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Absolution: Part I

by Minim Calibre

It felt almost like the last time. She'd grabbed a bag, bought her ticket, and left a short note on her bed. Only this time, the bag was weekend-light, the ticket round-trip, and the note said she'd be back soon. Buffy shifted in her cracked vinyl seat and tried to ignore the smell of stale sweat and urine that clung to the interior of the bus.

The steady rhythm of the vehicle lulled her into a state midway between waking and sleeping. She stared out the window, occasionally focusing on something--pebbles in the asphalt or shrubs off the shoulder, it didn't much matter. Every time she focused, she let herself think before letting the scenery blur again, leaving the thought trapped on the roadside. Buffy knew it was only a short-term solution, a mental coat check. She'd collect her problems on the return trip. She didn't need them where she was going.

The worn-down sigh of the brakes startled her. She got up slowly, still stiff from the ride and the lingering effects of the demon sting, collected her things, and headed to a pay phone to call a cab. It cost more than she remembered, so she put a dollar in the vending machine for some stale candy she had no intention of eating, then headed back to the phone booth to make the call.

The driver was surly, and she was pretty certain he took the long way to the motel, but she didn't have the energy to argue. Buffy paid him, frowning at how much of her available cash she'd had to hand him. Lately, it seemed like everything came with too high a cost.

She checked in, ignoring the leering suggestions of the manager, and went to her room. With its faded shag carpet and beaten old furniture, it reminded her of Faith's room. She wondered why she found the idea comforting.

Buffy set her bags on the bed and locked the door. She undressed quickly and headed to the shower, wondering why it was that sitting on a couch for a few hours didn't leave her sticky and gritty, but sitting on a bus for the same amount of time did. She showered as quickly as she could, then did her best to dry off with the small threadbare towel provided. The jeans and t-shirt she picked out clung to her still-damp body, but she figured that as long as she was clean, she could cope with clammy.

She slid into her shoes and out the door, heading down road until she found the path to the beach. It looked almost the same as she remembered it. There was the strangely listing tree that Dawn had insisted on climbing when she was four, and the spot where she'd fallen and ended up lucky she only got the wind knocked out of her (except she hadn't, but Buffy didn't know if she had any memories about the tree that weren't monk-made), and the curve in the trail where Buffy had panicked because her mom and dad had rounded the corner when she wasn't paying attention and she'd thought they'd abandoned her. She hadn't been back since she'd learned she was the Slayer. It was safe here, the only ghosts from the past happy ones.

The sand crunched under her feet, and she wondered if it was worth the risk of broken glass and needles to take off her shoes and feel it squishing between her toes.

"Guess even the safe places have their dangers," she muttered.

Buffy wandered along the beach, admiring the sunset and losing herself in memory, a piece of driftwood swinging from her hand just in case. She didn't notice the man leaning up against a log until she'd tripped over his legs. She went sprawling, her makeshift stake flying from her hand as she caught herself.

"Ouch." She rubbed her wrists as she got up, and turned to glare at the man, wondering why the hell he hadn't told her she was about to step on him.

The bandage across his neck brought her up short, as did the empty look of recognition in the dark blue eyes.

She frowned, trying to place him. When she did, her eyes widened and she almost laughed.

"Wesley?"

He closed his eyes, and she noticed the tension in his face. He looked like he hadn't slept or shaved in days.

"What are you doing here?"

A quick expression of exasperation crossed his face, and he grabbed the pen and notepad off the ground next to him. He scribbled something quickly, and handed her the pad.

Does it matter? She read.

"You look like hell," she said, handing the pad back.

He wrote another message.

As do you, Ms. Summers.

"I feel like it, too," she mumbled.

Wesley raised his eyebrows.

She felt the urge to clarify.

"It hasn't been the easiest of resurrections. Lots of stuff has... happened, and I just wanted to leave it behind me for a couple of days."

She slumped down next to him and stared out at the water.

"I've tried so hard and it hasn't been enough, not for any of them, not for me."

"Besides," she added quietly, "I think after... well, I think that maybe it's a good idea for me to give them some space. Do you have any idea what it feels like to know you've betrayed almost everyone you care about for an illusion?"

The harsh inhalation of breath startled her, but not as much as the raw pain she saw on Wesley's face when she turned to look at him.

She suddenly realized what a bad idea it was for someone weakened by an obviously recent wound to be out by himself waiting for the sun to set.

"Do you even care that any vamps who happen to be out tonight will smell the blood on you from a mile away?"

He shrugged and picked up the notepad.

Not especially.

She stared at him, wondering what to say.

"I used to come here when I was younger," she stated suddenly. "I thought it was the most beautiful place on earth. We'd get a room in town for the weekend, and Dawn and I would build sandcastles and play in the water while Mom and Dad relaxed in the sun. I don't remember them ever fighting here, but maybe we stopped coming before that really started. It was always so peaceful. "

"I came out here because I needed that again. The peace. It's the one place I thought I could go where I wouldn't have to remember that I'm the Slayer, but I guess I was wrong. "

"It's not you," she added. "Even before I tripped over you I was prepared."

Buffy pointed to her discarded stick. "Exhibit A, one strong piece of driftwood."

"I was finished. Done. At peace. And then I wasn't, and suddenly, nothing made sense anymore. Not my friends, not my family, not my enemies. And I made the least sense of any of it. The idea that it was all just a hallucination, that none of the pain and confusion was real made so much sense to me. So much sense that I almost killed everyone I loved so I didn't have to face the reality of my life."

"The reality is my friends decided to bring me back from the dead because they loved me and they thought I was in hell, and now I can't even talk to them, because they're still filled with some fucked-up combination of guilt over what they did and frustration with my inability to get over being ripped out of heaven."

"The only person I could talk to was Spike, which is wrong, and I ended up fucking him so I wouldn't have to listen to what he had to say, which is even worse."

The expression on the ex-Watcher's face wasn't the disbelief or disgust she'd expected. It looked uncomfortably like compassion.

Any port in a storm?

Buffy gave a wan smile. "I guess so."

She'd never noticed how young Wesley was. At 18, she'd just lumped him in the adult category and left it at that. She hadn't really thought about him much, even before he'd left Sunnydale. After that, the only time she thought about him was when she'd gone to LA to confront Faith. Despite the lines of worry and exhaustion on his face, she figured he was only about a decade her senior. Only five or so years older than Riley. Not that she was thinking about Wesley that way.

"Where are you staying?" she asked.

He shrugged once more and wrote I hadn't given it any thought.

"Why don't you come back to my motel?" Buffy winced at how that had come out. "I mean, it's late, you don't look like you're in any shape to go anywhere tonight, and besides, I think the manager kind of expects me to show up with a strange man, and I'd hate to disappoint him. Not that this is a come-on... far from it, I mean, you're a good-looking man, but I'm so not ready to deal with that sort of thing, not after Spike, and besides, you used to be my Watcher, and you don't look like you're in any shape to..." She stopped as he pressed a note into her hand.

Yes, I'll stay. And yes, I'm well aware that it was not a come-on.

She smiled again, a twist of rue to it. "I must have sounded pretty stupid. Want to head back now?"

It wasn't really a question. She stood up, grabbing the closest stick.

"Follow me. It's not far."

She waited until he was standing and gently took him by the hand to lead up to the trail. They walked slowly and silently back to her room, pausing occasionally so he could catch his breath.

"It's not very impressive," she warned him as she unlocked the door, "but at least it's inside and there's a bed. Which you should take, by the way. I'll be fine in the chair."

Wesley was too tired to argue. He set his backpack next to her bags before staggering to the bathroom. Buffy listened to the water run while she arranged a blanket and pillow on the chair. He came out as she was turning back the covers.

"Make yourself comfortable--well, as comfortable as you can. I think the mattress has seen better days. Possibly the Crusades. I'm going to go brush my teeth and let you get ready for bed now."

She took her time in the bathroom, flossing carefully and brushing until she heard him slide under the sheets. He was already asleep when she walked back into the room, so she quietly turned off the lights, slipped off her jeans, and curled up in the chair. The light from the parking lot kept the room too bright for comfort, so she covered her face with the blanket and drifted off.

The sound of a struggle woke her. She bolted out of the chair ready to fight whatever it was until she realized "it" was just Wesley, face turned towards his pillow as he fought against his nightmare. Buffy shook him awake as gently as she could. His eyes flew open and he raised his hands as if to shield himself from someone.

"Shhh... Wesley, it was just a dream."

Not knowing what else to do, she sat next to him and wrapped her arms around him. He clung to her as though his life depended on it.

"Shhh... it's okay. It'll all be okay."

She stroked his hair and kissed his forehead and cheeks as she rocked him until his panicked gasps changed to harsh, nearly silent sobs. Buffy felt his shaking ease, so she kept caressing and kissing him until somehow one of them shifted as she was about to press her lips to his cheek and she found herself kissing the corner of his mouth instead.

Her tongue darted out before she could think, teasing his lips until they opened. She'd forgotten lips could be so warm. She covered his mouth with her own, hands tangling in his hair as she tasted him, gently licking the curve of his lower lip. A hint of hesitation, and he was returning the kiss, lips moving against her, hands loosening their grip to stroke her back. The warm breath mingling with her own felt foreign and familiar and right, and suddenly she found herself on top of him, pressing into his body urgently as his hands slid under her shirt.

His heart pounded against her chest. She rocked against him, hips echoing the rhythm. The cool air of the room hit flushed skin as he pulled her shirt over her head, leaving her clad in just her bra and a thin pair of panties.

It was too much clothing.

She sat up, pulled off first her bra and then his shirt. Kissed him again as she pushed his boxers down while he slid her underwear off of her and slipped himself inside her.

The coupling was raw and quick. She was gone by the time he woke up, leaving just the room key and a note of thanks.


"I'm sorry... what?"

The doctor's face was a study in learned kindness. "Is there a chance that you could be pregnant?"

The hum of the fluorescent lights seemed to grow louder in time with the buzzing in her brain.

"Maybe--just a slight chance. More of an off-chance really, almost a no-chance." Buffy wasn't sure who exactly she was trying to convince. "I had a light flow a week later."

"Flow or spotting?" he asked.

"Spotting, I guess."

"It's possible that what you noticed was implantation bleeding. It's fairly common, and your symptoms are consistent with pregnancy. At this point, I can't think of what else it could be. Everything else checks out as normal."

A quick test and a physical exam confirmed the worst-case scenario, and explained weeks of fatigue and dizziness that she'd just attributed to the most recent string of nasty events in her life. That is, until the nasty events had gone out with a bang and the symptoms remained. One encounter, pushed to the back of her mind after Tara's death and everything that followed it, had set a reminder notice, delivery scheduled for mid-December.

She could kick herself for being so stupid. She hadn't thought of the possibility until the doctor mentioned it. In her defense, contraception wasn't really an issue when one's main partner was, well, dead. So perhaps it slipping her mind during an impromptu fling with someone who was still breathing was understandable. Or maybe she was just rationalizing so she'd feel like less of an idiot.

The urge to revisit the comforting insane asylum hallucination was strong, as was the urge to just curl up in her bed and not deal. Buffy let herself in the front door planning on indulging in a vacation from coping for the rest of the day. Life, however, had other plans in the form of an overly-concerned fifteen year old girl.

"Buffy, did you find out what's wrong? You're fine, right? Just tired?"

"Just pregnant," she replied absently.

"Buffy, that isn't funny. Stop joking and tell me what you found out."

She looked at Dawn and frowned. "I just did."

"Buffy!"

"I'm going to take a nap, Dawnie. I'm tired, and I can't really think right now. Can we talk about this later?"

She walked up the stairs, not bothering to pay attention to Dawn's protests. Her head was spinning, her stomach rolling, and she just wanted to lay down on her bed until it stopped. The rolling got worse, and she sprinted to the bathroom just in time to lose her breakfast. Buffy hoped the nausea was a one-time deal brought on by stress. She rinsed her mouth out and stared at her reflection. She looked the same. She felt the same.

She still couldn't quite believe she was pregnant, had been for several weeks, in fact. It wasn't the sort of thing you normally overlook. Of course, she still couldn't quite believe Tara was dead, Willow had flipped, or any of the rest of it, but unfortunately, not being able to wrap your head around something wasn't the same as it not being true.

Telling Dawn had probably been a mistake, but Buffy hadn't been able to filter the words before they came out of her mouth. At least it was out in the open and she wouldn't have to worry about hiding anything. Oh God, how was she going to break it to everyone else? With any luck, they were all as shell-shocked as she was and it wouldn't be a big deal. Although she'd thought that before, and it had kind of backfired.

She somehow doubted Giles would find anything to laugh about at this turn of events.

Crawling into bed, she wrapped the comforter around her body and tried to sleep. As tired as she was, it should have been easy, but her mind wouldn't shut down enough for it to happen. She had no idea what she was going to do, and very little time to make up her mind one way or the other, seeing as she was already nine weeks along.

On the one hand, there was no way in hell she could raise a baby, look after Dawn, and keep down the demon population of Sunnydale. Even being pregnant was a liability. She shouldn't be patrolling, let alone fighting. On the other hand, well, there'd been too much death in her life over the last year and a half, and something inside her recoiled at the idea of termination. Maybe it was something left over from whatever the monks had done to her when they made Dawn, but she just didn't think she could do it. She covered her still-flat stomach with her palm and tried to think of any way out of the mess she'd gotten herself into.

"Come in," she said when she heard the knock on her door.

Her sister stood in the doorway watching her, face filled with shock and a touch of pity. Great, now Dawn was feeling sorry for her. That couldn't be good.

"Do you want something, Dawn?"

"I just thought I'd see if you needed anything. Water, milk, orange juice. Well, we're out of the orange juice, but I think there's some Tang in one of the cupboards."

Buffy made an effort to smile. "Thanks, Dawnie. A glass of water would be nice. But no Tang. I think it's solidified by now, anyway."

"I could chip it out and we could pretend it was candy." Buffy supposed her face must have shown how unappetizing the idea was, because Dawn quickly back-pedaled. "Or not. In fact, while I'm in the kitchen, I'll just throw it out, okay?"

She hurried from the room and came back a few minutes later with a glass of water, which she handed to Buffy.

"Okay. The Tang is history. Buffy, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know. I wish I did."

"Well, anything I can do? To help, I mean."

"You could start with your chores while I do some bills before patrol."

"You're going to go patrolling? That kind of seems like a bad idea, seeing as you're--you know." Dawn made a weird motion with her hands to pantomime a swollen gut.

"Pregnant? I know, thanks for the visual. Patrolling is the mother of all bad ideas. Worse even than Tang chips, but someone has to do it."

"Can't you maybe take a night off? You're probably kind of distracted, and I don't want you to get hurt. Besides, aren't the bad nasties still in hiding since Willow went crazy? I mean, you could totally skip a night. Please?"

Dawn had a good point. Well, a couple of them. "Fine. I'll stay in for tonight, if it makes you feel better."

She took the water with her to the dining room and sat down with a stack of bills and her checkbook. New glass for the windows had eaten up any cushion she had, and it looked like another month of juggling just to keep everything running. Joy. She wrote out as many as she could manage to pay and still afford to eat, then shoved the rest of the bills under a placemat so she wouldn't have to look at them. Frustrated and exhausted, she went back to bed.

At midnight, she was still awake and staring at nothing. She frowned and did some quick calculating. It was morning where Giles was. She could call him, tell him, and then sleep knowing he'd be able to give her some advice. She grabbed the phone and dialed his number.

"Hello?" He sounded like she'd woken him.

"Giles? It's me. Do you have a few minutes? Did I wake you up?"

"Oh, hello Buffy. Yes of course, and no, I've been up since about four. Willow was having a bad night, I'm afraid."

She didn't bother with preliminaries. "Giles, I'm pregnant."

"Are you quite sure?" he didn't sound disappointed, just tired.

"Yes. Confirmed beyond any shadow of a doubt."

The phone was silent except for the faint sound of a throat being cleared.

"Giles?"

"I'm still here. Buffy, when--how--did this happen?"

"The usual way. I went away overnight after the hallucinations and the duct tape and ran into someone I knew from L.A. It just happened, that's all. Giles, I know you're busy, you've got your hands full with Willow, but is there..." her voice broke.

"Is there any way I could come back? Yes, of course. I'll make the arrangements. I should be there before the end of the week."

"Thank you."

"It's quite late where you are, Buffy. Get some sleep, I'll call you when I get into Sunnydale."

"Good night, Giles. And thank you again." She hung up the phone and let herself give in to the tears that had been threatening all day.

Crying brought back the nausea as mucus flowed from her sinuses down her throat. Instead of sleeping, she spent the rest of the night alternating between puking and crying.

"I'm a mess," she told her reflection with its swollen red eyes and blotched skin. Strange what difference a few hours could make. "I should be patrolling, or planning, or something. Not standing in a bathroom blowing my nose, throwing up, blowing my nose some more, and feeling sorry for myself."

The cold porcelain of the hexagonal tiles on the floor felt good under her feet. She touched her hot face and decided to see if it felt as good against her cheek. It did. She stretched out next to the bathtub and fell asleep to the chirping of birds.

//Tara handed her a tissue. "It's all going to be just fine, you'll see." "Tara, you're dead." "So were you, twice, right?" She was wearing the same thing she'd worn the day she was shot, but it was clean, the hole over her heart mended and the blood gone. "I know it's rough, but you'll get through it. You always do." "It's all I ever do. Just once, I'd like to not be getting through something. Why are you here?" "The same reason I was last time, to speak for her." "Are you going to tell me death is my gift? Because I'm sick of that. I'm sick of death." "No, not this time. You already know what you need to do." "Do I? Because I've got to tell you, I'm still not clear on the matter." Tara smiled, a wide, happy, knowing smile. "Yes you are. Trust your instincts, Buffy. I have to go now... tell Willow I love her, always." Then she vanished, leaving Buffy alone. No--her hand crept to her belly--not alone. Tara was right, it was all clear.//

When she woke up, there was a pillow under her head and a blanket draped over her. Dawn must have found her and decided to let her sleep. Her eyelids felt tight and stretched, her shoulders were stiff from sleeping on the floor, and her nose was raw from a night spent using toilet paper as tissue, but her stomach seemed stable and she felt a little better than she had the night before.

A shower had improved her mobility and her mood. She thought about the dream again. It felt prophetic, but maybe it was just the hormones. It didn't matter; she'd made up her mind. She went to the kitchen for a glass of milk and found Dawn already there, washing the dishes.

"Giles is coming," she told her.

"You called him? I guess you must have, huh?"

"I'm going to go through with it, Dawn. After that, I don't know what's going to happen. I just know that this is something I have to do."

Dawn was quiet, her attention focused on the sudsy water.

"Dawnie? What's the matter, cat got your tongue?"

"You're sure? That this is what you want to do?"

"I'm sure that this is what I have to do. Does it bother you?"

"No, it's just... Buffy, what if they try to take me away from you again? Would they do that? I mean, you've quit your job, someone tried to kill you in your own yard, Tara was killed, you're pregnant. It doesn't really look good."

"Dad's finally paying some of your support, it's been quiet for a month, and social services hasn't been beating down our door. I think we'll be okay."

Dawn made a game attempt at a smile and went back to the dishes. "I hope so. I won't have to give up my room, will I?"

"I haven't thought that far ahead, and I'm not sure that I'm going to be the person raising this baby."

"I thought you said you were going through with it, having the baby."

"I am, but having and keeping are two different things. We'll see. I'm going to wait and see what Giles says before I decide what's going to happen after the baby gets here."

"When's Giles get here?"

"Soon. He's going to call me when he gets in."

"Buffy?"

"Yeah?"

"Who's is it? It can't be Spike's, because, well.. he's a vampire, but you kind of don't know any other guys except Xander and you didn't... not with Xander. Did you?" Dawn's eyes were round as she considered the possibilities.

"There's not really enough no in the world for that, Dawn. No, not Xander. It was just someone I ran into when I went away."

"Ran into as in knew already or ran into as in, well, ran into?"

"As in knew already, and no, I haven't told him, and no, I'm not telling you who he is. It's not important."

Dawn didn't say anything; she just dropped the subject and left the room. Buffy waited until her sister was upstairs, then walked over to the laptop Willow had left behind when she'd gone to England with Giles. A quick search of the online L.A. white pages pulled up just one Wyndam-Pryce. She copied down the phone number and address, wondering if she'd ever get up the nerve to use either.

The next two days passed like molasses. Buffy amused herself rewatching old movies, folding the towels, and doing laundry just so she could smell the clothes as they dried. There was something comforting about sitting on the basement stairs, the cool air scented with dryer sheets and dust. It was homey in a way the upstairs hadn't been since her mom's death. If she closed her eyes, she could see Joyce standing there, hands on hips as she tried to keep from opening the dryer before the buzzer sounded. She felt closer to her mother here than anywhere else.

She was rewashing already-clean whites when the phone rang. Mindful of her condition, and not really wanting to leave the basement and its ghosts behind, she let Dawn answer.

"Buffy! It's Giles." The call from upstairs roused her from her communion.

"Hang on, I'll be right there!"

She got up and bid her mother farewell, taking one last deep breath before going to take the call.


As it wasn't certain how long Giles would be in Sunnydale, it was decided that he'd stay in the house on Revello Drive rather than staying in a hotel. A taxi dropped him off, suitcase in hand. Buffy hugged him before giving him a chance to set it down.

"Make it better?" She tried for playful, but was pretty certain it had come out a little closer to pathetic.

He returned the hug as best he could with his free hand. "I'll see what I can do, but I'm afraid I don't really have much--well, any--experience with this sort of thing."

"That makes two of us, then." She detached herself from his warm, familiar form. "I've made Willow's--the spare room up for you."

"Thank you. Would you rather talk now, or wait until I'm settled in?"

"I'd rather hold off as long as humanly possible so I can cling frantically to my last few strings of denial and shreds of dignity, but I'll settle for waiting until you've at least had a chance to recover from the plane ride before letting you read me the riot act."

"Buffy, you may rest assured that I'm not going to be reading you the riot act. I'm here to help, not to lecture."

She hugged him again and let him go upstairs to unpack while she got things ready for dinner. It had been a while since she and Dawn had had anything like a sit-down meal. Not that Dawn was going to be home for this one; she'd gone over to Janice's, saying that she'd just be in the way when Buffy and Giles were talking. Buffy supposed she had a point, but still wished she'd be here for the food part of it. She'd save Dawn some leftovers, and maybe try to have a real meal again in a couple of days.

Dinner was unexpectedly uncomfortable. She played with her food, her appetite lost to nerves, until Giles finally set down his fork and cleared his throat. She was a little surprised when he didn't clean his glasses.

"Buffy, if you'd rather talk about all this now and get it over with, please feel free to do so."

She looked up from her plate with a wistful smile. "That obvious, was it?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so."

"You should finish eating. Airplane food is no substitute for actual food. I think I'm going to stick my plate in the fridge and come back to it when my stomach doesn't contain a fresh load of butterflies. Meet me on the couch when you're done?"

She fled the room, plate in hand, and settled on the couch to wait for him to finish. It didn't take long. He'd either eaten in haste, or (and she figured the second possibility was the more likely of the two) set his meal aside to come and talk with her before she freaked out.

"Giles, I don't know what to do. I'm scared, half going out of my mind. Dawn's made me stop patrolling, and I've gotten away with it so far, but I can't just not do it. Sooner or later, something's going to come up and I'm going to need to be out there. Only problem is, it's not just me I have to worry about any more."

He frowned a little before answering. "Have you thought about what you're going to do in the long term? This is a very serious situation, Buffy."

"Having it. I haven't thought much beyond that. As little sense as it makes, it's the only option I'm willing to look at. Take what I felt about Dawn when I had to think about choosing between her and the world, and make it about a million times stronger."

The glasses came off. She stifled a laugh as he cleaned them while collecting his thoughts. "I took the liberty of looking through all the materials the Council had on hand, but I'm afraid I couldn't find anything that dealt with this particular situation. Most Slayers don't..."

"Live long enough for it to be an issue? I didn't, but there were extenuating circumstances that nixed that, as you know."

Except for a slightly pained frown, he chose to ignore her comment. "It's something that, if it has happened, hasn't been documented. There's no precedent for it."

"So it's safe to say it's not in that handbook I didn't get?" Better living through flip responses, she thought when she heard the words.

"Yes, it's safe to say that this information is not covered in the handbook." He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. "Buffy, I felt it was best if I didn't inform the Council of your condition. I don't trust them to do what would be best for you under these circumstances. However, it isn't something that can be kept from them forever, and you need to keep that in mind when making plans."

"I know. If it helps, the closest I've come to planning is deciding to have it."

"Strange as it may seem, I find that not at all comforting. We'll try to take this one step at a time. Find some sort of a solution to the patrolling limitations first, and take the rest as we come to it. You'll need to tell the others, of course. They need to know what they'll be up against, what the stakes are."

"Dawn knows, and, well, Xander and Anya are really the only people left since the big blow up. Speaking of, will Willow be all right while you're over here?"

Giles threw her a look that managed to convey irritation and affection and a hint of disappointment that she'd even felt the need to ask the question. "She's in very good hands; there's nothing to worry about there."

"So tomorrow I tell Xander and Anya. Somehow, I'm not sure it will even register."

"They are, well, on speaking terms, aren't they?"

"If by speaking you mean occasionally saying a word or two to try and fool everyone into thinking they're just fine with each other, then yes. Anya's convinced him that it doesn't make any economic sense for one of them to move out when there's plenty of space and a lease-breaking penalty, but I'm getting the impression that their housing situation makes me and Kathy look like a match made in heaven."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"On the other hand, I'm pretty certain they're having sex again, so it's almost like nothing's changed."

Giles cleaned his glasses again. "Perhaps we should change the subject."

"Sorry. I guess that was a little more information than you needed. So, once again, I'm up against something the council hasn't faced. That's never been good."

The discussion shifted to the level of demonic activity, which was low, but steady--nothing out of the ordinary, which for Sunnydale was something out of the ordinary--and to the consideration of possible short-term solutions. Giles was unwilling to look any further ahead than a handful of months.

"Once your situation becomes known, the main factor in keeping things in check, which is fear of the Slayer, will be compromised. At that point, Buffy, I would say it's a safe bet that all hell will, as usual, break loose," he informed her.

Xander and Anya took it quietly, although Xander's "I'm trying not to be judgey, see I'm not judging" efforts were pretty transparent. Anya managed to say "Don't you wish..." before waving her hand and adding, "Forget that I said that. I'm pleased for you and your unborn human."

Following a suggestion of Anya's--she pointed out that they'd managed to survive one summer with no Buffy, so a summer with a slightly subfunctional Buffy would just involve a minor reworking of that arrangement--they worked out a patrolling system. Buffy basically acted as bait, drawing out the vampires so that Xander or Giles or Anya could dust them.

"It's all about creative accounting," Anya said a little too enthusiastically after their first night on the job. "The demons still think there's a Slayer after them, so the level of intimidation remains high, which buys us time."

"Slaying, the Enron way. That's Anya for you." Xander responded. She glared at him and he ducked his head. "I know. Insensitive."

The summer fashion for loose peasant blouses hid the evidence of Buffy's rapidly expanding girth for a couple of months, but her increased discomfort and exhaustion forced them to find a different solution to the patrolling issue. It was Xander who finally came up with it.

"I say we bribe 'em. Anya could tell us the best group to go with until Buffy's back in fighting shape. Who's with me here? Show of hands?"

Anya stuck up both of hers, beaming at her erstwhile fiance. "Xander is learning the importance of currency."

Buffy and Giles raised theirs weakly. It wasn't much, but it was the best they'd managed to come up with. When Xander and Anya left for the night, they sat in silence in the living room.

"It's not going to work, is it, Giles?" She was too tired to cry, no matter how tempting it was.

"The bribing? It could." He sounded as if he wanted to convince himself.

"I was thinking more along the lines of working motherhood."

"No, I'm afraid it won't. I'm sorry, Buffy."

"I guess that leaves adoption, huh?"

"I'm not certain that's the best solution, either," he frowned, looking about a decade older than usual. "There have been rumors, in the sort of circles where they'd be most damaging, about your pregnancy. It's hard to hide the fact that you're showing now, and your medical records, if compromised, would provide all the proof needed. The Council, if they got wind of this--and I have no doubt that they will--would be understandably curious about the offspring of a Slayer. I wouldn't put kidnapping or manipulation of the adoption process past them. Buffy, I haven't asked this, because it's clearly none of my business, but what about the father? Have you informed him? Does he know what you are?"

"No, and yes. And before you ask, yes, I think he would know what to do, and no, I'm not going to say who he is."

"In that case, you should contact him and inform him of the situation as soon as can be arranged."

"I'd rather tell him in person; this isn't the sort of thing I think I could handle telling him over the phone. I'll see if Xander will drive me to L.A. this weekend. I'll call when I know what his response is."

"Buffy, I know you don't want to do this, but it really is for the best, you know."

She tried a smile, and almost succeeded. "I know," she agreed, and made her way to her room, where she spent the rest of the night convincing herself that she didn't have another choice.


For once he was grateful to hear a knock on his door. He'd been about ready to throw darts at the Playstation to relieve the boredom.

It could have been worse, he supposed. He could have been tempted to call Lilah.

The door had been open for at least a minute before he realized that it was worse.

"Can I come in?"

Buffy Summers stood there, looking very much as she had almost half a year before. Excepting, of course, for the noticeable bulge in her midsection.

It seemed he hadn't imagined the interlude in her hotel room. It also seemed that the night had not been without consequence.

He appeared to have lost the power of speech, so he merely nodded and gestured towards the living room. She walked to the couch and collapsed in a tired heap.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to just show up. I should have told you when I found out."

She paused and he found his tongue. "I--can I get you anything?"

"Water?"

He walked blindly to the kitchen and filled a glass from the filter. Life had suddenly become quite a bit more complicated, and he found himself missing the boredom. The sensation he was experiencing now was not unfamiliar. Quite to the contrary, he and panic were old companions.

She took the glass and slowly drank, her eyes focusing on anything but him.

"I was going to call," she murmured in the direction of the coffee table. "I didn't realize it myself until long after it should have been obvious. It's been a rough couple of months... I guess I lost track of time."

"What is it you... what do you plan on doing?"

"Having her. But I can't keep her."

"Her?" Wesley wondered if the news of impending parenthood stripped all men of their vocabularies. It would certainly explain a great deal about Angel. He felt he should sit down, but he couldn't seem to locate the lower half of his body.

"Her. At least, that's what the ultrasound guy said at my last check up. She's due in about three and a half months." A smile lit her features and faded quickly. "Wesley, I have to give her up. I know that. Don't think I haven't tried to figure out some way to balance slaying and motherhood." She folded her hands protectively over the bump. "I can't do it. I can't be both. That's why I'm here."

"Oh. I see. No, that's not quite right. I don't see. I beg your pardon?"

"She needs someone who can protect her. If I give her up for adoption, I can't trust that she'd be safe. She's still the daughter of the Slayer. If word got out...well, between the Council and various nasties, I'm not sure I really want to think about what could happen."

Things were starting to become much clearer. He still couldn't feel his feet, but the disconnect between brain and mouth seemed to have vanished.

"You want me to take her, raise her, keep her safe, is that it?"

She nodded and he wondered just how twisted the Powers That Be were, wondered if this was their revenge for his bungling of the Connor situation.

He told her as much, not glossing over his role in the debacle.

There was a long silence after he finished. He stared at his hands, wishing he had something to occupy them.

"You wouldn't fail a second time." Her matter-of-fact statement broke the silence. "You were willing to walk away from everything you cared about to protect someone else's child. I think you'd do at least as much for your own."

"There is no guarantee that it would be enough. Given my track record, I'd say the odds are somewhat in favor of the enemy."

Buffy shrugged. "At least they wouldn't be astronomically so. She deserves a chance at a normal life, and like it or not, you're the best she's got."

He knew he was willing himself to be convinced by her argument, but he didn't really care. He couldn't make up for what had happened with Connor, but he had a chance to try again and he needed to take it.

Besides, if he let his child grow up with strangers, let himself out of her life, he'd never forgive himself. He could do this. He just had to figure out how.

"Buffy, do you have a plan? Some sort of strategy?"

"Not really. We kind of planned ourselves out coming up with a way to keep Sunnydale safe during my maternity leave."

His curiosity must have been evident, because she elucidated without waiting for him to form the question.

"We used good old fashioned bribery. Giles and Xander pooled resources and paid one of the local demon gangs to keep things in check until I'm back in fighting shape. I'm pretty sure I'll have to kill them in a few months, but so far, so good."

He frowned, thinking rapidly. "We need to avoid a paper trail, anything that could be pulled up by the Council or other interested parties. Have you a decent set of alternative papers?"

"A... huh?"

"Fake ID. I'll take that as a no." He hurried over to a table and grabbed a paper and pen. "So we'll need that. Shouldn't be too hard. We should get you out of Los Angeles, too. Go somewhere, perhaps out of state for the duration."

"Wow. You can take the Watcher out of the Council, but you really can't take the Council out of the Watcher, can you?"

"Buffy, you know it's the only way possible to keep her safe."

She grinned. "I know. It's just that last time I saw you, you weren't exactly Mr. Loquacious. I'd kind of forgotten what you're like when you can talk." She sobered up. "You're right, though. How soon will I need to have everything in order?"

"As soon as possible. I presume that your physician's appointments were under your name?"

Buffy nodded.

"Well, there's nothing we can do about that at the moment. So long as there aren't any further visits by Buffy Summers, the trail should cool rapidly." He considered how long it would take him to break his lease and find a safe location. "A week. I can handle the paperwork and the travel plans. You should gather whatever items you need for the next few months. I'd prefer if you didn't return to Sunnydale until this is all over. Is there someone who can send your things here?"

"Not really. I mean, they know what city I'm in, but I kind of left out some of the details. All I said was that the father is someone in L.A. who I've known for a few years. So they know I'm talking to him, but they don't know that him is you. Giles was already pretty upset, and I kind of don't think he'd have been pleased by that bit of information."

Wesley was inclined to agree with that assessment. He rather suspected Giles' reaction would have made Angel's bedside attack seem rational in comparison.

Still, he didn't want her going back home.

"We can pick up the essential items before we leave, then. You might as well make yourself at home for now."

He walked over to the closet, lost in thought, and took out his jacket.

"I need to get out and clear my head. I'll get you a toothbrush and some sundries on my way back. There are various microwave meals in the freezer if you get hungry."

When he locked the door behind him, he realized he was shaking.

Christ, what had he gotten himself into? He was tempted to go to the pub and drink himself stupid, but didn't want to chance Lilah tracking him down. Besides, it would take up too much of the very short amount of time he had in which to get everything sorted out.

There were records to have altered, identifications and credentials to set up. He visited the most reliable of his contacts, handed over a fairly large sum of money, and scheduled an appointment for the next day. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce would soon, for all practical purposes, cease to exist, leaving Terence Bardsley in his place.

The notion upset him more than he would have thought.

A quick trip to the department store provided him with a couple changes of women's maternity clothing, a package of underpants, and some toiletries. He didn't risk guessing a bra size. Buffy would just have to make do with the one she was wearing.

He picked up a bottle of gin before heading back to the apartment, rationalizing that as he wouldn't be drinking it when he had other things to do, it was a better option than pubbing. Besides, he doubted he'd be able to get to sleep without it, and he knew better than to strategize when exhausted.

She was asleep on the couch when he let himself in, her feet tucked under her, head pillowed on her hands. Sleeping, she looked far too young to be in her situation. He was shocked to remember that she was only twenty-one. She didn't merely look too young, she was too young.

Wesley opened the gin, not bothering to get a glass. He drank two-thirds of the bottle before the guilt was numbed enough for him to fall asleep watching her.

It wasn't yet light out when he woke up. He stumbled to the bathroom and vomited until there was nothing left in his stomach and the dry heaves subsided. Rinsed his mouth and washed down some aspirin with Alka-Seltzer before showering.

"Wonderful planning, Wesley," he muttered. "You'll be so bloody effective hung over, won't you?"

After getting dressed, he poured the rest of the bottle down the sink. He'd comfort himself with something later, when he had time. Even if that proved to be a point eighteen years in the future.

The day went better than he'd expected. They picked up the paperwork and a few more sundries before heading back to the apartment. She napped, and he narrowed the hunt for a temporary location to three mid-sized towns not known for supernatural activity. After making some calls, he decided that Eugene, Oregon would be the best of the lot and made the necessary motel reservations.

She called Sunnydale and informed them that she wouldn't be back until after the birth. One look at her face after she hung up was enough to keep him from asking for specifics.

The forger knew someone who specialized in buying out the possessions of people who needed to leave town in a hurry. The amount he quoted Wesley for the contents of the apartment was low, but it would be enough to sustain him until he'd settled somewhere permanent. The rest of the week was spent arranging transportation, and packing the items he'd tagged to keep.

He and Buffy settled into an uneasy routine, eating meals in silence and watching old movies so they wouldn't have to talk. She slept on the bed, and he took the couch.

He had the uncomfortable notion that he'd miss her when she returned to Sunnydale.


The move went as smoothly as could be expected. The rental van was cramped, and the silence more awkward than it had been in the apartment, but they made good time, only spending one night in a motel.

Within the week he found them a short-term lease in a cramped house that was fairly centrally located while Buffy made arrangements with a midwife for a home birth.

She shrugged when he questioned the wisdom of that notion. "I'm healthy, in good condition, and I hate hospitals."

He couldn't really argue with her; he wasn't especially fond of them himself. He recalled the condition of Angel's car after Darla's water broke in the backseat and added the damage deposit to the list of unrecoverable expenses.

They furnished the house with two futons and a number of plastic milk crates. He took the one small bedroom and she took the living room on the logic that it was closer to the bathroom.

It came as something of a shock to realize how attached he had been to his possessions now that he'd given them up. His flat had been, while not luxurious, at least comfortable in a way that this tiny house with its cracked plaster walls and dingy berber carpets could never manage.

He tried to convince himself that the Spartan look was underrated rather than merely unpleasant. When that failed, he went over the budget he'd set up and decided that if he eliminated razorblades from the toiletries column, he could afford some houseplants and throw rugs. He had enough blades left to get him through the next few months if he simply reduced the number of times per week he shaved.

The new additions to the decor were met with a raised brow from Buffy.

"Why the greenery, Wesley?"

He flushed. "I wanted the place to feel more homey," he admitted from behind a ficus.

She stared at him, puzzled, then comprehension spread across her face. "You're kind of homesick here, aren't you?"

"Perhaps a little." He busied himself with positioning the plant. "It's rather a moot point, as I don't exactly have a home to which I'd return."

"Wesley, I'm sorry..."

"Don't be. There wasn't anything there for me anymore. I was homesick long before I left."

He didn't realize she'd come up beside him until he felt her hand patting his shoulder.

"I'll make pancakes," she said with forced brightness.

"Pancakes? Buffy, it's 8:30 at night."

"Trust me, pancakes always help. The later the better. Why do you think IHoP has stayed open for so long?"

"Demon pact?"

"Pancakes available 24/7. No demonic influence necessary."

She dragged him over to the futon, sat him down in front of the makeshift coffee table, and headed to the kitchen. He got up and followed her.

"Buffy, I don't need pancakes."

She turned to him, a tiny figure with a huge stomach, brandishing a spatula.

"Yes," she insisted firmly, "you do. Now sit down, you're in my way."

She waved the spatula in the direction of the living room and he started to laugh, winding up doubled over on the linoleum.

"What's so funny?"

He looked up at her and grinned for the first time in longer than he cared to remember. "You, the spatula, pancakes, this whole situation."

Her face softened. "Go sit down, Wes. I'm still going to make you eat pancakes. By the way," she added quietly, "it's nice to see you smile."

On his way to the futon, he grinned at the ficus and fought the temptation to go and give it a pat. It was silly, really, but he felt like he owed it a debt of gratitude. He wasn't quite certain what for. Perhaps the fact that three weeks of tension had finally broken. Perhaps just for pancakes.

They did help, she was right about that. He suspected they were lacking in nutritional value, and the amount of butter and syrup she'd added to them couldn't help, but they were warm and solid and filling.

"Buffy?"

"Hmm?" She looked up from her plate.

"Thank you."

"What for? I'm the one who dragged you away from everything you knew so you can eventually end up going underground as a single dad. Hardly seems like something I should be thanked for."

"For the pancakes."

She looked a little sheepish. "Oh, those. Kind of the least I could do, considering."

"Buffy, I'm profoundly grateful, for what it's worth. You're giving up far more than I am."

"Wesley, you gave up your family, your friends, and your whole identity. I still kind of think you're getting the bad end of the bargain."

"My family was hardly a loss, I haven't really had friends for some time, and my identity was just a reminder of both those things. You're giving up your child."

"I know."

She was silent for a long moment.

"But somehow, knowing she'll be with you, it helps. I won't pretend it's easy, but it helps. She'll be with family, even if she's not with me."

He found himself swallowing. Hard. And wanting very much to change the subject.

Of course, he couldn't think of a single thing to change it to.

Perhaps he should have kept the television instead of the dartboard.

Her hand reached out and covered his, squeezing it gently. "It's okay. Really. Do you want to feel something?"

She dragged his hand to her belly and held it there until he felt a kick against his palm.

"Does it hurt?" He kept his hand pressed against the spot in case the baby moved again.

"Sometimes. It depends on what she's kicking. I think all that demon fighting I did before I found out was a bad influence. Weird, isn't it?"

He was grinning again, and close to an exceptionally undignified fit of the giggles.

"Weird, but also quite, quite wonderful. She's really in there, isn't she?"

"Want to see the pictures?"

He nodded, lifting his hand reluctantly so she could go and get them.

"These are somewhat like those 3D puzzles aren't they?" He muttered as he turned the grainy black and white image around. The static image was proving much harder to interpret than the monitor he'd looked at with Darla.

Buffy smiled. "Maybe a little. Here, let me show you," she pointed to a pale mass with her finger, "that's her forehead, and that's her nose... and I know that kind of looks like a second head, but it's just her fist. She doesn't like to sit still long enough for a clear picture."

"Apparently not. You're quite certain it's just her hand and not an extra head?"

"I was watching when she made the fist, so yes. She's 18 weeks old in these. She's gotten a lot bigger since then."

So had Buffy. He hadn't really noticed in the rush to get them out of L.A., but she was certainly quite a bit larger than she had been when she showed up on his doorstep. Her face was a little fuller, her breasts... he shouldn't be thinking about her breasts.

He forced his mind back to the subject at hand.

"How far along are you in weeks?"

"Jeez, Wesley, you were there. You're going to make me count? I'm 27 weeks along, which, translated into actual time, means she's 25 weeks old. Just entering trimester number three."

Three months. He was going to be a father in three months. There was a person inside the girl seated next to him. A person who would be his responsibility for the rest of his life. Oh hell.

"Wes, are you okay?"

"I'm fine." Just panicking and wondering where the escape hatch is hidden. "Sorry. I should let you get some rest."

He stood abruptly and made to leave the room.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Her voice was soft and cautious. Against his instincts, he turned around.

"Not especially, no."

"It just hit you, didn't it?"

He slumped back onto the futon. "Yes. It hit me, and then I think it came back for another round. I'm terrified, exhilarated, and I think I may need to go and vomit now. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

She laughed, a dry sort of sound he'd never expected to hear from her. "How do you think I felt? Except, of course, there was no 'I think' about the vomiting."

"Terribly sorry." He was shaking again. He couldn't seem to help it. Visions of everything that could possibly go wrong were crowding out his ability to think rationally. Even the more banal, human-oriented research he'd done before and after Connor's birth spoke of a myriad of nightmarish complications and possibilities. "Your pre-natal examinations, the results... they've all been normal?"

"Yep. We're healthy as a horse. Well, two horses. I have another one next week at the birthing clinic. Appointment, that is. You should come. The midwife kind of demanded that I bring you, actually."

He nodded and started to prepare a list of questions in his head.

"Wesley?" He looked up from the spot on the floor he'd been examining. "Thanks again."

She leaned over, the breasts he was trying to ignore pressing against him as she brushed sugar-smeared lips against his mouth. His brain understood that she intended it as a chaste gesture of friendship and solidarity, but it seemed that it had failed to communicate that particular fact to the rest of his body. His lips parted under hers and his tongue flitted out to lick the traces of syrup from her mouth before he realized what he was doing and pulled away.

The sweetness lingered long after he stammered his excuses and retreated to bed. He made up his mind to go to the local library in the morning and bury himself in research. It was better to focus on possible horrors than on impossible desires.

When he woke up, he cheered himself with the notion that cold showers would at least save on the cost of electricity. Of course, with the number he suspected he'd be taking, it would be more than made up for by the water bill.

He got dressed and walked into the living room, grabbing his identification and a handful of utility bills to take with him as proof of residence. Buffy was still asleep, curled up under a light blanket. She hadn't even bothered to unfold the futon. He watched her for several minutes before finally forcing himself to walk out the door.

The library was just opening for the day. He watched as parents with toddlers wandered in on their way to some group activity, then made his way to the medical reference section. He walked out after a couple of hours with a number of texts and terrible headache.

Wonderful. He'd gone in moderately alarmed and come out completely terrified. Had it managed to do anything at all about his response to the rising levels of no doubt one-sided sexual tension in the house, perhaps it would have been worth it.

Buffy was awake when he got home, but he brushed off her attempts at conversation and shut himself away in his room, coming out only to grab a cup of coffee and an apple.

Safely hunched over the books each night, he was almost willing to admit he was being cowardly about the whole thing. He simply couldn't think of a way to explain without sounding like a complete ass that the scent of her skin made him want nothing so much as to see if it tasted like he remembered and that the sight of her swollen with child made him want to either worship her with his hands or wrap her in cotton wool. It was easier to retreat into research and attempt to avoid having to see or speak to her.

He was aware that it was upsetting her, but considered that the lesser of evils.


If he asked one more carefully phrased question about her health and the possibility of complications, she was going to scream. Or hit something. Possibly both. She had to do something to shut him up. It was funny, considering she'd spent the last week trying to get him to talk without much success. Well, unless you counted terse requests for salt and pepper as talking. Or the short "Excuse me" that always preceded his leaving the room any time she got within a foot of him.

"Patricia, while we're asking you questions, what about sex? Is that still okay at this stage, any precautions we'll need to take?"

When all else fails, burst out with something outrageous. Besides, sex was on her mind more frequently than she liked to admit. It was one of the more frustrating side effects of her pregnancy.

It worked. He wasn't sputtering, but he looked like he wanted to sputter. Kind of flushed and tight-lipped. Definite sputter potential. He was also glaring at her, but at least he wasn't talking. Good. She shot him an innocent look, which he met with narrowed eyes.

"...should be fine." The midwife was saying. "Generally, I tell women that as long as they feel up to it, it doesn't do them any harm. Most women say it helps them to relax. I'll give you a pamphlet to take with you with things to watch out for and suggested positions."

Okay, it was her turn to blush. Maybe she should have asked about bodily functions instead. Of course, those had pretty much been covered during the English Inquisition. As had almost every single gruesome event, outcome, or combination. She had to hand it to him, he was thorough.

He was also more than a little peeved from the look of things. He didn't say a word to her until halfway through the walk back to the house.

"What the devil was that about?"

"What was what about?" She'd been going for guileless, but somehow what emerged from her mouth was closer to defensive.

"You know exactly what I am referring to, and I would appreciate it if you didn't lie to me." The cold, quiet voice was worse than the clinical detachment he'd shown in his questioning.

"You spent half an hour reducing me to a pronoun and a set of possible complications and discussing me as if I wasn't in the room. If you can think of a better way for me to shut you up, let me know. I may have to remember it for the next appointment."

"I'm so very sorry that I had the nerve to be at all concerned about what lies ahead. If you really feel the need to keep your head firmly in the sand, by all means, do so. However, one of us has to know what to do in the event that something goes wrong." He was starting to sound far too much like he had when he'd been sent to Sunnydale. She could feel her blood pressure start to rise.

"What makes you think I have my head in the sand? Don't you think I've already taken most of this into consideration? I'm the one going through this, after all. If you'd bothered to ask me before locking yourself in your room in the name of research, you'd know that."

"So bringing our fictional sex life into it in public is a perfectly acceptable and mature way for you to handle the fact that my line of questioning upset you. Of course."

"You spend the last week indulging in passive-aggressive brooding, and suddenly I'm the immature one?"

He glared at her and quickened his pace, leaving her to curse under her breath while she tried to catch up. She'd thought they'd come to some sort of understanding the night she'd made pancakes. It had been nice to actually talk instead of just relating tasks and orders. It had been almost normal, or as close as her life ever came to normal. Instead, he'd been surly ever since he'd cut off their conversation to go to bed. Which he'd done right after she'd kissed him.

Damn.

Maybe she did have her head in the sand, just not about what he thought. Of course, it was possible she just had the world's largest blind spot when it came to figuring out when a man was attracted to her. Given that she'd already slept with him, she felt like a complete idiot.

She slowed back to a normal walk and wondered if she'd ever figure out the opposite sex without needing a neon sign with fifty-foot letters to spell it out. Or figure herself out, for that matter. She'd had a lot of different motives for kissing him, and she really didn't want to examine any of them.

He'd locked himself in his room by the time she got back to the house, so she curled up on her futon and flipped through the pamphlet she'd been given.

Fifteen minutes later, she was cursing the blind spot again. Nothing like having them spelled out in plain text with handy illustrations to force a person to examine the things she was trying to avoid thinking about. They needed to have a talk. Now.

It was probably a bad idea. No, there was no probably about it. It was a bad idea, one ranking about on par with drinking with frat boys, and slightly below sleeping with vampires.

The badness of those ideas hadn't stopped her from going through with them. Twice. She'd only done this particular bad idea once. Not that she was certain she was going to do it again.

"Never let it be said that I've learned my lesson," she muttered as she walked to his door.

There was no pause in the steady thud of darts hitting the board when she knocked.

"Come" -thunk- "in." -thunk.

He was obviously still sulking. She let herself in.

He let another dart fly before turning to look at her. "Did you want something in particular, or are you just planning on standing and looking at me?"

Now that she was there, she had no idea how to broach the subject. She wasn't even certain exactly what it was she should be broaching. She settled for a lame, "I just thought we should talk."

"I thought you didn't want me to talk. That's the impression you gave, at any rate." The caustic tone didn't bode well for communication.

"Wow. You're acting like Dawn on a bad day. You going to start screaming at me to get out now?"

"Buffy... " His voice trailed off and his jaw clenched.

Wonderful, she'd managed to make matters between them worse. She rubbed her forehead absently, cursing her inability to take a decent pain killer, and sat down uninvited on the edge of his bed.

"Are we going to spend the next trimester bickering and avoiding each other? Because I'm tired, I'm lonely, and my head hurts."

He stood up and headed towards the door. Well, looked like she'd called the avoiding part, at least.

"Where are you going?" She sounded petulant even to her own ears and winced.

"I'm getting you some ice. I read that it helps ease the headaches."

Maybe it was the hormones, maybe the stress. It didn't take much to make her feel stupid. She swallowed, hard, and wished the floor would swallow her up before she totally humiliated herself.

He made it back before she had time to burst into a fit of crying. She supposed she should give thanks for small mercies.

One hand brushed her hair out of the way, while the other gently rubbed a piece of ice against the nape of her neck.

"Is it helping?"

"Hmmm?"

Tiny rivulets of cold water trickled down her spine, taking much of her tension--as well as most of her vocabulary--with them.

"The ice. Is it helping your head?" he asked gently.

Buffy nodded. "I'm willing to admit that there may be something to be said for obsessive research at this point."

He let out a quiet sound that might have been a laugh and kept rubbing in slow, soothing circles.

His fingertips met her skin as the last of the ice melted. Instead of pulling away as she'd expected, they traced the curve of her neck and shoulders. She leaned into his touch until they were close enough that his breath stirred the tiny hairs at the base of her skull.

"I shouldn't be doing this," he murmured, and lowered his mouth to her nape.

The kiss was soft, just a brush of lips over damp flesh, leaving an impression of fire. She whimpered, her hands tangling and twisting in the sheets as his lips moved to her ear.

"It's a very bad idea, after all," he whispered. "You should probably stop me."

"What if I don't want to?"

"Then I should probably stop me."

"Don't..." She couldn't tell exactly what he was doing to her ear, but it was short-circuiting her brain.

"Don't what?"

"Stop. Don't stop."

She twisted until she was facing him, the added bulk of her body forcing her almost on top of him before she could reach his mouth.

"Please, just don't stop."

Kissing felt good. A stupid, simple thought, she guessed, but about the only one she could form while doing it. Her hands sought the places they'd explored before, the ridge of his spine, the line of his jaw. There didn't seem to be a method to it. She wondered if it counted as state-dependant memory. Professor Walsh had been talking about intoxicants, but surely this wasn't far off.

And then he managed to untangle her dress and pull it over her head, and she wasn't interested in thinking, period. Just touching and tasting and feeling and trying to figure out how to translate illustrations on a page into practical real-world solutions. It was awkward, punctuated with nervous laughter and edged with desperation. It was also just what she needed.

Afterwards, she still didn't want to let reality intrude. She felt calm, human, for the first time since the whole mess had become apparent. The longer she could put of thinking the better. She'd always been better at action than analysis.

She had forgotten who she was with.

"That was probably a very bad idea." He said it calmly enough, but the slight frown that accompanied it was one with which she was all too familiar. It was the same frown he got before burying himself in books.

"Yeah. Probably. Do you wish it hadn't happened?"

"I'm not certain. It introduces another complication which we didn't particularly need."

She shrugged. "I don't see that it complicates things any more than avoiding each other would."

"Buffy, you know as well as I do that this sort of entanglement always complicates things. It's the nature of the beast."

She was quiet for a while before answering.

"It's a complication that already existed. Avoiding it doesn't make it go away or make things any easier. It just makes it worse. Believe me, I'm the poster child for avoidance-related badness." She decided to ignore the fact that she was trying to avoid thinking about the subject. It kind of ruined her argument. "And besides, it's kind of too late to second guess our actions."

She watched him think about what she'd said, wishing his face revealed anything of what he was thinking. Other than a certain level of worry, it was blank, unreadable. He'd be rolling in kittens if he came back to Sunnydale to play poker.

Wow. She must be lonely if she was having nostalgic thoughts about that. Next thing, she'd be missing calling the plumber at three in the morning to deal with stopped-up pipes.

"Wesley?"

He blinked, coming back from wherever it was his mind had wandered off. "Yes?"

"I need this." It was hard for her to say it, but it was too late to take it back even if she'd wanted to.

He nodded faintly and pulled the blanket up to cover them both. She wasn't certain what it all meant, but was even less certain that she cared. Curled up on her side with her belly against his waist, nothing much mattered except shared warmth and company.

"Buffy, when you say you need this, do you mean for this to be an isolated incident, or something more?"

"You're trying to make me think. Why are you trying to make me think?" She burrowed her head into the crook of his arm. He smelled of fresh sweat and faded deodorant, something salty and spicy. "Nutmeg," she announced.

"You're avoiding the question. As I recall you were the one who said avoidance was a poor choice... and what in God's name do you mean by 'nutmeg'?"

"It's what you smell like. Kind of. And I don't know, maybe."

"Maybe you're avoiding the question or maybe this was a one time occurrence, or maybe you'd like for this to be something more for now?"

"The last one, if you stop asking me questions and let me sleep."

It seemed to shut him up without a fight. She'd have to remember that when she woke up.


She always slept soundly after sex. He always remained awake, watching her slumbering form and wondering how much he'd regret the entanglement once she was gone.

He knew full well they were using it as a palliative for loneliness. He had no illusions that it was anything else. There was little passion to the act, just a mutual craving for closeness and comfort in its most elemental form. Still, he was bothered by the thought that they had broken some necessary barrier by sharing a bed.

She no longer bothered to go back to her own bed before morning. She'd made an effort the first week, but for all practical purposes, she had moved into his room. He still had a number of questions regarding the wisdom of their behavior, but knew better than to ask them. It would only lead to trouble, and he was too selfishly glad for the succor to suggest anything that might upset the balance they'd managed to achieve.

Besides, when Buffy slept, he could watch the movements of his daughter distort her mother's rounded abdomen. It was strange at first, to see the punch of a fist beneath flesh. He wondered how Buffy could sleep through it. She seemed especially active tonight, perhaps the result of the extra helping of pie Buffy had eaten at dinner, but it didn't wake her mother. Giving in to temptation, he poked the last spot she'd punched. She punched back.

Curious.

He poked again, and she returned the volley. He spent a good five minutes entertaining himself, and, by extension, the baby, that way before Buffy woke up and swatted his hand away.

"What are you doing?" Her voice was thick with sleep.

"Did you know that if you poke at her, she pokes back?"

"Mmm-hmm. Did you know that if I don't get enough sleep, I get cranky and want to break things?"

"I had noticed, yes."

"It's bad enough having to wake up every half hour to pee. Next time you two feel like playing, can it wait until I'm already up? I feel like someone's been using my internal organs as a drum set."

"I can see where that might be annoying. I'm afraid I just got caught up in the excitement of discovery."

"If you want you could read to her or something. If I can sleep through it, I'm happy. But no poking unless I'm already up, okay?"

It seemed like a reasonable request. He was too comfortable to bother getting a book, and besides, there wasn't anything in the house suitable for children, so he just quietly recited highly edited tales of his adventures in Los Angeles and Pylea, and when he ran out of those, snippets of myths in whatever languages he'd read them in. He kept one hand on Buffy's belly as he spoke to the occupant, wondering if the occasional kicks and movements were a response to his words. He rather hoped so, even if it was a fanciful notion. He resolved to check out some books of children's stories and fairy tales when he made his next trip to the library.

Buffy expressed her approval. It appeared that she found the quiet rhythm of the stories soothing, or so she claimed. It became a habit, one that eventually spread to the waking hours, and, when her pregnancy advanced to the point that sex was no longer feasible, provided them both with a certain amount of comfort.

Stories and fairy tales segued into long, sleepy conversations about nothing in particular that segued into nearly confessional tales of how they'd ended up where they were. Part of his mind screamed that it was a bad idea, but he wasn't inclined to listen to it. He wished he'd realized, when he'd first met her, what a burden it was for the vessel. Perhaps it would have changed how he'd behaved with her and with Faith.

Funny, the sorts of regrets that hit long after the fact and refuse to leave. He'd been so certain, however, that he was going about things the right way. Following procedure, doing as he'd been taught. As was so often the case, he'd been completely and totally wrong about everything. It did not, he suspected, bode well for his future parenting abilities, a thought he was careful to keep to himself as her due date approached.


Labor didn't seem like it would be too hard--at first. It wasn't the worst pain she'd ever had, just fleeting cramps every few hours that slowly lengthened until they were strongish cramps every hour. They started after breakfast, and she timed them absently as she set up an area in the living room with tarp, towels, and pillows in preparation. When her water still hadn't broken by midnight, and the contractions were still about twenty minutes apart, she got sick of waiting and crawled into bed, dozing between pains.

A sharp twinge in her back pulled her from her half-slumber and she whimpered. Soothing murmurs and a warm hand at the small of her back came from the other side of the bed, along with a sleepy inquiry as to the time. She stared at the clock, trying to focus on the glowing red of the numbers through the pain.

"3:22. It's been seven minutes since the last one, and this one really hurt."

"Do I need to call the midwife?" His voice had lost the softness of sleep.

"I'm not sure yet. They're still pretty short."

"Water?"

"Yes, please."

She listened to him get out of bed and fumble for his robe. Concentrating on sounds helped take her mind off the pain; the alarm clock's buzz, the creak of the floorboards followed by the rush of the tap--she focused on each of them in turn. 3:23 switched to 3:24, the pain receded and she struggled with her cumbersome bulk until she managed to sit up. They'd been short, but this one had lasted over a minute. She might have mistimed the one before it.

The light flicked on, indicating that Wesley was back with the water. He handed her the glass, waiting for her to finish drinking before asking her if she needed anything else.

"Help me up?" She'd made it to sitting, but was pretty certain that standing would take a joint effort, and she kind of needed to go to the bathroom.

Another spasm hit as she was washing her hands, harder than the previous ones. She found herself crouched on all fours, moaning and shaking uncontrollably, as a gush of fluid soaked her legs. Hands, those were hands helping her off the floor and into the tub. Then they were gone, but there were soothing sounds that made no sense as warm water poured over the pain, dulling it until she could focus on anything other than the dark red haze. Was she crying? It felt like she was crying. The pain faded again, and she was finally able to pay attention to things outside of her body. Wesley was on the phone. Why was he on the phone? He was also dressed. When had that happened?

"Patricia will be here soon. She says to remember to breathe. For the record, there were only about five minutes between contractions. You may have slept straight through to transition. I'll go and get you some more water and some ice cubes while we wait."

Buffy nodded. This was it. She wasn't ready; birth would be the first stage of separation, and she wasn't ready. Not for any of it. Her hand trailed in the bathwater, leaving tiny whirlpools in its wake. The blinding pain of contractions was in some ways easier to deal with than this in-between state. She could focus on the goings-on of her body and not even think about what would follow.

Wesley returned with the water and a bowl of ice cubes; he handed her the former and set the latter on the back of the sink, then retreated to the doorjamb. He leaned against it, eyes flicking from her to his watch and back again every few seconds.

Buffy was about ready to ask him to knock it off when the next pain shot from her back down her legs. She didn't have time to make it from tub to toilet before she threw up; the nausea had hit her so suddenly that she figured she was lucky she'd at least made it to the edge of the tub.

"Sorry," she groaned.

He was already mopping up the mess. "It's mostly water. As I recall, you haven't eaten since yesterday morning, and the only other thing you've had is a half glass of apple juice. Besides, it's a common enough response, one I believe has to do with sympathetic nerves. Ice?"

She nodded, sucking on a piece until the contraction ended. "You're nervous, aren't you?" she asked when she was able to speak again.

"How could you tell?"

"You're babbling. It's kind of a dead give away."

The doorbell rang, signifying the arrival of the midwife, before he could respond. In between the increasingly frequent spasms, she realized it was for the best. She really didn't have time for another circular argument at the moment. Patricia took some basic information about timing and duration, then hustled Buffy out of the tub and into the pillow and sheet covered tarp they'd set up on the living room floor. A quick examination confirmed that she was indeed in transition.

"You managed to sleep until they were only a few minutes apart?" Patricia laughed. "You've got some real tolerance for pain there, Buffy. Keep breathing; once you're in active labor, strange as it sounds, the worst is over and you're almost there."

She was right. It proved to be much easier to deal with the pressure of something making its way out than the ripping pain of her body widening to allow for the exit.

Buffy declined the offer of a mirror when crowning began, concentrating on working with her body. She could do this, lord knew she had enough training in following her instincts to deal with something as normal as giving birth. A few moans and hissed curses, a lot of blood and crying and pushing, and not much time later, the offended squeals of a freshly-evicted baby filled the room.

She stared at the foreign creature that had been placed, squirming, at her breast. "Your head is huge," she informed it.

Patricia looked up at them and smiled. "It's the normal size. They feel larger than they really are."

Buffy stroked the tiny face, so absorbed in the feel of it that she barely felt the last contractions as the afterbirth made its anticlimactic appearance and was dutifully examined by the midwife. By the time everything was settled and taken care of, and the three of them were finally alone in the house, Buffy had come to a conclusion. The pain, the confusion, and finally the peace... giving birth was a hell of a lot like dying.


Birth, he was not surprised to discover, was as messy as anything else in life. It was long, painful, boring, frightening, miraculous, and absurd by turns. Not to mention somewhat gory. The midwife claimed that it had been a fairly short labor for a first child.

Funny how one's perception of time could be affected by the amount of stress one was under. It had felt like days, rather than hours during the event itself. Of course, now that it was all over, it was something of a blur. He was beyond tired. He wondered if it would be possible to fall asleep where he was, even with the midday sun streaming through the windows. The floor felt so very comfortable.

"I give up."

He blinked and looked up at Buffy as she tried to arrange the pillows to her liking with one arm while balancing their daughter with the other.

"I could get you more pillows," he suggested.

"No, don't bother. I just need to admit to myself that comfortable's not happening in my reality anytime soon," she sighed, finally abandoning her attempts at pillow manipulation.

"It's odd. Do you know, we've never discussed names for her. I hadn't even realized it until now."

"Tara. I've been thinking of her as Tara."

He understood, he thought. Both why she wanted to use that name for her daughter, and why she hadn't mentioned it until after she had safely delivered.

"It's a lovely name. Tara. I think it suits her," he stared at the pink, wrinkled bundle with her mass of dark hair sticking out at odd angles. "She's beautiful, in a funny sort of way, isn't she?"

"Wesley, she looks like an alien. She's all head and eyes."

"And hair. She has rather a lot of it, don't you think?"

"And hair. All head, eyes, and hair. She's gorgeous." Buffy was unable to keep a note of pride from creeping into her voice. "Aren't you, Tara?"

"She'll need a middle name, you know. What about Anne?"

"That's my middle name."

"I know."

He said it quietly, almost to himself. Tara wouldn't have his name, not legally. Officially, she belonged to two people who didn't exist. Giving her her mother's middle name would be the closest thing to a heritage she would have. It seemed important, though he'd have been hard pressed to explain why exactly that was the case.

"Wesley?" Her voice shook him from his contemplation.

"Hmm?"

"Anne is perfect. Thank you."

He smiled at the two of them, then curled up on the floor and let himself sleep.


Five weeks. Thirty-five days. Eight-hundred and forty hours, give or take. Math had never been her strongest skill, but she was doing an awful lot of it just to stay sane. At least she wasn't counting the seconds, though she'd thought of it. Five more weeks in limbo. Then, if she was pronounced fit and ready, she could go home. Put back the pieces of her life, put all this behind her. Five more weeks until she was the one doing the leaving. Five more weeks to memorize her daughter's face.

It wasn't enough time.

She felt the still-unfamiliar ache that meant it was almost feeding time, strong enough that it almost overpowered the constant ache of her body struggling to go back to normal. Tara was asleep on a blanket, her father stretched out on the floor next to her, one finger still trapped in a tiny fist.

Buffy suspected he'd have been happier if she wasn't breast feeding. Not that he'd said anything. After the initial euphoria of the birth had passed, he'd retreated back into himself, and there wasn't a damned thing she could do about it. He made a point of reminding her that she'd be leaving before too long, that it wasn't a good idea to become so invested in Tara's life.

She wasn't certain what he expected her to do. Six weeks total, one of them already gone. She wasn't going to waste any of the small amount of time she'd been given, even if it made leaving a little more painful to contemplate. It wasn't like it was going to be easy no matter what she did. Nothing ever was.

Tara woke with a plaintive wail; Buffy picked her up and guided her to the breast, murmuring soft little nonsense syllables to soothe her until she latched on and began feeding.

"You're quite certain you want to be doing this?" He was watching them, his face unreadable. Buffy had learned over the months that the lack of expression usually indicated that he was fretting about something.

"She's better off being nursed. It's good for her."

"I'm not questioning the obvious benefits, but it's not her I'm worried about."

Well, that cut to the core of the matter. "Believe it or not, I'm capable of making my own decisions about what's good for me. My milk would have come in either way. Would you rather I was sitting around watching her drink formula and waiting for it to dry up? Because I'm kind of thinking that would be worse."

"It's more than just the nursing, Buffy. You're bonding with her, which is a risk you shouldn't be taking."

She took a few deep breaths, not wanting to get angry during a feeding. She'd done it the night before, and had been up all night trying to settle a very cranky Tara.

"You'd rather I just ignored her, and let you run to her with a bottle every single time she needs something?"

"As a matter of fact, yes."

"Not going to happen. I thought you knew me better than that." Buffy watched the movement of the little jaw as Tara suckled. "You can't expect me to just leave her alone."

"Buffy..." he stopped and let out a short sigh. "I only want what's best for the both of you."

She looked up at him, exhausted and sick of the argument. "You need to let me be the judge of that."

After that, he kept his opinions to himself for the most part, and she kept tracking the ever-shrinking number of days until her six-week appointment.


She had to admit, part of her had hoped that there was something wrong, something that hadn't healed right and would force her to stay just a few more weeks. She knew better. After all, quick healing was part of the package, and she'd felt almost like her old self for a couple of weeks. The post-natal appointment just confirmed it. She had the go-ahead to resume almost everything, and while slaying wasn't technically on the list, she'd run out of excuses. It was time to go home.

Even if it didn't feel like home anymore.

It didn't take her very long to pack. The maternity dresses went into a black garbage bag, ready for donation, and the t-shirts and sweats she'd been wearing for six weeks weren't hers to begin with. In the end, it was just another light bag with a few essentials ready for another bus ride away from the things that mattered.

They'd gone out while she readied her things, leaving a house loud with their absence. She set her bag by the door, then went to the hamper and started folding the pile of baby clothing Wesley had washed while she was at the clinic. Tara was growing so quickly; the littlest newborn items didn't really fit her anymore. Buffy separated the clothing that Tara'd outgrown from the things that still fit. Instead of putting them in with the rest of the things to given away, she slipped them into her bag, putting them under the change of clothes and the Ziploc with her toothbrush and floss. She realized she was crying again when she felt something wet hit her hands. She hated crying, but it seemed like she'd been spending a hell of a lot of time doing it as of late. Her breasts were aching, which meant Tara must be getting hungry, but there was no sign of them.

She checked the clock. They'd been gone for two hours. She checked the freezer. There was one less bag of milk than had been in there when she'd left for the appointment. He must have packed a bottle. He'd been doing that about as often as she'd been crying. Funny, that. She pumped to relieve the pressure, then sealed the bag and stuck it with the rest of them. Buffy figured Tara had at least a two more weeks of milk left before she became a formula-only baby.

When she ran out of chores, she took out a pen and a stack of cards she'd purchased on impulse a few weeks before giving birth. There were eighteen of them in all. Buffy wrote something on each one and enclosed them in their envelopes, numbering them as she went.

Her breasts were full again by the time Wesley returned with the baby. She grabbed Tara before he had time to take off his coat.

"Nice of you to take so long," she said flatly as she pulled up her shirt and guided her daughter to a nipple.

"You're leaving in the morning. She needs to get used to you not being here."

"So, what? That means I should be allowed to spend time with her before I leave?" She tried to keep her voice level.

"Buffy, you're leaving. In case you hadn't realized it, that means you're going to have to get used to not being with her the same as she has to get used to not being with you."

"Believe me, I'm well aware of that, but I sure as hell don't see why that means I can't spend as much time with her as I can before I go."

"Buffy--"

She cut him off. "If you tell me it's for the best, I swear I'll break something."

It was obvious that he was well past angry and bordering on furious, but he said nothing. She stared at him, eyes daring him to speak, until he turned and left the room. Tara kept nursing, blessedly oblivious to the tension, until she drifted off to sleep, little milky bubbles gathered at the corner of her mouth. Buffy set her down gently in the crib and went in search of Wesley.

As expected, he was in the bedroom, nose in a book.

"She's asleep. Her clothing's been put away and there's more milk in the freezer. I'll be out of your hair before too long, so you can stop fretting."

He slammed the booked closed and stood up. "Stop it."

"Stop what? Stop caring? Stop hurting?" She moved until she was close enough to feel the warmth coming from his skin.

"Stop taking it out on me, damn it." He must have been stewing the whole time Tara had been suckling, because he'd crossed the border to furious several miles back. "What in heaven's name do you want me to do, Buffy?"

"What I want is to have spent more time with my daughter on the last day I could be with her, but you just have to know best, don't you?"

"Because it would be so much better for her to be subjected to your self-indulgent moodiness, I suppose?"

The crack of her hand across his face shocked them both. She stared at its reddened outline, appalled.

"You should get out before I'm tempted to respond in kind." He spoke so quietly she could barely make out the words, but there was no mistaking the sentiment.

She stood and waited for the answering blow. His hand lifted, but instead of connecting with her face, it tangled in her hair, tugging until there wasn't any space left between their bodies, and very little between their mouths.

"Is this what you want?" Her voice was harsh, foreign to her own ears. Her mouth covered his before he could say a word, teeth digging into his lower lip as she sought to punish them both for everything and nothing at once.

He answered with hands as brutal as her voice, yanking down the sweats she was wearing and pushing her onto the bed, not bothering with the nicety of foreplay before taking what she offered. She felt dry and bruised and nowhere near used enough, nowhere near hurt enough. Frantic and frenzied with need and self-loathing, she drew him closer, meeting violent thrusts with quick jerks of her hips as he slammed into her, little whimpers escaping her lips at the feel of his fingernails digging into her thighs while his hands pushed them up and further apart. Her hands worked their way under his shirt, pulling it off before returning to claw at his back, slicing into the skin like tiny razors. She was trembling, vacillating between pain and pleasure as she came. Her teeth clenched around his shoulder until she tasted the copper and iron of his blood mixed with the salt of his sweat and felt him shudder, felt the warm-wet familiarity of his release inside her and the warm-wet familiarity of tears across her face.

"You should have left when I told you to do so." The words came out of his mouth without infliction as he rolled off of her, but the hard, haunted look on his face gave lie to the even tones.

Too shocked by what they'd done to say anything, she just stared at him, dumbly taking in the marks she'd left on his skin. There were more than she remembered making, neat imprints of teeth and nails mixed with long scratches welling over with blood.

She looked at her hands and back at the wounds she'd left. "I'm sorry." She was shaking, oh Christ, what had she done? "I'm sorry," she repeated, voice breaking.

"Are you all right?" The question was a mix of weariness and concern, and she had no answer for it. Something between a laugh and a groan escaped him when it became obvious she wasn't going to respond. "God, we're a mess, aren't we?"

"That would be one way of putting it. I didn't mean to..." she trailed off, one hand reaching out to touch the worst of the bites.

"Neither did I, but it's not something one could tell from looking at you."

She glanced at her body, startled by the scratches and bruises just starting to blossom. "Oh." Feeling self-conscious, she tugged her shirt down to cover the evidence. "I hadn't noticed." She winced as she shifted her weight; she may have been told it was fine to have sex again, but she somehow doubted that this was exactly what the midwife had intended.

"I didn't entirely mean physically," he added. "When I referred to us as a mess."

"Yeah, I know. I'm starting to think my coping mechanisms leave a little something to be desired. Also? I'm getting the feeling that learning from my mistakes? Not my strong suit."

"Nor mine. Buffy, I'm sorry I took Tara out today. It was presumptuous of me."

"You were also right, much as it pains me to admit it. I'm not sure how I'm going to get through leaving her. I've had to do so many things that seem like they should have been harder than this; some of them have even killed me. But this? It's different. It's not the end of the world, so how come it feels so much worse?"

"I don't know. She'll be well taken care of, if it helps at all." He pulled the blanket up to cover them both.

"It does, a little. And I know she will, but sometimes I get so sick of sacrificing anything that might possibly resemble a normal life for the sake of my calling."

"If it wasn't for your calling, Tara wouldn't exist in the first place. Presuming the best-case scenario, that being a lack of success for any of the apocalyptic events that have taken place during the last half-decade or so, you'd most likely be in your final year at university, still an only child, and Sunnydale would, if it entered into your thoughts at all, merely be a small town with an obscenely high death rate and obscenely low housing prices. However, the best-case scenarios very rarely occur outside of theory, so we'd probably all be dead."

"Thank you, I think. Wow, you sounded like Giles."

"Council training. You said it yourself a while back. There have been times when I've felt an apocalypse might not be entirely without merit, but my occasional bursts of selfish nihilism aside, your role is an important one." He paused, looking for a moment as though he'd thought about, then decided against, saying something more before he took a deep breath and soldiered on. "I realize that I'm the last person in the world who should be lecturing you about this--it's somewhat like both the pot and the kettle joining forces to call the coal bin black--but you need to stop punishing yourself for things you can do nothing about. You're a good person. You've just been dealt a rough hand is all."

"Like I said, I've got some seriously screwy coping mechanisms, but thanks. I'll try to keep it in mind." She gave him a weak smile, and he kissed her forehead.

"Get some sleep, Buffy. Tara will no doubt wake up at least a half dozen times before morning, so you may as well take advantage of the lull."

His estimate was off by one. Tara woke her five times before morning, three of them because she was hungry, one because she wanted changing, and once--the last time--for no readily discernable reason. "You're a strange little thing, aren't you?" Buffy murmured. "Do you know I'm leaving, is that it?" Tara just blinked and scrunched up her face in response before settling down.

Daughter and father were both sleeping when she left. She made certain the cards were in plain sight on the table, along with a letter of explanation and an apology for not waking them to say her goodbyes. Grabbing her bag, she let herself out, locking the door behind her and slipping the key through the mail slot so she wouldn't be tempted to run back inside.

She spent the bus ride back to Sunnydale staring out the window, head facing forward, one tiny sock clutched tightly in her fist. Back home, she resumed her training, stuck close to Dawn, and resorted to monosyllabic responses when faced with questions about what had happened while she was away until no one asked her about it anymore.


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