The next evening she locked the door once Ren was asleep and walked the few steps down the hall to Angel's apartment. She left the cleaned mug by the door and stepped back, almost turned to go. But then she imagined someone coming out in the morning, distracted by thoughts of the day, juggling keys and gloves and a newspaper. She heard the crunch of broken pottery. She sighed, picked the mug back up and knocked, crossing her fingers that it would be Charlotte who answered.
It was Connor, but she was still relieved. He was Angel's child with another woman, yes, the first born that she could now never give him. Seeing him should have hurt her, but at least it wasn't Angel himself.
"Don't say I didn't earn my homemaker stripes," she said, handing the cup over. "Thank Charlotte for me. I won't torture her for the secret ingredient, but someday someone might."
"She grinds her own cinnamon." He lifted the mug a little, half saluting her. "No torture necessary, although I'm pretty sure Char could take it."
"You're a lucky man, then. Hang on to your torture-resistant woman."
Connor smirked. "I'll do my best."
The conversation seemed to be over. Buffy nodded and turned away. A few steps later, Connor said her name. She stopped, but didn't face him. "Just so you know, he's been doing the same. Hanging on, even if you think he's letting go."
She didn't answer him until she was back in her own living room. Back against the door, she whispered to herself, "All he ever seems to do is let go."
Buffy had always been of the opinion that February rather than April was the cruelest month, and this one was no different. Time seemed to drag over gray days that were cold and rainy, but not chilled enough for snow. Buffy brought Ren to the store with her on Saturday. Lisa and Marguerite, the owners, allowed her to count change and hang up clothes from the pair of small dressing rooms. Not long had passed since Angel had found her on the street in the middle of the night, but she seemed to have overcome it more quickly than Buffy would ever have expected. Her teachers reported no further incidents. In fact, both they and Buffy had noticed that Ren seemed even more animated than she had been before Angel arrived. She chattered constantly, talking about more friends than Buffy could remember her ever mentioning.
After work, Buffy and Ren walked down the street. Each carried an umbrella, Buffy's a sensible black and Ren's red with black spots and nylon eyes that could form a small ladybug canopy, although it had stopped raining so it was closed for the moment. Ren wore matching rain boots and splashed through the puddles left behind as they walked to the library and then to the tailor to pick up a pair of pants that Buffy had sent to be hemmed.
"Mommy, do you wonder how olden-day people got their pants?"
No Buffy wanted to say. I stopped wondering about anything a long time ago. But she just pretended that she hadn't heard, reaching over the counter for the plastic covered pants.
It was raining again when they walked out, but only lightly. The walk home was short, so neither of them minded, although Buffy still grumbled to herself about how much she had been charged for a simple seam. Ren put up her umbrella anyway, twirling it over her shoulder and skipping through the street and Buffy couldn't keep her frown. After grilled cheese that night, she put on the DVD of Singing in the Rain. Ren didn't fully follow the plot and fell asleep halfway through, but seemed to enjoy at least the singing, dancing and bright sets. Buffy covered her up and went to the kitchen. She began washing the dishes from dinner. Usually she did this quietly, but suddenly the silence seemed overbearing and she turned the radio on, very low. As she rinsed the frying pan, she heard Ren begin to talk from the other room. It was something she had done at least once a month since she was a baby, starting with energetic gurgling and through the years becoming full-fledged rants and conversations. Buffy grinned, anticipating new mumbles about tigers at dinner or flowering coats. But instead of hushed random murmurings, her daughter said, very clearly, "How's forever? Does forever work for you?"
Not caring that it was late, Buffy went to Angel's. She smacked her palm against the door until he opened it. He was in loose pants and a t-shirt, looking vaguely sleepy, as if he had been lying in the dark for a while but hadn't yet fallen asleep.
"Did you tell her?" Buffy demanded, pushing past him into the living room. "Have you been telling Ren about us?"
"Of course not."
"So are you controlling her dreams? Are you and Connor and Charlotte doing some witchy memory transference thing?"
"Buffy," Angel says, his voice more heartbreakingly gentle than she can ever remember it being, "It's not something that I'm doing. It's what was meant to happen."
She paused. Her fingers flexed. It made her remember the million games of This Little Piggy she had played with Ren as a baby and a toddler. Quietly and deliberately she said, "I can't leave Ren alone. Come with me."
They went to Buffy's apartment and sat in the living room. Buffy let Ren's feet rest in her lap. Angel took the chair. "Alright," Buffy said. "Tell me."
Angel started his story around the time she had started ignoring her work with the slayers. He told her about a case that he had had back in LA, something about a Slayer named Dana who heard others in her head.
"Fascinating. Focus on Ren," Buffy nudged impatiently.
"The daughter of a Slayer who wasn't supposed to be a Slayer, Buffy. Since you left, Giles kept translating the prophecy. There's more to it. It's not vague like other ones are. Ren will cut down the demons who continue to hunt the Slayers you made."
"I still don't understand."
He left his chair, so he was kneeling in front of her. He moved the fringe of Ren's blanket between his fingers. "Probably for months now, she's been hearing the voices in her head. She might have taken on other mannerisms, other memories."
It flashed through Buffy's head, the tiny clues she had not even thought twice about. Ren's favorite dinner had changed. She had spoken about friends who Buffy had never heard of. At least ten valentines had returned at the bottom of Ren's backpack, not because Ren had been too shy to give them but because they were written to people who were not members of her class, who belonged to other times and people and lives.
Buffy said, "Oh," very softly. It was the quietest thing that they had said that evening, but Ren stirred slightly, swiping a hand across her eyes and taking a deep breath before settling back down.
"They would have started quietly. She would have barely noticed it. It isn't your fault that you didn't. But it will get worse. Giles and Willow can't figure out how long it will take, but eventually Ren won't be able to tell who she is. It will be like when you could read minds. Her body won't die, but she, her self, will get lost within all that noise in her mind. It will draw off part of the energy that was put into the new slayers, it will make them less vulnerable and switch off what was making it so easy for demons to track them down."
"So how do I stop it? What do I kill, who do I find to change it?"
But the look he gave her was one she had never seen on his face before, a mixture of sadness and regret and deep, deep pity. "Buffy, prophecies…we can change them or try to work around them and they might not come true the way we think, but they will happen. All of them will happen."
"No," she gritted out, and shoved him towards the door. She locked it, refused to answer his light knocks and gently-gently put Ren, still sleeping deeply, into her bed.
Her Angel avoidance continued over the next week, but this time he wasn't cooperating. Although she managed to urge Ren down the stairs the next morning so they wouldn't be seen by Connor and Charlotte as they, judging by the suitcases out in the hall, prepared to return home, it wasn't nearly enough. Angel hung around in the lobby and seemed to know her schedule because he appeared in the street outside the shop when she came in and went home. She ignored him, though, refusing to even make stalker- related quips when she passed him, and tugging Ren along to avoid chatting.
She watched Ren with an eagle eye and began to notice what she had been overlooking. Her daughter's mood changed rapidly in a way that was not altogether normal, especially for Ren's usually even-tempered attitude. She became pushier about having friends over when she had always accepted that as something that they didn't do. They went to Boston one weekend, visiting the Children's Museum and walking around the Freedom Trail and Ren seemed to recognize the places they passed. Buffy wondered if those were Faith's memories surfacing. She had to resist covering Ren's eyes and ears as if to shield her from curse words or public nudity. But when Ren called "Buffy, look at this" so naturally that she didn't register that it had happened, Buffy realized that even total sensory deprivation couldn't protect Ren from what was going on in her mind.
Buffy had chosen Salem because of its heavily magical, aura damping properties that made her and Ren magically untraceable. Until now she had never taken advantage of its dozens of easily accessible occult shops. In the days following Angel's news, she had spent her lunch breaks moving between them, looking for prophecies or spells, anything that might let her keep her whole and perfect daughter. She had never been the researcher, had always had people better than she at reading and figuring things out, so if there was a clue, she did not manage to find it.
Still, she got babysitters for Ren that week, using a niece of Marguerite's one night and a student recommended by the high school the next. She let them eat whatever they wanted and watch TV, but no one came back a second time. She couldn't risk them getting comfortable in her home.
She used the night hours to hunt through the cemeteries, something she had tried to do a few times year wherever they lived, wanting to make a safe place for Ren to live. This was far more thorough, because she was looking for something with any information. But the only time a vampire seemed to know what she was talking about, the Tusmark demon to which he directed her just laughed in her face.
Buffy would have thought that an axe as threatening as the one she held would elicit some kind of fear. "Why are you laughing? Is the pain of my daughter funny to you?"
"No, merely the futility of your quest," it rumbled, still chuckling. The chuckle made Buffy put an extra umph into her swing when she killed it. She regretted it a minute later, when her only lead was dead and there was a lot of bile on her blouse, but it was still satisfying.
She did remember a witch who offered her services to those who could find her. Buffy managed to track her down to a small basement apartment. She felt a ripple of energy run over her as she came through the door, the half familiar, half thrilling pulse of a warding spell. She missed Willow with a sudden, sharp, stabbing ache that she suppressed quickly.
The witch sat in front of a dish of water. "Scrying is my particular gift, Buffy Summers," she said, gesturing distractedly to a chair.
"Anne Winters now."
"Because of the people who are following you," the witch nodded. She glanced up. Her gaze was shrewd. "If you were truly looking to escape, do you not think you would have chosen a more difficult name to guess?"
"Regardless." Buffy sat. "Did your blue-plate special water give you any secrets for protecting scared little girls?"
The witch took out a pouch. "Not for girls, but for their mothers, I have this. For wishing on every night."
Buffy dangled the little bag in front of her face. It smelled odd but not bad, like a foreign market. "Will this work?"
"What do you think?"
"It's sugar pills instead of heart medicine," Buffy sighed. She flicked the bag onto the table. "Why won't anyone help?"
Buffy could see a tear in the witch's eye, or maybe it was just a trick of the light. "We would help if we could, but this is beyond our power. This is a destiny that your daughter will meet." Buffy took the bag anyway and kept it in her pocket, turning it over at odd moments, a useless talisman, but the only hope she had.