by Yahtzee

The characters herein are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy and 20th Century Fox, among other corporate entities. They are used without permission, intent of infringement or expectation of profit. I do not use pairing or character-death spoilers in the headings of my stories -- you read the fic, you take your chances. Feedback is very much appreciated; please send praise or flames or anything in-between to Yahtzee63@aol.com.

What follows is a vignette that will undoubtedly be Jossed into oblivion in the next couple of weeks. Oh, well. Let's go ahead and call it an AU. Consider yourselves spoiled through the fourth episodes of the sixth season of BTVS and the third season of ATS, respectively. Rating: PG

Angel's face is illuminated only by the greenish glow of the dashboard. He hasn't looked over at me or said anything to me in hours, but then, so much of what we have to say to each other at this point could only be said alone.

And we are never alone.

From the back seat, I hear Mary sigh. Worried, I glance back -- but she's in a deep sleep, flopped over like a rag doll, in the profound, untroubled slumber we only have as children.

"Buffy?" Angel says. I look over at him, hoping that he will take advantage of Mary's sleep to finally raise one of the many troubling subjects we've got to discuss, and soon. But he only says, "There's a restaurant in Chenoa, if you need something to eat."

I can't blame Angel for cowardice when I refuse to raise the subjects myself. "No. No, I'm good."

He half-smiles at the lie.

"They want me to kill her."

Angel had arrived in the darkest hours of night, missing Spike's exit from my bedroom by a heart-stoppingly few minutes. But I stopped worrying about Spike or just about anything else the moment I saw what Angel had with him, heard what he had to say.

Darla's baby. His baby. Mary. All pink and gold innocence, looking up at me with the unfocused but intent stare of a newborn. She smelled like talcum powder. Angel had gone to a store and bought her diapers and jammies and talcum powder.

Angel told me how she came to be, what she was prophesied to become. What Wesley and Cordelia said had to happen instead.

"They want me to kill her," Angel kept repeating, as though he could somehow force the words to make sense that way.

He couldn't kill her, of course. And when Wesley and Cordelia offered to take that burden from him, he had gathered Mary up and run for it.

My home was the one stop he made on his headlong flight from Los Angeles, from everything he'd worked so hard to build there. He wouldn't leave forever without saying goodbye. Without telling me why.

"They want me to kill her."

I looked up from Mary's tiny form in my arms and saw the question in his eyes. He couldn't say what he wanted to say out loud. He trusted me to understand.

And for the first time since I came back to life, I thought I knew what I was here for. An innocent life needed protection. The world needed saving.. A prophecy needed to be defied. And who does that better than me? I'd made it through the past months in a daze, telling myself over and over that I was living for the sake of others, that living for others made my being alive again worthwhile, that no matter how I hated it, I had to stay here and do that.

But now I had a way to live for others and still run like hell. And maybe save the world again in the process. And maybe guarantee that I'll go back to the place I left before.

"Give me ten minutes to pack," I said.

He stared at me for a long moment, then said, "Buffy?"

"If you're going to get away, you'll need somebody to drive during the daytime."

I considered leaving Dawn a note. I didn't.

I should admit several things.

First: I wanted to run. I wanted out of Sunnydale as badly as I ever had in my life -- even more than after I sent Angel to hell. Even more than when I died. You can't live a lie with your friends and your sister, day after day, without destroying everything you ever valued, one breath at a time. That much I did save when I left, though I don't suppose they'll ever know it. And I can tell myself that Angel and Mary need me more than Dawn does, more than Xander and Anya and Tara do. Sometimes that helps me blot out the image of their faces as they must have looked when Wesley and Cordelia explained what was going on.

I wonder if Angel looks at Mary to blot out the image of Wesley and Cordelia.

Second: I ought to care more about the prophecy. I ought to care about what Mary might become, what she ought to do. It's armageddon on the line -- and even speaking as someone pretty used to carrying heavy burdens on her shoulders, I sometimes go cold inside when I think about what the price of Mary's survival might be. It hits me at the oddest moments. Tonight, for instance, as we step into a Shell station in Springfield -- we have to fill the tank again, and I have to start driving in a couple of hours, which isn't gonna go well without caffeine -- I see the thin, braces-wearing boy behind the counter and think, with a shock -- He might die. His life is just one of the millions of lives I'm gambling with here.

But most of the time, I don't care. Mary's in danger here, now, from people I cared about, people who used to trust me. I can't sacrifice her to some anonymous, faceless greater good, not as long as there's any chance of saving her and the world too.

Finally: I knew it was gonna be about more than helping him get away. Angel and I were all business those first few weeks. No romance. Hands-off. But you spend night and day together -- you bathe a baby together, get soap suds and no-more-tears shampoo all over you, and laugh as she plays with a little rubber whale -- you wrap the baby up in a soft yellow towel and snuggle up with her on the bed -- it ties you together. I had thought Angel and I were already as connected as two people could be, and I was wrong. We started kissing each other good night pretty early on, and soon we started doing more than that, as much as we dared do with a sleeping infant nearby, with a curse hanging over our heads.

And then finally, when it all got screwed up beyond recognition, Angel turned to me one night and slowly, intently, peeled my t-shirt off my body. When I looked up at him, he half-laughed, half-sighed, and said, "It's safe."

Safe because he could never be perfectly happy, truly happy, ever again. Because neither of us could. We could only take our love from the remnants of lives damaged beyond repair.

I should have said no. I should have refused to turn what we once had into the battered, worn shell we inhabit now.

Sometimes, at night, when he's inside me, he hides his face in the curve of my neck, and I can feel the tears on his cheeks.

It wasn't always like this.

There were moments, the first few months, when it seemed like a dream come true. Angel and I were together. And we had a baby. .

At the very beginning, I wouldn't let myself pretend she was mine. She sprang from Darla, the embodiment of everything I hate, and was conceived not in love but in utter despair. No child of mine.

Then I started slipping up, imagining what it would have been like to be pregnant with her. What would that feel like, that heaviness, that imbalance? Or to give birth? I mean, I know it hurts, but so does getting stabbed, and I made it through that often enough. And at the end of it all, I would have been able to see Angel's face light up as he looked at our baby, my baby, for the very first time.

And then it wasn't pretending anymore. You take care of a child, you let yourself love her, and she becomes yours in a way that transcends flesh and blood.

Of course, Mary is far more than flesh and blood.

We would go into stores together, the three of us, and sometimes I would see women looking over at me with something that I'd swear was jealousy. Angel by my side, attentive, handsome, even devoted. Mary in my arms, golden-brown curls and chubby little legs. A happy little family. From the outside, I guess it looks like something you'd envy, something you'd want for yourself.

Sometimes it looked like that to me too, back then. But not any longer.

They nearly caught up with us in Portland. We've had other close calls, but Portland was the worst, the one where I actually had to see a couple of them. Xander's face as he stared at me, across the parking lot -- we've fought in the past, had arguments as corrosive as battery acid, but I'd never, ever expected to see him look at me like that.

Like he didn't even know me.

Willow wasn't with them, which alone told me a lot more than I wanted to know. I'd been frightened for her long before I went; the ease with which she called forth dark magic shocked and horrified me. But I was sure we could get her through it.

I tell myself that my leaving wasn't what tipped the scales. I tell myself that it's for the best, because if Willow were after us too, Angel and Mary and I wouldn't stand a chance. I even tell myself that Xander and Tara and Wesley and Cordelia are being stupid as well as vindictive -- Willow must be as much of a risk as Mary now, and she's probably the more immediate threat, and maybe they'd do better to focus their attentions on her and trust me and Angel to see to Mary.

But they keep on.

Angel saw them first, and he clutched Mary tighter, tried to decide whether to run or fight. We decided to run, finally -- we love Mary enough to hide her, to ruin our lives for her, to risk the world for her. But I don't ever want to find out if I love her enough to kill Xander for her.

Wesley fired his crossbow, and the arrow caught me through the shoulder, and I nearly fell. If I'd fallen, they would have taken us there and then. But I kept running. Angel's face when he saw the wound -- I know now that he loves me enough to kill Wesley for me. So far, he hasn't had to.

We got out of Portland, made our way east in varying degrees of secrecy. Angel had a stroke of genius in Madison and sold off our fake identities to two separate people going in two separate directions. That appears to have thrown them off pretty well for the time being. We had three whole months in Chicago, and got to have something that almost felt like a normal life.

But it's getting colder now, and Angel pointed out that it was better to run before getting caught, and Mary's due to change again. So we traded in the Nissan (our fifth car so far) for a Pontiac, and we came up with our next set of fake identities, and now we are headed south on I-55. We won't stop until we reach New Orleans. It's an inexpensive city to live in, apparently, and there are a lot of bartenders and club owners in the French Quarter who aren't averse to paying their nighttime employees in cash. They don't ask questions, which works out for us. It is, however, supposed to be a very dangerous city, racked by violent crime. We won't be able to afford to live in very nice neighborhoods, so I guess we can expect to see quite a lot of that.

Of course, Angel and I aren't exactly worried about prowlers. They want to break in? Let 'em try.

Sometimes I'm less shocked by who is after us than by who isn't. Darla, for one. As much as Angel and I both try to forget it, Mary is her daughter too. I glance at her in the back seat, see her golden-brown braids flopped over her shoulders, and my heart seems to expand inside me, to swell to bursting. I've given up everything just to protect her. How can her birth mother not feel the same?

But she doesn't, apparently. Angel told me that from the beginning, that as soon as Darla had given birth, she couldn't get away from Mary fast enough. After all this time, I believe that, but I still don't understand it. Whatever the reason for it is, Angel and I are both profoundly grateful.

Giles hasn't come after us either.

It can't be because he doesn't know. Xander would have called Giles first thing; I know that much. But he's never been among the ones who've chased us. I've never glimpsed his face, heard his accusing voice on the phone, gotten a description from the gas-station attendants and neighbors we sometimes recruit as spies. (We tell them that we originally were going to give Mary up for adoption, but we changed our minds, but social services is after us. You'd be amazed how many people buy that.)

Knowing what he knows, Giles hasn't joined their side. Does that mean he's on our side, instead? Sometimes I let myself hope that this is true, and that if I called him, just picked up the phone and dialed the international code for England, he'd be able to help us. Or at least just be sympathetic.

But maybe that's not true. And I can't deal with what he would say if it's not. So I don't call.

The first transformation was the worst.

Mary was three months old when, one night, she just started shaking. At first I thought it was a cold, and then maybe a seizure, and then it became obvious that it was something else altogether. She screamed and screamed -- pain like nothing you've ever heard.

When it started, the argument was about whether or not to call a doctor. We'd taken care of her ourselves, as best we could, and Mary had helped out by being an extraordinarily healthy infant. I wanted to risk it -- Angel said no. We fought with each other more viciously on her behalf than we ever had on our own. I pleaded, and he fumed, but the phone stayed in the cradle.

Once we realized the problem was nothing normal, nothing human, we switched sides. I knew there wasn't a doctor on earth that could help her now -- we just had to hope. To pray, if there's anything up there still listening to us. But Angel got even more desperate and wanted to call Wesley. He thought that maybe, just maybe, he could get Wesley to listen. I told him Wesley never listened, and he told me I didn't know Wesley, not like he did.

This was a couple months before Wesley shot me, by the way.

Finally, we both gave up, and we were hanging on to each other, crying openly, convinced that despite everything we'd done, we were going to lose her. Maybe the Powers were doing what our former friends couldn't. Maybe we were fools to fight it. That night, for the first time, I knew that she was my daughter, mine and Angel's, the same as if I'd given birth to her, and that if she died, something inside me would die too, something that couldn't be brought back again.

And then she changed.

Her legs lengthened. The shape of her head morphed. Her arms grew, her little fingers stretching. It was the most grotesque, unnatural thing I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. Angel and I screamed even more loudly than Mary did --

-- and then it was over. Instead of a gurgling baby of three months, we had a child who looked to be about a year old staring up at us. We stared down at her. She then sat up, pointed at the fridge in our little apartment and said, clearly enough, "Bottle?"

She was fine instantly. Angel and I took a few days to recover. I made one foray out to get her some clothes and diapers that would fit -- beyond that, we spent the next several days in a kind of stupor, just lying on the bed watching her. Mary didn't just age physically, but mentally. She was even a little precocious for "her age."

Mary called Angel "daddy" the very first night. She called me "mommy" the day after.

Every three months, it happens. She jumps forward in age, making the mental leap along with the physical. She was born almost a year ago, and she looks like she's about five. In a couple of weeks, she'll be older again -- how much older, I can't guess. I guess we ought to do something for her birthday, but damned if I know what.

Mary doesn't regard it as strange -- why should she? We don't stay in place long enough for her to make friends who would tell her differently. I'm not even sure Mary understands how different our lives are from other people's. Traveling by night and lying low by day, changing names and hair colors and cars as often as possible -- as far as she knows, that's just life.

Mary has games she plays in the car, and she likes to sing along with the radio, and she thinks it's cool when Mommy helps her dye Daddy's hair because he can't see in the mirror to do it himself. Sometimes we let her help make up our new names, though we drew the line at being known as Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup. She has so much fun doing all this that sometimes we forget ourselves for a while and have fun with it too.

Angel has played more games of CandyLand than anyone should ever have to, and he actually seems to enjoy it. He never loses on purpose, like my parents used to do; I had never expected to see a grown man so determined to escape the Molasses Swamp. I taught Mary to swim in hotel pools, blew up little water wings and slid them on her arms. She laughs and claps her hands when I show her what we used to call the Nestea plunge.

I think she's actually happy. I hope so. If that much weren't true, we wouldn't even have that slender justification for the things we've done.

We stop for a while in St. Louis. After renting a cheap-but-okay hotel room and swaddling Angel in his blanket for the run indoors, we all collapse onto our beds for a restless day's sleep. At sundown, we'll get back in the car, which should put us in New Orleans safely before sunrise.

Mary, who has spent fully half her life in hotel rooms, unpacks her tiny Hello Kitty backpack swiftly. She has a toothbrush the color of bubble gum, and she never forgets to brush before bed. She makes a brief argument to watch television for a while, but in truth, she's as exhausted as we are, and it's only a few minutes before she's sacked out in her bed.

Angel and I undress more slowly, then curl up under the covers together. There's no way we're making love today -- Mary's much too "old" for us to risk her being in the room anymore, and we're too wrung out to feel anything like desire. But there's still a kind of sweetness when he nestles his arm around my waist, his head against my back.

The weapons are under the bed, where we can get at them quickly. And where Mary can't.

Spike's after us too.

Him we haven't actually seen, but some of the vamps who've been stupid enough to come after us have been kind enough to supply his name. He figures out where we are, from time to time, and sends vampires to do the things he can't, with his chip. Spike could still attack Angel, and I'm sure he'd love to try. But Angel and I stay together as much as possible, and Spike knows that going after Angel when I'm near would result in Spike getting about as Slayed as a vampire can be.

We generally make the vampires talk before we kill them, if we have to. Often they're stupid enough to talk without being forced. And so we know that they're under strict instructions to kill Angel and Mary, but to leave me alone. As though Spike could get them out of the way and then we could start screwing again, which is probably just about the way Spike's brain works.

Spike did send a letter once, to Angel. He talked about what I was like in bed, adding plenty of details so Angel would know he wasn't operating on guesswork. Fortunately, I'd told Angel about it long before. We just moved, so as to avoid more vampire packs barging in the house at all hours. (Having a vampire-in-residence makes home security a lot more problematic.)

I was honestly surprised when Spike did that. Believe it or not, I didn't think he would do anything so -- petty. But then, it wasn't so long ago that I was lost and afraid, and Spike's adoration was a fire I could warm myself by, and it seemed like a good thing, at the time. I didn't let myself think about the possibility of getting burned.

The way Spike sees it, he's the one who got burned when I ditched him for Angel. That changed him from the guy I took into my bed -- changed him back into the guy I first met, the one who snapped the neck of my driver's ed teacher and left him in the school hallway, near Harmony's locker. Spike's change did surprise me, but -- more fool me. A chip isn't a soul, and good intentions aren't remorse, and I'd have to be pretty damn arrogant to think that loving me is a substitute for any of the above.

I have a feeling that one day, Spike is going to find me alone and confront me. That will mean one of two things -- either he's ready to die, or he's sliced into his own skull, pulled the chip out with his own bloody fingers, and is ready to kill me. Either way, he'll want to talk first, and he'll be all full of wounded feelings and recriminations. How could you, we were together, I loved you, you betrayed me.

And I'll tell him that he's the one who betrayed me, when he didn't have a definition of love broad enough to involve letting me go. When he sent vampires to kill Angel, to kill my child.

He'll sneer at that -- "my child" -- and remind me of Darla, and that's the moment when I'll slam the stake into his chest and dust him forever.

Maybe I've thought about this too much.

I wanted to call Dawn on her birthday. At least, on the day we remember as being her birthday. If anyone would understand, it would be Dawn. She, too, came into this world in a strange way. She, too, was intended for dark, terrible purposes. I gave it all up to protect her. How can she condemn me for doing the same for Mary?

But she wouldn't understand. Even when I died for her, there's a part of her mind that only registered it as me leaving her. And I just left her again. She knew I was desperately unhappy, and even though she hadn't guessed about what happened to be between my death and my return, she knew enough to know that I felt hopelessly out-of-step with the world. Why wouldn't I just go?

She could find it in her to understand me, to forgive me. But it would take time, and it would take my returning home. That's not gonna happen.

Instead I called Xander to ask how she was doing, and I thought I was ready to deal with his anger. I didn't have any idea what anger really was, until then.

"All for him," Xander said. "In the end, it's still all about him."

"That's not true." When I said that before, it was a lie. It's not anymore. But Xander will never believe.

"Buffy, do you ever think about the past? At all? Do you think about the things he's done to you? The ways he's hurt you?"

I remember Heaven.

"Angel never did anything to me as horrible as what you did to me." I hang up without explaining the rest. I still love Xander enough to keep that from him.

Angel called Cordelia once this summer. He didn't tell me about it; I just found it on the phone bill. They talked for seventeen minutes and thirty-one seconds, so I guess it went better than my chat with Xander. He misses her, misses her a lot, which ought to bug me even more than it does. But we've all taken sides here, and Angel and I are together to save our daughter, and Cordelia's with the enemy to save the world, and that's not ever going to change.

Mary got her hands on the weapons for the first time when she was three years old, or eight months, whichever way you want to count it. The Deburchan dagger has a fine polish, and tons of glittering gemstones, and I suppose that to a tiny child it looks like a bright, shiny toy.

I was hurrying across our trailer to get to her before she cut herself, and I held out my hands, and as neatly and swiftly as anything, she sliced my palms open.

When she saw the blood, she laughed and laughed in delight, like she'd never seen anything that beautiful ever before.

Mary watches the most violent shows she can find on television. She'll watch the surgeries, eyes wide at the gore, at what happens to a body when you slice it open. If there's a dead animal alongside the road, she always cranes her neck to look at it, and if it's really awful, almost turned inside out, she grins.

The prophecies explain why she likes this, why she'll like it more and more, what she'll do for it someday. But how many times have Angel and I defeated prophecies? If we love her enough -- and we love her so much -- we can give her something of spirit and strength that will overcome the darkness inside. Angel and I have done that for ourselves, and maybe we can do it for her. Maybe love is stronger than destiny or darkness, and maybe we'll win after all, and maybe the day will come when we can come back to our friends, all be together again, families of blood and friendship reunited.

Even I don't believe that last part. Maybe we will save Mary in the end. But we'll never get those friendships back. Some betrayals can never be forgiven, ours or theirs.

Especially mine.

We check out at sundown, and though our timing is unusual, the people at Motel 6 have our money and aren't inclined to questions. Angel gets behind the wheel for his shift, which will probably take us as far south as Jackson, Mississippi.

"Can we listen to Mary-Kate and Ashley?" Mary takes a white cassette tape out of her backpack.

Angel, the 250-year-old vampire, smiles and pops Mary-Kate and Ashley into the tape deck without complaint. He'll listen to this stuff all day, if she wants. I've even caught him tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. He likes it because Mary likes it, because it makes her happy, and when he looks in the rear-view mirror he can see her smiling reflection, which is maybe even better than seeing his own.

In the early days, sometimes it made me jealous to realize he loves her even more than he loves me. Now, when I love her even more than I love him, it just makes sense.

"They want me to kill her," he kept saying, that long-ago night at my house. He was whispering, maybe to avoid waking Dawn but probably because the words were too painful to speak aloud.

"They want me to kill her." For the sake of the world, for the sake of our souls, Mary had to die.

He held her out to me, placed her in my arms while his hands trembled. I knew that he did not want her to die. And I made the choice that put us on this path forever. But much later -- much too late -- I realized what really happened that night.

Angel didn't want me to save Mary.

He loved her more than he had ever loved anyone in the world. But he trusted me even more than he loved her. He believed in my strength, in my integrity, in my ability to know what was right. And he gave his child to me in the hopes that I would do what had to be done.

Angel trusted me to kill her.

Sick and sad and horrible though it is, it's the single greatest act of faith I've ever known.

And I didn't do it. I betrayed myself, betrayed Mary, betrayed my friends and the whole world and Angel, desperate, anguished Angel, who found the courage to give his daughter up to death and still failed, all because he believed in me.

I chose as well as I could, but I chose the wrong thing anyway. I chose this.

I reach out to Angel. He half-glances over, then takes one hand off the wheel to hold mine.

Mary is coloring in the back seat, and even though she knows full well that we've only just begun our trip, she calls out, "Are we there yet?"

"Yeah," I say. "We're almost there."


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