Buffy dreamed that she was walking by the water. She could see the gang, her family, sitting on a patio down the beach. Willow's thick, white layer of sunscreen was visible even from far away. Ren was filling a plastic castle shape with sand, dumping it out and sighing when the shape didn't hold. Finally she threw the toy away and ran up to Buffy.
"Can we go in the water?" Buffy was seized suddenly with fear and told her no, that she would help make the sandcastle stay up.
"It's okay." Ren took her hand, pulled her gently toward the water. Buffy realized that Angel had been standing behind her the whole time. She just hadn't realized until his hand was no longer on her hip. "Angel made sure I knew how. It's okay, Mommy. It's okay."
"Let Mommy sleep. She's been really worried about you."
Buffy woke up groggily. She rolled over, drawing breath in deeply through her nose and blinking rapidly. It was definitely morning. The sunlight streamed through Ren's window, the rain forgotten except for a few drops clinging to the edge of the pane; they would evaporate soon. Outside the room, Buffy could hear the clatter of breakfast being made. It woke her up and she jolted, swinging her legs over the side of the empty bed. As she looked toward the door, she saw Ren's face peering around the frame. She squeaked and disappeared when Buffy noticed her.
"Aaaaaangel, she's awaaaaaaaaaaaake." The high little voice trailed off down the hallway to the kitchen. Buffy followed a moment later, dazed, breath caught in her throat. Angel stood at the stove. Ren was balancing on the counter, reaching down plates and cups from the cabinet in a manner that her mother had never allowed.
"And you very promise no vegetables?" Ren was demanding as Buffy stepped into the doorway.
"Ham. Cheese." Angel responded, holding up a handful of each before dropping them into the half-cooked pallet of eggs already in the pan. He looked over at Buffy, who was gripping the doorframe with wide eyes. "What about you, Buffy? I went out and picked up some mushrooms and peppers. You didn't have much in the fridge."
His face said that he would explain later. Buffy breathed out shakily, reaching for calm. Ren was setting the small table with forks and knives on the wrong sides of the plates. "I'll go with delicious over nutritious, too, thanks."
The sun continued to beam brightly overhead, cutting through the chill air of not-yet-spring. They ended up taking Ren to the zoo, laughing when she imitated the animals. Angel bought her an ice cream, despite his avowed disapproval.
"Dairy means calcium," Buffy teased. "Live a little, Angel." He smiled at her.
None of them mentioned the events of the past few days. Buffy wasn't even sure Ren remembered what happened.
Ren fell asleep on the ride home, tired from the joy of the day and bored from sitting in traffic with other families out enjoying the nice weather. Angel carried her inside, tucking her in, and Buffy gave her extra kisses and sat by the bed for a while. When she came out, Angel was putting portions of stir-fry onto beds of sticky rice. He set the plates across the table from each other. Buffy said, "I thought you could only cook breakfast food," but other than that they ate silently. Afterwards, Buffy put the plates in the sink and Angel poured tea. He had brought over his own Earl Grey. Smelling it made Buffy's chest hurt.
"Two years ago," Angel started, "I was in Ireland. There was an encampment of Travelers-"
"They're sometimes called tinkers. They're the Irish equivalent of Gypsies, in that they're nomads, but they're not ethnically related. The poverty in those communities, Buffy, high mortality rates for everyone, suicide, abuse…it's terrible. And they're horribly discriminated against, so there's abuse from inside and outside. I was just passing by, but the night I was there, boys from the village set a caravan on fire. I was lucky to be nearby; there was a family sleeping inside. I helped pull them out. One of them was an old lady, old by settled people's standards, not just for a Traveler. 'I'll give you a gift. A full gift, not just the pieces,' she said and told me exactly what would happen here. I went to Giles and he worked out the language."
"But what happened? Ren was falling away, you said that she was going to be lost inside herself, and now she's back exactly how she was. How?" Her voice slipped.
"Willow thinks that it's like reloading a hard drive from a backup disk, that you pushed your memories into Ren. Giles brought in some friends to analyze it. One, Father Tom, seems to think that it was a miracle, divine intervention. There's nurse who keeps talking about the unknown powers of mothers when it comes to their children, and a mythology expert who thinks that you were like Ariadne's thread, guiding Ren through the maze back to herself."
"So you don't know?"
"We have a lot of theories. Giles has been working on it for over a year, but he still doesn't know for sure. All we knew was that it would work. 'She will go to the brink of loss,' the prophecy said. 'And she will return.'"
"You knew," Buffy said to the rim of her teacup. "You knew that I would think that it was the end, that I had lost Ren. And you let me think that."
Angel knelt by her chair. His teacup was full and cold. "We had to. It was part of what had to happen. You were the one who would go to the brink of loss, Ren was the one who would return. We couldn't let you know. I wish I could have given you light, but it would only work if you were alone and in darkness. You needed to give yourself hope."
"Angel." She kept her gaze on her cup. Her voice was very soft. "Angel, get out."