Spoilers: Pretty much everything till "Home".

Disclaimer: All hail Joss and the rest of the valiant ME staff.

Thanks to: HonorH and Kathy Hunter, for beta-reading.

Footnote: The quotes are from Hamlet and "Lady Lazarus", by Sylvia Plath.

There wasn't much Darla had not experienced in her time, those four centuries which now were running out, once again. But being haunted was new. She had never encountered a ghost before.

"Never?" Lindsey had asked when they talked about ghosts, briefly, during the weeks when he led her back to the present day and every breath in her unfamiliar human body seemed unnatural. "But ghosts do exist. We have files on them. I would have thought that at least one."

One of your victims, he had meant to say, but had not finished the sentence. Which was such a Lindsey thing to do, for many reasons. He was attracted to the glamour of evil, she had seen that at once, but deeply uncomfortable with the reality. If he liked to imagine her as the triumphant killer she had been, it was without any corpses of her victims around, let alone their ghosts. Lindsey would never smash mirrors, as she had done before he found her in her apartment, and risk hurting that smooth, very agreeable skin; he would store them away elsewhere, and only use them once in a while, to torment himself, in the most bloodless way possible.

She had not lied to him, though. She had never seen or felt a ghost, and so it took her a while to figure out what the boy who kept crossing her path was.

***

She first saw the boy during one of her fruitless expeditions through alleys and bars in search of a vampire who would sire her. It had been a week since she had fled from both Wolfram & Hart and the Hyperion, since Angel had refused to free her from the horrible mortal misery which threatened to engulf her. Thinking about it later, she wondered whether her treacherous dying body was not responsible for the entire affair. She hardly slept anymore, and when she dreamed, the dreams which used to thrill her made the unwanted human food taste stale in her mouth in the morning, and so she didn't eat much, either. Once she scratched one of the barely healed cuts on her wrists open, to taste blood again, but it wasn't the same; it made her sick.

It wasn't hard to find vampires, of course, but she had to be careful; it had to be someone she could dominate even as a mortal, or they would leave her to die instead of siring her, and Darla feared death as deeply as she had ever done. "The undiscovered country, from which no traveller returns", Lindsey had murmured when they had dinner in a rooftop restaurant, after he had found out how much she loved a view. "But you did, Darla. What was it like?"

She had laughed and replied with an appropriate Shakespeare quote which told him absolutely nothing, since at this point she was enjoying the flirtation too much to get serious. In truth, she avoided the thought that she had been dead, truly dead, as much as possible. She could not remember, could not remember a single thing, and this was what frightened her most. Nothing. Angel swore there was a hell, but Darla did not remember a hell, or anything else after he had staked her. Nothing was what awaited her once this body succumbed to its sickness again, and she could not bear it. Anything was preferable. So she hunted again, with predators as her prey, always aware that the wrong decision would allow her no second chance.

The boy seemed to be hunting as well, that was the first thing she noticed. Looking for someone, tracking someone. Unfortunately, the vampire she had been following crossed his path, and the boy, his attention still elsewhere, dispatched him with a speed and ease that was not quite human. Annoyed as she was, it made her curious. Her senses were not what they used to be, but she could still spot a vampire anywhere. Even without the difference in smell, it was something about the way her kind moved. Her former kind. She bit her lips and tasted the lipstick she had used to cover her own unhealthy paleness. This boy moved like one of her own, and yet he was not a vampire; she could hear his breath. Perhaps he was a newborn, who did not yet understand there was no need.

She decided to speak to him. He had ruined her chance for the evening; maybe he could become another.

"Wait," she called, for he had nearly passed her, sparing her not as much as a glance. He must have noticed she was there, though; there was no surprise in his voice, no sudden movement in his body, as he slowly turned to her and said:

"You should go inside. That wasn't the only beast loose in this place."

His voice was odd; there were traces in it she had not heard for a long time. Many vampires talked like this, mixing accents from everywhere, so that a word pronounced in the way it used to be in the eighteenth century was followed by slang from the present day. But this was true only of the older ones, not of the newborns, and now that he looked at her, she did not doubt he was young in more than appearance. There was something familiar about his face with its high cheekbones that tugged at her memory, and yet she was sure she had never seen it before. The neon light of the city, so much brighter than the moon, painted his eyes very dark, but they were open, questioning, without secrets, as she came closer. Time had not made its mark on them.

"It wasn't," she agreed, and thought that she might have eaten him herself in another time. He had a vulnerable mouth, too.

"May I ask," he said, as if reciting a lesson in etiquette someone taught him, "what a lady such as yourself is doing at this time?"

The memory came like a splinter in her heart. It wasn't exactly the same thing the Irish boy she had made into Angelus had said, but nearly so. For a second, she could have killed the stranger for reminding her. But she never lost her smile, the smile she had worn to deceive them all, victims, Masters and customers alike.

"Maybe she's lonely," she replied.

The boy cocked his had and studied her, very attentively; then, in a far more natural voice, sounding young and disappointed, he said: "You're not one of the beasts. I thought you might be. You sound like one. Father said the really dangerous ones always pretend." Sullen, he added: "The other one was far too easy. I hoped there would be a challenge tonight."

Her own hopes were dashed, but she couldn't help being amused as well as angry. "And what do you think you are, dear boy?" she laughed. "A Slayer?" She took another step towards him. This close, she could feel the human warmth exuding from him. She did not understand how she could ever have taken him for a vampire. "You are pretty", she said, "but not quite pretty enough."

Briefly, she thought of the last Slayer she had seen, who actually had not been this different from the boy confronting her, a small, slight, slip of a girl with angered righteousness in her face and the kind of look that just invited life to carve its scars into her. Judging by everything Lindsey's files had told her, life and Angel had done just that by now.

He obviously was not used to being teased or taunted. With a confused indignation, he replied: "You should not talk this way about Slayers. Father says they are virtuous warriors. And I," he added, trying for impressiveness and not quite succeeding, "am the Destroyer."

Darla decided she was wasting her time here. He must be one of these young people who fancied themselves in a kind of silly role-playing game. When the Master had ordered her to pose as a High School girl, she had met more than her share.

And yet, the way he had taken out the vampire earlier had not been playful at all. Her taunt was not without unintended truth; she had seen Slayers kill this way, quickly, efficiently, without fuss or bother.

"Who is your father?" she asked suddenly. Maybe he was the son of a Watcher, and that had taught him how to fight.

Abruptly, his face shut down, and for the first time, he didn't appear quite so young anymore.

"I am looking for him," he said. "He followed me here, and he should not be on his own for long. But I will not tell you his name, for he has many enemies in this place."

"Who hasn't," Darla commented in a dry tone. Then, in a mixture of spite and something which felt strangely like compassion, she continued: "But you know, there is someone here in this city who has made it his specialty to play protector to the weak. If your father is lost, maybe you should ask him for help. You two should get along perfectly. He takes himself too seriously as well."

"My father is not weak. Just.not as strong as he used to be," the boy said defensively.

"Then you've got nothing to worry about."

She felt tired. A few more hours, and the night would be over. Yet another night without any hope of salvation, and her body was dying with every second that passed. Without bothering with a formal goodbye, she turned away.

"Wait," the boy said, unsure. "Maybe. who is this protector you talk of? I would feel better if my father weren't alone while I hunt."

"Angelus," she replied, walking away from him, feeling the bitterness eat her from the inside. "Angel. The one with the angelic face. Try for tall, dark and self-righteous, and you can't."

"Angelus," the boy cried out, and there was so much hatred in his voice that she stopped, stunned, turning to face him once more. He ran to her, with inhuman speed, hands outstretched as if to grab her and shake her, but the moment they would have touched, he disappeared. She couldn't understand it. Earlier, she had heard his breath, had been close enough to feel the warmth from his body, had even smelled something like burned wood and sweat from his hair. And now he was gone, dissolved into the air like a phantom, within the blink of an eye.

Finally, she decided it must have been a prolonged trick her sickness played on her, and cursed Angel, for refusing to help her, and the lawyers, for condemning her to this torment to begin with. She began her search once more, and pushed the strange encounter in the back of her mind. Until she saw him again.

***

The second time Darla met her ghost things were different, yet not. She was a vampire again, for starters, being turned by Drusilla just when she had finally accepted her mortal death. It had all been part of the game the lawyers played with Angel, but she had taken her revenge, knowing full well that weak and despicable as her human existence might have been, it had at last given her back her darling boy. What Dru had done might have saved her from the nothing beyond, but it also meant she would be separated from him forever. If she had had any doubt, the flames engulfing her and Drusilla burned them away.

She had never believed it possible. That he would do this to them. It was not to kill them; if he had wanted to do that, he could have easily done it while they were helpless, dancing in the flames, then rushing to the saving water. One shot with an arrow, and it would have been over. And it wasn't for joy; Angelus might have done this to a vampire he wanted to torment, but he would have talked the whole time, would have revelled in the pain. There was no satisfaction in Angel's gaze. There was nothing. With or without his soul, she had always felt connected to him, had always felt she could read him like a book, but the man watching her and Dru scream in pain, his face utterly blank, had been a stranger. This scared her more than anything else. Drusilla cried and shuddered in her arms, and Darla desperately wondered what they should do now.

They needed shelter, that much was certain. In this state, they could not defend themselves, and they had made their share of new enemies while looking for their army. Not to mention the old ones; Lindsey might not want to kill them, even now, but if Lilah saw them helpless, she would tell the rest of the firm at once. Darla had been hunted by Wolfram and Hart once; she knew how they resourceful they were.

In the end, she dragged Drusilla to an abandoned building and collapsed on the floor. It would do for a while, till she felt stronger. Dru still cried, wailing like a child, and for once Darla did not tell her impatiently to shut up. In a way, she envied Dru.

After a while, she heard quiet footsteps approaching. If she had still been human, the sound would have escaped her, especially in between Drusilla's tears. But quiet and stealthy or not, the person coming was human; she could smell the blood, the heat. Better to play the helpless victims then. It wasn't that far from the truth, and if they were lucky, the human would provide them with a meal that would help them heal instead of a fight. Her burned skin hurt like hell, but she tensed and held herself ready.

"I heard you cry," said a young, uncertain voice, and after a beat she realized it was not new to her. "Do you need help?"

Darla looked up, and saw the boy. He had different clothes now, as if someone had dressed him with jeans and a t-shirt that actually fitted his size, instead of just handing him some spares, and his hair was a bit longer. She wasn't sure whether he recognized her, wet and burned as she was, but he certainly recognized what she and Dru were, for he stopped in his approach and immediately produced a stake.

"That won't do any good," Darla said, not sure whether it was true. "I don't believe you can touch me. You will just disappear again if you try."

If she was wrong, it would be a short fight. Neither Drusilla nor herself were in any condition for it.

The boy hesitated and frowned.

"You!" he exclaimed. "But I thought. how did you do that? You weren't a vampire before."

His pronunciation had changed. The sounds of centuries past were nearly all gone now. He looked at Dru. His face softened a bit, then he pressed his lips together and declared: "This is a trick. Vampires don't just disappear."

It wouldn't be helpful to point out he had been the one to vanish. Whatever kind of creature he was, she could not afford yet another enemy in this situation. But there had not been many men whom she could not mollify if she truly needed to do so, still less boys. So Darla coated her voice in honey and helplessness, and said: "We're at your mercy then. But is this worthy of a hunter, destroying wounded prey? Would this be the deed of an honourable man?"

She had not misjudged him. He put the stake away and folded his arms.

"I'll wait until you are better then," he replied warily. "But don't think I trust you for a moment."

"Thank you," Darla breathed in her best Madonna mode, and since Drusilla's head lay in her lap, she started stroking Dru's hair for good measure. Dru raised her head, and for the first time looked at the boy. Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth, but Darla gave her a quick and vicious pull. Whatever Drusilla was going to say could not be helpful in this situation. Thankfully, Dru seemed to understand, for once, and kept quiet.

"How is your father?" Darla asked politely, still playing the lady in distress. It appeared to be the wrong question. The boy looked away as if she had slapped him.

"He's dead," he replied tonelessly.

"No, he is not", Dru interrupted, the sobs still audible in her sing song voice. "Six foot deep, thy father lies, and the other lied as well. Now Daddy has come back, and made you go away."

He stared at her. "How do you know that?" he demanded, his voice almost rising to a scream. Sometimes Darla wished she could gag Drusilla at will. If she had been wrong in her suspicion, and the boy could touch them, Dru had just brought them this much closer to being staked.

"It's the pain", Darla said hastily. "It makes her delusional." She permitted herself a moan, which was not faked. Her entire body felt like an open wound. It would take weeks to heal all of this, if not months. And much blood.

"I know we're sworn enemies," she continued, and let a bit teasing creep in her voice, "but until we're able to fight, I don't suppose you could bring us new clothes and some ointment?"

He seemed to recognize she was joking, for he snorted, and his posture grew less threatening. Then he surprised her by replying as if it had been an actual question.

"I don't have anything," he said. "And I can't go back to the hotel, not now. HE is there. I came here looking for a place to sleep. But if this is a vampire nest, I'll go somewhere else."

"Far, far away," Dru hummed. "Ten miles beyond the edge of the world. But this is where you came from. He'll send you farther still."

"No, he won't," the boy replied with an echo of his earlier anger. "I'm not going anywhere."

"We won't stay here, either," Darla said soothingly. "Just for a few hours." Then, remembering the hate in his voice when he had repeated Angelus' name during their last encounter, she added: "Angelus mustn't find us in this state. He'd finish what he has started."

That did it. She had his undivided attention. "HE did this to you?" he said, disbelievingly.

Darla nodded, and one of her hands wandered from Drusilla's hair to her cheek, ready to keep Dru's mouth shut to avoid further comments. Without too much effort, she led a tear escape her eyes. It burned on her wounded flesh as it rolled down.

"All this talk about being a champion," the boy muttered. "He lies as well. I should have known."

When he sat down next to the wall of the cellar, still keeping a wary distance, she saw how exhausted he was. He was holding himself rigid, but there were marks on his neck and arms which she recognized. The Master had not been the sort to try modern toys, but Darla had found a taser did have its benefits.

"He did this to you?" she asked, in the same tone of voice he had used. For a moment, her own voice appeared to be nothing more than an echo of his, which startled her. She had meant to create a similarity, but not such a strong one.

The boy, not noticing, shook his head.

"That was Fred," he said. "She hates being lied to. She's right, you know, but I had to do it. They were his friends, not mine. They knew what he was, and they were still his friends."

The annoying girl which had dogged Angel's every move was called Cordelia, and the failed Watcher's name was Wesley. Darla didn't recall anyone named Fred from the Wolfram & Hart files, either, or from Angel's dreams which she had shared for a while. Still, it was not impossible Angel had kept a few of his human acquaintances secret. He certainly had kept quiet about this boy, whoever he might be.

"What is your name?" she asked. The boy eyed her distrustfully.

"I'm not going to tell you," he replied. "We're not friends, vampire. And I will stake you, make no mistake. I just don't think anyone deserves to.why couldn't he make it clean?"

"Why is he your enemy?" Darla asked in return, instinctively looking for a weakness. She had to present herself and Drusilla as suffering, helpless victims as long as possible, and an explanation about her past with Angel, or the present situation, would not help in this regard. "What did you do to him?"

The boy hunched his shoulders a bit more and didn't answer at first. Then, when she had stopped waiting and had turned to Drusilla again, he muttered:

"I thought he killed my. but even if he hasn't, he still."

".deserved it?" Darla finished with just the slightest touch of sarcasm. The boy glared at her, and she raised her hands in a mock protest. "No doubt," she said. "Whatever you did. After today, I can come up with some inventive scenarios myself."

In one smooth movement which belied his exhaustion, the boy rose and was at her side.

"No, you won't," he whispered, stake raised. For a second, she felt an odd mixture of anger, disappointment and relief. But when the hand with the stake brushed the arm she had pulled up in defense, there was nothing but a brief sensation of coldness. And then he was gone. Vanished in a blink, as he had been before. It was too sudden for her to be take in, and for some reason, it frustrated her beyond measure.

"Dru," she said finally, remembering that her companion might be insane but possessed some useful gifts, "what is he?"

"The ghost of Christmas yet to come, Grandmother," Dru replied, a smile breaking out of her tear-streaked face, and she clapped her hands.

***

The next time, she almost didn't notice him at all. She didn't notice much of anything. Mortals swarmed around her, full of pulsating blood, and she didn't even think of draining them. It would come back later, but for the moment all in her was numb. Her hands were clenched around her suitcase. Lindsey's suitcase, which she had filled with her dresses in a slow, methodical way because it gave her something to do other than stare out of the window of his apartment, or at his apartment's walls. She hadn't realised she would be going until the elevator doors had closed behind her. In her mind she had been miles away anyway.

Sitting among loud, irritating humans in a bus station, she suddenly became aware she had no real destination. It wasn't like she had any particular place to go, now. The world was her home, of course.

"Show me," he had said, all those years ago, in the alley of his backwater village. "Show me your world."

A tumble in the alley had given him birth, and in a way it should have been predictable to her, that it would end like this, with him throwing her out in the street. It was her world, was it not?

Get dressed and get out.

Absently, she touched her mouth, which was still raw from their furious union. He would return to his friends now, live the imitation of a human life she had found him in when they had brought her back, and this time, even his dreams would be free of her. It occurred to her to go to Sunnydale. That was where Drusilla had said she would go, to find Spike and bring him back to the family. Which obviously had not happened, but if nothing else, she could ask Spike what had become of Dru. Spike, the runt of her litter, the most irritating member of her line. He was family, though. Who else was left but Dru and Spike? The Master was gone.

Still, it would be humiliating, and she was not that far gone. She was Darla yet. In the old days, Spike and Dru had been in awe of her. During the two years after Angel had been cursed with his soul, when there was just the three of them, Spike, cocky as he was, did not dare to challenge her authority. After China, it had been her decision to leave them. No, she would not present herself to Spike as a beggar for family ties. She would find Dru another way.

(No use keeping up dignity with Dru. With Drusilla, it did not matter.)

"I won't try to stake you again," said a voice, and startled, she realized the boy was sitting next to her on the bench. Shoulders hunched, as when she had last seen him, a frown on his face, and his eyes shadowed. But he did not appear to be hostile. At this point, she wasn't sure whether she would have cared that much if he did stake her.

After their last meeting, she had decided he must be a ghost who did not understand he was dead, someone who was connected to Angel and through him to her. Given the enmity between them, it was presumably someone Angel had killed. What she did not understand was why he was haunting her. It wasn't as if she didn't have her own share of defeated opponents and dead victims. In any case, he could not harm her; nor could he give her nourishment. He was therefore useless and she decided to ignore him.

"It doesn't work with you anyway. I just.I need someone to talk to. And you're a woman. Sort of."

Even the last bit the old-fashioned speech patterns he had originally had was vanished. He must have adapted to Los Angeles completely. When was the last time she had heard traces of brogue in Angel's voice? Before Romania, certainly.

She would stop thinking of Angel.

"She told me she wanted me to have something real. And then, the next morning, she didn't want it anymore. As if it had just been a game to her."

"Don't play games with me," she had told Angel when he had started to kiss her, deadly serious. That had not been why she had come. She had wanted to finish it, once and for all. Well, she had gotten her wish, only not as she had intended. "I'm not playing," he had replied, and she still heard his voice, urgent, hungry. "I just want to feel something besides the cold."

The boy didn't seem to care she wasn't reacting to his words. Men never did.

"But she's not like that. She.she wouldn't have done this if it didn't mean anything to her, would she? Now she says it was wrong because of him. But she's still with me. And he, I don't understand him, either. First he saves my life and then he throws me out again."

"Welcome to the club", Darla said listlessly. He looked at her, bewildered, and suddenly the confusion and hurt in his blue eyes galled her beyond measure. He was basically offering himself as something she could pour all her bitterness into.

"Everybody uses everybody else, my dear," she continued acidly. "Doesn't matter whether they are human, vampire or demon. One way or another, we screw each other. And to call this love is the most screwed up thing of all."

She expected him to flare up, to protest, or to sulk. Instead, he looked at her, silently, and the spark in his eyes told her she had just voiced what he had suspected for a long time. Then, he did the most amazing thing.

"I'm sorry", he said. "I'm sorry it happened to you, too."

She stared at him. To be pitied by a stupid human who didn't even understand he was dead and a ghost should have been the final insult, and in a way, it was. But while a part in her was working to phrase a vicious reply, another part felt strangely torn. It was as if something had awakened in her, as if something tugged at her that felt as her weakened, mortal self had done when Angel had held her and promised never to leave her again. She did not understand it.

"How old are you?" she asked when she finally found her voice again.

He shrugged. "Eighteen, I think. I'm not sure. Time is different in Quartoth. But Fred did a calculation during the summer, and she said it was eighteen."

She wondered whether Fred was the woman he was in love with, and then wondered why this should interest her at all. He was a ghost. Whatever happened to him was past and over and did not even have entertainment value, without any relevance to the present. Darla opened her mouth to tell him this, but what came out was:

"Nobody should know this at eighteen."

He shrugged again, and as he looked away, a bit of his hair, which was still too long, fell in his face. She suppressed the sudden urge to comb it back. This was ridiculous. He was completely useless, neither prey nor help nor anything which should matter to her.

"How old were you when you died?" he asked her.

"Which time?" she asked back, and laughed. Of course he couldn't know what he was asking. "Dying is an art, like everything else," she said, and the lines came back from the time she had heard them crackle over the radio, all those decades ago, in England, when she had been searching for a talisman which would help the Master escape his imprisonment and had been bored enough grasp at any kind of entertainment. "I do it particularly well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real."

"I was serious", the boy said, sounding at last somewhat insulted.

"So was I," Darla told him.

He studied her, and she could tell he was still uncertain whether she mocked him. Such an open face, but by now life had taken the first few bites out of it. There was still something about it that was familiar, beyond their few encounters. She wondered whether he reminded her of Lindsey, who had also quite a few times looked at her in similar bewilderment, and rejected the idea as soon as it came.

"What is your name?" the boy asked quietly.

She shook her head. "Would you believe me if I told you I don't know?" she said. "I forgot a long time ago. And then I got another name, but it is not true anymore. Tell me your name first."

"I. I have two names as well."

"But you still don't want to tell me", she stated. "Since I'm a vampire. Well, fair is fair. We shall have to part without introductions again, my dear. It has been amusing, but now I'm afraid I simply have to."

"Wait," he blurted out. "Look.maybe I'm stupid, but I think I know your name."

And here she had thought he couldn't surprise her anymore.

"Then tell me."

Tentatively, he reached out a hand to touch her face. This time, she thought she felt his fingertips, very briefly. Then he was gone, and she was alone on the bench, completely disgusted with herself. As if it wasn't pathetic enough to behave like a sentimental heroine out of a Richardson novel because of Angel. Having conversations with lovelorn idiotic ghosts was completely beyond the pale.

She noticed her right hand had crept to the cheek the boy had nearly touched. With a savage fury, she rose and grabbed the next bystander, sinking her teeth into his neck before he could even scream.

***

The boy was waiting her for her on the rooftop when she met him the last time. Or rather, he was standing there, looking down on the city, and appeared not the slightest bit surprised when she came to join him. She was completely exhausted. Supernatural strength or not, her undead body had never been meant to carry a baby. Briefly, she wondered whether her ghost had been hired by one of the countless groups who wanted to kill her child or herself, if only to distract her long enough so that more effective assassins could arrive. But it wasn't as if she could do much about it. She did not feel up to climbing down all the way again, and she wanted to take in the view one last time anyway.

"I thought," the boy said, "I would never see you again. Or wasn't it you, after all, in the slaughterhouse?"

She had no idea what he was talking about, but she replied anyway.

"I thought I would never see you again, either," she said. "I. I don't think.there will be much that I."

Then she embarrassed herself by starting to cry. She hated this, and it happened more and more often. At least this time, none of Angel's cronies was around to witness it. She wondered whether the lawyers or the cultists had gotten them after all and felt neither glee nor sadness at the thought. What emotions she had were all concentrated around what she felt moving in her, her little parasite, who had ruined her as a vampire all over again, who confused her and made her long for the sight of him while pumping her full of fear of the moment at the same time.

"It's a horrible world," the boy said, staring at city beneath them. The neon lights which had never failed to charm her with their electronic magic seemed dim tonight, as if the smog was trying its best to drown them out. "It could be beautiful, but it's horrible. Why do you want to see it again?"

"I have always loved a view," Darla said, too exhausted for anything but the truth. "It is silly mortal nonsense, but I thought my child would, too." Heavily, she sat down, her hands cradling her belly. My boy, she thought. My darling boy.

"You didn't want a child," he stated. It wasn't a question, but she answered anyway.

"No. I refused to believe it for a long time, and then I tried everything to get rid of it. A vampire shouldn't have a child, you know. We're not meant to be parents. Not.this way."

He knelt down beside her, still not looking at her.

"I loved my daughter," he said. "But I should never have been her father, either." Abruptly, he laughed, and again it was as if she heard an echo - her own, this time. "Though that was my choice. That was what you told me, right? That it was my choice."

She shook her head, trying to understand.

"It was my choice, too," she whispered. "I could have stayed away from Angel that night. And now it is my choice still. My child, my choice. I want him to live, you see. None of them know this. Angel, maybe. But they don't understand there isn't anything they can do. I'm the only one who can."

"Do you know what year it is?" the boy asked her, hugging his knees. This question, coming out of nowhere, still did not surprise her that much. He had to figure out he was a ghost sooner or later.

"2002," she said. "We could argue about the month. The Master always refused to bow to the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar was a matter of principle for him, and if we knew what was good for us, we adhered to it, too."

As if reciting a lesson, the boy said, with closed eyes: "The Master. Heinrich Nest. A vicious vampire, the head of the order of Aurelius."

"That, too," Darla returned, and tried to listen to the noises from the streets below. But it was as if the smog had swallowed them up as well. "And once upon a time, he came to the deathbed of a syphilitic whore, disguised as a priest, and sired her. It amused him to do so. She became his favourite, and he called her Dear One."

The young voice in the darkness, laced with pain and longing, said: "Darla."

So he did know her name.

"It is strange," she said, never stopping to cradle her belly. "When we sire humans, we never stop to consider what kind of world it is we bring them into. Or if we do, we see it as a gift. I never once wondered whether it was right, except for the one time, and then it was Angelus who did the siring. The girl was mad, you see. And he wanted to keep her this way for the rest of eternity."

She tried to remember Drusilla's favourite song, and hummed a few chords before giving it up. Where was Dru now? Far from here, which was all that counted.

"I suppose we were her parents, the two of us," she said, "and then she became mine. I never asked her whether this was her gratitude or her revenge, because she would have told me the truth, you see. Drusilla always does. She is annoying that way."

"Was that her in the cellar?" the boy asked. "When you were burned?"

Darla nodded. "She did tell me she did it for me, though," she mused. "Choices again."

"Tell me what death is like," he said, letting go of his knees and stretching out beside her on the roof. He stared up to the stars. "You must know. Tell me she's not in pain anymore."

Her back ached, but if she laid down as well, it would be hard to get up again.

"Drusilla?" she asked, confused.

"My daughter," he said. "It was horrible for her, in the end. When they all turned against her. She knew they would, if they found out the truth. But she loved them, she truly did, and she couldn't understand.I. I had to."

He stopped. A year ago, a spell had connected her and Angel during the trials he had undertaken to save her. She had felt his emotions, and it had been enough to make her cry out and offer her own life so he would stop. There was no spell now, and yet she felt the despair and the loss engulfing her with a tenfold intensity, as if the boy and she were one. Inside her, the child moved.

"There is no pain," she said, and was barely aware she had started to cry again. Her old fear came back, but she did not tell him about the nothing that was stalking her, coming ever closer. He did not need to know.

"Thank you," he whispered. Suddenly, he flinched and sat up, as if he had heard something.

"Darla," he said, "don't die. Please. Let the child die instead. You don't want it anyway."

But I do, she thought. And what is fear, if not something to be defeated, finally?

"It will be my last death," she said. "And the only one I truly choose. But I would like. just once, I'd like to."

Now she heard it as well. Footsteps, very fast. Inhumanly fast. Someone was following her to the roof, and it had to be a vampire. She rose. The boy made a move as if to support her, then stopped, obviously remembering he would vanish as soon as they touched.

"Tell me your name," she said.

"I have two, don't you remember?" he replied. "They both gave me one. But I can't be Stephen anymore, or Connor. Give me a new name. Please."

She felt torn in two directions, for the vampire now was close enough for her to sense it had to be Angel, and the boy standing in front of her, so close and forever out of reach, looked at her with the eyes she finally recognized. There was no time for anything anymore, and so she leaned forward. Her lips touched his, and for one heartbeat, the heart of the child inside of her, she felt he was at peace again. Then he vanished. The noises came back, the shrill sirens from below, and the lights of the city burned almost unbearable bright in her eyes. Angel opened the door to the roof, and she was not sure which of them the renewed despair clawing at her belonged to.

But the love she felt, completely and unchallenged, for the first time in her life, was utterly her own.