The characters within are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions and Twentieth Century Fox. They are used without permission, intent of infringement or expectation of profit. This story takes place in the immediate aftermath of "Becoming, Part Two" and contains spoilers through that episode. I'd had this fic in my mind for a while, but after "The Body," I realized it was time to write it. Thanks to the beta team of Tara and Amy. Any and all comments are welcome; send praise or flames to Yahtzee63@aol.com.
She tried to remember a time when things had been simple. Easy. When the world made sense, and she knew who she was and what she wanted and how to get it.
Unfortunately, it seemed as though she hadn't felt that way in a long, long time. Not since she was a little girl, the neighborhood tomboy with overalls and pigtails and a knack for stealing second. Then, the world had simple boundaries -- Myrtle Street to the north, Decatur Avenue to the south, Mr. Holloway's house to the west, the park to the east. Her enemies were the ill-tempered bulldog that yapped from Mrs. Brunt's yard and the girly girls who scorned the New York Yankees and had crushes on the Beatles. Her friends were the boys who built forts from old milk crates and let her come up to the treehouse to read comic books.
Comic books. That was as fantastic as her world got, back then. Superheroes who fought for truth and good, villains who had terrible plans and powers, all in brilliant primary colors on soft paper you could curl up and stuff into your back pocket during a game.
Those fantastic stories had been put away for good when she got a little older, and baseball seemed less interesting, and she'd realized that Paul McCartney did look awfully cute up there on stage with Wings.
Wings, Joyce thought. I ignored the Beatles and bought every single album from Wings. I always was late to the party.
She leaned her head back against Buffy's wall and gazed at the room again, as though it would look different now, after a full day of staring at the empty closet, the hangers lying haphazardly on the floor. As though she would be able to make different words appear on the sheet of notebook paper she'd had clutched in her hand for almost three days straight --
The doorbell rang.
Joyce jerked her head upright, in shock at the first sound she'd heard in hours. Then hope and terror slammed into her all at once, and she jumped to her feet and ran downstairs, taking two steps at a time. She pulled the door open to see --
Xander. And his girlfriend, what was her name? Cordelia. And Mr. Giles from the school.
She knew she should say something polite, something nice, but disappointment was welling up, choking out sound and hearing and everything but the knowledge of her own stupidity, expecting her own daughter to use the doorbell.
She forced herself to hear what Mr. Giles was repeating.
"I mean to say -- Buffy didn't come to school the past few days, and we thought, ah, perhaps she was a bit -- melancholy --"
"She's gone," Joyce blurted out.
Xander looked at her incredulously. "What do you mean, gone?
"I mean she's left home. She's run away." The words were out there now -- spoken, made real -- and Joyce had thought that she'd cried all the tears she had in her, but it turned out she could cry even more.
"Mrs. Summers -- are you certain?" Mr. Giles said. "Buffy wouldn't -- she has responsibilities that she takes very seriously --"
"Buffy thinks she has all kinds of responsibilities," Joyce choked through her tears. "Buffy thinks she has to save the whole world. She thinks she has to kill vampires."
Great. Now they'd all think she was crazy -- and yes, they were staring at her now, eyes wide, mouths open --
And Cordelia said, "She TOLD you?"
"You all knew about this," Joyce repeated.
They'd sat her down in her living room -- the second time she'd been set down in the living room, like some clumsy child who needed a talking-to, in the same week week. The same lecture, too. Maybe if enough people said it, she'd start believing it.
"Well, she's not supposed to tell," Xander said. "We kinda found out accidentally. That's the only reason we know. Not Giles, but, you know, me and Willow. And Cordelia. And, uh, Oz."
"Actually, I kinda figured it out on my own," Cordelia said. "I mean, anyone with half a brain could tell -- ow, Xander, stop kicking me!"
Great, Joyce thought. All her little friends and the school librarian knew -- wait. "Not Giles? How -- how did you know?"
Mr. Giles shifted in his seat, then got to his feet and paced a bit in front of her. "Every Slayer has a Watcher. A person who trains her, educates her, makes her ready for her duty. And I am Buffy's Watcher."
"You aren't the librarian."
"Oh, no, no, I am the librarian. But that position is, ah, secondary." Mr. Giles was looking at her with an expression she found difficult to read. For some reason, his scrutiny snapped something within her, and she felt her fingers digging into the sofa cushions until she thought the fabric would tear.
"I thought you were close to my daughter because you took an interest in her as a student. I thought you cared about her. I thought she had one man in her life who would look after her, even if her father can't be bothered to, but it's just this -- Watcher thing? Is that all this is?"
"Mrs. Summers, please," he said, and his voice broke slightly over the words. "I do care about Buffy. And I'm very concerned for her. You have to believe that."
"Seems like I have to believe all kinds of things," Joyce said, turning her face from him.
"Hey, not meaning to interrupt and prevent a big ol' argument or anything, but how come you think Buffy's run away?" Xander said. He was gesturing with his uninjured hand, as though he would be able to draw another answer, any answer, from thin air. "I mean, maybe she hasn't come home, but maybe that just means -- that just means we need to go look for her --"
"I think she's run away because I have a note that says so," Joyce said. The anger went away, went somewhere else inside her. She held out the sheet of notebook paper, still crumpled in her hand.
Mr. Giles leaned down and, after a moment's hesitation, gingerly took it from her. For the first time, she registered that his his hand was in a kind of splint and that his face was bruised. And Xander -- he had a cast on one arm and a few cuts of his own. "What happened to all of you?" she said slowly.
Nobody answered her. Xander and Cordelia were both looking up expectantly at Mr. Giles. For his part, he was reading over the note -- no, he was trying to. But tears were welling in his eyes. "I -- I'm sorry."
"Gimme," Cordelia said, not unkindly. She stood up, took the paper in her hand and started to read:
"Dear Mom: You won't have to worry about me anymore. None of you will. I have brought nothing but hurt and pain and death to everyone I ever loved, and I am going to go far away so that you guys can have some kind of chance at a normal life. Tell Willow and Xander and Giles I'm sorry, but I know they will be safer without me. Tell them they don't have to be afraid of Angel anymore. He's dead. I killed him. He was the only guy I ever loved, and I killed him for all of you. Spike helped like he said he would --"
"Spike?" Xander said incredulously. Mr. Giles looked shocked too, but he waved for Cordelia to finish.
"Spike helped like he said he would, which I totally cannot believe, but he did, and he and Drusilla are long gone by now, so they don't have to worry about them either. I'm sorry you had to learn the truth like this, Mom. I'm sorry you couldn't handle it. But I don't think I can handle it either. So I'm gone. You are all better off without me. Get out of Sunnydale if you can. I'm sorry. Love, Buffy."
They all sat in silence for a moment. Joyce closed her eyes; hearing the words out loud, in a young girl's voice, had somehow made the wounds even fresher and more painful. Finally, Xander said, in a husky voice, "Okay. She's upset. But she's gonna get over it, right?"
"Buffy is -- in despair," Mr. Giles said slowly. "She will recover. I have no doubt of that. But in the meantime, she has isolated herself at a time when it is dangerous for her, emotionally and physically."
"Doesn't sound as dangerous to me," Cordelia said. "I mean, Angel's dead, which gets a great big yay from me, and Spike and Drusilla have left town, which gets an only slightly smaller yay. This place sounds a whole lot safer to yours truly."
Xander and Mr. Giles were both staring at her acidly. Untroubled, Cordelia shrugged. "So sue me for looking on the bright side."
Joyce couldn't bring herself to be angry at the girl's tactlessness. Some of the questions that had been hammering at her for the past few days were rising up, demanding answers of the people who apparently had them. "Angel -- Buffy's boyfriend -- he was a vampire."
"Strange but true," Xander said in a low voice.
"Buffy -- did she know that? I mean, all along?"
"Yes," Mr. Giles said. "She did."
"Then why --?"
"There's the question of the year," Cordelia said, pursing her lips.
Mr. Giles was looking at her steadily. He spoke slowly, evenly. "It's difficult for me to -- speak objectively -- about Angel. In these past few months he has perpetrated so much -- horror --" He shook his head, continued. "What you must realize is that Angel was not always the ghastly creature he became. Before, when he had his soul -- he was a dark character, solitary, but possessed of a conscience. I do believe that he loved Buffy very deeply, so long as he had the capacity to love. He was devoted to her, and Buffy responded to that."
Joyce tried to forget the scary figure on her front porch a few weeks ago, the wild-eyed maniac who had ranted about making love to her daughter. She tried to think about the man she had met more than a year before, the one who had stood in her hallway and looked over at Buffy with a warmth that definitely did not belong to a history tutor. He had been soft-spoken. Handsome. Polite.
Cordelia raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes. Xander buried his face in his good hand. Mr. Giles said, with the air of a man who was choosing his words carefully, "Angel's nature was apparently far more -- unstable -- than any of us had realized. His soul, the thing that set him apart from other vampires, was lost. He became a remorseless killer once more."
"And then Buffy killed him," Joyce said. "It's so strange. My seventeen-year-old daughter, the one who leaves her curling iron on every morning and nearly burns the house down? She killed someone. Someone I talked to in this very room."
"Buffy was just doing her job," Xander said. "And if any vampire needed killing, and don't get me wrong, they all do, but even if the others didn't, Angel needed killing."
"Her job. What is her job? She's something called the Slayer, right? This is a person who goes around killing vampires, fighting evil, saving the world?" Joyce felt her hands closing back into fists as she looked back over at Mr. Giles. "So can you tell me why on earth you hired a teenage girl?"
"Slayers are not -- hired, per se -- oh, dear," Mr. Giles said. "I don't know how to explain this to you --"
"Try," Joyce said.
"I can't explain what I don't understand myself," he confessed. "Mrs. Summers, there's a great deal about the Slayer's nature that not even the Watchers' Council understands. The Slayer is chosen by mystical forces beyond our knowledge. She is always female, always called at some point between the time of her menarche and age 17."
"Called?" Cordelia said, wrinkling her nose. Xander was also looking up with undisguised curiosity. Joyce felt a vague, shameful sense of relief that some of this was mysterious even to the others.
"We use the word 'called' to describe the moment when a girl is imbued with the Slayer's powers -- superhuman strength, reflexes and regenerative abilities. There are other gifts, too, though these vary from girl to girl. For instance, some Slayers have powerful visions of the future. Some have none. Buffy is rather squarely in the middle. I've actually been meaning to tell her of a meditative practice that might enhance the --"
His voice trailed off and the momentary light in his eyes faded as he realized the futility of his words, of his plans for the future. His head drooped, and Joyce again noted the bruises that marked his pale face. "What happened to all of you?" she repeated.
Xander's face was grim as he answered. "Let's just say Angel didn't go down without a fight."
"He sent all these vampires into the library," Cordelia said. "They were everywhere. I -- I ran. But the others got hurt, and Willow even had to go to hospital and was, like, in a coma or something for a few hours. She just got out, and she's in a wheelchair and everything. And Giles got dragged off, and -- and --" Cordelia looked over at Mr. Giles with the first gentle expression Joyce had ever seen on her face. "Giles got hurt really badly."
After a moment, Mr. Giles shook his head. "But I had Buffy and Xander to retrieve me."
"All of you are a part of this?" Joyce asked. "You all -- slay vampires?"
"I think of us more in an advisory capacity, most of the time," Xander said. "But yeah, I have staked with a stake in my day."
"I am strictly no-stake," Cordelia said. "I provide moral support. Plus clean-up, if it's not too gross and I can't get out of it." Xander actually smiled at that; he put his good arm around Cordelia's shoulders.
"Buffy's friends insisted upon being a part of her, ah, activities from the beginning," Mr. Giles said. "I resisted it, as did Buffy. But they are, really, quite persistent." His voice was soft. "They want to help. And they do, very much."
The two young people looked up at Giles with something that was part surprise, part gratitude, and part something else -- something better, finer, deeper than she'd expected to see from either of them. And Mr. Giles was looking back at them the way a father would look at his children, or in the way she'd always imagined a father should look at his children.
And whatever it was that bound them together in that moment was something that did not include her. Never had. And now never would --
"I think I've heard all I can take today," Joyce said.
The others looked back at her in surprise. After a moment, Mr. Giles nodded. "It is a bit much, I realize. And I suppose there's nothing more we can do tonight."
"So what's our plan?" Xander said. "I mean, we have a plan, right?"
"We wait for Buffy to pull herself together enough to come home," Mr. Giles said. "Or at least to call or write, and let us know where she is."
"Waiting is not a plan," Xander said.
"Isn't there some kind of, you know, Slayer beacon or something?" Cordelia said. "I mean, you guys find the Slayers in the first place, right?"
Mr. Giles frowned. "We don't have a beacon, no."
"We also don't have a plan," Xander continued.
"We don't get a plan," Joyce said. "We get to wait. Even I know that much." The bitterness in her voice came through that time; Cordelia visibly winced, and Xander quickly got to his feet.
"We're going," Mr. Giles said. "I'll come by tomorrow. Perhaps we can talk at greater length then --"
"That would be good," Joyce said, getting to her feet to show them out, like a good hostess. Manners always matter, her mother would say. "I mean, I want to hear more. When I can hear more."
"I understand," Mr Giles said, which made her so angry, so fast, that she could have screamed. But instead she just ushered them toward the door.
"You -- you'll call me if you hear anything?" she said as they walked out to the porch.
"Of course. And please, if you hear, call me straightaway. Any time, day or night." Mr. Giles' voice went up slightly as he spoke, making the last words a plea.
Joyce didn't answer. She just watched as the three of them went off into the night.
After they were gone, she didn't know what else to do, so she went back up to Buffy's room. She looked around the room, white and pink, stylish with its funky lampshades and embroidered pillows, childish with skating trophies and Mr. Gordo, left on his shelf.
Joyce went to the hope chest and opened it up. She was expecting to find the quilt her sister had made for Buffy, meant to wrap herself up in it.
Instead she saw a crossbow. Garlic. Crosses. Stakes. And a metal axe that, dear God Jesus, was stained with blood.
Joyce let the chest's lid fall. All this time, she thought, all this time I wondered what was going on with my little girl, and it was so close to the surface, but I never saw --
She could hear Buffy's voice now, angry, ringing in her ears from days before: "Open your eyes, Mom!"
Oh, God, she couldn't be crying again. Every time she thought she was out of tears, it turned out there were more in her, more grief, more shock, more loss. It went down deeper than anything she'd ever felt, and she wanted to try and put a name to it, to find a way to explain it that made sense. But there wasn't anything, anything at all.
Two and a half years ago, it had seemed as though turning 15 had switched something off inside Buffy -- something that had been warm and loving and carefree. Overnight, she had gone from a giddy, frivolous, sweet-tempered girl to someone who was moody and angry and unreliable. Her grades had fallen, and her discplinary record had gone from nonexistent to legendary in just a few months.
And Joyce had thought of everything, dammit. She'd gone through Buffy's closets and drawers to check for drug paraphernalia, had looked at her arms to check for needle tracks. Were her eyes bloodshot? Did her clothing smell like cigarettes or dope or beer? A few weeks after they moved to Sunnydale, Buffy had come home in a leather jacket, not new but new to her, a few sizes too large and apparently too precious not to be worn almost every day. Joyce called the local PTA to ask if the jacket might be affiliated with a gang.
But, no, she hadn't thought of this. How was she supposed to think of this? Buffy was so mad at her for not realizing the truth, and she was so damn mad at herself, but how could she ever have guessed this?
As she slumped down onto Buffy's bed, she found herself remembering those damn comic books again. Superman comics; to be specific, Lois Lane. Dumb old Lois. Month after month, she had Clark Kent turning into Superman in phone booths and broom closets right next to her, and she never caught on. Never figured it out.
When Joyce was that little girl in overalls, chewing gum and reading comics in a treehouse, she had laughed at Lois Lane. Lois was a girly girl, always dressed up with lipstick and nylons, and she never did anything interesting, just mooned after Superman. She was supposed to be a reporter and everything, but she never figured out the real story.
But, Joyce thought, Lois probably never asked herself if Clark was lying to her, every single day. You don't do that. You don't think that the person next to you is a superhero. You don't think that the people you know best in the world aren't telling you the truth about themselves. You don't think that they don't trust you with the truth.
She sank her face into Buffy's pillow. It smelled like Paul Mitchell shampoo (one-fourth of Buffy's allowance), Chloe perfume (another fourth) and something uniquely Buffy, something that was vanishing, even now --
"No," she said, pulling herself upright. "No, I won't do this."
Joyce got up and ran her hands through her hair. She straightened the covers on Buffy's bed, fluffed the pillows, resisted the urge to lean down and breathe in that fading fragrance.
Buffy would be back soon -- back in that bed, back in this house, back with her mother, where she belonged. And she would tell the truth, the whole story, and Joyce would understand it perfectly, and they would find a way for Buffy to stop all this slaying and be a normal girl again, like she was before. And then Buffy would be safe, and Willow and Xander and Cordelia and even Mr. Giles, too. And Joyce would be happy.
She knew it was a long shot, but she had to get through this somehow, had to keep herself strong and sane for the day Buffy walked back through that door. So maybe she needed to keep her eyes closed just a little bit longer.
"You haven't faced facts for years," Joyce whispered. "And this is no time to start."