Chapter Eleven: Six Months Later
"Buffy, we're going to be late!"
The slayer swore under her breath, grabbed her leather jacket from her closet, and was halfway down the stairs before she changed her mind yet again; she turned and ran back up to her room.
"Last time, Will, I swear!" Buffy threw the jacket on the bed, grabbed a cardigan from the dresser, and raced back down the stairs. Her best friend was waiting by the front door, a wry smile on her face.
"Nothing. Let's get in the car."
"That is nowhere near nothing-face; that is something-face."
Willow raised an eyebrow. "We don't have time for you to change again."
Buffy's hands flew to her shirt. "Can you still see the spaghetti stain?" She started to frantically unbutton it. "I thought I got it all out but if you can still see it, then I should..."
"Stop." Willow took Buffy's hands in her own. "Just stop for a moment and breathe. You're freaking out."
"I'm not, I'm..."
Willow gave her hands a squeeze. "You are, sweetie."
Buffy closed her eyes and sat down on the stairs. She took a deep breath and sighed heavily. "Yeah. I am."
Willow sat next to her. "Do you not want to go?"
"Will, I have to. I just didn't expect to feel this way. I thought that by now the rightness of the choice would have, you know...overwhelmed the hardness of it."
"So you do still believe it was the right choice."
"Yes. I do." The slayer ran a hand through her hair, which was blonde once again. "No court would have found me to be a fit parent. And let's be honest, I'm not one. I've got too much healing left to do, too much of myself to figure out. I love Rachel...but the fact is I can't give her the kind of strength she needs right now."
Willow placed a gentle hand on her back. "I agree that Mike adopting her was the right choice. But I also think you're being too hard on yourself."
The blonde shook her head but didn't say anything. She put her face in her hands.
"You don't have to go," Willow said quietly. "Mike would understand."
Buffy cleared her throat and quickly wiped the tears from her eyes. "It's a celebration. Mike is a slayer with firmly planted roots, a thriving business...and besides all that, she's just great. We've all been waiting for the adoption to become official, and it has, and we're celebrating. I'm celebrating."
Outside, a car horn blasted; the two friends jumped. Kennedy's voice carried through the windows. "Some time this year would be great!"
Buffy looked sideways at Willow. "She grows on you, you say?"
"Any minute now, you guys will be the best of friends."
Buffy followed Willow to the door. "It's been months."
A bitter wind hit Buffy as soon as they stepped outside; she pulled her cardigan tightly around her to no avail. "I thought it was supposed to be spring!"
Willow locked the door, took Buffy by the arm, and led her towards the car. "But it's still Vermont; that's what I was trying to tell you. Mike will have something you can borrow."
The redhead slipped into the passenger seat as Buffy climbed into the rear, shoving the cooler and various dessert boxes to one side. As she settled in and placed a tin of brownies on her lap, the slayer noticed Kennedy watching her in the rearview mirror. "What?"
Kennedy frowned. "You make a better brunette."
She threw the car into gear, leaving Buffy to stare open-mouthed at Willow, who was doing her best to be fascinated by anything outside her window.
The little girl crawled out of Xander's arms and ran across the yard to Buffy, who picked her up and planted a kiss on her head. Rachel wrapped her arms around her neck and started chattering. "Xander brought a trampoline from the studio, and there's a bounce castle, and hotdogs!"
"All of that?"
"Yes! And there's balloons and candy apples and popcorn, and I get to stay up past my bedtime!"
Buffy started to carry her toward the house. "You think you can stay up that late?"
"Yes! And Deanna's here, and my friends from school, and Momma Mike says Faith is here even though she died. She says so."
Buffy felt ice grip her heart. She didn't know how many moments passed until Kennedy was standing in front of her, arms outstretched. "W...what?"
"I said Willow could use some help unloading. I'll take her in."
"Kenny! We have balloons and hotdogs!"
Kennedy smiled. "So I hear." She gently touched Buffy's arm. "It's going to be ok."
Willow came up and stood next to Buffy, cooler in her arms, as Kennedy chased an excited Rachel back to the party. "You all right?"
"Yes...sorry, she just...I just got caught off-guard." Buffy laughed softly. "Told you this was the right choice." She took the cooler from her best friend; Willow went back to the car for the desserts, and the two of them headed toward the house. Xander was holding the door open for them, waving. "Every day...I want her back, Will. And just when I think it's getting a little better..."
"...you find yourself back to square one. Yep. I kinda know the feeling."
Buffy blinked and looked at her. "I'm sorry; of course you do. I'm blathering on again, I'm sorry."
"No, Buffy, it's ok. Really. You have to talk about it, how else is it supposed to get better?"
"So it will? Get better, I mean?"
"Faith will never leave you. Tara's never left me. But...the hurt does get better." They reached the house; Xander wrapped Willow in a huge hug as he took the pans full of dessert from her. "Family helps, too."
"What are we helping?" Xander asked as he hugged Buffy awkwardly around the cooler.
Buffy kissed his cheek. "Everything."
"Oh good." He grinned as they filed inside. "Everyone's out back: Rachel's friends, their parents, some of the slayers from the studio, plus the usual suspects." He stopped. "You did bring hamburgers, right? The littlest guests are eating all the hotdogs."
Willow gestured towards the cooler. "Buffy's loaded with meat."
"Aaaaaand I'm gonna let Buffy yell at you for that one while I cook them up."
The three friends went through the house to the back porch. Rachel and another little girl and boy were chasing each other in the bounce castle, two of Mike's students were helping kids do flips on the trampoline, and even more adults mingled with children in what Buffy guessed was an epic game of freeze tag. They all turned to wave at the newest arrivals.
"About time you got here," Mike smiled as she came up the porch steps. "Rachel was going crazy waiting for you. Oh, here you go-Kennedy said you needed this. Something about you forgetting California isn't the center of the universe?" She handed Buffy a sweatshirt.
Buffy rolled her eyes but gratefully pulled the sweatshirt over her head.
Deanna was leaning on the porch railing, glass of wine in her hand. "If Kennedy's torturing you, you must be doing well," she said warmly.
"I am. Working has made a big difference, even part-time."
Mike kissed Xander on the cheek as he started grilling the burgers; she looked at Buffy. "Hey, you just give the word and it's full-time."
"Thanks, Mike. I'll get there soon." The blonde slayer crossed to the railing and watched Rachel run around with her friends. "Also, it was a bigger comfort than I thought it would be to learn that we're not about to have an army of toddler slayers on our hands."
Xander looked surprised. "Toddler slayers? As in slayers of toddlers? That is a comfort."
There was a collective groan. Buffy raised an eyebrow at him. "As in other little girls like Rachel, with full-blown slayer powers. The Alliance figured out the girls will stay potentials until their teenage years unless some crisis demands otherwise, as it did in Rachel's case."
"It's your sister we really have to thank," Deanna said. "She's the one who figured out the key translations for us."
Buffy straightened up. "Dawn's at the Alliance?"
Deanna and Willow exchanged a look. "Her independent study program allows her a lot of time off-campus," Willow explained. "With the spring term ending...well, she usually spends the summers studying and working with Giles."
"Right," Buffy said quickly, "of course."
Willow frowned. "She didn't tell you, then."
"No, we had coffee a few weeks ago, but..." Buffy looked back over the yard. "She didn't mention it."
The conversation was cut short as Mike's other guests realized more food had arrived. Parents and children gravitated to the little group on the porch, exchanging hugs and warm words while Xander grilled as many burgers at a time as he could. Buffy was speaking with a couple of her students when she noticed Deanna watching her. She blinked, surprised, but continued with the kids as though nothing had happened. As they asked her if they'd ever be allowed to use the weapons in the studio, she saw the slayer witch smile and quietly leave the porch. Distracted by her curiosity, the blonde slayer excused herself. She met up with Deanna around the side of the house.
"What was that all about?" Buffy asked, a bemused expression on her face.
"Nothing." Deanna held out a glass of wine. Buffy took it. "You're really great with them, you know."
"Is that why you lured me away?"
The other woman laughed. "I didn't mean to."
Buffy raised an eyebrow along with her glass. "Clearly, you did."
"All right. I did." Deanna dropped her gaze and seemed to choose her words with care. "I wanted...to apologize. For bringing up your sister. I know today is cause for celebration, but I also know it must be hard for you for obvious reasons. I didn't mean to add to any..."
Buffy was already shaking her head. "You didn't. Dawn and I...well, I'm not surprised she didn't tell me she was leaving for awhile."
"Is it that bad?"
The blonde slayer sipped her wine, considering. "Yes. I hurt her, deeply. It doesn't matter what my intentions were; the truth is, I abandoned her. She worried about whether I was alive or dead for two years. And when I came back we argued and...and I left again. But this time it was Faith who paid the price."
"And now you each insist on carrying the blame for Faith's death, even though you're leaving out some important facts."
"Deanna..." Buffy was interrupted by the feeling of Deanna's lips on hers.
The slayer's eyes widened, but the kiss wasn't pressing or insistent; it was warm. It was gentle.
And just as quickly as it started, it was over. Buffy found that she had placed her free hand on Deanna's waist; it fell to her side as the other slayer turned away.
"What...what was that?"
Deanna drank the rest of the wine in her glass. "Way leading on to way, I guess."
Buffy stared at her.
The slayer witch tried to laugh it off. "Well, nothing else seemed to be working. So..."
The two slayers stood in silence. Buffy played back Deanna's words in her mind, remembering them from a dream months ago; Faith had spoken them. She looked into Deanna's eyes and saw they were full of unshed tears.
Deanna's voice was steady when she spoke. "I miss her. I considered Faith a friend, though we didn't know each other long. Some people you just get. And others you don't, quite...they take a little more time."
Buffy felt her cheeks growing red, but didn't interrupt.
"I wish I could go back to that battle and see what she had probably planned to do all along. Maybe I could have saved her, and found some other way. But...that's not giving her a lot of credit, is it? Maybe we didn't want to admit to ourselves what she knew to be true; that ending her life before something else did was the only way to ensure that the rest of us could go on. We're so busy trying to figure out what we could have done differently that we're not accepting the truth: Faith saved the slayer line. She saved all of us. She was the only one who could, and she did."
"So you kissed me?" Buffy said quietly.
It was Deanna's turn to flush. "I just wanted to stop you from going down that dark road again."
The two slayers jumped as Xander came around the corner with Rachel on his shoulders. "There you are! It's celebratory cake-cutting time. Someone was afraid you were going to miss it, but I reminded her, you know...it's cake. People don't miss cake."
Rachel grinned. "There's seventy-eighteen million candles!"
"And I don't want to relight them all on account of dawdlers." He looked from one slayer to the other, slowly taking in their stances and Deanna's empty wine glass. "Is everything ok?"
"Yeah! We're good. Just a little...uh...girl talk. We'll be right behind you," the blonde assured him.
Xander nodded; he and Rachel headed back. Deanna started after him until Buffy placed a hand on her arm. "Deanna."
"Yes?" The other slayer was tense, no doubt worried about the consequences of her unplanned kiss.
Buffy gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. "Thank you."
Buffy leaned in to kiss Deanna softly on the cheek. "For reminding me." They walked back together.
The sun had dipped below the horizon and the cake seemed to light up the backyard. Buffy and Deanna joined Willow, Kennedy, and the others in cheering for Mike and Rachel as they prepared to blow out the candles.
"Wait!" A collective groan from impatient children followed Buffy's outburst. "Wait. There should be a toast, shouldn't there?"
"Buffy's right," Willow piped up. "This is very much a toast-worthy occasion!"
"Then it should be a brief toast," Mike said as she slapped a student's hand away from the bottom tier, "before somebody catches fire."
"Ok! Ok, um..." Buffy raised her glass. "To Mike and Rachel: congratulations on starting the next chapter. You show all of us that while the slayer legacy is full of love and loss, it is also full of family...and you remind us that we never have to feel alone again." Her gaze fell briefly on Deanna before returning to Mike and Rachel. "To the next generation!"
They raised their glasses and cheered. It took four children and three adults to blow out all of the candles, but once they had Xander, Willow, and Buffy started cutting it up as quickly as possible.
The celebration lasted into the night. Eventually, one sugar high after another started to wear off, and parents started heading home with sleeping children. It was after midnight before the scoobies found themselves alone in the house.
"Well!" Xander exclaimed. "I think that was a success. And I also think cleanup can wait until tomorrow."
"Or the next day," said Deanna.
Xander snapped his fingers. "Or next weekend we can have a cleanup party. Am I right? Who wouldn't want to come to that?"
Kennedy tossed a pillow at him. "I like where this is going."
Mike laughed. "Well, brunch tomorrow is only for the cleanup crew, so if no one's here..."
"Pancakes? Forget my idea," Xander said quickly.
"That's what I thought you said." Mike smiled as she scooped up the littlest slayer from where she'd fallen asleep on the couch. "I'll be back in a minute. Buffy? Come with me?"
Buffy followed her upstairs and leaned in the doorway as Mike tucked the little girl in; she watched as Mike gently brushed the hair out of Rachel's face and kissed her forehead. Buffy wasn't quite sure what she was expected to do; she wanted very much to go to the little slayer herself but she knew it was, officially, no longer her place to do so.
It took her a moment to realize Mike was beckoning her to the bedside; she went.
"Her nightmares are much less frequent now," Mike whispered. "I think...she likes it here."
Buffy nodded her agreement, still unsure of what to do until Mike turned to her and wrapped her in a tight embrace.
"I know this wasn't easy for you, and we have a long road ahead of us, but thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for my family."
As they closed the door to Rachel's room, Buffy could hear Kennedy and Xander disagreeing over what time to show up in the morning. Mike shook her head and hurried down the stairs to put the matter to rest.
Buffy hesitated at the top of the stairs. She closed her eyes and...reached.
She could sense Rachel sleeping peacefully on the other side of the door. She could feel her comfort, her contentment. When she reached further she could feel the quiet amusement of Deanna, the bristling impatience of Kennedy, and Mike's strength of mind. She smiled to herself. Even without her slayer senses, she could feel Willow and Xander. Always.
Buffy rested her hand against Rachel's door, quieted her mind, and reached as far as she could until a certain brunette took shape in her mind. Buffy slowly opened her eyes, holding the spirit of Faith as close as she could.
"Thank you for mine."