Angel made French toast in the morning. She could smell it from her place beside Ren in the bed, even over the scent of Johnson's baby shampoo that was deep in the stitching of the pillowcase. She kept her eyes closed, counting to ten, then twenty, then fifty, promising that when she reached one hundred, she would get up. Only getting up meant having to put on that worn battle armor that she was afraid had become an exoskeleton. It was better to just lie there and imagine that it was years down the line, when Ren was safe and all was well and the battle armor was only used for dress up.
When she reached five hundred, she got up.
She moved to her place in the chair Angel had brought in. He came in a moment later with a plate of French toast and she looked at it like it was foreign, but let go of Ren's hands before he had to feed it to her.
She ate while staring at her daughter. Her condition was the same as yesterday. Occasionally Ren would open her eyes or mumble, sometimes in foreign languages, and Buffy would feel her gut flutter, but it would be a brief hope. She never addressed either of them directly, or even recognized them, and each time, Ren seemed to be further from her after.
"I have to call in to work," she said, quiet and monotone. "I didn't take today off."
He volunteered to do it and she overheard him making the call. He told them that Ren was very sick, identifying himself as "a friend." When he came back in, Buffy said, hoarse and still stroking a hand over Ren's forehead, "Maybe I don't need a friend."
"You have one anyway," he responded, and they didn't say anything for the rest of the day. Angel would get up every so often, washing dishes or fetching the handful of circulars and bills from the mailbox. He made her a turkey sandwich and gave her a glass of juice. She heard him in the hall making a call and then he was gone for a half hour at around three o'clock. There were no signs, but Buffy suspected that he had gone to take care of a demon. Eventually she crawled in with Ren and fell asleep again. It was a sleep like sickness, hot and inevitable. She didn't dream and it seemed like she was suddenly awake again.
Buffy has known for years that life isn't fair. If it were, her parents would have been happily married until they died together peacefully. If it were, she wouldn't have killed her first vampire before she was old enough to drive. She wouldn't have died, she wouldn't have had to kill the love of her life, and she wouldn't have had to work in a fast food joint that she still wasn't sure she had washed off of her skin. But in all the time that she had known that life wasn't fair, she was still in denial. As a mother, she wasn't quite ready to admit that, despite everything she had tried to do to prevent it, she might have to give up her daughter.
Buffy groaned as she moved into her now-traditional chair. Even if she hadn't been staring at Ren for two days now, she would have noticed how her condition had changed. She no longer had the racing eyes and raving moments of being filled with other people's lives. Now she reminded Buffy of a doll her Nana Grace had kept in her attic. It had been a china doll, a perfect replica of a human child. That was what Ren's face looked like now, not in that it was pale and perfect and fragile but that it was frozen, hidden away, an aggressive imitation of what was precious.
"Is this it?" she asked Angel. He had heard her groan and come in from sleeping on the couch. Her voice was hoarse.
"I don't know." He put a hand on her shoulder. Angel's hands had always been strong to her. Now it felt heavy.
"Would it have helped if I had called them? Would it help now?"
He did not absolve her with tired phrases. "We- parents, people, champions- we make choices. And sometimes we never know if we made the right ones."
Buffy looked out of Ren's window. It was bigger than the one in her room. She had wanted her daughter to have light in the morning and stars to wish on at night. Outside it was still raining as it had been the last time she had been outside, now a vague, distracted rain. The weather didn't seem to know what to choose either.
Buffy remembered another last day. Her mother had taken a smaller version of herself, perhaps five years old, probably younger, to see Grandpa Herb in hospice care. He had been there for months after the Alzheimer's had made it too difficult for Grandma to deal with, even with private nurses to help.
Joyce had let Buffy carry the flowers. She had breathed them in because she hated the way the hospital smelled. Grandpa Herb had been in bed, his eyes closed. The doctor took Joyce aside as soon as they stepped into the room. Buffy, playing with the blinds, pulling the cord so they hung crooked then straight then crooked again, had missed what he said, but Joyce had backed away with her hand over her mouth, shaking her head. She had curled up in the bed next to her father. "Please, Daddy," she had whispered to him, pressing their foreheads together. "One more day, please, Daddy. You promised that you would always stay until I wasn't scared anymore."
Now, Buffy curled up beside her daughter the same way. She didn't understand how she could have failed to protect the one thing to which she had devoted the past half-decade. "Oh, Ren. Do you know why I named you that?"
It had always been a familiar story around their house. "It's cause I made you hop," Ren would laugh and tease, doing a little jump in demonstration.
"It's cause you made me hope," Buffy told her, whispering as they twined together in the bed. "When I thought I had none left, when I had damned everyone in my life and so many others, you were my hope and my happiness. You let me be reborn, Renata Joy, and I will never forget that gift." She didn't know what else to say, so she rested her forehead against Ren's and just remembered every moment, how everything, her whole life, had changed when she first held Luciana's baby. She rocked their daughter's body against her own, trying to transmit to the dead mother all the small pieces of their precious girl's life.