Starting Over

By Sweetprincipale

Post Season 7- Non-canon beginning at the end of the final episode. No comics. Buffy and Spike find themselves trapped in a void between two dimensions, watching their mirror images acting out pieces of their lives in another realm. If both halves can find true love, choose each other, and make some other important choices, Buffy and Spike will have a chance to rejoin their world, and have a chance at starting over from the point where they perished in the Hellmouth.

Dedicated to Maire Alibhe, Omslagspapper, Vampyre-Lover, Jewel74, Ginar369, Illusera, Jhiz , AGriffinWriter, MusicLover500, and liing1.

Direct quotes from shows or songs are obviously not mine, but belong to the enormously talented people who created them.

Nothing of Buffy belongs to me, except my sincere admiration. However, this story is all mine.


Somehow, unintentionally, this has turned into making love, Xander thought. This was supposed to stay comforting, affectionate sex. Yes, love is totally involved- but I- well- this wasn't supposed to happen.

But it was. Xander cupped Willow's soft smooth cheek as he lifted her pelvis up, all the better to bury himself inside. "I love you, Wills."

"I love you, too, Baby. Oh, God, yes, Baby, like that!" She clung to him, and kissed him, hard, digging her hands into his lower back to force him in as deeply as possible. Baby? Baby, I don't call him Baby! Well- sometimes I do. Now. I guess.

"Are you close?"

"Almost?" She breathed, hesitant. She didn't mean to take so long, it wasn't that Xander wasn't pleasing her, he was. She just wasn't quite used to them being together, like this, yet.

"Good." Xander bent his head and nibbled one rosebud tip. How had he not appreciated these for the first few months? Sure, they weren't like- no. They had made an unspoken rule. No comparing each other to their other lovers. Because this wasn't about being lovers, this was about being friends who had an unorthodox physical dimension to their relationship.

Willow squeezed her softest set of muscles down on him, trying to bring herself to that blissful edge more quickly, since she could se the strain in her lover's face. Of course squeezing her muscles there, on him, had the effect of bringing him closer, too. "Oh! Sorry!"

"Oh, please, Willow don't apologize..." Xander groaned, rolling his hips in a circle. Just do it again, Baby." She obliged with a giggle, and he grunted out another hoarse "I love you."

"Xan, Xander, I love you, too. Right there, hard, like that!" She captured his thrusting, grinding hardness and trapped it in at a steeply satisfying angle.

"Gonna cum for me, Love?" He breathed, feeling his own release mount.


"Bad? Oh, not like a Spike-word. Like, l-o-v-e, I've seen him write it on notes to Buffy, and he spells it l-u-v." Xander explained hastily. Then winced. "Can we rewind and pretend I didn't just have that off-topic word vomit happen?"

She giggled again. "Yes, definitely. Spike's British pet names and spelling weirdness have no place in making love. I mean- sex. I mean-" She stammered to a halt.

"Damn." Xander locked his singular eye with both of her large, frightened ones. He increased his pace, watched her writhe, eyes flutter shut, but when they opened, they looked up at him just as fearfully.

"Didn't mean for this to happen." She squeaked out.

"Me, either. My fault." He bravely took the blame.

"No. No, I- I let myself." Willow spasmed around him, a spasm he knew was her final teaser before the big number.

"I let myself. I'm a slow learner, Will, I don't think I got it until today." He concentrated on his body, now that his somewhat garbled confession was done. Gotta time it just right, he'd cum before her a few times, and he'd felt bad.

"I didn't mean to- love you like this." She arched and let out a soft de-crescendoing moan, starting loud and high, getting lower and deeper as she orgasmed completely, fully, wracking his cock inside her.

"I love you, too." He didn't thrust up with her arch, he shoved in, and came deep inside, and then collapsed on her pale strawberries and cream skin, marveling at it's perfect texture, like milk, and the flush it sustained after love making. And how her hair didn't frizz, it curled into a sexy ripple where it sat in the sweat on her neck and shoulders. She was beautiful. Like, really beautiful, like "when a man loves a woman, he can't keep his mind on nothing else" beautiful.

She stroked back his hair, kissing him softly. Sexy hair. I like when he lets the bangs grow out a little, and they do this sexy, curly thing. Almost like the doo-wop look, but not so retro. She stroked from his hair down his profile with gentle fingertips. She loved this face. Like a wounded Spartan soldier. He had that perfect nose, those narrow but sculpted lips, the missing eye a tribute to his unceasing bravery, fighting what couldn't be fought by average humans, and yet he did it. "I've been in love with you for most of my life, Xander Harris." She said sternly, breaking the silence.

"I know. I've loved you, not been in love with you, for all of my life, Willow Rosenberg." He pushed himself wearily back up, propped on his forearms. " But then- tonight? Or this week? Willow, I think that we-"

"Have a major, majorly huge problem?" She sounded just on the edge of hysteria, suddenly.

"Yeah. Basically." He smiled regretfully. "I swear, I wasn't trying to, okay? With the sex, it was supposed to stay sex."

"I know! And then, with the not just doing it a couple times a week after our night off-"

"And when we started sleeping in here together most of the time-"

"Plus the- you know what- for the first time-this week."

"Oral sex, Will, we've done it now, we can say it."

"I'd done it before!" She smacked his shoulder

"I meant with each other!" Xander backed off hastily, rolling to the side of the bed he had started to think of as "his".

"We were stupid." Willow sat up and put her head in her hands.

"No, Honey, not stupid." Xander comforted her, putting his arm around her shoulders, sitting up beside her. "It's not stupid to fall in love with someone who genuinely loves you back. Like the Buffster. When you look at her and Spike, and you get over the enormous gag factor of the fact that it is Spike, you can see he really loves her. It wasn't stupid for her to love him back. And I- really do love you, Will."

She turned her head to look at him incredulously, chin propped on her wrist as it rested languidly on her drawn knees. "I meant stupid that we never used protection until the last month."

"Oh." He blushed darkly. "Yeah. See, I can explain that."

"You don't have to. I already know why. Well, I- I haven't needed anything since Tara. No baby making possibilities. You didn't have condoms, I don't take the pill, because we never thought we'd ever, ever, ever have sex again.

"If I admit you're right, are you gonna laugh at me?" He asked in a stage whisper.

"No! It wasn't the pathetic type of 'no more sex', it was the noble, 'I've lost my one true love, for me there can be no other' type."

"Well- yeah. But also, after each time-" He paused. "You know how I'm not good with talking thing, where my brain and my mouth work smoothly together? Don't smack me if this sounds rude. But after each time, I figured we were done. It was just one piece of comforting done, and over with." I didn't think I'd start to need it, then want it, until now I miss you whenever we aren't touching, he added silently.

"Yeah. Me, too. And then, I thought, 'Oh, this is kind of like our night off thing. We dance, we have a drink, and we make with the smoochies.' And then-" She looked at him guiltily. "Are you mad?"

"No. Are you?" He asked quietly.

"No! Sad. I knew it was going to happen. I should've stopped it. Shouldn't I?"

"Can you make yourself stop falling in love?" He pointed out.

"No. No, I guess you can't, or Buffy would never have loved Angel, or Spike." She frowned suddenly. "Should it worry me that Buffy, sweet, wonderful girl, but pretty damn unlucky, is our prototype for forbidden love?"

"Nah. The forbidden love department is the one place she ever got lucky."

"You just said she was lucky to have Spike!" Willow teased.

"I did not! I implied it." Xander removed his arm from her shoulders for a minute, and eased back down, this time lying on his side. "Come here. We'll make it right." He held out one arm to her, and she snuggled in alongside his chest.

"Tara stopped being in my dreams every night." Willow confessed tearfully, after a moment of thick silence.

"I figured. Anya did, too."

"That means they're mad at us, Xander!" Willow launched back up, only to be yanked back hard. "Owie. You have to stop that, you know? Now that you're all demon-hunter male model with the big muscles?"

"Sorry. Spike said he'd train with you, too."

"I prefer training with Giles. More paper cuts, but less heavy lifting."

Xander smiled. They would always do this. Throw in a side conversation to distract themselves from the big point, and realize they couldn't, because best friends really never could, not for long. "I don't think they're mad, Will. I think they're happy."

"Happy? Okay with it, maybe, but happy?" She shook her head. "I don't think so, Xander."

"But it makes sense. In a weird way. If you had to leave Tara, you had no choice, what would you want for her?"

"For her to be safe. And happy." Willow whispered.

"Would you want her to be alone?" Xander asked, swiping at his own eyes.

"No. But- I wouldn't want to be replaced."

"No offense, Willow, but you're crazy if you ever think anyone could replace Anya."

"You could so not replace Tara, either!"

"My point exactly! We're not replacements. We're- relief pitchers."

"Since when do you speak baseball?"

"Since never, but you listen to a drunk man screaming at the television set for 18 years and you pick up a few things." Xander explained.

"What's a relief pitcher then? He gives relief, I got that. Now explain how we fit the description."

"A relief pitcher comes in when the regular pitcher gets taken out of the game. He isn't a replacement for the other guy, necessarily, he has different skills, and he doesn't take away from the value of the other player- well not unless the player he was filling in for got pulled because he sucked- but anyway." Xander looked deeply into her eyes. "Tara and Anya got taken out of this game too early. You and I are filling in for a few innings, that's all."

"I'd still choose her." Willow whispered after nodding in understanding.

"I'm still agreeing with you." Xander whispered back.

"You don't mind? That I- I'm in love with you? That Anya isn't coming to your dreams as much?"

"I want her to rest peacefully until I get there. I don't want her to be worrying because I'm down here, all broken hearted and alone, with no one to love, and no one to love me back. For some reason, she thought I was worth something, pretty special."

He stroked her hair back from her face, and caressed her neck as he did so. "You were the only other one who ever thought that about me."

"You ignored that all through high school. Dummy." She pouted. "We would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if you just noticed me in a 'girl' way, not a 'friend' way."

"No, you know why that would never have worked." He murmured softly.

"I know. I never would have fallen for Tara, you never would have had Anya. Our soul mates."

"That's right. Soul mates." Xander nuzzled her brow to his. "But I am in love with you, Willow. I don't think it makes us unfaithful. I'm not betraying anyone. And I'll never even look at anyone but you. You're my closer."

"Is that another baseball term?"

"It's the relief pitcher who ends the game."

"Oh." She blushed and her eyes sparkled. "What are you saying? Exactly?"

"You're not my soul mate, but I love you. I was planning to spend the rest of my life with you in the best friend capacity, and I just want to add on to it."

"We- we could be 'life mates' !" Willow enthused suddenly. "Wouldn't that be cool? That's so us. In love, for this life."

"And we go home, to Tara and Anya, we can just go back to being best friends, okay?"

"Deal. This lifetime only."

"That's a long time." Xander smirked suddenly. "At least, if we don't get killed by some demon or something."

"It's a long time." Willow suddenly trembled. "I still feel weird about this 'in love' thing, okay?"

"Me, too."

"And there will be no rushing into things, no informing of our friends, no big PDAs."

"I agree." Xander held her close, and smiled. His heart hurt much less than it had in over a year. Willow squirmed suddenly in his arms and he gave a sharp, startled cry as she pushed him- unfortunately out of bed. "Whoa! Will, do you need to rethink this? Or some time alone, 'cause I'm good with that, you don't need to hurl me to the floor!"

"That was an accident. I wanted to get you on your back."

"Ooh? Is there about to be Xander-Willow goodness of the 'ride 'em cowgirl' variety?" He crawled back into the bed, rubbing a sore spot on his naked hip.

Willow blushed. "I said no public displays of affection. But we're still private, so..."

"Oh, yes, Baby." Xander pulled her on top of him and she gave him a bruising, clawing kiss.

"I love you." She admitted forcefully.

"I love you back." He kissed her hand. "Always will. One way or another."

"One way or another, you'll spend Spring Break and Easter with Mom, okay?" Jim tucked Sul into bed, and Essie hovered behind them with an armful of stories.

"I don't want to fly to St. Anapolis." Sul resisted being tucked.

"Minneapolis-St. Paul." Jim repeated the name of the airport. "And you might not have to fly, she's trying to come here."

"When will we know?" Sul asked. "Spring Break is next week!"

"She's calling tomorrow." Jim stroked his son's worried brow. "Don't worry. You've flown, lots of times.

"But not to airports I don't know! Not where you and Mom don't live! I know Los Angeles and JFK, and maybe one other one, in Seattle, but I can't remember 'cause I was only a baby."

Essie gave Jim a pleading look. He nodded. "I'll fly out with you, if you have to fly." Essie reassured. Sul beamed up at her, and she bent to kiss his forehead.

"Okay. And I can fly home by myself. I don't mind the plane part. It's the not knowing the airport parts." His parents gave a slight laugh.

"Do we want to read a chapter of Because of Winn-Dixie, The Prisoner of Azkaban, or James and the Giant Peach?" Essie sat on the other side of the bed.

"Two chapters." Sul bargained. "And you can put away Because of Winn-Dixie, it's a girl book."

"No insulting books." Jim tapped his son's nose. "Maybe you're getting too old for bedtime stories?"

"No, I'm not. I promise." Sul plumped up his pillow and tucked Mist and Stripes up close to him. "Let's read James and the Giant Peach. You read a chapter, and Essie reads one."

"Deal." Jim pushed his bare feet up beside Essie's pedicured toes and they crowded in for their comforting end of day ritual.

"He's coping well." Essie whispered to her husband as they finished their work out, and peered in again on their sleeping son. The bedside light was back on, and the chapter book they'd been reading aloud was spread open on his chest, Sul clearly deciding that two chapters was not enough.

"He's not coping, he's reveling." Jim hissed back, taking the book from the boy's chest, tucking the covers up over him, and running an affectionate hand across his cheek. He clicked off the light, and sauntered over to his wife. "He's loving this."

Essie smirked and leaned on the doorframe. "Well, he likes being with you."

Jim shut the door and cocked his scarred eyebrow at her. "I'm sorry? May I quote from tonight's dinner? 'Can Essie pick me up from school every day this week?' 'Can Essie take Megan and me to the movies on Thursday night?', 'Can Essie take me with her when she does an interview?' Oh, he just loves being with me." Jim nuzzled her shoulder with his lips.

"Jealous much?" She teased. "If I can quote from this afternoon, before you got home for dinner. 'When is Dad coming home? How many more episodes does he have to film?', replay every ten minutes for three hours. Also, every conversation on the car ride home? They all begin with 'Remind me to tell Dad' insert comment here."

"I wish he'd talk about Ann more." Jim sighed. Essie gave him a shocked look. "No, it's not that I don't want him to love you like crazy, which he does, and I'm thrilled he likes it here, that he wants to stay for the rest of this year, and next year."

"You don't want him to act all 'I love my new life and my new stepmommy and you're chopped liver' in front of Anna?"

"Got it in one, Baby."

"I'd rather he be all happy and not missing her. So much."

"He does talk to her every single day." Jim eased his conscience with a sigh.

"I love you." Essie reminded him, lacing her arms around his neck."Want me to distract you from your deep parental turmoil?"

"Maybe. Whatcha got in mind?" He swirled his tongue behind his teeth in that irresistible grin.

"We- we could- stop prowling up to me, it makes it hard for me to think." Essie collapsed backwards onto the bed as Jim backed her to the edge.

"I don't want you to think. Like it when you react." Jim grinned relaxedly.


"Passionately. You have had a rough week. With coming home. And parenting crap. And you have interviews and appearances booked for the next six months solid." Jim slowly tugged her pink halter top off over her head and found one pert nipple as her breasts bounced free.

"Yes." She dug her hands into his bare shoulders. "But- but- oooh, more of that-" She arched her hips as his fingers slowly rubbed her lips through her tight lycra shorts.

"You were saying?" Jim devilishly disobeyed and pulled his hand back from her cleft.

"I'm supposed to do the reacting." Essie turned the tables on him, pulling her knees up and rolling him off with one of their fighting-style moves.

"Hey! Where's the Buffy-ness coming from?" He laughed as she straddled him.

"Oh, feel free to fight back." She flirted. "But this isn't Buffy, you know that. This is Essie- normal girl by day, Jim's personal sex-goddess by night."

"Does that make me a sex-god?" He purred.

"Yeah, in my opinion." She blushed. "But feel free to prove it."

"You first." He smirked. "And next week- the house all to ourselves."

"And you have four days off for Easter, right?" Essie slowly pushed her head down to the bulge in Jim's sweats, and traced a finger down the length. "What do you wanna do first?" Jim gasped pleasurably in reply and Essie began proving exactly what she was capable of doing.

"I'll call you first." Sul hugged his father goodbye. "And then you." He hugged Essie.

"Honey, this is sweet, but if you wanna get on the flight, we need to run." Anna, swinging her carry-on bag up higher onto her shoulder, took Sul's hand.

"You'll be at your mom's?" Jim hugged Ann awkwardly, with one arm, the first time he'd hugged her since the divorce. But she'd signed the re-drafted custody agreement without a word, made peace with Essie, and they were working really hard for Sul's sake. Maybe they could, at some point, not immediately, but someday, get back to being friends. But for now, pleasantly civil was okay.

"Yeah. For two weeks, and then I'll bring- send him back."

"Don't worry! Take care of the cats." Sul smiled easily, and slid his hand more tightly into his mother's. "Love you!"

"Love you, Sul!" Jim and Essie chorused. They slowly, reluctantly backed away, watching the little boy head off, instantly lost in the crowd of spring break travelers, Californians headed to even more exotic, sun drenched locations, and non-Californians arriving in LA to star spot and sunbathe.

"I don't feel as bad as usual." Jim pulled Essie close to him.

"Good. 'Cause I'm gonna cry."

"Really? It's not PMS week, is it?" Jim received a hard elbow to the gut and he bent double. "Sorry. Not sensitive. I know it's because you've got Sul-withdrawal."

" Yeah. And no. No, you're right. But it's the stupid birth control pills. I hate 'em. They make my hormones all messed up." She pouted.

"Do you wanna try a new pill? Or one of those patches?" Jim rubbed her back comfortingly. So maybe it wasn't exactly the conversation he'd pictured them having on the first day of two weeks alone together, but he'd promised Ess he'd be with her for all the real world, real life crap, and this was part of it.

"I just need to pick up a new job. I never minded when I had something else to focus on." Essie sighed. "Your show will finish, and you already have the go ahead for that television movie."

"Baby, you've got offers." She gave him a pursed lip frown. "Yeah, I know. Not action stuff. Chick flicks." Jim stroked her hair back.

"I don't wanna be the one to get saved! I don't even wanna be the love interest- not on camera anyway. I wanna... do something challenging, where the girl actually does something. Even bad, scary stuff. As long as there's no-" She cast a look at Jim and his face tightened.

"No. None of those scenes. For me, either." Jim pushed open the door and held it for her. "You'll do it, hon. And remember-"

"I know. Don't do it for the money, do it for the art."

" 'Cause we have the money. Well, enough for a few years."

"Yeah, plenty." Essie rolled her eyes. She rubbed her lower abdominal area suddenly. "Cramp, or pulled muscle."

"We shouldn't try out any more of the kama sutra today." Jim teased.

"Awww. Please? I have pages already bookmarked." She trailed a finger up his bicep.

"As soon as I get home." He whispered. Then he looked back at his watch. "Damn. On set in an hour. Wanna come with? Daniel and Al would love that. Everyone will be so happy to see you."

"Count me in!" Essie giggled. "This time I get to sit around on my butt, and watch you for a change."



"Whiner!" Jim slapped his hand down on her shoulder and spun her. "Oh you just wait 'til I get you home."

"Ooh, feisty." Essie kissed him and winked.

"Feisty little thing, in't she?" Spike remarked to Giles.

"Which one, yours or mine?"

"Watch it with the 'yours or mine' tosh. Dawn may be your Watcher-in-training, but she's my little sis."

"Fine, I rephrase." Giles rubbed his glasses, and passed Spike a packet of cigarettes. "Were you referring to Buffy or Dawn?"

"Benson & Hedges! Blimey, mate! You held out on me." Spike flipped open the pack and inhaled. "I meant Dawn, of course. Already know Buffy's feisty. My girl's the definition of feisty..." He closed his eyes and breathed deeply again, and this time Giles frowned in disgust, realizing that Spike was mentally inhaling something other than unfiltered tobacco fumes.

"Stop that! I've accepted you love her, I don't have to accept your freakish sexual behaviors. And I wasn't holding out on you, as you put it, I was saving those for Christmas. But I thought, with the two of them patrolling, you might need some full strength British smokes."

"Dawn! Stop it!" Buffy turned petulantly to the men behind her. "Giles! Make her stop!" She turned her focus bak to Dawn, and spoke heatedly. "You- little Watcherette, me - big, experienced Slayer! I do the killing, you stay away from fangy critters."

"You won't let me stake anything! Spike would let me stake things!" Dawn pointed to Spike with a frustrated hand.

"I wouldn't!" Spike called. "Look, Luvs, it's gettin' late, or rather, early, it's bloody cold, and I think we're supposed to get sleet. Can we get home?"

"A nice hot cup of tea..." Giles said persuasively.

"Dawn! Put that down." Buffy batted the stake from her hand.

"Or a nice big glass of whiskey..." Spike winked at Giles.

"Patrolling means weapons!" Dawn cried.

Spike and Giles watched the two sisters arguing as they headed through the graveyard. "Smoke, Watcher?"

"I believe I will." Giles grinned, and Spike smiled in return. "BBC America's got the Manchester- 'Spurs replay on this afternoon."

"Oh, missed that one."

"Stand you a pint, if you pop in."

"Pint of lager or blood?" Spike asked, as he and his fellow Brit walked away.

"Buffy, stop." Dawn giggled and cut off her sister's lecture.

"No, Dawn, this is not a joke."

"No, I get that. I'll stop trying to be the front girl, and help out in the back, like a good little apprentice. But look at Giles and Spike. Isn't it sweet?" She leaned her head affectionately towards the men in question.

"That they're getting along? Yeah. Kind of warm and glowy-making. This Christmas is going to waaay more fun that last year's." Buffy sighed and looped her arm through Dawn's.

"No kidding." Dawn rolled her eyes.

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that now you've got everything you need to decorate and cook, you won't be calling one of us every fifteen minutes to run an errand or do something around the house."

"I wasn't that bad." Buffy blushed.

"Who can impersonate Buffy last Christmas?" Dawn dragged her sister towards their other two family members.

" 'Giles? It's Buffy again. Do you have brandy? How many plums are in a plum pudding? And a standing rib roast, how many ribs do I buy, and how do I make them stand?'." Giles called across the grass and Dawn laughed. Buffy did not. Spike jumped to her defense.

"None of that! Buffy just wanted everything to be perfect for you lot. Don't much celebrate it myself, but, I reckon it'll be easier to handle this year. No nippin' out every hour on the hour to buy a baster, or a roasting pan, or festive red and green tablecloths." Spike finally joined in the laughter, his supportive speech giving way completely.

"Are you all finished? 'Cause if I could just remind you, the reason everyone was so frantic and eager to get out of the house and do all those last minute errands was because we had the house guests from hell?"

"Poor Willow and Xander. Do you think they're going to have their parents fly out again?" Dawn pouted.

"No, they've got so much on their plates already with the-" Spike felt a migraine-like twinge attack him as Buffy's inner voice shouted a violent 'Shut up! Secret!'

"With what?" Dawn looked at him curiously.

"All those finals Red has to sit, and the Boy's coaching her. Not to mention, shoppin' for prezzies."

"Ooh, that's right. Mallness." Buffy exchanged a gleeful look with Dawn.

"I call going with Spike and Giles!"

"You know bloody well you can't come with me, 'cause I haven't bought your things yet." Spike disagreed with the teen.

"I say we all go together, and then split up. And if we see one another in a shop, we are honor bound to move on without peeking!" Buffy said firmly, pointing to her husband and sister. They ignored her and laughed softly. Buffy pouted and walked over to Giles, inserting herself under his arm. She looked up at him with a pout. "No one takes me seriously. And those two are a bad influence on each other."

"Yes. I agree. Thankfully, all of you have me, the patriarch to guide this little family." He leaned his jaw on top of her head thankfully. "Some days I never thought we'd survive. Quite often, actually." He laughed softly.

"Couldn't have done it without you."

"Oh, you could. Slayers do, you know."

"Yeah, but they all die- and they don't come back."

"Well, clearly you are remarkable, and there were many contributing factors-"

"No. Just one. Love. Friends, family, a lover. Someone to come back for."

"Perhaps." Giles said with his normal British reserve.

"Giles... don't make me start." Buffy warned sweetly, nestling deeper under his tweed clad arm. "I could sing 'Daddy's Girl' again?"

"Please, don't." Giles gave in and hugged her. "Fine, we're quite the happy family."

"Buff! Did I mix the last of Niblet's cereal with my blood?"

" No, there's another box over the sink." She called back, and then turned to Giles again. "We're quite the happy, completely abnormal family." Buffy winced.

"There, there." Giles patted her arm and sighed deeply. "The main thing is the happy part."

"You two look happy. Was it fun?" Essie asked as she picked up Sul and his friend Megan from school.

"That was the coolest field trip!" Sul enthused. "Megan and I got to go on stage and everything! Then the conductor guy asked if anyone wanted to try to play an instrument, and I said yes!"

"He played the guitar. They video taped it!" Megan reached inside her bag and pushed a cassette tape into the front seat.

"I'm so glad!" Essie smiled and waved at some of the parents she recognized in the line of cars.

"I'm so glad, too! We get to go to the Young Artists Festival next year, now that I'm getting to stay here." Sul hugged Megan and the two of them dissolved into giggles.

"Will your mom be mad, Megan, if we stop and get some ice cream on the way home?" Essie turned around and asked.

"Not really. As long as I don't eat too much."

"One small, each." Essie promised. "And that's it."

"Bye, Meg!"

"Bye, Sul! Thanks, that was great!"

"Bye, Megan, have a nice night." Essie gave herself a "mommy" point. Successfully handled a carpool situation, and drop off, plus, "cool mom" points for the ice cream and actually understanding half the video game talk the kids were spewing. "I like Megan. She's very nice. And Sean, he's nice, too."

"He has chicken pox. He missed the field trip. It wasn't as much fun without him." Sul looked through his book bag thoughtfully as he spoke, and then looked up, straight at her, very seriously. "Essie? Do you know something?"

"What, Honey?" Essie smiled. She loved this daily time with him, usually a couple hours between school pick up and when Jim got home that they could hang out together, just the two of them, and the cats. And sometimes Max, Ashley, Ellie, Monica, or Gwenn would stop by. Sometimes Essie's mom, who Sul called Grandma as well, much to her delight, would visit. Sul wasn't talking though, and normally she couldn't shut him up. He had Jim's gift of gab, always laid back, sweetly funny patter, and now it was getting combined with her sense of humor and the silly little things she did. All in all, the house was never quiet with the boy in residence. "Sul? Didn't you want to tell me something, Little Man?"

"I'm the only kid in my class without any brothers or sisters."

"Oh. Oh, I know what that's like. I was an only child." Essie said comfortingly.

"And I know I can't have real brothers and sisters. But every single kid in my class has at least one brother or sister, or stepbrother or stepsister."

"Well-" Essie wished Jim were here. She had a feeling they were about to launch into biological parent territory.

"Kirsten has six kids living in her house! Her mom got remarried and the guy had three kids, and then they had twins, and she's number six. And Sean has three stepsisters, but they don't live with him. And Megan's mom is pregnant, and her step mom is pregnant, so in six months she's gonna have two babies to babysit!"

"Well-" Essie tried again.

"Are you and Dad ever gonna have kids?"

"Uhhh." Essie blinked, dumbstruck. "Sul, that's not really anything we want to rush into."

"Oh. Is it because of me?"

"What now?" How did he make those leaps?

"Maybe I'm too much trouble? Daddy always says to thank God I wasn't twins."

"Oh, Sul, that's just a joke. Although..." She smiled and winked, "Two of you would be pretty hard to handle."

"It isn't my fault, though? That you don't want kids?"

"We do want kids!" Essie slapped her hand to her mouth. Crap! Jim was going to kill her. They had said they'd sit down, someday, and ask Sul, nicely, and calmly, with no pressure, what he thought about having another child in the family. Above all, Jim should at least be present. "I mean- Sul, we love you. And someday, another kid would be really nice. One day. Not now."

"Oh. You have to wait until I go back to Mom? 'Cause I could share my room, or we could move stuff around in Daddy's studio- why are you biting your lips?"

"Because you're a sweet kid." Essie managed to croak. Stupid pills. She was stopping them. They made her tear up at the oddest time. Or maybe it was because her little guy was so beyond sweet... "No, we don't have to wait until you go back to your mom. And you don't have to share a room. No one needs to squish their stuff into smaller spaces, we have enough room for ten kids."

"Could you stop at six? Kirsten says if you get more than six you have to buy a really big, ugly van.

"Sul? You know I said you could always talk to me? You can. But I can't always answer until I talk stuff over with your dad."

"That's okay. I bet that's a good wife thing."

"It really is." She smiled, and they pulled into the garage. "Let's have a snack and watch the video you made. When Daddy comes home, you can tell him what you told me. And then- he and I have to talk. Deal?"

"Deal. Um." Sul took her hand, even though they were literally only walking about 5 yards from the garage into the house. "You can still love two kids as much as one, right? That's what Grandma says about Dad, and his brother and sister."

"You sure can. I know your dad and I can. And-" Essie preempted his next question, "just in case you're wondering, your dad and I would love you the same as any kids we have together. In case you're wondering if it makes a difference to me, whether the baby was mine- as in I had it, or whether it just landed in a plane and walked into my life," they shared a smile, " it doesn't. No difference at all. You know you're like my own little boy, right?"

Sul hugged her tightly, fiercely. "You're just like my own little mom." He said, and then looked up at her worriedly. "But-"

"Shh. I get it." She tapped her heart. "Your mom wins, but I have my own spot. And you, in here, you're gonna be even with any other kids."

"It'd be a tie?"

"Completely." She smiled.

Essie made herself scarce after dinner, ignoring Jim's puzzled looks and Sul's almost hyper eagerness to get him alone. "Okay. Is this about Essie's birthday? Because I have it all planned out, and Uncle Max is going to babysit when Essie and I go out to dinner, and then that weekend, we're all going to O'Shay's."

"No, but that's cool." Sul climbed into his dad's lap, which immediately set off concerned alarms in Jim's head.

"Uh-oh. Did you have a fight with someone at school? Or with Essie?" Jim dismissed that second idea out of hand. The only fight he could ever remember the two of them having was a pillow fight, and that in good fun.

"No! I just wanted to tell you stuff. Ask you some stuff. Dad, Essie's gotten to be a good stepmom. She's a lot funner than most moms I know. And- she messes up on some stuff, but I don't care."

"That's good." Jim sighed and tightened his grip. "Is something bothering you?"

Sul slowly, and with many hesitant glances and much reassurance, told his dad about what was on his mind, ending with Essie's words about parenting and children. "So, I just wanted you to know I don't mind. And brothers and sisters would be cool. Especially since I think I want to stay with you guys for longer."

"That's wonderful, Sul. And Essie and I would love that. But- it doesn't happen right away. Once you have a baby, you need to keep it, and you need to get used to being married first. In our case, we need to keep working on being a family of three before we can be a family of four."

"But someday? I get a little brother or sister?" Sul pressed.

"What if I buy you a dog and a hamster?" Jim tried bribery, not that he was stalling for time on the biological clock, he just wanted to test that this was no mere impulse on Sul's part, no "wanting to fit in" vibes, brought on by hanging out with Megan, who was due to be a big sister any month now, and her expectant mother.

"Instead of a baby?" Sul looked stunned and upset. "Dad, you can't do that! You'll break Essie's little heart!"

Jim threw his head back and guffawed deeply, hugging his son until he lost his frown and giggled along. Essie called from upstairs, "What's so funny?"

"I'll explain it later." Jim shouted back. "Okay, Sul. I believe you, you're serious. And you know it's not gonna change how much we love you?"

"Yup." Sul nodded firmly.

"You do know that the baby would get more attention, though? It can't walk, it can't talk, it needs everything done for it, so by default it has a parent taking care of it 100% of the time."

"What's a default?"

"The baby gets more attention, no matter what. Not 'cause we love it more, but because it can't do anything, so it needs us." Jim stared seriously into his son's sapphire gaze. "You cool with that?"

"Could I take care of it a little? And then you spend time with both of us?"

"Of course." Jim murmured.

"Could you make it a boy, please?"

"I can try, but you get what you get." Jim sighed. "Might be nice for Essie to have a girl. She's kind of outnumbered with the two of us."

"And the cats."

"And the cats." Jim agreed gravely.

"Okay, then. Whatever you can get."

"It isn't like you stop at the mall and grab one, Sul."

"Oh, I know. They get implanted inside. How does that work? Sean told me some stuff, but I don't think he knows what the heck he's talking about." Sul shook his head with a big grin.

"Uh. Uh, umm." Jim cleared his throat. "Wh-why don't you tell me what you already know, and we'll go from there..."

"Are you okay?" Essie had stayed up in their office for most of the evening, reading through potential scripts and paying bills, letting Jim and Sul have this special time to talk. She heard them come upstairs, still talking, about an hour after Sul's usual bed time, and she hadn't been asked to come and tuck him in. She felt strangely bereft, and when Jim came to bed soon after, she was flat out worried. "What's the matter? You look- you look pale, even for you."

"I just had to do the sex talk." Jim literally shook and sat down. "I don't know if I did it right. I should have read a book on this. I should have read a book. He's almost nine. Nine year olds hear all kinds of crap."

"Oh, God." Essie hugged him. "How much did you tell him?"

"Well, thankfully, he didn't want to know anything major about how you make a baby, he wanted to know all about the baby-growing part. If you ever do get pregnant, expect him to follow you around with a note pad and ask questions." His eyes suddenly blazed with realization. "I should have come and got you! He asked all kinds of questions you could have answered better than me."

"I will owe you forever for not doing that. I couldn't even tell him what tampons were for when he was helping me put the groceries away." She sat beside Jim on the bed. "Was it bad?"

"No. Scary. It's one of those, "if I mess up, my child might suffer forever" type of things, so in retrospect, I think I did damn good."

"He- he mentioned the little brother, little sister issue?"

"I tried to bribe him, just to see if he was acting on an impulse. Offered him a dog, and a hamster. No dice. He's into big brother mode."

"So... I guess the only question is when?" Essie bit her lip, and scooted closer to Jim.

"Yeah." He stroked her face as she turned to him. "It's a big deal. You don't get to call cut and do a retake."

"I know that, and it scares me. I'm not ready." She admitted. "Are you disappointed in me?" She asked nervously.

"Hell, no." Jim sighed in relief. "I don't like all this planning stuff anyway. It's a child, not a medical procedure. People should just practice, let nature take it's course. When they feel ready." He added reassuringly.

"I want this summer for us. As a couple, when he's away. As a family, when he comes back. This is the first vacation in five years where you can get a tan! And none of us have ever been to Hawaii before. I at least want to wait until summer is over."

"Okay. Okay, with me." Jim pulled her close. "You don't mind if we start practicing now, though, right?"

"You still want to? Even after the gross-out talk?"

"Ess, I'm trying to disassociate, okay?" Jim grunted, seizing her lips.

"In that case, practice makes perfect."

To be continued...