She had trouble lifting her face from the pillow in the morning, which gave her the brief thought that she should wash the pillowcase. Then she realized that it was morning and she wasn't in her own bed and she needed her daughter.
Just as she strode into the living area (a couch and a TV so close to the doorway that the whole affair might have been called a very crowded foyer) she saw Ren perched on the couch watching Spongebob.
"Look, Mommy! Angel made pancakes." Ren's voice was excited, because this really was one of the best mornings that she could remember, but Buffy knew that they still had to talk. She knew from experience that psychological trauma didn't just go away just because someone made you something yummy for breakfast.
"I bet Angel makes great pancakes," Buffy replied anyway, keeping her voice cheerful.
"I make better eggs," he said from behind her. She didn't turn, even though she wanted to use him as a fainting couch. She was weak with her daughter's presence. "But I figured pancakes would be higher up on Ren's breakfast wish list."
They watched Ren laugh stickily as Sandy sang a song in an exaggerated Texas accent.
"I've always thought there should be something between Sandy and Spongebob. And he should get a move-on before Squidward kills him." Buffy's voice was wooden, hoping vainly that if she froze him out, he would let her leave and return to her regularly scheduled life. It might have worked years ago, but this new Angel seemed to have acquired a very thick winter coat.
"We need to talk."
She followed him into a kitchen, served herself a stack of pancakes, noticed that he had set up an array of toppings- fruit and chocolate and whipped cream- but ignored them, instead taking from the fridge door a bottle of pure maple syrup with a peeling label. She turned, took a seat at the table across from where he sat sipping coffee, his own empty plate in front of him.
"What do you want?" Buffy cut her pancakes into neat squares, considering each one before she dipped it into the puddle of syrup by the rim of the plate. It was as if she had a list of a million ways to avoid looking at Angel. She just hoped that a million would be enough.
"I want to hear what happened in Rome."
"You know what-"
"Your side. I want you to tell me."
And she did. Because she hadn't had a close friend in five years, because she had never told anyone this story, had only relived in her mind until it played behind her eyelids at night, she told him.
"Ren had just taken her first steps. We were up in my apartment and I was holding a jar of baby food, getting ready for lunch, and she just pulled herself up and lunged for it. She fell down right after, but it was her first step. I was so excited. I picked her up and we went downstairs to Giles's apartment. I didn't even lock my door." She felt cold as she spoke and almost stopped- talking wasn't helping- but continued on because she still wanted someone else to hear this
"Giles's door was locked when we got down there, but I didn't even notice. I was focused on Ren and I turned the knob and I wasn't paying attention to my twist...Remember how I used to do that?"
He nodded and that simple gesture made the world come rushing back. She could feel the sun warming her hair, could hear Ren giggling in the other room. She had forgotten what it was like to sit with someone and tell them something personal and to have them understand. She had forgotten that Angel knew about her freaky strength- that she had to hold china carefully, that she had learned to fix the knob in the shower herself after she had broken it one too many times to be normal- and it didn't bother him. But the moment vanished as she remembered what came of letting someone into your life like that, letting them know all your secrets. Just as she had remembered understanding, she recalled betrayal.
"They were meeting inside. Even Dawn was there. I thought maybe they just didn't want to bother me because I had been so busy with Ren, I had ignored the slaying.
"'It will kill her,' Willow was saying and I was all set to step in and ask what would kill who, but then I saw that Dawn was crying and Giles had that determined look on his face.
"'We must tell her,' he said. 'Buffy has to know about this.'
"I stepped out with Ren in my arms. She was always quiet, Angel, even as a baby. She looked at everyone, she looked at her family, and they looked away from her.
"I asked what was going on and they told me about the prophecy. That Ren would save all the slayers, would cut a swathe through the demon world. And that she would die in the process."
Angel's arm had crept across the table and was clutching on to hers as she looked into his face.
"She's me, Angel. She's me and you and Dawn because somehow everyone I love has to be sacrificed for the world. And I ran because I refuse to put her on the altar because a thousand years ago some monk decided that the Powers had spoken to him. I killed Ren's mother. I made her a slayer when she wasn't ready for it, when she was trying to protect her baby, when that had cursed me since I was fifteen, and she died because of it. I cannot let that happen to Ren."
Her voice had stayed low the whole time despite her vehemence. Ren was in the next room and her daughter could not be disturbed, even as Buffy became intense, intent on showing Angel that she would not come back with him, that she would not let them train her daughter to be her own killer. Ren would not become another brave little soldier, trooping off to fight for humanity.
"She's only a girl, Angel, and she's so small. I won't give her up to this. I have a list of all the things I want her to be able to do. And she will do them." Her tone was at once fierce and fanatically sure before it became pleading. "I never got those stories of mothers throwing cars off their kids, but now I do. I would do anything for Ren. I died for Dawn. If I could die for Ren, if that would do anything to help, I would do it without thinking." She looked into his face without seeing him. "When it's your child, there's nothing you wouldn't do for them."
She felt suddenly murderously furious. "How do you know, Angel? You just get everything, you feel everything?" She threw her fork so that it embedded itself in the wall above his stove. "There are some things that you cannot understand."
"I have a son."
She knew that she was breathing and that she was not dead because she could hear the clock and that stupid Spongebob laugh. But then hearing was supposed to be the last sense to go, so maybe she was on her way.
"What?" It came out weakly, lacking all the anger and grief of everything she had been saying for the last half hour, but it was still a word and a relevant one and she was grateful just for that.
He looked at her directly, forced her to look into the Angel-brown of his eyes. "When I was still a vampire. Darla was resurrected to torture me and to bring Angelus out. I went...very dark for a while. I fired my crew and eventually slept with Darla before kicking her out and starting to climb back to myself. A few months later she showed up again, pregnant. The baby was prophesized and she couldn't abort it. She killed herself so he could be born...Connor."
"And where is Connor now?" Her voice sounded high and uncomfortable and she tried to change it, tried to make it the bored, polite tone she used to ask about Evelyn's grandchildren because if he knew how deeply he could hurt her, that gave him a weapon and it was one that not even the heaviest broadsword could combat.
Angel took a picture out of his wallet, which made everything that was happening more surreal. She felt as if she should be taking the picture from his hand, Oh, what a handsome boy you've got there, just a quick glance and hand it back. Instead she examined it.
She did not see much resemblance. His hair was lighter than Angel's, his eyes blue. The boy might have been Angel's height, but it was difficult to tell. In the picture, he was balanced against a tree, his arms around the waist of a girl with short black hair, streaked red along the sides of her face. His face was open, but there was a protectiveness to it, as if the boy were a particularly tenacious guard dog raised from birth to protect this girl. That readiness to fight to the death for another person was the only thing she could find in common with Angel as she compared their features, looking up at his face and then down at the boy...man's.
"How can this be your son?" She handed the picture back. He held it in his hand, contemplating it himself. She noticed how careful he was with it as he tucked it back into his wallet.
"He was taken to a hell dimension by an old enemy of mine. Time there is different than time here. When he came back he was older. There were all these prophecies about him. They called him The Destroyer, Buffy." For the first time, she reached out to touch his hand. It was an unconscious, automatic gesture, a reflex she wished that she did not have. She recognized the pain in his face as the same expression that was on hers when she thought of the future that had been laid out for her daughter.
"He hated me when he came back. After everything that happened, he tolerates me now. This woman," he pointed to the picture, "she's Charlotte. They're going to get married. Eventually. Maybe."
It was a father's look on his face, and that was why she believed that he was not lying. Angel would have felt guilty for letting anything happen to another person, but the way he looked now was inimitable. It was the same lovingly exasperated expression that she knew she wore when Ren asked too many unintentionally rude questions in public or took what seemed like ages to decide between a chocolate cookie and a pink-frosted one.
"So you do know," she said, trying to pretend there was no catch in her voice. "But if you know, how can you ask me to give up my baby?"
"I'm not going to tell you what to do," he told her, voice too gentle. "But I would probably do the same thing that you're doing. Although I might have gone to a remote island rather than just Massachusetts." He smiled slightly, teasing, and she held herself firm against smiling back. "I'm not going to steal her from you, Buffy. I'll leave the choice up to you."