Buffy avoided Angel for the next few days. It wasn't hard or even particularly purposeful. She didn't wander around the building or the town, stayed either at work or at home, still trying to figure out what to do about Ren. She sat her down, determined not to become her mother, and explained to Ren that some people are special and can't help being different. She told her to be gentle with things and people, but that it wasn't her fault that she had hurt someone. Ren seemed a little better after that, her behavior improving both at school and at home, but Buffy still worried. She could tell that it was not over yet. Ren was absent-minded and quiet and seemed to be in her own head most of the time. Buffy watched, frowning, and late at night she sat and wished for Giles or her mother. She wanted guidance and instead had only loneliness and fear.
Still, the next week was Valentine's Day, and on Sunday afternoon, Buffy and Ren went shopping for art supplies. Ren chattered happily about people Buffy couldn't remember her mentioning before, and she sighed. Her six-year-old seemed to be more popular than Cordelia had ever been.
As Buffy fumbled at the apartment door, Ren ignored her warning and picked open the spool of red ribbon they had bought. It was a thick roll edged by glossy cardboard and as Buffy managed to slip the key into the lock, the ribbon managed to slip from Ren's hands, unraveling along the hallway.
"Ren!" Buffy exclaimed, exasperated. "Go wrap it back up."
But after five minutes, this seemed to be more of a punishment for mother than daughter, so Buffy knelt and helped to rewind the spool. As they finished and Ren stretched the piece of tape back over to hold it on, a door behind them opened. Buffy's spine stiffened. She couldn't see Angel again with his insistent, infuriating calm, his do-the-right-thing attitude.
"Come on, sweetheart," she said, keeping her voice calm, "let's get in and get valentining."
But of course Ren's child radar made her lean around her mother's legs, asking, "Is that Angel?"
Sighing, Buffy turned around. But it wasn't Angel tying his shoelaces in the doorway of apartment 4E. She saw a man's shape and darkish hair, but it wasn't until he looked up that she recognized him.
"You've gotta be Buffy," Connor said. He had a quiet voice and Buffy appreciated that he didn't move toward her or seem to expect her to approach him. They simply watched each other from the down the hall. After a moment, the woman from Connor's picture came out too, sunglasses perched on her head. She handed Connor a coat before putting hers on, and she noticed Buffy and a silent, confused Ren in less than a minute.
Her accent was English, but tinted with what Buffy guessed was Indian ancestry. She had changed the streaks in her hair from red to purple. "Hello, Buffy," she said, calm and familiar.
"How do you know my mommy?" Ren asked, breaking Buffy's mute stare.
"Someone who loves her very much told me about her," Charlotte said before Buffy could reply.
"Is it Angel?"
Charlotte laughed softly as she and Connor moved toward the stairs. "On the nose, darling," and the two of them clipped quietly down.
Ren made suspicious eyebrows at Buffy as they made the large stack of cards for the children in her class but didn't ask about Angel or the two young strangers who had appeared in his apartment, and by the time dinner was ready, she had moved on to something else, the odd encounter apparently forgotten.
Buffy tried to be inconspicuous the next morning, depressing the button to turn off the alarm seconds after it rang, taking the kettle off the burner just as it began to whistle and pulling the door gently closed instead of letting it swing. All day, as she walked Ren to school, as she opened the shop, as she gave her opinion to women as they came in and tried on pants or blouses, as she rang up purchases, picked Ren up from school, made dinner and put her to bed, she thought about leaving. She had told herself that Angel wouldn't tell, that he would keep Ren's location a secret. She had rationalized staying this long, saying that it wasn't good for Ren to move now that she was in school, now that she was settled, now that odd things were happening to her. But now things were spinning out of control. Two more people knew where they were and they were people she had never known and never trusted.
As she cleaned out Ren's backpack that night, reclaiming her lunchbox to pack it up for the next day, she thought about packing the bag with clothes instead, taking the emergency stash of cash and travel documents, bundling her sleepy daughter into a car and driving away. But she was nearly in tears as she unwedged some crumpled valentines that Ren had failed to give to the other children in her class. Once upon a time she had told Angel that it was never over and she had believed it. But now she was alone, she had lost her cobbled-together family, had lost her hope, and whatever was coming for her baby was getting frighteningly close.
She breathed deeply in and out as there was a knock on the door, steeling herself at the inevitable bad news that would come with a visitor so late at night. But it was Charlotte on the other side and Buffy felt the tears coming back as she extended a mug of hot cocoa topped with a sweet swirl of whipped cream.
"Thought you might be in need of this. I've heard a rumor that things are getting a little out of hand around here."
It had been a long time since Buffy had had a friend, just a friend who was hers. The couple who owned the shop where she worked were kind and paid her probably more than they could really afford to, and there were a few mothers and fathers who she could stand to the side and chat with while their kids played together at a park or a birthday party, and of course there was Angel who would help her if she asked though she didn't know if his was the kind of help she needed. But here was Charlotte, extending a mysterious, history-less hand, and Buffy took the mug and wrapped her palms around it.
"Thank you," she said automatically, and without her consent, her mouth opened, wanting to invite Charlotte in. There was a perfect image in her mind of curling up on the couch with Charlotte on the other end. She couldn't hear the exact words, but she could see herself speaking. She could see herself laughing a little. "Have a good night," she said instead and closed the door.