Peripheral Vision, Part Four

This Ashley-in-Wonderland bit is getting to be quite tedious. . . as Uncle Giles would put it. When the crushing feelings subside and my senses come back to life, I slowly open myself to a sensory assault. . . that never comes.

In fact, I'm back in the dark. . . literally and figuratively.

I'm definitely not in the coffee shop or at Wolfram and Hart. And I'm sitting, not standing. My knees are almost against my chest.

I scoot my feet forward and encounter something in front of me. My hands go back behind me in an effort to balance myself out, and I touch another object. . . a shoe? A very masculine shoe.

Wrinkling my nose in confusion, I reach in front of me. Another set of shoes, but they're a pair of high. . . really high heels.

A faint giggle fills my head.

Great. Now I'm hallucinating on top of everything else in a tiny space with two pairs of shoes.

Then, the sound comes again. . . louder and definitely outside my head.

Then, it dawns on me. I know where I am! I'm in the living room closet at my house. . . and that laugh. . . belongs to my mother. (The closet! Thanks a lot, Rhonda.)

Buffy's voice confirms what I thought I heard, "Stop it! Stop it now, Spike! I-I command you!"

I press my ear to the closed door, anxious to hear my father's response. "You command me?"

A faint rustle ensues followed by a high-pitched shriek. . . a shriek like my own.

"S-s-s-stop. . . that tickl. . ." Buffy screeches again.

"What? This?"

"Y-yes!"

Now I have to see what they're doing. Maybe my stomach should be turning at the thought of my parents being intimate, but I don't really have a clear picture in my mind of their closeness. How close were they? They had me, but lots of people have kids and don't really give a rat's ass for each other.

What little I've seen so far isn't enough, especially of my dad.

But I also recognize no matter how much information I gather about my parents, it won't ever be enough to make up for what I missed out on if I had grown up with them.

With that thought, I reach up for the doorknob, turn the cool metal, and crack the closet door. My parents are directly in my line of sight, but they won't be able to catch me because there are no lamps nearby.

There are no lamps lit anywhere at all.

A handful of candles clusters on the coffee table, and my parents have spread an old sheet over the warped wood and laid out what's probably supposed to be a fancy dinner for them. They don't have much, but they're snuggled together on one side of the coffee table.

I drink them in.

My father is trying to lift my mother's shirt in an effort to get in another good tickle. . . or maybe something else, and she's squirming and pushing on him.

"No!" she says, gripping his errant hand and widening both her eyes at him.

He freezes at the anger on her face.

But then, she bats her eyelashes at him. . . or at least I think she does. It's hard to tell in the candlelight.

"Minx," he comments, reaching up to unclasp her upswept hair so that it falls loose around her shoulders.

She smiles. "That's me."

"I like your hair down. It glows even in the candle light."

"And so does yours." Unexpectedly, her hand rumples his hair and lets loose a smattering of curls. "There. All better."

"Ha, ha, pet." He sounds annoyed, but I can tell he's smiling.

"Should we eat before it gets cold? I'm starved."

"No."

"No?" She gives him a quizzical look.

"First, I have to say what an amazing woman you are." I don't even have to make out his face to know his words are genuine.

"Oh. First, you have to make a speech." She plants her hands in her lap. "Goodie, I like your speeches. . . as opposed to mine. . . . Don't even say it."

He grins. "Did I say anything?"

"No. Pretend I didn't say that. Continue please." She leans toward him expectantly.

"Okay. Where was I?" He points his elbows outward and emulates her lean with his hands on his thighs.

"I'm amazing."

"Oh, right. And beautiful."

"There's that, too. Go on."

"You know you have to do this in a minute, too, love."

"I do, and I'm all prepared. Practiced in the mirror and everything."

"Good for you." Spike takes a deep breath. "And you're. . ."

A baby's cry fills the air.

Wait a minute, that's me! I keep having these moments when I'm completely surprised that I'm part of their lives.

Buffy springs to her feet. "I'll get her. She's going to be hungry."

"Okay, love."

My mother's back with me before I have time to process that I'm about to view myself. Cradling me against her chest, she slowly lowers herself next to my father and shifts me so that he can watch me.

"I never get over how beautiful she is," he breathes, reaching his index finger out so that my tiny digits can latch onto him.

"She is. She looks just like her father."

"Buffy, love, we did this." He stops. "Are you glad that we had her even though we didn't exactly plan for her?"

I was an accident? I had never known that.

My mother parts her blouse and brings the baby to her chest. When the baby's settled, she reacts to his query, "Of course, I am! When was I ever going to get the chance to. . . ? I'm a Slayer. We don't normally get to have children. There's usually no time or energy for a child, but because there are plenty of Slayers out there, I think I may have some spare time available." She studies him. "Do you think I'll be a good mother?"

"Why do you ask that, love?"

"I worry sometimes," she admits.

"You're going to be. . . you are a bloody brilliant mother."

"You think?"

Spike brings one leg around Buffy so that she's nestled against him, and he places a hand on the baby's. . . my back, cradling his family close. "I know so."

The pressure hits with no warning, and I think I might really have screamed this time. I don't even have time to worry about the consequences.

xxxxx

Bright light again infiltrates my vision, but this time, the radiance has to be turned from like a ray of sunlight slicing off the windshield of a car on a hot summer day.

"Hi," a small voice says from below me.

I slit my lids. "Hello?"

"What's your name? I'm Ashley."

I choke. "W-what?"

"I asked your name. You're pretty."

I'm staring at the miniature version of myself. Scanning my surroundings, I recognize the park where I used to play with Uncle Gunn and his then girlfriend after my parents died. I drink in the same swing set, same park benches, same merry-go-round where Uncle Gunn used to spin me until I got dizzy and hopped off to try and walk straight.

I study mini-me. I don't remember that my blond hair was wavy or that my eyes were such a vivid blue or that I had quite so many freckles. I do recall being precocious for a four-year-old. . . precocious enough to talk with strangers and get myself in trouble. I'm not sure how much I should say, especially after the warning Rhonda gave me about timelines. "You're pretty, too. Where're your Mommy and Daddy?"

She smiles then. (I decide to deem her separate from myself, or I'll get too confused.) "Thank you. They're over there. . . they like to talk after our picnics. Then, Daddy plays with me while Mommy studies for school. She's going to an uni. . . uni. . ."

"University?"

"Yeah!"

At the beginning of my adventure, I would have asked her what my mother was studying, but I'm finding myself less interested in the specifics. . . just the broad strokes. She probably doesn't know anyway; I certainly don't remember. "Let's go find your parents."

She bends over to pick a tiny flower. . . the kind that's actually a weed. She holds the bloom up for me to inspect. "I picked a flower for my Mommy. Hold it for me."

"Okay."

She places the flower in my palm with reverence, and then, she reaches up and takes my other hand. The tiny fingers are warm against my cool ones, and I feel strange holding my own hand.

"Ready," she says. "They're over here." She starts walking. Then, "Do you know how to skip?"

I nod. "Uh huh."

"Me, too. I like to skip. Want to?" She peers up at me with a tiny smile on her face. . . a smile that must work all the time with her parents or she wouldn't do it.

I can't resist either. "All right."

And we skip. At first, I feel a little silly because I'm so much bigger than her and her bounces are smaller.

But then, I close my eyes and go with the moment. . . until I start thinking about what might happen if I show up. . . the other Ashley from the coffee shop with little Ashley in tow. We look too much alike.

Before I can decide what to do, the little me says, "Mommy and Daddy are over there. I think they must be fighting again."

I glimpse my parents under the trees. She's right. Even at a distance, their body language screams tension.

I squat down on the ground next to myself and force myself to look into her wide blue eyes. Why don't you go play over there on the swings while I see what's going on."

Serious for a moment, she bobs her head solemnly. "Okay. I'll be good."

Smiling, I say, "Of course you're good."

And then, she's off, running for the swings, small legs pumping, hair flying loose and free, and laughter floating back behind her.

She doesn't know what's about to happen in her life. Tears form in my eyes. She's about to lose her parents.

I turn back toward Buffy and Spike.

Only this time, I'll know what really happened. . . maybe.

The park is empty except for my family, but there are enough trees around the picnic area that I can safely hide from my parents without rousing their attention. I place my palms against my chosen tree and feel the roughness of the bark against my skin. I close my eyes, closing out the world except for their voices.

"You're crazy," my mom says.

"But we figured it out, pet. Angel's in trouble with the Circle of the Black Thorn or whatever lame name they're currently going by. We can't just ignore his call for help or let his people die." His voice ebbs a bit as if he's pacing, and I hear crunching grass.

"Since when did you care what happened to them? Aren't they the 'Lesser Scoobies'?"

The noise of pacing ceases, and he says, "I care because you care about them. . . about. . . him. And you've been doing nothing but worrying since he started getting in deeper with Wolfram and Hart. . . when he stopped all communication with Giles and the others. . . after the last incident with the umpteenth hell beastie he didn't take care of properly in his firm. Admit it. You go out patrolling a lot when you can't sleep. . . and when you aren't throwing yourself into training Slayer Juniors."

Buffy's slow to respond, but then, she does, "I d-do care."

"I know you do, love, which is why we get us a team of the little girls, and we take out the Circle. . . one by one. Rid the world of some more evil and rescue Angel and his lot to boot. . . now that we know what's controlling him. I know I'm itching for a good fight."

"You have to be careful, which is why if we do this, you'll stay with Ashley."

"I'm always careful," Spike shoots back. "And Dawn can look after Ashley. She's on break."

My mom ignores his comment about Dawn. "You're human now. You've been human for four years out of over one hundred. You don't know your own weaknesses."

"I'm trained enough to take you down. . . even at full Slayer strength. And I was human for longer than four years, love. I know my weaknesses. Trust me."

Silence.

"You're right," my mother finally acknowledges.

"'Bout time you said so." I can almost envision my father's grin.

Buffy suddenly sounds sad, "This is going to be one of those apocalyptic battles." She pauses. "And if something happens to you, I'll kill you, you know."

"I'm counting on it."

She turns her feelings into a joke, "Then, Ashley will have no father, and she'll kill me for taking her Daddy away."

Then, my mother bursts into tears. This time her tears don't bother me. I'm kinda getting used to the cracks. She's my mother, but she's human, too.

I can't resist peeking at them then. Spike. . . my father takes my mother into his arms and strokes her back, murmuring soothing sounds. . . sounds I remember him making when I had a nightmare and woke up in tears. My mother clings to him and cries until she has no more tears left.

Then, he says with a lump in his throat, "Is it so hard to say out loud?"

She pulls back. "What?"

"How you feel." He's not backing down now.

"About what?"

"Us. Ashley and me."

The breeze lifts the ends of her hair. She swallows. "I never say it, do I?"

Now, he can't meet her gaze. "No. No, you don't."

Sliding one arm from around his waist, she brings her hand up to stroke his cheek and lift his chin so that he has to view her. She doesn't try to make excuses or attempt to explain why she doesn't express herself.

She simply says, "Sweet William, I do love you. You know that, right?"

His eyes shift heavenward, and the sunlight slips through the tree branches to highlight the sheen of unshed tears. He doesn't reply.

And my mother is desperate, tightening her arm around his waist and tugging him closer, "You do believe me? Spike?"

Several seconds pass before he smiles down on her. "I love you, too."

She kisses him. . . briefly as if to seal the agreement of their feelings. Pressing her forehead to his, she says, "And I promise to start saying it a lot more after we make it through this fight."

He laughs, a laugh that blends tears and joy, and I feel hot tears gliding over my own cheeks. "I'll hold you to it, pet. . . but how about before?"

She matches his laugh with her own. "Okay. I love you. How's that?"

He pretends to ponder her question, "Hmmm. Just about perfect, I think."

"You didn't say it back," she pouts.

He smirks at her. "Figure I deserve a few unreturned ones."

"Fine." She starts to turn away in mock rejection.

But in this moment, he can't stand even play, so he grabs her elbow and brings her in for a deep and tender kiss. He whispers his next words, but the breeze carries them my way so that I don't have to miss them. . .

"I love you, too."

They stay in their embrace for what seems like forever. . . or at least I wish it could be. My heart is full. They're my family, and they love each other.

My mother finally says, "We better get going. We have an Angel to rescue."

Her voice begins to fade, and my body starts to tingle with a familiar electric energy . . .

Crap. Guess I'm going home. I thought I wanted to go, but now, I'm not sure how I feel about that.

xxxxx

I open my eyes, feeling more rested and fulfilled than I have in days. . . weeks even. Auntie Willow is hovering over me with a concerned expression on her face.

"Thank God, I mean, Goddess," she says in a relieved breath. "You're awake. I wasn't sure you'd wake up in time."

I'm confused. "In time for what?"

"Your graduation, silly girl." She points to the hunter green graduation gown hanging on my closet door. "You just have a couple of hours to get ready."

"B-but I was gone. . ." I look around for a trace of the gift Willow gave me and find nothing except for my familiar bedroom. "Was it all. . ."

"A dream?" She shakes her head. "No, Ashley. It wasn't. I just cleared away the packaging in case someone came by and saw it."

"So everything was true? It really happened?"

"Yes, it did. And thank goodness, I contacted Rhonda to help me facilitate or you wouldn't have been back in time. Open your hand."

"Oh oh!" The weed-flower four-year-old me picked for my mother is smashed against my palm, juices smeared over the creases in my skin. Then, I realize what else Auntie Willow just said about time. I'm flustered as my mind races back to recall what happened right before the potion. Guess time went faster within the spell. "How's my hair?"

"Still pretty from this afternoon. Get dressed. I'll leave you be." She heads for the door.

"Auntie Willow?"

She pauses, hand on the doorknob. "Yeah?"

"Thank you."

She smiles, eyes lighting. "You're welcome. Were your questions answered?"

"Not all of them." I bite my lower lip. "But that's okay. I'm cool without knowing what happened to everyone in minute detail." I'm extremely grateful I didn't have to witness either of my parents' death.

"It was enough then?"

"Yeah. I learned a lot. I think I'll be processing it for a while."

"Good. I'm glad I could help." She starts to close the door.

"Auntie Willow? I think I may drive my own car to the ceremony. I have one place to go before. . ."

She knows. I can tell from the way she nods her head only once in understanding.

Then, she's gone.

xxxxx

He's in his office at work as usual, back to the doorway, lights dark. He has no papers on his desk, and no books on his shelves. No pictures adorn the walls. . . everything is stark.

For the first time. . . ever, I feel a little afraid being in his presence. It's not because of what I've read about him.

The fear is somehow familiar. I think it's the same fear I felt when Aunt Dawn came home from college early. She sat me down in the safety of my bedroom and took my hands in each of hers. Then, she told me that Mommy and Daddy weren't ever coming home and that my parents' last wish was that I would remain in Los Angeles and live with Angel. I think I cried for three straight days. . . or at least it seemed like I did in my child's mind.

I was afraid of the unknown. . . of what would happen to me.

I don't always understand my parents' decision to leave me with him. As an adult looking back, I know they couldn't place me with Giles or Willow or Xander or Dawn or Faith because they were busy with their own duties. . . duties that required extensive travel or left little time for them to give me the attention a child needed. My parents knew enough about the one they left me with to know that I'd be kept safe. . . that he and his would learn from their past failings and remain constant for me.

And my parents were right to place their faith in him.

I don't always understand him.

However, now I think I understand him a little better. He was my second father, and I was his second chance at raising a child.

I think I can begin to fathom the thoughts and feelings he must have to deal with every day when he wakes up.

I'm sad for him. . . sad for my parents. . .sad for me.

I'm pretty sure there's a little anger mixed in there, too.

After all, my parents and a handful of Slayers traded their lives so that Fred and Gunn and Wesley might live. . . so that he might live.

I want to distract him. . . and me from those thoughts and feelings. . . even just for a little bit. For some reason, that thought makes me feel older and maybe just a tad wiser.

So, I approach him as quietly as possible even though he already knows I'm there. . . knew as soon as I crossed the threshold.

Circling the desk, I trace my fingers over the fine, old polished grain. It has a few nicks and dents from the time I was doing an art project at the desk and accidentally scratched the surface with my scissors.

I settle on on one of his knees and survey him.

The corners of his mouth lift slightly as soon as I touch him, but the sorrow doesn't lift from his eyes.

"Hey, Miss Graduate. What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be on the way to the ceremony?"

"Aren't you?" I raise both my eyebrows at him.

"I was about to get out of here." He swivels slightly and traces his finger over the edge of the desk. "You know I wouldn't miss it, right?"

"I know. And I don't know what I'd do if you did."

His eyes widen in mock fear. "Should I be worried about any pencils?"

I laugh. "No. Not this time anyway." I do have a tendency to leave my pencils around the house. . . still do from time to time. Hey, I like to have writing instruments around. . . I never know when I might have an important thought that I don't want to get away from me. And I don't like pens. . . I can't erase with a pen.

His smile widens but not into a full-blown grin. I don't believe I've ever seen him smile the way my real father did.

But, still. . .

I throw my arms around his broad shoulders and hug him tightly. "I love you, Dad."

His hand goes to my back, and he hugs me back. "I love you, too."

I bury my face against his collarbone and inhale his scent. He's home to me. "You know I know now, right?" I say in a muffled voice.

He stiffens but accedes, "I do."

"I know you beat yourself up about it, but. . ." I take a deep breath and finish my thought, "it's not your fault. What happened to my parents. It's not your fault."

He says nothing. . . doesn't even make a sound.

I clear my throat and continue awkwardly, "And I'm glad they rescued you and Aunt Fred and Uncle Gunn and Wesley. I don't know what I'd do without you guys in my life. So, even though I miss my parents sometimes, I'm very grateful to have you."

I draw away from him when he still doesn't utter a word. I'm quite surprised to find that his cheeks are damp, and then, he smiles. . . the widest smile I've ever seen him smile.

Glancing at the clock, I realize that I have to get moving, or I won't make it to graduation. "I have to go."

I hate that I have to go.

"Let's get you graduated," he says, bumping me off his lap.

Angel keeps the same happy expression, and although I know he might not always be full of mirth, I'm content for the moment to bask in his momentary joy.

Funny what you discover when you look for the truth. I might not have my parents, but I know they loved each other and me. And because they loved. . . because they cared, they provided me a whole other family. . . even if unwittingly. More than that, they and the others in their lives gave me the capacity to love, to understand, and to forgive. I know I won't be perfect. . . or even good at it, but I can try, and that's a start.

The end.

(complete 4-8-05)

Thank you for the wonderful reviews! I hope you enjoyed the ending...hugs