The Unbreakable Series
Part 6 - Picture Of You

written by Koala





He could tell something was bothering her--had been most of the afternoon. Buffy had come into the Magic Box dragging a frown a mile long. Giles glanced at her face, as he finished taping her knuckles in preparation of her workout session. It was still there, that frown, apparently fixed in place for the rest of the evening. She didn't look up; in fact, she deliberately avoided meeting his gaze, moving onto the floor mats to begin her workout. Sitting on the arm of the old green settee behind her, Giles watched her in silence.

Several weeks had passed since his run in with Spike's hired heavy in the underground grotto. The injuries Giles sustained then, and from the beating in the alley, were all-but healed, but Buffy still insisted that he didn't train or spar with her just yet. Any accidental contact would send him back to square one in the recovery process. Despite knowing she was right, there was little actual advantage to be gained from beating up the EVERLAST bag, day after day. Buffy needed to spar with a real partner soon, or risk losing her edge. For that reason, Xander had gamely volunteered to act as a stand in... although from what Giles had seen of Buffy's mood, he had begun to harbor concerns over whether or not poor Xander would survive.

Giles had seen a lot of this quiet, brooding anger these past weeks, specifically following any cursing he did when he moved the wrong way, or when the position they chose for making love brought them to an abrupt and frustrating halt. They never discussed it though--the reason for his broken ribs, or his bitter ongoing rivalry with Spike. It was just brewing between them, unspoken, festering to an explosive head. When Buffy did finally let loose with her troubled feelings, no doubt there would be hell to pay.

For that reason, Giles had, earlier, pulled Xander aside to suggest he might want to don some protective padding for the workout, although the full-body suit and fencing mask was, perhaps, going a tad overboard. Still, it proved to be a wise decision, when halfway through the exercise, the storm inside Buffy finally broke.

"Spike!" she announced suddenly, laying into her practice dummy as if it were the vampire in question. "Spike wants me." After a few short jabs, she broke off just as abruptly, throwing her hands in the air in a gesture of utter frustration. "How obscene is that?"

From his position on the couch behind her, Giles grudgingly conceded her point. For years, he had watched other men looking at her, wanting her, and for years it had never been his place to intervene. Now that they were married, he watched even closer, ready to knock the first man who tried something right into next week. Most of this male posturing went unseen by Buffy, who--thank God--only had eyes for him. So while jealousy and rage still flared within him at each encounter, Giles quelled it with the knowledge that she loved only him. "Yes, well... you're a very attractive young woman."

"I don't wanna be attractive. I just wanna be yours." Buffy pounded on the dummy again, her anger matching his at the thought of Spike's unwanted infatuation.

"You are." Hastily realizing that she may not have taken that the way it was intended, Giles rose to his feet. "Not that you're not... attractive."

She was still pounding on her target, taking out her frustrations. "And you! You almost got yourself killed because of some dumb male testosterone! Why is it you even think you need to compete with him?"

"Because he's in love with you!" Giles snapped back defensively. So, they were finally going to have this out. Personally, he would have picked a more private setting, and a time when she wasn't in the mood to hit something, but if Buffy wanted to do this now, so be it. "You're my wife. And I refuse to stand by and do nothing while he... lusts after you."

"I feel gross," Buffy admitted. "You know, like dirty."

"What? That's ridiculous." Angrily tugging the towel from his shoulder, Giles approached her. "You can't be responsible for what Spike thinks or feels."

"Well, aren't I responsible?" Momentarily giving up on the punching bag, she faced him, guilt and apology in her eyes. "I mean, something about me had to make him feel that, right? Something that made him say, 'Woof, that's the one for me!'" Turning before he could reply, she punctuated her frustration by wreaking more frenzied violence on her practice dummy.

He was still dealing with his own frustration over the fact that Spike was in love with his wife, when she kneed her target in the groin. Hard. Giles winced with male affinity, only then remembering that the 'dummy', too, had feelings. "Buffy, I think you should, perhaps, calm down."

"Me, too," Xander said shakily from inside his protective suit, the indentations of Buffy's 'Spike issues' still evident in the padding.

"Oh!" Buffy exclaimed, belatedly realizing that her wrath had been exacted on the wrong person. "Puffy Xander, I'm sorry." She pulled off the fencing helmet so she could see his strained face. "I got... guess I got carried away. Are you okay?"

"I'm alive," Xander admitted. "I can tell because of the pain."

"Do you want to sit down?"

"I'm not that bendy," Xander said, referring to his 300-pounds of full body padding. He managed to raise a rotund arm and gesture at the wall. "I could lean."

"I'll get some ice," Giles volunteered, rushing from the training room as Buffy helped poor Xander shuffle to the nearest wall.

Since it was closing time, the Magic Box was deserted. Anya stood behind the cash register, doing her 'happy dance' as she counted the money. Approaching, Giles put his workout towel and the fencing helmet down on the glass countertop.

"I'm just popping over to the Espresso Pump," he announced. "To see if they have some ice."

"You're going to put us out of business," Anya warned.

"Pardon?" Giles asked, failing to see the connection between getting ice from a neighboring store and the imminent closing of the Magic Box.

Anya frowned. "What if you take all their ice? How will they make their iced coffees? It will be the start of their economic decline. Not having any iced coffees for sale will cost them customers, and therefore money, until they can't pay the rent, and will finally have to shut their doors. Then the store will be vacant, and become a haven for deadbeats, vampires even, and completely ruin the neighborhood, which will be extremely bad for the Magic Box. We'll be out of business in six months."

Giles leaned over the counter and swiped a five dollar bill from the open cash drawer. "I dare say this will stave off any hint of 'economic decline' they may feel for the rest of the evening."

"Hey!" Anya complained, snatching back the fiver. "This is not your own personal petty cash fund!"

Giles gave her a pointed look that said otherwise. "Then I know one exercise you and Xander won't be participating in tonight."

Eyes widening in understanding, she thrust the money back at him. "Go get ice."

Smugly triumphant, Giles headed for the front door of the shop. It opened just as he reached for the door handle, the bell up top tinkling to announce the arrival of a late but potential customer.

Ready to excuse himself and politely sidestep, Giles instead stopped and looked at the man who entered the store. He immediately broke into a friendly smile, the medicinal icing of Xander's accoutrements momentarily forgotten. "Carl!"

"Hello, Rupert," Carlton Fisk said, grinning. His gaze wandered past Giles, drawn by the silent, serene world of enchantment inside the Magic Box that was so in contrast to the hustle and bustle of Main Street at half past five. "So... this is what a magic shop looks like, eh? Very 'new age.'"

"Um, yes... as you can imagine, it was quite a transition from school librarian." Giles curiously regarded his friend.

He and Carlton had been tenured at Sunnydale High together before its closure, and only been recently reacquainted. As one of those blissfully ignorant residents of Sunnydale, Carl had no clue about the Hellmouth, or the demons, vampires, or other nasties that dwelt there. He and his lovely young wife were the picture-perfect couple, a flawless representation of the 'normal life' Giles and Buffy could only ever dream of having, one without violence and the constant threat of death, and occasional pending apocalypse.

Giles watched Carlton examine a table of crystals and incense, before he moved to peruse the nearby bookshelves, with his head tilted to skim the spines. Folklore and spirituality--all harmless stuff. Still, by his presence alone, Giles wondered what on earth he was doing here.

"I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing here," Carlton said on cue.

"The thought had crossed my mind."

"I was just in the neighborhood. Literally." Turning from the bookcase, Carlton lifted a plastic shopping bag, the logo proclaiming his patronage at the Sunnydale hardware store, across the street. "Needed some stuff to fix Diana's crib. She's got quite a kick for a newborn. Of course, as Angie would tell you, it needed fixing after Ryan. And you know me--I had eight and a half months to repair it, but somehow I just never got around to it."

Giles chuckled. "And you, a woodshop teacher and all. Shame."

"Hey, it's always the plumber's house that has the leaky faucet, y'know?" Carlton wandered back to him with a grin. "So, tell me... how'd the beach house work out for you and Buffy?"

"Not as well as I would have liked, I'm afraid," Giles admitted. "We ended up sending Buffy's mother and sister there for a week."

Carlton raised a wry eyebrow. "Novel approach to a honeymoon."

Giles smiled, flashing on the wonderful week he and Buffy had spent as husband and wife, 'honeymooning' in his apartment. "Indeed, but at least they were safe--" He caught himself and corrected, "--out of our hair, for the duration."

"Oh, right. The mother-in-law clause." Carlton nodded in sympathy. "I know exactly what you mean."

That was true enough. If anyone knew the trials and tribulations of being married to a woman less than half his age, then it was Carlton Fisk. His wife, Angie, was just a year older than Buffy, and they already had two children together. Not that Joyce Summers was the typical, stereotyped mother-in-law. Giles actually admired the woman for her patience and understanding, the fact that she was willing to overlook a multitude of traditional values in order to make her daughter happy.

"Giles, ice!" Anya called impatiently. "And is your friend going to buy anything or not? I need to finish cashing out."

Giles frowned. "There's no need to be rude, Anya."

"No, no," Carlton said. "My fault. I didn't realize you were closing. The hardware store is open until six." He made a move for the door. "Anyway, I need to get on home, and fix this damn crib."

Nodding, Giles followed. He saw so little of his friend, he was reluctant to see him leave. "I, um, still need to return your beach house key to you, but I'm afraid I don't have it on me."

Eyebrow raised, Carlton took in his sweat pants and baggy sweater, no doubt wondering what exactly was going on in the shop for him to be dressed like that and in need of 'ice.' Wisely, Giles didn't even try to explain.

The bell tinkled again as Carlton pulled opened the door. "Not a problem. Like I told you, with a new baby, it'll be a while before Ang and I get the chance to use the place again."

"I could, perhaps, drop it by your house sometime?" Giles suggested.

"Sure." Carlton paused as a thought occurred, then his face lit up with a genuine smile. "Hey, I know. Why don't you and Buffy come over for dinner? Like on Sunday. Yeah, we'll make an afternoon of it... maybe fire up the grill, throw on some burgers, down some brewskis. Buffy's on Spring Break, right?"

"Um, yes. She finished her last class yesterday."

"That makes two of us."

Giles was still a little dubious of the invitation. By the man's own admission, the timing didn't seem right for social frivolities. "Are you sure? I mean, with the new baby and all... "

"Nah, Angie loves showing her off. And it'll give us a chance to catch up properly, instead of just running into each other for five minutes now and then."

"Well... "

"And you know our darling wives are just dying to compare notes on the good and the bad of being married to a couple of old farts like us."

The normalcy of that idea made Giles chuckle again. "Lord, help us."

Carlton returned the smile, clapping Giles on the shoulder. "We're gonna need more than just his help, my friend. A lot more."

* * * * *

"Mom! I need your help!" Buffy called urgently, eyes glued to the laden spoon she hurriedly carried from the kitchen to the living room, one hand cupped underneath. She found her mother sitting on the couch, a dozen open magazines spread on the coffee table before her, pencil and paper in her lap. With no time to ask about her mom's impromptu research, Buffy slid around onto a vacant spot of couch beside her. "Taste this."

Joyce did as asked, obediently opening her mouth and accepting the spoon that her daughter fed her.

Buffy watched anxiously. "Well?"

Joyce considered for a moment. "Needs more salt. Try celery salt, that'll give it a boost."

Buffy's shoulders sagged. "I can't do this," she admitted in defeat.

"Honey, of course you can. And, you know what?" She motioned at the spoon. "It's fine as is, really."

Buffy wasn't listening. "How can I ever expect to be a good wife when I can't even make a decent bowl of macaroni salad? I just... I just don't want to screw this up."

"I very much doubt you're screwing anything up," Joyce said knowingly. She picked up her daughter's hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "It all just takes time, Buffy. Married life is a big adjustment for anyone. Rupert is a patient man." She smiled. "And even if he wasn't, there's always takeout."

Buffy made a disagreeable sound, knowing, as her mom did, that food wasn't the real issue here. Being a wife was the hardest thing she'd ever tried to do. Way harder than being Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Buffy the College Student, or even Buffy the Big Sister. She only wanted to please Giles, make him proud of her, glad that he had taken her as his wife. This whole icky deal with Spike--the fact that she'd inadvertently made another man lust after her, which in turn made her husband green with jealousy and drove him to take stupid, life-threatening risks--made her feel as if she were failing on all counts. "Yeah."

Changing the subject, Joyce tugged on her hand. "Have a look at these," she said with barely contained excitement, dragging an open magazine onto Buffy's lap.

Buffy's eyes widened. "Wedding dresses?" She looked at her mom and feigned a suspicious frown. "Is there something you're not telling me, Mother?"

"Not for me, for you."

"Um, I hate to burst your denial bubble here, but... " Buffy raised her left hand, showing her wedding ring with a waggle of her fingers. "Been there, done that."

"Not like this. Buffy, I had time at the beach house to do a lot of thinking, and... remember, at your birthday party, when I asked if you and Rupert had ever given thought to really getting married?"

Buffy didn't know what to say. She flicked a magazine page instead. But the more she looked at the photos of gorgeous wedding gowns, the more the fantasy of a big, romantic, white wedding took root in her head. One thing she always regretted about marrying Giles, was that they'd done it in a hurry at the sucko County Clerk's office. What her mom was suggesting was any girl's dream come true. "Are you serious? It'll cost a fortune!"

"Completely," her mother said with a loving smile. "And it won't cost that much if I can get in touch with your father and convince him to pay for half." Joyce shifted, warming to the idea. "Honey, I want to do this for you and Rupert, if you'll both agree."

Buffy flicked another magazine page, a smile creeping across her face at the photos of a reception; a bride, wearing the gown from the previous page, and her handsomely dressed groom cutting into an enormous multi-tiered cake. Her fingertips fondly traced the photo, her imagination wandering off on its own. She and Giles didn't have any cake. Or wedding photos. Or engagement, or birthday, or any photos! In fact, there was no tangible evidence of their relationship except their matching wedding rings, and the small, instant photo booth snapshot of them that she kept in her locket.

She thought about him lying in that hospital bed a few weeks ago, injured after having been mugged. She could have lost him, forever, and she would have had nothing to remember him by but memories. She wanted more--lots more--and what better place to start than with an album full of wedding photos.

She looked back at her mom, touched by the offer. "I think it's a great idea."

Joyce looked relieved and pleased. "So you'll talk to Rupert about it?"

"Yeah. I will," Buffy promised with a heartfelt smile. But it faded all too quickly, as she came back to the here and now. "But first I need to get through this barbecue thing. I'm really not a barbecue kind of girl. I mean, this is Giles' friend--a teacher from Sunnydale High. And if that's not awkward enough, I don't know Angie except from meeting her at the mall one time. I have nothing in common with her... and she has two kids!"

"Honey, just be yourself and you'll do fine. Besides, mixing with 'his friends' is all part of being a good wife. At least this Angie is around your age. I'm sure you two will find something in common."

"You mean apart from the fact that our husbands are older than our dads?" Buffy nodded skeptically. "Sure. Maybe we can just talk about babies the whole time." With a resigned sigh, she looked at her wristwatch, and was alarmed by the time. "Speaking of, Giles is gonna be here in less than half an hour." She looked at her mom with something akin to desperation. "Celery salt, you say?"

Joyce smiled. "Come on, I'll help you."

* * * * *

Sunday afternoon was sunny and mild, the perfect spring day to be outdoors enjoying a backyard barbecue, or so Giles imagined. Barbecuing was not really his forte, neither when growing up in England nor since arriving in Sunnydale. His parents had not been the 'barbecuing' type, and his father's responsibilities as Watcher had kept them from associating with friends and family who were.

Giles parked the Beemer in the driveway of a modest, two-story, stucco house, complete with the proverbial white picket fence. A large old oak shaded most of the front lawn, the homemade ladder nailed to its trunk leading to a little boy's secret hideaway, barely visible in the new spring foliage of the branches above. The front porch was trimmed with white-painted lattice, shielding two comfortable old wicker chairs from view of the road, and decorated with hanging pots of contrasting greenery. A red hummingbird feeder hung on a thick string in one corner, while a wooden box of toys filled in the other. All that was missing was the dog.

'Welcome to normality,' Giles thought, a tad envious of his friend's ordinary and uncomplicated life. Unbuckling his seatbelt, he caught a glimpse of his silent companion. Buffy had hardly said a word since leaving her mother's house--not since he'd tasted her macaroni salad, at her insistence, and concluded it was 'perfectly edible'. Perhaps his choice of words could have been a bit more encouraging, and he could have shown more enthusiasm than Iron Chef judge, but he meant well. He wasn't exactly comfortable with the whole backyard barbecue scene himself. Although he'd opted for casual attire--blue jeans and a gray Henley shirt under his brown leather jacket--he still felt like a proverbial fish out of water.

"So, this is what it's like on the other side of the fence," Buffy murmured, sharing the sentiment.

"Indeed."

She suddenly got cold feet. "Giles, I don't think I can do this."

"Nonsense."

"But I'm The Slayer, not Martha Stewart! What do I know about backyard socializing and barbecue etiquette?"

"And what, pray tell, in our history together makes you think I do?"

She turned her head to look at him, her expression hidden behind a fashionable pair of sunglasses. "So it's not just me wigging out?"

He shook his head. "Trust me. I feel just as awkward."

"But he's your friend."

"Yes, but he knows nothing of my background as Watcher, or the life we lead here on the Hellmouth." Giles gestured at the charming suburban house before them, his wedding ring catching a glint of sunlight. "Buffy, this is the 'normal life' you and I are striving to achieve, but believe me when I say it's also something so completely alien to me that it scares me half to death."

"Me too," Buffy admitted quietly. "Give me a couple of vampires in a graveyard at midnight, and I'm completely at home. But this... this is way out of my element." She gave him a little grin. "Some bad-ass Slayer, and her smart, confident Watcher we are, huh? Can't even handle a little 'normal.'"

Returning the smile, Giles pushed opened his car door and got out. "How about, for the rest of today, we simply try being ourselves?" The Beemer's top was down, so all he needed to do was lean over into the backseat to retrieve his six-pack of bottled Guinness draught. Then he went around to the other side of the car to open Buffy's door. "Think of this experience as ... a test drive."

"A test drive to normality." Undoing her seatbelt, she climbed out with her plastic-topped bowl of pasta salad, letting Giles shut the door in her wake. "Gotta be a first."

Giles slid his free arm around her shoulders as they started up the walk. "I dare say there are people out there who would kill for the opportunity." Drawing her close, he kissed the side of her head and gave her shoulder an encouraging squeeze. As long as they were together, they could get through anything.

The front door opened and Carlton stepped out on to the porch. "I thought I heard a car," he said, grinning, his free hand outstretched to welcome Giles. After shaking hands, he leaned forward to kiss Buffy's cheek, surprising her, then stepped aside to gesture them inside. "Welcome to our humble abode."

* * * * *

The first thing Buffy noticed, as she lifted her sunglasses to the top of her head, was that the modern cream color décor of the living room was slowly being taken over with baseball memorabilia. There was a bat on the fireplace mantel, book-ended by an autographed ball in a Plexiglas cube and a strange looking bobble-headed player. A red cap with a big embroidered 'B' hung off one corner, while a baseball-shaped clock ticked quietly on the wall above. Several souvenir plaques and framed photos had also crept over onto the neighboring walls, threatening to edge out the family studio portraits of the Fisks.

"Ang, our guests are here!" Carlton called down the hall. Turning, he took the six-pack from Giles. "I'll put these in the fridge. Ready for a cold one?"

"Um, yes, I suppose... thank you... "

"Kitchen's this way," Carlton told Buffy, nodding at her bowl of pasta salad.

"What's with all the baseball stuff?" Buffy asked. She was preparing to follow her host down the hall when his wife appeared in the doorway.

"Please don't get him started," Angie warned playfully. She smiled a friendly greeting, which put the last of Buffy's butterflies at ease. "Hi, Buffy."

"Hi." She returned brightly, thinking that maybe she and Angie did have something in common after all--apart from their older husbands. Angie had graduated from Sunnydale High just the year before her, and she seemed a lot more likable today than the last time they'd met, briefly, at the Sunnydale Mall. Of course, the poor girl had been eight months pregnant at the time, and trying to tame and feed her rambunctious three-year-old in a crowded food court, which had probably accounted a lot for her non-talkative mood.

It was Giles who answered Buffy's question. "Carl's namesake is a famous baseball player."

"Was," Carlton corrected in all seriousness. "He's retired now. The best damn catcher the Red Sox ever had. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame just last year, you know. No relation though."

"Cool," Buffy said, impressed for some odd reason, even though this Carlton Fisk was a long way removed from the famous Boston ball player of the same name.

"Oh, is that something for the fridge?" Angie asked of the bowl Buffy held.

"Um... yeah... " Buffy said, suddenly embarrassed by her non-existent culinary skills again. She surrendered her best effort to Angie, hoping she'd be merciful. "Just a little something I made."

"Looks delicious," Angie said, taking the bowl. "Come on, I could use a hand in the kitchen, while our husbands stand around pretending to be useful."

Carlton chuckled, enjoying the teasing.

Buffy's panic was momentarily back, flitting across her face as she looked at Giles. When she saw the same expression flash in his eyes, the phrase 'divide and conquer' sprang to mind. They anchored each other in the insanity that was their lives; neither knew if they could successfully do 'normal' without the other, Buffy--especially--in the kitchen.

But she was shuffled down the hallway between Carlton and Angie with little choice. Buffy stopped in the kitchen and stood uncomfortably to one side, while Carlton deposited Giles' Guinness in the fridge and then turned to take the pasta salad from his wife for the same destination. Retrieving two bottles of Coors, he used his hip to close the fridge door, then paused to shoot a grin at her and Angie before heading back to the living room.

"Bring us some snacks, would you, honey?" he asked, disappearing after receiving a smile as an answer.

Silence.

Awkward, long silence broken only by the low hum of the baby monitor on the counter by the sink.

Buffy shuffled self-consciously, as Angie returned to washing lettuce leaves and preparing a plate with slices of tomato and cheese for the upcoming burgers.

"So... you graduated from Sunnydale High the year before me," Buffy began conversationally, knowing how lame it sounded considering she already knew the answer.

"Class of '98," Angie confirmed. She turned an ice-breaker smile on Buffy. "I could ask you if that's where you met Rupert, only I figure it is. I remember him being the school librarian. Not that I really hung out in the library much."

Buffy smiled. "Nobody did. Well, except for me and a couple of my friends."

"Your friends? Really? Did they know?"

"Know what?"

"About you and Rupert."

"Oh yeah," Buffy said, thinking how the whole Watcher/Slayer secret destiny thing had been completely blown by her friends on her first day. "They knew all about us."

"Mine didn't," Angie revealed. "Carl and I had to sneak around. I can't tell you how many times we made love in his office, after class. I really hated that. Not the making love part, but--you know--sneaking around, afraid of getting caught. I loved him and he loved me, but we couldn't tell anyone, or go anywhere in public together because... "

"Because... ?"

Angie looked away. "He was married."

"Oh!" Buffy said in surprise, as the 'perfect couple' image cracked like a broken mirror. She quickly schooled her expression; it wasn't her place to judge. "So like... what happened?"

"I got pregnant," Angie said simply, shaking the water off the lettuce. "Carl left his wife, and proposed to me."

"Oh," Buffy repeated, stumped for a suitable comeback after that nuclear bombshell.

"I know that makes me sound like a total bitch, but it's not what you think. Carl was married, legally, but he and Barbara had been separated for a while--since before Rupert even joined the Sunnydale High faculty, I think. So it wasn't like I broke up their marriage, or anything. They just never bothered to get a divorce."

"Then why all the sneaking?"

"Mostly because I was underage, and Carl was desperate to keep his teaching job--not to mention, out of jail. He was worried that if my friends knew, it would get back to Principal Snyder, or my parents. We got married on my eighteenth birthday--that was just after graduation--and Ryan came along a few months later." Angie turned from the sink, wiping her wet hands on a towel, changing the subject. "Do you and Rupert plan on having any kids?"

Buffy smiled dreamily. "Yeah, someday." But her smile faded as she realized that 'someday' was a word that she and Giles used way too much. She looked at Angie, suddenly jealous of the life this young woman had made for herself, here, on the Hellmouth. She had a husband who loved her, a lovely home, two wonderful kids, and no concern for what new threat the coming night may bring. Angie had everything Buffy wanted. She had 'normal'.

"Well, don't let anyone tell you childbirth doesn't hurt," Angie said with a knowing smile. "It's the most painful thing you'll ever do." At that moment, three-year-old Ryan came into the kitchen, headed straight for his mother's legs. She scooped him up without hesitation, settling him on her hip. "But you know what? It's well worth it."

"Hi, Ryan," Buffy said to the child. "Remember me? We met at the mall a while back. I'm Buffy."

With a shy smile, the toddler tucked his face beneath his mother's chin and sucked on the toy car he held.

"Every time I look at him," Angie continued, gazing at her son while attempting to wrest the toy car from his mouth, "I see his father. And it's... comforting... to know that I'll always have some part of Carl with me, even after he's gone." Her eyes widened with realization. "Oh, I'm sorry, Buffy, I shouldn't have said that to you! Take no notice, it's just me being morbid."

"No, it's okay," Buffy assured her, suddenly gaining new understanding of the child in Angie's arms, seeing, for the first time, Carlton's eyes, and nose, and chin. "It's not like we haven't talked about it... the big dirt nap."

Angie nodded solemnly. "Carl and I had the same conversation. It's just a statistical probability, that's all, given our age difference and barring any accidents."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed, not willing to elaborate on why her situation was reversed, that she was convinced she would die long before her husband. Age difference and accidents not withstanding, it was simply her destiny.

"Chip," Ryan said, pointing at the unopened bag of potato chips on the counter.

"Yes, and I suspect that right about now, your father is wondering why I haven't brought him any yet," Angie said. She put her son down, and turned to open the bag. "Um, Buffy? Cupboard behind you. Can you pass me that big wooden bowl?"

"Sure."

"Make that two. I've got some party mix, too. That should keep them happy."

Angie poured out the snacks into the matching wooden bowls Buffy retrieved, then allowed her eagerly grabbing son to take one of the potato chips from the top of the stack. He crunched it with a triumphant smile at Buffy, getting more crumbs on his clothes and the floor than in his mouth.

"Want to do the honors?" Angie asked, holding the snack bowls out to Buffy.

"Can do," Buffy agreed, happy to be useful. She glanced down as the toddler made a clumsy grab for another chip, despite the half-chewed one still in his other hand.

"Oh no, I don't think so," his mother said, grabbing his flailing fingers. "Not before dinner. Which will be pretty soon, if we can get your father motivated off the couch."

"Hey, Ryan," Buffy said, cutting off the protest she saw coming. "Wanna help me take these to your daddy?"

Stopped mid-pout, the boy nodded, thinking he'd either get a reward for the deed, or that his father was a softer sell.

"You want a Coke, or something?" Angie asked, tearing a sheet of plastic wrap from a roll and covering the salad plate.

"Sounds good. Thanks."

"Go on in, then," Angie instructed. "I'll join you in a moment."

Smiling at her new friend, Buffy led Ryan down the hall.

Giles and Carlton were sitting at right angles to each other on the matching sofa and loveseat, sipping their beers and shooting the breeze. Buffy obediently put the snack bowls on the homemade coffee table before them and took a seat beside her husband, while Ryan crawled up into his father's lap, jostling for a better position to receive his reward. Seeing the chip crumbs and oily fingerprints he was spreading over the cream couch, Carlton took the soggy, half-chewed chip from his son's hand without even pausing the conversation. This immediately caused Ryan to wail in protest.

Hand resting on Giles' knee, Buffy balked at the kid's lung capacity, and momentarily thought better of any prospective childrearing.

Angie joined them with drinks for herself and Buffy, sitting the baby monitor on the coffee table beside the snack bowls before settling at her husband's side. The two couples chatted for the better part of the next half hour, mostly sharing stories from their mutual time at Sunnydale High, until Diana made it known, via the monitor, that she was awake and hungry. Excusing herself, Angie went upstairs to breast feed the newborn.

Content to listen to Giles' embellished tale of how he had 'convinced' Snyder to allow Buffy back into school for her senior year, Buffy rested her head on his shoulder and found herself watching Ryan, who was likewise curled up in his father's lap, captivated. The boy's eyes were wide as he listened to Giles speak, and although Buffy knew he didn't understand most of the words, she could identify with his awe over the charismatic sound of her husband's British tones.

Her head jostled a little as Giles finished his recount with a chuckle, and Carlton joined in.

"Funny," Ryan said, his arm outstretched to point at Giles.

"Son, it's rude to point," Carlton admonished, capturing the small hand. "Sorry, I don't think he means you personally, but your accent. He's never heard a British accent up close before. He was too distracted when we met at the Mall."

"Not even on cable?" Buffy wondered.

Carlton shook his head. "We don't get cable. Angie calls me stingy. I call it not filling my kids' heads with unnecessary garbage."

Buffy sat up straighter as Ryan's gaze fell on her. "Hey, little guy... you like the way he talks, then, huh?"

Pulling his hand from his father's and sucking on his fingers, Ryan nodded slowly.

"Me, too. You know why he talks like that?"

Ryan shook his head, eyes widening into saucers as if a great secret were about to be revealed.

"Because he comes from a place far away from here, across the ocean," Buffy told him. On impulse, she held out her arms, pleased when the boy left the familiar protection of his dad and came to her without hesitation. Picking him up, Buffy sat him on her lap. "Has mommy or daddy ever told you stories with castles and knights and a princess?"

He nodded, completely captivated.

"Well, that's the place he comes from. And they still have castles, and 'knights', and they used to have a princess, too."

Awestruck, Ryan squirmed around to look at Giles directly. "He Prince Charmin?"

All three adults hid a smile at the reference to brand name toilet paper.

"Yeah." Buffy gently brushed a lock of tawny hair from Ryan's face, then turned a loving smile on her husband. "He is. He's my Prince Charming."

With the tenacious enthusiasm of a three-year-old, Ryan crawled off Buffy's lap and onto Giles'... much to his surprise. "Tell story," he demanded. He grinned devilishly. "Wif monsters."

Carlton sat forward on the lounge. "Ryan," he began in warning.

"No, it's all right, Carl. I think I can handle this," Giles said, grinning, his accent immediately holding the boy enthralled again. "A story with monsters... hmm... "

"Well, if you guys think you'll be okay for a moment," Carlton said, getting to his feet, "I'll take the opportunity to go fire up the grill."

"We'll holler if we get into trouble," Buffy promised, her hand coming to rest on Ryan's leg, as Giles pulled him into a more comfortable position on his lap.

"Be good," Carlton told his son with a pointed look, then headed down the hall and through the kitchen to the backyard.

"Once upon a time," Giles began, "there was a beautiful young girl. But she wasn't just like any ordinary young girl, for she had been chosen by the mighty Powers That Be to perform a special task in life, and rid the world of all the bad monsters she could find. To achieve this, they bestowed upon her great strength and skill, but she soon discovered that she needed help and guidance to tame this gift, so the Powers sent a handsome, older man to watch, and protect, and teach her... and love her with all of his heart, for all time... "

Buffy tuned out as Giles related his pseudo-Slayer tale, preferring, instead, to watch Ryan's reaction. The boy was completely mesmerized by both the tale and the rich timbre of Giles' voice, and Giles seemed to be enjoying the rapt attention immensely. He pitched his voice high and low to represent different characters in his tale, and tickled Ryan whenever there was a 'monster attack', which alternately held the boy spellbound and made him squeal in delight.

It occurred to Buffy as she watched, that this man whom she loved with all her heart and soul would be such an incredible father. That thought, in turn, made her flash on the conversation she'd had with Angie in the kitchen, which brought her full circle to a conclusion that surprised and delighted, and terrified her.

The cruel hand of destiny had already foreseen to it that she would die young, and she had accepted that as best she could. What she couldn't accept was how desolately alone Giles would be without her--even more alone than she had been, crying herself to sleep the night he'd spent in the hospital, with nothing to show for the love they shared but the tiny photo in her locket. She wanted Giles to have something more than just a photo of her--even more than the entire album of wedding photos that would be theirs if her mother's plan came to fruition. Something tangible. Something he could look at every day, and see a little part of her, and remember.

She knew then, with concrete certainty, as she watched Giles charm the little boy who could have been their son had fate played out a bit differently, that there was only one thing in this life that she wanted to give him, one legacy she wanted to leave to sustain him through the years after she was gone.

A child of their own.

* * * * *

It was after eleven when they sped through the darkened streets of Sunnydale on the way home. Giles had wanted to put the Beemer's top up, but Buffy thought otherwise, finding the rush of chilled night air on her face bracing, to say the least.

"Mmm," Buffy murmured, "I am so full of burgers and good times, I think I might explode."

Beside her, Giles chuckled. "And here, you thought we couldn't do 'normal.'"

"I stand corrected. We do 'normal' out the wazoo. And they never even suspected we were faking it."

"Were we?"

Buffy laughed. Much to her delight, she'd had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Her macaroni salad had been an instant hit thanks to her mother's 'secret ingredient', plus she'd made a new friend, one who may prove a wealth of information on the 'dos' and 'don'ts' of pregnancy, after she successfully convinced her husband that it was a viable option. Giles was likely to put up some resistance--she suspected all men did at first--but she knew, especially after what she'd seen today, that he would warm to the idea pretty quick.

So how did wives go about telling their husbands they wanted a baby, anyway? Or were most conceptions unplanned events? She had no clue on how to proceed with the subject, but, with her confidence high thanks to her social success, Buffy figured she'd know when the time was right for discussion.

She shivered as a little thrill chased through her. She was going to be a mom!

"Are you sure you don't want me to stop and put the top up?" Giles asked, noticing.

Buffy shook her head, her left hand creeping across the gap between the bucket seats to find his leg. She gave him a smile, her fingertips beginning to trace light, concentric circles up over the inside of his thigh.

After a moment, Giles cleared his throat, getting her message. "Um... I was going to take you home."

"Why don't we go to your place instead?" Buffy asked huskily, her caress boldly moving into more provocative territory.

His breath caught. Eyes on the road, he said nothing in response, either way, but at the next intersection he turned right when he should have gone left, had he still intended to take her to her mother's house.

The stimulation proved worthwhile, because the moment they shut Giles' front door, they were in each other's arms, caught up in a whirlwind of raw, mutual need.

Buffy giggle at the way Giles practically threw her on his bed, upstairs, then followed her down to lavish her with urgent, hungry kisses. Their hands traveled over each other in a rush, as she returned his fervor with equal passion, drawing moans and fueling the fire. Attempting to free his arms from his inside-out coat and shirt, Giles threw his head back and groaned, robbed of all articulate speech, as Buffy fondled him through his jeans. Her hands came back to his bare chest as he settled above her, delighting in the feel of his warm skin and crinkling hair, and the solid familiarity of his body on top of hers. He kissed her, deep and passionate, an unspoken promise of the pleasure to come. Still beneath him, Buffy shimmied out of her top, while Giles removed her bra with deft, urgent fingers, and then gorged himself on the result.

Sitting back, he undid the snap on her jeans and stripped them from her hips in a single move, his thumbs catching her panties and taking them along the way, and tossing all to the floor without a care. Buffy opened herself to him, welcoming him into her heated embrace like she had done so many times before, smiling as she felt the hard evidence of his desire pressed against her. They kissed and caressed each other for a long time, the foreplay heightening the titillation. Although still half-dressed, Giles paused to grope a haphazard hand through the bedside drawer, searching for a familiar foil packet in eager anticipation.

It was then that Buffy realized her moment had arrived.

She watched her husband stand up to remove the last of his clothes, the condom packet in his hand, and a loving smile on his face. Her gaze roved over him in the soft glow of moonlight--naked and beautiful and ready--and it took all of her courage to stop him from completing his task. The rip of foil was the sound that brought her back to reality. Sitting up, she stilled his hand with hers.

"Sweetie? Um... let's not use that this time, okay?" She took the packet from his prone fingers and dropped it on the floor--out of sight, out of mind.

"What?"

"I want to feel you. Only you." Buffy reached for him, her arms going around his neck as she encouraged him back to their bed. She kissed him wantonly, his eyes, and face, and throat, vying for attention, hoping to make him forget that any other explanation was needed.

With what little self-control he had left, Giles pulled back, resting on his elbows to look at her. The desire was still in his eyes, but it was now tempered with confusion and concern. "I don't... understand."

"I want... " Looking into the soul of the man she loved and adored more than life itself, Buffy couldn't lie. To do so would have been manipulative, underhanded, and downright entrapment. "I want to have a baby."

For the longest moment, Giles simply gazed down at her, his expression turning to wonder and awe, and filled with so much honest joy and love that she wanted to cry. Then the storm clouds gathered, and he frowned darkly.

Giles rolled out of her embrace and onto the mattress beside her, his hand pressed to his face. "Oh, dear Lord... "

Disappointed, but reminding herself that initial resistance had been expected, Buffy followed, resting on her side with one hand tracing light circles of encouragement over his cooling skin. Silence hung between them as she carefully prepared her next statement, knowing these words were the ones that were going to count.

Capturing her hand, Giles effectively terminated her caress, and her chance. He shuffled onto his shoulder so he could face her, eye to eye. "Buffy, I love you... but what in God's name are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking I took 'normal' for a test drive, and now I wanna take home the entire package."

"But we talked about this... in the training room, remember? You told me you wanted to wait."

Her confidence waned a little. "I know, but... that was before I saw you with Ryan."

"This is because I told a few stories to the boy?" His expression turned to exasperation. "Darling, just because I interacted with the child for a few hours, doesn't mean I'm ready to have one of my own."

Her eyes pricked with pending tears. "But I thought you wanted kids. A little girl, just like me. You said."

"I do," he insisted, kissing the hand he still held. "But... someday."

Buffy suddenly hated that word. It was overused and annoying. Worse, it was an excuse.

"Have you forgotten about Glory?" Giles argued. "Her plans for your sister?"

A hot tear of disillusionment rolled down Buffy's cheek, despite her attempt to hold it back. True, they hadn't heard a peep from Glory in well over a month, not since the encounter in the x-ray lab. It was easy to believe the Hellgod was out of their hair for good. Too easy.

Cradling her cheek with his hand, Giles wiped away her tears with a gentle thumb. "Buffy, this world in which we live right now... this is no world to bring our child into. Surely you can see that."

"Other people manage," she said glumly, her hopes fading. "Carlton and Angie do."

"Yes, but you and I... we don't have the luxury of being able to hide behind ignorance."

"But it's the only world I have!" Buffy blurted. "The only one I'll ever have. I just... " She looked away, fighting the waterworks before they started in earnest. Sucking it up, she took his hand from her face and squeezed it, bravely meeting his gaze again. "I'm going to die before you."

"Buffy, no... "

"You know it's true! We both do." She saw the pain in his expression, the truth he had kept hidden from her and denied to himself for so long. There, it was said. It was out in the open at last. She smiled sadly, letting him know it was all right, that she had accepted her fate. "I just want you to have something--someone--when I'm gone. Something more than a picture, or a memory. Giles, I love you so much. I don't want to die knowing you'll be all alone."

"Oh, love... " Giles gathered her into his arms and held her tight, as if through this act alone he could somehow tether her to life, to a future.

Buffy clung to him, the only thing that made this whole crazy ride worthwhile. Bravely, she sniffed back her unshed tears, accepting his decision. Theirs was no world for a child. She lifted her head to look at him in the dim light, catching his gaze; eyes shining with love and brimming with sadness. Despite his denial, he too, had accepted the destiny that befell all slayers, sooner rather than later.

"So... 'someday'?" she asked grimly, wanting him to lie. If she couldn't have reality, she'd take the next best thing, and latch onto the fantasy for as long as she could.

Giles nodded and smiled, but she could see the heaviness in his heart. "Someday."

Finding whatever contentment there was in that, she buried back into his shoulder. They lay quietly for a few minutes, alone with their thoughts, then Buffy spoke again.

"I hope this doesn't mean you won't want to make love with me again," she said only half-joking, wondering if this decision--Giles' decision--would get in the way of pleasure.

Despite himself, Giles chuckled lightly, his hand running up and down the length of her arm in a solemn promise. "Darling, I'm a man. When it comes to wanting sex, our libidos have exclusive control of our brains. Although," he added in all seriousness, "I doubt, in light of things, either of us would particularly enjoy it tonight."

That much was true; the mood had completely passed. "Just hold me, then."

He moved slightly, pulling the covers up over them both, settling in. "Forever."

* * * * *

By eight Monday morning, the gang called an impromptu meeting and gathered at the Magic Box with an extraordinary tale to tell. Giles listened with something close to amazement, as Xander and Anya, and Willow and Tara, recounted a Spring Break party they attended on campus over the weekend, which had been unceremoniously gate-crashed by a young woman whom they suspected--of all things--to be an automaton. Her unusual strength and odd manner, they believed, were dead giveaways. Giles' only regret, upon hearing how this 'robot', for want of a better word, had thrown Spike through a double-glazed pane of glass, was that a bit of broken window framing hadn't inadvertently staked him. That would have no doubt saved everyone a great deal of time and trouble. Giles hadn't forgotten that he still owed the vampire a beating.

Sitting at the reading table with them between early-bird customers, Giles regarded each of his young friends in turn. Xander, who was off work for a few days while the construction company where he was employed moved their equipment to a new building site; Anya, who found her boyfriend's presence and the 'not-on-the-clock-yet' hour a terribly good excuse to ignore her job; Willow, engrossed in her laptop as she delved headfirst into the appropriate 'robot' research; Tara, as always, offering steadfast moral support.

It wasn't until his gaze fell on Buffy, sitting to his right with a glum expression, that he realized not even the prospect of a dozen rampaging robots in Sunnydale would be able to shake her from her present funk. They had awakened just before sunrise, not far from each other's arms. As the dawn broke, true to his promise, he had made love to her with all the passion he possessed, but not even that had completely lifted her downed spirits. Looking at her now, he still couldn't quite believe what she'd asked of him. Buffy wanted a child; his child. He'd been overjoyed at first, the love he had for her welling up inside until his heart threatened to burst. He hated having to be the voice of reason, the one to say 'no.' But his reasons were valid. This thing with Glory wasn't over, and even if it were, there would always be something else waiting in the darkness of tomorrow. The world of a Slayer was no place for a child.

"And you're certain she was a robot?" Giles asked for the second time, if for nothing else but to keep the conversation afloat. Any lag and he feared Buffy would sink even further into depression.

"Absolutely," Willow affirmed, the rapid click of computer keys testament to her keen typing skills.

"She practically had 'Genuine Molded Plastic' stamped on her ass," Tara added. Off everyone's startled look for the uncharacteristic turn of phrase, she explained, "Just trying a little spicy talk."

"She was looking for someone named 'Warren,'" Anya said.

Giles didn't think that was much of a clue, but the gang did, insisting 'Warren' wasn't a common American name. Stumped for any other avenue of investigation, Giles let them pursue the lead--however insignificant--as they saw fit.

"I already checked the Sunnydale enrollment," Willow reported, "and got nothing. I found one Warren, but he moved out of the country a year ago. I'm checking nearby schools."

"Whoever he is," Xander said with more than a hint of masculine appreciation, "he knows his stuff. That girl, well... that was a nice-looking girl."

"It's okay for him to say that," Anya confidently told the others, "because I know that he really loves me only."

Grinning, Xander patted his girlfriend's hand.

"Is there something the rest of us could be doing?" Giles asked, desperate to find a way to motivate his disconsolate wife. She needed to get involved, take her mind off... other things.

Xander shrugged. "What can we do?" He was right, of course--apart from Ted, robots weren't the typical problems drawn to the Hellmouth.

"Oh, do you have any books on robots?" Tara asked.

"Oh, yes, dozens," Giles replied, hoping a little levity would be the thing to snap Buffy from her blue mood. "There's an enormous amount of research we should do before... no, I'm lying." He hid a smile. "I haven't got squat. I just like to see Xander squirm."

"Funny," Xander conceded. "Charming and funny."

"Hey, I think I found him!" Willow exclaimed suddenly. "Warren Mears. He went to Sunnydale High with us for a semester, and then he went to the tech college over in Dutton." She reached for a pencil and scribbled in her spiral notebook. "I've got a local address where his folks still live."

"He's probably home for Spring Break," Tara guessed.

"Well, I'll go talk to him," Buffy said; the first words she'd spoken in the whole conversation. She took the sheet of paper Willow tore from her notebook and folded it, without looking at it.

"No, wait," Giles said, still concerned. While her offer to get involved was encouraging, he didn't like the thought of her going off into a potentially dangerous situation when her mind wasn't entirely focused on the job. "We don't know what you're walking into. We have no idea what his motive is for building this thing."

"Um, don't you think she's just a... " Tara shrugged knowingly in lieu of having to say the word.

Confused, Giles looked to Willow, who confirmed her lover's unspoken conclusion. "Yeah, she's just sort of a... " She made more meaningful eye gestures, that Giles couldn't even begin to fathom.

"She's a sexbot," Xander blurted. He looked to the only other male present, hoping for a little support. "I mean, what guy doesn't dream about that?"

Giles frowned indignantly. "Certainly not me, if that's what you're implying. I'm a happily married man." He threw a smile at his wife to confirm this, but she still wouldn't meet his gaze.

Xander wasn't listening; he'd been transported into his own daydream of wistful pleasure. "Beautiful girl... with no other thought but to please you... willing to do anything... " Noting the disgusted looks he was drawing from all present, he laughed nervously. "Too many girls, not enough single guys. I miss Oz. He'd get it. He wouldn't say anything but... he'd get it."

"Why would anyone do that if they could have a real live person?" Anya wondered aloud.

"Maybe he couldn't," Willow offered. "Find a real person."

"Oh, come on," Buffy argued. "The guy's just a big wedge of sleaze. Don't make excuses for him."

"I'm not," Willow said. "I'm just saying people get lonely, and maybe having someone around, even someone you made up... maybe it's easier."

Giles looked to Buffy again, noting her reaction to the thought of someone--anyone--not having that someone in their life to love. The circumstances were, of course, completely different, but the sentiment was exactly the same as the one she had expressed to him last night; the reason she wanted them to have a child... so that upon her inevitable death, he wouldn't be alone. It was a selfless gesture of love, and he hated himself even more for denying her.

Buffy looked down at her wedding ring, twirling it on her finger. Although their friends could not have possibly known, their words had hit far too close to home. She stood, suddenly, the sound of her chair scraping the floor testament to her desire for a hasty retreat. "I'll go check this out," she said again.

Giles stood also, but out of concern rather than chivalry. "Buffy, wait." She looked at him directly for the first time since their 'Scooby meeting' had begun. He was, for once, stuck for the right thing to say, given present company. As dear as they were, he doubted Buffy would appreciate him revealing the private details of what had her down in the dumps this morning.

Buffy just looked at him, waiting for him to speak. Giles wondered if she'd ever truly forgive him.

It was Xander who came to his rescue, sensing the awkwardness. "Hey, Buff, why don't I come with? The car's out front, save you some legwork."

Giles watched Buffy consider this for a moment, before she nodded her acceptance and turned, in silence, heading for the shop's front door. Xander stood to follow her. As he brushed by Giles, the two shared a look--one of them thankful, the other understanding.

* * * * *

Buffy read the address to Xander, but she lapsed into her own little morbid world as he drove across town, and so it didn't really sink in that they were at the wrong destination, until they had pulled up at the curb.

"This can't be right," she said, frowning at the familiar two-story, stucco house with the white picket fence and the shady old oak. She looked at the piece of paper Willow had given her, but the house number and street name matched. "I know who lives here. Giles' friend, Carlton Fisk."

"The famous Red Sox player, or the ex-Sunnydale High teacher?" Off her questioning look, Xander shrugged. "I had him for shop."

"Teacher," Buffy confirmed.

"Wow, he's gone from building coffee tables to sexbots? Quite a retirement project."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "He's not retired--he teaches at the college--and he's not building anything... except, maybe, a future."

"Oh," Xander said with a note of real disappointment over the sexbot thing. He pulled the keys from the ignition. "Well, can't hurt to check it out while we're here. Wonder if he remembers me?"

Since she had nothing better to do, and no other leads to follow, Buffy agreed. They walked up the path together, pangs of remorse impaling her heart at the sight of Ryan's toys, scattered on the front porch. It wasn't until they reached the door that she realized that was why she had agreed to 'check it out'; there was no way Carlton could be involved in any of this, she simply wanted to see Ryan again, torture herself just a little bit more...

Xander rang the bell.

After a short wait, Angie opened the door, her inquiring look instantly transforming into a friendly smile. "Oh, hi!"

Buffy mustered up one to return. "Hey, sorry to bother you so early--"

"That's her!" Xander yelped in recognition, jumping behind her for Slayer protection.

Buffy looked at him as if he'd gone completely insane.

"I'm telling you, that's her!" Xander insisted. "That's the robot!"

Buffy's gaze swung back to Angie, who looked just as perplexed by Xander's ludicrous accusation. Before anyone could speak, Ryan peered around from behind one of his mother's legs, his favorite toy car in hand, going to his mouth. He looked up at Xander with large, round eyes, which crinkled into a warm smile as they shifted to Buffy.

"Or not," Xander added in confusion. Even he knew that, by default, robots didn't generally have kids. Especially cute ones with million dollar smiles.

Buffy knelt to greet the boy. "Hey, little guy." She reached out to tussle his tawny hair with a great deal of affection. In response, Ryan launched himself at her for a bear hug. Heart breaking, Buffy scooped him up in her arms.

"Buffy, what's going on?" Angie asked, looking from her to Xander and back again.

Buffy stood with Ryan settled on one hip. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "We're looking for a guy named Warren. Warren Mears. We were given this address for him."

Angie paled immediately, her good mood evaporating. "I think... you'd better come in and talk to Carl."

* * * * *

"So you know this Warren guy?" Buffy asked when they were all assembled in the living room; Carlton and Angie occupying the sofa in much the same position as they had just yesterday, Xander and Buffy across from them. The only difference, apart from this not being a social call, was that Angie rocked baby Diana in her arms, and Ryan played happily on the carpet between them instead of being glued to every word that came out of Giles' mouth.

"Yes," Carlton answered quietly. "He's my son, from my first marriage." He paused to shoot an apologetic look at Angie. "My estranged son. After my divorce, he took his mother's name, and refused to have anything to do with me. Last I heard he was attending the tech college over in Dutton, and doing quite well."

"We think he's home for Spring Break," Buffy said, still processing what she had been told. Little by little, 'normal' was being swallowed up in the big bad cauldron of insanity boiling away on the Hellmouth.

"Buffy, has he done something... illegal?" Carlton asked cautiously.

She thought for a moment, then decided the only way to break the news was to be straight up and to the point. "He's doing better than 'well' at the tech college. He built a robot."

"So?" Carlton asked. "I mean, it's a technical school. Couldn't that be considered as part of the curriculum?"

"Okay," Buffy said, trying to explain the abnormal to a very normal couple, "I'm not talking about some souped-up pocket calculator with legs, here. I mean... a robot robot."

"One that could be Angie's twin sister," Xander added helpfully. He waggled his eyebrows in a meaningful way. "You know."

There was a long pause before Carlton caught on. Even then, he couldn't quite believe it. "Let me get this straight. You're saying... ? You think he built this thing for... ?"

"Yeah," Buffy admitted awkwardly. "She's a sexbot. Sorry, Angie."

Carlton exchanged an apprehensive look with his wife, who just looked extremely uncomfortable as she rocked her cooing baby daughter.

"Which explains who Warren is," Xander said to Buffy, "and how come we have this address for him, even if it is a little outdated... but not why he built his little toy to look exactly like his step-mom." He looked at said step-mom. "Unless he's just one kinky little dweeb."

"Carl?" Angie asked, a note of anxiety creeping into her tone.

"It's all right, honey, it's all right," Carlton said patting her knee. To Buffy and Xander, he said, "I think, maybe, I can explain that. You see, I met Angie through Warren." He sighed heavily before spilling the beans. "She was his girlfriend at Sunnydale High."

"You stole your son's girlfriend?" Buffy asked, then immediately regretted the way she made it sound like such a cheap shot. Love--true love--knew no boundaries of age or propriety; she should know that if anyone did. "Sorry."

"No, you're right, Buffy. I did." Carl offered a small smile to his wife, meeting her gaze over his newborn daughter's head. "And I make no excuses, either."

"Okay," Xander summed up, "so we know the 'who,' 'how,' and 'why.' But we still don't know the 'where.'"

Buffy's gaze fell on Carlton again. "Assuming he is here in Sunnydale, and assuming it's not to visit dear old dad, where else would Warren go?"

Carlton didn't have to think too hard to come up with an answer. "His mother's house. They were always pretty close."

"That's were we start then," Buffy concluded, getting to her feet.

"Buffy, this robot." Carlton frowned, troubled. "Is it--" He made a surreptitious nod at Angie and Ryan. "--dangerous?"

Buffy got the message loud and clear. If Warren had built his little toy in his ex-girlfriend's/step-mom's likeness, then there had to be a reason, and the one topping Buffy's short list was some big bad obsession. She grimaced at the thought of Spike's shine to her in the chamber beneath his crypt; Spike lusting after her, similarly obsessed, and ready to kill anyone who got in his way.

Spike lust. Now that was just plain creepy.

"Xander," Buffy said, turning to him, the use of his name bringing him to his feet, ready. She didn't answer Carlton, not wanting to unduly alarm him of the fact that he was right to be concerned for his wife and family. They had no idea what Warren was really doing in Sunnydale with his robot, which was why they needed to find and talk with him a-sap. "You stay here with Angie and call Giles at the shop, tell him what's going on. Carl, how do you feel about paying a visit to your ex-wife?"

* * * * *

Buffy had just raised her hand to knock on the front door of Barbara Mears' house, when it opened before her, without warning. She looked at the young guy who stood on the other side of the threshold, equally startled by her presence, a packed duffel bag in his hand. He was nothing special, kind of nerdish with hair that stuck up in all directions, and obviously in a big hurry to be elsewhere.

Warren recovered first, eyeing her with a lewd look that made her skin crawl. When his gaze shifted over her shoulder to her companion, it quickly changed to a contemptuous frown. "You."

"Nice to see you, too, son," Carlton said flatly.

"I have to talk to you," Buffy told Warren, with no time for the estranged father/son reunion.

Warren's eyes came back to her, this time in a sneer. "So she's the latest, huh dad? You always did like them young enough to be your own."

Buffy ignored the dig, hoping Carlton would too. "My name is Buffy Giles. But it was Buffy Summers when we were at Sunnydale High together. Do you know who I am?"

"Yes, I know. Giles, Giles... " Warren said, trying to place the name. "Sounds familiar." He snapped his fingers. "Librarian!" Then he frowned. "I didn't know he had a son our age?"

"He doesn't."

Warren's eyes widened. "You married our school librarian? What is it with you girls and older men?" He shot a contemptuous glare at his father. "Still, I suppose you could have done worse."

"Look, this isn't about me."

"Is it about her?" Warren's mood grew a little apprehensive, and he shifted foot to foot. "April... did she hurt... someone?"

"You named her 'April'?" Carlton asked, shocked and disappointed.

"We know she's a robot, and we know you built her," Buffy said directly. Carlton's heavy sigh made her pause and look over her shoulder.

He shook his head, saddened by what he was hearing. "April was the month Angie and I met."

"Wrong, Dad. It was the month Angie and I broke up. You see, Buffy, my old man stole my girlfriend. She was mine, and he took her from me."

"We fell in love," Carlton said simply, truly regretful of the pain he had caused his son.

But Warren was obviously still bitter over the breakup. "She might have even come back to me, too, given it another shot, but no. You had to make sure of that, didn't you? You had to get her pregnant."

"That wasn't the reason she left you, Warren, and you know it."

"She was seventeen, you pervert! You should be in jail! And you would be, too, if I'd blown the whistle on you. But you had an answer for that too, huh Dad. Packing me off to another school, in another town... "

"Okay, calm down," Buffy said, intervening. "Both of you. This isn't why we're here."

Warren smirked at his father. "So how is that bastard step-brother of mine, anyway?"

Buffy had to physically restrain Carlton before he took a swing. Not that Warren didn't deserve to have the snot kicked out of him for that remark, but it would get them nowhere. "Look, you two can duke it out later, if you have to. Right now, we really need to talk to you about April, before she does hurt someone."

Reluctantly backing down, Warren dumped his duffel bag on the floor and stood aside, gesturing them in.

* * * * *

Giles put the phone back in its cradle and turned to the others--Willow, Tara, Anya, and Dawn, who was looking for a ride to school--all waiting to hear the news with expectant faces.

"That was Xander," he said, unnecessarily. "He's at Carlton and Angie's house. It appears things have gotten... a tad more complicated."

Anya shrugged, nonchalant. "Don't they always?"

"It turns out that Warren is Carlton's son from a previous marriage." Giles ran his hand through his hair, wondering how all that he perceived as 'normal' had spiraled away so fast. "Apparently this robot he made is a dead ringer for Angie, Carl's wife."

Willow and Tara exchanged surprised looks.

Dawn grinned. "Whoa, kinky."

"It's always the normal, well-adjusted ones," Anya remarked, before moving off to tend a customer.

Giles was not amused by either statement. He reached into his pocket in search of his car keys. "I think it's about time you were at school, Dawn," he told the teen with a parental eye. "I'll drop you on the way."

"Nah, still twenty minutes before class. Besides, I wanna hear more about the sexbot."

Giles moved purposefully up the mid-stairs toward the front of the shop, catching Dawn's elbow along the way. "I think not." He opened the door, spilling crisp morning sunshine in off the sidewalk... and a flaming blanket traveling Mach 1.

"Coming through! Coming through!"

Spike barreled into the store beneath his protective covering. Giles gave Dawn's arm a yank, pulling her out of harm's way, a scowl settling on his face almost immediately. Stopping out of the direct sunlight, the vampire threw off the blanket and began stamping out the flames before something else caught alight.

"Fire! Fire!"

No one moved to help; no one really cared if Spike burned to a cinder or not.

The crisis averted, he drew a breath and greeted them. "Hello, all. What's going on then?"

To Giles' infuriation, Spike sounded as if he expected them to treat him like a missing member of the gang. Letting go of Dawn, he moved forward, his rage just barely contained. "Spike, you're not welcome here."

"Yeah," Willow agreed haughtily, "and by the way, we're working on a way to de-invite you from here. Even if it is a public place."

"Oh, can we throw him out the window like the robot did?" Anya asked. "'Cause that was neat."

"Robot? That's what she was? I knew something wasn't right," Spike said, but no one was buying his act. Undaunted by the cold stares directed his way, he sought out Dawn with a conspiratorial grin. "Hey, someone's glad to see me, aren't you, little bit?"

"Stay away from me," the teen warned, having heard--along with the rest of the gang--the story from the underground grotto, including the Buffy Shrine, and how Spike's hired heavy had tried to kill Giles.

As Tara boldly stepped forward and told Spike to leave, Giles glanced at Dawn. Buffy had told him of her sister's secret crush on the vampire; he was pleased to see such schoolgirl lunacy had resolved itself without his 'fatherly' intervention. Now if only something could be done for Spike's obsession with Buffy. Of course, none of them--not even Buffy--knew the whole truth of that, like who was really behind the 'mugging' in the back alley, but rather just enough to remind them that Spike was, indeed, both dangerous and a menace. Somewhere along the line the entire Scooby gang had forgotten that fact, and had instead begun to treat the neutered vampire with the wary affection of a mongrel puppy.

Gaze swinging back to his rival, Giles hid a smug expression at Spike's protestations. Spike didn't know it yet, but he was about to learn he had been outcast by them all.

"Okay, now, I was afraid of this," the vampire began knowingly. "Misrepresentations, misunderstandings, slurs and allegations. I don't know what Buffy told you, but the thing is--"

"Spike, listen to me." Something in Giles just snapped. He couldn't believe the vampire's gall, trying to whitewash the truth with more lies and deceit. Pulling off his glasses, he moved to stand directly in front of him, the dark anger of Ripper stirring in his soul.

"It's just... I'm trying to explain." Spike glanced around Giles, knowing any hint of reconciliation between them was a lost cause, but still hoping to convince the others he should be let back into the clubhouse. "She might have said some things that sounded like I expressed some kind of feelings, or that I did something--"

It was the inflection in Spike's voice, the inference that he and Buffy were close friends, that made Giles lash out. He gave Spike a good, hard shove backwards.

Caught off balance, Spike stumbled back against the same bookshelf that Carlton had perused during his visit to the shop, surprised more by the act of aggression in front of present company than by the act itself.

Giles followed, his voice icy calm, his expression hard, his manner imposing. "They are not your friends," he warned, careful not to include himself in the declaration; Spike already knew the score there. "They are not your way to Buffy. There is no way to Buffy." Stooping, he picked up the charred blanket and slammed it into Spike's chest. "Clear out of here. And Spike, this thing? Get over it."

Expression hidden from the others, Spike looked smugly amused. Of all the facts the others did and didn't know about the rivalry and hostility between Giles and Spike, the vampire's voyeurism was a secret shared only between the two men. Certainly, Buffy would have a fit if she knew, but every now and then, while in the midst of their lovemaking, Giles would still glance toward his bedroom window, convinced he saw the night shadows stir in the darkness beyond the pane, or a hint of veiled movement.

Spike's lips curled into a hateful snarl, but his words were carefully schooled for impressionable ears. "I don't know what you mean."

"Yes, you do," Giles insisted, wanting to throttle the vampire with his bare hands, present company be damned. Instead, he settled for tightening his grip on the half-burned blanket. "Move the hell on."

Spike held his gaze for a long moment, challenging him to elaborate, or make a scene in front of Dawn and the others, until finally, the vampire conceded this round to Giles. With a hateful sneer, he threw his blanket over his head, and rushed back out into the sunlight.

* * * * *

Ryan Fisk was three, and proud of it. Playing smash-ups with two of his favorite toy cars out in the hall, he heard the doorbell ring, even though his mother and that man who had arrived with Buffy didn't. He liked Buffy a lot. She was nice, but her 'hubband' was even nicer. He liked the way Giles told stories, and made him laugh. And he didn't even need a book.

The doorbell rang a second time. Ryan paused and glanced in the direction of the living room, where his mother and 'Sander' were still talking, his mom paying more attention to his new baby sister than the door. That was a funny name--'Sander.' His daddy had a sander in his workshop out back. It made wood real smooth, and took away the owies. Sometimes his daddy let him watch while he used it, through big plastic goggles. But Ryan would always cover his ears with his hands, because it made a big buzzing noise. He didn't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing to be named after a tool, but he liked this 'Sander,' since he didn't make big buzzing noises that hurt his ears. Maybe this 'Sander' took away the owies, too, and that's why he was called that.

At the third persistent chime of the doorbell, Ryan got to his feet. His mother didn't seem very interested in knowing who was there, but he was. Maybe it was Buffy and his daddy coming home. Or Giles! He really wanted Giles to tell him another story... with lots of monsters!

He opened the door and looked up, surprised to see someone who looked exactly like his mother.

"Hi, I'm looking for Warren," she said, glancing down at him with a pretty smile. "Does Warren live here?"

Ryan just stared, too awed by the doppelganger to do anything else. He knew his real mother was still sitting in the living room with 'Sander.' This lady looked like her, but she wasn't her.

The lady stared back, until her smile disappeared and her head ticked a bit, like she was thinking. Then she smiled again, the familiarity of it making all his doubts go away... just like his father's sander did with the owies. "Would you like to go to the playground, Ryan?"

The playground! That's where the swings were, and the carousel. He really really liked the carousel. When his mommy wasn't looking, his daddy would spin it really fast, and make him dizzy and fall over.

He smiled and nodded eagerly. After all, the lady looked exactly like his mommy, so she couldn't be a bad lady. He took the hand he was offered, and had just stepped out onto the front porch when he heard his mother's voice shouting his name from down the hall. Like a good boy, he planted his feet and turned; he didn't like it when his mommy got upset. But it was 'Sander' who was charging at him; his mother still had his baby sister in her arms.

The look on 'Sander's' face scared Ryan, and he suddenly wanted to cry. He wanted his mother to come lift him into her arms and whisper things to make him feel better. But the lady yanked on his arm, and began dragging him down off the porch and across the lawn.

"Hey! Leave him alone!" 'Sander' called, chasing them.

Ryan started crying, putting up more resistance. In response, the lady's grip on him tightened until it hurt his arm. 'Sander' reached them, and grabbed the lady by the shoulder, trying to stop her. Ryan was pleased. He didn't want to go to the playground anymore. The lady turned and, with her free hand, picked 'Sander' up off the ground by his shirt and threw him right through the front window of the house. Ryan struggled. He started bawling, and throwing a full-blown tantrum. Despite his protest, the lady just lifted him up into her arms so she could walk quicker.

"Ryan!" his mother screamed as she ran out onto the front porch with his baby sister, where she stopped. "Ohmygod! RYAN!"

Ryan looked back at her, saddened by her tears. Vision bobbing as the lady rounded the gate and started down the street in a run, he reached out a futile little hand, fearful he would never see his mother again.

* * * * *

Buffy sat on the sofa with Carlton while Warren paced anxiously before them, attempting to explain. So far, nothing he said had done anything to endear him. She couldn't believe what a total sicko-sleaze this guy was, when his father was so normal and nice. No wonder Angie had left him for his dad.

In conclusion, Warren's gaze shifted back to Buffy. "And that's why I made April in Angie's image. Since I couldn't have reality, I settled for the fantasy instead."

Buffy's heart thudded in her chest. While she abhorred what Warren had done, part of her really did understand why. "And how long did it take to build yourself this little toy?"

"Oh, no, she's not a toy," Warren said defensively. "I mean, I know what you're both thinking, but she's more than that."

Carlton grunted, endeavoring to keep his negative comments to himself, and his temper under control.

"I'm sure she has many exciting labor-saving attachments," Buffy said, employing sarcasm worthy of her husband.

"I made her to love me," Warren insisted. "I mean, she cares about what I care about, and she wants to be with me. She listens to me, and supports me. I didn't make a toy. I made a girlfriend. The girlfriend I'd lost."

"Son, you have a lot to learn about women and love."

"You know, Dad, that's the first thing you and I have ever agreed on. I mean, I really thought I'd love her. She's better than Angie; she's perfect. I dunno, I guess it was too easy and predictable. She got boring. She was exactly what I wanted, and I didn't want her." Warren chuckled, but it sounded a bit maniacal. "I thought I was going crazy."

"Really? You?" Buffy exchanged a look with Carlton, who just shook his head in bitter, angry disappointment. "So you decided to take April out of the box, play with her for five minutes. And then what? You got bored, decided to dump her, tell her to go away?"

"Kinda." Warren came to sit on the couch with them, his expression suggesting he really wanted them to understand.

"And she got mad," Buffy guessed. "She didn't go, huh?"

"Okay, I didn't really dump her... as much as I went out, and didn't come back. I left her... in my dorm room."

Buffy balked. "You left her in your dorm room?"

"Well, I figured I could just kinda get away until her batteries gave out, which should have been days ago."

"Did you even tell her? I mean, did you even give her a chance to fix what was wrong?"

"I didn't need to fix anything," Warren said, still looking at the problem from an objective engineering angle. To him, April was simply a machine he had constructed for companionship and pleasure. "I mean, her batteries were supposed to run down. Really, they should be completely dead by now."

"So why aren't they?" Carlton asked.

"I don't know. She must be recharging them somehow."

"Warren, this is important," Buffy said. "Is she dangerous?"

When Warren glanced at his father before answering, Buffy immediately got a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Normally, no."

"But?" she prompted.

"I didn't expect her to follow me here," he confessed. "I mean, I was angry and hurt when I built her, you know? I didn't stop to think about any later consequences... "

"What consequences?" Carlton asked.

Warren sighed. "I came to Sunnydale to see Angie again, because--I dunno--I wanted to see if I was really over her, like I was over April. So I could, you know, move on. Find someone new."

"What consequences?" Carlton asked again, his tone suggesting he was fast losing patience.

Warren looked down at his hands, unable to hold his father's belligerent gaze. "If April happens to run across Angie, or Ryan, or you, Dad... " He squirmed a little then repeated, "I made her to care about what I cared about. She loves what I love, and--"

"And hates what you hate," Buffy concluded. She looked at Carlton as the implications registered on his face.

"You self-centered son of a bitch," Carlton growled, fury driving him to his feet. "If this... out-of-control-science-project of yours lays one finger on either my wife or child, I swear I'll kick your sorry ass all the way back to Dutton myself."

"Do you have any idea how to find her?" Buffy asked, also standing. Enough of the excuses. It was time to find this robot and stop her... somehow. Obviously, she was going to need Warren's helping that department.

"Well, she's looking for me," Warren admitted, truly looking regretful. "So my guess is she's probably pretty close... "

* * * * *

The BMW skidded to the curb as Giles stomped on the brake, shocked by what he saw. In the short interim of talking to Xander on the phone and arriving at the Fisk residence, something large had gone clean through the front window of the house, leaving tatters of window framing and angular shards of glass dangling in the breeze. The front door was open, carelessly flung back against its hinges. Something was most definitely wrong.

Leaving the engine running, he jumped out and ran up the porch steps. Somewhere in the house--upstairs--a baby cried.

"Angie?" he called down the hall as he entered. Caution made him slow up, despite his instinctive need for haste. "Xander?"

"Rupert!"

He followed the sound of his name, heart leaping to his throat as he raced into the living room. "Oh, Lord... "

Angie was kneeling beside Xander, pressing a balled kitchen towel of ice to his head. It only took Giles a second to sum up what had happened. The broken glass littering the floor before the busted window, Xander's dazed condition, and the long rip down his shirt sleeve from his shoulder to his wrist that was--thankfully--devoid of blood. Clearly, he's found the 'something large' to have smashed in the window. And from the look of things, it had only just happened.

Leaving Xander, Angie rushed to him. Giles caught her by both arms, trying to calm her obvious hysterics.

"She took Ryan! Ohmygod, she looks like me and she took Ryan! We have to find them!"

"Angie, wait," Giles said, holding onto her as she made a panic-stricken attempt to rush for the door. "I'll go. You stay here with Xander and--" He noted the crying baby again. "--Diana. In case Buffy and Carl come back, you can tell them what's happened," he added reasonably. "I'll find Ryan. I promise."

She nodded, taking him at his word, too distraught to question his logic--the fact that he had not suggested calling the police like any normal person would have done, but rather handlle things himself.

"Carl and Buffy... they went to see Carl's ex-wife," Giles said, staying calm. "Where?"

"4404 Cottonwood. It's just a few blocks from here, on the other side of the playground. Rupert, please hurry!"

"Xander?" Giles asked, sparing a moment to see if his young friend needed medical attention. At least he was sitting up under his own steam, now holding the ice pack to his shoulder instead of his head. No doubt he'd have a multitude of bruises from the incident, and needed a new shirt, but he appeared otherwise unscathed.

"Now I know how Spike felt," Xander said, then grimaced. "And that's punishment enough. Go. Find Ryan."

That was all the confirmation Giles needed. With a last encouraging nod at Angie, he turned and rushed back out to his car.

* * * * *

Buffy glanced at Warren, walking beside her as they cut through the deserted basketball courts in their search for April the robot, thinking her initial impressions at the Magic Box had been spot on. This guy was a big wedge of sleaze. Behind them, Carlton trailed in fuming silence, no doubt thinking along similar lines. She couldn't believe the differences between father and son, or the animosity that had divided them over the same woman. Buffy had suggested to Carlton that he return home and wait with Angie and Xander, but since he knew nothing of her life as The Slayer, he insisted on tagging along to help her.

"April!" Warren shouted into the mid-morning stillness. "April, are you there?" To Buffy he said, "If the batteries are still working and she hears my voice, then she'll answer."

"She's voice-activated?"

"Well, I made it so that if she heard me and she didn't answer, it causes this kinda feedback."

"Wait," Buffy said, appalled. "If you call her and she doesn't answer, it hurts her? You're one creepy little dweeb, Warren." Over her shoulder, she added, "No offense, Carl."

"None taken, I assure you."

The basketball courts ended with a wire-link fence that opened onto a concrete path, which in turn split down the middle of the neighboring kiddy playground on its way to the road. On each side of the path, various bits of modern and brightly colored modular playground equipment--including Jungle Jims, swing sets, several spring riders, and a carousel--sat empty and devoid of the usual swell of noisy, happy children.

"April!" Warren called again, and they followed the path around a tall Jungle Jim.

"Warren!" answered familiar voice--she even sounded like Angie.

Stopping, Buffy looked left past the red plastic slide to see the robotic twin of her new friend holding Ryan up off the ground by the collar of his shirt, with little to no effort of her mechanical muscles. But it wasn't her robotic strength that had Buffy's eyes popping in shock and her heart in her throat, rather that Ryan was either unconscious... or dead.

"Ohmygod," she murmured, not wanting to think that it could possibly be the latter.

"Ryan!" Carlton called, his voice pitched high with instant panic.

He started around Buffy to aid his son, but she stopped him, for his own good. Going with the more optimistic 'unconscious' scenario, Buffy didn't want to cause any more possible harm to Ryan--or Carl--by making rash moves at a clearly unstable robot. She gave him a look that said as much, but Carlton wasn't the sort of father to do nothing when his child's life was in jeopardy. He pushed against her grip, forcing Buffy to apply more pressure to hold onto him, until he winced and looked at her in surprise of her unexpected strength.

Just then, Giles arrived on the scene, calmly taking his friend by the shoulder and with it, control of the situation. "It's all right, Carl. Let Buffy handle this."

"But... "

Buffy felt Carlton's resistance slacken, and exchanged a brief look of thanks with her husband for his impeccable timing. With Carlton in safe hands, she could now concentrate on saving Ryan.

April smiled contentedly, pleased to have finally found her missing boyfriend. "Warren, where have you been? I kept looking for you, but I couldn't find you."

"April, what did you do?" Warren asked, looking at his step-brother's prone form still dangling from her outstretched arm.

"Please don't be angry, Warren. I'm trying very hard to make you happy." She offered Ryan as some sort of barbaric token of her affection. "I found your bastard step-brother," she said happily. "We hate him, remember?"

"April," Buffy said, focused on saving Ryan rather than further berating Warren's sadistic streak. That could come later. "I want you to put the boy down."

"Warren?" April asked, unsure about accepting a command input from someone other than her master. "What should I do?"

Much to Buffy's vexation, Warren hesitated. "Talk to her!"

"P-put him down!" Warren ordered finally.

"Okay."

Buffy rushed forward to take the boy. She rushed back toward Giles and Carlton with him cradled limply across her arms, and a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. The child was still unconscious, and turning blue. His distraught father grabbed him from her, rougher than was needed but perhaps as expected.

"Ryan? Son?" Carlton brushed the child's hair from his eyes, his hands skimming over him in search of physical injury but finding none. "Oh God... he's not breathing! He's not breathing!"

"CPR, Carl," Giles said calmly.

Carlton just looked at him with wide, horrified eyes. "I can't... I don't... "

Giles took over. Lifting Ryan from his unresisting father, he hurried off the concrete path with Carlton trailing helplessly in his wake. He laid the boy on the soft playground sand, and immediately began to check his vitals.

"Is he broken?" April asked. "Warren, honey, what's going on? Why did you go away? Is it a game?"

Warren coolly regarded his step-brother and the ex-librarian kneeling over him, trying to save his life. "No. No, this isn't a game."

"Did I do something wrong?" April wanted to know. "I waited a long time, and you never came back. A long time. I made you five sweaters."

"That's great. You could go back and get them," Warren suggested. "So you could wait there and--"

"Warren!" Buffy admonished. "You have to tell her. And do it right."

"What is she saying, Warren? What do you need to tell me?"

Warren looked at Buffy, then across to where his father and Giles were still attempting to revive his step-brother. Finally, he looked at the robot he had created in his ex-girlfriend's image. "April, I made a mistake."

"You can't make mistakes," April insisted with an easy smile.

"No, I did." Warren shuffled uncomfortably. "I was wrong when I programmed you to hate my father, and Angie, and my step-brother because... because his friends are our enemies, too! Combat Mode Omicron! Kill them!" He pointed at Buffy, taking a few steps backwards out of the way. "Starting with her."

'Great,' Buffy thought, rolling her eyes as April locked a targeting reticule on her with all the subtlety of a heat-seeking missile. Then the robot who looked like her new friend growled.

"She growls?" Buffy asked. Was there no end to this jerk's sleaziness? "You made her so she growls?"

As Warren shrugged at that little quirk, April grabbed Buffy by her shoulders and bodily hurled her thirty feet across the playground. She landed on the grass bordering the outer fence, and skidded on her shoulder until she came to a stop. Undaunted, aside from scowling at the major grass stain on the arm of her coat, she rolled to her feet as her assailant approached. Whatever 'Combat Mode Omicron' was, it involved something other than basic hand-to-hand. April immediately sought a weapon, and found it in the nearby see-saw. Taking a firm grip on one end, she used her fist to karate chop the long wooden plank in two. Thus armed, she came at Buffy swinging it like a broad, flat club.

Buffy caught one end in both hands, deflecting the blow and grappling for possession. But the robot was strong, stronger even than her, and so Buffy resorted to fighting dirty and kicked April in the gut. It worked. The robot stumbled backwards a step or two, releasing her grip on the heavy beam. Now that the tables had turned, Buffy swung the plank at April, whose mechanical reflexes easily avoided the blow. However, her artificial intelligence had obviously not been programmed to understand refined Slayer reflexes. Buffy's swift follow-up connected with April's abdomen, tearing away a swatch of her colorful sundress and synthetic skin to expose a section of wires and electronic circuitry beneath.

Buffy swung again, but this time April was ready. She grabbed the beam and yanked it away. Tossing it aside, the robot lashed out with a punch that sent the Slayer flying. Calling on her training and experience, Buffy turned her landing into a backroll-handspring to end up on her feet... just in time to duck another bone-crushing punch from her mechanical opponent. Going back on the offensive, Buffy landed several punches and kicks of her own.

One kick send April sprawling onto the playground sand, next to the swings set, not too far from Giles and Carlton. Focused, Buffy didn't have time to even glance at them, but she heard a child begin bawling and was grateful for the knowledge that Ryan was apparently okay. As April clambered to her feet, Buffy took hold of the vertical chains holding up the swing's seat, jumping between them to kick the robot in the face with both feet. Nothing seemed to faze her mechanical foe, not like it would an opponent made of flesh and blood, and with only the items of the kiddy playground at her disposal, Buffy was fast running out of weapon options. Before the robot could recover, Buffy picked up the swing seat and used the flat of it to smash her in the head.

It was then, with both of Buffy's hands encumbered, that April saw an opportunity to seize her by the throat. The robot lifted her up off the ground, its artificial fingers tightening to assert the sort of PSI that would have already crushed any ordinary human opponent's windpipe. Buffy struggled for release and began to gasp for air, lungs burning.

"You are a friend of Warren's father, thus you are Warren's enemy. Our enemy. I'm sorry, but I'm going to kill you," April declared. "I'm going to... "

But something unexpected happened, and Buffy felt the steel, vice grip around her throat abruptly slacken.

"I can't... can't crush," April said, confused. Her grip loosened even more. "So... tired... "

Buffy pulled away from the robot's failing hold, coughing and gasping but otherwise unhurt.

"Warren?" April asked anxiously, turning to look for him. "Where are you? What's happening to me?"

Buffy looked too, but sometime during the fight Chicken Little had skedaddled, presumably to his mother's house to retrieve his duffle bag on the way out of town. April's hand, her fingers still splayed in a vice-like clutch, slowly lowered to her side, accompanied by the soft purr of machinery powering down. Evidently, her batteries had finally drained to the point where her failsafe overrides had kicked in, shutting down all non-essential tasks to preserve core power... and not a moment too soon as far as Buffy was concerned.

Still, it was with fascination and sorrow that Buffy watched April's computerized death knell. After all, the robot itself was not evil, but an innocent victim of Warren's cruel and sadistic programming. April's primary function had been to please him, and now that he didn't want her any more, she had no reason to exist. She had been used and abused by the jerk, and not just for sex or revenge. Part of Buffy felt truly sorry for her, despite that the two of them had just been locked in a brutal fight to the death.

April looked up at Buffy, her eyes wide with fear, making Buffy wonder if it were possible for an artificial intelligence to really understand the emotion. Certainly, she knew something was happening to her, an awareness that could only come with being sentient. Fear... love... devotion... weird as it sounded, April was more than just a machine composed of metal and plastic following program protocol.

Taking pity, Buffy led her to the nearby swings and settled her on one. As she stood there, looking at the robot, she felt a familiar hand creep on to her shoulder for a reassuring squeeze.

Buffy turned to offer Giles a sad smile, which he mirrored with a slight nod for a job well done. He could talk; he'd saved little Ryan's life with a cool head and the kiss of life. She glanced past him, seeking the boy to confirm his wellbeing, but instead spotted Carlton rushing out of the park with his son bundled safely in his arms. Ryan was looking over his father's shoulder, and caught her eye. He raised a tiny hand to innocently wave goodbye--a gesture that tore at Buffy's heart.

She had tears in her eyes when she looked back at her husband, tears of joy and sorrow. Giles was right. This world, with all its death and mayhem and Hellmouthy weirdness, wasn't a world she wanted for their child, or any child. She covered his hand with her own, finally accepting the fact that 'someday' was nice dream, but that's all it would ever be.

"Let's go home," Giles suggested quietly.

"No," Buffy said, looking back at April, who slumped even lower in the swing seat as her power cells slowly drained to zero. She wouldn't just abandon her, or worse, leave her alone and defenseless should Warren return. Who knew what that creep would do to her, or use her for next. "Not yet."

* * * * *

Giles sat on a park bench a few yards away from Buffy and April. Side-by-side on the children's swings, they sat talking in the afternoon sunshine. Anyone passing by would have observed the pair as two friends conversing quietly, although closer inspection may have revealed that the swing chain was the only thing holding the dying robot upright. Although Giles was close enough to hear every word exchanged, he attempted to give them their privacy, while there for support, and alternated between looking around the deserted playground and at his feet.

His stomach growled, a not-so-subtle reminder that it had been a long morning and was past lunchtime. He glanced at his watch to confirm the afternoon hour. With a sudden pang of impatience, he looked back across at his wife, wondering how long this would actually take. It may have been a bit heartless of him, but he could only see Buffy's newfound 'friend', beyond its uncanny resemblance to Angie, as simply the machine that had almost killed his best friend's child. He couldn't quite summon up the same level of compassion that Buffy had, as she kept her vigil for the thing's inevitable demise.

Looking at his feet again, Giles dragged his hand through his hair. The gritty footfall of sneakers on sandy concrete reached his ears; two people approaching from behind. Not a moment later, Willow and Xander joined him on the bench; Willow on his left and Xander on his right, the latter perched on the seat back with his feet on the actual bench. Giles didn't look at either of his young friends, merely acknowledged their presence by looking across to Buffy again. He'd called Willow at the Magic Box, from a payphone near the recreational area entrance, half an hour ago. Evidently, her delayed arrival had been because she had stopped by the Fisk residence to collect Xander along the way. Since they couldn't leave the robot--a potential danger to anyone coming in contact with it--in the children's playground, Giles' plan was for Willow to completely disconnect its power cells, then transport it to the Magic Box, where they could store it in the basement until they decided exactly what they were going to do with it.

"Just so you know," Xander said quietly, his eyes on Buffy and the robot, "Ryan's gonna be okay. Carl took him to the hospital to get checked out, just as a precaution."

Giles nodded. "Good." He lapsed into silence again, his heart giving a twang as he heard Buffy ask the robot if she could cry, because sometimes crying helped.

"I think they've bonded," Willow commented, likewise watching the pair.

"Yes. In some bizarre way, I think they have."

The three paused, simply watching the scene play out before them, all of them waiting for the inevitable.

"I'm thinking of taking my tools over to Carlton and Angie's house this afternoon," Xander said conversationally, "and fixing their front window."

To an outsider, it may have seemed a bit callous, considering they were sitting there waiting for the robot to drain the last of its power reserves and 'die,' but casual banter and being able to look past their current woes had always been one of the ways the Scooby gang coped with the violence and tragedy in their lives.

"I'm sure that will be appreciated," Giles agreed thoughtfully. "Although perhaps unnecessary. Carl is quite an accomplished builder."

"I know, I used to have him for shop at Sunnydale High," Xander admitted, grinning. "He failed me twice on the ins and outs of constructing a coffee table. But he's dealing with other stuff right now... and I'm still kinda feeling responsible for the damage."

"You were thrown through the window by a rampaging robot," Willow said reasonably, eyes still on Buffy and said robot. "Hardly what I'd call your fault."

Xander shrugged. "I just thought they could use the help right now, y'know?"

Giles did, indeed, know. He nodded, sparing a thought for his absent friends--Carl taking his son to the hospital for a check up while Angie stayed home with the newborn.

The three fell into another long pause.

"You want me to try to deactivate her?" Willow asked, indicating the small computer tool case she had brought along with her.

"Not yet," Giles said, determined to give Buffy whatever time she needed. He studied the robot's slumped form in the bright sunshine. "Although I don't think we'll have too much longer to wait."

They didn't. Within a few minutes, Buffy and April's conversation fell silent. When Buffy looked at the ground with a pensive expression, Giles knew it was over. He got up and walked across the sand to her, leaving Xander and Willow sitting.

"Clouds and lemonade," Buffy whispered sadly. She didn't look up at him, rather morosely kicked the sand beneath her swing with the toe of her boot.

Not knowing what to say, Giles offered tactile support with a hand on her shoulder. Heart aching for her, not because the robot was finally 'dead' but because seeing her this close to tears always had that effect on him, he squatted into her line of sight and transferred his touch to her knee.

"Let me take you home," he suggested. With a flick of his head, he indicated the others, still sitting on the bench, awaiting their cue. "Willow and Xander can handle this."

Buffy finally looked him in the eye. "Ryan was almost killed."

"Buffy, he's fine."

"Only because of you.'

"You would have done the same, had you not been... busy."

"Yeah, but... the point is Ryan's a good kid; a normal kid. He shouldn't have been exposed to something like this."

"Darling, none of this is your fault. In fact, if we hadn't been involved--"

"I know," she said, cutting him off before he reminded her of the consequences of Warren's selfish infatuation. Buffy turned her gaze back to the robot, and its happily smiling mask of electronic death. "I think, what I'm trying to say is... you were right. Slaying is my job; weirdness is what I'm good at. I don't want kids if it means they'll constantly be in danger because of what I do; what we do. I guess... I'm just not meant to be a mom."

"Oh, love... "

"Carlton and Angie are normal people. Looking at them is like looking at us, but seeing our polar opposites. They're what we'll never be, and they have what we'll never have. What we can't have. And... I get that now."

Giles lifted his hand to Buffy's face, tenderly touching her cheek and drawing her maudlin gaze back to his. "But we will always have each other. I promise."

"'Til death we do part?" She sniffed back her remorse, smiling against his hand. "Hope you like lemonade."

"Pardon?"

"It's just that I seemed to have a ton of lemons at my disposal." Off his completely perplexed look, she explained. "'When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.' That's what April said. She was right, too."

Giles got to his feet. Taking Buffy's hand, he pulled her up to standing and gave her a loving smile. "I'm... quite fond of lemonade."

Buffy glumly returned it. "Yeah. I'm kinda learning to swallow it, too. And you know something else?"

"What?"

She slipped her arms around his waist, pressing her cheek to his shirtfront as she stole a hug. "The grass isn't always greener. Not while you're still standing on my side of the fence."

Wrapping her up in his embrace, he laid a kiss on the top of her head, relieved to hear they were going to be okay. Pulling back after a moment, they shared a poignant smile. Giles reflected on the philosophy inspired by yesterday's barbecue, upon arriving at Carlton and Angie's; as long as he and Buffy were together, they could get through anything.

Turning, he led her off the sand. As they started along the path, hand in hand toward his car, Giles told Xander and Willow he'd meet them at the Magic Box after dropping Buffy home, and then left the pair to get to work. Xander had his car; they could do without him for the cleanup.

The playground was still devoid of children, although now in a heartrending and symbolic sort of way that Giles hoped Buffy wouldn't notice. But she did notice. She stopped rather suddenly and brought them to a halt in roughly the spot where April had almost strangled Ryan. Giles watched Buffy bend to retrieve something off the ground, which, upon her straightening with the small object in hand, he realized it was a well-loved toy car. From the look that crossed Buffy's face, there was no doubt who she believed was its owner.

"You can return that to Ryan next time we see him," Giles said, trying to be positive. "I'm sure he misses it terribly already."

"Yeah."

He took the toy from her and put it in his suit pocket, wondering if it would always be like this whenever they saw toys, or children playing. He knew the answer to that when Buffy meekly allowed him to steer her along the path again. Buffy may very well be one of the most accomplished Slayers in recorded Council history, but when it came to dealing with heartbreak of a personal nature she was just as vulnerable as the rest of the human race. Not that he was faring much better; rather that he had accepted the truth before now and had dealt with it in his own way. Selfish as it sounded, part of him was actually relieved that he no longer needed to keep the lie alive.

But for now, for Buffy, coming to terms with the fact that they were never going to be parents was a wound that was going to take a whole lot of time to heal, an ache he would salve with his infinite patience and unbreakable love...

Together, they would survive.

* * * * *

Warren was clearing out. He'd had enough of Sunnydale and was headed back to Dutton... before the Slayer found and dealt with him. Stupid robot. All this could have been avoided if she'd just stayed in his dorm room, and her batteries had died. Because he sure could have done without seeing his old man again, dredging up all that bad blood between them.

And Angie. His goal--the whole purpose of his trip--had been about seeing her again, to confirm that he was well and truly over her. And although they hadn't crossed paths personally, seeing her son, the boy who could have been his but thankfully wasn't, was all the confirmation Warren needed. He didn't care one iota about the kid, and if April had strangled him, it would simply proved his point.

He was over Angie. Finally and completely.

Still, what must she think of him? What sort of depraved lunatic was he in her eyes, building a robot in her image that had kidnapped and almost killed her firstborn child?

Packed duffle bag in hand, Warren hesitated at the door, his reputation at stake. If his father knew the truth, no problem, he could live with that. But if Angie started bad-mouthing him and it got back to school... well, he already had enough trouble getting dates. Turning, he headed back to the sideboard and picked up the telephone, a plan already forming. He could lie like the best of them; Buffy and his father had both bought his 'concerned' act when they quizzed him about April. Now, if he could just sway Angie with a few smooth lies, bring her around to his side, then he might just be able to cause a rift between her and his dear old dad. That, alone, would be well worth all the trouble this visit had caused.

He punched in a number, waiting half a dozen rings until she picked up.

"Hi... it's me," he said lamely. "No, wait, listen, listen... just give me a chance to explain. Yeah, I know I am, but I just wanted to say... I'm really sorry. For everything. You have to believe me when I say that I only built April in your image because... I loved you, Angie. When we broke up, I just... I wanted something more than just a picture of you. I--no, no, don't hang up! Angie? Wait! ANGIE!"

But she did hang up, and he found himself pleading with dead air. Swearing under his breath, Warren returned the phone back to its cradle. Fine, let her go through life thinking the worst of him.

He grinned nefariously. Somehow, he'd cope.

It was time to leave, no regrets. If nothing else, Warren was confident that now he had both Angie and April out of his system, he'd find someone new without too much trouble. There was always that girl in his engineering class... the one who made those little model monorails that ran on magnets...

This in mind, Warren turned to collect his duffle bag off the floor... and jumped a mile with a shocked gasp. Behind him stood a thin, blond-headed man, carrying a large cardboard box.

"How'd you get in here?" he asked the stranger, recovering.

"Your mum let me in," the man told him. British by the sound of it, like the tweedy ex-librarian Buffy had married. Younger brother? "I'm placing an order."

"Oh, no," Warren said, catching on as he eyed the box. "I'm not making any more girls."

"Sure you are." The stranger dumped the box into Warren's hands, making him drop his duffle bag in order to catch it. "Here's your specs."

Something sinister about the blond man's casual smile and cool manner had him fearing the repercussions if he disagreed. Warren's eyes dipped to skim the contents of the box, instantly recognizing the photographs of Buffy and some other personal items, including a red scarf and blue cashmere sweater. This guy wanted him to make a Buffy-bot.

"And you're going to make her real good for me," the blond man said. It wasn't meant as encouragement. It was an order.

One Warren dared not disobey...

* * * * *

Buffy opened the front door to her mother's house, waving to Giles as he tooted the horn and pulled away from the curb. She entered jiggling her house keys, her grass-stained coat slung over her arm, her mood improving. Somehow, just being around the man she loved made life seem a little bit brighter. Unfortunately, he had declined her invitation to come inside, saying that he really should return to the Magic Box, if only to spell Anya for a very late lunch break. But he promised he would call her later, after Willow and Xander had delivered the deactivated robot to the shop's basement, and hopefully they could arrange to get together for dinner. If she was lucky, she could stretch that into the evening as well.

"Hey, Mom," Buffy called, the greeting automatic. She put her keys on the side table by the door, her attention drawn to a brand new issue of BRIDES magazine, waiting in a stack with the day's mail. She picked it up, flicking through the glossy pages of bridal gowns and fancy receptions, a slow smile creeping across her face.

Buffy's bleak mood brightened even more. She and Giles hadn't talked much on the ride over from the playground--there wasn't a whole lot left to be said on the subject of them not ever having kids that hadn't already been said. Since she had now accepted the fact, she decided the best way to deal with it was to concentrate on living her life with Giles to the fullest. And what better way to start than to marry him again. Of course, with all that had gone on in the past few days, she hadn't had a chance to broach her mom's wonderful idea to him yet. Maybe she should just take a few of these magazines over to his place and leave them not-so-discreetly lying around...

Her mom still hadn't appeared to greet her, so Buffy moved further into the foyer to call up the steps, absently hanging her coat over the stair rail as she did. "Hey! Wedding-planner lady! Want me to pick Dawn up from school?"

No answer again. Frowning, Buffy looked down the hall toward the kitchen. Her mother must really be busy with something...

"Mom?"

She turned and glanced into the living room, finally spotting her mother lying on the couch. A yellow legal pad sat on the coffee table before her, three-quarters of the page covered with handwritten notes. Easy to see what her mom had spent the day doing; making more wedding plans.

Buffy smiled. Given all her mom's attention to detail, it was really shaping up to be a grand, fairytale do, complete with her very own Prince Charming. Lost in happy thoughts of wedding day bliss, Buffy idly wondered what it would take to convince Giles to wear a white suit...

"Whatcha doing?" Buffy teased, moving into the room to join her mother.

She stopped, cold. The shock hit like a sledgehammer had slammed into her chest; like the hand of God had just squeezed all the air out of her lungs, paralyzing her. Joyce lay on the sofa, with one arm dangling loosely over the edge, the pen she had been using to make her notes now on the floor, where it had slipped from her inert fingers.

"Mom?" Buffy's voice trembled as comprehension began to take hold; as she realized her mother was staring at the ceiling with sightless eyes. "Mom?"

But her mother didn't answer, couldn't answer, because her mother was...

Tears flooded into Buffy's eyes. "Mommy?"

Dead.

Read the next chapter: In This Life