination of Job and Atreus.
“Wesley, I’m sorry.”
He stared at her, trying to find something more to say without revealing everything. “There is more happening than just this,” he finally settled on. “I’m afraid my past has decided now is as good a time as any to haunt me. I need you to keep a close watch on her, if nothing else.”
She nodded, and turned to go.
“One more thing, Willow.”
“If you put her in any unnecessary danger, or even necessary danger, without first informing me, I’ll kill you.”
He kept researching; Tara kept deteriorating. Her grades were slipping, she no longer bothered to hide her nighttime activities, and the updates he was getting from Willow were disheartening. He more than half-expected to get a call from the police, the coroner, Child Protective Services—or perhaps all three—at any given time.
Angel on his front porch was actually something of a relief, all things considered.
“What are you doing here, Angel?”
“Talking. Man to man. Trying to figure out what bothers me more: you having a child when you’re the one responsible for the loss of mine, or the fact that you had her with my ex-girlfriend. Was one betrayal just not enough for you?”
“It wasn’t about that.”
“From where I’m standing, I can’t see how it could be anything else.”
“Contrary to what you seem to think, not every mistake I’ve made in my life has involved you, nor have my decisions been made simply for the sake of spiting you.”
“Why is it I don’t believe that?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps you simply don’t want to believe it.”
“Did you love her?”
“Buffy. Did you love her? Did she have a choice when you took her child?”
“So that’s what this is about. I see. No, Angel, I didn’t. Perhaps I could have, had the circumstances been different, but they weren’t, and I didn’t. My raising Tara was her choice; I do not envy her the making of it.”
“When? How long?”
“After my stay in hospital. It was a chance encounter, and would have remained nothing more had it not been for the consequences. Then, for about five months surrounding her confinement and recovery. It was never about you, Angel. I was half out of my mind with despair and painkillers, and she was there. It isn’t something I’m especially proud of, but there you have it.”
“Did she know what you’d done, that you took my son?”
“Yes, she did. She knew everything. It seemed only fair.”
“Why did you do it, Wes? Why didn’t you tell me about the prophecy? Did you hate me that much?”
Wesley looked at him in disbelief. For someone with two and a half centuries of experience, Angel could be remarkably dim at times. He’d almost forgotten that aspect of him. “No, Angel. I loved you that much.”
“You have an interesting way of showing love.”
“Would you have believed me if I’d told you? Would you have set down your tiny hockey sticks, and listened to a word of it? Not one of you wanted to hear anything unpleasant, anything that would disturb your fantasy of him as a normal boy. Besides, even if I had told you, it wouldn’t have stopped Holtz. I thought I was protecting you.”
“From what? My demon urges, from a false prophecy? Tell me, Wes, what exactly was it you were protecting me from?”
“You still don’t know, do you? From Holtz, Angel. He gave me twenty-four hours to take the child, and his word that he and his people wouldn’t go after you or the rest of them. I was simply fool enough to believe him.”
“Do you know what he did?”
“Connor. Would you like to hear how your noble rescue attempt turned out? It’s not a pretty story.”
He didn’t want to hear it, but need and want were two very separate things. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“I thought I had him back. When he came back to the hotel, when he asked me to train him. I thought I’d gotten another second chance. Until he welded me into a box and tossed me into the Pacific with the help of Justine.”
“I didn’t know. No one bothered to inform me.”
“Doesn’t matter, does it? What would you have done?”
“Everything in my power. As I said, Angel, I loved you.”
Angel winced almost imperceptibly and continued. “He stuck with Justine, until he started to scare her. Connor’s ideas about right and wrong were all black and white. Maybe she was still feeling guilty about slitting your throat, but she ended up going to Fred and Gunn to tell them what she’d done. That’s where things got ugly.”
Wesley closed his eyes. “Go on.”
“They found me, eventually, half crazed with hunger and hallucinating, but they found me. Then Connor found out. There was so much blood… I remember licking the floor, the walls, the bodies. It was still warm, still tasted of fear. Fred got me out of there, the same way she did in Pylea. Only she didn’t have a bag this time; she used Justine’s head as a lure.”
“You said bodies, plural.” No, he didn’t want to hear this.
“Gunn and Justine. Only Fred made it out alive, and that’s a mixed blessing. Her parents make sure she’d always have the best care, but it hasn’t helped. Do you want me to continue?
“What I want is unimportant. Yes, continue.”
“Not much left to tell, really. I tracked him down, told him I loved him, and snapped his neck. And the whole time, I remembered what he’d been like, what he’d smelled like, the feel of him in my arms, fast asleep with those little spit bubbles at the corner of his mouth.”
Wesley looked at his hands, wondering why he couldn’t see the blood on them.
“If you had it to do over, Wes, would you?”
“I’m not sure.” He forced himself to meet Angel’s eyes. “Even if I knew it would save you, save them, God help me, I’m not sure.”
“Because then Tara would never have been born. She’s all I have, Angel; for the sake of what once was between us, leave her be. You know what she is, and you know that the odds are against her surviving until her eighteenth birthday. If you want to see me broken, at least have the decency to wait.”
He managed to keep himself together until Angel left, then he stumbled to the kitchen sink and threw up for a quarter of an hour.
She was letting things go further with each new kill. Body slack and passive, she let cold hands roam under her shirt and cold lips roam over her neck. And all the while, she kept her eyes open, glued to where he lurked in the shadows. Angel wondered if she was doing it for his benefit, or if she was daring him to save her. It wasn’t like she needed saving; she’d perfected the art of staking in the back.
So far, she’d avoided his.
The outings weren’t as frequent as they had been over the summer; regular patrol was probably taking up most of her time. He wondered what excuse she made to go and do things her own way. From the smell of her, she enjoyed this form of hunting a little too much.
“You can come out now, Liam. She’s dust.”
He stepped out of the shadows. “I’d noticed.”
“You don’t have to watch me, you know. Unless, of course, you’re enjoying it.”
“I can’t say that I am.”
“So stop.” She smiled as she said it, and it sounded like more of a dare than a suggestion.
“You’re going to get hurt if you keep this up. Someone has to keep an eye on you.”
“I have a Watcher; someone already gets paid to keep an eye on me.”
“Your Watcher’s not doing a great job if you’re still sneaking out and going to places like this.”
“What I do on my nights off is none of her business. It’s not really any of yours, either. But then, that’s never stopped you, has it?”
“I thought we’d been over that.”
“So tell me, what’s your place in the passel of lies that seems to have formed my entire life? Why is it you’ve decided to be a noble pain in my ass?”
“Maybe I’m just a nice guy.”
She raised an eyebrow in disbelief. He didn’t know which one of her parents she reminded him of at that moment—or for that matter, why he felt like he’d been run through with a piece of rebar. Nostalgia and envy really didn’t go all that well together, he figured.
“You remember that you’re not even human, right?” No more taunting or daring, just a quiet statement of fact.
“I never forget it.”
He had been, once. For a day. He’d given it up, and he still hadn’t been there when it mattered. Buffy had died, and he’d moved on. She’d come back, and he hadn’t. Maybe it was pointless, the struggle, the regret. Maybe if he hadn’t given it up, Tara could have been his. Of course, maybe if he’d never tried atonement in the first place, a lot of people would be better off, and the New York City rat population would be half its current size. There were a lot of maybes in the world, and most of them he couldn’t really do anything about.
“You really know how to push your luck, don’t you, Liam?”
That threw her. “What?”
“My name is Angel. Liam is who I was, but not who I am.” Not even all of who he was, just part. She’d stepped close enough to him that he could hear the steady beat of her heart, the blood pulsing through her veins, could smell her slowly-fading arousal. Angelus was still in him, still delighting in the sensations.
Tara simply shrugged razor-thin shoulders. “Whatever. It doesn’t really matter, does it? None of it does.”
“Aren’t you a little young to be so nihilistic?”
“You said the same thing about me drinking, if memory serves.”
“I was right about that, too.”
“Why haven’t I killed you? I should have, you know.” The words were dull and broken.
“I already told you, you just didn’t listen.”
“Told me what? That you weren’t like them, that you had ‘information’ I needed? How am I better off knowing that my whole life has been a lie? Couldn’t you just leave well enough alone?” Buffy’s voice, resigned and melancholy, spilling from Wesley’s lips. He couldn’t take it. Couldn’t take it out on her either, though.
Being around her was like picking at a wound he’d have been better off letting heal.
“I guess not,” he said.
“I don’t need you looking out for me, or pretending to. I don’t need someone else lying to me.”
“What do you need?”
Bleak eyes devoid of hope met his. “To rest. I just want it all to stop.”
Everything came together in his mind with an uncomfortable snap not unlike a dislocated limb being shoved back into place. It was a horrible, awful, terrible idea, one worthy of Angelus. And if it worked, a brilliant one.
If it didn’t, well, he’d hand Wes the stake and dip it in holy water beforehand. It was the least he could do.
He woke to frantic pounding on the front door shortly after he’d passed out from exhaustion at his desk. Checked the clock—4:07. Had he remembered to tell her that he loved her? He couldn’t remember. She hadn’t been home in two days, and she hadn’t checked in with Willow either.
It wasn’t the phone. At least it wasn’t the phone.
It was Angel, with Tara draped over his shoulder.
“Let us in, Wesley.”
“What have you done?” He was shaking, wishing for some kind of weapon. “What have you done?”
“Wes, let us in. Please.” Angel was starting to sound frantic.
“Why does she need an invitation into her own home?” His voice was much calmer than it had any right to be, given the circumstances.
There weren’t words to describe the excruciating relief that shot through his body at Angel’s obvious confusion. “She doesn’t. I do, and I need to be here until I’m sure she’s okay.”
He grabbed hold of Tara before they were even through the threshold. She was warm, perhaps even a touch feverish, and breathing in shallow wheezing gasps. Thank God. He helped her to the sofa before rounding on Angel and repeating his question.
“What have you done?”
“What I needed to. I killed her.”
Blind rage, it seemed, was not simply a figure of speech. When the fog cleared, Wesley was on his back clutching a broken chair leg, with Angel on top of him, his hands holding Wesley’s arms against his sides.
“She’ll be fine, Wes.” Same quiet voice he’d used before he’d tried his hand with the pillow. Wesley heard laughter; it appeared to be coming from his own throat.
Words followed quickly on its heels. “What did you do?” He was incapable of asking anything else.
“Remembered an out. For her, for you. Who knows, maybe for me.”
“Killing my daughter is an out?” He struggled unsuccessfully against Angel’s bulk.
“You were a Watcher for two Slayers, Wes. You should know why I did it.”
When he finally understood what had happened, he released the broken piece of wood and let Angel help him to a chair. When he was able to speak without crying, he called Willow to let her know what had happened.
It was an absurd situation; he wondered at the etiquette of it. There simply weren’t any guides that would tell him what to say to a former friend, once deeply loved and then more deeply betrayed because of that very affection; an erstwhile compatriot who had returned the betrayal in kind, one who by doing so had perhaps freed them both. Lacking words, he and Angel watched Tara as she huddled under a blanket, eyes glued to the television.
It was Angel who finally broke the silence, his gaze never leaving the girl.
“Think she’ll forgive me?”
“In time, perhaps. Given enough of it, she may forgive us both.”
“Think you will?”
“Forgive you? I haven’t decided. A large part of me wants you dead, but there’s an equally large part that wants to thank you, and a very small part of me that thinks I deserved it.”
“You didn’t,” Angel said quietly.
“Maybe I’m just getting old, maybe I had another epiphany. You asked me once where it all ends, well, this is where. Neither of us can change the past, Wes, and too many people have paid for mine. When it came down to it, I couldn’t let that continue.”
“You certainly chose to end it with a flourish.”
Angel smiled a little sheepishly. “I do that sometimes. What about you, Wes? What will you do next?”
“That depends on any number of things, including the temperament of the next Slayer. Assuming she’s better suited to the calling than Tara—which seems a fair enough assumption—we may end up going to England.”
“The Council’s offered me a position; it would be mostly research and translation, and training new Watchers. I’ve no doubt it’s because I’m Tara’s father—my career with them was, as you recall, a spectacular failure—but I could do some real good there. Willow says they’ve changed quite a bit in recent years. There seems to have been some trouble a while back that forced some major restructuring.” He paused and took a sip of water. “Besides, I could be myself again.”
“You could always come and work for me.”
The offer was so unexpected, and voiced in such sincere, hopeful tones that Wesley couldn’t help but laugh. Tara and Angel both looked at him: she with weary confusion, he with a sort of nostalgic affection.
“Angel, we’d kill each other within a week. Too much has happened.”
Angel smiled. “Yeah, you’re right. It has, and we would.”
“Thank you, though. It’s a lovely thought, but we can’t go back to what we were.”
The lull that followed was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. It just reflected the continued absence of adequate words for the situation. All the fear, all the dread, the panic, the anticipation—all of it was gone, leaving him drained and exhilarated. He’d felt this way before, just after Tara’s birth.
“It’s all come full circle, hasn’t it?”
“What has, Wes?”
“All of it. My life, my career, Tara. It’s all starting over again.” He wondered if it made any sense to anyone other than himself. If he’d thought it possible, he’d have clarified, but there were other things that he needed to deal with before he could sort everything out in his head. “Angel, I need to ask a favor of you. I need you to look after Tara while I take care of something. Can I trust you to do that and not kill her again?”
“I’m stuck here until nightfall, so I think I can handle that, and she’ll be fine. I might end up a pile of dust, but she’ll be fine.”
Wesley left them in the living room and went up to the attic. After moving aside the boxes of Christmas ornaments and old clothing, he pulled a small wooden box from the back of a shelf, then took it to his office. The box went in a larger plastic box already filled with journals and notebooks dating back nearly sixteen years. He stared at them, wondering if perhaps he should take out the more damning entries from the last few months, then closed it before he could do so. The truth would come out at some point; it made no sense to try and gloss over it.
He didn’t bother to call ahead—Willow was almost certainly awake and trying to make sense of the previous night’s events. She’d taken them almost as poorly as he had, although for reasons that were her own. As expected, she answered the buzzer with alacrity.
“Just a sec—looks like you’ve got your hands full. I’ll come let you in.”
She appeared at the door a minute later, her face drawn and her eyes red and shadowed. Once inside her apartment, she gestured towards the box and asked, “What’s in it? And hey, why are you here? Shouldn’t you be with Tara?”
“Angel’s with her.”
“Oh that’s comforting. What do you plan to do next, tell her she should take up smoking or go play in traffic? ‘Hey, Tara how ’bout I just let the guy who just killed you babysit?'”
“Willow, she’ll be fine. He means her no harm.”
“And you trust him?”
“I trust that he’s telling me the truth when he says she’ll be safe with him. If you don’t, then let me do what I came here to do so I can rush back.”
“Oh. Right. Good point. I guess what you came here for has something to do with the box?”
“I need you to take it to Sunnydale. There’s no need to keep Tara hidden anymore. Obviously, the Council knows about her, as do any number of vampires and demons—although they may not be familiar with her lineage. I’ve no idea if Buffy is interested in the minutiae of her daughter’s existence, or if it would be too painful for her to even look at, but she deserves the chance to decide for herself. I owe her that much, at least.
“It’s mostly notebooks, although there are the requisite school portraits and family snapshots, as well as report cards, art projects, saved assignments, her baby teeth, a few locks of hair from her first haircut—those are in one of the notebooks, along with descriptions of the events and her reactions.”
“So, kind of the world’s biggest baby book?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“It’ll mean a lot to her. She doesn’t talk much about Tara—your Tara, that is—but I can kind of tell when she’s thinking about her, which is pretty often.”
“Thank you. Would you also let her know, when you see her, that if she wants to get in touch with Tara, I won’t stand in her way. If I do decide to take that job with the Council, I’ll make certain she has access to our contact information.”
Willow nodded. “I’ll do that.”
He set the box down and let himself out; it was time to go home.